Back beneath the ground

Last weekend, I went on my  first real caving trip in seven years. Since then, I’ve led tunnelling in the artificial “mining” complex on Guide camps (always good fun, especially leading unsuspecting Guidies out through the flooded entrance!) and made a couple of trips into Icelandic lava tubes and once descended in a window-cleaning basket into the empty magma chamber of a dormant volcano but I’ve not been caving.

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Can you tell what’s rock and what’s filthy legs?

But a month or so ago, I found my old club’s current Facebook page – Facebook pages and websites move and change and vanish all the time so they’re hard for old-timers to keep up with – and they had a list of this term’s trip dates, along with an open invitation for “anyone not currently at the university”. So last Friday after work, I drove the 172 miles up to the South Wales Caving Club hut. I would like to point out that although it’s not the furthest I’ve ever driven, it’s by far the furthest I’ve ever driven all on my own, the furthest I’ve driven without a stop and the first time I’ve been on such a major motorway as the M4 on my own, so it was already scary and exciting before I even arrived. 

Not being hugely sociable, I passed an awkward evening with the handful of adult SWCC members trying to be friendly in the common room before giving up and going to bed at about half past midnight. The club arrived at 1am and promptly had a party. If I hadn’t been so cold and trying to warm up in my sleeping bag, I would have been very tempted to go downstairs and demand to know what they thought they were doing, being so loud and rude and disruptive but I was cold and I didn’t want to start my new caving career by angering the people who were going to take me underground.

Students don’t half faff around in the mornings. I did get up later than most of them – in my day we all slept in the same room but now there were a lot more of them and they’d scattered themselves over the entire hut so I had no idea that most of them were already up. But by the time they’d cooked and eaten and cleared up breakfast, I was already in kit and standing around outside, enjoying the sunshine and the dubious sensation of being back in an undersuit I bought ten years ago. It’s not as soft as it once was and it’s not as big as it once was either but I should be reasonably pleased that I can still do it up at all, right? The students liked it because they apparently don’t exist in that colour any more – a sort of bottle green with a hint of blue. In turn, I was looking quite jealously at pink and purple and red undersuits because they didn’t exist in my day. Everyone else in the club had navy blue and I think I’d seen grey once or twice.

When they came out, the nostalgia spilled out. “Aww, I remember that bag being bought! Oh, do you still have the old squeezebox? That was made by the president in my second year! I haven’t been in this cave in years!” I’m afraid it spilled out many times over the weekend.

We split into several groups and headed on up the mountain to OFD II. I’ve never found it very easy to get up there but in the past, I knew the route and could afford to stop and get my breath back several hundred times, trusting that the others would wait for me at the top. Now I had to keep the group in sight because I’d forgotten how to get to the entrance. It was a beautiful day, the best day in about six months and we were going to use it to go underground.

Once upon a time, I spent several weekends learning the top parts of OFD and now I hardly recognise a thing. I knew I didn’t particularly want to go down through the boulder scramble to the streamway because I used to drop through a hole that I won’t fit through now and that means doing an “exposed” climb round the side of it. But we never found that bit anyway. We spent a few hours just roaming, mostly open stomping passageway. At one point we found ourselves in thick red mud and I tend to overreact – seeing thick red fresh mud, I instantly started to believe that this was caused by the heavy rain recently and that this part of the cave was prone to flooding and I was very glad to be away from it. In fact, that particular bit of cave is always full of thick red mud – the sort of mud that tries to pull your wellies off your feet.

A few times we came up against what my dad would call my “bête noire” – where I have to climb down something by the method of letting myself drop, trusting that my feet will hit something a few inches below. I’ve never liked that sort of thing but now it just scares the life out of me. And being old and unfit and out of practice and having not had enough breakfast, I got tired of the whole thing far sooner than everyone else. I started stumbling over easy bits and struggling up simple climbs and swearing at obstacles that really didn’t require swearing and was very pleased to be back above ground eventually. I love caving, I do. But while I’m actually doing it, I hate it. To paraphrase Ed Byrne’s snowboarding routine, “it’s like being beaten up by the inside of a mountain. Hey, do you want to come caving? Could, or you could just cover yourselves in mud and kick the shit out of me.” But within a year of starting caving, I managed to develop almost total immunity to bruises. Where once I would come home and be black and blue for a week, it soon became a challenge to find so much as one small yellow bruise.

The hot shower when I got back was great but ultimately a bad idea. I’d managed to get hypothermic and all the hot water did was heat up my skin and steal the warm blood from my vital organs, leaving me horrendously cold for the rest of the evening. A hot meal did no good whatsoever. What helped was sitting wrapped in a blanket by a roaring fire for a few hours, reading Harry Potter while the rest of the students drank and played ridiculous games and made a mess. I am a venerable old lady; I’ve had my days of squeezing through chairs and body traversing.

The next day I went off to Ogof Pasg, a new cave on me. I wasn’t too keen on the sound of “waist-deep water” or “quite a difficult climb” but the rest sounded ok, particularly when I discovered you could “go up or down”. I had no idea what that meant but if I could go down the climb rather than up it, that was probably better.

I went in the minibus. Mistake. I don’t like travelling by minibus, especially with students but I thought they’d come all the way from the other end of the country, it’d be fine. No! The girl I’d adopted/who’d adopted me got travelsick and decided, halfway there, to turn to me, looking bright green and say “I’m going to be sick”. Mercifully, she made it to the lay-by and I kind of threw her out while the driver turned the bus around and I didn’t have to witness the bad moment. It meant I worried quite a bit about the journey home for quite a while but there were too many of us for the bus so there was also a car and I decided I’d go back in the car, which would be safer.

While I was in the minibus, I took my lamp apart to see if I could work out what was wrong with the connections. The halogen bulb would go on, no problem, but the LEDs flickered and you had to turn the knob several times before you could delicately settle it so it didn’t flicker too badly. My lamp is an elderly Speleotechnics one – in fact, most of it used to be an FX2. For the uninitiated, that’s a tough waterproof caplamp that can be fixed in a cave with minimal tools connected by a long cable to a battery the size of a brick on your belt. And the FX2 batteries were the small ones of the family – the FX3 and FX5 were vast. I caved for a year on one of those. On the pilot bulb, you could maybe eke out four hours’ light which is why we got into the habit of switching them off whenever possible. At the end of my first year, the tackle master converted it to a Headlite by putting on a thinner cable, changing the two-halogen reflector for one with a 7-LED array for pilot light and giving me a battery box for disposable batteries. I later upgraded that to a NiMH rechargeable battery. But Speleotechnics no longer exists. The club uses Petzl Duos (which use rechargeable AA batteries; I still look at them and can’t feel that’s a proper caving battery, that’s just a temporary thing until you can find something better). They’re bright, yes. But I don’t think they were actually designed for caving and they’re sealed. If you take them apart, you void the warranty. Therefore, these students panicked a little bit when I started taking mine apart. They’ve never seen a caving lamp opened, they’ve never known such a thing can be done and they thought it was broken and started offering me spares. I had a fiddle with the contacts, didn’t improve it much but never mind. It still worked and I’ll have a proper look at it some other time.

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Oh, the cave. The wind was howling when we arrived and it was so cold that getting out of the minibus to get changed was unappealing. Fortunately, caving suits are reasonably windproof but it still was unpleasant. Then there was the walk. I kept up at first but then I got tired and my wetsocks started rubbing and then we went up a hill.

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Here I am sitting on the edge of the hill, too exhausted even to stand up for the moment. And the cave is not “just round the corner”. The cave is up at least another three levels of hill and then up a “dangerous climb” up the side of the quarry. Seriously, I nearly turned back at that point. The others helpfully pointed out that we do much worse things in the cave but we don’t think about it. It just looks bad because it’s outside.

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See the chap with the yellow helmet? The cave entrance is roughly directly above his head, up that very loose and very exposed climb to the right of the picture, where there are steps too big to be climbed without help for the likes of the three short girls who made up half the group. I was swearing at everything before we’d even found the entrance, I hated everything about the day and the only reason I was going in was because I didn’t want to have to climb back down “that thing”.

Actually, the cave was really nice. Nicely decorated stomping passageway at first, a deviation down to a crystal-clear sump for those who wanted to waste their energy on a detour – I would have done once upon a time but not now:

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Then we got into some very low crawly stuff. I’ve always been fine with low and crawly, probably because I started off caving with four very tall boys who didn’t find it as easy as I did. Following the climb came a thirty foot pitch, the first two thirds just a steep slope with well-defined steps and then it belled out and you just dropped. We were lifelined for this, on belts. I get why we didn’t take harnesses but good god, it’s uncomfortable to hang from a belt. And the club isn’t as organised as they were in my day – back in my day, we’d have had more karabiners than we could carry. These days, they bring two, one for each belayer and we had to tie directly into the line. I can still thread a double figure-of-eight and do a stopper knot!

Incidentally, that’s the change that bewildered me most. In the last seven years, the club has stopped measuring things in feet and started measuring them in metres. I have no idea how big a “nine metre” pitch is but I do know how big a thirty foot pitch is. Is Swildon’s Twenty now called Swildon’s Six, for crying out loud?!

Immediately below the pitch was the canal. This was the waist-deep water and it was cold as ice. You have never heard such noises as six people wading into waist-deep ice-cold water – the squeaks, shrieks and gasps! I had the sense to keep near the edge where it might be shallower and keep a hand on the wall. Actually, it was good fun. It was the sort of cold where your entire body burns with heat when you come out and the shock made us all giggly. Actually, first the cold shock made us really breathless and I was half-convinced I was going to die halfway through the canal if I didn’t breathe properly, which was incredibly hard to do. Also, no one empties their wellies by taking them off and turning them upside down any more. They just lift up their feet and hope enough trickles out the back. It doesn’t. And you have to empty them. The neoprene socks keep your feet warm but the volume of water a welly can hold is amazing. I can’t cave when my feet each weighs as much as the entire rest of me so I always empty them out as soon as possible.

Not long after that, we met the other group coming in the opposite direction. This was what they meant by “up or down” the climb. It depends which way you do the through-trip. They’d encountered a puddle where you have to wash your face – a very low crawl where you have no choice but to dip one ear in the water as you go through. This was a bit of a way on but we came across it after some very low crawling and I was second to face it. I lay for a long time in the passageway, dipping my hand in the water and complaining that “it’s cold and deep!” The passage is high enough to prop yourself up on your elbows but no higher. In front you have about two feet of space and it dips down at least six inches, into the aforementioned puddle at which point it turns very sharply to the left and there’s a kind of rock arch over the puddle. So you not only have to lie down in this puddle and squirm through a very tight turn, you also have to do it in four inches of cave water with your face in it. I took a long time to work up the nerve to do this. I really hate putting my face in cold water, which is why I’ve never done Swildon’s Sump 1 and never will. Eventually I just had to go for it. It was cold. It was terrifying. I slithered through in a kind of screaming panic, sloshing most of the water down the tunnel as I scrambled out in terror. Nasty, nasty, nasty. The next bit was comparatively easy – the passage drops down into another puddle and you have to put your hands out and wheelbarrow your way down. That was fine. My adopter/adoptee found it even more scary than I did, so I’m glad the Venerable Old Lady wasn’t the worst at the Washing Your Face Puddle.

Next obstacle was the squeeze. If you’re kneeling on the ground, the squeeze is about eye-level and it consists of a slab of rock, maybe eight feet square. All you do is lie on it and scoot across to the other side, where Ogof Pasg joins Ogof Foel Fawr. Here’s the catch: the ceiling is less than a foot above it. To be precise, when lying in the widest part of the squeeze, I could feel the ceiling against my back when I breathed in. My adopter/adoptee was absolutely terrified of this bit. I was not but because of lack of anything to push my feet against, I was propelled through by having the soles of my feet shoved by the taller boys, and I sent my glasses through first so they wouldn’t get scraped on the rock.

This is a picture of the squeeze from Dudley Caving Club who are apparently magnificent cave photographers:

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I didn’t take my helmet off. Maybe I should have done, my helmet is ludicrously wide and heavy, being fibreglass rather than plastic and if I get back into caving properly, it’s the first thing I’m replacing.

The rest was more low crawling, an entertaining scramble down and then back up the other side and then a kind of vertical crawl out through the entrance. The wind had picked up and as we tried to run across the moor, we were literally blown off our feet. Getting changed outside the minibus was hellish but we were all soaked to the skin and freezing cold and although we could sit on tarps in the minibus as long as the oversuits were off, we weren’t allowed in the car unless we were changed into dry clothes and I was not going back in the minibus with someone prone to travel sickness.

I didn’t bother with a shower when we got back to the hut. I’d already got reasonably dry and warm and dressed and I knew a hot shower wouldn’t warm me up. And driving home alone, there’d be no one there to care if I smelled less than delightful. It took a good two hours to shift the hypothermia – I put the heating on in the car until I got too hot and started feeling sick but within thirty seconds of turning it off, I was shivering violently again. Hypothermia is fun!

But the caving was fun. I’d missed it so much and it was so amazing to get to do it again, despite the cold water, the climbing, the rocks, the hypothermia, the noisy students. Caving owns a large piece of my heart.

The epilogue to the story is this. As a caver, you learn to be aware of the symptoms of leptospirosis, a bacterical infection that can be caught from cave water. At first it looks like a cold and in 90% of cases, that’s as far as it goes. It’s not a cold – it’s bacterical, not viral, it can be treated with antibiotics and if it goes to phase two, it can cause organ failure and potentially death. I woke up feeling like I had a cold on Wednesday morning and immediately spend 48 hours panicking that I had leptospirosis and was going to die, particularly as I hadn’t been around anyone with a cold three to four days previously whereas I had been immersed in potentially contaminated water. It’s now Monday night and I still don’t feel like any organs have failed so I haven’t got phase two (yet!) but I’m still determined to believe it’s phase one (anicteric) leptospirosis because I still believe it’s more likely that’s what I was exposed to.