Recreational Caver Training – Does it Work?

Sound caving practices form the core of good recreational caver training. Photo: Peter Burgess

When someone new to caving starts to make enquiries about how to get involved, and what is the best way to gain some experience, one of the more common responses is to suggest joining a club. That way, the helpful respondent states, you can learn how to cave in a structured environment and with more experienced cavers who will help you. This sounds wonderful, on the face of it. But, here is a question for club cavers reading this. Does your club have a Training Officer? Is your club putting caver training forward as an important element of club membership? Do you even think this is necessary?

Last September, Wealden Cave and Mine Society trialed a caver training event in Somerset, hoping to take advantage of the BCA Recreational Caver Training Grant Scheme. As it happens, the BCA Training Committee ceased to function more or less in the same week, and no funding was ever forthcoming, nor even an explanation of why this was so, or what had happened.

Not undaunted, and determined to develop some form of member training, I contacted our September trainer, Chris Binding, and asked what would the cost be should WCMS decide to fund future training from our own resources. At £25 per head, we leapt at the chance of taking our plan forward, but decided to ask each member participating to commit to paying £10 of the cost, a not unreasonable sum, which also left the club the chance to put funds towards one of its primary objectives – to encourage the sport of caving.

I had seven members and one non-member signed up to take part, the non-member paying the full £25, of course. I was expecting a very similar sort of event to the September trial, which took place in Goatchurch Cavern and Swildons Hole, but it wasn’t until the day before the event that I learned where we were to meet the next day, in Wookey Hole Caves car park. This was a great surprise, and left me speculating just exactly where we might be caving. The event was due to take place on 25th February 2017.

At 10am on a grey damp Saturday we all gathered in the car park as planned and introduced ourselves. One of the Caves staff, Becca, was also there to help us. Chris escorted us into the complex of buildings at Wookey Hole Caves to a new facility established there over several months, as part of the new “Wild Wookey” project, whereby groups or individuals can arrange to explore parts of Wookey Hole away from the tourist path with an experienced caver.

Learning about caving ropes. Chris Binding explains. Photo: Peter Burgess
Everyone gets to learn three simple caving knots. Photo: Peter Burgess

The day was divided into three distinct parts. An introductory session covered a variety of essential topics, such as use of ropes, three basic knots, use of karabiners, safe descent of slopes, what to take with you, and advice on what we were going to do in the next two sessions underground.

With the weather closing in, we then made our way up to the cave entrance, and, using a high-level route entered the cave above the queueing visitors below. We were soon at a short drop of about 25 feet, directly into Chamber 1. The show cave lights made the drop more visible and more intimidating for those new to caving, but it does add a new dimension to caving to have the public watching you abseil down into the cave in front of them. Each person had the opportunity to life-line the one in front of them, and to use cows-tails for safety, and then an Italian hitch to abseil to the ground.

The size of party meant that after this practice session it was close to 2pm, so a quick break in the restaurant for lunch was called for, before we went back into the cave again. Chris led us through the public exit tunnel to Chamber 9, and then through the newly blasted tunnel to Chamber 20. We were privileged to be one of the first groups to be escorted into the “wild” parts of Wookey 20, divers, a few researchers, and diggers being the majority of those who had visited up to this point.

Staying safe while cavng is vital. Proper use of a survival bag can make all the difference. Photo: Peter Burgess

The aim of the third session was to practice good conservation methods, understand some geology, and learn about rescue callouts, and what to do in an emergency, protecting casualties, recognising hypothermia, and how to deal with it. There is a great deal of pristine passage in the cave here, and Chris went to great lengths to make sure we understood how to protect it and to leave it exactly as we saw it. This was, he said, the closest thing we might have experienced to expedition caving in new cave passage. We took our time, and slowly picked our way up the slope under some beautiful translucent and transparent stalactites, setting spotters at regular intervals to ensure that everyone was aware of them, and to make sure that nobody knocked anything accidentally. Near the top of the first slope, where there was ample space, we stopped to talk about rescues, and casualty care. Trevor was placed in a survival bag until he started to feel really warm.

The last section of the cave we visited was a smaller chamber with some attractive calcite formations, well taped off and this was our chance to learn something of how they are formed and how they should be protected.

Reversing the route we had followed, and setting spotters again for each set of vulnerable formations, we were soon back at the end of the public route, and back into Chamber 9. This was the last stopping place where, now public tours had finished for the day, we had the chance to look at the river and learn about flowing water and how deceptively strong it is.

It was raining heavily as we left the cave, and it was getting dark. It was a pleasure to be able to conduct the entire day on one site, and to get changed indoors. The alternative of walking back to Priddy from Swildons Hole in the cold, wind and rain wasn’t really so appealing at all.

The group included cavers with a wide range of ages and experience. One was a complete novice, never having been on a caving trip before, and he thoroughly enjoyed himself. Who else has had a well supervised trip to somewhere like Wookey 20 on their first day of caving? There were some new cavers who simply appreciated learning some basic skills to become more confident underground. Others had many years of caving under their belts, and you might ask what they might have gained from the event. Well, quite a lot as it happens. To appreciate what newer and less experienced cavers need to be aware of is of great value to any of us. It makes all caving trips safer, easier, and more enjoyable for everyone. It also protects the vulnerable caves we visit and often treat with less care than perhaps they are due to receive.

So, does Recreational Caver Training work? In my mind there is no doubt that it does. At a very reasonable cost, WCMS has invested in better cavers, better caving, and better care for the cave environment. Further such events are definitely on the cards!

And finally, I can reveal that my club does not yet have a Training Officer, but we may just be embarking on a programme of training activities, if the success of the training day at Wookey is anything to go by. If you are thinking of joining a club to become a safe and careful caver, perhaps you should first ask that club just how they are going to provide that experience and cave knowledge you are looking for.