Ten years in the dark

Chapter 11 of 13

Gaining an appreciation

The minicolumns in White Arch Series, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. Flash by Tarquin and Malcolm Reid, camera by Becky Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin and Becky Wilton-Jones.

While I was learning to get my nerve back over heights, I had the fortune to go caving in Diccan Pot with Fred Weeks. Fred is a Yorkshire potholer and is extremely tough. He has since been on the expeditions with my brother to Slovenia, as well as expeditions with Steve King. Fred had been a caving companion of my dad and uncle more than twenty years before. He is a key member of the (Northern) Cave Rescue Organisation and at one point, he had rescued a woman from the very cave I was visiting, when she nearly drowned in a flood. I had and still have complete faith in Fred.

We entered the cave through its normal entrance and reached the head of the first pitch. Below me, the floor was thirty eight metres away and I was scared. Fred calmly talked me through everything, and I can tell you that he has an extremely comforting way to talk to someone who was scared. I reached the bottom feeling better about it and continued down the next pitch. The third pitch was the same height as the first but the rebelay half way down was very exposed and I was amazed by the strength in Fred's arms as he traversed across the wall using only his fingertips to attach the rope. Again he talked me past the knot.

It was in a situation like this that Fred had hidden in the shadows, high above the floor, watching my dad trying to pass a rebelay. As my dad slowly worked through the procedure for passing the knot in the rope, Fred had waited until my dad had got to a safe point and then boomed out 'Am watchin' ye!' from his hiding place. A strange man, but with a good sense of humor.

Once at the bottom of the cave, we looked at the short section of passage at the bottom. I freeclimbed up the four metre waterfall to the base of Alum Pot and saw a karabiner - a metal link used to connect ropes to rocks and cavers - neatly placed on a ledge at the bottom. At least, I hope it was neatly placed there. Alum Pot is a sixty metre pitch and if it had fallen and managed to bounce up there, it would be damaged beyond safety. No-one claimed the karabiner so I continued to use it, having tested its strength to prove it was safe. I still use that karabiner today.

On the way back out, I felt scared again, but safer than normal, knowing that Fred would shout at me if I made any mistakes. I would not make any mistakes, but it was nice to know that if I did, someone would stop me before I endangered myself.

On a lovely sunny day, those of us without a tan had decided to cool off in Little Neath River Cave, known in Welsh as Ogof Nedd Fechan. This cave was originally found in a shakehole, near a dry section of the Little Neath river in South Wales. A small passage led through a choke and eventually broke into a very large passage, which sumped after a short distance. Divers passed the sump to gain access to a large stream cave now over eight kilometres long. One side passage had been dug in a small passage, half full of water, back to where the water sank at the edge of the river, creating the 'dry' entrance.

I have heard a story about an adventure group who were in the original entrance, known as Bridge Cave and one of the novices convinced another that he could swim safely through the sump as it was 'only short'. Diving in before anyone could stop him, he surfaced eighteen metres later in total darkness, in the main cave. I can assure you that eighteen metres is a very long way to dive in a cave without air tanks. Even cavers who are experienced in 'free-diving' sumps rarely dive further than ten metres. The novice was eventually shown out the dry way several hours later. Quite how true this story is, I do not know.

We headed in through the dry entrance. I say dry, but in fact, this entrance will completely soak anyone who uses it. If the water level is high, cavers can get washed through the tiny passageway. We went in under very low water conditions, and at the end, those of us who were small enough bypassed a duck by squeezing above it. With the water being directly from a river, several species of river dwelling creatures are found throughout the cave, mostly unpleasant ones that you most certainly would not want to get in your mouth. However, there is some life in this cave that most cavers feel privileged to encounter.

One section of the cave is known as The Canal, where to roof is less than half a metre above the water, and the water is just under arm length deep. We reached this section and continued to follow the river through it. The way we moved in here was to lie down in the water, trailing our feet behind us and 'walking' ourselves along the bottom with our hands. Around our hands, we could see white shapes moving near them. Stopping to look, we realized these were blind cave fish. Having no natural predators, these fish have no fear of humans, and quite happily play around them.

These fish are related to species found on the surface, except that through evolution, these cave fish had lost the ability to see, as it is totally unnecessary underground in the dark. They still had sockets for eyes, but unlike normal fish that have no eyelids, these had skin completely covering the sockets. They are also white, instead of the usual speckled brown, as camouflage has no use in the dark. To see the fish swim with such accuracy using only their sense of smell was quite an experience.

With bats, echoes are used to produce a stereoscopic picture of the cave around them, and to a small extent we can do this, being able to distinguish between the echoes of a large chamber, a small passage and mud or sand. In fact, cavers develop what is known as their sixth sense where they will suddenly have the urge to duck for no reason. When they check why, it invariably turns out that they were about the hit their head on the roof. We assume that this reaction is triggered by the echoes of the sounds of them moving. With the fish, this is something different. They can detect when they approach a target because its smell increases. I am left to wonder about how they can tell when they approach a rock.

Unfortunately, both times I have visited this cave, because they were such hot days, the water was warm enough to steam up the entire cave, and it was like walking through mist. I did not get the chance to appreciate the passages. Still, this is the compromise, go in during the summer when you cannot see, but there is not much water in the entrance passage or go in during the winter when there is a lot more water but you can see. I choose to keep warm, because it is never nice feeling cold. I believe it was because of this that my wife's experience on the watershoot put her almost completely off caving.

On my parent's honeymoon, they had been to Scotland to go caving. At that time, my mother showed an active interest in the sport. They had visited what was, at the time, the longest cave in Scotland; Cnoc Nan Uamh, a cave with a large river shooting down a waterslide into a sump. They also took a more leisurely visit to Smoo cave, a sea cave with one of the largest cave entrances in Britain.

When my wife and I went on honeymoon, we went to Devon. There are very few major caves in Devon but even if there were, we were not there to go caving. Having said that, I did notice the Dart River Cave when we went on the Dart River cruise, and we did finish off the holiday with a walk around the third longest cave in Devon; Kent's Cavern. This is an archeological showcave and was actually quite interesting, but we were restricted to following the path and being very unimpressed with the amount of plant growth in the cave supported by the permanent lighting.

Much more interesting and a lot more fun was the trip to Poole's Cavern in Derbyshire. I was at the Hidden Earth caving conference in October 2001. This is the major caving conference held every year so that expeditions can publicize their findings or seek sponsors, and new technology can be revealed. In 2001, the major finds had been the chambers and pitches in China that I mentioned in the chapter 'Finding the way'. Each person who had a valid conference pass could get go on an unguided tour of Poole's Cavern for a greatly reduced price, so my brother and I took up the offer. It was only a short showcave, nothing like as long as the Dan-Yr-Ogof showcave tour, but was in exceptionally good condition. The stall still glistened and was as white as it had been before the cave was converted into a showcave in 1854.

A large river flowed through the cave, emerging from under a boulder pile at the end of the single main passage. On reaching the end, we saw a tour guide taking some tourists through the cave and we waited to hear the end of her talk. By the time she had finished there were at least seven cavers listening. She stopped to have a few words about caving and then, after explaining that we would not be covered by the showcave's insurance if we did so, she said we could continue past the end of the showcave. All being cavers, we accepted and stepped through the gate.

We walked up the steep boulder pile at the top of which there were two ways on. I climbed a ladder to the right but that was hopeless as there was only a complete choke. My brother and I walked across a muddy stal bank, with me stepping in a puddle and soaking my foot. Why would I have done that you ask; well, I couldn't see it as I had no light. In fact, between the seven of us we had only one proper caving light, one dull light that allowed you to see about two to three metres in front of you and one light which allowed you to see about 20 cm. Almost completely blind and totally helmetless, we crawled into the choke, staining our clothes with mud. All in good fun. Apparently there was a loop in the choke. I think I did most of it but in the dark I wasn't quite sure. We spent long enough in there. We headed into a side passage which I followed to its miserable end, making sure that I stepped over the holes in the floor that dropped almost ten metres to the showcave below.

Starting back towards the entrance, we noticed a well decorated side passage, hidden from view of the normal tourist route. My brother and I and I think, two Devon cavers headed into this passage until the floor got too well decorated and we stopped. Turning around we noticed some very unusual mud deposits on a rock, looking like leopard print. Just before we were about to leave the passage, we saw a large tourist party entering the cave and we attempted to hide, so that they would have time to pass. We may have had permission to be there, but it is not a good idea for the tourists to see you outside of the path or they will want to try it too. When they reached where we were they stopped. And they stayed there. Eventually giving up, we climbed out of the passage beside them, nodded in thanks to the tour guide - a different one this time - and walked past the tourists trying to look official.

This is not the only time I have had to contend with tourists. Several times I have visited Dan-Yr-Ogof, I have walked past tourists who have been enjoying the showcave. As cavers, we are respectfully asked to pass them with as little interference as possible. This does not mean the tourists will pass you in the same way. Often, they would stop you and ask questions or wave at the 'heroes' as you walk past.

One trip in here was with my dad and one other caver on a day after light rainfall. Dan-Yr-Ogof can flood so we knew we had to be careful. We went through the tourist section, reaching the fence which bars the way into the river passages. Stepping over this, we descended the steps to what had once been a continuation of the tourist route. The passage is stooping height, and a concrete path with barriers on each side can be followed over a pool in a very slowly flowing streamway. The pool is known as Lake 1 and flows just over the path. At least, it is normally a slowly flowing stream. That day is was washing over the path much deeper than normal. If it reached the barriers, the level of water in the cave is too high and the trip would have to be abandoned.

The water levels were low enough to allow us to continue to the final barrier of the old showcave, an area now covered in sand from years of floods. We stepped over the barrier and looked at Lake 2. This is normally a stagnant pool and is separated from Lake 3 by a sand bar. In between the lakes, there was no sand bar, and the water was about half a metre deep and covered in thick scum, a yellow foam commonly seen in caves after flooding. I do not like water.

Together, we walked into Lake 3 hugging the wall. Normally, we would progress along here by half floating and half standing on very small ledges, while pulling ourselves along with tiny projections in the wall. This time there were no projections. The water had covered them. I tried feeling for them under water, successfully at first. Soon the arch of the roof meant that in order to reach then, I would have to completely immerse myself. This, I was not prepared to do. The only sensible way to continue would be to swim along the passage against the flow, trying to use the tiny ripples in the roof as handholds. I opted for backing out and I was led back to the start of the lake.

The other two continued through a section where the roof almost met the water and while passing it, one of them had lost their hold, being swept slowly back along the passage towards the sump. They regained the wall and tried again, successfully that time. While waiting for them, I headed back to the tourist section where I was greeted by several tourists listening to the roaring noise made by the waterfalls beyond Lake 3. They asked me questions about the water levels, the noise, the small hole in my wetsuit and several other things like was I scared, were the others going to get into trouble and what was the meaning of life. I answered their questions to the best of my abilities and then headed out of the cave, conscious that a caver in a wet wetsuit will not stay warm for long unless they keep moving.

Many caves have problems with high water. Some caves cope better with it than others. Many caves can fill completely to the roof and even big passages in some caves can experience a large rise in water level because the passages downstream cannot cope with the quantity of water. In Draenen, the Big Country streamway ponds up with vast lakes in high water conditions, despite the passages being nearly twenty metres wide. In Agen Allwedd, the passages in Maytime have been known to experience a five metre deep flood with very fast flowing water, despite the generous passage size.

We were in Draenen while the water levels were high enough to create the lakes in Big Country. We were leading a caver from the Forest Of Dean down the main 'Beyond A Choke' streamway, giving him his first insight into this major cave. Yes, I did notice that it was a long way to lead him; all the way from the Forest Of Dean to the Beyond A Choke streamway, ha ha. The stream was flowing quickly but was no problem. In fact it was more fun than I have ever remembered it, with the water tugging at our feet and pushing us through narrow sections. It was when we turned round that we realized the actual power of the water.

Protective padding on our knees was pulled around behind our knees and some of it was being almost ripped off. We battled upstream, enjoying the challenge but acutely aware that each foot must be placed firmly on the floor, or we risked being swept downstream. This was all in a day's work for the Forest Of Dean caver. He was enjoying every minute. One of our cavers was not so sure though. He missed his footing and was sent rolling down the streamway, unable to get his head above water before being rolled over again.

He was fortunate that one of the other cavers there was quick enough to catch him as he was rolling past and pick him out of the water. We all learned a lesson and took things more cautiously. A little further up the passage, he again decided he was bored with this walking lark and decided again to test out the roller coaster in the water. Again, he rolled several times before being picked out of the water. This cave was proving that it was no puppy. Despite his caving experience, we kept more of an eye out for him for the rest of the journey out.

This was not the first time I have seen Draenen in flood. I have already described how I have seen the waist deep water in White Arch where it is normally ankle deep. What came as more of a shock was the water in Out Of The Blue in Dollimore Series. We had been in Dogleg Complex and had passed Out Of The Blue on the way in. It was not abnormal, with the water levels between ankle and knee deep. Light rain was falling on the surface, but it had been dry recently. By the time we left the series, not more than a few hours later, the water level in the streamway had risen to chest deep. As you might expect, I have put warnings about all of these behaviors in the description of the cave.

This is not always the case. We had followed the guide book description for a cave in East Kingsdale, Yorkshire, known as Heron Pot. It was a fairly pleasant cave that began as a typical Yorkshire rift cave, meandering gently. We found the top entrance but did not look at the lower entrance as we could see where it was, and that was enough. The book did say that the exit could sump in wet weather but there had been no rain for a few weeks and there was not going to be any that day.

We followed the passage to a pitch which we rigged as a pullthrough, knowing there was an exit at the bottom. We also rigged the second pitch which followed shortly. Taking some time out, we looked in a decorated side passage. Finally ready to finish the trip, we headed towards the exit. The book had described this as a damp crawl to daylight. Well, there was a damp crawl. Then, there was a sump. We looked at each other in dread, knowing that, as we had pulled through, we could not get back up the pitches. My brother and dad were contemplating climbing them, but although one of them would be passable by climbing, the other most certainly was not.

Our other option was to wait for a rescue. It would take hours before the rescue was even initiated, and a few more before we would get out. There was no way we could dive the sump as there was a tight section part way through. Looking closely, my brother noticed a narrow cleft in the roof had an airspace through the sump. He decided to try and pass it, sticking his nose into the cleft like a snorkel. As it happened, it opened up almost immediately and there was a useable airspace just beyond, which did emerge into daylight.

Being a kind spirited person, my brother dug out the gravel that had been holding the water back to allow the water to drain. He had already sopped up a large amount of it with his clothing. My dad went through next, getting a wet face as he crawled through. By the time I got there, they had both soaked up enough water and drained enough more for me to get through with no problems at all. Had we known in advance, we would have cleared the entrance completely first.