by Rebecca Lawson
My first ever EXCS article has been sparked off by a renaissance in my caving career. I've been living in Ontario, Canada for the past year, with another year to go probably, and have joined the TCG (Toronto Caving Group). I've been caving a dozen times in the States this year. This might not sound too much, but it averages more than 12 hours driving each way to get there, from lava tube caves in Oregon, deep pits in Tennessee / Alabama / Georgia, (TAG), mud mazes in West Virginia and boo-hiss, cold wet home-from-home Dales-style caving in New York State, plus a few trips down the local rat-holes in Ontario. From this burst of enthusiasm from a comfortably geriatric OAP such as myself, you can gather it is a mite more civilised caving out here. It generally ranges from pleasantly warm to wringing the sweat out of your furry (I still don't catch on when I see the others going in T-shirts, always suspecting some nasty trick on the gullible Brit). There are a lot of large horizontal caves and loads of underground wildlife - hordes of bats, blind crayfish, salamanders and cave crickets (up to 3 inches long with 6 inch feelers). There are also so many pretties I'm blasé about formations - 100 metres forested in helictites - seen it all before; angel hair needle filaments wafting under your breath - passé; cascades of rimstone pools - just another obstacle stopping me from keeping me feet dry..... Unfortunately, they also have worse vandalism here than I've ever seen - spray paint, stumps of formations that have been literally sledge-hammered to smithereens and rubbish dumped all over - maybe some of that is because caves are easier to find and get into.
Anyway, here goes with some thoughts on caving in the US....and incidentally, I'm going to be using those old-fashioned units that people are still lumbered with in the States, cos that's what everyone quotes to me down there (I'm assuming they don't call them "Imperial" measures for obvious reasons, but you know what I mean). Apologies to those younger readers brought up after the weathermen stopped F...ing and started C...ing.
Well, they do things a wee bit differently over here, so I thought I'd give you a glimpse of what I'd been through, in case anyone heads out this way. The easier, warmer caving (I did have to struggle on a 20 minute walk to one cave, but the mode is around 50 metres to the entrance) means that any doddery old fart can go underground - and they do, along with their neatly packed sarnies in a little knapsack, spare candles, compass - and of course the stinkies. My theory about the stinkies is that they provide a convenient excuse for fettling breaks at least every ten minutes. In parties of more than three, you get the opposite effect to the menstruation patterns of co-habiting women - complete asynchrony, such that one person has just finished doing their carbide change when the next has to refill their water, by which time the third needs to re-prick his tip, or whatever they get up to. Anyway, it's SLOW...but since you have to try REALLY hard to get hypothermia when the caves are a constant 56°F or so, what's the hurry?
However, these differences are all pretty minor compared to the vertical scene. My first experience was in West Virginia with my local group. It was a single pitch, rigged from the surface (they almost all are - well otherwise you'd have to actually carry your gear through the cave, unthinkable.....in fact there's a whole sub-sport of "pit-bouncing". If you really are too rotund to cave, you just drop a pit then haul your carcass straight back up the rope, otherwise known as yo-yoing). Right, there is a tree conveniently within 10 yards or so of the entrance so you sling the rope around it a couple of times (who needs knots? Plenty of friction on bark) drag the rest of the rope over a few boulders en route and sling the other end down the hole. That's it - and all these years I'd thought rigging was an art, hey, even I could do that! OK, so everyone else is farting around with their gadzillion bits of gear (more on that anon) so I head off down. The rope has the texture of a well-used mop. Probably something to do with several razor sharp lips of rock that it's sawing up and down on as I descend, together with a lifetime of similar experiences. My Petzl stop has to be coaxed into moving anywhere, my arms are soon knackered from forcing the rope through it (I bought a rack for the next trip), but I'm unconcerned - it's been carefully explained to me (dumb foreigners, her spoken English isn't bad, but the comprehension, well.....) that this isn't that namby-pamby European rope, no sirree, this is AMERICAN rope. It can take this - it was built for it, in fact it LIKES this kind of treatment (followed by a half dozen apocryphal tales of US fatalities by fools who bought Polish 9mm rope which promptly snapped - well, pretty promptly, anyway.....well OK, after the fifth grossly overweight guy had bobbed up and down on it over an unprotected rub point for a half hour or so). I finally managed to crawl my way down to the bottom of the rope... hmm, well call me an English wimp if you will, but I do still seem to be dangling somewhat...You what? You're absolutely SURE the rope's long enough? Well, if you insist...I was trying hard to make a good impression, caving with all these strangers, didn't want to hold things up and all, so off I get onto a precarious ledge - which turned out to be just that. I'm there, stuck in the middle of bloody nowhere. "THE ROPE IS NOT LONG ENOUGH. I WANT ANOTHER ROPE". Sod civility. Anyway, all ended well enough.
The next vertical trip was to Ellison's, Georgia, which has as its main feature a 600 odd foot free-hang down a massive shaft. I'd borrowed a ropewalker system, plus my new rack (I could rant on for pages about racks too. Never having owned one, I can't really remember what people used in the UK, but it seemed that they were short and had solid aluminium bars. Mine is longer with hollow, C-section steel bars, but I've also seen the dinky titanium ones and mega long (18 inch or so) ones for Mexican pits, and a huge variety in bars). On top of all this new gear, there was a knot change 200 feet from the floor to contend with, plus the usual hairy caterpillar of a rope. We tandem climbed up (ropewalking doesn't induce bounce like a frog-rig does (I didn't even know I HAD a frog-rig until I came out here, I thought almost everyone used the hand and chest jammer deal, but no, there's Mitchell, Texas, inchworm and can-you-believe-it-Prussik-knots...I watched a woman climb 800 feet straight up on three bits of string - nutters. I told people when I came over here that I couldn't tie a Prussik knot, and they looked like I'd blasphemed)). OK, back to business, tandeming up was fine (and ropewalking is ridiculously easy, no arms, similar action to walking upstairs) except for the knot change, which was a hassle as I couldn't get the gear off.
For those of you who don't know what a ropewalker system is like, I'll give an inept description and you can try to imagine the rest. You start off with your usual seat harness and a chest harness. The latter is a bit like a bra, except instead of the lacy bits at the front, you have a six inch horizontal metal bar with a central roller which the rope runs through, and this keeps you vertical and close to the rope. You stick a prussik knot above the roller, and attach it to your central MR, and use that as your upper ascender / safety (you only hang on it for change-overs, normally it just gets pushed up the rope by the chest roller as you ascend). You also have a perfectly good Petzl hand-jammer attached to your MR, which I foolishly assumed was going to be my upper ascender, but no, it dangles from your waist for a purely decorative effect, and to pass lips. It took me a while to work out why I'd never really had much problem getting over lips, until I realised that the rope isn't usually rigged straight over the thing, so you're splayed right onto the rock. In fact, if my memory serves me right, we even used to have strange things called rebelays and deviations, and people use to talk about trying to get free-hangs or at least avoid rub-points, but perhaps I'm getting confused. OK, back to the gear. What would be your chest ascender is attached on a piece of webbing to a webbing stirrup which is fixed around one foot. It will hang about knee height when you get going (so it doesn't smash into the other ascender which is a Gibbs, and is attached to a stirrup of webbing around the other foot, so it is fixed on the rope at foot level). Unfortunately, this means that the chest-ascender-that's-now-a-foot-ascender-at-knee-height (still with me?) will smash into your knees and bruise you to death, especially if you tend to knock-knees like yours truly. Right, we're nearly there, we're walking up the rope with our two foot ascenders, being held upright with our chest roller (to prevent the aptly named heel-hang, which is NOT a good idea) and with a prussik knot on the rope above everything else, just in case. However, in a fiendishly clever development, you put a bungy cord from the top of the knee-high foot jammer over your shoulder and clip it to the back of your sit harness. This means that idle gits don't need to pull that ascender up, it just springs up the rope pulled by the elastic as soon as you take your weight off it..... some people even have complicated multiple bungy cord systems, which means that you are literally pulling yourself up by your boot-laces / bungy-cords (I had to get that in!). Anyway, this is all fine and dandy, and works like a dream, but it is a bloody nightmare getting the bits on and off, never mind actually trying to do something like a changeover. Hence, I suspect, the US aversion to rebelays and the like.
I did another drop in Ellison's, from a different entrance, which had been rigged by a couple of guys from Florida who had kindly let us onto their rope. This was when I saw my Canadian caver friends for the safety-fanatics which they (relatively speaking) really were. These Florida guys had rigged a 440 foot pitch with a rope which passed way beyond the mop analogy, it bore more than a passing resemblance to those brushes you use to clean out test-tubes - even my rack didn't want to shift on it. In addition, although the rope was amply long enough, you wouldn't have known it from the rigging. A couple of perfectly respectable back-up bolts were eschewed, leaving a single bolt anchor which had been tied into with a puny slip knot affair with a two-inch tail pulled through it. Ugh. Still, I'm alive to tell the tale.....
I've also been to Blue Springs, Tennessee and spent two night camping underground - very civilised it was too, apart from lugging a 50 pound pack down there and through belly out squeezes. My pack's dimensions were larger than mine, it feels like a bizarre mating ritual (not that I'd know, obviously) as you thrust and thrutch around this big blue monstrosity that's blocking the whole passage. The trip included a couple of pot-smoking addicts, which is another North American novelty - watching people who are stressed out about not making a tough climb or who are fretting about being lost deciding that the best recourse is to get thoroughly stoned. On this topic, I should mention the get-togethers. Sociable bunch, the cavers over here, and as well as club ("grotto") meets there are lots of annual shindigs. The NSS convention is like a bigger version of BCRA, but the more fun things (SERA, TAG cave-in, OTR, Speleofest, etc.) dispense with lectures and stick to games, moonshine, bonfires and serious carbide bombs. The vertical contests aren't much fun, since you obviously can't expect anyone to go past any knots, so they make do with straight speed contests, but the mud wrestling and the obstacle courses were more after my own heart. They all also have hot tubs and saunas (mixed, nude) which are apparently scenes of terrible iniquity, but again I obviously wouldn't know. In general, they're great for people-watching, and there are some very odd birds wandering around. A guy from Oregon who I caved with had a T-shirt which proclaimed "I ain't got no attitude" - with a picture of a guy walking with a rifle in hand. I camped in the State forest with this guy and some others from his Grotto, they'd brought along their 2 pound beef steaks for supper (I kept quiet about being a veggie, I thought I might be thrown to the dogs) but needed a fire, "You got your chainsaw?" "No, I was sure you'd have brought yours" ...so much for a quiet night camping in the country! Also, I thought CUCC drove some beat-up old vehicles, but there is serious competition over here. In Tennessee, its apparently not mandatory to have car insurance, so if you're poor you don't. Some of the four wheel drive beasts are holding together on a wing and a prayer!
Finally, I've been helping on a local dig here in Ontario. It started out as a fairly civilised project, getting a back-hoe (a mini-crane) to dig out an entrance which the farmer had filled in, and dragging boulders out with a tractor. However, we hit the water table some time back, so now its kneeling in a pit, filling buckets with liquid mud in literally freezing conditions. I've been there before - no thanks!
On a more serious note, a final difference which is glaringly obvious is the number of bits of paper I've had to sign away my life on (most of which would probably never stand up in court anyway). Lots of caves are closed due to problems with liability suits, and landowners being scared off by rumours of caver litigation. The NSS (National Speleological Society, the US-wide organisation representing cavers) has started to buy up cave entrances, but many caves are just being closed. Don't let it happen in the UK, it's crazy!
Well, I hope that was vaguely interesting. If you get the chance to cave out here, do - there are some amazingly beautiful caves and the cavers are great, every bit as weird and wonderful as the UK bunch and incredibly generous about sharing trips and their "own" finds. There is a strong policy about not publicising cave locations (due to problems with vandalism mainly, I think) so you really need to get in touch with cavers, preferably local cavers, but many will have their own projects which they are often keen to let you in on (there are lots more caves out there to be found, many areas have hardly been looked at - the fact that most known cave entrances are right by the road tells you something).
See you all on Expo this year! I'll be the one in the dark tan, shivering, and asking to be flown down South!