Ten years in the dark

Chapter 3 of 13

Facing my fear

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

Between the ages of 10 and 13, I was in boarding school in Ireland. While there, we spent several holidays in various Irish counties. The most memorable of these was a trip where my grandmother accompanied us. My immediate family was eight strong and with my grandmother, three dogs and a cat, that made 13 bodies in one Volkswagen campervan. Each morning and evening, my grandmother would insist on washing for half an hour and felt we all should do the same, even though there was only one wash bowl that we could have used, so only one person could wash at a time. We decided that as that would take 9 hours, we would prefer to smell. Her other unsociable habit was the need to urinate at five or six o'clock every morning, and the insistence on evicting everyone from the campervan to do so.

The journey had been with twice as much clothing and other bits and bobs as human and animal flesh. The second part of the holiday was to be devoted to caving in Co. Clare. On arriving at our destination, with those of us in the back buried under several tons of now dirty washing (you think I'm exaggerating . . .) my grandmother emerged from her relative state of luxury and opening the door to where the rest of us had been encased, proceeded to inform us that she could not believe how badly we had been treating her and that this was the most uncomfortable journey she had ever had as she had been forced to travel all of the way across Ireland with two dogs on her feet! Oh, how we envied her. The footwells in the campervan could easily accommodate two Labradors, one granny and several sheep if necessary.

We met a Co. Clare local, recommended by Martyn Farr. He kindly put us up in his 'barn' (translates to small house!) and we enjoyed the relative comfort of the barn, the campervan and a tent. Each of us actually had room to inhale. The first night we were there, we experienced some of Ireland's most common weather; rain. The tent proved it was not waterproof and my grandmother and sister woke in about 5 cm of water.

The caves in Co. Clare are designed for this and showed little flooding. My dad decided to take us into Polcragreach (pronounced by replacing the 'ch' with an 'r'). At his first attempt to descend the first pitch, he entered only an overgrown gully and he emerged a few metres away. A second attempt proved more successful and the correct entrance was located. The short climb was roped and each in turn, we descended into the hole. After following the passage about 100 metres, I became convinced that my dad did not know the way, and in fact had no idea where we were, and nobody had been here before, and the weight of all the rock above me had not been checked to see if it was safe and I insisted on being taken out. This is the only time I have ever felt claustrophobic underground.

My sister had a friend whom I had seen faint when a tent had collapsed on her but this was different. I simply did not trust it. I would later come to understand that the roof actually becomes safer as it gets thicker and in fact the most dangerous point is where the passage lies just below the surface. Who is to know how I would have felt if I had continued that little bit further and seen the Petrified Boot, where a boot has been coated with stal flow and has been permanently fixed to the rock.

Later in that same holiday I was taken into Polnagollum, the longest cave in Ireland. The passage meanders gently with ledges above the stream where my brother, sister and myself spent most of the trip, not wanting to get wet feet.

The final trip was to be the highlight. Pol An Ionain. This cave began as a crawl but eventually broke into a large chamber with a massive stalactite hanging from the roof. This 7 metre long wonder was the Soggy Dishcloth, and is the world's longest stalactite. It is held on by a section of calcite less that 30 cm by 30 cm but must weight over five tons. There have repeatedly been plans to open this as a show cave, although there seems little point as there is nothing else to see, just one stalactite, and also, blasting a tunnel into here is likely to cause the stalactite to break free and come crashing down to the ground. This itself is a great fear for most cavers, the accidental but preventable destruction of such a fine formation.

The way on from the chamber had been described as a 'rabbit hole, part way down the slope on the right hand side'. There was indeed a rabbit hole shaped passage, part way down the slope on the right hand side and into this, my dad proceeded, making several noises reflecting how tight the hole was. It was lucky this was the way on as there was no way he could get out of it backwards. Now in up to his buttocks, he realised the horrifying truth. All three passages he could see ended immediately, and there was no way he could turn around. After about a half an hour, he managed to get back out, having removed his very tight wetsuit top, helmet and battery whilst stuck in this tiny hole. It makes my claustrophobia seem almost pathetic.

The second fear I had to face was water, beginning with the duck. A duck would be a sump except that the roof sits slightly over the water level. These range from the 40 cm airspace of Ryans Duck in Llanelly Quarry Pot to the full blown 2 cm airspace ducks of the round trip in Swildon's Hole. I had chosen the latter.

The round trip begins as the trip to Sump 1, except that part way along, a climb in the roof passes through a sump called the mud sump. This periodically fills the passage for a long distance but on the occasion I was there, this was an easy duck with about 30 cm of airspace. No problem! The rest of the route takes the caver through four full ducks and finally, Sump 1.

The first duck can be made to give more airspace by siphoning out some of the water. This gives about 5 cm of airspace. After watching this being tackled by a 'pro', I removed my helmet, as the peak pushes your head under water, and slowly lowered myself into the water. Lying on my back, I gently pushed my way through, careful not to make any little waves that might wash up my nose and choke me. This can be fairly dangerous as the panic that ensues when this happens can cause yet more waves. The first duck was passed without any problem and at the second one, my brother demonstrated his superior skill by passing the duck with his helmet on. At the third duck, not to be outdone, I did the same. Big mistake.

Becoming too sure of myself, I rushed too quickly into the duck. Waves followed me in and at the same time, my helmet caught the roof, pushing my head under water. I attempted to recover it but the waves had temporarily sumped the passage. I was nearly two metres in, slowed down by the thick muddy water and unable to breathe. Apparently, it looked incredible from behind. I caved backwards faster than I have ever done before or since. A wave was scooped over my head the whole way and I emerged from the duck somewhat panicky, as you might expect. Had I not managed to get myself out, I know I could have relied upon my fellow cavers to drag me out by my feet or provide any other assistance I might need.

Unfortunately for me, there was nothing I could do but to go back and try again more carefully. Slowly. The two ducks finally passed, we eventually reached the other side of Sump 1. This was no obstacle. At least with a sump, you know what to expect. You take a deep breath, swim through and use a piece of rope as a guide. One thing I wasn't ready for was the fact that a helmet floats and so rubs along the roof of the passage for the whole length of the sump. On the other side we hurried out, having learned yet another lesson.

On a later trip, one of my younger sisters was on a trip to Sump 1 with myself and my brother and upon reaching it, we decided to go through. I had only decided at the last minute to go caving so I was wearing a pair of jeans and a cold shirt under an oversuit. Again, the sump was not an obstacle, but the clothes did make it seem very cold.

Water continues to be a fear. I find it very difficult to be out of my depth. I try not to lead through sections where I am unsure of the depth or where the water is cloudy. I have a constant fear that an undertow may drag me off into some unseen sump. It won't happen, but my brain can be irrational sometimes. Nonetheless, I have managed to pass Lake 3 in Dan-Yr-Ogof several times, where I know there are three hidden sumps, two with strong undertows, and the way to cross the lake is to pull yourself along a wall by your fingertips.

More worrying for me in Dan-Yr-Ogof is the Green Canal. This section of passage starts as 1.5 m deep but quickly drops to 10 m deep. The water is tinted green by algae and remains constantly at 8 degrees centigrade. The cold is so severe that the water lapping at your throat as you swim makes it ache and you shiver, even though you wear a wetsuit. I have never attempted this passage without a floatation aid; a life jacket or rubber ring.

In the Green Canal, a friend of mine once lost his boots as they fell off while he was swimming. One other member of the party was an open water diver and attempted to retrieve them but decided to surface after diving down five metres. The rest of the trip to the Far North Choke was completed without boots, about six hours caving. Ouch! We later sent him an officially headed letter as a joke, complaining that he had littered the cave with boots and small bits of wetsuit sock which could be followed to the Far North Choke. When we told the official responsible, she seemed disappointed that we had not asked her first, as she would have been happy to be in on the joke and send the letter with her actual signature on it.

Llygad Llwchwr is a river cave in South Wales. Small phreatic passages, now drained of their water, pass over short sections of large passage. The large passages connect to each other through sumps. Steve King and I had visited this short but popular cave and had decided to swim along the river in Chamber 2. This is the longest of the sections of large passage. A ladder climb landed us in an area of fast flowing shallow water, but to our left, we could see the black water swirling off into the distance, getting deeper as it went. At the end of the passage, I knew there was a route that could be climbed into, just before the sump that connected this chamber to Chamber 1.

Steve began to head off into the deep water, clinging to the slippery mud walls. I followed, but found it was almost impossible for me to hang on. The way forward was to let go of the wall and let the current take me to the next point where I could grab on again. This was not far, and Steve's long arms allowed him to reach it without much trouble. I could not bring myself to let go. In my mind, the sump ahead posed too much of a threat, even though I was fairly good at swimming. Each time I looked down the passage, the swirls looked like small whirlpools, threatening to drag me under and pin me to the floor of the sump. Ever patient, Steve swam back and, with me holding onto his shoulder, we swam across the passage with no trouble at all and made it to the climb up. Once in a passage where I felt more comfortable, I shot through the squeeze at the top, watching Steve struggle through with his size 40 chest.

A healthy fear is a good thing. It stops you taking risks. With me, it hinders my caving, but there is little I can do to convince myself that it is safe. I can associate with people whose irrational fear prevents them ever entering a cave. I know why they are scared. All cavers have irrational fears and a part of the caving experience is challenging yourself to overcome these fears.

Since my fall from the quarry, I have never quite managed to regain my nerve on big drops. I wonder sometimes whether it was just a part of growing up that caused me to be afraid and maybe I just blame the fall because it means I don't have to mention the word puberty. Never the less, I am afraid. All cavers know the stories of people who forget to check their gear properly, people whose gear falls apart as they are using it, people who abseil off the wrong ropes which are not long enough to reach the bottom, and people whose attachment points have rusted so badly that they give way. I have seen this happen in Hurnel Moss Pot in the Yorkshire Dales where we had not noticed that there was a replacement anchor. Thankfully, we had obeyed all of the safety precautions and there was no chance that anyone could be hurt. There is also the irrational fear that the rope will break. These ropes can hold over three tons but there is no amount of persuasion that can convince a mind that they are perfectly safe.

Accidents on ropes are extremely rare. A few simple habits can prevent all of them. The best habit is to check your gear first. Cavers like myself who, in their paranoia, check their gear at every turn are almost never the ones to have accidents. Gear sometimes does break through overuse. The best thing to do is to check it after every use and if in doubt, replace it. There are also the techniques that we are taught to replace gear whilst still hanging from the rope, should such a thing happen. Abseiling off short ropes can be avoided by tying knots in the ends of ropes. Knots will not pass through the descender. To avoid the problems of rusted hangpoints, two or more should be used at all times. If one fails, the other should hold. Ropes will not break if cared for properly, and all SRT rigs are done without the rope rubbing on the rock. The only other problem is falling rocks. Most often, these are thrown down holes by tourists, who want to see how deep the hole is. They tend not to stop and think about whether there may be a potholer below. I have once been hit by a falling rock, accidentally kicked down a mineshaft by another member of the caving team. This hurt, but by standing (or hanging) with the body held correctly minimised any damage. Of course, a better thing to do is to make sure that all members of the team treat loose rocks in mines with the respect they deserve.

My first attempt at SRT after my fall was in a cave in the Mendip Hills with a 20 metre drop, Hunter's Hole, conveniently located just behind the Hunters Lodge Inn. The cave starts with a short drop down a ladder, then a sloping rope drop and finally the main pitch. The word pitch originates from a hole that is so deep that when you shine your light down it, it still looks pitch black. This hole is not deep enough for that but the word is now commonly used for any drop that cannot be climbed without specialist equipment.

The descent of the hole was not a problem. I am fully technically proficient, and I was then also, so I passed each obstacle with no difficulty at all. The drops were easy if a little scary and once at the bottom, I continued to explore the cave. There are many cavers - more realistically; potholers - who live to explore caves that contain almost nothing except deep pitches. Potholing is not my sport. I sometimes descend potholes, but only in order to see the caves that lie at the bottom.

When it came to ascending the pitch, this is when my problems began. I was last up. In order to make ascending easier for my dad, who was going up before me, I had held onto the rope, keeping it tight. Part way up, he had accidentally knocked a deviation sling (a short piece of strong ribbon) and karabiner down the rope, onto my hand. This hurt but it was more the fact that it did not inspire confidence that was a problem. Deviations are put in to stop the rope rubbing on the rock. If this happens, the rock can sometimes cut through the rope. This worried me but, when it was my turn, I began to ascend, attempting to pretend to myself that the floor was only just below my feet and the roof was within my reach.

Eventually, I reached the rebelay point, where the rope is re-attached to the wall. As I approached this, I noticed the maillon was not hanging correctly. Maillons are oval shaped metal loops. They are very strong if held by one end of the oval, with the weight put on the other end. This was hanging from the side, and the weight put on the other side. This greatly reduces the strength, although it is still easily enough to hold me. The maillon had probably been dislodged as my dad passed it earlier.

The fear of this, coupled with the fear caused by the deviation landing on my hand caused me to freeze. I was not moving anywhere. After screaming at my dad to let him know what I thought of him I made him rig a second rope, which he then descended until he was beside me. Slowly, he talked me through all of the motions that I already knew how to do, until I finally got off at the top of the rope.

I swore never, never to do that again. Well, I have. Several times. I own my own set of SRT gear which I look after religiously. Over the next few years, I taught myself to ignore the fear, and continue with what I was doing. I have managed to descend and ascend a pitch almost 90 metres high, one of the highest in Britain. I did feel sorry for the sheep that had descended it slightly more quickly than I had. I learned what made me frightened and what could help. I don't think I will ever be as brave as some cavers. I will never truly enjoy being over these drops, but I can make myself pass them.

My fear is somewhat irrational. I will feel fine stepping over a big hole but ask me to hang over it and I will be scared. If I can touch one wall, I feel better, secure in the foolish hope that if something were to go wrong, I would be able to grab hold of the wall. A similar idea is that when I am about five metres from the top I am somehow in the safety zone, like if the worst were to happen, I would be able to prusik extra fast to the top and save myself. For a while, I liked to prusik in tandem, with someone prusiking up the rope behind me. This may put more weight on the rope, but at least there was someone there to reassure me.

What I will usually do is turn my light onto a really dim setting and there in my little glowing world, I can pretend I am five metres from the top, less than ten from the bottom. There, I am safe. Until someone shouts to me from the bottom and the echoes remind me how far down it really is. Singing or whistling can quite easily distract, while simultaneously irritating companions.