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Caving Basics

  • Getting Started

    Caves are many things to many people. To some they offer a romantic and mysterious underground world to explore. To others they are frightening and ominous. To all, they are potentially dangerous. Like any sport, proper equipment, a basic level of fitness, a degree of caution and a little common sense increase the chances for a safe, enjoyable experience.

    There are only a very few caves in the Rockies that have passages that are suitable for novice cavers. Many others have vertical drops and other hazards that require experience and specialized equipment to negotiate safely. Although it may look like the stuff that climbers use, caving rope, equipment and techniques are specialized and have been developed independently to provide an acceptable margin of safety specific to cave conditions. Technical cave equipment should never be used without proper instruction from an experienced caver.

    What To Expect

    The cave environment is very different from the one outside. Once you are in the cave, you'll discover that the outside world is reduced to a small spot of light at the entrance. As you move inward the darkness quickly envelops you. If you were to stop and turn off your light you would find that it is totally dark, much darker than we usually experience. You may also hear the quiet sound of water dripping off in some distant passage. You'll also be able to smell the dampness. The temperature inside most caves is only a few degrees above freezing year round, and the air is very damp. It's like walking into a refrigerator.

    Go very slowly and carefully at first, to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. After 15 minutes or so, you will find that you can see better; by then you'll also be getting used to the slippery cave mud, or perhaps rocky breakdown, and feeling more confident.

    Caving is fun: you can scramble up and down over the irregular, boulder-strewn floor, and the scene changes around every corner. It's interesting and exciting - the gateway to a very different world. However, there are portions of all caves that are potentially dangerous - avoid these, but bear in mind that carelessness can lead to an accident almost anywhere.

    How Do I Get Into Caving?

    • 1. Generally we suggest that if you haven’t been caving before, you start out with one of the ‘wild cave’ tours offered by a commercial operator, such as Canmore Cave Tours (CCT) - or Cody Cave Tours or Horne Lake Caves in BC. If you like it and have fun, go to step 2. If not, you will still have a nice adventure tale to tell. Also keep your eye out for courses or specialty tours which are occasionally offered by these commercial operators (when there’s no pandemic restrictions).
    • 2. Joining the Alberta Speleological Society is your next logical next step. Although we are not a formal training or certification agency, membership will enable you to be aware of and sign up for some fun caving with an experienced trip leader, such as at our “Bring-a-Friend Day”, Semi-Annual General Meeting Weekend” or other field events. More importantly, you will make contacts with other cavers and become aware of self-organized trips among our members, which are always more numerous than the "club" events. Getting mentoring from advanced cavers and gaining experience on actual trips is a terrific way to gradually build your skills and confidence.
    • 3. If you want to get very far into caving in the Alberta/BC Rockies, where the caves tend to have a significant vertical component, you are definitely going to want to learn Single Rope Technique (SRT) and acquire the necessary gear -- some of which is deliberately different from standard climbing gear, for example, sit harnesses with a lower attachment point and fewer loops. Please note that while prior experience in rappelling, rock or ice-climbing etc. is certainly helpful, you will need to learn some specialized techniques to handle vertical caving safely and efficiently. Regrettably there are infrequent opportunities in Alberta these days for formal courses in SRT, but you can also learn by mentoring from experienced members of our club. We sometimes schedule SRT practices at a climbing gym in town or on the cliffs outside Rat's Nest Cave.
    • 4. Take on a variety of progressive challenges with cavers who have skills, experience and goals with which your are comfortable. After that, you can branch out in many ways, from continued “tourist caving” to serious expedition caving, take courses with the US National Speleological Society, or become involved in the Alberta/BC Cave Rescue organization, for example.
  • Going Caving?

    Caving in Alberta can be a fun, educational and safe sport to take in, provided that you are using the old Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. Caving can require some special precautions that you must consider if you wish to have a safe, successful and rewarding trip. First and foremost is that you should be physically fit and have the necessary clothing and equipment. Alberta's caves are often at a high elevation and in difficult terrain, and sometimes just getting to them can be a challenge. It is important to have proper supplies for the trip to and from the cave, as well as the caving trip itself. Proper exposure clothing, food and water, first aid kit and at least two other people are the minimum that you should be taking on a hike. For the caving itself, you require a special additional set of supplies and clothing to ensure that you are prepared for the cave's unique environment. The guy you see here on the left is all too common in Alberta, and it is the wrong and unsafe example that no one should follow. He is caving alone, he has no protective head gear, no proper hand or foot wear, inappropriate clothing for caving, poor choices in lighting, and no food, water or first aid supplies. Do not even consider caving in Alberta if you resemble this guy. You are only asking for trouble.

    This handsome fellow has the bare minimum equipment needed to go caving. He is a novice caver or a horizontal caver, easily recognizable as someone who has the knowledge and smarts to have a safe and enjoyable caving trip. He has informed someone about his trip, what it involves, and when he and his three friends expect to return. Next, he has brought everything he needs to safely and comfortably do some basic caving.

    Remember, as with all outdoor and wilderness activities, participants must accept personal responsibility for their own safety. Injuries requiring assistance are coordinated through the responsible agency (usually the RCMP, although possibly Parks Canada or other agencies depending on location) and may result in costs being charged to the victim or caving partners.

    If you find caving is the most interesting experience you've had and you want to pursue it further, you can join a club. Going further and deeper in the cave requires a little more equipment, training and skill. Instead of just climbing, stooping and crawling, you'll need to learn prussiking and abseiling, Single Rope Technique and advanced safety. Specific training is required before you embark on this type of caving; there is no substitute for proper equipment and usage. Without this, vertical activities are dangerous and may lead to severe injury or even death. Gaining proper instruction in appropriate techniques and methods of safety is your own responsibility. A club may instruct you on proper protocol and type of equipment and may even loan some as part of the membership. There may also be training courses available such as the verical caving course offered by Canmore Caverns. In any case, this is hard core caving: if it is going up or down and it doesn't look easy, get the proper training and equipment first.

  • Cave Manners

    Most mountain users try to treat nature with respect, but it is important to recognize that caves are somewhat different from other environments. Caves may appear rather durable, but they are not subject to the same types of erosion and renewal that you have on the surface, and the impacts of visitors may last for a long, long time. Rockies caves are not heavily decorated with speleothems (formations) but they are present in most. Speleothems are extremely fragile and sensitive; don't even touch them. It may take ten thousand years for groundwater to dissolve enough limestone to make a cave and its speletheoms, but people who don’t know better can ruin the place in just one visit. Please do your bit to make the cave cleaner for the next person. Pick up some garbage; gently scrub off some graffiti with cave water (no solvents).

    The more remote caves and difficult passages, accessible only to properly equipped and experienced cavers, are generally in near-perfect condition. That's because serious cavers all believe in the same thing:

    Leave it as you found it - except for trash, which should be removed.

    Like they say, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints". It's not necessary to use spray paint, string or pieces of plastic trail tape to mark your way into an unknown cave. At a passage junction, a caver may make a temporary marker by stacking a couple of stones. They indicate which way is out. As you might imagine, taking home bits of the cave is an absolute no-no. A photo of your group in the cave means much more than a lump of rock, which will crumble away in a couple of years once removed from the high-humidity cave environment. Boosting your ego by leaving your name only offends those who follow.

    Bats live in the remote, back portions of many caves. These are mostly the Little Brown species, an important predator of insects such as mosquitoes, but harmless to man. If you are not looking for them, chances are you will not even see them. Please do not disturb or harass the bats, especially in winter when they are hibernating. Bats can carry rabies, so you should never try to touch or pick one up. Make sure all clothing and gear is decontaminated between caves to avoid the spread of White Nose Syndrome.

    Snack wrappers and any other trash should go back into your day pack right away; otherwise they're inclined to disappear into the dark - until the next person comes along to be disgusted by them.

    Excreting in the cave pollutes the water there and it tends to persist for a long time as the surface processes of decomposition are not present or greatly slowed. If possible, do your thing before going in & use zip lock bags to carry out any solids if you do go inside.

  • Safety Underground

    No matter how large or small the cave or how well known it is:

    • Rule #1: Never go caving alone; and always stay with your group.
    • Rule #2: Always let someone back home know where you are going, and when you expect to return. Then check back when you get out! (If you follow rules #1 and 3 you should be able to allow plenty of time and avoid an unnecessary rescue callout.)
    • Rule #3: Plan your trip carefully, including looking at available surveys and trail information to minimize the risk of getting lost, and ensuring that you and your companions have proper equipment and skills training for the nature of the trip. Is the cave gated and if so, can you get in and out?
    • Rule #4: Monitor yourself and your companions as you progress, to avoid becoming overtired or hypothermic. Do not hesitate to turn back if issues arise; too many wilderness incidents have resulted from “pushing” a goal.

    Injuries in caves are rare, but even minor ones can be fatal if the victim is so far underground or in such a constricted position that companions cannot extricate the individual from the cave in time. Rockies caves are cold, and an injured person can quickly lapse into unconsciousness from hypothermia. We highly recommend training in wilderness first aid and small-group self - rescue, as it will typically take a long time for large – scale cave rescue resources to arrive.

    Typical caving dangers include being hit by falling rocks (usually loosened by cavers climbing above the victim), slipping on muddy surfaces, equipment failures, athletic injuries such as a sprained ankle, getting confused or lost, hypothermia and exhaustion. Simply put: approach this sport very cautiously. Even if a cave initially appears to be quite easy to visit, it is important to be properly equipped and aware of your own limitations, and the limitations of other members of your group. Instruction is recommended; consider contacting a licensed cave guide or going on a commercial "wild cave" tour for your first trip.

    An underground injury could result in an extremely difficult and expensive rescue. A serious accident requiring help should be reported to the local agency with jurisdiction (usually the RCMP, although it may be Parks Canada or other agencies depending on location), who will contact whatever resources might be available in the area and potentially issue a tasking to the Alberta/BC Cave Rescue Service.

    There are numerous additional sources of good information on caving safety, including the Code of Conduct included in our membership application and relevant web pages of the National Speleological Society in the United States. More advanced ‘technical’ safety and rescue techniques are available in numerous books and on-line sources, although there is clearly no substitute for experiential training with qualified instructors.

    However, perhaps the best and last words on caving safely are not technical at all. They were said by pioneer caver and cave diver Mike Boon (1940 - 2017), a former member of the Alberta Speleological Society, during an interview with Ian Mackenzie for Canadian Caver magazine, in July, 1992.

    CC: “Any final words?”

    Mike: “There is just one thing, as caving gets more and more technical and more and more attention is paid to gear and very involved rope techniques and rescue and so on, I think there could be a danger that you lose sight of the first, prime requirement of caving, which is vigilance. In other words, people may be getting a little too involved in tech … well, getting involved in technique is fine but it should be in the context of being vigilant as to your own personal progress in the cave, where you put your feet. The old idea of looking after your partner, the buddy system, making sure somebody has finished a climb before you start on the next thing, in context obviously. It almost has overtones of meditation. The idea of Tibetan and Zen meditation is to get you right into the present, right out of your dream world. If you’re down in a cave and you’re thinking about, I don’t know, wouldn’t it be nice to get in a car or something; be right here at the moment, attention, attention, attention and be right there are far as your partner is concerned, and never leave a person just struggling around behind you. So when you’re going into the cave, your concern is with the cave and where you put your feet and how everything is done, and with your partner, and not trying to create records or be hard or whatever.”

    A Word About Liability

    Caving is similar to many other wilderness adventure activities in that it can be done safely with proper training, equipment and prudent behaviour, but there are inherent risks which can never be totally eliminated. The Alberta Speleological Society makes no assurances or warranties, explicit or implicit, that any individual will be free from harm, either on a trip organized by the Society or on a self-organized trip involving individual members. We believe that safety is the responsibility of each individual caver within their underground team, and that in the event of an accident it is the individuals involved, not the Society, who are responsible for their actions and any costs associated with a rescue attempt. It is a requirement of members that they execute a Code of Conduct and legal liability waiver which incorporates this principle.

  • What to Wear and Bring

    What To Wear

    Caving is vigorous exercise, which will keep you comfortably warm, but you'll find that you get chilly when you're not moving. You could be underground for at least a couple of hours, so it's important to dress properly.

    Wear old clothes, because it's muddy inside most caves. How muddy? That depends on where you go in the cave. How muddy would you like to get?d

    Cavers usually wear coveralls over long pants, a shirt and a sweater. On an all-day trip some wear long underwear as well, for warmth during rests and delays. If you do not have coveralls, we suggest slipping on an extra pair of pants at the entrance. You can wear your regular hiking clothes while going to the cave. Put on the coveralls or extra pants for the underground trip, then remove them after you come out. Bring a big green garbage bag, in which to put your outer layer of muddy cave clothes after your trip. That way, you'll be reasonably clean on the way home.

    For your top half: try a fleece jacket, or a flannel shirt and a sweater. Over that, wear a shell jacket of some kind if you don't have coveralls. A cheap nylon windbreaker is fine. Expensive 'Gore-tex' jackets can be ruined by cave mud.

    For your head: a hard hat with chinstrap, to protect against bumps on the ceiling or a slip on a muddy slope. Head protection is essential.

    On your hands: a pair of waterproof work gloves, lined inside with polypropylene gloves for warmth, is best, but regular leather work gloves will be adequate for most trips. Cavers nearly always wear gloves; you will see why when you get inside.

    Footwear: light hiking boots are ideal. Heavy mountain boots are okay, and runners with a couple of pairs of socks for warmth will do if you don't have boots. If it's fall or spring trip there could be snow on the path to the cave, so you'd better bring boots just in case.

    Clothing for the trail: consider the time of year and the weather. You may want a warm jacket, a toque, mitts and so on. Outdoor clothing can be left just inside the entrance. The plastic garbage bag used to hold your dirty cave clothes can be used to store your outdoor clothing while you are in the cave.

    What To Bring

    Light: a headlamp is ideal, so you can have both hands free. Many sporting good shops and hardware stores sell inexpensive electric headlamps. Cavers normally carry a second good light and a smaller backup flashlight (usually a small waterproof type, such as the "Tekna").

    If a light is going to fail anywhere, it will fail in a cave (corollary to Murphy's Law). So try to bring lights that are reliable. If your second light is a flashlight, it needn't be large; the type with two size C cells will be bright enough. Your little Tekna light can be hung around your neck from a long loop and tucked under your sweater where it will always be handy in an emergency.

    For any kind of battery-operated light, be sure that the batteries are fresh and that you have an extra set of NEW batteries with you. A spare bulb is also handy. Never use a Coleman-style gas lantern in a cave. The glass globe will probably break as will the fragile cloth mantle.

    Lunch: expect it to get squashed in the cave. Bananas turn into banana pudding; tomatoes turn to ketchup. For munching underground, cavers usually carry such things as salami, lumps of cheese, beef jerky, trail mix, candy bars, canned fruit... things that won't squash or leak. Pack your food in a plastic bag that you can put wrappers or scraps in. Littering underground is bad manners, of course.

    There's not much water in caves that's safe to drink, so we suggest that you carry a full litre or half-litre water bottle. A couple of cans of juice or pop will suffice, although anything sugary is not as thirst-quenching as plain water. Don't use a glass container; it will probably break. Get a plastic water bottle (an empty plastic pop bottle works great).

    Pack: most cavers carry a hiker's shoulder bag of sturdy canvas or nylon. This kind of bag is easy to maneuver out of the way or take off in constricted places. For your first few trips, a small backpack will be fine. You might want to bring a cheap one, because caves are very hard on packs. Whatever kind of bag you decide to bring, pick one big enough to hold your lunch, plastic water bottle and extra lights.

    If you bring your camera: be aware that it could be ruined in the cave. Cave mud is actually silt - very fine sand, full of quartz particles which, when dried, become a very abrasive dust. The stuff is death for an ordinary camera; we suggest you use a cheap disposable camera, or a waterproof camera that can be washed off after each trip. You can protect an ordinary camera somewhat by wrapping it in at least two plastic bags. Pull the camera out for a picture and then put it right back in again. Take your gloves off to handle it. Your camera will need a built-in flash, of course. Oh yes: hold your breath when taking the picture. The flash will reflect back off any mist from your warm breath and obscure your subject.