“Malayo ang hospital, mas malapit ang coffins.”
The hospital is far, the coffins are closer.
Entering Lumiang Cave in Sagada, Philippines and passing rows of ancient burial coffins, our guide’s attempt at a joke contained a ring of truth: hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface is the least ideal place for a serious injury. Evacuation options are near impossible.
If you go caving in Tennessee, Georgia or North Carolina a guided day trip might cost something in the $50 range. Contrastingly, I paid only $8.80 for a 5-hour guided expedition traversing two cave systems in the Philippines. But that fifty-dollar trip comes with a safety briefing, a guide trained in first aid and risk management, and most likely a helmet, whereas my foreign experience included a warning about coffins and a finicky kerosene lantern that frequently plunged our group into total darkness.
How to manage your personal safety while caving?
Don’t Go Caving Alone
Bring a friend or hire a local guide. As with any backcountry adventure, make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return.
Bring a Light, and a Spare
I arrived wholly unprepared in Sagada. My headlamp never made it into my pack and I never even considered batteries, a lighter, or matches. Our guide carried a large kerosene lantern, which typically illuminated the cave sufficiently for all 5 of us. Until it didn’t. The lantern, like many items in the Philippines, had been well used and was prone to malfunctions. Under the dim light from my companion’s headlamp, our guide worked to repair the lantern. Although he never failed to fix the problem, a second scare came when our lighter ran dry and no one had brought matches or a spare. Flick, flick, flick. The cave felt much colder as we waited in the dark, hoping the spark would catch. Flick, flick, flick shoosh. Finally, a flame of light brought life back to our lantern. A life lesson in international caving: bring my own light and do not assume that the guide will have a backup.
Wear Proper Footwear
Most internet searches for caving recommend sturdy boots with good soles, however, caves vary from region to region and country to country, therefore local knowledge is best. On my trip to the Philippines, my companions had top-of-the-line waterproof boots, but their thick bulky soles could not bend to the small edges of this cave and frequently lost traction on the slick surface. Within the first twenty minutes, our guide had them remove their footwear and proceed entirely barefoot. Surprisingly, recommended footwear in Sagada, Philippines meant flip flops. They add the right amount of cushion for rocky surfaces, but also bend easily in small spaces. However when we reached a vertical ascent with steady water streaming over our footholds and only a knotted rope for assistance, we followed our guide’s example and went barefoot.
Bring a Lightweight Pack
Pack water and an emergency snack, but don’t carry anything in your hand (i.e. plastic bottle, flashlight). It is very important to have your hands free to climb, wriggle or lower yourself through various parts of the cave. Also consider your personal medical needs, including prescriptions and basic first aid items like an ace bandage, gauze, and antibiotic ointment. When traveling in a foreign country do not assume that your guide has any first aid supplies or any knowledge of your personal medical history.
Relax and Breathe
A rope ladder into perceived abyss. Fast moving water spraying hands and feet to make everything slick. Your fight or flight response kicks in. Your breathing accelerates. Your vision narrows. Your palms feel sweaty as you squeeze extra tight along the wet rope. Adrenaline pumps through your body. But just take a moment and breath. Notice the small snail crawling along the cave wall. Recognize the confidence you have when you take a step on the firm ground. Now channel that calm, confidence and lower yourself down the rope. Relax your muscles and pretend you are a professional. The guide is there to direct your feet onto firm holds. Your “abyss” is really only a 12ft descent to the solid ground. You did it!