Exploring caves

There are many different reasons that drive some men and women towards speleology: for some it is the sporting or technical aspect, for others it is the urge for adventure and ‘strong’ emotions or the curiosity to know ‘what lies beyond’, or even scientific research. Often it is a mixture of all these put together or yet some other reason. In any case, the aim of a speleologist is rarely just visiting an underground environment, be it sub-aerial or flooded, (we call him/her a caver), but it is the exploration of new conduits and galleries and the conjunction of the caves, to be able to reconstruct one large karst system, that is vaster and deeper, to be able to understand how these caves formed and evolved and to discover the potential of the system and how much vaster and deeper it may become (we call him/her a caver),. Man, however, is not suited to the cave environment, so in order to explore it he must be aware of certain specific techniques and equip himself adequately. Since we are unable to move about in the dark, at least two sources of light are necessary, the main one usually being an acetylene lamp. It is essential to protect oneself from cold and mud by wearing clothing made of pile and appropriate jump-suits. At times the use of a wet suit is required to cover parts that are very wet without risking hypothermia. Generally, boots or mountain climbing boots are the required footwear, while rubber gloves must be worn to protect one’s hands from rock and rope abrasion. To cope with the vertical parts, static ropes with a 10 or 9 mm diameter are used, along with a climbing harness (similar, with some modifications, to those used for climbing) and suitable equipment for climbing up and descending ropes.
Many dangers are present when exploring a cave, but actually all can be foreseen and overcome with a correct technical preparation and the right equipment: you cannot stand in as a caver!
Contrary to what is usually thought, no caver has ever died trapped in a narrow passage or under a collapsed cave roof (which, on the contrary, might happen in a mine, where the hollow is man-made, and is therefore unstable): the main risks are falling stones (always caused by the passing of explorers) and water. Since flood propagation in a karst system can be very rapid at times, it is possible that, in conjunction with an external rain event, galleries that are normally dry might get flooded, even completely: this is one of the most frequent causes of entrapment inside caves of imprudent cavers (often with a limited knowledge of the underground system),which requires the intervention  of a rescue team of cave divers and adds another, at times, gruesome anecdote to the literature on this subject even though, fortunately, the majority have a happy ending. An example is the incident in the French cave of Vittarelle, where some cavers were trapped for days on board a small inflatable boat, in a chamber that was rapidly turning into a lake: the rise of the waters stopped when the boat was just a few metres from the roof…). In caves, however, water leaves unmistakable and evident traces, so that those who normally visit this type of caves know its behaviour and can foresee it easily: it is unnecessary to underline that before venturing into complex cave systems, especially if they are close to the springs, it is essential to collect information from the local caving groups.

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