I started caving as a kid in Huntsville, Alabama around 1970. We did everything wrong. We used flashlights gathered from glove boxes or hall closets, knotted ropes, and even a rope ladder made from household electrical cable. We were lucky. Nobody got seriously hurt or embarrassed by having to be hauled up a pit we couldn't climb with our knotted rope (although there were some close calls).
In some ways caving is different today than when I started. The gear is far better, and far more expensive. There are more cavers, and fewer landowners willing to provide access. Some of the caves are seeing more traffic than they can support. But at the same time, there are never enough people who understand the fragile beauty of caves, and why they need our protection.
If you're sincerely interested in caving, consider the following:
- Join the NSS and its local chapter (called a grotto). Your opportunities to do significant caving without joining this organization or one of its chapters will be limited. You won't be able to find many caves, and if you do, you won't have the equipment or knowledge to see the best of them.
- Go caving with organized cavers. Many grottos have regular monthly trips where you can learn the best ways of doing things. Be cautious about going caving on your own. Most rescues I've seen--including a couple of fatalities--could have been prevented if just one experienced person had been along to provide counsel.
- Don't jump into vertical caving without getting training from cavers. Most people today are smart enough to know that knotted ropes only work for Batman. Still, lots of rock climbers and casual rappellers get into trouble because they don't appreciate the very real differences between rappelling a cliff or building on the surface and doing an in-cave drop.
- Cave water is cold, whether you're swimming in it or hanging on a rope in anything more than a drip. If you don't think you can die of hypothermia in a southeastern cave, ask one of the several people who already have. On second thought, I guess you'll have to take my word for it!
- Treat caves and their owners with the respect they deserve. Pick up trash, erase graffiti, leave no trace. Keep your caving low-key and leave a good impression for the next visitors.
- Give something back. If you're an active caver in the Southeastern U.S., please consider joining the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, an organization which gives us access to many of our region's most spectacular caves.
Here's one for free: Don't ever, ever put a rope down a cliff or a pit without putting a knot in the end first, even if you can see the rope on the bottom. Make it a habit and tell people why you're doing it. This is so simple, and yet almost every year someone dies because they didn't do it.
If you need specific help or advice (other than cave locations, which I probably won't give you even if I do remember), e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll try to help.
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