But suppose you have this cave map. And you overlay it with a topographical map of the surface, drawn to the same scale. You discover that a large sinkhole on the surface directly overlies a large breakdown pile within the cave, about 150 feet from the region of interest. Traveling out to the sinkhole in your trusty Jeep, you discover a hole; descending into the hole, you discover a cave. A mile trip has been reduced to a 150-foot trip. Three hours, tops.
It doesn’t always work out so successfully or conveniently. Where hundreds of acres of wooded terrain overlie a cave, alternate entrances are nearly impossible to locate, even by massive ground search. But a cave map can indicate the likeliest possibilities, allowing a localized and concentrated examination which may in turn raise the “endurance limit” on exploration underground.
“Endurance limit” is a phrase frequently recurrent in cave exploration, and refers to a very real boundary. It is that point, deep underground, where a caver looks balefully at a promising lead with eyes that haven’t closed for 24 hours – and knows by his chattering teeth, twitching muscles and stomach cramps that if he crawls in, he won’t be able to crawl out. Few activities that pass as sport demand as much strength and endurance as does caving. A routine survey trip can easily involve 16 straight hours of continuous hard activity, simultaneously requiring the mental acuity to perform a sophisticated and exacting job. Furthermore, caves are always chilly and cavers are always wet – underground it’s one big body-heat sink, and hypothermia is very easy to come by.
Hypothermia, often known as exposure, occurs when, for reasons of fatigue and external cold, one’s metabolism can’t maintain 98.6. A drop in internal temperature causes a metabolic slowdown; the slowed metabolism generates less heat and consequently body temperature drops even further. The cycle continues until the hapless victim experiences the novel sensation of being a cold-blooded mammal. If the downward trend is not arrested — well, you don’t see any live snakes in 40-degree weather, do you? In caving, one beats hypothermia by being in excellent physical condition, wearing clothing with heat-retentive qualities and eating. Cavers carry a lot of candy bars, in addition to canned meat and fruit. Here we have a case where an attack of the munchies can save your life, keeping the internal fires stoked up.
Now, despite my best efforts this discouraging treatise may have kindled in the perverse a desire to experience such entertainments first-hand. I’m sorry for that, and I’ll do what I can to make it easy, such as giving you a few pointers on when, where, and how to cave.
Bear in mind that what follows is by no means a manual of caving. Don’t jump into a cave knowing nothing but what you read here. My intention is to give you enough introduction so you won’t seem like a total nit to the old hands you’re going to ask to help you.