The NOLS Underground: Caving

Posted by: Sarah Zimmerman on 2/25/16 10:46 AM

Cave Exploring with NOLS Southwest Photo by Lindsay Nohl.

At NOLS Southwest, you might find a group of students trudging back to camp covered in dirt and mud, sporting multiple headlamps and huge grins. Students that match this description are probably returning from the two-week caving portion of their Semester in the Southwest, having experienced a whole new dimension of adventure. They may have even learned some caving lingo.

Caving with NOLS is a fun way to get out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone. Before you head underground, you practice navigating these unique spaces above ground, working through obstacle courses that simulate some of the angles and spaces you’ll need to get through. This is to practice body awareness before entering the more sensitive cave environment. You may even be found shimmying underneath parked cars and practicing rappelling skills using trees around camp.

Practicing Cave Movement Photo by Lindsay Nohl.

By the time you get to the cave entrance, you will be prepared, but no doubt impressed with the difference in environment. Caves have a beauty and mystery all their own. As you carefully pass hanging “soda straw” formations and delicate mud cracks, instructors will emphasize the body awareness you’ve been practicing to help you move around without damaging these incredible features to protect them for others coming through the cave.

Quickly, you’ll adapt to different methods of mobility, including crawling, climbing, walking, wiggling, and scooching to match the ever-changing horizontal and vertical terrain. Picture yourself fitting your body through a two-foot-tall opening, trying to position your helmet properly to light your path, all while trying not to touch the delicate features on either side.

Some of these moves can get a little uncomfortable and slightly humorous, but the reward of working through challenging, tight spaces is priceless when you discover grand, open rooms and interesting cave formations, called speleothems.

Dr. John Gookin, an experienced NOLS caving instructor and current curriculum and research manager, describes his love of the activity: “Caving is a fun, whole-person puzzle—figuring out how to go places and do things. It’s a 3-D maze, both mental and physical.”

Caving with NOLS Southwest Photo by Lindsay Nohl.

Caving often challenges us to figure out how to get from here to there, and the answer isn’t always obvious. These types of “puzzles,” like descending 30 feet and getting across a large puddle with a limited amount of gear, encourage us to practice using creative problem-solving skills, thus improving them. A study presented at the 2014 National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) Leisure Research Symposium supports the idea that outdoor activities on NOLS semesters (like caving) promote improvement in thinking “creatively and contextually about problems in the world.”

As you learn to navigate this new world and solve problems creatively, you also gain knowledge from instructors about the intricacies of cave environments and Leave No Trace (LNT) practices that allow you to enjoy caves while protecting their delicate environments. You might even notice bats in hibernation and learn from instructors how to protect the bats from further spread of White Nose Syndrome. These LNT practices are a very important part of the course, as caves rarely recover from human impact.

After two weeks of in-depth immersion in caves during the day and continued leadership development at camp in the evenings, you leave the caving section better adventurers and better leaders. You’ve gained the knowledge and copmetence to travel safely and responsibly through caves, a set of new leadership and problem-solving skills, and stronger bonds with your coursemates.

Check out our Fall Semester in the Southwest to start your own caving adventure!


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