Depth through thought

OUCC News 27th January 2010

Volume 20, Number 1

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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Squishy, Squelchy, Unfun Fun

Ewa Bigaj

This is a description of my first caving trip - down Swildon's Hole.

“It only starts being really fun when it almost stops being fun” – the oh-so-deep thought hit me in my third hour underground.

Actually, it was really fun from the very start, from the moment we put on our ridiculous caving clothes – the fleecy, one-part, baby-garment-like undersuits; the brightly coloured oversuits, blue ones like blue builders’ coats, yellow-and-red ones like yellow-and-red clowns’ uniforms; the wellies that were sometimes two sizes too large and from two different pairs; the helmets that I can conjure no humorous description of. So there we were, dressed in our ridiculous caving clothes, surreal specks of colour walking across a brown field in Mendip. And there we came to an inconspicuous hole in the ground. One by one, the specks of colour disappeared from the surface of the earth, entering a world whose surrealness rivalled their own.

And then it started being really, really fun. We waded in an underground river, squishing, squashing, squelching, splashing in squishy, squashy, squelchy, mushy waters. Water in our wellies, mud on our hands and faces and hair – a child is happiest when dirty, an adult is happiest when her resemblance to a dirty child becomes almost too uncomfortable to bear. It only starts being really fun when it almost stops being fun.

Down onto your face and cram your body into a tightly cramped tunnel, walls jam, ram, slam into you from all sides, you in a little tunnel of air surrounded by infinite expanses of stone. Unable to move your head, all you see are the wellies of your predecessor kicking furiously inches ahead of your nose, and on and on you crawl – nay, slither! – thrashing your legs about likewise. Then the scenery changes – velvety expanses of undiscovered darkness, spacious emptiness that fills your insides with shudders of awe. Below – a waterfall, trickling, murmuring, drippety-drip-dripping... Next to it a ladder, a spindly, frail affair, swinging to and fro as you come down, the water eternally rushing past, its wet, cool indifference deeply reassuring.

That emptiness, that something which turns your insides upside down, that something which is nothing, which is perhaps an illusion and is all the more powerful for it – that is the biggest treasure one can find in a cave. My feet begin to ache, I have bruises all over my elbows, I don’t know whether I am really enjoying myself anymore. But I know that when I come out, these will be the moments I shall remember as true happiness. “This is it, there is nothing else – and isn’t it the best it could possibly be?” I tell myself, and I think I know what I mean.

We scramble, scurry and scuttle up and down in the most ridiculous places and poses. Hands on rough stone, feet somewhere miles away, I carefully think of a way of getting down without falling. The caver’s motto goes: “Why use your hands and feet when you can use your bottom?” Indeed, caving is a wonderfully undignified game.

In that third hour underground I stop noticing things around me. It takes most of the effort I can muster to keep on going – I mechanically lift my feet, look for footholds, mechanically shiver in the cold underground stream. But I am so content, how good to feel so bad! That was the moment when it started being really, really, really fun.

And then came the moment most fun of all – the moment when it absolutely stopped being fun. The moment of the sump. Which is the technical term for a passage completely submerged under water.

First you have to lie down in the icy cold, frightfully freezing water. God, God, God it’s cold! Everything inside you tells you to get out and run away – instead, you search with your numb fingers for the rope by which you are to pull yourself through the water, and you submerge your helmeted, crazy head. Oh my God, oh my God, I’m gonna die... Long milliseconds... Can’t b-b-brrrreathe... Solid rock above me, what if I won’t make it?!... Made it.

“How was it?” “Oh. My. God.” Grins from ear to ear, shudders from tip to toe, we’re as happy and as terrified, cold and exhausted as can be.

But the scariest part was yet to come... A realization was shaping itself in my mind... “Are we going back the way we came?” Of course, I already knew the dreaded reply. Those fifteen minutes of further exploration, knowing that once we turned back I would have to go through that hell again, and that now diving was not a matter of bravery, but of necessity – now that’s what fear is...

The second time itself was much less scary than the first. Cold, in, out, shiver-shiver and time to leave.

When we came out after five hours, how amazing seemed the sky, by now specked with sparkly stars! How amazing the dry clothes, how amazing the fireplace in the hut and the tea, the hot, delicious tea! This is it, there is nothing else, hot tea is as happy as you can get.