So, for some reason caving is thought of as an ‘extreme’ sport and that for some reason it is incredibly dangerous. This is far from the truth. Unfortunately, the author has been unable to find official Australian stats, but here are the stats on caving in America (DRY Caving, Cave Diving IS also safe if done well but statistically is more risky, see Cave Diving menu).
So how safe is caving, really?
The US web site http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/outdoor-adventure/exploring-caving-accidents-deaths-and-rescues-in-the-united-states.html listed the following stats:
2,000,000: Estimated number of people who visit caves annually, the majority of them on low risk expeditions or on guided cave tours.
10,000: Members of the National Speleological Society, who are more likely involved in more rigorous expeditions.
1,356: Victims needing rescue over the 28-year study period, an average of roughly 50 people a year.
83: Percentage of the victims who were male.
54: Percentage of cavers rescued because they became lost or stranded. “While it is impossible to know for sure as the data isn’t there, this was likely most often due to lack of experience,” says Fletcher.
446: Traumatic injuries reported.
74: Percentage of traumatic injuries caused by caver fall, the number one accident type. “With an often damp and dark environment it is easy to see how this could occur, especially once the caver gets tired—or cold, which would lead to decreased dexterity,” says Charlton. “Keeping well hydrated, fed and warm would help with physical and mental acuity and hopefully decrease the number of these errors.”
45: Cases of hypothermia.
81: Fatalities during the 28-year study period, an average of roughly three deaths a year.
24: Fatalities due to falls, which tied as the leading cause of death.
24: Fatalities due to drowning, including six boy scouts in one incident. “This was very heartbreaking and preventable had the rain been anticipated more,” says study co-author Dr. Alejandro Stella-Watts
Caving in the United Kingdom
In UK the majority of deaths are drowning and exposure/hypothermia, about a 3 to 1 ratio of drowning versus falling as cause of death. The UK also has a huge problem with cavers getting lost on the moors at night in the fog and getting lost, by far the majority of rescues are just a bunch of lost cavers disorientated in the featureless foggy black environment. The Welsh and Yorkshire karst areas are so barren and in Winter the sun sets very early and getting lost is so easy.
Caving deaths in Australia?
There has only been one major dry caving disaster in Australia. This was in 1990 when two students and a teacher were washed away in Mystery Creek Cave, Ida Bay in Tasmania, due to a rapid flooding. If you ever do Mystery Creek cave, near the exit look at the flood debris way up above you on the walls. It really floods! Tasmania, like the UK, needs respect in wet weather. I have heard (although not seen) that apparently Mystery Creek now has a flood rescue area where there is extra food and warm gear to put on, that local guides are all aware of.
What about cave diving?
Well – this site isn’t about cave diving! But as there is a lot of cross over between caving and cave diving, I will entertain the question. For information, there have been 16 cave diving deaths in Mt. Gambier over the past 40ish years, although they went from 1969 to 2010 with no fatalities at all, until tragically three divers drowned within 2 years. There is no explanation why such an unblemished safety record suddenly went so wrong. See the Cave Diving menu for more information.
The fact that there are no Australian stats on caving accidents and fatalities is simply because we don’t have them! There is the odd serious rescue, every couple of years, and some callouts for lost cavers, but no deaths.
Look at the menu on cave rescue for more information on cave rescues.
Well known NSW caver and cave diver Keir Vaughan-Taylor recently posted an extract onto the OzCavers email list with the following statistics:
Sport deaths per 100,000 activities
Base jumping 43.16
Sky Diving 0.99
Hang Gliding 0.86
Horse riding 0.57
Scuba Diving 0.50
I had to laugh it his conclusion – that you should never base jump while using a rebreather.
The stats came from SPUMS which is a diving and hyperbaric medicine journal. Issue Vol43 No2 June 2013.
So, what does all of the above say? CAVING IS SAFE!
You’ll note that dry caving does not even make the list. And it’s no surprise that Base Jumping is massively ahead of all the other ‘extreme’ activities. Rebreathers are certainly an amazing tool, but in the authors personal opinion, they are generally prone to problems and if you believe these stats diving becomes ten times as dangerous if using a rebreather. Although it could be argued that those that are elite enough to be using breathers are probably also proficient enough to be doing exploratory, highly technical and deep dives which increase the danger in themselves as much as the use of the breather.
Accidents seen by the author…..
I have witnessed probably about 4 or 5 uncontrolled falls of more than a metre (one of which was me). The worst of these was about three metres. In none of these falls were there any serious injuries and in every case the caver walked away and finished the cave. The 3-metre fall was lucky – the caver was bridging down a 4 metre but easily climbable entrance pitch, that we had rigged a tape with for extra safety. This caver simply slipped without the tape in her hand and fell onto the caver below her who then fell on top of me, and I tumbled a further metre or so. Her helmet hit a rock on the way down and undoubtably, from the sound it made and the dent it left, saved her life! She was stunned for a few minutes but finished the cave. If myself and the second caver had not been positioned to absorb the impact it probably would’ve been worse. But thankfully it wasn’t.
Anyway, I hope all of these stats say something about dry caving. It really is not a dangerous sport for the average recreational caver. Join a club, get trained by someone good, cave conservatively, familiarise yourself with the Australian Speleological Federation standards for caving safety, and have a blast!