“Our society is set up for everything to be quite predictable and controlled, and the fact that caving can be completely different than that, I think, is what’s super addictive about it.”
– Extract from an interview with a caver
‘Self-care’ is a multi-billion dollar industry, encompassing vast markets pertaining to wellness, cosmetics, diet, and more. This commercialised idea of self-care connects the idea of consumption to the act of care. I aim to offer a novel alternative to the idea of ‘self-care’, in relation to the ways British caversenter into uncertain environments, amongst other things, as an act of ‘self-care’.
In the summer of 2023, I conducted my undergraduate dissertation fieldwork on a caving research expedition in the Austrian Alps. Made up of mainly students and working professionals from the UK, the cavers were all volunteers who funded and planned the project themselves. The expedition aims to map the cave system which lies underneath the Loser limestone plateau. The cave system – at present – stretches over 150km long and over 1100m deep, and is the focus of surveying carried out by the expedition. Each summer for six weeks, cavers are involved with recording the dimensions of passages they travel through, as well as writing up their surveys and producing 2D and 3D maps of the cave system. Caving as a practice straddles the categories of sport and science, with elements of it being physically demanding and recreational, yet also having research and scientific endeavours as central. These scientific endeavours include producing cave surveys, and researching the cave environment itself (speleology, or ‘cave science’).
My own dissertation research initially focused on attitudes to mapping, ‘nature’, and the idea of new spaces while caving. Risk was never something that I set out to focus on, and yet it quickly became clear that this was an axis around which many cavers understood their relationship to the cave environment as a way to construct their sense of self. For this article, I will focus on the latter. Through acquiring technical competence and interpersonal trust, cavers cultivated an embodied feeling of self-assuredness, manifesting in positive affective feelings that they were caring for themselves. This could be characterised as self-care, which is one of the terms that my interlocutors used, alongside ideas of meditation and groundedness. For many of the cavers I spoke to, caring for oneself meant being able to trust oneself to be safe in an environment of heightened uncertainty and risk. Though various terms were used, the understanding was thus: engaging in practices in uncertain environments, like caving, allows people to cultivate embodied competence which isn’t usually required in their day-to-day lives characterised by predictability. Taking a cue from Lefebvre’s work on the purpose of leisure pursuits, we can see these musings on risk and competence as ‘a critique of daily life’ (Lefebvre 1979: 140); a way of conjuring opposing images to the lives people usually lead.
For many working professionals living in the UK, pursuits with a level of unpredictability and risk offer an alternative way of actively relating to one’s environment that they feel is missing. It is in this environment of uncertainty that one can cultivate certainty in themselves. Being confident in one’s ability to navigate an unknown situation safely – drawing on a myriad of technical competencies of oneself and others – means a particular certainty in oneself. These feelings of self-confidence and trust in others were described by my interlocutors as a form of ‘self-care’.
One of the first things I’m asked when I tell people I do caving is usually along the lines of, “Why do you do that when it’s so risky?”. Between fears of getting lost, getting stuck, and getting trapped through flooding, it is a pastime which certainly makes you aware of bodily vulnerability.
When caving, awareness of risk is front and centre. Caving is a group endeavour, typically carried out in parties of three or four. Before going underground, one leaves a ‘callout’ – a message to a trusted person detailing the intended route and estimated time to be out of the cave; if this time comes and goes, the person calls the local cave rescue organisation. Caving in Austria specifically involved temperatures below freezing, vertical shafts over 100m deep, loose boulders and a risk of flooding – to name a few. Some of my interlocutors went on trips lasting over 48 hours, sleeping and eating underground. The physical distance from potential assistance, as well as the unknown qualities of the cave passages to be surveyed, meant an environment where trusting groupmates, maintaining an awareness of risk, and ensuring personal technical competence was key.
Another example of the relationship between outdoor pursuits, risk, and modernity is Neil Lewis’s 2004 article on the embodied ethics of British traditional (trad) climbing. In the piece, he explores traditional (‘trad’) climbing as a practice of resistance to rationalisation, specifically utilising George Ritzer’s concept of ‘McDonaldization’ as an oppositional framework to understand the ‘massification’ which trad climbers actively seek to avoid. Ritzer’s massification supposes an extension of Weber’s ‘rationalisation’ in which modernity creates experiences which are efficient, calculated, packaged, and – crucially for understanding the oppositional ethics of trad climbing – predictable. Lewis details the strict conventions of trad climbing, crucially the prohibition of bolting fixed anchor points into the rock, which would serve as a reliable safety mechanism to catch a climber should they fall. Instead, trad climbers opt for temporary anchor points which can be inserted into cracks in the cliff, and then removed after the climb. Lewis argues that the ethical underpinning of trad climbers’ aversion to bolting technology lies in part in a commitment to the embodied experience of risk. Having the cliff as a ‘falling-off place’ (Lewis 2004: 85) means the climb is experienced as a visceral form of ‘deep play’ i (See Geertz 1973).
Taking a cue from Lewis, we can conceptualise risk in outdoor pursuits not as an unfortunate obstacle to be avoided, but as an element crucial to the embodied ethics of the pursuit. This purposeful cultivation of an uncertain environment – often through the eschewing of certain technologies (see Lorimer and Lunde 2003 for a discussion of GPS devices in Scottish hillwalking) – enables an embodied experience of risk, and crucially, competence.
The quote at the beginning of this piece is pulled from an interview I conducted with a caver about his experience of caving on the Austrian expedition. In an explanation that looked straight out of Reitzer’s ‘McDonaldization’ thesis, he discussed the predictability and standardisation of day-to-day experience for many working professionals in the UK. He goes on to contrast this to the unpredictability and risk one experiences whilst caving, especially on the expedition. In a ‘McDonaldsized’ world where risk is largely absent, ‘edgework activities’ (Lyng 1990) which carry the risk of extreme harm to oneself allow for the cultivation of embodied competence, interpersonal dependence, and self-assuredness. My interlocutors variously described this as ‘self-care’, as a way to feel ‘grounded’ and as a practice of ‘mindfulness’.
It is in this environment of high level of uncertainty that cavers cultivate a subjectivity which embodies technical competence, trust in others, and an ability to stay calm in the face of unanticipated risk. The ‘McDonaldzified’ environment of everyday predictability actually creates an uncertainty within oneself: an uncertainty of one’s own competence. Yet through purposeful exposure to uncertain environments, cavers engage in this embodied form of ‘self-care’.
i. ‘Deep play’ references a concept by Jeremy Bentham referring to a game or practise with stakes so high that it is irrational to engage in it.
Evelyn Surman is a third-year Social Anthropology undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. In her free time, she helps to run NerdHerder, a student journal for pop culture, as well as serving as Access Officer on Newnham’s JCR. She also enjoys hiking, climbing, and caving.
Lefebvre, H. (1979) ‘Work and Leisure in Daily life’ in A. Mattelare and S. Siegelaub (eds) Communication and Class Struggle: Capitalism, Imperialism.
Lewis, N. (2004). Sustainable Adventure – Embodied experiences and ecological practices within British Climbing. In B. Wheaton (Ed.), Understanding Lifestyle Sports.
Lorimer, H., & Lunde, K. (2004). Performing Facts: Finding a Way over Scotland’s Mountains.
Lyng, S. (1990). ‘Edgework: A social psychological analysis of voluntary risk-taking.’ American Journal of Sociology, 95, 851–86.
Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of society: An investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life. Pine Forge Press.
Weber, M. (1946 ). Science as a Vocation. In H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp.129-156.