Oxford University Cave Club

Proceedings 5 (1970)

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Letter from Canada

John Drake
McMaster University, Ontario

There is one overwhelming factor to caving in North America - distance. The nearest caves to Ontario worthy of the name are the West Virginian Group, 500 miles away. These are the northerly extremities of a great crescent shaped band of caving country which sweeps south and west into Alabama and Missouri. The caves themselves are extremely varied, except that there is little vertical development, and that they are for the most part wet. Schoolhouse is probably the most renowned, and it also has a predictably West Virginian snag: - the owner, a highly religious character, who has a low opinion of scruffy cavers applying for permission to go down at 10 on a Sunday morning. In Yorkshire, all would be well, as a trip to the pub would obviate the need to cave. American beer has the reverse effect, however - particularly the West Virginian brew, which is a mere 3.2% alcohol. To compensate, there is the promise of hundreds of new caves; at present some 90% of all those caves are within half a mile of a road, and there aren't that many roads.

The same is true of most caving areas, the classic example being Mexico. For a Christmas holiday nine of us rented two vans and drove to Huatla, some 250 miles South-East of Mexico City. The trip took 72 hours, and was enlivened by ten minor accidents (for which no stops were made) and a collapsed gas tank, which brought us to a halt at 12 noon on a Saturday in the middle of Mexico City. With a bit of broken Spanish and a lot of luck we found a mechanic, who cut the tank open, bent it back into shape and welded it shut again in two hours. The price - ten dollars, and we drank two bottles of tequila between us. Then the caving started - on Christmas day - and ended 2006 feet lower, most of this being vertical. The sensation of sitting in a prussik sling in the centre of a 200 foot vertical rope is to be avoided. Following the retreat the trip went to pot, to say nothing of the psychedelic mushrooms for which Huatla is famed. Two more caves were pushed to the brink of pots over 200 feet deep, at which point we decided it was time to go - particularly as the Indians had turned hostile.

Since Christmas there has been relatively little action, but the summer season is just beginning. As I write this we are sitting in Jasper amid snow covered mountains, preparing to go to an area of Gypsum karst, about the size of England and Wales, in the North West Territories. Following this will be various fortnights all over Alberta, looking for yet more caves and working on those already known.