Caving—also occasionally known as spelunking in the United States and Canada and potholing in the United Kingdom and Ireland—is the recreational pastime of exploring wild (generally non-commercial) cave systems. In contrast, speleology is the scientific study of caves and the cave environment.
The challenges involved in the activity depend on the cave being visited, but often include the negotiation of pitches, squeezes, and water (although actual cave diving is a separate, and much more dangerous, sub-specialty undertaken by very few cavers).
In recent decades, caving has changed considerably due to the availability of modern protective wear and equipment. It has recently come to be known as an "extreme sport" by some (though not commonly considered as such by its practitioners, who may dislike the term for its perceived connotation of disregard for safety).
Caving is often undertaken for the enjoyment of the outdoor activity or for physical exercise, as well as original exploration, similar to mountaineering or diving. Physical or biological science is also an important goal for some cavers, while others are engaged in cave photography. Virgin cave systems comprise some of the last unexplored regions on Earth and much effort is put into trying to locate, enter and survey them. In well-explored regions (such as most developed nations), the most accessible caves have already been explored, and gaining access to new caves often requires cave digging or cave diving.
Caving has also been described as an "individualist's team sport" by some, as cavers can often make a trip without direct physical assistance from others but will generally go in a group for companionship or to provide emergency help if needed. Some however consider the assistance cavers give each other as a typical team sport activity.
Too much emphasis on the labeling of caving as a sport can narrow the goals of caving as a whole. Caving often puts the needs and welfare of a cave before those of the active participants. It is fair to say that while caving shares some attributes of sport activities, for many it transcends sports as many cavers pursue cave science, mapping, photography, and the management and conservation of cave resources.
Clay Perry, an American caver of the 1940s, wrote about a group of men and boys who explored and studied caves throughout New England. This group referred to themselves as spelunkers, a term derived from the Latin spēlunca and Greek σπῆλυγξ (spēlunks) meaning "a cave". This is regarded as the first use of the word in the Americas. Throughout the 1950s, spelunking was the general term used for exploring caves in US English. It was used freely, without any positive or negative connotations, although only rarely outside the US.
In the 1960s, the terms spelunking and spelunker began to be considered déclassé among experienced enthusiasts. They began to convey the idea of inexperienced cavers, using unreliable light sources and cotton clothing. In 1985, Steve Knutson (editor of the NSS publication American Caving Accidents) made the following distinction:
…Note that I use the term 'spelunker' to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and 'caver' for those who are.
This sentiment is exemplified by bumper stickers and t-shirts displayed by many cavers: "Cavers rescue spelunkers".
Caving was pioneered by Édouard-Alfred Martel (1859–1938) who first achieved the descent and exploration of the Gouffre de Padirac, France as early as 1889 and the first complete descent of a 110 metre wet vertical shaft at Gaping Gill, in Yorkshire, England in 1895. He developed his own techniques based on ropes and metallic ladders. Martel visited Kentucky and notably Mammoth Cave National Park in October 1912. Famous US caver Floyd Collins made in the 1920s important explorations in that area. In the 1930s, as caving became increasingly popular, small exploration teams both in the Alps and in the karstic high plateaus of southwest France (Causses and Pyrenees) transformed cave exploration in both a scientific and recreational activity. Robert de Joly, Guy de Lavaur and Norbert Casteret were prominent figures of that time. They surveyed mostly caves in Southwest France. During WWII, an alpine team composed of Pierre Chevalier, Fernand Petzl, Charles Petit-Didier and others explored the Dent de Crolles cave system near Grenoble, France which became the deepest explored cave in the world (-658m) at that time. The lack of available equipment during the war forced Pierre Chevalier and the rest of the team to develop their own equipment, leading to technical innovation. The scaling-pole (1940), nylon ropes (1942), use of explosives in caves (1947) and mechanical rope-ascenders (Henri Brenot's "monkeys", first used by Chevalier and Brenot in a cave in 1934) can be directly associated to the exploration of the Dent de Crolles cave system.
In 1941, American cavers organized themselves into the National Speleological Society (NSS) to advance the exploration, conservation, study, and understanding of caves in the United States. American caver Bill Cuddington, known as "Vertical Bill", developed the single rope technique (SRT) in the late 1950s. In 1958, two Swiss alpinists, Juesi and Marti teamed together, creating the first rope ascender known as the Jumar. In 1968 Bruno Dressler asked Fernand Petzl, who worked as a metals machinist, to build a rope-ascending tool, today known as the Petzl Croll, that he had developed by adapting the Jumar to pit caving. Pursuing these developments, Petzl started in the 1970s a caving equipment manufacturing company named Petzl. The development of the rappel rack and the evolution of mechanical ascension systems extended the practice and safety of pit exploration to a larger venue of cavers.
Practice and equipment
Hard hats are worn to protect the head from bumps and falling rocks. The caver's primary light source is usually mounted on the helmet in order to keep the hands free. Electric lights are most common, with halogen lamps being standard and white LEDs as the new competing technology. Many cavers carry two or more sources of light - one as primary and the others as backup in case the first fails. More often than not, a second light will be mounted to the helmet for quick transition if the primary fails. Carbide lamps systems are an older form of illumination, inspired by miner's equipment, and are still used by some cavers.
The type of clothes worn underground varies according to the environment of the cave being explored, and the local culture. In cold caves, the caver may wear a warm base layer that retains its insulating properties when wet, such as a fleece ("furry") suit and/or polypropylene underwear, and an oversuit of hard-wearing (e.g., cordura) and/or waterproof (e.g., PVC) material. Lighter clothing may be worn in warm caves, particularly if the cave is dry, and in tropical caves thin polypropylene clothing is used, to provide some abrasion protection whilst remaining as cool as possible. Wetsuits may be worn if the cave is particularly wet or involves stream passages. On the feet boots are worn - hiking-style boots in drier caves, or rubber boots (such as wellies) often with neoprene socks ("wetsocks") in wetter caves. Knee-pads (and sometimes elbow-pads) are popular for protecting joints during crawls. Depending on the nature of the cave, gloves are sometimes worn to protect the hands against abrasion and/or cold. In pristine areas and for restoration, clean oversuits and powder-free, non-latex surgical gloves are used to protect the cave itself from contaminants.
Ropes are used for descending or ascending pitches ("Single Rope Technique") or for protection. Knots commonly used in caving are the figure-of-eight- (or figure-of-nine-) loop, bowline, alpine butterfly, and Italian hitch. Ropes are usually rigged using bolts, slings, and carabiners. In some cases cavers may choose to bring and use a flexible metal ladder.
In addition to the equipment already described, cavers frequently carry packs containing first-aid kits, emergency equipment, and food. Containers for securely transporting urine are also commonly carried. On longer trips, containers for securely transporting feces out of the cave are carried.
During very long trips, it may be necessary to camp in the cave - some cavers have stayed underground for many days, or in particularly extreme cases, for weeks at a time. This is particularly the case when exploring or mapping very extended cave systems, where it would be impractical to retrace the route back to the surface regularly. Such long trips necessitate the cavers carrying provisions, sleeping and cooking equipment.
Caves can be dangerous places; hypothermia, falling, flooding, falling rocks and physical exhaustion are the main risks. Rescuing people from underground is difficult and time-consuming, and requires special skills, training, and equipment. Full-scale cave rescues often involve the efforts of dozens of rescue workers (often other long-time cavers who have participated in specialized courses, as normal rescue staff are not sufficiently experienced in cave environments), who may themselves be put in jeopardy in effecting the rescue. This said, caving is not necessarily a high-risk sport (especially if it does not involve difficult climbs or diving). As in all physical sports, knowing one's limitations is key.
Caving in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys carries the risk of contracting Histoplasma. Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection that is contracted from bird or bat droppings. It can cause pneumonia and can disseminate in the body to cause continued infections.
Safety risks while caving can be minimized by using a number of techniques:
- Checking that there is no danger of flooding during the expedition. Rainwater funneled underground can flood a cave very quickly, trapping people in cut-off passages and drowning them. After falling, this is the most likely fatal accident in caving.
- Using teams of several cavers, preferably at least four. If an injury occurs, one caver stays with the injured person while the other two go out for help, providing assistance to each other on their way out.
- Notifying people outside the cave as to the intended return time. After an appropriate delay without a return, these will then organize a search party (usually made up by other cavers trained in cave rescues, as even professional emergency personnel are unlikely to have the skills to effect a rescue in difficult conditions).
- Use of helmet-mounted lights (hands-free) with extra batteries. American cavers recommend a minimum of three independent sources of light per person, but two lights is common practice among European cavers.
- Sturdy clothing and footwear, as well as a helmet, are necessary to reduce the impact of abrasions, falls, and falling objects. Synthetic fibers and woolens, which dry quickly, shed water, and are warm when wet, are vastly preferred to cotton materials, which retain water and increase the risk of hypothermia. It is also helpful to have several layers of clothing, which can be shed (and stored in the pack) or added as needed. In watery cave passages, polypropylene thermal underwear or wetsuits may be required to avoid hypothermia.
- Cave passages look different from different directions. In long or complex caves, even experienced cavers can become lost. To reduce the risk of becoming lost, it is necessary to memorize the appearance of key navigational points in the cave as they are passed by the exploring party. Each member of a cave party shares responsibility for being able to remember the route out of the cave. In some caves it may be acceptable to mark a small number of key junctions with small stacks or "cairns" of rocks, or to leave a non-permanent mark such as high-visibility flagging tape tied to a projection.
- Vertical caving using ladders or SRT (Single Rope Technique) to avoid the need for climbing passages that are too difficult. SRT however is a complex skill and requires proper training before use underground and needs well-maintained equipment. Some drops that are abseiled down may be as deep as several hundred meters (for example Harwood Hole).
Many cave environments are very fragile. Many speleothems can be damaged by even the slightest touch and some by impacts as slight as a breath. Research suggests that increased carbon dioxide levels can lead to "a higher equilibrium concentration of calcium within the drip waters feeding the speleothems, and hence causes dissolution of existing features." In 2008, researchers found evidence that respiration from cave visitors may generate elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in caves, leading to increased temperatures of up to 3°C and a dissolution of existing features.
Pollution is also of concern. Since water that flows through a cave eventually comes out in streams and rivers, any pollution may ultimately end up in someone's drinking water, and can even seriously affect the surface environment, as well. Even minor pollution such as dropping organic material can have a dramatic effect on the cave biota.
Cave-dwelling species are also very fragile, and often, a particular species found in a cave may live within that cave alone, and be found nowhere else in the world, such as Alabama cave shrimp. Cave-dwelling species are accustomed to a near-constant climate of temperature and humidity, and any disturbance can be disruptive to the species' life cycles. Though cave wildlife may not always be immediately visible, it is typically nonetheless present in most caves.
Bats are one such fragile species of cave-dwelling animal. Bats which hibernate are most vulnerable during the winter season, when no food supply exists on the surface to replenish the bat's store of energy should it be awakened from hibernation. Bats which migrate are most sensitive during the summer months when they are raising their young. For these reasons, visiting caves inhabited by hibernating bats is discouraged during cold months; and visiting caves inhabited by migratory bats is discouraged during the warmer months when they are most sensitive and vulnerable. Due to an affliction affecting bats in the northeastern US known as white nose syndrome (WNS), the US Fish & Wildlife Service has called for a moratorium  effective March 26, 2009 on caving activity in states known to have hibernacula (MD, NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, NJ, PA, VA, and WV) affected by WNS, as well as adjoining states.
Some cave passages may be marked with flagging tape or other indicators to show biologically, aesthetically, or archaeologically sensitive areas. Marked paths may show ways around notably fragile areas such as a pristine floor of sand or silt which may be thousands of years old, dating from the last time water flowed through the cave. Such deposits may easily be spoiled forever by a single misplaced step. Active formations such as flowstone can be similarly marred with a muddy footprint or handprint, and ancient human artifacts, such as fiber products, may even crumble to dust under all but the most gentle touch.
In 1988, concerned that cave resources were becoming increasingly damaged through unregulated use, Congress enacted the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act, giving land management agencies in the United States expanded authority to manage cave conservation on public land.
Cavers in many countries have created organizations for the administration and oversight of caving activities within their nations. The oldest of these is the French Federation of Speleology (originally Société de spéléologie) founded by Édouard-Alfred Martel in 1895, which produced the first periodical journal in speleology, Spelunca. The National Speleological Society of the USA was later founded in 1941 (originally formed as the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia on May 6, 1939) and the Swiss Society of Speleology created in 1939 in Geneva, but the first speleological institute in the world was founded in 1920 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, by Emil Racovita, a Romanian biologist, zoologist, speleologist and explorer of Antarctica. The Pakistan Cave Research & Caving Federation was founded in Pakistan in 1997.
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- Marbach, George; Tourte, Bernard; Alspaugh, Melanie (translator). Alpine Caving Techniques. Speleo Projects,Switzerland. ISBN 3-908495-10-5.
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- Caving at the Open Directory Project
- The National Speleological Society American organization devoted to caving, cave science, and cave conservation
- The British Caving Association The national governing body for underground exploration in the UK.
- Speleological Abstract (SA/BBS) Annual review of the world's speleological literature, edited by the Bibliography Commission of the UIS.
- Try Caving Information for anyone interested in trying caving/potholing in the UK.
- U.C.E.T. - United Cavers Exploration Team (Also covers Mine Exploration - UK
- Speologie.org - Caves of Romania