Oxford University Cave Club

El Regallón 1997

Expedition Final Report  

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  Medical Officer's Report / Incident Report

Tim Guilford

The attention in recent years to camp hygiene and an increasing level of awareness of safety underground have again appeared to pay off this year. There are no significant medical incidents to report for the 1997 expedition. However, two points are worthy of raising within this context. The first concerns medical issues, the second safety.

Dehydration continues to remain an underestimated problem. During the expedition, there were several cases of cavers experiencing fairly severe dehydration after exertion either on the carry-up from Base Camp, or, more importantly, after long underground trips. There's a simple solution: drink.

The second, safety, issue involved a classic SRT incident in which a combination of minor problems compounded to lead to a potentially extremely serious problem. In short, Rhys Williams found himself in water at a rebelay in complete darkness halfway up a very large pitch unable to complete the standard SRT manoeuvres. On the one hand a combination of unfortunate (but not rare) circumstances and lack of SRT experience led to Rhys entering a dangerous situation. On the other hand, a combination of awareness of the cave around him, and a decision to take drastic action led to his escape unharmed. It is a shame that the situation arose, and a great relief that the caver concerned had the composure to deal with effectively, if in an unorthodox fashion. There are lessons to be learned from the incident, and the immediacy of Rhys' own account of it provides the best insights, so it is presented below.

"Nobby and I prussiked up the parallel shaft [in Canalizos] to go and derig the main cave. As we got the ledge where the two routes meet it was apparently thundering and raining on the surface. 'Looks like it could be a bit of a wet one', I thought to myself as I abseiled away from the daylight and off deeper into the cave. I eventually caught up with Nobby at the breakthrough rift, and we pressed on to the rescue dump. The temporary lake/sump was not there so we picked up all the gear and derigged the dive-line. There seemed to be far more gear in the cave than we had anticipated. We already had two full heavy tacklebags, five small pitches to derig, and then the 170m entrance shaft, Also, no empty bags. 'Hmm, lets see how far we can get'.

Derigged back to the breakthrough rift with no real problem. Dumped the rescue kit and carried on with two tackle bags of rope. Time was ticking on. We would have about one hour to get back up the main shaft, and one hour to walk back to top camp in time for our call out at midnight. The rest of the derigging would have to wait. The main shaft seemed a lot wetter than it did on the way in, but I set off up leaving Nobby to shelter at the bottom singing 'The body of an American" by The Pogues. First rebelay passed fairly rapidly, if a little on the damp side. The next hang was in the full force of the water. No chance of keeping the flame going, and full wellies within a few seconds.

As I approached the next rebelay, 'Hmmm, that looks quite tight, my light's fading, it's wet here' I thought. Attempted to pass rebelay. 'This is not going to be easy', came to mind. Suddenly total blackness. Batteries dead. Cold wet hands unable to install new ones correctly. Try rebelay in dark. 'Shit, this is tight'. Shout to Nobby. 'I'm at a rebelay, this could take a while'. Grunts and groans: 'Can't pass the thing'. Gloves off, but can't tell what's a rope, a jammer, or anything. 'Very wet here. I'm soaked to the skin. Must get out of this water soon'. Try torch again. No good. Try rebelay. Still soaking wet and getting colder. 'I'm sure there's a ledge that this tape rebelay is attached to, I've got to get out of the water'. Nobby still singing... 'Is the rope free yet?' 'No!!!', I reply.

Haul up with all my strength on the tape. Get one leg on ledge. Something's weighing me down. The tacklebag is carefully removed and clipped to rebelay. Prussic bag is clipped to my other side on the ledge. Still can't move. Jammers now hard up against the knot. Still blackness and water. 'Shit, I really don't like this!' Arms failing, I pull up onto the ledge, fighting the rope below as I go. Semi- comfortable now. In the dry. Still dark. Still being pulled off my ledge by the rope below. Still can't sort the batteries out. Try hauling tacklebag up to take some weight off the rebelay. Its jammed. After a few more minutes I hear the tacklebag whistle off down the pitch. 'Below"- I shout, with three batteries in my mouth. 'What the fuck was that?', cries singing Nobby. 'Only my tacklebag full of rope. Are you ok?' 'Yes, is there anything I can do?' 'No. Just give me a minute'.

Well, the tacklebag is one less problem. Now, Nobby can't come and help me because if he prussiks up he'll pull me off the ledge. Also, my leg is through the tape, and fuck knows if it is still secure. Have to take my harness off. Footloop wrapped around the 'up' rope and clipped to my belay belt. 'That's not very safe'. 'Ah, spare jammer'. I find it and clip that to my belay belt and the rope. 'Phew, safe'. Kit slid nicely off. Able to stand up. 'Nobby, you'll have to prussik up to me and give me some light'. 'Is it safe?!' 'Err, hold on a minute...yes, it is now', I reply, having located the tape and put it back in the slot it came from. Fucking cold now. As Nobby approaches the rebelay and my gear hanging down from it, I get my light to work. 'Can Nobby help me?' I wonder. 'I'm cold, he's been hanging at a rebelay in the water below for probably half an hour. Is he hypothermic?' Now I start to really worry...

Nobby passes the rebelay by prussiking up my chest harness or something, and we both shiver together on the ledge. He seems very slow and not sure what to do.' Shit, we're both going down with hypothermia', I think. The rebelay won't come undone, so I persuade Nobby to cut the rope above my jammer - this will be the quickest way we'll both get out of this hell hole, without pissing about on prussik knots or passing gear up and down. I get my kit on and by now my carbide light has dried out and will work again. Both now ready to head out, but neither wanting to leave our cosy, warm dry ledge. Sounds of people above. 'Hello...'. No answer. Nobby heads out and I follow to meet Kev at the entrance. No rain, clear skies, lightning far away. Bloody wet and cold. One hour overdue and still a good walk to top camp."

Rhys dealt with an potentially fatal situation without panic. Hanging on a rope in the water is one of the most serious situations a caver can encounter. Rhys had been observant and had noticed an escape route accessible even in complete darkness. It is a credit to him that he managed to execute such an escape. It should be clear from his own account how little time he perceived himself to have before becoming incapacitated by cold, and so just how desperate his situation was at the point he decided to leave the apparent safety of the rope. Nevertheless, leaving one's SRT kit on the rope to climb to a remembered ledge 70m above the floor in the dark is no textbook escape manoeuvre. And, perhaps with more experience, he would have appreciated that to call a second caver up the same rope to help would have been a legitimate option. Nevertheless the entire incident highlights the problems associated with the trade-off between rigging tight to reduce potential shock loading if a rebelay fails, and rigging loose to facilitate passing rebelays. Don't forget that new rope can shrink when it gets wet.