When writing for the student newspaper, a little field work comes with the territory. So I happily signed up to an Exeposé crusade for the sports editors this Freshers’ Week, who were scoping out the various taster sessions on offer. As a keen climber, I was looking forward to finally trying my hand at caving. I decided to do my homework.
I examined the Exeter University Speleological Society’s wiki page on the cavern we were to explore – Pridhamsleigh. It’s striking how quintessentially British this sport is. The Brits seem to combine a sense of awe for the outdoors with physical prowess and meticulous attention to detail. Like mountaineers and climbers, cavers have carefully documented their domain – caverns and caves – by producing surveys (caving maps) to share with the rest of the community. Caving clubs share the local knowledge and necessary skills to open up these hidden natural spaces. You’ll get cold and wet. You’ll scramble through small dark corners. You’ll also stumble across sublime rock formations and secret underground pools with a bunch of like-minded students. If you can’t see the appeal so far, I gently suggest this isn’t the sport for you.
The club provides all the equipment required for trips: over-suits, belts, headlamps and wellies, as well as ropes and harnesses for more difficult caves. Taster sessions ran in groups of up to three. We were quickly kitted out and found ourselves underground within the hour. The committee are very friendly and highly knowledgeable; we felt in safe hands and good company for the duration of the trip. Members have the opportunity to build up rope and rescue skills over the course of the year, with trips running every fortnight across the UK and abroad.
I’m reluctant to draw too many comparisons with my own sport, climbing, after just one caving trip. From what I’ve have to go on, however, caving seems like climbing’s more playful cousin. It isn’t necessarily about pushing the next grade or ‘onsighting’ (ascending on first attempt without help). Indeed, little about caving seems competitive bar the challenge to trust oneself. Test that foothold, squeeze through that gap, wade through that puddle – just to see if you can. I found myself wriggling through tunnels, belly-sliding over slabs, and diving through holes for the sheer thrill of it. ‘Maggot Crawl’ was a particular highlight, ending with a plunge into the bracing 100ft deep lake!
Perhaps the heavy use of elbows and knees to navigate the cave felt a little less elegant than the climbing technique I’m used to, not to mention following someone’s muddy bottom through the narrower tunnel sections. I certainly found bruises in some unusual places the next day. But if truth be told, it was like being let loose in a giant underground playground. I was enjoying every minute.
Caving, like many outdoor sports, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. My housemates were horrified as I recounted the tale of my caving trip while loading my clothes into the washing machine on my return. For the amateur adventurer, however, the Exeter University Speleological Society offers a close-knit community with whom to explore British caves and beyond.