Caving Literature

Being a mad caver (or more accurately, and heartbreakingly, having been one in a former life), caving stories are some of my favourite stories. But it’s a bit of a niche genre and like the films, tends towards horror. Have you seen The Descent or The Cave? I’ve seen one of them – no idea which it was – and I felt the horror elements were unnecessary when caves are already a fairly inhospitable environment. As a student, I hoovered up caving-themed books.

At the top of the list, we have Beneath the Mountains. This is a true story, written by several members of Oxford University Cave Club about their big expeditions in northern Spain the 70s and 80s. It’s magnificent, funny, horrifying, stark at times. I haven’t read it in years – I don’t own a real copy but I used to have a home-printed bound copy somewhere. I need to read it again. There’s a scene in which a yellow minibus gets trapped trying to turn round in a narrow road in a remote Spanish village and the villagers dismantle a wall to free it. I once saw a very similar scene from an upstairs window as a student and I immediately thought of this book and laughed.

Next in classic caving literature comes Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As a lover of Iceland and of caving, this ticks a lot of boxes. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Verne ever went underground and he certainly never went to Iceland. I will nitpick about how I don’t think you can see Snaefellsjokull quite as clearly from Reykjavik as he seems to think – yes, you can see it but only from the tip of the peninsula on a very clear day and back then, Reykjavik was much smaller and not positioned at the tip of modern day Reykjavik – but I’ll leave any criticism of the caving, because this is obviously scifi/fantasy caving in which there is weather and sunshine and fields of giant mushrooms deep under the ground and you can walk fairly easily underground from Iceland to southern Italy.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel already, there’s a good section of the sixth Chronicle of Narnia (chronologically sixth, not sixth published, as goes the old argument), The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. Prince Caspian’s son Rilian is held prisoner underground and Eustace and Jill go underground with Puddleglum to find him. It’s quite good, actually. A proper crawl around in the dark, with rocks and scrambles and a sense that maybe CS Lewis had been caving. I doubt he did but he’s got it down better than just about anyone else I’ve ever read.

Now we leave the realms of reasonably classic caving literature and go to pulp. This post has come up because this week I re-read Mark T Sullivan’s Labyrinth, and then had to repeatedly explain to people at work that it’s nothing to do with the David Bowie film. Labyrinth, to put it succinctly, is about a mad scientist and a group of escaped prisoners who take a caver and his fourteen-year-old daughter hostage while they’re doing a NASA training exercise in an unfeasibly massive cave in Kentucky, in order to get them to lead them to a moon rock that can turn things into gold. Yes, that’s about how sane it gets. But it’s fun. I get the impression that although Sullivan went caving as part of his research – he describes in excruciating detail things like some complex SRT that just couldn’t be done by a beginner like most of the prisoners are – but he really doesn’t have a feel for a cave. And he also uses a lot of Americanisms that just sound jarring to my ears. I loathe the word “spelunking”, it’s “descending” not “rappelling”, why are they wearing white two-piece undersuits (white will just turn brown within five minutes and two-piece means it will ride up and be uncomfortable and give you a cold back. Cavers invented the onesie years ago, only we called it an undersuit and made it from good tough fleece),  UK cavers generally use bobbin descenders rather than racks, why don’t they seem to have any upwards-rope-climbing stuff (surely you need it for the complex SRT mentioned above?!), why do the real cavers in the book always recite a mantra “never give the cave a chance” before they go in, and why, oh why does Sullivan try to claim on the very first page that some of the dents in the moon were caused by flying debris flung at the moon by the Big Bang? I can’t believe how many times I’ve read this book and not noticed that it tries to say the moon existed before the universe did. I can cope with the magic moon rock, it’s a sort of scifi/caving/thriller but honestly, dragging the Big Bang into it?

The only other one that I can think of that’s a novel rather than a manual or a memoir (and I admit, even Beneath the Mountains isn’t really a novel) is a less well-known Jules Verne book called The Child of the Cavern or The Underground City which I read between shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year and was delighted to find the protagonist lives in Edinburgh and the first few chapters are set right where I was sitting. It’s about a man who works in a mine and decides to make his home there when it’s closed. He lives in a house with his son at the bottom of a mine and never comes out. But who or what else is lurking down there in the darkness? Other than, of course, another underground lake which isn’t regarded as a huge bit of dark, freezing terrifying water. I love caves but I’m not so convinced that they make such good homes.

I can’t finish this without a mention of my favourite ever caving book. It’s a manual and a very technical one at that, called Alpine Caving Techniques. I read it at the Wessex Cave Club hut as a student and very much a beginner caver while the grown-ups went and tackled Eastwater (“East-where?!”), a cave I’ve still never had the opportunity to go in. On their return, my caving guardian angel was delighted to hear that I’d been reading it and wanted to answer any questions I had. Unfortunately, being such a beginner, it was all so far beyond me that I didn’t even know what questions to ask. So the caver in question brought the book with him to the next club meeting and sat explaining rope strengths and testing to me. Since then, I’ve acquired my own copy and I now understand a lot more of it.

But I was really after caving stories, so if you know of any, please let me know.