I have some underground travel (walking/climbing) by humans that I need to calculate time for, so I am looking for some "baseline" to go by. As such, I'm trying to figure out the average speed of those who are involved in caving. For my purposes here, it is the most useful to have an idea of the different speeds between level, mainly horizontal cavern travel (which I'll label as spelunking for purposes here) and more vertical cavern movement (which I'll label as cliff-climbing).

However, useful answers that detail some "average" speeds through various known caverns is fine as well. Additional details on how much vertical vs. horizontal movement is required in those caves might help to pinpoint differences between the two types of movement speeds by inference.

If answering for the two types specifically:

  1. Spelunking: Given a cavern that is unexplored (this is not wholly the case in my instance, but for sake of speed calculations here), without any major obstacles (major chasms or underground lakes to cross, etc.), but has uneven ground, with some rises/falls in elevation (including at times short climbs of say body height or less that requires no equipment, or occasional squeezes to pass through), with the spelunker alert for possible dangers (large holes/cracks to avoid, even perhaps dangerous creatures lurking in the dark, though this is rare), what speed would be a base average for such travel?
  2. Cliff-climbing: Assuming equipment roughly equivalent to a cruder form of devices used for modern climbing (rope, pitons put in by hammer, and other aid climbing instruments) where one does not already have such things in place, and assuming essentially vertical cliffs with only some slight overhangs to overcome, what speed when scaling up or descending down (I'm assuming the speeds will be different, but maybe not) would be a base average for such travel?

If answering for a general caving speed, still consider the above points when choosing example caves (so if they are primarily horizontal, or primarily vertical, state such; if the cavern complex is a mix, if possible, estimate the percentage horizontal vs. vertical aspects to the caving).

For any answer, please give the speed as both Imperial and Metric units, for whatever units makes sense (miles/km per hour or feet/meters per hour).

Further context:

  • An expert and a newbie (consider either in physical enough shape to do so), but travelling together (though if you want to give me speeds for each, and let me "speculate" on the speed between the two, that is fine).
  • No magic or other technology involved.
  • The goal is not "exploration" (mapping, etc.), but merely moving (from a known destination to a known destination, just that the caverns often may change slightly, so moderate care is needed)
  • Lighting is equivalent to headlamps.
  • They have adequate provisions for food/water.
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    $\begingroup$ On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface. He’d travelled more than three miles through the earth by then... and that's an experienced spelunker. About one quarter mile per day. With a newbie, half that at best. With dangerous animals, half again. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 6 '18 at 1:55
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH why don't you shape that into an answer? That type of "sourcing" is what I was hoping an answer would have... $\endgroup$ – ScottS Apr 6 '18 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Becuase alone it's not a complete answer to your question. (Which is one of the many drawbacks of multi-question questions, and why Stack Exchange doesn't prefer them.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 6 '18 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ For a great example of how to work spelunking into a story, read Deep Zone by James M. Tabor. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 6 '18 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH My question is singular, in that it is about caving (as your link was about), but in order to be the most useful to me in calculating time to traverse, knowing the differences in horizontal (walking) versus vertical (climbing/descending) is the most helpful. Maybe I'll clarify that. $\endgroup$ – ScottS Apr 6 '18 at 16:06

They are going to very quite a bit based on difficulty! In general, climbing a cliff is very slow, but you can repel down one in seconds.

Spelunking is very different. Caves are generally pretty easy to get around in, minus the impediments you mention. The main problem is that they can be a complete labyrinth.

That being said, for rock climbing, the fastest expert I've ever seen could ascend at about half walking speed up a moderately difficult face with his route already planned and without safety equipment. A more reasonable speed for most good climbers is maybe 10 meters a minute for a moderately technical wall, not including rest and not including the fact that the route may not be straight up the wall.

Repelling down a wall is extremely quick. Nearly the entire time spent is in the setup, which can be quite quick - just a minute if you're good at it.

I'm not going to give estimates for spelunking beyond the rough ballpark above as I have never been spelunking without a guide who knew the cave well. I imagine large cave system would be difficult to explore if you did not already know it's layout.

The speed with an expert and a newbie is going to be the speed of the newbie, or else the expert is no expert. You don't push newbies at a dangerous activity.

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    $\begingroup$ but you can repel down one in seconds ... especially if you're an amateur. I can testify to the matter. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 6 '18 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ +1 You make a good point about the labyrinthine nature of caves. That might further differentiate the speed of the expert from the novice. The expert will hopefully be able to guide the group through the shortest possible straight line between known locations. The novice would meanwhile have to explore many of the cave's side paths and dead ends. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 6 '18 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ Is your speed calculations for climbing based on personal experience or research? If research, what is your source? If experience, how long have you been climbing? I would like to see some "reason" for taking your values as valid estimates. $\endgroup$ – ScottS Apr 6 '18 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ "The speed with an expert and a newbie is going to be the speed of the newbie" Not neccesarily true in rock climbing. If speed matters, only the expert will climb the cliff in tecnical terrain. The newbie will ascend the rope. $\endgroup$ – Guran Apr 6 '18 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ The fastest free solo climbing I've seen was about 25m ascent / minute - see this video so 10m ascent/minute is definitely possible. Watching that though, it's seriously fast - so 10m ascent/minute is still probably optimistic, especially for any extended length of time. $\endgroup$ – walrus Apr 6 '18 at 9:45

Spelunking: Based on my experience as a spelunker, the rate of travel will depend on a number of factors, including:

1) size of passage - from tight squeezing and belly crawling to walking - in some low passages you have to remove your helmet and gear bag, and push the helmet in front while dragging the bag behind (maybe 30 meters/hour). If it's large enough to crawl, you may cover 300 meters per hour. If it's possible to walk, a maximum pace of 3 km/hour is possible in passages without any branches.

2) purpose of travel - exploring (checking each visible opening for possible passages - rate depends on number of branches) or mapping (using tape measure or rangefinder and compass/inclinometer, since GPS doesn't work underground). 300 to 500 meters is typically a full day for exploring and/or mapping. For simply traveling to some possible destination where you simply mark each main branch to find your way back (with arrows pointing to outside!), you can travel as past as the size of passage allows (see (1)).

3) number of people in group - every obstacle or tight passage adds a fairly constant delay per person

4) If both are physically fit, there is not a significant difference in travel speed between an expert and a newbie during actual travel. An expert might make decisions about choices of passages or the best route more quickly (for example, knowing that an opening with significant air movement is likely to lead to a large chamber or long passage).

5) quality/type of gear - if you have to hold a light in your hand instead of mounted on your helmet, then you will travel more slowly whenever there is an obstacle. If you don't have a helmet, you'll spend time bandaging your head when you hit rocks in low passages. If you don't have kneepads and gloves, you'll crawl much more slowly in very low passages.

  • $\begingroup$ Can I ask you to add into your answer the amount of experience you have in spelunking (months, years)? $\endgroup$ – ScottS Apr 6 '18 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ With the updated question you may be able ot improve this question. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 7 '18 at 2:18

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