Over the course of the past year, I have slowly been persuaded into caving.
It started with a small trip down Goatchurch cavern in the Mendips a few times and it actually got easier each time. I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t claustrophobic, but having stuck myself down the smarty tube a couple of times I concluded that actually it’s not that bad, I have been in smaller tents!
The next cave I tried was Sidcup a few months later. This cave is more challenging than Goatchurch, with a big crag you have to lower yourself down, and the first time I didn’t have the confidence to want to go past the lobster pot. While we waited for the boys to come back, some experienced cavers wiggled their way out and made it look really difficult so at the time I decided I had made the right decision. The second time I went down this cave though, I was seconding with a group of scouts so I couldn’t be the only one that didn’t go down! This time we had a handline set up though and the leader gave me a leg up, or I may still be stuck down there now!
In October I took a trip to France and we visited a show cave in Vallorbe, it had amazing formations and the most incredibly decorated cavern than was bigger than a cathedral which I would definitely recommend to anyone on the Franco-Swiss border and is suitable for most mobility levels.
While the caves in Mendip are less decorated, it’s much more adventurous getting in there and getting bruised and mucky, putting in a bit of effort for your reward of sparkly quartz or the odd bat! It’s amazing how long you can spend crawling around in a cave, only to look at the map afterwards and realise you probably went less than 300m!
One thing I have always been adamant about though was not wanting to do sumps. Sumps are where there is water up to the roof of the passage. I have a pretty logical fear of being in a place where I can’t get access to oxygen if something goes wrong, so have no desire to go in a submarine or into space!
That limit has been tickled though. Last night I went down Swildon’s Hole, back in the Mendips, which is a wet cave. We didn’t head to a sump, but there was an active river in it. In most of the passageways it was not much more than a tickling puddle beneath your feet, however, when you look in through the manhole entrance, all you can see is a waterfall and I was pretty convinced that I was just going to slip and slide all the way to the bottom. Because of the water, this cave is much less visited than those in Burrington Combe and the rock therefore is less slippery and it’s not too bad trying to get a purchase to climb up or down. We stayed in the upper series which meant the worst we got was crawling on all 4s with water half way to the elbows, until it came time to leave that is!
The leaders were keen to push the boundaries of us less experienced cavers, so we exited the ‘wet way’. This is a narrow passage with water rushing past your feet, with 4-6ft climbs up waterfalls. The scariest parts were the tops of these waterfalls where it might only be a small hole, so you launch yourself though it with water filling up your cuffs flailing around looking for something to pull yourself up on while you have nothing to get a footing on, so effectively having to roll around in the water to get yourself up!
There was a particular point like this where I got my hips stuck and had to reverse a few times until I got the right orientation to get through, when I started to panic. Before going into the run we had been briefed that we were going to get cold, so once you’re wet, just keep going. But here I was, stuck, with the person in front of me scampering away and the leaders behind being pretty casual and had left a big gap. I managed to release myself and battled through my own fear to catch up with the rest of the group, who by now were doing laps up a waterfall and the relief of getting out of that section had me welling up with tears.
I’m logical enough to know I’m not going to die in these kinds of situations, but I also know I have to sort myself out and that I wouldn’t be in this type of situation if I hadn’t been pressured. There was also the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that I was by far the weakest caver in the group from an experience, fitness and flexibility perspective and I didn’t want to ruin the trip for the others, or look silly in front of them.
Once the hyperventilating had subsided we set off for the final passageway up to the entrance, back up the wet passage we had come in by. Although it feels really different sliding down it on your bum compared to army crawling back up it!
I was quite glad to be out of there, but had had such a good time up until the wet bit. In the dry there had been many more rock formations and interesting pools than I had seen on my previous caving trips. I know that I enjoy caves much more on the second time around though, so I look forward (with some trepidation) to my next trip down there in a few weeks time!
It’s important for your own safety that you try caving with an experienced leader. If you get hurt, cave rescue have to get you out the same way you got in, no matter how small the hole and no matter how much it hurts you to pull you through it!
More information at http://british-caving.org.uk and find your local caving club