Depth through thought

OUCC News 3rd November 2010

Volume 20, Number 7

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

Trips this term:

Competent Caving & Safe Speleology: A Guide

Jamie Jordan

The first rule of caving: never hike to the cave with your chocolate exposed to the sun's melting rays. Rules two to seven are also chocolate-related. Rule eight concerns the pre-caving placement of beer in the fridge, and rule nine returns to chocolate. Hanging by one hand over an unpleasantly large drop, feeling the rock begin to break away beneath my fingers, I cursed myself for breaking all the rules. My chocolate was near-liquid, the beer would be tepid, and if I was lucky I was about to break both legs, hundreds of metres underground.

Bowed under the weight of rope, crowbars, lump hammers and caving kit, but free from the burden of spare water, I sweated up a hillside which seemed suspiciously free from the laws of geometry, being steeper than vertical. The crack team of British cavers (Andrew and I), determined to conquer man's subterranean nemesis, had left camp in the early hours of the morning (11am) after a Spartan breakfast of muesli and bread and jam and biscuits and chocolate. Struggling manfully against the fierce Spanish sun, we reached our cave's chilling maw and stopped briefly to rest for three hours.

With a heart-rending display of English stoicism, we distracted ourselves from thoughts of the perils ahead by eating chocolate and joking pretentiously about Russian literature. However, as the cruel sun beat down and we bravely worked on our tans, we were struck by the creeping inevitability of the task at hand and forced wearily into our caving attire. Displaying the impeccable manners which are the hallmark of the Oxford University Cave Club, each insisted that the other take the privilege of being the first underground, but eventually the calculated ineptitude with which I donned my harness and persuaded Andrew to descend the first shaft.

Clambering down wire ladders towards the impenetrable darkness below, I finally remembered to turn on my head lamp. The darkness became considerably more penetrable. At the base of the first shaft, we found the floor littered with bones; with two years of medical school behind us, we confidently identified the remnants as belonging to a cow. Or a sheep, or something. Unperturbed by this grisly entrance, we swiftly worked our way deeper into the cave, stopping only to swear creatively at the heavy gear bags.

Reaching the top of the final shaft, we prepared to belay each other down the treacherous climb. This smooth operation, marred only by our mutual incompetence, delivered us to the horizontal cave. Sliding gracefully head-first down a rocky slope, we squeezed through a painstakingly dug hole and into a beautiful chamber, decorated throughout with delicate stalagmites and stalactites, calcite, flowstone and crystal straws. Proudly misnaming these untouched treasures, I stumbled muddily over the immaculate floor to reach our project: a small hole tucked into a nook in the chamber's far wall, with enticingly dark darkness beyond.

On our previous trip to this point, we had noted the soft calcite wall and proclaimed gleefully that we would knock through in minutes. Well equipped this time with hammers and chisels, we set enthusiastically to work, and quickly removed a thin veneer of calcite to reveal solid stone beneath. Undaunted, we complained lengthily to each other, questioning the parentage and moral character of the wall, the cave, and the world in general. Finally exhausting our capacity to verbally abuse a rock, we resigned ourselves to a war of attrition and attacked the wall with renewed lassitude.

Hours later, the hole had increased from fist-sized to larger-fist-sized. I decided I could fit through. After Andrew had rescued me, we continued the digging campaign, eventually widening our hole sufficiently for me to get stuck again. Having lost both my dignity and all feeling in my legs, I stoically crammed Andrew through, and eagerly awaited news from the far side.

"It's... there's this weird stuff on the rock."

"What's the chamber like? How big is it?"

"It's like... this stuff looks like worm poo."

"I don't care the slightest bit. Have we found more cave?"

"Yeah, definitely some sort of insect poo."

"Widen this bloody hole."

I broke through to find Andrew enthusiastically inspecting bits of mud on the walls. The new chamber was a small grotto, with crystal formations decorating the walls and pure white stalagmites protruding from the floor. Despite the aesthetics, the breakthrough was disappointing: no obvious ways on, no more discoveries to be made.

Then I looked up.

A chimney, so lacking in character that I felt compelled to compensate through melodramatic paragraphing, provided the only possible lead.

Still frustrated by my 6'3" body's inability to beat the cave ferret (Andrew) through the hole, I leapt on the chance to use some height, and started to climb.

The sides were thickly coated with mud, and loosely calcited rocks provided the only holds. Bracing between the slippery walls, I wormed upwards, reached cleaner rock and free-climbed towards a small chamber. Predictably, the shaft topped out without yielding further cave, and I eventually remembered that I'd need to descend. This proved problematic. Every ledge and hold would break away within seconds: the downclimb required a frenetic and somewhat panic-stricken dance. Finding a rare patch of seemingly secure rock above a ten metre drop, I stopped to breath the acid from my arms and plan a safer route down. Crack. The hold beneath my left foot snapped away, my right wellington slipped, and I was hanging by my arms. Crack. Left handhold gone, and my desperately-scrabbling feet were failing to find purchase as my right arm burnt.

I stretched out with my left hand, and was just able to palm off the opposite wall. Bracing with spread arms, and hooking the rim of my helmet into a crack for good measure, I swung out over the shaft and kicked my legs into the mud on either side. I breathed again, and descended very slowly to the floor.

Trying and failing to look cool, I joined the newly-formed pile of rubble at the foot of the climb and calmly hyperventilated for some time. Meanwhile, Andrew (having evaded the rain of dislodged boulders) continued to propound his newfound love for speleocoprological studies. Partially recovered and rapidly approaching our callout time, we were forced to retreat from the cave, leaving a number of its crystal formations intact. Turning our backs on the palatial cavern, we climbed and crawled towards the sunlight. I recovered the ropes and wire ladders as we left, and eventually emerged, blinking, into the Spanish afternoon.

After coiling the ladders neatly, packing gear away and beginning to disrobe, a brief inventory instigated the traditional re-rigging and descent of the cave to retrieve forgotten equipment. Finally, however, our expedition departed down the hill, lost the path and fought valiantly through rather inhospitable brambles.

Agreeing to blame our newly-acquired scratches on cave monsters, Andrew and I trudged slowly back to camp. The day had been a success, with our dedication to mapping the world's muddier locales paying dividends once again. Modesty prevents me from labelling us heroes, but I like to think that posterity will note our valour and remember us - adolescent, generally drunk, and too focused on laughter to think of danger or basic safety precautions - as the last of the Great Explorers.