Bill Steele is a fellow emeritus member of the Explorers Club.
I’m writing this while at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. With an underground network covering 412 miles, Mammoth is the world’s longest cave. I’ve been here for a week, participating in an annual expedition with some of the nation’s most experienced cave explorers, including one cave diver. None of us has gotten hurt or trapped.
My caving companions and I have been closely following the news about the 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand. A steady supply of information is also reaching us from the close-knit caving community worldwide. The consensus is that bringing the boys and their coach to safety could be one of the most complicated cave rescues ever. It could also be one of the most dangerous, as indicated Friday by a former Thai SEAL’s death while diving during rescue preparations.
This is obviously a terrible situation. The clock is ticking, with more rains coming soon and oxygen levels in the cave dropping, according to news reports Friday. I know some of the British cave divers who are there. They are among the world’s best, highly trained and experienced. They will do everything humanly possible to rescue people they’ve never met, because that’s how cavers are, just as the Thai SEALs vowed to carry on despite their colleague’s death.
I’ve read criticism of the coach for leading the boys into an unsafe setting. I’ll bet no one is harder on him than he is on himself. I’ve also read that some of the boys have often visited the cave and know the way through it well. I was reminded of a time in the 1960s when some friends and I took my high school wrestling coach caving. He didn’t know what we were getting him into. The cave could have flooded. Luckily it didn’t. But the weather forecast could have been wrong.
What I have learned, since I started exploring caves as a 13-year-old Boy Scout 55 years ago, is that caving absolutely requires you to adhere to the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
The Thai boys and their coach obviously were not prepared with supplies in case of an emergency. They were not prepared with proper gear such as helmets, each person with a dependable light (or three, like we carry), boots and so on. They did not heed a warning sign at the entrance about the cave being prone to flooding during a rainy-season downpour. Now they’re paying a huge price for their lark.
But I don’t blame them for being in the cave when something went wrong. It is a possibility cavers always face. In thousands of trips into hundreds of caves of all kinds in the United States, Mexico and China, I’ve had my close calls. I’ve been trapped underground for four days after someone accidentally pulled a rope up a 320-foot shaft, unaware that the line had caught on his gear. I’ve been trapped by floodwaters twice, forced to stay in the cave overnight both times.
Caving means taking a calculated risk. I also drive. I’ve been hurt worse in traffic accidents than in caves. I still drive, and I still go in caves.
I sometimes lecture on cruise ships, and in those talks I try to convey the excitement and pleasure of caving, but I also have a presentation called “When Things Go Wrong in Caves.” I describe getting lost, injured, rescued, trapped and more, but those things happen rarely. The caving trips my friends and I take are routinely safe because we are highly experienced and properly equipped, we plan sufficiently, and we thoroughly discuss the possible hazards and how to approach them. Again: Be prepared.
I spent the month of April into early May this year leading a caving expedition to Sistema Huautla, the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere and ninth-deepest cave in the world, in the mountains of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. We had 39 participants from six countries. It was my 22nd expedition to Sistema Huautla. We discovered and mapped new sections of the cave — an exhilarating opportunity to pursue pure exploration on the planet Earth, which isn’t so easy to do these days.
But that expedition had a scary moment: Five people in our group were trapped when an unexpected rainstorm flooded a section deep in the cave, blocking the route between their underground camp and the cave entrance. They had sleeping bags, food, a stove, many lights and batteries, and plenty to keep them busy while they were trapped. Eventually the water subsided and they got out. Will we go back again? Yes, next April.