Guest Post Alert !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Jennifer Dougherty is back on the blog to talk about caving!
Welcome to Alabama
So it turns out that doing grad school in Alabama is a little different than working full time in West Virginia (although the accent is pretty much the same). Though I haven’t been able to find more trail horses or aerial silks yet, I got roped into a new sport thanks to one of my peers- caving! She works for a professor who specializes in cave biology and ecology; I had no idea but both Alabama and West Virginia are home to some of the largest cave systems in North America! Thanks to her not-so-gentle suggestion, I attended a local caving meeting and signed up for an “intro horizontal” trip. Now that I’ve done a few more caves, I think I can officially talk about the sport and some of the specifics.
Caving is it’s own league of sports
Caving, like the name suggests, is exploring different cave systems. It’s not quite “spelunking” since most of the time we follow known trails, though any new side passages are thoroughly explored. It’s definitely not a sport for the faint of heart. I thought between vaulting and aerials that I could call myself a daredevil, but I was terrified for my entire first trip! It requires climbing up and down slick, rocky surfaces, crawling on your hands and knees, and trusting that the person leading knows the way out. I’ve also been more on the timid side since my leg is still recovering. I don’t always trust it to catch me when I land hard on it, so I’ve had to figure out how to work around that mental block.
Caving Tips and Tricks
Here are some of the main takeaways I’ve learned so far:
1. Caving is NOT baby’s first sport. Even though I’m in decently good shape, I’ve come out of every trip totally exhausted, regardless of how long we were down. There’s guaranteed to be some measure of climbing, and since I’m pretty short I sometimes have to figure out alternate routes. If you decide to do a vertical trip, which includes climbing and rappelling in a harness, it takes an insane amount of upper body strength, and that’s coming from me AFTER I learned how to climb up a silk unassisted.
2. You WILL get wet and muddy. Caves are damp and soggy, and so far all of the ones I’ve been in have had some kind of river system. In fact, I went swimming on my very first trip! It was actually far easier on my leg than climbing over rocks, and I think I managed to impress a few of the club members by being ballsy (haha). Water is going to drip down from the ceiling formations, and at the very least you’ll probably follow a stream at some point.
3. You MUST bring a change of clothing. This one I learned the hard way- I packed a full change of clothes and left it behind in my car. I got out of that cave (in early January) soaked to the bone and drenched in mud, and I had to stay that way for hours. I thought people were kidding about stripping right next to their cars, but once you get cold enough you stop caring about having an audience!
4. Make sure you have the necessary equipment. So far, I’ve bought my own gloves (just standard gardening variety) and volleyball kneepads. If I’m going to continue in the sport I’ll need to invest in a caving helmet and a good headlamp. Helmets in caving are just as important in riding, so that’s luckily one area I’m comfortable with. The gloves and kneepads are also NOT a suggestion. Climbing hand over hand on slippery, sharp rocks requires some kind of protection, and I can’t stress how much crawling there can be. My second trip consisted of crawling in a freezing cold, rocky stream for a few hours. I was very grateful for my knee cushioning!
5. Every cave is totally unique. Though some of the formations may look a little similar, all of the caves I’ve gotten to travel have been completely different experiences. Each one has introduced a new obstacle, from swimming, to crawling, to jumping over very dark and scary abysses. Each one is also gorgeous in its own right, and few pictures do them justice.
An Important Note
One important thing I’ve learned from more experienced cavers is that you typically don’t advertise the caves you go into. Not everyone respects the formations and organisms that live there, unfortunately. However, this next anecdote features a well-known public cave, though you do need a permit and a key to access it, which is why this one is mentioned by name but all the others are obscured.
Tumbling Rock Cave
I was lucky enough to take a trip a few weeks ago to a particularly special cave and was treated to a very rare and unique experience. Nathan Williams is a professional photographer who was also the caretaker of Tumbling Rock cave for many years. Thanks to his expertise, we got to take an unforgettable trip and see what is now my favorite formation, so far. This cave is extremely long, so we only saw part of it, even though it was a 7 hour trip! We got to see the namesake formation of the cave, where an enormous rock fell from the ceiling and got caught on the sides of the cave (though we did NOT walk underneath of it!) We also got to see a unique formation fondly known as the “Christmas Tree”, since this stalagmite grew in a huge spiral up from the ground. Most spectacular of all, Nathan was generous enough to haul huge lights and battery packs all the way through the cave so we could see the Topless Dome lit up. It spans over 400 feet high and has a beautiful waterfall in the center of it. We had to pull ourselves up through a tiny hole in the ceiling to get to it, and it was by far worth the effort. Very few people get to see the dome lit up since it takes so much work to haul the equipment, so I’m extremely grateful for the experience!
On Pause for Now!
Unfortunately, due to the virus, all the future caving trips and climbing practices have been put on hold. I’m very much looking forward to getting back out there and exploring more caves now that I know how many exist right below me! If you’re interested in trying caving, I suggest looking up if your area hosts a local grotto club. They are the ones who plan the trips and make sure the proper permits are in place. The one I’m now part of has been very welcoming and accommodating of newcomers, and everyone in the community has been very friendly and helpful.
Thank you to my pals!
Thank you to Nathan for allowing me to use his photos and giving us such an unforgettable trip, and to EH for letting me take over the blog for a minute!