Caving for fun and fitness

More women are taking on the mental and physical benefits of caving

Caving for fun and fitness

Source: Best Health Magazine, May 2009

When I was a girl, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ cottage on an Ontario lake. Near the dock was a cave, and whenever I visited my friends along the shore, I’d sprint past the cave, fearing that the monsters my friends and I told ghost stories about spent their days there, munching on fish like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

As I grew older, I became less afraid. One day I sat in front of that cave and wanted to go in. Even though it was dark and small, it seemed to beckon to me. I wanted to see what animals, spiders and reptiles lurked in the shadows. Problem was, I couldn’t convince my friends to come with me. And I couldn’t muster the courage to go alone.

Caving is a hobby. Who knew?

I grew up and eventually forgot all about the intrigue that caving held for me. But then, in 2002, my friend Rob Laidlaw told me about his pastime: caving.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. It had never dawned on me that there were people who spent their free time underneath the earth. ‘Like go in and explore caves?’


He asked me to join him, but I resisted. While I’d been physically active when younger, I was now in my late 30s, and my exercise had for a long time consisted of lugging my girls, Lauren, now 7, and Charlotte, 4, in BabyBjörns or chasing them at the park.

But I had recently taken up yoga and was feeling in better shape. And I thought, how hard could this be? It didn’t cross my mind that caving might be a mental challenge, too. So when Rob and I met for coffee on a rainy April day, I announced: ‘Okay. I’m ready.’

Rob introduced me to Lori Nichols and Nina Muller, who frequently take novice cavers out for lessons with the Toronto Caving Group. On the arranged date, Lori, Nina and I headed for the Mount Nemo and Rattlesnake Point conservation areas, about 60 kilometres west of Toronto.

Each dressed in a royal-blue waterproof prison-like jumper, a miner’s helmet with headlamp, grippy water-ski gloves, and knee and elbow pads, Lori and I looked at the small hole in the ground that was the entrance to the cave.

The biggest obstable wasn’t physical

I made it to the first landing, where I stopped and sat. Claustro­phobia’anxiety that sets in when one is in tight and confined spaces’was something I had never experienced before, but now it gripped me like steel bars. I had maybe six inches of space in front of me, beside me, behind me. Ahead, the cave angled straight down for about 10 metres. My mind immediately leapt to everything that could go wrong: What if I get stuck? What if I get lost?

Lori guided my right foot onto a piece of rock jutting out from the wall. ‘Step there and then slide your body down, against the walls, like this,’ she said, showing me what cavers call ‘chimneying.’

I had never anticipated giving up, but I was now paralyzed with fear. I managed to crawl back to the surface, where I gasped to Nina: ‘I can’t do this.’

The people that Lori and Nina usually take on their beginner courses are university students with an interest in caving from an academic perspective, like geology. For some reason, moms like me have been joining the group lately.

Neither Nina nor Lori was athletic until each took up caving. Lori, 44, explored caves as a child, making it a hobby in the late 1990s. And seven years ago, Nina, now 33, challenged herself to do something new each month for six months. One month she took a Toastmasters public speaking course. The next month it was caving. Nina has caved all over Ontario and the United States, in Peru and twice at Mexico’s Cave of Swallows.

One thing is sure: Caves can be a tight squeeze, and they are gloomy. How do I know? When I backed out of that cave, my heart was beating more wildly than it had in years. But I also felt foolish’I have no difficulty in pushing the boundaries of my own comfort zone as a journalist’and I felt I was letting Lori and Nina down.

So, really, there was nothing I could do but shake those fears aside and just go for it. There are very few reports of people dying while caving, after all. I focused on the task’getting myself inside a cave.

Finding focus

I had to still my mind.

I had Nina and Lori take me through an ‘easy’ cave that involved walking, then crawling through a tight hole. In this cave, I could see some light the entire time, which helped my claustrophobia.

Then we entered a cave that, like the first, was dark, small, and went straight down. I was determined to do it, so I let my mind just go. And this, I believe, is the real benefit to sports, such as caving, that can be perceived as involving an element of danger. According to Calgary-based sports psychologist Frank Young, the activity forces the mind to be completely present. The person is forced to block out the left hemisphere of the brain (the part that plans for the future and dwells in the past), and locks the person into the here and now. ‘If they don’t,’ he says, ‘they might be crippled by fear or potentially in danger of hurting themselves.’

It’s what New Age writer Eckhart Tolle describes as being in the ‘eternal now.’ Says best-selling author Pete Egoscue‘who has helped many top-performing athletes deal with the mental hurdles that prevent them from performing at their best’in this state, ‘a person is out of their ego-driven mind and completely aware of their emotional self and what their body can do.’

At about 10 metres below the earth’s surface, I had to squeeze my body, face down, through a tight crevice into another deep and dark part of the cave. I wasn’t even aware of it, but I became present’and that feeling was invigorating.

I had been slightly sluggish when I started, but as the day went on my head became clear and my adrenalin was pumping. I felt physically better than I had in a long time’loose, as if every muscle in my body had been stretched and pulled in a delightful way. And it must have showed: A group of male mountain climbers seemed to be in awe as they watched us emerge from the earth when we crawled out of the final cave. I guess even to them, we were hard core!

I asked Lori and Nina if there are psychological studies connecting the fears that arise when a person is in a cave and their real-life fears. ‘Not that I know of, but there should be,’ Lori replied.

For me, the biggest obstacle was overcoming my fear of getting stuck. Caving showed me I could indeed push through my mental and physical boundaries to pull myself out of a jam.

The physical benefits of caving

‘I liken caving to yoga with traction,’ says Beth Klinck, a physio­therapist and clinic manager at the Canadian Back Institute. When you do any kind of exercise that involves mobility, flexibility and strength, you are benefiting both the muscles and joints. ‘In caving you get all these things, all over the body,’ she says.

This article was originally titled "How hard could it be?" in the May 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.

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