Cave rescue is a tricky area, but an important one. There is one inherent difference that puts it apart from rescue in most other activities. That is there is no easy access (usually) to the victim. In rock climbing, surfing, bushwalking, and about anything else, an ambulance, or failing that a helicopter, can evacuate you to the nearest hospital. But not caving.
Caving has the disadvantage of victims being difficult to access. They can, and usually do, take days. When you factor in the time it takes for the others not injured to get back to phone, then for the rescue team to assemble and get to the cave, and then get back to the injured person, you are already looking at nearly a day. Then you have to negotiate things like tight passages, pitches, squeezes, water, etc. You can see how it is so complex.
The world watched with bated breath in June 2018 when it took 17 days to get a group of 13 out of a Thai cave that had flooded suddenly. In 2015 a caver in New Zealand was injured by falling rocks which resulted in a broken pelvis, and the rescue took four days. A 2014 cave rescue in Germany took a staggering 11 days after a caver suffered a brain injury as a result of rockfall, and the rescue involved more than 700 people. In 1991 a caver had her leg broken by a falling rock in Lechuguilla Cave and the rescue took 91 hours. You get the point.
Cave Rescues in Victoria?
There have been a few serious rescues in Victoria. One occurred on December 8th, 1995 in Hades Cave in Buchan when student Jason Lau apparently was given bad directions and strayed off on his own just a few metres too far, falling approximately 10 metres and sustaining serious fractures. The rescue took 17 hours involving local VLCT cavers and other cavers from Melbourne. But it went smoothly and luckily the cave is not extensive compared to others in the area. There was some hype a the time about the caving filling up with water but I’m not sure how that is possible.
The curse of Labertouche!
There have been other ‘rescues’ of cavers becoming lost, especially in Labertouche Cave. Labertouche is an impossibly complex granite boulder cave, and even experienced cavers get lost there. The most recent rescue from Labertouche was in 2018 when the cavers knew what they were doing, and had the right equipment, but still spent a night in the cave. There have been quite a few others, and often the party is found within just a few minutes.
A minor rescue apparently occurred in Honeycomb Cave in Buchan many years ago, and the cavers were found 5 metres away (via a hard to see squeeze) from the bottom of the entrance pitch. They said they could hear birds chirping and that there was obvious debris from the surface, but they just couldn’t find the squeeze.
Cave Rescue Victoria (Now deceased)
Cave Rescue Victoria existed for quite a few years, but its members dwindled and due to the fact that not much caving was going on, and the leaving of its participants, it died a slow death. For many years after that there was no formal cave rescue group in Victoria.
However, more recently, Cave Rescue Gippsland have formed, who cover Buchan and Labertouche amongst other places. The group are meeting regularly to practice their skills and have established a terrific network of cavers and other people who can help in a cave rescue situation. Some of the members are highly experienced local Buchan cavers, who I would definitely want, and trust, as first responders. Lets hope the group never see any real action, but it’s a comfort to know it’s there.
Caving, statistically, is very safe.
I don’t want to scare you from caving. Serious rescues are VERY rare. Caving statistically is a very safe sport. In fact, the stats internationally indicate that the most common cause of death in caves is drowning, when cavers enter a cave in bad weather, or from exposure being hypothermic. See the menu on Statistics under the advanced caving menu. Some caves flood dramatically and quickly, whereas others flood gradually. Many caves in the United Kingdom flood badly, and there have been quite a few incidents. When I was living and caving over there, there were whole weekends when we had to stay on the surface due to heavy rain.
None of the Buchan caves, or any caves in Victoria are prone to immediate severe flooding, but some of them can flood given enough rain. A flood in Scrubby Creek would be serious as it would sump off the roof sniff, trapping you in the cave until the water level receded. Other stream caves in Buchan such as Trog Dip, M4, Duke’s Cave, Dalley’s Sinkhole, Sub Aqua, Wombat Walk, all respond to rain but a torrential ‘wall of water’ is unlikely in any of those. I recent hear for a squeeze filling up with water in Shades of Death cave during very heavy rain, which could’ve been a problem if there was a caver in the squeeze. But in all my time in Buchan I’ve never heard of a flood event putting someone’s life at risk.
The main danger – Water.
Some caves in Tasmania flood dramatically, and there have been deaths recorded. The rule of thumb is that if you find yourself in a rapidly flooding cave, just get as high up in the cave as you possible can and just stay there, for as long as it takes. Even if it is days! The deaths are almost always a caver who has decided the water has gone down enough and he should be fine. Eventually the water will recede, and the chances are you can hopefully exist on the water you brought and snacks, or even carefully get water out of the flooding streamway. You can survive a long time without food as long as you have water, so just be patient and wait.
And most importantly do your research. Does the cave flood? Talk to a local and find out. If so, what is the weather forecast today? There is no such thing as ‘she’ll be right.. I’m sure it won’t rain heavily’. If it is a floodable cave and rain is forecast, then just go and see a movie, or find a cliff to do some SRT practice in the rain. The cave will be there on a day with better weather, sometime in the future!
Cave rescue is an art form and a unique challenge. Let’s hope it doesn’t get used too often.