Colorado caving instructor says rewards of exploration worth the risk

Guide: Thai rescuers pulling off minor miracle
Posted at 1:25 AM, Jul 09, 2018

DENVER -- Imagine crawling around on your hands and knees in dark underground caverns, squeezing through openings two or three inches wider than your body, and forging an occasional underground stream.

To some people, that is an adventure worth the reward.

"You get muddy, you get dirty, but there is an element of beauty when you go caving," said Jon Schow, a caving instructor and member of the Colorado Cave Rescue Network.

Schow told Denver7 when you go caving, you see things underground that you don't see above ground.  

"Huge crystals, stalactites, stalagmites and other formations like bacon and popcorn that are just really, really beautiful," he said.

Schow, who is also a member of the National Cave Rescue Commission, said there are 600 caves in Colorado, many of them at high elevation.

"Some of them are public," he said, "like Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs, or Glenwood Caverns in Glenwood Springs. Some are off the beaten path."

Three-Dimensional Jungle Gym

"Each cave has a different personality,” he added. “Some are wet and slimy. Some are very dry and dusty."

Schow said some people love the physical challenge of going into a cave.

"It's a three-dimensional jungle gym for grown-ups," he said. "You move up and down, left and right.  You squeeze through tight spaces."

Preparation is Key

Schow added that there are risks and said that’s why it’s important to be prepared.

“One common thing people run into,” he said, “is getting lost.”

He said most people who go caving aren’t in the habit of turning around, to see what the chamber they entered will look like on the way out.

“Hypothermia can also be a problem,” he said, “so you want to be prepared with the proper clothing.”

He also suggested gloves, not just to protect your hands, but also to protect the caves.

“The oils from your skins can leave a mark on the cave,” he said. “We practice a very minimum impact when we visit a cave.”

The instructor said cavers should have a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, three lights with extra batteries, extra Gatorade and protein bars, a first aid kit, ropes and extra layers of clothing.

“You should also have a watch,” he said. “because cell phones don’t work inside a cave.”

He also said you should have a waterproof notepad and pen.

“You never know when you may need to leave a message,” he said, “or need to keep track of someone’s vital signs.”

Armchair Quarterback

When asked if he had any suggestions for the rescuers who are trying to remove a group of young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, Schow simply said, “If I were trapped in a cave and didn’t know how to swim, and didn’t know how to dive, or how to cave, or how to combine all those things together to get out, it would be terrifying.  I think they’re pulling off a minor miracle with what they have accomplished.”

He said what happened in Thailand hasn’t changed his feelings about caving.

“Caving carries a certain risk,” he said, “like rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking or white-water rafting.  That’s what’s attractive about it, but you have to manage the risk responsibly.”

Colorado Caving Fatality

A caving accident claimed the life of a Colorado man back in the early 1980s.

Richard Rhinehart, a member of the National Speleological Society, and the digital editor of Rocky Mountain Caving Magazine, told Denver7 that Bruce Unger, a well-known caver, drowned while trying to cross an underground creek in the Lost Creek Cave system.

He said Unger apparently got a boot caught between some rocks and was overcome by the rushing water.

“It knocked him over and the cavers who were with him apparently didn’t have the strength to try to hold him above the water and then try to get his boot unstuck.”

Schow said cavers need to take conditions and forecasts into account when deciding which caves to explore.

“If there is a river flowing into it and thunderstorms are predicted for that afternoon, it’s really not a good idea to visit that particular cave,” he said.


To learn more about some of Colorado’s most popular caves, click on this link: