Ten years in the dark

Chapter 4 of 13

A leader of men . . . oh, and women

Tarquin in Padlock Passage, Waterfall Series, Ogof Draenen. Flash by Tarquin and Ian Wilton-Jones, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by both.

On yet another trip in Swildon's Hole, my dad and myself had been taking one of my youngest sisters for her first proper caving trip. Once at the junction of the many entrance routes, we came across another caving group who were heading into the cave. The group had one experienced leader and amongst the other two men and three women, there were a few with some experience. The first words said by the leader were humorous to say the least. 'Is that the way out?' pointing towards the way further in. 'Er . . No.'. Now looking puzzled 'Where is the way out?'. 'Behind you!'

After a short discussion, I offered to lead them out, leaving their leader to help my dad take my sister through the rest of the cave. Well, two of the women were quite inviting, especially for a 14 year old. So I wowed them with my caving knowledge and ability, successfully leading them through several passageways, up two climbs and out into the sunlight. Not difficult really, but it was good to be appreciated. It is unusual to get the opportunity to lead women through a cave. At a caving conference, a local was heard to question; 'What is it that you lot get up to down there that makes you all go bald and grow beards?'. This puts most women out of the question - not many of them go bald!!

My most memorable trip as a leader was to be with a party of South Bristol Speleological Society members and my dad in Agen Allwedd. We were heading about two hours into the cave, into Turkey Streamway. We had reached the 'Beehive' formation and were heading out when my borrowed Oldham lamp faded and died. I had leant rather heavily on it a few trips earlier and had cracked the case, so that it slowly leaked sulphuric acid. It had finally run out. Not to be discouraged, I headed out in front of the party, with no light. Steve King was unable to believe that I could possibly find the way and asked my dad to confirm that I was right. My dad, full of confidence - my dad will quite often deliberately follow someone who believes they are right and only once they have gone badly wrong, let them know - told him to follow me. This time, he knew I was right. I led ahead of the group, using flickers of their lights to guide myself through the stream passage.

Approaching the climb into keyhole passage, I switched on, then off, my light. This gave a frozen frame picture of where I had to climb. Lead acid batteries like the one I had will slowly store up charge when drained, and can give a few seconds of light if left off for long enough. The climb is in a few sections, each only a couple of metres high, however, a fall from the top can land the caver between five and ten metres further down. Upon reaching the top, I entered Keyhole Passage. This is a round passage, 4 metres in diameter. A deep rift breaks into the floor and zig-zags across the passage. This is passed by jumping across the rift and at one point, stepping onto two lumps of dried mud that are attached to the wall of the rift. The wall also has a small ledge made of compacted mud. The mud has a small trench worn in it where decades of passing cavers have dragged their fingers along it. The natural way of crossing this is to step onto the mud and hold onto the mud ledge, leaning into the wall. The problem here is that leaning into the wall makes the angle against the footholds too steep and that makes boots slip off the mud. The best way that I have found to cross here is to step on the mud and not to bother holding on, so that you actually lean away from the sloping wall, which is safer.

On reaching this point, Karen, a member of our team, said that she was frightened and wanted to cross the rift on a lifeline. We quickly set this up with people either side, away from the normal crossing point. She jumped over the rift, helped over with a sharp pull on the rope. Success. Easy. What none of us noticed was that her husband, Darren, also was scared, but did not want to slow us down by asking us to help him across as well. This was his mistake.

As he crossed the muddy steps, he hugged himself closer to the wall for security. With the angle against the mud increased, his first foot slipped off. Hugging himself closer in fear, his second foot also slipped off. Now with no footholds, he hung off the edge over a 10 metre drop. 'Oh, fuck shit!' were his memorable, calm words. We all turned to see one of his hands slipping off, then flailing in an attempt to regain a hold. I threw myself into the rift below him, jamming every body part I could against the sides so that if he did fall, my back could catch him. Above my head, two of the others got him back on the holds and helped him across.

After a Mars Bar to steady the nerves, we started off down the short boulder slope leading into the second boulder choke. I sent someone else through first and led from second place. I flicked on my light for a moment and then proceeded under the choke. This route is about 50 cm high, with water in the bottom 10 to 20, one solid wall and one very loose bouldery one. 20 metres further on, I felt the hole up and climbed through into a small patch of light again. Several further obstacles followed, and I switched on my light for only one, just before the entrance.

This was the first time I had caved with the SBSS and it was the beginning of a long friendship between myself and Steve King.

I was later to learn that people tend to trust you better if your light works, and I acquired some decent caving gear. I still used Oldham lamps but I didn't crack any more. I still noticed the problems with them. They frequently lost their charge. My dad and brother experimented with some FX nickel cadmium battery cells. These were even more unreliable, frequently burning out and becoming unusable.

In my caving career, I have led trips into some of the most important caves in the country, including one that will feature in the next chapter. One of the most difficult caves I have ever led trips into is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. This cave is easily one of the most complex in the country, with about 50 kilometres of passage compressed into an area of only 3 kilometres square. Passages criss-cross each other at various levels, and connections between them may occur at any of the crossings. Despite my - some would say impressive - memory for caves, I have never managed to get my head around this one. Leading trips in here requires a knowledge built up over several visits, extending knowledge slowly with each trip. I would be surprised if, even after twenty five trips here, I knew as much as ten kilometres of the cave.

People have learned to trust me as a leader. I used to spend hours each day memorizing cave maps or surveys. When I was caving in Ogof Daren Cilau, I could pretty much recite the description along with every twist and turn of the passage. This ability proved very useful. I can remember most of the routes I have taken through the 90 caves I have visited, and in most cases, I would be confident enough to lead cavers through those routes.

Leading cavers is about more than just knowing the cave. It is not about having a silly little piece of paper that some organisation has given you after a weekend course, saying that you know how to lead. A proficient leader will have learned through years of experience. A proficient leader should be able to read his team mates, and be able to predict when each of them might need help or guidance. They should be able to keep their cool in tough situations, and come prepared to deal with them, and know how to deal with them.

I feel it is essential that a cave leader should have a basic knowledge of first aid, and although I don't think that each leader should be trained in psychology, they should know how to reassure an injured team mate should the need arise. The leader has a responsibility; the other cavers in the team rely on them to get it right. However, the leader is not the only member of the team, and the other members should be able to help each other also. Most emergency situations underground will usually require a certain degree of self help. Thankfully, these situation are extremely rare. In the part of South Wales covered by the Gwent Cave Rescue Team, covering over 150 kilometres of very popular caves under six major mountains, more than one rescue a year is unusual and there were no rescues during one three year period.

Without any of my own transport, except a push bike, I was beginning to find it difficult to get to go caving anywhere without my dad being there. Leading trips proved to be the solution. I knew the caves and people wanted to visit them. One trip I led was into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, leading a small group of cavers. I was given a lift for the fifty miles there by one of those rare female cavers. See, I told you this leading thing was good! We went into the Top Entrance, which leads directly into a large passage.

Several junctions of large passage later, we came to the contorted route downwards through the Chasm boulder pile, finally entering the Salubrious Streamway. There is only one obstacle here, a waterfall where narrow ledges on the walls gently slope down to the base. A few tape slings - just like the deviation sling - later, and we reached the trident. This triple stalactite is the longest stalactite on mainland Britain. The longest of the three has had the end snapped off it more than once by extremely careless cavers. The tip of the trident is nearly two metres off the floor so breaking it must have been a very unusual 'accident'. The broken ends have been re-attached with superglue!

Beyond the trident lay The Judge, a massive stalagmite, seated on the floor of a beautiful round pitch. With my usual caving partners, I would have been happy to continue along the long traverses to O.F.D. III, but the ledges that must be used are quite narrow, and a leader has to know the limits of the team, so we settled for a trip to the Top Waterfall, having fun using the rope swing to cross the deep pool in the river.

One of the more unusual trips to lead lies, not in a cave, but in a climbing centre. The fake cave has been made up from stone blocks and there are four routes from one end to the other, where gaps have been left between the blocks. The recommendation is to use a helmet and light but for fun, as long as no-one is looking, the cave can be followed in the dark by carefully feeling for the walls with your hands. The uniniated can have some safe enjoyment trying this and I have led some young initiates through here. Ok, so it's not real caving, but it is alright for a bit of fun.

On a more serious note, I have led several novices into caves, giving them their first insights into the world below their feet. Leading novices is the most difficult type of caving. You have little knowledge of the novices' capabilities and you have to ensure at all times that if they attempt a move and fail, that you are there to catch them. Even a small fall can be enough to put novices off caving for life. Most novices require careful guidance. This, I feel is where most outdoor adventure centres fail. I have seen many adventure centre trips where two or three 'qualified' instructors lead twenty or so novices. How can they ensure each novice gets the attention they require like this?

When leading novices, our typical approach is to have the same number of experienced cavers as novices, plus one extra experienced caver. This way we can alternate, one experienced caver, then one novice. No novice has ever had even a small accident under my care. Oh! Except my wife. My dad was supposed to be guiding her down a watershoot but instead was chatting to another caver that we had met underground. With the noise from the watershoot, I was unable to shout loudly enough to get his attention to tell him to look after her, and I was lifelining so could not move. Without guidance, she slipped over backwards into the water. We got her out immediately but this was a careless mistake on the part of my dad, and one that got her cold, putting her off continuing with the rest of the trip. I don't think that my dad had quite understood that he was meant to be looking after her. Maybe he was getting senile in his 'old' age!! Sorry dad ...