First Cave... Last Cave

I'm sitting in the dark feeling miserable.
The problem is that currently it looks pretty much as if the weekend that included my first real caving experience might also be going to include my last. That will be sad because it has been masses of fun but here I am, sat at the bottom of Garland's Pot, a four meter diameter hole with a part time job as a waterfall, about a hundred meters or more underground and looking at a ladder, six meters high that I have failed to climb three times.

That has to be pretty much lost it as a caver.

Context? You want context?
OK. Let's back up about a month. I was discussing my diving web site, as often happens, and particularly the Martyn Farr Cavern Course write up.
I was talking via Private Message on Yorkshire Divers to Matt Smith and he suggested a chance to try real caving. Would I like to?
Boy I would like to. I haven't had a chance to do something like that for decades and then it was only twice. Getting inside a real pot hole, with some supervision seems the ideal trick.
We picked a date and made a plan.

It's a long drive from Brighton to Sheffield so I threw the kit in the car and left straight after work and four and a half hours later unloaded myself into Matt's living room. He inspected my purchases from the recommended shopping list and pronounced it all good. We were ready to go.

Saturday: Carlswark Cavern
P6020523.JPG In the morning we loaded up my car and headed off. We ended up in a lay-by at Stoney Middleton in Derbyshire. Somehow, as a diver, getting out of your pants and into an undersuit/oversuit combination in a car park doesn't seem too strange and soon I'm in my nice clean new caving gear and walking up to the cave entrance.
P6020516.JPG Time to pause for some pictures. This wonderful yellow suit will probably never be this clean again so let's record its full glory now. Matt's is a more realistic shade of what the Derbyshire mud can do to you if you get serious.

A cave? It's a hole in the ground. Frankly it's just a small hole at the bottom of a cliff. This is called the Gin Entrance. It's a rough clamber down about five meters and then a lumpy crouch and shuffle into a passage that turns off into the rock. Sometimes there is headroom to stand but often we are crouching or crawling. I didn't have any gloves on my list so I make a mental note to get some as crawling in a few inches of water (mud) is a sensation that could be improved. We move through a series of chambers and make quite a few stops so I can sit down as my back, shoulders and thighs are objecting as this isn't what they're used to.

I am trying to monitor myself for claustrophobia but, quite surprisingly it doesn't happen. I used to rock climb and I have noted that looking down from things, like York Minster, that the head for heights seems to have faded a bit since then but being enclosed doesn't seem to be bothering me.

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We move on and things are tight. Matt is clearly being very careful with me, as I'm no hero I appreciate that, but there is a squeeze ahead. A squeeze is a point where a person only fits by working at it. I'd like to see it but I'm not sure I want to try. P6020525.JPG That is OK with Matt so we crawl off down a passage that turns into a tiny bend, not even a chamber, with a gap between some rocks at the end. We are over 350 meters into the cave and this is my first go so I decide that this far is far enough. If I blow my confidence now it's a long way back and much of it is a slither on your tummy. Matt does a demo on the squeeze and it might have been easy but I think turning there was a good call. Exhale and wiggle. Exhale and wiggle. He has to take his helmet off but he gets through and he gets back.

We walk, crawl, crouch and slither back to the entrance. Interestingly I totally misjudged the distance and we were nearly back at the Gin entrance when I still thought we still had about one third distance to go. The climb back up the last bit was a big heave and Matt kindly took an after shot of the kit. The degeneration has begun.

We only did two hours and only travelled about 350 meters each way. This is still numpty stuff. Barely a warm up for the real men.

Holme Bank Chert Mine
Our second call for the day was to visit a well known cave dive training site. We're not going equipped to dive anything, this is just the tourists come to see what it is like. Holme Bank is a Silica mine with nicely defined passageways and is pre-roped for diving. Matt expressed the opinion that he'd never seen the water so low but it was a stand up and walk excursion which was a relief to my back. I'm suffering from the attrition of muscle and skeleton that comes with decades of earning my living sitting in front of a computer.

Here are some pictures. I was perplexed at finding a pair of boots sitting there, all alone, but...
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We finished the day with a run into the Caving Supplies shop for some gloves and a couple of D-rings to replace one I had borrowed from Matt. Then a meal. A big meal.

Sunday: The Giant's hole
P6030545.JPG The next day we were going to meet with the Orpheus Caving Club at their centre in the Peak District National Park south of Buxton. We were going to do a trip with Pete Wagstaff. After some debate the choice is made on the 'Giant's Hole'. They promise me a walk in and then a pot hole. This will involve a bit of ladder work so Pete rigs a ladder on the side of the centre and I get to try. The trick is to keep straight and just move up and down. It works for me so we load the cars and head off.
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The Giant's Hole is a picturesque cave with an imposing entrance, a winding, mostly stand-up height, passage down through a series of quite interesting chambers. At the end of this section is Garland's Pot, a large circular pit with the eyelets already rigged to attach ropes. To go any further you have to go down.

This is a well tracked path. Pete and Matt are careful to see how I feel about this next section. I am unsuspectingly happy with the ladder, I did it back at the centre, but some of the stuff beyond that sounds a bit daunting. Let's not add too many new things in one day. They rope me with an extra safety rope and I go down. It's not that bad.

Pete takes me on through the tight Crab Walk, where you can only waly sideways. to the point where it drops to the level below and then we return. There is one bit where it is too narrow for even me but at crawling height there isa bit more width so I get through and back.

So it's just back up the ladder and that's a good cave ticked off for me although it was probably a bit trivial and a bit brief for my mentors. Re-rig the ropes and start up the ladder.

But it doesn't work.

My legs are quite able to lift me but too many years of shoulder abuse, broken collar bones are normal for a motorcycle racer, means that my arms, that need to hold me close to the ladder, start to tremble. I can't hold on with my elbows jittering about. Locking my arms round the ladder doesn't seem togive them a break as I need to straighten them out but neither can hold me alone.

Three tries.
Now I know I'm stuck in a hole.
That's where we started.

OK so I'm not posting this from a hole in the ground so what happened?

Matt is at the top playing safety rope man so Pete assesses the situation. He can zoom up and down ladders annoyingly easily. I can do the lift but my arms are the problem. Wait here he says. He will get some kit from the car.

He comes back with part of a SRT kit. Now one thing Matt said about buying kit was that "You won't need an SRT kit." Don't you love the way that anything you say emphatically comes back to haunt you?
SRT is Single Rope Technique and the kit enables you to ascend and descend a single rope. It take extra training and practicing the skills so obviously Matt correctly advised me not to spend my money on that yet.

Pete straps me into the thing and it feels good. Now I'm enclosed in a harness with a single direction rope slider on my chest. Effectively I'm on a ratchet and the only way is up. If (when) my arms begin to tremble I just sit back into the harness, wave them about to get them back under control and carry on.

In fact it wasn't too easy as I'm still trying to climb the ladder but I just keep doing another rung and another rung and suddenly Matt isn't talking to me from above he's next to me. Actually I've over done it and I can't quite sit back onto the edge so they can pull the harness off but it works a lot better when I stop trying to help and just let them do it. I crawl off and flop in a heap and let them strip the ropes down.

Actually SRT looks quite good for me. I could concentrate my lift into my strongest left leg and save my arm strength for the transition off the rope at the top. Being out of the hole I'm beginning to feel a bit more positive and, surprisingly, Matt and Pete are talking about how I can cave avoiding ladders, people they know who don't use ladders and completely avoiding the subject of popping me back in the car, pointing me south and saying "Nice try but forget all about it".

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Democratic Dig
P6030557.JPG Some people say that Divers are nuts.
It could be argued but I don't really think so.
Cavers are nuts?
Same kind of argument.
Cave Divers?
OK they may have more of a point but they're not in this league:

These guys really are nuts!

"It's limestone and it looks like water once ran away here...."
"Maybe it's just silted up. Let's dig it out."

This was my last port of call with the Orpheus Caving Club and is clearly something they are quite proud of. Probably twenty meters of pot hole and all cleared of mud and rocks by hand. This is the manic and the painful end of caving. Those doing it were happy to admit that it isn't the sanest activity but, probably, not taking themselves too seriously helps them keep going.

It was about six meters of twisty 45 degrees down slither then about another six or more meters of twisty passage where it was too low to crawl so the two inches plus of mud on the bottom made it easier to slide. This opened into a chamber, all dug out by hand, with a pit in the floor where the active work was some three meters below us. Mud came out up buckets, was poured into a sledge and that was wound back up the slope by an improvised winch.

The enthusiasm was wonderful. I suppose the hope is that within the next few feet you will lever up a rock and underneath will be a dark hole and a welcoming passage...
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What did I learn? Obviously nothing as although I ache all over, creak when I walk, have bruises places I don't even remember bumping yet I have an invite to go back for an SRT training session and I'm looking forward to it. That last slither down to see Democratic Dig confirmed it. If I'd stopped after the problems of Giant's hole I might have stopped forever but even a short hole like that pointed out to me that I can do enclosed, I can do dark and I enjoy it. I have restrictions so I'm going to have to make allowances for myself but I do that in most other fields already. I know that's not quite the most sensible point of view but, having seen the diggers, I'm probably in the right company.

Incidentally I've ordered a ladder and the appropriate fittings from the Caving Supplies shop. I'll hang it from the back balcony and see if I can retrain as a ladder climber. We shall see...

The pictures can be accessed by clicking the thumbnail but they tend to be 900K+ files
Pictures by Nigel Hewitt, Matt Smith and Peter Wagstaff
Thumbnails by Easy Thumbnails

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