One of the coolest parts of studying abroad is having access to activities that aren’t available at your home university. Just like at colleges back in the U.S., Queen’s University has a club fair at the start of each semester, allowing clubs/societies to promote what they do and find new members. And so it was that while wandering about the “Refreshers’ Fair,” as it’s called here at Queen’s, I came across the caving club booth. I thought, “Well this is something we sure don’t have back home,” and signed up. Why not?
I should say that before I came to Belfast, “spelunking” was about the only thing I knew about caving. I’d toured a couple of caves in TN and KY, but these cavernous halls with steps and handrails and artificial illumination are but a fraction of the spaces that lie beneath the earth, as I’d soon learn. Not knowing at all what to expect, I showed up for the first practice and was presented with the Queen's Practice Wall.
Not what I would have imagined when I thought of caving. Turns out that it’s a lot more than just crawling around in the dark (although there’s lots of that…lots). The more technical forms of caving involve ropes and harnesses (SRT, or “single rope technique,” is the official term). I haven’t done this in an actual cave yet, but it’s what we focus on in our practices.
Every time I go up the wall I pour sweat and my heart rate jumps about 20 BPM. I reassure myself that a bit of fear is normal (and even healthy) as I stare at the twenty foot drop, the ropes attached to my harness and foam mats below but scant consolation. Best to keep busy and focus on the climb.
I also wouldn’t have imagined that it takes like 20 minutes to put on all the gear (and I still can’t get it quite right). The stakes are pretty high: one wrongly fed strap could send you hurtling into the abyss (though we’re always very careful and triple check everything to make sure it’s safe). Talking to members from Queen’s and other clubs across Ireland, I’ve learned that caving is a masochistic sport. Most of the fun in caving comes from doing it and then commiserating about how cold/cramped/muddy it was. The joy is not in caving, but having caved. Not that the experience of caving is devoid of wonder. Far from it, as my first and subsequent experiences of it would show. My first caving adventure went something like this:
On a Friday evening, I piled into the car with a few other cavers and a bunch of gear, drove out to a cabin in a remote part of Ireland, spent the night, and around noon the next day, suited up for my first descent.
After suiting up, it was time to get underground. We went in a group of ten, led by several experienced guides. Our target was a passage through Marble Arch Caves, a popular show cave near the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen. Our point of entry, however, would be quite unlike the one most visitors use.
I don’t have a picture of where we entered (can’t bring phones into the caves unless you want them to get crushed, and if you bring a camera it better be impact resistant and waterproof), but it was so well hidden that several of us almost fell right in as we came upon it.
One by one, we lowered ourselves into the hole. Light from the surface was still visible (it was a rare sunny day), but already the temperature had dropped. As one of the more experienced cavers later explained to me, it can often be warmer underground than on the surface, since weather conditions have little effect once you get to a certain depth.
We made our way through passage on hands and knees, and we soon encountered the first “blind descent.” Esther, our principal guide, went first and then advised us on the best places to put our feet and wedge our arms. Each of us descended in turn, the rest waiting in the chamber below. I should mention that caving is not a graceful sport. If walking is just a series a controlled falls, then caving is at best series of controlled stumblings. At any moment you’re either sliding on your back, groping in the dark for a foothold, or inching along on your stomach, praying you’ll fit through the next squeeze.
Our descent continued in much the same fashion for another twenty minutes or so until we at last crawled our way to a padlocked grate. This, apparently, was the entrance to one of Marble Arch’s main chambers, the “show cave” that visitors get to see. On this day, though, there were no tour groups, and so the chamber was as dark as any other part of the cave, metal walkways and handrails the only indication of human development. We walked on further, and we came to the first wet passage. For some reason, I had never associated caving with water. I had imagined it to be a dry sport. Dirty, sure, but dry on the whole. Not so with this cave. To reach the next passage, we had to wade through water that, depending on your height, was anywhere from waist- to chest-high. Soaked to the bone and with boots full of water, we crawled and hiked some more, only to pass through another similarly wet area.
At certain points, we even ascended, venturing deeper into the cave. Eventually, Esther said that this was as far as we could go, that we needed to get back and return the key to the main passage before the visitor center closed. And so it was that we retraced our passage and made our way out of the cave. I won’t recount much of this return journey, since it presented the same features as the descent. One curious fact of caving, however, is that because of the darkness and close spaces, retracing your steps is not as straightforward as you would imagine, and the passage back up can seem like an entirely new route.
It’s much the same principle as in hiking: walking down a mountain uses a different set of muscles than climbing it. Only in caving, “different set of muscles” minimizes the novelty of the physical challenges presented by the return journey. A passage that you formerly slid down must now be painfully climbed; what was once a measured ascent now becomes an unexpected drop. One must be at all times alert, for the cave is relentless.
Emerging into the sunlight after three hours underground is much like setting foot on land after a flight or boat ride — a disorienting relief. The fresh quality of the air, the brightness of the light, and the sight of greenery all take on an enchanting novelty. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being “born again.” This wouldn’t be my last caving adventure, but it provides a picture of what it was like to experience it for the first time. Needless to say, I’m hooked. Perhaps in a future post I’ll recount more of my subterranean adventures. I’ve many more stories to tell.