Underneath your feet, deep in the Earth, the planet’s final frontier awaits. Only the most adventurous dare to step away from tourist trap caves and explore the often muddy and fragile ecosystem found underground. Caving requires equipment and technique. Diggers wiggle into suffocating tight spaces to widen the entrance while other cavers climb, or descend, playing in underground waterfalls and diving the watery caverns. The body contorts and sweats to overcome the horizontal and sometimes vertical challenges of caving. Some caves are sharp volcanic rock, some smooth and slippery, some a deep pit for base jumping, but there is different type of cave system or shaft for each type of spelunking adventure. Here are 20 extreme adventures for spelunkers and cavers.
Eye Candy – Luray Caverns
(image credit:Luray Caverns)
You expect to see the eye candy of stalagmites and stalactites when you first travel through a cave along a paved sidewalk, perhaps some stairs, and maybe even a boat ride to behold the brightly lit multicolored spotlights on natural rock formations. But some of us look toward the dark corners of the cave and wonder what could be seen if we stepped off the tourist path. This is how it starts. Cave exploration then takes us into a dark world of exotic rock formations, huge underground rooms, streams, tight crawlways in the mud, spiders, bats and sometimes even cave rats. You will get dirty. You will get wet. You will have a blast!
Where to Enter?
(image credits:sxc,David Dasinger,caver5150,Ben909,Sachin Verma,Bistra Radkova)
Spelunking is not a solo sport; it can be dangerous, especially for untrained “flashlight” cavers. Experienced cavers prefer to be called a caver as often it requires a caver to rescue a spelunker. A speleologist is a person who studies caves and cave environments. Cavers explore horizontally, sometimes vertically, some becoming cave diggers and some cave divers, while cave base jumpers take the strenuous sport of caving to the next level of extreme. But true cavers do not disregard safety, using proper equipment and technique, and always practice cave conservation. Leave the cave as you found it, with no trace nor trail of mankind left behind.
There is an entire world of cave systems and shafts beneath our feet and all around the globe, waiting to be explored. The deepest US cave in Hawaii, Kazumura Cave, is a lava tube that runs for 40 miles underground and descends to 3,614 feet deep. A caver is likely to encounter bats, but finding a monkey guarding the cave entrance is not out of the question in India. Inside the cave, there are many wonderful geological phenomenon like cave pearls. The pearl is formed when water drips over a grain of sand. Be it for adventure, for the study of subterranean life or for the study of geology, the first question is, what is the best way to enter the cave?
Beauty and Safety: Have a plan
(image credits:Gunther Dylan,Ubaldo Coppola)
In Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a sea cave on an uninhabited island of Staffa and is part of a National Nature Reserve. Although the large arched entrance is filled by the sea, boats cannot enter. You must park your boat and enter by foot for a horizontal adventure. In the Mediterranean, many caves with skylights as entrances are scattered across the countryside. Exploration would be a vertical descent and require a caver to rappel into the cave. In Italy, the Sink of the Mughi would be a true pit caving adventure. A pit is vertical shaft rather than a horizontal cave passage that cannot be safely negotiated without the use of ropes or ladders. Yet in an old deserted mine, you might expect to travel by water before a caving expedition could be launched. In any case of exploring underground nature, the right equipment will be required.
Light and Equipment
(image credits:Ubaldo Coppola,Smartimart)
Virgin cave systems are the last underground frontier to be explored. This can be adventure, cave mapping, cave photography, or any number of reasons to study the rocks or species found below. You need the right clothing, sometimes that is a wetsuit but can vary according to the environment of the cave being explored. No matter summer or winter, a cave will keep a fairly regular temperature. Helmets, boots, knee pads, gloves, even camping might be required if it is a very long caving trip. There are safety techniques and equipment to consider before descending into the vast unknown of geological phenomena hidden away from the above-ground dweller’s view.
(image credits:Itinerant Wanderer,edholden)
There are all kind of odd secrets to be found below the ground and in cave systems. Nature mocking man and man mocking nature. Most of the spectacular ones are created by nature. From bizarre rock formations, to underground waterfalls, a caver must be prepared to climb, crawl, twist, turn, contort the body, rappel, or possibly even swim. But be prepared to marry?
If you like tourist traps, then there is a man-made oddity in Howe Caverns located between Albany and Cooperstown, NY. These enormous underground caverns were discovered by a farmer who wondered why his cows preferred to stand in the sunshine and hills than seek shade underneath the trees. After Howe opened the cave to the public, it became a tourist attraction that draws about 200,000 annual visitors. The man-made translucent calcite heart was lit from beneath and laid into the brick floor of the Bridal Chamber, located 156 feet below ground. Legend has it that if you step on the heart at the Bridal Alter, you will be married within a year.
It can be quite easy to get lost in underground terrain. Like in the picture of Luray Caverns above, the natural rock formations reflect off the water and make it difficult to distinguish up from down. Although no experienced cavers can get lost in a tourist trap, having a compass handy is common sense. If a cave digging expedition is the plan, then cavers are twisting and crawling into tight spaces to widen the opening. It can be a dangerous venture. Rigging is to be taken into account for descent or ascent, surveying, mapping, all are important endeavors to the caver. It is best to go in groups of four with several backup lights per person as well as compasses. If one person is injured, one caver stays with the injured one while two go for help. As you move through passages, some will be narrow fissures or canyons where “chimneying” is required, using pressure on opposite walls for support as you climb. In other areas of the cave, you will need to crouch, duck-walk, or belly-crawl as the ceiling drops lower.
Like An Alien World Inside
At Lake Louise, between New York and Canada, the caverns look like a landscape from some alien world. In the top right, the ceiling is coated with greenish-white mammary glands. On the upper left, the Three Amigos can be found in a big room with other awe inspiring and geological formations. Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico is the fifth longest cave in the world and the deepest in the continental US. The bottom picture is of Carlsbad Caverns, also located in New Mexico.
Over tens of thousands of years, water that seeped through cracks in a cave react to minerals and carbon dioxide to form speleothems. Most of these rock formations are named after their resemblance to man-made objects. The six most commons types are flowstone, stalagmites, stalactites, column, drapers, and straws. However, the ecosystem in a cave is extremely fragile. What took thousands of years to form can be damaged by the slightest touch. Some can even be irreparably damaged by something a simple as being breathed upon. Cave conservation is all important to keep the underground playground as unspoiled by mankind as possible.
Underwater Entrance: Cave Diving
(image credits:Tom Hauburn,valdemir Cunha,Steve Sharp)
These places are almost perfect. They are not easy to reach but they are all well worth the investment of time and energy. Buford Sink, in the upper left, is one of the most beautiful cavern dives in Florida. This view was captured from about 130 and the light was hitting the bottom at around a hundred feet. One cave diving expert advises, When entering and exiting this underwater cave system, make sure to do so by the cypress tree at the end of the spring run. This will not only keep the visibility clear over the entrance but also protect the fragile entrance.
In the upper right, after a hard trek through the rainforest in Bahia, northeast of Brazil, the Chapada Diamantina cave entrance leads to the Blue Grotto where water hides another deeper underwater entrance. This area was explored in the 1800s when both gold and diamonds were discovered. Diving here, however, should come with the warning, do not attempt to free-dive unless you are with someone who knows this cave system well.
At first glance, the bottom picture of Swildon’s Hole in Priddy, Somerset, looks like some people’s idea of a nightmare. But the 30,000 feet length makes this long cave a hotspot of activity for the most experienced cave divers. The entrance is a small triangular opening located within a stone building in a clump of trees. Some of the sumps can be free-dived, but some are not passable without dedicated equipment. Sump 12 has so far proved impassable. Make no mistake, spelunkers and novice cavers are not permitted to enter the cave.
Found in the clear blue waters along the Mediterranean Islands are some of the best cave diving systems in the world. Inside the grotto, or cave, in Cagliari, Sardegna, cave divers navigate Grotte di Teulada. Cave diving isn’t for everyone. In fact, many experienced cavers never dive just as many cavers never act as cave diggers, two dangerous aspects of extreme caving.
There are five main rules to keep in mind before cave diving. Training, do not attempt a dive beyond your experience level. A guide line should be maintained at all times in the event a silt out occurs so divers can follow the line back to the underwater cave entrance. Divers are advised not to exceed excessive depth and to keep in mind the changes such depths can cause to their gas mixture. Even among fully trained and experienced cave divers, not paying attention to depth is the number one cause of fatality. The rule of thirds, indicating a diver should save one third of their air for a team member in case of an emergency. Under no circumstances should a dive be attempted without each cave diver having three different light sources. These rules can be remembered with the mnemonic Thank Goodness All Divers Live, or known as The Good Divers Are Living in the UK; training, guide line, depth rules, air management, lights.
Extreme Caving: Base Jumping Cave of the Swallows
Yet another and perhaps the most extreme caving experience, base jumping into a pit cave can be achieved in Mexico at the Cave of the Swallows. This is the largest cave shaft in the world and the 11th deepest currently known on this planet. The Empire State Building would fit inside this pit cave and it was only explored two years before man landed on the moon. In the evenings, about once a minute, a group of fifty birds break into a free-fall down into the cave toward their nests. Humans were not about to be outdone by such a feat. Base jumpers come from all over the world, but without a parachute, or in case of parachute failure, it would take 12 seconds to fall from the top of the cave to the bottom. Ascending from the cave can take more than an hour and is powered by a winch.