The trip was limited to five people; At first I was confused as to why the group size was so small, but when you find yourself in a tunnel so tight that to move forward you have breathe in, it soon becomes apparent why. Firstly, the caves couldn’t fit anymore and secondly, as you increase the group size you increase the probability of someone having a freak-out, claustrophobic moment that could put the rest of the group in jeopardy. Truly, this dark, muddy, wet, cold, partly-type-2-fun and amazing adventure was going to be a weekend to remember!
Nick, the friendly VOC admin and ex-caving guide was to be the trip organizer for the so-called ‘Island caving extravaganza’. A pre-trip meeting was held in the clubroom on the Wednesday prior to the weekend away. Most pre-trips are short and sweet, detailing who has a car and what gear to rent, but Nick felt that it would be beneficial to learn about cave formations and maintenance; both for us and for the sake of the caves. It was enlightening. We have a lot of caves back in Ireland, and I had a small amount of caving experience in the past but it’s so important to know how to act appropriately in these caves – the calcite deposits form over millions of years of erosion and deposition of the surrounding limestone, eventually forming a karst region. These deposits are very brittle and sensitive to the oils excreted from human skin and to sunlight.
And so there were five of us, Nick, Natan, Nathan, Tor and myself, and we were all oh-so-very stoked. Natan came around to pick up Tor and I very early on Saturday morning to bring us up to North Van, where we would meet with Nathan, our driver for the weekend. We were all pretty tired – although some more than others (Nick and Natan had both been out the night before and had only hit the hay at about 2AM or so! I believe the term is ‘mad bastards’). Coffee and adrenaline fuelled, Natan safely got us to North Van and we transferred all the kit and ourselves into Nathan’s beastly little 4X4. He drove us to Horseshoe bay where we were to get a car ferry for 8.30AM over to Vancouver Island. We didn’t pre-book the crossing but were lucky enough and got a spot on the boat over.
Taking advantage of the lengthy boat trip, most of us had a good snooze on the way over and before we knew it, an hour and a half later we arrived into Departure bay, just north of Nanaimo. The first order of business was driving to port Alberni in the middle of the Island which took somewhere in the region of an hour. On the way, there were some incredible sights: Cameron lake – a mountainous, glacial lake was encompassed by beautiful, blood red autumn trees. We even got out of the car at one stage to take a short walk through Cathedral grove provincial park. The trees were ginormous. Mainly Western red cedar, hemlock and Douglas-fir – they towered above us. One might develop a crick in their neck if they were to gawk too long. One of the trees, a Douglas-fir was 800 years old, the oldest tree on Vancouver Island and over 75 meters tall.
The bellies started rumbling so we hastily got back in the car and 15 minutes later somehow found ourselves at McDonald’s, gorging on big macs. The perfect adventure food. Apart from myself, no-one else had brought any food with them for the weekend so the next pit-stop was Walmart in Port Alberni. It was my first time in Walmart and oh-my-god, It’s just too big. I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just bought some nature valley bars. Meanwhile the others had managed to buy the most hilariously inefficient camping food, leaving the store half an hour later with about 3 shopping bags full. One of which contained a full-sized pumpkin which was deemed ‘essential’ for our pumpkin-carving needs.
We finally hit the road. For real this time. Before I knew it, we were bombing down a fire/logging road following directions scrawled down on a piece of Nick’s crumpled notebook paper. There were times I genuinely felt bad for Nathan’s car – this was not a forgiving road… or perhaps it was his driving And lo-and-behold, somehow we made it to our destination, the perfect place to park the car, nice and hidden away and a perfect place to set up camp!
We decided however, not to set up camp straight-away, the sky looked clear and we were far too pumped to start getting down and dirty with the caving. After only a quick gear kafaffle we were ready to go. 2 static ropes, 2 jumars and a feck-load of slings and carabiners, we were kitted out to the nines.
:-: Natan, ascending out of the depths of the big cheese :-:
:-: Most photo’s courtesy of Nathan Starzynski :-:
First up was a cave nicknamed ‘The big cheese’. Once you’re down there, it’s easy to see why; Holes… Holes everywhere. The entrance was a giant sinkhole in the ground, dropping what must have been 25 meters straight down. I had only ever rappelled once before and that was at an adventure camp many years ago – so I was very much the novice of the group but of course, as always, itching to learn. When caving, all rappelling is single rope – this is to allow you to ascend back up and for most of us, this was a first. We set up our anchor from a sturdy-looking tree and attached opposing carabiners to the ‘BFK’ (Which here means, pardon my French: ‘Big Fucking Knot’. A term I found rather amusing). One-by-one we rappelled ourselves off the ledge attached to the rope by an ATC.
After practically 3 weeks of continuous rain, it was a slippery-slidey descent down the sinkhole with a slight overhang at the bottom, but after no time at all we had all safely touched ground. It was cool down there; we were standing on thousands upon thousands of years of decaying forest-matter build-up and we could see in our immediate vicinity a couple of cave entrances. According to Nick, more than likely we would have been able to see even more entrances had there not been such a colossal mound of ‘stuff’ beneath our feet.
:-: The bottom of the sinkhole :-:
We decided to first stick our heads into an opening on the right side of the sinkhole. One-by-one we squirmed our way up a narrow gully and out onto a scree-covered plateau overlooking a sheer drop down. It was tight on the ledge, only room for two at a time and there were spiders bopping around overhead (Of which I’m not the biggest fan to be honest). After everyone had had a look in the small cavern we exited back out and descended our way down into the body of cave, on the left side of the sinkhole. It was about a ten-minute descent or so and we found ourselves in a lobby-type cavern. There were multiple routes to choose from and we had all night!
The great thing about caving is that you can do it any time of day: It’s dark in a cave whether it’s sunny or not outside. The first tunnel we chose to explore was on the far-left side of the cavern. I went into the pitch-black first, feeling my way around with the headtorch. The tunnel ahead turned into a crawl, however we chose not to advance any further as it was flooded due to the amount of rainfall in the previous weeks.
:-: Tor, looks like he’s on the front cover of caving magazine :-:
Nick told us that there are only two places on earth that one can experience absolute darkness: At the bottom of the ocean and in the depths of a cave. We all sat down, turned off our headtorches and were engulfed by the blackness. It was quite an experience, truly I’ve never felt anything quite like it. The first minute or so, I had to stop myself from feeling claustrophobic and try and stay calm. Then I found that I was overwhelmed by an enormous sense of calmness, I could feel my heartrate drop and I was peaceful in the dark. No one spoke. After about five or ten minutes I felt myself start to hallucinate a bit; nothing crazy, but you start to think you can see a light out of the corner of your eye, you look and nothing is there.
:-: Like a contortionist squeezing into a crag :-:
The silence was eventually broken; headlamps were turned back on and our little meditation session was over. We got back on our feet and backtracked to the lobby again. We decided to take another route towards the back of the cavern that sloped down steeply. ‘Onwards and downwards’, I believe that’s the caving version it. Nick took the lead squeezing and pushing through narrow shaft again and again. He kept shouting back ‘this next manoeuvre is real tricky’, and it was no lie. As we progressed through this tunnel it really did get quite difficult. There were parts where you would have to contort your body in the most inhuman way to somehow slink through to the other side.
Caves form the habitat of an insect called a cave cricket, indigenous to British Columbia. Now, we never saw one but they stretch the size of an adult male palm and have feelers about twice their body-length. Nick started telling me about a cave he was in over the summer where he was on his back, pushing through a tunnel head-first where the ceiling was only centimetres from his face. He would pass by these crickets clinging to the top, feelers dangling down and he would just have to close his eyes and mouth, hoping one wouldn’t fall on his face. Oh, he thought it would be a good time to tell us this moments before going into a very similar style tunnel.
:-: Piano hands :-:
And so, we had worked our way through this shaft gradually getting deeper and narrower. Eventually we came to a very, very tight passage. Nick took the lead and I went directly after him, we were army crawling along on our bellies. After about 15 minutes of crawling it just kept getting tighter, eventually the ceiling was so low that to progress we had to take our helmets off and push it ahead of us. The sounds in that tunnel were very strange, the person in front of you could be a meter away, but when they spoke they could have been a mile– their voice very faint, practically inaudible.
:-: Deep into the crawl at this stage – Courtesy of Tor :-:
About half an hour into the squeeze things were tough and slow going. You could no longer have your head upright, but had to tilt it sideways at ninety degrees because of the lack of head-space. Many times, the question was asked ‘shall we stay or shall we go’, the only way out was for the person behind you to pull you by the foot and then the person behind them to pull them – and so on. But we just kept going. Eventually we came to the tightest point where you literally had to breathe out to move forward. But finally, we pushed through. We had made it to the far side! And out into another cavern!
:-: Sally the Salamander – Courtesy of Tor:-:
It had been such a difficult path getting to this part of the cave that we were sure we must have been the first ever humans here. It was exhilarating! We all popped out the far side of the tunnel one-by-one, like the shaft was giving birth to us (seriously it did look like this…) and then we were all through. There was a friendly, jet-black salamander in the middle of the room who didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. We looked up and saw that the small cavern went up and up into the darkness. Who knew where it went.
It had been 45 minutes in that crawl and must have been 100 meters but reluctantly we had to go back in as we had reached a dead-end. This time we bombed through it, knowing that there was an end to it and after only half an hour we found ourselves back in the main lobby-cavern. We were all pretty exhausted at this stage, soaked to the bone and needing a good pee. We headed back up to the sinkhole for a quick break, taking in the last brightness of the late-evening sky before heading back down into the depths of the cave again.
:-: Starting my rappel into the depths of hell :-:
There was one more place we hadn’t explored and that was a rappel on the right side of the main cavern. We had seen it earlier but chose to leave it until the end. We secured an anchor around a rock structure in the cave and placed five, cut-up pieces of burlap sack at different friction points along the rope. Natan descended first and after he touched down I swiftly followed. This was a lovely rappel; a completely shear rock face and not quite as slippery as the first. After I got down, myself and Natan looked around the small cavern, there was another black salamander in the middle of the room! Natan saw a very tight squeeze that we could do on the bottom left side and he started into it a short way. He came back out, looked and me and said ‘bro, this is the same cave we were in earlier’. This disorientated the hell out of me. I looked around and sure enough it was… This was the cavern at the end of that crazy-tight squeeze! That was the same salamander! I couldn’t believe it; in my mind we were completely the opposite direction.
Everyone rappelled down to us, examined the cavern and agreed that it was indeed the same place. No point in hanging around – we were all cold at this stage so we got out the jumars, made a foot loop and started ascending the rope. This took about an hour in total, longer than anticipated and at this stage and I was starting to feel the cold, my teeth had started chattering. Once everyone made it up we headed back up to the sinkhole and then started the next ascent with the jumars. It was lashing rain outside as we went up the rope. Everything was wet, not that it mattered – we couldn’t possibly get any damper. After about an hour we had made it successfully out of the hole and back onto ‘dry’ land!
:-: A snap-shot from Nathan’s Time-lapse of the ascent :-:
We stuffed the muddy, wet ropes back in the bags and raced down the hill back to where the car was parked. It was raining cats and dogs now so we opened the boot of the car and sheltered under it as we stripped off and got our dry clothes on. We quickly got the tents set up, trying desperately not to get the inner sheets wet. We then set up a tarp between the two tents which we were to use as a cooking shelter.
:-: Morning’s camp :-:
Nathan and Nick had to drive off to find signal so they could text our contact that we had made it out safe. In the mean-time, Tor, Natan and myself started cooking our varied meals and drank tea and hot chocolate. It was a couple hours at this stage and the two guys still had not returned – I was getting pretty cold and had left my sleeping bag and pad in the car. We were just discussing how the three of us were going to fit in Natan’s single sleeping bag when a pair of headlights pulled up. They had returned! I stayed up with the guys a little longer than anticipated and drank beers happily into the night. We even managed to carve out a face for our pumpkin friend.
:-: Perfect form! :-:
The next morning, we had agreed to not have an alpine wakeup and lazily awoke at 10am. We had our breakfasts and lethargically disassembled camp, scoffing at how soaked everything was. When everything was in the car and we had our still-damp-from-the-day-before caving clothes on, we were ready to get back into the caves. There was still one task left to do though: Smash the pumpkin! We took pleasure from this, childishly stomping it into an orange, mushy pulp. I must say though, that pumpkin was tough as nails; my foot had swollen up after kicking it.
Today was our last day and we only had a few hours to go cave exploring before having to return to departure bay to catch the ferry. Juxtaposed to the morning’s pace, we pulled up our socks and moved along swiftly. Today’s cave was named ‘The right stuff’. We followed the poorly marked trail through a rainforest that felt like a prehistoric, Jurassic jungle and along the way stumbled across a couple other possible caves. Eventually after only a couple wrong turns we found the sinkhole for ‘the right stuff’.
We looked down into the blackness, trying obsoletely to see the bottom. We could hear a torrent of water gushing somewhere below us. This looked amazing! This time I set up the rappel, wanting to practice the skill. We were all eager to get down there so one-by-one we hastily descended the rope. Each time someone landed at the bottom we could just hear them shout up ‘oh guys… this is awesome!’
:-: Nathan, Stuck in a hole with camera in hand :-:
Eventually I got down and had a look around. There was a tiny red salamander on the ground just by my feet. Although he was a QTpie, these guys are quite poisonous – I felt very privileged to have seen one. I continued further into to the cave. There was a frothing, white deluge of water cascading from a cliff on the right side, creating the most spectacular waterfall. The river from it was full and fast and ran off into the darkness on the left side of the cave.
:-: Following the river :-:
One-by-one we ventured further down into the cave, following the direction of the river more than we were our headlamps. It was deafening while we walked beside it. Impossible to converse with one-another we just kept walking. Eventually the river disappeared through a sinkhole in the cave wall.
There was a tunnel on the right side of the river gully and we all followed it through a short distance. After only a few meters it let out into a tremendously huge chasm. Genuinely, it was like a ravine out of Minecraft and went down and down into the abyss. What else can you do except set up a rappel?
Nick was just starting the rappel from an anchor we setup from a nearby rock when he saw that someone else had bolted in an anchor in the side of the cliff face! Surprised, he quickly adjusted the rappel to anchor off the bolts instead. This was going to be a huge descent, by far the longest in the two days and easily twice the size of the second largest. Eagerly we waited at the top of the rope, waiting to descend one at a time.
:-: View from the bottom of the ravine :-:
It was fantastic looking around the cavern as the guys descended. Their torch-lights danced on the cave walls, illuminating thousands of millions of water droplets and making them shimmer like diamonds. You would reach out to touch one, sure that you had found some sort of precious mineral, only to have it trickle away down your finger into nothingness.
Finally, it was my turn to go down. I strapped in and bounced my way down the rope. I was getting soaked as water showered in on top of me, but I didn’t care, it was far too much fun. It kept going and going. Sometimes the rope would get stuck on a prickly rock but you would just shake it out and keep going. Eventually I hit the ground and looked around.
:-: The impassable, flooded cavern :-:
The entire cavern was flooded. We were just above the water-line and looked across the pool to where our path would have continued. Now, there is a sport called cave-swimming, also known as spelunking, however that water looked so incredibly ice-cold that it would have taken a lot of money/alcohol to get me in there. So, this was it, we had reached as far as we could go in this beautiful, big cave. I watched the glacial-clear water for a moment as it rippled from a torrent flowing into it nearby. Eventually I turned around and ascended back up the rope.
:-: The way out :-:
We were cold, damp and I do believe ready to go home at this stage so hurriedly we made our way out of the cave and back to the car. Boy, was I glad that I still had a dry change of clothes to get into, I was so close to using them that day for caving. Everyone got ready briskly and threw their stinking, cold, damp, muddy, used and abused clothes into a large bin bag and we chucked it in the car boot. ‘We’ll deal with that another day’. Or tonight when we’re off the boat…
We drove back to Departure bay, thoroughly exhausted and satisfied. And although we missed our ferry and had to catch the next one, I don’t think we really cared. What else could we possibly have fit into such an adventure-packed weekend.
Caving is one of the most bizarre, unnatural experiences I think a human can do. It goes against every instinct to throw yourself into a pitch-black hole so tight that you practically have to lube yourself up with butter to squeeze through. But It is just that: an experience. It was a fantastic weekend and I would urge everyone to give it a go – There’s not much to match it.
Photographs Courtesy of Nathan Starzynski
Shane Monks O’Byrne