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 Caving: Into the Dark Abyss

Photo courtesy of Tom Lounsbury of the Middle Ozark Lower Earth Society  
Underworld - Dave Epperson sits in a passage to set the flash for the photo in "Chin Springs" cavern.
Lee Hassler
Contributing Writer

   In the world of extreme sports, extreme caving ranks very close to the top of the list of the most extreme.

    Though many people who have not caved would scoff at the idea of caving being among the most extreme, the fact that many caves involve many of the more dangerous branches of extreme sports including rock climbing, rappelling, scuba diving and even sky-diving in some very limited cases in conjunction with the hazards of cave-ins, very tight passages and often many hours or even days underground can test the nerve and the limits of endurance of even the most experienced thrill seeker.

   Although man has been using caves for thousands of years as shelter or for other uses, the deepest expanses of most caves did not begin to be explored until the 1950s when better equipment allowed for deeper penetration of these wild caves. Since then, a whole new world has been opened and one can never be sure what they will find when they enter a cave that has never been entered before. While many call cave exploring spelunking, most hard-core cavers simply call it caving. The term spelunking is usually reserved for amateur cavers.

   Yes, some say that there are no caves that have not been explored, but that is not true. Virgin caves are found almost every day, and in some cases entrances must be dug out to get access to the cave for the first time. Similarly, while most people think that a cave is characterized by broad walk-in openings, a great many caves must be accessed only through sometimes very long distances of very tight passage. In some cases only the smallest of people can get through the passage!

   What does it take to be an avid caver? Well the first thing a person must do is to find someone who is experienced to go with. Then the question of equipment must be asked. When asked what he considered the most important factor in caving to be, Dave Epperson of the Middle Ozark Lower Earth Society wryly responded "Light!" Light is very critical. General guidelines suggest at least three separate sources of light for each person who enters the cave, and at least four changes of batteries for each light. Similarly, a person should NEVER go caving alone. Standard protocol preaches that at least three people should go on each trip. This is not only to have sufficient backup in case the very unlikely occurs and one person loses all of their sources of light, but also in case a person is injured. Knee pads, elbow pads and a hard-hat are also a must.

    Injuries in caves are an important consideration. The nature of the cave will determine how a person will be extracted from the cave if severely injured. Although extreme caves should never be entered by unqualified caves, even the best run the risk of injury from falling rocks, shifting cave walls, falls, or a whole host of other emergencies that could occur. Some caves are very controlled because the nature of the cave dictates that they are self-rescue only. Self-rescue only means that the cave is extreme to the point that a person must get out on their own accord for nobody will be able to get them out of the cave if they get severely injured. The author of this passages has been to two caves in Arkansas that are self-rescue only caves.

Photo courtesy of David Epperson of the Middle Ozark Lower Earth Society  
SUCCESS! - Lee Hassler and Ed Corfee discuss the entrance to "Little Hell" that had just been sufficiently dug out to allow access.
   If a person decides that they have what it takes to be a caver, one last consideration must be considered; the ecology of the cave. Irresponsible caving, or ignorance of ecological processes in a cave can have severe impacts on cave habitat. Not only can "live" caves be harmed by touch, which results in the formations ceasing to grow due to oils in human skin, but some cave species such at the gray bat (Myotis griscesens) have become endangered in direct response to ignorant and irresponsible caving.

   In a world of extremes, caving covers all the necessary bases to be classified as very extreme. Not all are up to the challenge for varieties of reasons, and those that are should seek to become well trained in not only how to cave safely, but also how to do so without damaging the integrity of the cave. Responsible caving involves safety and respect for the environment. As with all aspects of our environment, caves will only remain pristine and beautiful if cavers protect them. Anyone interested in learning more about responsible caving should check out the National Speleological Society (NSS) Web site at http://www.caves.org.

   However, on a final note, if a person is claustrophobic, caving is most likely not the best sport to try to get involved in.

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The Voice 2006
09/17/2007 02:13:16 PM http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/3_24/cave.htm