UCF students take on the treacherous Tumbling Rock Cave Reserve in 2-day trip to Alabama

Several students scale the vigorous terrain of the caves in pitch black darkness with no harness and nothing but a headlamp to lead the way at the Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve on Sunday.

This week, 11 UCF students showed bravery and perseverance as they participated in the adventure of their lives at the Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve in Northern Alabama to expand their explorative horizons.

The Outdoor Adventure Center at the RWC is UCF's hub for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Along with the various adventure trips that go on throughout the semester, students can also rent equipment like snorkeling and climbing gear for their own trips.

The OAC hosts several different adventure trips over the course of the semester, including backpacking, strawberry picking and even canaveral sea kayaking. However, their semi-annual caving and camping trip is regarded by members as their most potentially dangerous one and takes a lot of mental and physical preparation.

It's no secret that cave climbing is one of the most dangerous outdoor activities to take part in. According to The Outbound Collective, "caving is not only an inherently dangerous activity due to difficult navigation, lack of light and hypothermic conditions, but caves are also extremely sensitive environments."

According to the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving caves, the Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve has over 6 miles of horizontal passage and a stream throughout the majority of its length. It also has stalactites, stalagmites and giant column formations with unique names including "The Elephant Feet" and "The Christmas Tree.”

"When we're thinking about the risks regarding caving, we're thinking about total darkness," Brandi Bates, UCF Outdoor Adventure coordinator, said. "It's really scary, especially in true darkness."

UCF students take on the treacherous Tumbling Rock Cave Reserve in 2-day trip to Alabama.

Brandi Bates (far right), coordinator of UCF Outdoor Adventure, discusses the experience of total darkness on Sunday at the Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve. She prompts students to think about the emotional and mental risk of caving.

"We're very honest with participants that there is nothing that we do that is completely risk free," Bates said.

While there are a vast amount of risks, Bates emphasized the amount of training that goes into the trips.

"Each semester trip, leaders do a weeklong training and go over different skills in the field to make sure folks are prepared and know how to navigate the cave," Bates said.

Bates said all outdoor adventure trip leaders are certified in first aid, CPR and AED, with some even being certified Wilderness First Responders.

"Mitigating risk is extremely important to all Outdoor Adventure trips. There is an inherit risk in everything we do, so we do risk briefings and discussions before all activities. We also try to cover the emotional and mental risk as much as the physical risk as well," Bates said. 

Although the dangers of cave climbing make the trip seem scary, trip leader and senior interdisciplinary studies major Kristen Reilly shines light on the astonishing beauty and wonder in the cave that makes this a once in a lifetime experience for some students.

"The inside of the cave is quite literally otherworldly," Reilly said. "The cave is really spectacular in the sense that it has some portions that are tight squeezes, but for the most part is very expansive and has large rooms and caverns." 

Although this was not Reilly's first caving trip, she said she was still astonished by the structure and wildlife found inside the cave, some of which she had never seen before despite her experience. 

"The caves have these really colorful salamanders that come in blue and orange, even some marine life. We even saw bats for the first time," Reilly said. "Surprisingly there's also this albino crayfish that's really hard to find. Only two leaders have seen it prior to this trip."

On this trip, not only did students learn how to safely navigate through a cave without a guide, but they also got to learn about how the structure of the cave is formed naturally and the wildlife that lives there. Even with all of the potential dangers and uncertainties of caving, this semester's group of students showed up determined and ready to take on whatever waited for them in the caves.

UCF students take on the treacherous Tumbling Rock Cave Reserve in 2-day trip to Alabama.

Students gather around a mud patch caused by a waterfall found inside the cave at the Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve on Sunday.

"We had a really great group," Cody Spence, trip leader and sophomore history and anthropology major, said. "They caught on and learned really quickly and everyone was just really excited to be there."

Despite potential dangers, none of the participants let their nerves get to them so they could focus on the learning experience and the natural beauty of caving rather than the risks, they said. 

"Overall, it's just so unique and beautiful and caving is something that I think everyone should get to experience at least once in their life,”  Reilly said.

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