As I wriggled into a crevice in the underground cavern that was swallowing the light from my helmet—along with my dangling feet—I found myself momentarily stuck, the breath squeezed from my pinched lungs, providing the perfect opportunity for an ambitious rat to scurry over and lick my eyeballs.
Or, so I thought at the time.
Workout for the Mind and Body
I’ve gone caving in both Rat’s Nest Cave, an hour west of Calgary, near Canmore, AB, and Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, 90 minutes from Comox, BC. Both locations have their particular charms, and, if you’re reasonably fit, you can do it, though I recommend a guide. When you travel in a small group, it can be a workout for your body and a daunting challenge for your squirming imagination.
You may ask, as I did, how many adventurers who have gone caving get their eyelashes nibbled by enterprising rats? Zero.
But sometimes, when you’re down there, you tumble through a trap door in your mind and into your deepest fears. I imagined myself being served in a rock taco for a hungry rat, and that seemed no more fantastical than the suggestion from a cavern-mate a few feet in front of me in Horne Lake Caves, that it would be a great idea if our group try—if we could just shed our inhibitions—naked caving.
“I’m not doing that,” I said, pulling the zipper of my red jacket tighter at the neck. The rest of the group, save one, muttered agreement. There was a mutual shudder as we moved further down into the cave’s maw.
Crawling into the Cave
The temperature at Rat’s Nest Cave is around 5 C throughout the year, and Horne Lakes Caves, which includes several different caves, is about 8 C. But it wasn’t just the cold that was gnawing.
Given that caving sometimes requires a kind of demented downward dog manoeuvre with your hands fumbling in the semi-darkness while your legs spread behind you, it’s best to honestly ask yourself what horrors, aside from rats, might await you with naked caving.
In the Lower Main Cave at Horne Lakes Caves, you contort your body over a rushing stream so your kneecaps almost submerge. You have to bring your left heel up quickly while you still have a perch with your right toes, and your hands stretch out to grab two gnarled ledges. You’re coiled like a sprinter ready to explode out of the blocks, so you can propel yourself over the churning water.
Our guide explained the three points of contact rule: when moving along the slippery rocks in the caves, you should have at least two hands and one foot on the rocks to steady yourself, or two feet and one hand. Especially when other people in your group are in front or behind you.
As I steadied myself on my hands, poised to leap over the stream and through the narrow gap, where just moments ago the naked caving advocate had unabashedly performed a showy downward dog, I considered another golden rule that had yet gone unspoken: Look before you leap. In the end, you don’t want your nose up someone else’s point of contact.