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Stemming through a cave passage way at Horne Lake. Photo by Nick Hindley.


The art of fumbling around in the dark, trying out new positions, and exploring passages. You may get dirty, wet, and be left with sore knees by the end of it. A jouissance like no other. That's right, we're talking Caving.
Crawling through the tubes. Photo by Jasmin Tordenro.
There is a huge amount of variability in the cave environment - even within the same cave - ranging from passages of smooth clean limestone, to tight muddy crawls, to large open caverns decorated with crystals. To move through a cave can demand every manner of twists, turns, squeezes, crawls, stems, climbs, slides, and swims, and squirms. An olympiad of mud and innuendo. Caving can be divided into two sub-genres; horizontal and vertical. Horizon caving is anything that does not require a rope and harness. Logistically easier to plan, but may involve more squeezes, crawls, and climbs. Vertical caving, as you may have inferred, involves mandatory rigging, rope descents and ascents, and is much more gear intensive. Both are rad.

There is usually one VOC caving trip per year - if you're interested, keep an eye out for Cousin of Cave (CoC) on the trip agenda. Scroll down to see more CoC!

Things To Bring

For the most part, caving still resides in the era of 1960's rock climbing; ie. most of the gear you'll want can be bought at the hardware store for cheap. Fancy equipment does exist of course, but for entry level/ beginner trips like CoC, it's not necessary to spend a bunch of money. $25 at the hardware/ thrift store will improve your caving comfort considerably.

Helmet For when you bonk you noggin, which you will. Hardshell helmets are vastly superior and won't get as thrashed.
Headlamp Mounted to your helmet. Make sure it's actually charged and carry backup batteries. The VOC sells Zebralight H52 headlamps which are great for the price.
Backup Light A secondary headlamp if you have one. Ideally also mounted on your helmet or worn around your neck. You may not be able to access one in your pocket if your light goes out in a crawlway. A small pocket flashlight, or your phone will also do the trick as a backup light, but is less ideal.
Life is a lot better with...
Kneepads Seriously. Get kneepads. $7 Canadian Tire knee pads are fine, duct tape them to your knees. Volleyball or construction kneepads also good. Check out Sports Junkies or thrift stores. Your knees will thank you. Elbow pads can be nice to have too.
Rubber Boots If you already have some, great. If you can buy some for cheap, also great. Otherwise hiking boots will do the trick, but they may get full of müd.
Gloves Gardening gloves with rubberized palms are surprisingly good, and cheap.
Coveralls Cheap cotton coveralls work well, but old rain jacket and rain pants are ok too. Nick H has several pairs of coveralls, purchased over the years, which he may lend out to guppies for $5 (to cover the cost of buying many pairs of coveralls for CoCers). Your Arc'teryx not recommended - Nick may laugh at you when it gets destroyed, and it will.
Layers If you are not wearing a wetsuit, you will want to have warm layers underneath your coveralls or shell layers. The caves are generally 5 to 10 degrees, 100% humidity, and often wet; layer accordingly. Long underwear/ base layers top and bottom. A light mid-layer is generally sufficient, but consider something thicker if you are a cold human. A buff is nice to have. Neoprene socks are recommended as your feet will generally end up getting wet over time, even in rubber boots - otherwise wool socks are good as well.
Wetsuit Not always necessary. But a thin (2 or 3 mm) wetsuit helps a lot with the accumulated dampness encountered in most of Vancouver Island's caves, and also acts as a full body kneepad. For wet caves you should wear a 5, 6, or 7 mm wetsuit, as it is common to wade through cold water and rappel in waterfalls - you may also encounter duck-unders and dives on occasion.
Vertical Caving Gear Examples in approximate order of goodness
Harness An old climbing harness will do fine. Note: you will be crawling and squeezing with this harness on and it will get muddy and worn, and any big gear loops sticking out will snag on things. A proper caving harness is a very simple design made of thick, durable webbing, with tiny gear loops. They are not comfy. Petzl Superavanti, old climbing harness
Cowstails A double tailed PAS used to allow you to transition between fixed lines, and clip into anchors, and attach your ascending gear. Usually just made of a 3 m length of climbing rope with biners tied to each end, and an overhand bight in the middle to clip to yourself. Petzl Dual Connect Adjust, Homemade w/ climbing rope
Descending device For descending ropes in-cave. Cave ropes are usually beefy 10 or 11 mm static lines caked in mud, so small/ lightweight descenders don't tend to work as well (eg. ropes sometimes don't fit through ATCs). You will be required to have your own personal descender. Petzl Stop / Simple / RIG, Figure 8 / Pirana, ATC
Ascending gear Once you descend all your ropes, you'll eventually need to get back up them somehow, otherwise you live in the cave now. Acquiring / using unfamiliar ascending gear is usually the logistical and physical crux of trips like CoC. It helps a lot if you can borrow and practice using ascending gear prior to the SRT workshop / Trip. Prussiks are no good for ascending in caves - they don't bite well on muddy ropes and are very slow and faffy and the rest of us will get cold and dead while waiting for someone ascending using prussiks. Hand Ascender / Basic + Croll, 2x Hand Ascenders, microtrax or other progress captures work ok
Rigging The rigging demands vary from cave to cave; some caves are bolted with pre-rigged ropes, others are completely bare and you need to do all the rigging yourself. There are usually many interesting features to tie anchors off of. Flat webbing is often used for tying anchors on columns, threads, or chockstones. The group leader will usually have this covered. Trad gear is not often used. Flat Webbing, 6 to 8 mm cord
Rope 10 or 11 mm ropes are usually used in order to reduce susceptibility to harmful wear. Static ropes are much more efficient to ascend, and will not get worn as much from a stretching over sharp edge. Thinner ropes and cord can be used for handlines, and short descents. Static Rope
Other Things
Dry Bag A MEC Slogg drybag or similar drybag with straps is good to have - mostly waterproof and easy to drag behind you through the cave. Should be no larger than 40L. Fabric backpacks will take a beating, get soaked, and should be avoided inside the cave. But you can stash them at the entrance.
Change of clothes For a 2 day caving trip, you may want 2 or 3 sets of clothes. Anything you wear in the cave will be very muddy and probably wet the next day, and you definitely don't want to get back in someones car or on the ferry like that. you can tough it out and wear the same cave clothes both days, but an extra set of base layers makes life much more enjoyable.
Garbage bag For your doirty caving clothes so you don't destroy the interior of your drivers' vehicle.
Snacks Bars are a good in-cave snack. Try to avoid foods that will create a lot of crumbs, burst or get completely crushed in your pocket.
Nalgene Or similar water bottle that will not explode. It is not always necessary to bring water into the cave, as often streams and water can be found underground and you can just stick your face in them.
Car camping gear Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove, tarp, firewood, whiskey, your party onesie, etc.

Single Rope Technique (SRT)

Rapelling into a sinkhole entrance on CoC 2018. Photo by Jasmin Tordenro.

Cave passages can be complex, tight, dirty, deep, long, wide, wet, and everything in between. Vertical passages and pitches are encountered often, demanding roped descent and subsequent re-ascent. Since ropes are almost always re-ascended (so you can get out of the cave), single ropes are left in place on descent by each team then removed once they have been ascended again on the way out. Sometimes squeezes may be encountered on-rope, as well as deviations and rebelays to help navigate vertically through the cave passage and minimize rope wear. Single Rope Technique (SRT) is necessary for ascending and descending ropes in-cave, and primarily involves the following;

  • Descending
  • Ascending
  • Passing Deviations
  • Passing Rebelays
  • Switching from ascent to descent mid-pitch

The Reading University Caving Club put together a good resource on the basics of a 'textbook' caving setup, as well as some info on deviations and rebelays. RUCC’s Guide to Single Rope Technique

VOC SRT Workshop

Usually there is an SRT Workshop run once or twice per year in the VOC, which covers the above topics, as well as useful knots, rigging techniques, gear (eg making cowstails), and other fun things like rigging tyrolleans. If you plan on attending CoC, you should either plan on joining the SRT workshop run prior to the caving trip or should be able to demonstrate your ability to the trip leader.

Sensitive Cave Environment

Soda straws and stalactites - calcite formations

Caves can be incredibly fragile environments. Home to crystal formations such as stalagtites, stalagmites, phallagmites, soda straws, bacon strips, flowstone, popcorn rock, and various other pretties. The crystal formations in BC's limestone caves are generally made of Calcite. As H2O mixes with CO2 in the atmosphere and the soil, it creates a weak carbonic acid. This carbonic acid is able to dissolve the calcium carbonate (limestone), creating a bicarbonate solution which is transported through cracks in the rock until it reaches the cave environment below. When the solution reaches the air of the cave environment, it off-gasses, at which point it can no longer carry the molecules in solution, and they are deposited as calcite.

Cave salamander. Photo by Jasmin Tordenro.

Calcite formations are incredibly slow growing and delicate; generally taking thousands of years to form. Be careful not to damage them! Calcite crystals are easily broken off when bumped with the back of your helmet, etc, halting any potential for future growth. Even touching them lightly can damage the crystals on a molecular level, slowing down future growth. Furthermore, the dirts and oils from our hands can stain them from their natural off-white colour, to a brown or black. It's a good idea to go with someone knowledgeable the first couple times you go caving to point out the fragile stuff, and avoid any damage to the sensitive cave environment.

Without the aid of regular atmospheric and biological factors to help break things down, anything left in the cave will not decompose the same way as it does on the surface. So leave no trace principals must be strictly followed, and it is important to pack out anything that you bring into the cave.

The caves also offer a niche habitat for various species, such as bats, salamanders, hellgrammites, springtails, and other creatures of the night. If you come across bats in a cave, especially during the winter months - don't disturb them! They are resting peacefully and waking them up during torpor can deplete their energy reserves.

Vancouver Island

There are many caves on Vancouver Island, however for conservation reasons the caving community can often be quite secretive. The best way to get involved in caving on the Island is to reach out to one of the Vancouver Island caving clubs, such as VICEG or the UVCC (UVic students only).

If you'd like a taste of caving in an easily accessible environment, Horne Lake Caves are a good option. There are paid tours offered, as well as some other easy caves that you can poke your head into for free. Other caves on the Island known to the public include Upana Caves, which is quite a long drive from Vancouver - and Artlish Caves Provincial Park, which is a very long drive and quite a bushwhack.

Cousin of Cave (CoC)

CoCers. Photo by Jasmin Tordenro.
Cave glitter. Photo by Jasmin Tordenro.

Cousin of Cave is an annual VOC caving trip, hosted by Nick H since 2016. It usually happens in mid to late October, with sign-ups opening in early September. CoC is generally in high demand, so be sure to jump on CoC sign-ups early to increase your chances of getting on. We travel to an undisclosed caving destination on Vancouver Island, usually meeting up with some Island humans out there that will help co-instruct the group with me. The exact destination and itinerary varies from year to year, but is generally as follows:

Friday evening: Leave Vancouver around 5:30 pm. Depart from the mainland on the ~7:30 pm ferry Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo. BIG drive up Island to a caving destination. Expect to arrive around 2:00 in the morning. Set up car camp along logging road spur, pass out.

Saturday morning: Cook a nice camp breakfast, figure out where we're going. Split into smaller groups and roll out to some caves hopefully before noon.

Saturday day: Long caving trip. Up to 6 or 8 hours in-cave, or potentially a few hours in various different caves.

Saturday night: Shenanigans; bonfire, drink brews, party, make a sauna, mud wrestle, wear your party onesie, etc.

Sunday morning/ day: Wake up at a reasonable hour, all things considered. Caving round 2. Probably 3 or 4 hour round trip. Return to camp, pack up.

Sunday evening: Hit the road by 4:30 pm latest, get the last ferry out of Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay. Expect to arrive back in Vancouver around 1 am. It is also reasonable to aim for an earlier ferry so this isn't such a late night, group preference can be discussed.

Cousin of Cave 2021 - An Exemplary Group of Swamp Rats