What is Caving?
Caving (also known as speleology, or in some cases pot-holing) is the exploration of natural underground passages and chambers, usually formed where water has dissolved away limestone, or other similarly soft rock. It is an adventure sport and as such has inherent risks. However, with good guidance, training and the correct equipment, these risks can be reduced to a reasonable level.
As a sport, caving involves elements of numerous other pastimes, and is often considered a combination of climbing/abseiling, hiking/fell running and, on occasion, swimming. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't all crawling and squeezing through tight passages, in fact those are usually the bits that most cavers would try to avoid, where possible! Actually, the majority of caving involves walking along passages and climbing/scrabbling up slopes and walls – and occasionally, pausing to admire the stunning views and formations.
People are attracted to caving by a number of different elements. Some are attracted to the truly magical sights; incredible formations and passages, often tens of thousands of years in the making, some of which have already remained unchanged for thousands of years. Others particularly enjoy the sport side; the varying physical challenges that caves provide in climbs, ducks and rough terrain. Many go caving for the exploration – basking in the realisation that they are some of the first people ever to enter a chamber or passage, or to glimpse an as-yet-unseen formation. In fact there can be many opportunities to find oneself in a cave system or part of a cave, which has only ever been entered by say a hundred... fifty... twenty or even less people beforehand.
The best way to begin caving is with an experienced leader from a caving club (e.g. QUBCC plug, plug). Caves tell us a great deal about geology and the underground movement of water in the areas where they occur. As well as being an energetic sport, caving can also be a fascinating science, and there are many cavers who have been introduced to the activity through studies in geology and hydrology – and vice versa.
A good in-depth description of caving can be found on Wikipedia, here.
Caving in Ireland
Caves are found in most counties of Ireland and come in many shapes and sizes. For example, Pollnagollum in County Clare is over 14 km long and Reyfad Pot in County Fermanagh is the deepest cave at 193 metres deep. The largest free-hanging stalactite in Ireland is in Pol-an-Ionan, County Clare measuring 7 metres long (the longest known in the Northern Hemisphere) and the deepest entrance shaft of 80 metres can be found at Noon's Hole, Co. Fermanagh.
In each county, caves often have a typical form. Many Co. Clare caves follow the path of an active stream and therefore are often wet. Other caves can be dry and muddy, sometimes following an old inactive stream e.g. Counties Cork or Tipperary. Some have vertical sections of passage known as pitches, where ropes and ladders are used for exploration. These are also called potholes, and Co. Fermanagh has many fine examples. But caves don't always follow these rules, and there are usually numerous examples of each type of cave within each caving region in Ireland.
Further information on Irish caves can be found in the following publications, which you can order from most good bookshops:
- Caves of County Clare, C. A. Self (1981)
- Caves of County Clare & South Galway, G.J. Mullan (2003)
- Caves of County Cork, Tony Oldham (1981)
- The Caves of Fermanagh and Cavan, G. Burns (1997)
With such widely differing types of cave available, the clothing, equipment and level of experience required for each cave differ accordingly.
Basic Caving Equipment:
- Warm underclothes/undersuit and socks (preferably synthetic or woolen materials)
- Oversuit/boiler suit of heavy duty fabric (often waterproof)
- Suitable footwear – usually wellington boots as they are most durable and provide plenty of grip
- Helmet, light and battery
- Backup light and/or battery
- Heavy duty gloves
- Elbow pads
Wet Caving Equipment
Many wet caves do not require additional equipment, e.g. if the water will only be up to knee deep. If much deeper water is involved, or if the cave exploration will involve swimming, then additional equipment will be required:
- Wetsuit (full body if prolonged swimming expected, shorty suit often acceptable otherwise), often worn instead of undersuit
Vertical Caving (Pot-Holing) Equipment:
Some vertical cave passages only require the use of ladders for exploration – e.g. when there is a large amount of horizontal cave to explore and only a small section of vertical passage to reach it. While climbing the ladder, cavers are supported by an experienced member of the party on a belay rope, much like at a climbing wall above ground:
- Ladders (steel wire ladders, which are rolled up and carried when not in use)
- Lifeline rope (dynamic), pulley and belay equipment
- Harness or load-bearing belt
However, most vertical caving in Ireland involves the use of Single Rope Technique (SRT), which allows a caver to ascend or descend a fixed rope without the additional help of other members of the party. SRT kits vary from one caver to another, but as an example, Queen's standard equipment would include:
- Static rope
- Petzl chest jammer and hand jammer (ascenders)
- Foot loop
- Petzl descender
- Cow's tails (a safety device involving two ropes that can be clipped into a rope or rig point)
- D-maillon (a metal ring which attaches all of the equipment together to the harness)
Further information on SRT can be found on Wikipedia, here.