With boys rescued from Thai cave, we talked to an Eagle Scout caving expert about spelunking safety

The world simultaneously exhaled on Tuesday when we learned that all 12 young members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were rescued from Tham Luang Cave in Thailand.

Pulling off this rescue effort required dozens of caving experts and hundreds of volunteers. Sadly, one retired Thai Navy SEAL died during the ordeal.

This story, and its positive conclusion for the trapped boys, made me wonder how things go wrong in caving — and what to do when the worst happens.

Bringing in the Scouting angle, I wanted to learn how older Scouts and Venturers can minimize their risks when caving. How can troops and crews best Be Prepared?

So I called Distinguished Eagle Scout Bill Steele. Steele started caving when he was a 13-year-old Boy Scout and never stopped. He’s a member of the Explorers Club and has completed hundreds of caving expeditions.

In fact, he’s considered such an expert that The Washington Post asked him to pen an op-ed piece about the Thai cave situation.

He wrote: “What I have learned, since I started exploring caves as a 13-year-old Boy Scout 55 years ago, is that caving absolutely requires you to adhere to the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.”

In addition to his groundbreaking work in speleology, Distinguished Eagle Scout Bill Steele was a lifelong professional in the Boy Scouts of America. He retired in 2014 after a 34-year career with the BSA. His last role was as national director for alumni relations and the National Eagle Scout Association.

How to avoid getting trapped

The Thai soccer players became trapped when rising waters flooded passageways. Spaces through which the boys previously crawled were now completely underwater.

Steele says the reason is pretty clear. When heavy rains hit, the water will take the path of least resistance. That path is sometimes underground.

“That’s just a fact of living in caving,” Steele says. “That’s where the water goes. That’s why the cave’s there.”

Steele’s spelunking work includes leading Proyecto Espeleológico Sistema Huautla in Mexico. It’s an annual underground expedition into the deepest cave system in the Western Hemisphere.

When Steele caves in Sistema Huautla, he goes during Mexico’s dry season.

“You just watch the weather closely, and if it’s any doubt whatsoever, you don’t do it,” he says. “You want an absolutely perfect weather forecast.”

How to go caving safely

Steele says when he was a Boy Scout, he was the one pushing his troop to go caving as often as they could. If it were up to Steele, every monthly troop trip would’ve been spent underground.

But before the troop could go caving, Steele’s Scoutmaster wanted Steele to find a caving expert who knew that particular cave.

“I want to meet him. I want to see his gear. I want him to open himself up for questions,” Steele’s Scoutmaster told him.

Decades later, that’s still good advice. Steele says troops or crews who want to try caving should first contact caving experts in their area.

“If there are caves in an area, there’s a caving club,” he says. “And you can find them, and they’ll be glad to help. You ought to get them to take you. They’re going to know the inherent dangers — if there are any.”

Beyond that, the Scout Motto applies. Being prepared with the proper gear — helmets, three separate light sources, boots, extra food and water, and more — will serve you well in case anything goes wrong.

For more information, consult the BSA’s “Cave Safely, Cave Softly” guide. You’ll find guidelines like these:

  • All caving trips should be done under the supervision of qualified adult leaders.
  • Cub Scouts and Webelos Scouts are encouraged to visit commercially operated caves and lava tubes.
  • Boy Scout-age (Scouts BSA-age) youth are generally mature enough to enter “easy wild caves,” which means they’re easily accessible, nontechnical/non-vertical caves. A “wild cave” is anything that is not commercially operated with a professional tour guide.
  • Older Boy Scouts (at least 13 and completed eighth grade or 14), Sea Scouts and Venturers should be ready to explore more technical wild caves.

(See this Age-Appropriate Guidelines for Scouting Activities document for more.)

Know when to call it off

A few years ago, Steele was asked to lead a large expedition into Honey Creek Cave, the longest known cave in Texas. There were “a ton of people” on the trip, Steele says, including some that had driven hundreds of miles just to be there.

They were about 3,000 feet into the 3-mile trip when Steele stopped suddenly.

“I noticed the water was higher than normal, and I said, ‘I’m not so sure this cave isn’t flooding right now,'” Steele says.

So the group sat down and stared fixedly at a spot on the cave wall. They were watching to see if the water level was rising.

A few minutes later, Steele called it: “We’re out.”

“You don’t risk it; you just call it,” Steele says. “Live another day.”

Scouting taught Steele to be brave, but it also taught him to be smart.

“Even if you’re totally prepared, unexpected things can happen,” he says. “And that’s the great thing about Scouting is it prepares you for unexpected things. You’ve gone camping once a month for years, and you’ve got this intuitiveness about what to do.”

A community of divers

Steele monitored the situation in Thailand closely, and not just because he’s an expert in caving.

He knows some of the British cave divers who flew to Thailand to help rescue the boys and their coach. (One of those divers is even a British Cub Scout leader.)

Reading news reports and talking to his friends in the caving community, Steele could tell the rescue divers were giving these boys the best chance at survival.

They sent two-member teams with each boy, with the lead diver pulling the boy along using a tether. The air tank for each boy was held by the lead diver — not the boy.

“He’s got the tank,” Steele says. “You can’t mess up and turn your air off.”

A second diver followed the boy and could solve any problems that happened along the route.

“They did it right,” Steele says. “They really did.”