Recreational caving is new to me. Sure, I’ve poked around in small caves with a flashlight, but they’d either end or become crawlways that I didn’t feel comfortable going through. Prior to this summer, my favorite cave visit was to the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul, which were mine tunnels converted into a speakeasy dance hall in the 1920’s, but that doesn’t really count. Real caving requires you to get dirty. Typically when I leave a cave, my gear is gunked up with mud and my shoes are filled with little pebbles.
Had I not had this internship, I honestly don’t think I’d ever go caving. Dark, tight crawlways don’t sound appealing to me. My sense of worry kicks in and I think about everything that can go wrong underground. I’m not a slender guy, nor do I have good upper body strength. What if I wedge myself into a tight spot and get stuck? If I get hurt, will I be able to climb my way out? What if I run out of water? What if I get lost? No one will hear my calls for help. My thoughts spiral further.
Now that caving is part of my job, I’ve realized that my concerns, although real, were hyperbolized. Yeah, the terrible slip and fall hazards are there, but I’m doing myself a disservice by psyching myself out. Initially when faced with a treacherous climb, my brain would switch over to an instinctive ‘survival mode’ of hyper-awareness that I can only compare to a fight-or-flight response. After making it across, I’d need a quick break to recuperate. Now when climbing past impending doom, I’m less intimidated and have more stamina to keep going.
Moreover, I’m not that much of a novice. I go hiking often and have been bouldering and top-rope climbing in the past. Many of those techniques are transferrable to caving. I’m fairly nimble and feel confident traversing over uneven and unstable surfaces, which are also good skills to have. Caving is less climbing and more of a whole-body workout: crawling, vaulting, scaling walls, sliding, and using muscles you didn’t know you had!
Now that I’m accustomed to navigating a cave environment, I can truly enjoy the sport. Not only is it a fun athletic challenge, but it’s also visually rewarding. There are so many cool speleothems, or cave formations, along the way. Spar, gypsum flowers, frostwork, hydromagnesite balloons, underground lakes and countless other formations that can only be seen in the cave.
So long as I have my helmet, pads, and lights, I’m ready for the next lead down into the abyss.