Whether it’s your first, tenth or one-hundredth caving trip, planning is the key to a successful, safe, and fun trip. Planning is part of the joinery and the adventure.
The BSA Caving Policy (bin # 19-102) says in part “Any cave trip must include a fully qualified leader or adult assistants qualified to handle all problems that might arise. These leaders should have had experience as active participants in a competent caving group.” If you’ve taken my advice and solicited your local Grotto, you probably have an experienced caver helping your Crew plan your caving trips.
The reason for this is that not all caves are the same. It is good to have someone along with some experience with the cave you plan on exploring. The first rule of getting out of trouble is avoiding it in the first place. Know something about the characteristics of the cave and know your own limits. It’s always good to push yourself a little, but not to the point the trip becomes needlessly dangerous.
There are some basics about a cave you should consider. A decent map of the cave will tell you most of what you will be facing entering and once you’re inside the cave.
You should know about any vertical exposure you may encounter. How much climbing is involved with the cave you are interested in. Even though it was not intended for caving, you can use the “The Yosemite Decimal System” (YDS) http://www.climber.org/data/decimal.html to get a good feel for what you will encounter.
Class 1 is a well-established path. Almost like a sidewalk. Think of a lighted commercial cave tour.
Class 2 will require some route finding and occasionally using your hands for balance.
Class 3 is scrambling on rocks using your hands as well as your feet. A hand line may be helpful. Boldering falls under this class.
Class 4 is climbing over steep enough terrain to require a belay (feet over shoulder height). Ladders fall in this class.
Class 5 is more technical climbing. Caving is not climbing, but sometimes you will be in a situation were you will need to climb and be on belay where a serious injury or death is likely in the event of an unprotected fall.
Class 6 is not a real YDS class, but this is where the rope deliberately bears the caver’s weight. Cavers call it “vertical caving techniques” and it involves ascending a rope with climbing aids and descending with rappelling gear. Special training is needed above ground before attempting this in a cave.
To do anything from Class 3 on up you must have someone on in your Crew with “Climb On Safely” training. This is a very basic, on-line, training that only takes about 20 minutes. This will help you understand more about what you are facing. I suggest that everyone who may be faced with Class 3 or above situation take this course. The more in your Crew who have this, the more smoothly your trip will go. If your going to be involved with Class 4 through 6 your should have a trained Climbing Instructor.
Another consideration when planning your cave exploration trip is water. Like vertical exposure, the wetness of the cave can be in varying degrees, and may even change from one trip to the next to the same cave or during a single caving trip.
The least wet experience would again be like the lighted commercial cave trip where you can wear your regular street shoes. No special planning there, but that’s probably not what you are looking at doing. There are some wild caves that are dry. Some tectonic and lava tubes may be drier that solution caves.
Most solution caves have mud in them. After all they are formed with the help of water. Mud can vary in texture. Some mud is slippery and sometimes so slippery it’s difficult to stand up. Some mud is sticky and sometimes it can suck your boots off your feet. Either way if you crawly through mud you will get wet.
Some caves have streams and standing pools in them. These can also be of varying depths and have their own hazards depending on the depth. You should also consider not just how deep the water is, but how long will you be in the water and how wet will you get. While you may not be swimming, if your in water for a while you will want to consider if a wet suit would keep you from becoming hypothermic. Even wading through thigh high cave waters that’s just above freezing become uncomfortable after just a few minutes.
Some caves have deeper pools and streams. While you wont be cave diving, you will be swimming. Wet suits will be necessary. Being part of the Boy Scouts of America you must have someone with "“Safe Swim Defense” training. Like “Climb On Safely” this is an on-line training course that can be completed in about 20 minutes. Everyone on a trip like this should have this training and comply with the guidelines.
Then the most wet and difficult is cave diving. This is just going to be mentioned here and not go into any details, as it is a very specialized activity requiring special training and certification and is beyond the scope of this article. For more information you need to go to the NSS Cave Diving Section at http://www.nsscds.org/test/drupal/index.php for more information.
Another consideration when looking at a cave to explore is how tight does the cave get. You can generally tell by a cave map what to expect with this. Those little circles with numbers in them are the height of the ceiling at that point in the cave. Sometimes you can have large booming rooms and high ceiling canyon type passages. Sometimes you can have belly crawls for a couple hundred feet. Sometimes it’s just a tight pinch of less than a foot to get to the next room. Knowing your limits is very important. Knowing the limits of the entire Crew is important , too. Generally ever passage you go through you may have to return through as well.
Generally most caving excursions will not encounter all these situations, but they will likely be combined together. So rappelling through a water fall in a tight tube would not be a good choice for your first trip. While it's good to challenge your self, be realistic about your limits and the limits of your group and the hazards and challenges of the cave you plan to explore.