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Volume 16, Number 1January/February 1965

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For this down-to-earth sport it takes down-into-earth people—and that’s just what "spelunkers" are…

Under The Mountains

Written by Jan Van Os

There are two sorts of mountain climbers: those who go up first, then descend, and those who do it exactly the other way around.

Those in the first category, which is by far the largest, have certain advantages. They can see their target, be it a wind-swept ridge or a snowy summit. They can estimate how long it will take to get to it and, having achieved it, can look down upon a beautiful world.

For those in the second category it is rather different. They cannot see their target and indeed may not even know where it is, what it is, or even if they have arrived at it. Frequently they have little idea where they are and know only vaguely how far they have gone. And when they've arrived they look, not down, but up at their beautiful world: a black void deep beneath the earth's surface. For these men are speleologists—"spelunkers"—the tough and daring sportsmen who dedicate themselves to the exploration of inner space, the myriad and mysterious caves, caverns, pits and passages that honeycomb the depths of the earth.

"Spelunking" is restricted to no particular country or region, unless of course there are no caves, but in Lebanon it has been raised to a very special art. Here so many beautiful, interesting and challenging caves and holes have been carved into the earth, that those Lebanese who for one reason or another have come to like speleology, have had unexcelled opportunities to perfect their skill. If you were, however, to ask a Lebanese spelunker why he is devoted to such a hazardous sport, you would get no answer, not even the famous "because-it's-there" reply of the mountaineers. Not that he is anti-social; it's just that he hasn't time. For Lebanon's spelunkers are part-time, weekend devotees who feel that they have too far to go and too much to do to waste time speculating on why they do go down. Suffice it to say, they seem to suggest, that what to some people is a frightening dark hole burrowing deep under the mountains, is to them a challenge and an invitation to investigate the unknown.

The first step in spelunking is, naturally, finding a cave or a pothole—a deep, natural, cylindrical pit scoured out of soft rock and going deep into the earth. This is not always easy, but, according to Albert Anavy, a founder of the Spéléo-Club du Liban, spelunkers soon develop an instinct for finding "good potholing country." They also seek advice from peasants or shepherds who, as a rule, are quite willing to show the strangers from the city the deep holes which, for all they know, conceal unknown evils.

Having reached such a place, the explorers start to unpack their equipment. Most important are the light, strong ladders, up to eight inches wide and made of twisted steel wire with aluminum steps. They come in lengths of 30 feet each and can be linked so as to make possible uninterrupted descents of many hundreds of feet. Next are the nylon ropes that will be tied to the men going down or returning to the surface, and the aluminum or fiberglas helmets, each mounted with a hissing carbide lamp, remniscent of the old days in coal mining. Then there are, depending on the importance and the duration of the search, rubber dinghies, field telephones, electric or carbide lamps, and sometimes walkie-talkie sets, cameras, medical equipment, food, sleeping bags, extra supplies of dry clothing, all characterized by the qualities essential to underground exploration: strength, durability and lightness.

Getting underway, the surface crew first anchors a set of strong steel wires to a rock and then hooks the ladders to the wire. The spelunkers usually have some idea how many lengths of ladder they have to assemble because they can estimate roughly how deep the first stage of the descent will be simply by throwing pieces of rock into the hole and counting the seconds it takes to strike bottom.

The first man to go down is sometimes the most curious of the team, but usually is the most experienced. From the top rung of the ladder he disappears, quietly and calmly, over the lip of the hole to begin what is, in exploring a pothole, a difficult and demanding descent. Ladders going into potholes usually hang free, thus requiring the spelunker to lock both arms and legs around the ladder, an awkward, sometimes painful way of climbing. Skilled speleologists let the legs do 90 per cent of the hard work and use their hands, held about shoulder height, for extra support and for keeping their balance. They must, at the: same time, take care not to scorch their hands or burn the safety rope with the unshielded flame burning in the helmet lamp.

From time to time the climber shouts directions or questions to those above, who quickly lose sight of a climber even in a short descent. They continue, however, through the tension on the safety rope, to "feel" that presence, and calculate how far down he is. The climber may report findings or ask for extra equipment—such as more ladders. Sometimes whistle signals are used, but "keeping it short" is the golden rule for all concerned. Confusion must be avoided, and breath must not h wasted.

During his descent the climber may free his hands to make notes, or to take a picture, or may rest by attaching a steel belt hook to the ladder or by sitting on a small platform or ledge, if he can find one, along the pothole wall.

When he reaches a point where he can proceed I walking or climbing without needing the ladder, he loosens his safety line, yells "cord free," upon which the surface crew hauls it up. Then a second man descends and a third and so on, leaving, however, at least a few men on the surface to supply more equipment and, as a safety precaution, to insure that a whole party could not simply disappear unnoticed. To go alone is, in speleological circles, foolhardy and dangerous.

What these men may find deep under the ground, in those initial stages, is anybody's guess. It may be wet down there, or dry. It may be very cold, or just a few degrees cooler than "upstairs." The explorers may stumble, glide or jump into vast spaces, as high as a cathedral, some of unmatched splendor and with colors beyond description. The mysterious hole may lead into narrow corridors, steep descents, treacherous little lakes and wild rivulets, to just end suddenly in a blind alley. They may come across a vast network of corridors and passages, like the inside of a gigantic ant-hill, but one where no sound but that of dripping water is heard and where nothing moves but the shadows cast by the nickering lamps. And sometimes, on rare and exciting occasions, they may edge carefully through a tiny passage into a chamber of what, to those who never venture beneath the surface, have become the mark of great caves: stalactites pointing down from the dark tops of the caves and stalagmites pointing upward. These phenomena, which mark many of the famous caves of the world—Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave, for instance—take fantastic shapes and are of incredible coloring. They are formed as a result of ground water oozing slowly downward and dripping steadily into the cave, century after century. This water contains certain chemicals which, when the liquid is exposed to the air in the cave, materializes and hardens. Sometimes the stalactites "growing" from above and the stalagmites "growing" from below meet and create columns and pillars of an almost unbelievable magnificence.

Whatever they find, spelunkers are certain to do one thing: record it. They know, and are quietly proud of the fact, that even if speleology is generally considered as either adventure or sport, the findings of spelunkers are watched carefully by many specialists. Archeologists, for example, are alert to the possibilities of new cave paintings or other evidence of ancient life. Hydrologists are eager to trace the movement of underground supplies of water or find new sources which might be tapped to meet the needs of agriculture. Geologists and biologists follow the findings of spelunkers too. Because of this, spelunkers are careful to keep detailed notes, to draw maps, to take still pictures and movie films and to publish all their findings in either their own local club bulletins (like SCL's, appropriately titled "The Bat"), or sometimes in national and international publications.

For Lebanon the activities of the Spéléo-Club du Liban have already produced a tangible economic find that clearly demonstrates the contributions that can be made by the spelunkers: Jeita, one of the cave wonders of the world and one of Lebanon's outstanding tourist attractions. Although the cave had been discovered long before, it was not until 1946 that Mr. Anavy and Lionel Gorra, the co-founder of the SCL, explored it in its entirety and discovered that it was a five and a half-mile cavern of unimaginable beauty and that in it was an underground stream, as wide as a lake. After they published their findings, they were able to convince the government that the cave of Jeita, if properly lighted and if equipped with flat-bottomed boats which could navigate the underground river, would undoubtedly become a number one tourist attraction. Thanks to their perseverance, it did. By last fall the season's total of visitors was counted in the tens of thousands.

Jeita is not the only accomplishment of the SCL. Its approximately 50 members, mostly but not exclusively men, fanning out through the mountains each weekend, have, in the last 13 years, found and either partially or completely explored 300 caves or potholes including the seventh deepest pothole in the world—a pit 1,870 feet deep at Faouar Dara not far from the village of Majdal Tarchich, east of Beirut. Faouar Dara was conquered by a handful of Lebanese spelunkers headed by Sami Karkabi in 1962. They submerged at noon on Friday, September 14, 1962 and did not return to the surface until 7 a.m. Monday, September 17 after climbing, crawling and inching their way through nearly two miles of almost total darkness.

It is not, however, to establish records that the speleologists go down into the earth. It is simply to meet a challenge and to demonstrate that if there is nothing new under the sun, there is still plenty where the sun never penetrates—down in the realm of the spelunkers.

Jan van Os, a Dutch journalist who has worked in Amsterdam and London, was a public relations writer for the Aramco Overseas Company in The Hague for nine years and is now a member of the Aramco World editorial staff in Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the January/February 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1965 images.