Crazy Caver Explains How to Explore Caves and Map the Underworld

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

Have you ever wondered which places on earth have never been explored? For cave explorer, Nicholaus Vieira, discovering new places is his ultimate passion.

Nicholaus call himself Crazy Caver – and here he shares with us his caving life, his favorite gear, his views on the importance of writing expedition reports, and his plans for the future.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hello, I am Nicholaus Vieira originally from Western Canada, but currently residing in New Zealand checking out this amazing country and caves. My hobbies include climbing (ice, rock, aid, etc), diving (sump, and open water), canyoning, hiking, and skiing. Pretty much anything outside. I have recently began taking paragliding classes, as well.

For work, I have been working as a cave, or canyon guide, or other miscellaneous jobs (construction, etc), which would allow me to pursue my passion for exploration and adventure.

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

Why did you get into caving?

Originally, my experiences with caving were limited to commercial/adventure tours. Once I became an instructor for technical rescue with an industrial fire service, my mentor, George Hanus, suggested that I take up other hobbies, which would grow and expand my knowledge about ropes, their various applications and confined spaces. He introduced me to recreational caving, mountaineering, and climbing.

While climbing was an enjoyable hobby, for some reason caving really captivated me. Discovering a new passage, creature, or cave system appealed to me more than climbing a new route on a cliff or mountain. The more I caved, the more I began to realize how many disciplines one needs to master if they wish to be at the cutting edge of exploration (climbing, diving, canyoning, whitewater, caving, etc).

People who I looked up to for advice, inspiration and motivation are: the late Mike Boon, the late Ueli Steck, Jason Malison, Al Warild, and Alex Honnold.

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

How do you choose your explorations?

The initial screening for an expedition are the following: Fun/Adventure factor, interesting/uniqueness, time (when and how long), expedition objectives, team members, and cost. These qualifiers are not fixed but operate on a sliding scale.

First, it has to be fun or very interesting. Then, I look at who is involve and the cost. I try to cave with the known greats/personalities from the various parts of the world no matter what their language is.

There are caves, which are similar to each other, but thankfully with caves there is so much diversity. We could be caving inside glaciers for example, or a variety of other host materials. Maybe even exploring ancient mines or underground cities. The above comments haven’t even mentioned what the “lay of the land” could be underground, or where geographically the cave is situated.

Personally, I am a fan of diversity – where numerous skills are required to explore the cave (climbing, Single-Rope Technique aka SRT, diving, etc). As well as the cave being situated in an exciting area (on a remote cliff face or mountain in a lesser known country).

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

How did you train for your explorations?

My training for expeditions and exploration will vary depending on the skills required, terrain I will be in and my current abilities. Climbing, scrambling/peak bagging, recreational caving and a form of cardio (running, swimming or biking) will always be included. Then certain areas of focus would be included depending on the project and my weaknesses.

I have been recreational caving for 10 years now, and have been taking part in expeditions for the last eight years on a host of continents.

Work mornings are generally spent running, weight training, or swimming for 30 minutes. After work, I would generally climb (indoors or outside). Every few work evenings, I would ski tour, bike, go for a walk/run, or practice my rope work skills. My non-work days would be spent on full day trips – be it on a bike, in a cave, on a mountain or in the water. Endurance both with the body and in the mind are super important for success.

Other sports are a big part of my day-to-day training. They are not only physically benefit you, but mentally as well. You can acquire very useful knowledge and skills one might not be able to get with out a geographical relocation by cross training with other sports.

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

Below are my regular cross-training sports:

  • Climbing: Rope work with emphasis on protecting a climber, physical training, balance, footwork, climbing abilities, mental training, terrain and weather assessment skills, ice safety and skills.
  • Canyoning: Water skills and safety, rope work with emphasis on pulldowns, terrain and weather assessment skills.
  • Diving: Further water safety and skills, mental training, training for progression through flooded sections of a cave.
  • Backcountry Skiing: Balance, leg strength, endurance, snow safety and skills (a transport method to a cave).
  • Mountain Biking: Balance, leg strength and endurance, terrain assessment (a transport method to a cave).

What has been the most difficult part of your explorations?

The type of people who only look after themselves, and their own interests, at the expense of the team. I don’t know if I have come up with a good solution here.. maybe, putting only the amount of energy into them, what they put into the team?

People and communication will always be the hardest part of exploration. The other obstacles are better defined and vary less. We can literally achieve any goal we wish or can dream of. It is just a question of will. People, society and our internal pressures will be the hardest challenges on the path to success.

Writing trip reports and Scooping are something that a lot of cave explorers forget to do. With the advent of social media and the crunch for time people generally just post their adventures online through a social media platform forgoing writing a trip report or even an expedition report. By doing this, they handy cap future cavers/explorers. People have to start from scratch with little information, and potentially solve problems, which may have been derived from the previous group(s).

With scooping (not mapping new passage which you enter/explore, etc), cavers are playing to their egos, and are not embodying the exploration spirit. Which is to record, report and share their discoveries. By not mapping on your trip, you are removing the opportunity for others to have those amazing moments of discovery, and increasing the costs exponentially of exploration.

The best part of exploration is watching people grow and be apart of a project, which they can look back at 20 years later and be proud. It is also freaking awesome to discover something amazing!

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

How do you finance your explorations?

Financing caving exploration for me has been mainly about sacrifice and discomfort. I have been homeless by choice for the last eight and a half years, living in the back of a Jeep Cherokee, in a tent, or some other random location. I am all too aware of having to sleep with my food so it doesn’t freeze, or proper storage as not to cause issues with the local bears. All of this has allowed me to save money to finance my exploration whether it be local or on an international expedition.

Cave exploration can be very cheap. Most people have the equipment to go and look for caves (hiking, scrambling, research, etc). Once a cave has been discovered then the costs will increase in relation to the terrain and obstacles discovered: Is it a horizontal cave, or vertical (pits, etc)? Is it a wet cave? Is there bad air? Do you need to cave dive? Is it a cave of significance (speleothems, archaeological, etc)? All of these features will increase the cost of exploration by varying degrees as they will require specialized safety equipment, conservation protocol/equipment and further skills/training.

Travel, and cave diving are my biggest expenses, I do save up money until the next project, and I wish I have sponsors.

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

Recommendations for people who want to get into cave exploration?

Bring enthusiasm, willingness to learn, and leave the ego. No one person has all the answers, ask questions and understand the why. Hard caves will quickly show who is good and who needs work, and there are always bigger fish.

For skills, learn how to survey (sketching), learn to climb, learn SRT in Frog-French setup, and the rest will come during the exploration.

For caving exploration training, first, go caving (at least once a week), and climbing (2-3 times a week). Help out with remapping projects, and practice your rope skills (with a bag). Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

For Targets, starting out for rope skills: You should be able to progress on rope in any direction through any mid-rope obstacle, and change over in any direction. For Times, if people wish to use this metric, are 1 minute for change over and passing knots. 45 seconds for passing rebelays, deviations and rope pads. Last target would be to ascend 30m in 2 minutes.

For starters, climbing gyms are amazing avenues into the climbing world. Start with an introduction to climbing course, or belay course if you already have friends who climb. Enjoy!

Caving avenues are a bit funny as the best way to get involved is through a caving club. Some clubs are more open and welcoming, and others are not. Eventually, you will meet a “mentor” of sorts and things will progress from there. Also, read some good books like European methods for rope work.

Do not be afraid to join an expedition. Worst case scenario is that you end up on the surface for the whole project. Train, don’t rush “experience”, and use your brain.. that thing called common sense.

Do you have a “call out”? Someone who knows where you are and your intentions. Before you go in ask yourself; can I get back out?

It will be the “4 Fs” which will likely get you: Flooding, Falling, Falling objects, and F.. screw ups.

Your top 5 favorite expedition gear?

  • A solid primary caving light (Scurion – dive model, or Phaethon – Duo)
  • Canyoning shoes (5.10 canyoneer 3 canvas – light, drain well and the rubber is amazing.. when it is on your shoes)
  • Ascenders and Descender (Petzl Croll, Basic, and Stop)
  • Good Cave Suit (AV Titan – Red for pictures)
  • MTDE chest and seat harness (Garma and Amazonia)

They are comfortable and allow me to move through the various environments with speed and ease.

My top favorite gear is a solid waterproof primary light, which you do not question. Without this, you are not very mobile in the dark depths of a cave. Currently, my number one choice is stuck between the Scurion – Dive model, and the Phaethon. I own both.

Cave Explorer Nicholaus Vieira

What will the future bring?

Good question! I will continue to be involved with interesting exploration projects around the world, but I will begin organizing more of my own. Hopefully, I will be able to fund myself through these exploration projects so I can continually push at the fringes.

I wish not to give too much away, but cave diving will definitely be involved. And oh, I want to go to Antarctica! Also, I don’t have much of “other areas” in my life, maybe this will develop!

Currently, I am saving for a new cave suit, canyoning shoes, and underlayers. But two items, which are on the dream list are a sidemount rebreather and a dive scooter.

Anything else you want to add?

I am always keen for an adventure, so don’t hesitate, if you need a partner hit me up.


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