This is not an official rating system, and is purely my opinion and based on my experience. It is important to note that no cave should be entered without either an experienced guide, or the expertise and experience to navigate an unknown cave – which is a skill that takes years to acquire. In my two years caving in the UK they have a rating system which works well and I have loosely used the same type of criteria.
NOTE: I TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR CAVERS WHO DISAGREE WITH ANY OF THE FOLLOWING RATINGS. THEY ARE PERSONAL OPINION ONLY AND SHOULD NOT BE USED AS THE SOLE SOURCE OF INFORMATION ON A PLANNED CAVING TRIP.
The rating system is as follows:
1) EASY – Horizontal in nature, not requiring any extra gear of any kind, in-cave navigation simple, easy to get to on the surface, short trips of less than 2 hours, suitable for complete beginners. An introduction to caving.
2) MODERATE – Horizontal although with possible ladder pitches of less than 10 metres, some moderately difficult free climbing and squeezing, some pools of shallow water, potential longer walk on the surface, some more difficult navigation, suitable for cavers who have done 2-3 easier trips first, longer trips of up to 5 hours. Quite a few of these trips should be completed before moving on. Some individuals who take naturally to caving can do these caves pretty much immediately.
3) EXPERIENCED – Horizontal and/or vertical (Ropes and SRT – Single Rope Technique training needed), longer ladder pitches of over 10 metres, longer trips of up to 10 hours, potentially running water and full immersion, Difficult and/or exposed climbs and squeezes, difficult navigation, long surface walks & possibly hard to find in dense bush, awareness of decoration. Beginning to develop leadership skills.
4) ADVANCED – Big SRT pitches of unlimited depth (typically up to about 40 metres in the deepest Victorian caves). Technical manoeuvres needed on rope such as re-belays and deviations, the ability to encounter any vertical situation on your own and deal with it safely, the ability to rig ropes safely, potential of roof sniffs (only having inches of air to breath from), being safe in cold water and risk of hypothermia, long trips of 10-15 hours, the ability to survey new cave, the ability to navigate in any cave situation using a survey and compass, some knowledge of principles of cave diving, the ability to move through decorated areas without leaving a trace, reasonable fitness, ability to lead others including beginners.
5) EXPERT – Expedition caving in remote regions potentially days from nearest infrastructure, long trips 15+ hours underground including sleeping in a cave (not allowed in Australia by ASF standards), ability to lead others safely, advanced rescue skills, including self-rescue. Wilderness first aid training. High fitness. Expertise in multiple techniques of SRT and vertical caving, including improvising when needed. Some further knowledge of cave diving IE having supported cave divers. The ability to encounter ANY situation underground and deal with it safely. There are no level 5 caves in Victoria and only 1 or 2 level 4 caves. To find 4s and 5s you need to head to Tasmania, down in Junee Florentine, or overseas. New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are two countries that are close and have deep and serious caves. There are plenty of great caving areas in nearby Asian countries too.
The VSA in years gone by ran a yearly expedition to Mount Owen in New Zealand and found Viceroy Shaft, which they pushed down to approximately 800m, with the suspected resurgence a further 200 odd metres below. Unfortunately, the epic nature (getting a helicopter to bring in equipment) and extreme remoteness, and the regular participants slowly losing interest/fitness has meant these expeditions have stopped. Who knows though, with VSA becoming healthier again perhaps Viceroy will be visited again one day. Viceroy is a definite level 5 cave.
How hard are the Buchan Caves?
The majority of caves in Victoria lie somewhere between level 2 and level 4, but there are some exceptions. I have reviewed all of the popular Victorian caves using these levels in the ‘Caves of Victoria’ tab on the main page. As mentioned though, please do not rely on these ratings alone. Consult a local if possible, as well, and always choose caves that are suitable for the weakest (IE the least experienced or least fit) team member. An important thing to note with caving is that if a member feels for any reason they cannot or do not want to continue, this must be respected, and that member is either taken out by another more experienced caver, or the whole group turns around and the trip is finished. This is caving etiquette. Forcing someone onwards against their will is tempting fate for either a physical accident from fatigue or a mental breakdown from stress or claustrophobia. This is especially the case in wet caves, where if someone starts to become uncomfortably cold they should immediately be put into dry clothing that have been taken in inside a dry bag, and escorted out of the cave quickly.
How quickly do cavers progress?
It takes years of practice and experience to get to level 5. Cavers who have really only caved in Victoria and perhaps have done some deeper stuff in Tasmania are usually shocked if they cave in UK or Europe, in the deep technical caves there. Caving for the French and Swiss amongst others is pretty much a different sport to doing a vertical pot in the Potholes Reserve in Buchan. It is commonplace for deep trips to sleep underground and take co-ordinated teams who sherpa rope and gear only. These trips will last for 1 to 2 weeks with bases set up at various depths, much like climbing a mountain in reverse. The Gouffre Berger, the first cave to ever go past 1000 vertical metres, can be done in 24 hours if it is pre-rigged and you are very fit and an expert caver, but if you are rigging and de-rigging it then prepare to be underground for several days at least.
Also, interestingly there is a cave in South Wales, UK, called Ogof Draenen that has such a torturous entrance crawl – something like an hour of flat out belly crawling, that once they are in, they camp. The reason for this is that past the horrible crawl lies an amazing 66km long system with some of the finest caving in the UK.
Every cave has something to offer, regardless of difficulty. Many travelling cavers who visit Buchan or other Victorian sites are amazed by their comparative simplicity and easiness compared to the unbelievably deep and long trips in Europe. But caving is not about being hardcore. It’s about having fun. And at the end of the day any cave can be fun regardless of how hard it is.