Cambridge Underground 1989 pp 29-31

Some Thoughts On The Future Of Caving

by Julian Todd

Between you & me, in the next 50 to 500 years, things are going to change. When considering far flung futures with respect to caving, the first thing that springs to mind is conservation, of which there are two types: Restoration and Preservation.

At present any doctrine of preservation prohibits such activities as breaking stals, throwing mud, stepping in crystal calcite pools, and hanging from helictites. And circumstantially not allowing strangers anywhere near the most 'spectacular' formations occurring in any given geographical region. As it stands this completely fails to acknowledge the apparently unavoidable damage happening to the more mundane inside surfaces of the cave in the form of cathedral steps syndrome and bolt-hole chock-a-block rockface. The latter can be arrested by banning 100 millisecond bolt driller kits whenever they are invented because not only do more than the necessary number of bolts get drilled, but innovative explorers tend to strap one of these to each foot, hold another between their hands, and go walking up walls leaving behind them a dense, ineraseable, rustproof trail. The rocks begin to look as if they have termites in them. So bad can this get that, according to the post office addressing system, 'Boulder No. 8A, strike-three-you're-out! pitch, baseball cavern DB7 OPD' now looks like a ten billion year old asteroid.

Technology has been a bad influence in the other case also; cathedral step damage happens when people wear a Nyber Queck-Derm no-bruise oversuit as part of their gear. It's wonderful in that it doesn't allow any kind of erosion to happen to the body, but its high grip factor gives a high abrasion factor and this wears down large rocks until they are not there any more. Shoes with soles made from this material have been banned from most buildings and cities whose maintenance authorities got sick & tired of replacing the pavements every single year. In cathedrals highly trained stonemasons repair the steps whenever they begin to wear out, but this doesn't happen in caves, whose passages are subsiding & changing shape.

Restoration proceeds like this: Water containing dissolved calcium carbonate (limestone) seeps through the earth, drips down walls & off stalagmites adding an inch to their length every hundred thousand years or so. Artificial restoration occurs when a self-propagating bacterial soap is added to a lake high above the cave causing the water to dissolve huge amounts of limestone in itself, soak through the ground over a period of months & burst into the cave passages with a massively accelerated limestone depositing factor. Metre-long stals can grow in less than an hour & this is bad news for anyone who is inside the cave at the time. When stals jag out the ceilings and off the floor they can block exit passages, fall like spears down shafts and, in the smaller chambers, puncture straight through everything that is not wielding a sledgehammer over its head.

You do not always have to be natural to be fun, goes the quote from some debaucherous institution. Manmade holes in the ground can provide an alternative with the chief advantage that damage done to them is of no consequence because you can always build another. Whenever the US Department of Defense wants to test another nuclear warhead for some reason, they do what's called 'Big Hole Drilling' in the deserts of Nevada. Since H-bombs are very big and need to go underground so as not to surface, engineers have managed to build giant drill bits 12 metres in diameter that drill holes hundreds of metres deep, down which they drop the warheads that they want to explode. Disused mines are another route to the underground, better than being a testban protester who goes and abseils down a cylindrical big hole to the bottom where the daylight is just a pinprick at the top as he waits for the bomb to drop like an express elevator on account of the men at the top not believing that anyone could be so stupid as to get to the bottom. I would predict that the underground crater left behind would make an interesting cave were it not so radioactive.

However, in these days, if you're in search of unbroken caves that are natural your best bet is to go far out in the underdeveloped world, in the jungle, where the geology is right & the vines are so wild they grow like intercontinental telephone cables far into the entrance passages until they are choked beyond belief. Here every species is rare and endangered & when a swarm of South American Black Piranha Wasps sets up its nest at the opposite end of a tortuous entrance crawl, no one is permitted to disturb them. This includes releasing any form of anaesthetic gas into the cave to put them to sleep. What cavers had to do to get in was to wear a set of clothes covering their entire body, including hands & face, whose minimum thickness was greater than 5 mm, the maximum recorded length of a Piranha Wasp stinger. If they did not do this they'd be eaten alive. Which was good news for the wasps because they didn't have far to fly to get dinner.

This is not to say that from some point of time onwards there will never be any more cave discoveries to be made. As a resource, like coal, they will get scarcer. There are undoubtedly caves with no visible means of connection to the surface that can only be located using a large earth scanner & then dug for. Alternatively cave divers discover more & more as their equipment becomes more compact & easier to fit into squeezes. Similarly so will air breathing cavers as they become smaller, provided their brains don't grow too large to fit into a decent sized skull.

In the mountains of a European country, near a town where there is too much religion, there is a place I go when the weather is getting lousy & it's about to rain for forty days & forty nights - that's an exaggeration. There are no facilities for cavers so it's not a commonly frequented place. The cave is a real grovel hole to begin with and I went there on my own, set up a caravan. Flattened some mole hills. I dressed and went out as it was about to pour down, the clouds were low & like black spray paint. It was dark & cold and birds were flying to get out of the way of the storm. Then it rained like a water closet & I squirmed into the hole vigorously and got a faceful of mud. Struggling along a long winding crawl as shapely as the contours of a tooth infection, I eventually came to a place where I could crouch & became aware of a sound at the rear like that of a cat trapped in a bag of potatoes. That damn cat, always getting into everything, I thought when I found out I was wrong about the spuds and left him in the bag until I had squeezed around a bend so tight I scraped my Adam's apple. I reached the head of 'Juliette's cooking facilities', a voluminous pitch 50 gorillas deep, then took the stuff out of the bag, including the cat who purred like a car with starter engine failure. That cat, it seemed, was happy to come caving despite its total inability. Cats' claws may be good for climbing trees or up the sides of houses, but they're like clubfists for crawling across rocks. While there is a Turing test for artificial robot brains, there is the Densham test for robot bodies in which you simply see how far it can propel itself through a cave. Nothing larger than a tortoise has passed this test yet. A machine the shape of a large octopus nearly did it, its only flaw (apart from ugliness) was its technique for bridging which involved making its body into an arch unable to fit under low ceilings.

The cat had found a red penny in the mud and was tossing it around while I set up the derrick crane and tied the Tanya knots to lift myself down the pitch to the 'garlic crusher'. Taffy rope is ultra compact and stretches to ten times its length before becoming stable. Unfortunately, it seems, the more compact the rope, the more complex the structure needed to rig it at the top. Experiments have been made by chemical engineers with the plastic bubble method of ascent & descent. The entire shaft is packed with light plastic bubbles the size of kneecaps and you swim down to get down & thrash about a lot to get up. That's just a bad idea. I took a break and ate a chocolate Wookey bar which was too hot and exploded in my face.

Cat, bag and myself at the bottom of the pitch proceeded into 'The Great Swallower'. The rumbling was world shattering, like a freight train in a traffic jam. Roof falls were everywhere. Once a girl in search of the pleasures of sonic massage remained in the cavern too long and died of haemorrhaging when the frequency touched 7 Hz and her internal organs vibrated resonantly. Cats burp up blood at 12Hz. They get off the vibro-bed at 9.

'Flood Overshoot', where the water rumbles like a river over a drafty drop was not far away. Passages purported to lie underneath the lip of the falls have never been reached except in high water conditions when the river shoots completely clear of the entrance instead of chundering down it at a hundred miles an hour. One makes doubly sure that there is a lot of water in the clouds before attempting to explore the torrent passages. After some very fast wet scrambling I encountered a squeeze the technicality of which I have never met before. The once notorious squeeze in Quaking so infuriated one caver that on his twentieth attempt and failure when it looked like he was doomed to be trying it for the rest of his life he took a bomb with him. It's never been the same again. After two hours in this squeeze having to endure a wet drizzle and a screaming cat, I got through to where the floor was mildly dry & out of danger. I could still have been trapped if the clouds ceased to rain.

The route led through a boulder choke and into a place that smelt of burnt tea-bags. In fact the walls were encrusted with a smoky powder. There were fresh footprints in the sand which meant there must be a way out. A through trip, in other words. The place was becoming less hostile. I saw a few bats roosting. I found a row of bells attached to the ceiling hanging above a crack in the floor. I looked through the crack and saw... Catholics.

By a completely freak & chance oocurrence, in this cavern below where I stood a bulbous stalagmite had grown and a sensationalist had recognised it to be of the exact same shape as the Blessed Virgin Mary. What a miracle, many said of this and turned the place into a shrine for everyone to go crawling on extra pilgrimages underground. No cave has ever been crowded to such a disaster since the Princess of Wales tried to take caving lessons and a hundred stupid reporters who had not taken any lessons at all had piled in ahead of her, broke most of the cameras they had & fell down the pitches like stuffed turkeys. Eventually the church drilled a big hole near the hundred million year old statue, installed a stairwell and turned it into a cathedral. I noticed the steps were in need of repair.

At one misbegotten time the Hedgehogs in government deregulated the waste industry and encouraged the private sector to set up its own garbage disposal contractors to compete in the marketplace. Sir Arnold Bigcott, through his company 'Cleanaway Services', bought the square mile surrounding Gaping Gill main shaft and used it as a large landfill until it was full to the brim. "I'm all for putting the nation's natural resources to work", argued Sir Arnold during a South Country byelection which he later won on a landowners' rights ticket. Cleanaway put a layer of soil on top of the garbage, planted some shrubbery and donated it to the National Trust, as they had no more use for it. From then on, pot-hole clubs around the world gathered together like lemmings, put in their time, money and resources towards the task of extracting all the rubbish and cleaning up the mess. Trash compacters were lowered from cranes into the hole five at a time from dawn till dusk and filled by bulldozers while the river continued to pour in its water and cause the chamber's contents to rot atrociously. A film documentary was made as the retributive fleets of lorries loaded with shit headed for the front gardens of responsible officials of their choice. It was banned from television, but shown on satellite anyway. To celebrate, a bar was opened and everyone got hypothermia.

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