Ten years in the dark

Chapter 2 of 13

The next corner

Draebridge Rift in Downbeat, Hexamine Highways, Ogof Draenen. Flash by Tarquin and Ian Wilton-Jones, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin.

It took several months to persuade my dad to take us caving again. We had little in the way of equipment and any caving would require us to either cave dangerously or to buy proper gear. We elected for a half-half approach. My dad managed to buy several builders' helmets and with two handheld torches between us, we all set out to look at some smaller caves in the Clydach Gorge, a steep sided valley underneath where we lived. Several small caves exist in this valley, one of which - Ogof Clogwyn - is heavily overused by novices and I believe this is one of the caves we did in our early days of caving. This also is a wet cave, but with a major difference. At all times, you can avoid the water.

The cave begins with a five foot climb into the entrance. A later trip in here would see us lifting our pet Labrador into the entrance who then ran off into the distance and barked loudly without warning at a resting caver. I am unsure whether or not the fright stopped him ever visiting a cave again.

Our caving saw us attempting more and more difficult trips including a cave called Ogof Rhyd Sych in Ystradfellte in South Wales. This cave begins as a large passageway which suddenly lowers to a duck. This is not a severe duck, more of a crawl in water where you get a wet ear as you turn your head on its side. Further through, the cave becomes much lower and the only way to continue is to slowly squeeze your body through, whilst trying to find a part that is high enough for you to do so. It was in one of these low sections that my dad's light failed followed promptly by mine and we were forced to retreat as he could not see the way on well enough with his emergency backup mini Maglite.

Our equipment became more expensive also. I was now using a proper Oldham lamp. This is what I had used on my first caving trip and I remembered it as being bulky. Using it again, I confirmed that memory. The large battery pack fitted to a belt and a cable ran to a head mounted torch. The battery would catch on rocks repeatedly and became fairly annoying, but the light was so bright, it was worth the annoyance.

This particular battery was being borrowed from a friend of my dad's. This extremely tough caver had lost one of his arms in a motorbike accident several years before and continued to cave with only one arm, and a motionless prosthetic. A memorable trip with him was in Ogof Pen Eryr, another novice cave under the Llangatwg mountain in South Wales. Early on in the cave, the passage becomes body sized and twists upwards as in a corkscrew action. On the way in, there were no problems, but on the way out, the corkscrew is usually tackled feet first and the prosthetic arm was acting almost like an umbrella up a chimney, and would 'open' preventing any movement. The tight passage made it impossible to restrain the prosthetic arm with the other hand and the eventual solution was to remove the prosthetic arm. This was then carried out of the cave slung over my dad's shoulder. There were several jokes about whether to leave it sticking out from under a rock or even worse, the boot of the car!

I soon joined the Brynmawr Caving Club. This was a well recognised club based in the town of Brynmawr, at the top end of the Clydach Gorge. It was several years earlier that the club had finally managed to find a way into a miserable cave intersected by a mine adit drilled in the 19th century. The cave - Ogof Carno - is now over eight kilometres long but it does not give the caver an easy time. Large passages are short and connected by narrow, low, wet and uncomfortable passages. The adit has a stream entering at one point that makes a loud roaring sound, which had scared me on my first trip into the cave as I had heard stories from my dad about when he had been trapped in a flooding cave over twenty years previously, and he decided it would be humorous to make me think that this noise was the sound of the adit flooding. Repeat after me; honour thy father and thy mother, honour thy father and thy mother.

Being a member of a club gave me access to the Llangatwg master caves of Agen Allwedd, Ogof Daren Cilau and Craig A Ffynnon. Agen Allwedd is a large cave, once the longest known in Britain. It has very few stalactite deposits, and many of the unusual dried mud formations have been destroyed by vandals. The cave has been gated to prevent this happening, as well as to prevent inexperienced people from becoming lost in its 34 kilometres of passage. Ogof Daren Cilau is a cave that is almost connected to Agen Allwedd. Daren Cilau has several beautiful stal deposits, the largest passage in Britain and the hardest entrance series in Wales, if not all of Britain. Five hundred metres of tight and wet crawling must be passed to reach the 28 kilometres of main passages and as such, the cave needs no gate. I have to this day, only been in this cave once. Ogof Craig A Ffynnon is one of the most beautiful caves in Britain, with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, curtains, flowstone and gypsum decorating its 13 km of passages.

In 1993 I tried SRT for the first time, in Llanelly Quarry Pot above the Clydach Gorge. This cave is known for its incredibly tight entrance series. The entrance slopes into the cave and on the way out, climbing just 7 metres at an angle of about 45 degrees, there are no hand or footholds and it can take over half an hour. The abseil down the main 13 metre drop was easy. There is nothing technically difficult, except for trying to avoid the waterfall, and the walls do not get in the way at all. My dad and I used the same set of SRT gear, pulling it up on the rope after the other had used it. This trip was uneventful and there was no fear whatsoever. Well, I was 13. There is very little fear at that age. The return worked in reverse, prusiking up then lowering the gear for the other person. The entrance took the full 30 minutes, although on a later trip, because we were running very late, we have managed this in less than 10.

A later trip with the Brynmawr Caving Club saw us back in Llanelly Quarry Pot, and demonstrated one of the problems with the idea of sharing gear. Two other members were sharing gear between them. I had abseiled down using only a karabiner attached to a belt; a bit uncomfortable but it is only a short pitch. The gear was used by the first person and the second pulled it up on the end of the rope. The rope was then lowered again and while the second person put the gear on, a third began to descend on a figure of eight descender. They had no ascending gear, essential for getting yourself out of difficulties, and going back up the rope. At half way down, in the full force of a swollen waterfall, they realised a problem. The rope had not been lowered down properly and had stuck at the top. The rope went from the top where they had started, looped down to half way, and then back up to the top. They were stuck. My dad climbed up the wall until he was level with them and freed the rope. Lesson learned. Don't do it again. Get your own gear.

At about the same time, I made my attempt to be rescued by the local mountain rescue team. It was a trip to Ogof Ddwy Sir in Quimps Quarry on a nearby mountain. At that time, this was the only substantial cave known in the area, although a borehole sunk on the other side of the mountain, about 4 kilometres away had reached a cavity in the rock large enough to be a cave. I had hypothesised that these could be the same cave and was intending to find out. My dad and I followed the passage to its end and looked at the miserable sediment infill that had been washed in by a stream thousands of years before. On exiting the cave, we looked further up at some very short caves that were in the area and finding that they too filled in, I looked further down the quarry face.

The limestone in the area is in two main beds, with the Gilwern Oolite group lower down and the Dowlais limestone higher up. The two are separated by the Llanelly Shales, a 2 - 7 metre thick band of brittle compacted mud-rock. This had formed a sloping ledge in the quarry face and a few metres above it I could see what looked like an opening, hidden by a tree. Trees in limestone are always a good sign of cave. Trees like water and caves are made by, and often contain, water. So I headed carefully out along the ledge. About 5 m along, I could see into the opening and see that it closed down very quickly, so I headed back. Just two metres from the way off the ledge, I slipped on some slimy mud. I landed on the mud sitting down, but fell no further. Ten metres below me, my dad shouted to be more careful and watched as I shuffled my way sideways towards the way off. The final insult came as the 'rock' I had placed my left hand on crumbled, losing every bit of stability I had left.

I rolled onto my front as I felt the earth slipping beneath me, making futile attempts to grab onto the mud and succeeding only in stubbing my finger. The air blew gently past my ears and in the half a minute it took me to fall those ten metres, my life did not flash before my eyes. With them closed I imagined what death would feel like, if it would hurt and if I would know that I was dead. Maybe I might find out if there really was a god . . . My greatest concern was this; I hoped that my death would not be put down to a caving accident. People in their fear of the unknown already seem to think that despite its impressive safety record, caving is a dangerous sport. Fewer accidents than sailing, football and many other 'safe' sports. In reality, this was more of a mountain accident than a caving accident as I was outside. Either way, this was not a caving accident. It was me being an idiot.

I hit the ground with my legs straight, almost bolt upright. An impact like this would usually mean no less than broken legs or ankles, and maybe compaction fractures to the spine or skull. I was lucky. I was very lucky. The ground was sloping where I hit it. I bounced violently backwards onto a car sized boulder, rolling over several times. The helmet I was wearing was undamaged but the knicker-elastic that was holding it on tore across the underside of my chin. The helmet rolled to the ground, and I lay still on the rock.

My mind slowly cleared and I made my self assessment. I could feel no pain except in my finger where I had stubbed it. Had I broken my back? No, I could move my feet. My hip started to ache where it had hit the boulder. I was dead, I knew, but it hurt a little. So I checked my eyes; all I could see were clouds. Is this heaven? No, wait, I'm alive, I can still see the quarry face. My body moves when I tell it to. Everything works. My finger hurts but everything works. I got up. 'You lucky, lucky bastard!'. What made me feel most stupid - or was it relieved - of all was that I had been caving, reported to be so dangerous, yet the accident was on the surface.

Now there was fear. Too much fear. Still aged 13, I now found SRT almost impossible whenever I got anywhere above 10 metres. My dad ran over and after checking I was all right, we looked at my helmet. The Petzl Zoom light I had been using is made with a small battery pack strapped to the back of the helmet and a light unit strapped to the front. The light unit had been pushed to the back and the battery pack was where my head had been. Despite the helmet taking almost all of the impact of my fall, it was undamaged and I continued to use it for years afterwards, against the manufacturers recommendations.

On another occasion, I almost succeeded in having someone else rescued. This was Martyn Farr, one of the most respected and well known cavers in the world, and in many ways, my caving hero. I was on a sherpering trip into Carno, destination; Literal Zone, where Martyn was intending to dive some previously unentered sumps. The air tanks are heavy, the ladders and containers are awkward, the bags are very heavy and I talk too much! Apparently.

We had reached the Literal Zone and Martyn had started his dive. This area of the cave has received little attention due to its remoteness, so those of us who were not diving looked around for other possible passages that had not been entered. I was looking around in one passage where the floor was made of fairly large rocks and there were some small holes down into the main passage below. I stood on a rock that was not bedded very well, and it fell down the hole landing at the feet of Martyn, who had just emerged from the sump. Just a moment later . . .

Later in the same trip, I gave myself one of the biggest shocks in my caving career. I was entering Full Moon Crawl and I pushed a diving bottle in front of me. The passage is about 25 cm high and beautifully shaped to echo sound. The bottle rolled, catching the gas tap in the mud as it went. A plastic cap had been inserted into the valve to stop dirt getting into the valve. The pressure of the gas immediately built up and blew a neat round hole in the cap. The sound it made was unbelievable. I was deaf in one ear for the next few hours that it took to get out.

On a later trip in the Dynas Quartzite Mines, I was carrying diving bottles for a cave diver who was practising in some of the many flooded levels of the mine. After leaving the mine, we were crossing the fence that surrounds its many entrances. While passing a bottle, I caught the tap, this time with my hand, and the pressure blew the dust cap out with a loud bang. We searched the area for the cap but it was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it fell into the churning river in the gully nearby.

I was learning. I was learning from my mistakes which in caving is never a good thing. Learn from my mistakes. Don't do the same things. Ledges require safety ropes. People require warnings. Bottles require respect!

An important lesson is gained by experience. Predicting the strength of the rock. Most people learn this in safety, by far the best thing to do. My lesson was more abrupt, and I had not considered the safety aspect. We were on a trip in Pant Mawr Pot; several kilometres across the moor, a collapsed area of ground contains a short pitch into a large passage. We had followed this through a couple of choked sections and had been to see the beautiful stal formations in the side passage. We had even climbed high above the main route on ledges that had been used by countless cavers before us. Further downstream, we entered 'The Graveyard'. A short crawl entered a small chamber where several infilled passages led off. I spotted a passage at the top of a climb and attempted to reach it.

The rock looked fairly strong and several large ledges gave easy holds for my hands and feet. In between the beds of rock, there was a thinner, crumbly black rock, but the main layers were large enough to hold together. On the way up the easy climb, I ignored the metal anchor points that some cautious caver had put in before me, in order to make the climb safer for themself. I just thought they were over cautious. Three metres from the floor, I could see into the passage, and leaned over to look. I told my dad what I could see, as he was standing underneath me. He started to look at a side passage at the bottom and it was at that time that I realized how unsafe I was.

The head sized rock I was holding with my left hand snapped off where it was 'firmly' held. In order to stop it landing on my foot, I threw it back over my shoulder, shouting 'below!' to my dad. The rock landed well clear of him, as he had now disappeared into the other passage. Moments after the rock left my hand, I realized that now without a handhold, I was destined to follow the rock. 'Me!' I shouted as I fell backwards to the floor, landing like a wrestler with my arms apart. Take my advice, trust the caver who is over cautious, they know what they are doing, and if you fall, land like a wrestler.

I lay on the ground, remembering the fall down the quarry a few years earlier. My dad ran over, and asked if I was all right. I shouted for him not to touch me, in case he damaged anything. My voice worked, so that was all right. My fingers and toes worked also. Nothing seemed damaged. I cautiously got up, nursing my finger which had caught in a crack as I fell. I have never been so careless since. I have learned my lesson. I do not want to be the person that gave caving a bad name. I am taking a risk writing this here, and I worry that this might give some prejudiced non-caver the ammunition they are waiting for. This is not typical of cavers. This is my mistake. This is the last one.