No End in Sight: The Joys of Extreme Caving

David Hua, Staff Writer

Few people are able to comprehend what drives men and women to engage in one of the oldest, esoteric, and dangerous pastimes: extreme caving.  Some know that the activity involves cascading and trekking through miles of dark, tight fissures with no guarantee of seeing the light of day ever again.  Others condemn it as a self-indulgent and treacherous waste of time.  

What most people don’t know however, is that, with one day underground, a caver can burn as many calories as a Tour De France cyclist, losing as many as 25 pounds with each expedition. ”

Those who undertake such challenges are adventure seekers trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle of each intricate cave system they enter.  The driving force behind these cavers stems from their eccentric and paradoxical makeup.  They feel an urge to act freely and recklessly while somehow developing a fondness for tight places.  These cavers have highly analytical minds, yet they are indifferent to risky undertakings.  Seemingly built for solitude, they simultaneously have an ability to work together and function as a team.  Ultimately, however, it is the cavers’ love for the unknown and high tolerance of pain that compels them to venture down miles beneath the surface of the earth in search of adventure.

According to an April 2014 article in The New Yorker, the growing appeal of this pastime can be traced to the nineteen thirties and forties when French cavers Pierre Chevalier and Norbert Carteret published their own caving books.  Their expeditions were designed as challenging, short journeys below ground.  They wore primitive climbing gear – oilskins and duck-cloth trousers while carrying their own rucksacks and rope ladders with a carriage lantern as the only source of light.  They wore no head gear and, as a result, tumbling rocks frequently hit them on their head.  Chevalier and his team eventually mapped out over ten miles of caves outside of Grenoble, France.  In the course of their expeditions, they set a world depth record at twenty-one hundred and fifty-nine feet and developed a number of caving tools that are still used today, including nylon ropes and mechanical ascenders.  Chevalier’s efforts transformed caving into a competitive undertaking, specifically an international competitive search for the world’s deepest cave.  This international competition was even considered by some as the precursor to the space race.  However, Chevalier did more than just transform the sport of caving; in fact, he also managed to uncover the remains of a religious sanctuary thought to be some twenty thousand years old.  This only added to the allure of the sport.

Today’s lighter, stronger, and more advanced climbing gear has only inspired greater competition to seek and venture deeper and deeper into the earth.  The current depth record was set in 2012 when a Ukrainian caver descended more than seventy-two hundred feet from the entrance in Georgia’s Krubera Cave – almost a mile and half underground and more than three times Chevalier’s record.  A group of cavers led by American Bill Stone recently decided to undertake an even more daunting task of climbing down the Cheve system in Mexico, a cave with an extremely precipitous drop at the start.  Although the venture ended in failure and disappointment, the team currently is planning another expedition to the Cheve with hopes of fully traversing the system.

The possibility of world records and the allure of the colossus Cheve cave system aren’t the only incentives that bring the team back, however.  Deep caving has no end.  At the heart of caving is a spirit of exploration that can never be fully satiated.  Each record is provisional:  in time, a new group will traverse deeper.  Every barrier in the cave is only a false conclusion to it; beyond that boulder one thinks is the end could be another tunnel deeper down the cave. It’s also the camaraderie underground and the deep fellowship of shared experiences that lures teams back for another shot.  Every action underground is life-threatening and the cavers accept that; any accidental slip on a rock could mean the end of one’s life or perhaps even the whole team.  However, even with ever-present dangers, the popularity of extreme caving is growing, with no end in sight.  No doubt new records and new accomplishments will continue to emerge in the near future.  Even as technology makes our lives easier and more comfortable, there will always be an enduring appeal to the primitive and elemental nature of caving.  Similar to the deepest caves of the world, the inherently adventurous spirit has no end.