The beginning of the tour is messy. The group of people dressed in robust red overalls is being led by their guide, Márk, who is also called Frodó, through the dusty hallway made of stone. If you don’t pay attention, you will already meet the first roadblock here: the roof. The climbers continue in a straight line with their heads ducked low, until they reach a wooden bench, where they sit down. The headlights on their helmets are the only sources of light in the room. Márk gives a few last instructions and they descend eight metres into the deep cave, using a rusty ladder.
When Márk began his career as a cave climber he was 24 years old. And he was claustrophobic. “The first time I went on a tour they had to slap me on the face so that I got my panic attack under control,” the now-29-year-old recalls. “Sometimes this panic still returns.”
Despite the occasional fear of tight spaces, the young man is an ambitious hobby and professional climber, who knows almost the whole system of the Pál-Völgyi Cave in District II. However, Márk found his profession rather by chance; he did not really plan it.
“A few years ago I went to a guided tour here in the cave with my friends for fun. The tour guide at that time must have seen some kind of potential in us, since he offered to train us as guides when our tour was finished.”
Márk accepted and completed his training. Today he mainly specialises in English-speaking tours. However, he also saves time for his own adventures. “This team is just like family for me. We like to climb together in our free time and discover known and new places in caves, partly such places where no human has even been before.”
Climbers from around the world
In the meantime the group has reached the so-called Chapel, which is only a few metres away from the foot of the ladder. Small memorial tablets are hanging on the walls, reminding of climbers from the team who have died, such as one killed in the Himalayas. The spacy room with its impressive stone ceiling reminds us of a chapel indeed.
The only opening, which seems to lead into the inner space of the cave system, is a mere metre high. The participants get down on their knees and one after the other climb through the narrow hallway, only to slither down into the next flat opening just like on a slide.
The group speaks English and the people are a colourful mixture. There is a travel group from Boston, US, a couple from London and two girlfriends from the Netherlands. Most of them are only spending a few days in Budapest and then they move on to discover other European metropolises.
Discovered by chance
The experienced climbers in the team have been working already since 20 years to bring the adventure of exploring caves closer to people. The cave system was discovered in 1904 by chance. “In the beginning of the twentieth century mine workers were working in this area,” Márk explains, since he does not only know the caves from inside out but also their history. “The workers stumbled upon the first cave system while digging, and later on many other caves were discovered in the whole area.
“Experts and volunteers were sent to research the new discovery. The 30 kilometres-long Pál-Völgyi Cave, in which we organise the adventure tours, was opened only in 1948. Before that they used it as a storage room for weapons and bombs during World War II.”
Claustrophobic people should stay home
A few minutes later the group has to make an adventurous choice. They can either join Márk and decide on the quicker variant with “a lot of crawling” or follow his colleague on a less demanding trip. The majority of the group opts for Márk.
“This is just like in the army,” a young American complains, but it’s already too late to turn back. To go the whole way, you have to answer the often-asked question “How in hell will I get through there?” Sometimes moving on is only possible if you turn on your stomach on the top of a column, which is only as wide as a man, or if you slide face down in a stone tunnel.
People who suffer from claustrophobia should really avoid this experience.
Rescue in standby mode
Thirty emergency personnel of the cave rescue force are ready to act 24 hours a day. “In case of serious injuries life and death can be a matter of minutes,” Márk says. “Until the rescue forces arrive, which may take a while in those areas of the cave that are more difficult to reach, the most important thing is psychological support.
“Panic would be fatal. This is why the training for a tour guide contains a large part of psychology studies.”
If a participant has a panic attack, Márk is there and he knows what to do. “It’s important to build a relationship with the participant first because that has an enormous calming effect. After that I try to avert his attention from the stone walls and talk about something else. It’s very important that I stay calm and that the injured can feel this calmness.”
Panic attacks happen from time to time but luckily Márk has never experienced a serious accident so far in his career as a tour guide.
Surrounded by darkness
“Find a comfortable spot and turn your headlights off,” the experienced guide orders. The group is surrounded by deep, deep black. “Welcome to the complete darkness,” Márk says but gets no answer. There is something overwhelming about it.
“After spending a few hours in a cave you will see the faces of your friends and family in front of you. If you spend a longer time in the complete darkness the brain will start to produce hallucinations. This happens because people are automatically trying to get away from the monotony of complete darkness.”
When the light goes on again everyone is much quieter than before. The group soon reaches the deepest point of the tour: 48 metres under the entrance. For advanced climbers it’s possible to continue about another one hundred metres below but Márk’s group now turns back and heads upward. Surrounded by millions-years-old stone and fossils they go up and down the rocks with the aim of seeing sunlight again.
A sport of passion
After 2.5 hours all of them are back at the “Chapel”, safe and sound. “Do you see that memorial plate there? That was one of our colleagues, who created tours for children living with a handicap. She was trying to climb a rock in the Himalayas not so long ago when the weather suddenly turned bad and her whole expedition group died in the mountains.”
Climbing is an extreme sport. Márk is aware of this but he is not planning on quitting. “It’s so much more than just climbing. It’s the feeling to always continue and win over one’s own boundaries. And the feeling to have a group of friends around you, on whom you can rely on for 100% sure. Always.”
Caving under Budapest
Prices (English tours) for normal visitors, school excursions, geography lessons underground and gift certificates:
HUF 7000 per person over 14 years,
HUF 6000 per person under 14 years.
Participants must be between
10 and 55 years old.
Reservations and questions at: