OUCC Proceedings 4 (1966)

Accidents and Isurance


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The following leading article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday, December 7th, 1965:

Cavern on the telephone

Pot-holers are putting in a telephone line to the nearest farm from the top of Giant’s Hole, one of the major caverns of the Peak; and hope to extend the line into the cavern itself, to reduce still further the delay in calling for help in case of accidents. It was from Giant’s hole that a woman was rescued a few weeks back in circumstances of great difficulty; it took twenty hours to get her out. Clearly the sooner the alarm can be given in such cases, the less the risk of injuries causing death, during or after the slow and protracted process of extraction. Rescue  teams are quick at getting communications established once they are there. The point is to get them there quickly.
Giant’s Hole is not the only severe cavern in the Peak, and there are plenty more in the Yorkshire Pennines and in the Mendips. Nor are falls and broken limbs the only hazard. Three times in Yorkshire this year firemen have been called to rescue cavers marooned by underground floods. Both rescue operations and quick communications cost money. The Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation  reckons that it has used equipment worth about £600 in the last five or six years. The CRO nationally gets contributions from most of the caving clubs. In Derbyshire the county council started the local organisation off with £150 and contributes a small annual sum: but more may be needed to meet rescue costs if they go on rising. Are caving and climbing risks insurable? If so, have clubs any system of getting their members insured?
Luckily, caving accidents are rarely fatal. According to Mountain Rescue Committee’s accident report for 1964 (just published in “Mountaineering”, the quarterly journal of the British Mountaineering Council) only six caving accidents were reported last year as against 147 accidents on the hills. There was only one fatal cave accident: a man was drowned while swimming in underground waters.

In reply to the Guardian leader, the following letter was published on Wednesday, December 15th, 1965:

Caving Insurance

is potholing insurable? In Spain, yes. Here, climbers, skiers and cavers in clubs of the Spanish Mountaineering Federation get third party, accident and medical insurance for 15s a year. Next year, this is to be free of charge. Clubs outside the Federation, such as one caving club I belong to, must arrange annual insurance for their members. Even so, the annual subscription is only 7s 6d.
The UK presents a sad contrast. It is surprising that the insurance profession will not enter this field, as there are very few serious cave accidents. Cheap policies are necessary since the poorer and worst equipped clubs are the most accident-prone. Policies should cover all spelaeological activities, unofficial as well as club fixtures. At present, third party insurance may be got, and some landowners (e.g. Mendip Water Board) insist on it. This does not help a rescue team, and may even hinder it.
To get cheap insurance, caving clubs need to cooperate much more closely. The two national associations, the Cave Research Group of Great Britain and the British Spelaeological Association, are unsatisfactory for this purpose. Regional caving associations, formed to control access rights to certain caves, fear the creation of one, strong, national association in which the 30 all clubs from caving areas would be outnumbered by 150 young clubs from the Midlands and the South-east. The regional associations would then be under pressure not to connive at the policies of the MWB and other landowners which effectively exclude many “foreign” clubs. Lastly, the clubs themselves fear that their independence would be threatened if a national association could withdraw insurance cover from unruly cavers.
Cavers must think out just what they want and why. Then they should approach the insurance profession, and, if it should still refuse to help, there will be a strong case for government organised intervention. Until then, cavers will continue to rescue one another free of charge, knowing that few rescued potholers could foot the bill of a major rescue operation.
Yours etc., Michael Walker
Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas, Madrid 6

On Thursday, December 23rd, 1965, in the Guardian:

Disunity among cave rescue teams.

Michael Walker belittled the main problem facing cave rescue teams in Britain today. The fact is that rescue teams are dependent almost completely on voluntary contributions for their funds and therefore remain in a precarious position financially. The injustice is in the recognition of these teams.
If the life of an individual citizen in this country is endangered, it is the responsibility of the police force to preserve it. Yet the police openly admit they have neither the technical facilities, know-how, nor the man-power to effect a cave rescue. Cave rescue teams, when callout, in fact do the work of the police. At present there are four main teams, responsible for the Mendips, South Wales, Derbyshire, and the Craven area respectively. They are in no way affiliated to one another.
The government has offered these teams an annual grant to offset their enormous expenses, but only on the condition that they are linked, no matter how tenuously, into a national body. This, for extremely obscure reasons, the organisers of each team refused to do. Until some serious rethinking has been done among the potholing fraternity, cave rescuers have little ground on which to grumble, since they are attacking a situation which they themselves have allowed to be propagated.
Yours etc. Kevin Cowle.
Fairfax Hall, Leeds College of Education, Leeds 6, Yorkshire

The correspondence was continued by another former OUCC member, John Wilcock, in the Guardian of Monday, January 8th, 1966:

Linking cave-rescue organisations.

Kevin Cowle, in commenting upon the remarks of Michael Walker, has omitted to mention that a proposal for linking of the existing cave rescue organisations into a loosely-knit national body was put before the fourth cave rescue conference held at Buxton in October, 1965, by the leader of the Maeshafn search, which received wide publicity in 1964.
This search, involving 750 personnel and estimated to have cost £22,000, bought the attention of the Home Office to the generally unsatisfactory coordination between the police and the cave rescue teams in areas outside the popular caving regions. The county police information room had no information giving the standard conduct for a major cave rescue or search, as they have for such incidents as plane crashes and train crashes. This omission has now been remedied and a new rescue organisation has been formed in North Wales. The same lack of communication would, however, still occur in some other regions if a cave accident had to be tackled.
The Home Office could cooperate to prevent this if the various cave rescue organisations in Yorkshire, Durham, Derbyshire, Somerset, Devon, South and North Wales consent to join together in the national chain of communications, while retaining their regional autonomy. Potholders are individualists, and generally dislike organisation, but the forward thinkers may yet triumph.
Yours etc., John D. Wilcock
10, Beech Drive, Clough Hall, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Michael Walker, back in England, comments:

Kevin Cowle raises the argument that cave rescue teams do the work of the police. This is very dubious. While I concede that the Home Office funds for equipment and training costs of cave rescue teams are essential, I feel that total support by the government would reduce standards of safety training in cave clubs. I feel that cavers should recognise some liability to rescue teams in the event of a rescue team being called out on their behalf. Insurance is the only way to meet this liability. As a higher premium would follow a claim on your insurance company, there would be an incentive for clubs to demand higher standards of training than at present. Cavers who do not show to a cave-owner, warden, or National Park warden, a card stating that they were affiliated to, say, a National Spelaeological Association which would undertake insurance arrangements on behalf of individuals and affiliated clubs, would be liable (1) to prosecution for trespass, (2) legal actions from rescue costs by rescue team, in the event of their being involved in a rescue organisation. Each card would carry a photo in the cave in whose name it would be made out.
This is where the difference between cave rescue teams on the one hand, and the police and RAF mountain rescue on the other, is most marked. You can stop people going into caves easily – indeed, it is done quite effectively in many caving areas at present. You cannot stop them from wandering onto the moors, hence the need for total government support in the RAF mountain rescue. But to stop a “yob” from attacking a helictite in GB cavern is not the answer, if it sends him to a more dangerous Yorkshire pothole from which he has to be rescued at great expense. This is quite likely the outcome of present restrictions. My solution is for open access to all caves on production of a valid chit which everyone knows would mean that the bearer was fully insured, which would lead to higher training standards. It might be necessary for the government to arrange the insurance if the profession would not, but it would avoid the carefree attitude to safety training taken by many climbers, who “leave it all to the Valley RAF station”.
But perhaps too many people feel they would have to give up too much for such a system ever to be adopted.