Once upon a time a typical caver's garb consisted of his (there were no female cavers then) oldest tweed suit and a candle stuck to the front of an old bowler hat. Whilst I cannot quite claim to have begun my caving career in those days, I do recall the time when normal caving dress was a cotton boiler suit over warm old clothes. Many people still used brass carbide lamps clipped on to compressed fibre helmets and grandfathers lived in fear of being mugged for their woolen long-johns. We then moved on to electric light and site helmets of various types of plastic. Wet suits were worn under all circumstances, even down Goatchurch. Now we have reverted. Under and over-suits are made of hi-tech materials. Some even sport designer labels. The carbide lamp, attached now to a climbing type helmet, has made a re-appearance. However today's version has auxiliary electrics and a better ignition system than your average gas cooker. The effect of these changes has been to make caving easier for beginners, to extend the range of the able and to make it safer for all.
Whilst I have done my best to keep up with developments in caving equipment I must admit to some surprise when I saw a computer beeing loaded into the van on our recent trip to Ireland. This was not some hand-held, overblown pocket calculator, type computer but a normal PC complete with separate VDU and printer. I was pleased to learn that its presence did not indicate that trip costs had increased so much that calculating them was now beyond the bounds of mental arithmetic. Its purpose was to process survey data and produce a printed outline of the cave almost instantly. It did this wonderfully well and we were able to impress other cavers in O'Connor's Bar with the results.
However, it was not the presence of advanced technology on this trip which set me thinking most, rather it was the absence. Whilst walking round Slieve Elva we met a small group of Irish cavers clad in cotton boiler suits over old clothes, wearing a number of different types of site helmet and wearing or carrying an assortment of different lighting systems. They were just about to do a trip into Upper Poulnagollum for the first time. The day before they had done Polldubh, they said. Both of these are worthwhile caves of reasonable lengths - 2,500 and 1,500m respectively. Yet both would be regarded as quite easy for the well equipped modern caver and as such might be regarded as beneath them by many. Meeting this group led me to wonder whose experience is closest to the true spirit of exploration and who gets most satisfaction from their caving; the group who improvise their equipment and set off to visit caves about which the only thing they know is the entrance location; or the hi-tech caver, sat on a mountain of expensive equipment, feverishly flicking through the guide books looking for something hard enough to justify all this gear?