In the Republic, Plato presents an allegory of a cave in which prisoners have been shackled their whole lives, and their only understanding of reality derives from the shadows that are cast on the bleak cavern wall before them. It’s a way to tackle the philosophical problem of how our own subjective experiences limit our understanding of reality, keeping us imprisoned in our own heads.
I don’t need to ever become a caver to know that the idea of plunging into the bowels of the earth sounds like an absolutely dreadful idea. I’m a climber. I like being out in the open, not closed in. I like to go up, not down. Is there anything worse than rappelling?
In my job as a full-time writer, part-time journalist, I’ve been covering various caving expeditions for National Geographic. I started out knowing nothing about caving, and while my understanding of the sport still places me very much at a gumby level, I’ve been fascinated, dare I say, impressed, by the commitment and adventure of some of the today’s leading caving explorers.
I’ve always viewed caving as a low-grade cousin to our sacred sport of rock climbing. There are similarities to be sure. We both use ropes and harness and we both love to indiscriminately place bolts in virgin rock. And yet, caving just seems so dreadful, so claustrophobic. Do they even need to train?
And yet, cavers seem to be just scratching the surface of exploration of the world’s biggest, deepest and most impressive caves. The state of caving right now seems to be where climbing was in the 1800s—a blank map ripe for the pickin’. And as I scroll through the latest news feeds of climbing as a sport, filled with the latest spray about the newest climber to do some route or mountain that was actually first done before they were even born, I can’t help but find myself drawn in, wondering what is real, or if everything I know about climbing is just a bunch of shadows on the wall.
Before I do something crazy like trade in my Scarpa Dragos and kneepads for a waterproof onesie and an 12mm static line, I wanted to talk to my show co-host Chris Kalous, who actually has some experience plundering the depths of the earth, to talk me out of it.
Here’s my story about the Rainier fumarole ice caves.
And here’s my story about the Veryovkina flood survival epic.