NEW CAVE

 

I'm not feeling very happy now.  I'm a long way underground, and I don't think I can go anywhere.  In front of me - or rather, directly down - is a twenty-foot pitch.  The ladder hangs down, taunting me because I can't manoeuvre onto it.  My right shoulder is on the stemple we're using for the ladder; my body and feet are still in the small rift behind.

 

Sam is below.  He has opened the tackle sack and is carefully extracting the survey kit ready for use.  He's standing up comfortably in a roomy chamber - the only one we've seen since leaving the other, now forgotten, world outside.  He looks up at me, to see whether I've moved in the last few minutes.  I haven't.

 

Slowly I inch my head round until I can see along my body up to my legs.  They are a bit higher up, due to the slightly descending route I slithered through a few minutes ago.  My feet are neatly in the second of the two corners that make up the Z-bend, but they have dropped a little into the narrowing below.  Beyond the Z-bend, I remember, is a rift passage, narrow but manageable at the right height, which slightly widens back where we left the things we won't be needing ahead.

 

"How are you doing up there?" Sam's shout resounds from the chamber below.

 

"Not very well," I admit.  I need to work out what to do.  It's obvious that I need my feet on the ladder.  Sam had turned himself around somehow during the process of rigging the pitch, so I ask how he had managed it.  Apparently, it involved a sitting position at the last bend, with legs astride the corner.  I take a few moments to plan which way  

each bit of me should face, then start wriggling.

 

There are some moves that are much easier to do forwards than in reverse.  Every caver knows that a head-first dive is one of those.

And so it proves.  I shuffle my feet upwards as far as I could manage, willing them to stay put in the holdless rift, then start pushing myself back using my arms.  Wriggling my body back, six inches of progress comes easily, and then I'm fully extended on the last - the only - hold, our wooden stemple.  My strength fades and I slump back down to my starting position.  Bugger.

 

Down below is a muted sound of oversuit against rock; Sam is exploring the downstream rift passage from the chamber.  By the sound of things, it's much like the narrow rift we've been following most of the way so far.  Every so often, I see a chink of light as he turns his head back towards the pitch.

 

Time for another attempt.  This time I push just one leg upwards, hoping to be able to bend the other one as I go.  It's a bit more effective, and I somehow find myself in a semi-keeling position with my left leg around the corner, and my right one folded under my body.

I hear Sam return to the chamber and see his light play on the top of the ladder.  I shout down a progress report, and the encouragement that returns has a tinge of relief to it.  Evidently he's not relishing the prospect of being trapped underground by my jammed body!

 

 

Having gained my semi-sitting position, I now need to get my body and head up and over the rest of me, so that my feet are towards the pitch.  My first attempt is very clearly not going to work: there's definitely not enough room to do it with my helmet on.  I remove it carefully - it must not fall down the pitch - and try again.  It's close, very close, but I can't quite manage it.  I try moving every bit of me that can move, but nothing succeeds.  I shout back down to Sam.

 

He tells me there's a notch in the wall almost big enough for a buttock.  I find it and try to use it, but I'm still no better off.  I think I'm just a slightly too tall to turn here.

It's time to admit defeat on the sitting approach; I put my helmet back on, and slide back to my now-familiar position looking down the pitch.  Sam has started surveying, and I can see him sighting across the chamber.  Up here, I just lie in the slot as a useless lump.

Now I'm reaching the point where I'm no longer focused on getting down the pitch.  Although it's so close, and it's frustrating to see Sam walking around as easily as at home, I just want to be out of this rift, and preferably not have it between me and the way out.  I don't want to be here; I don't even want to be underground.  In fact, I don't think I want to be a caver any more.

I allow a minute or two to get my breath back, then shout down to Sam.

 

"I can't do it - I'm backing out."

 

"Okay."

 

I know and Sam knows that I'm leaving him to do the surveying solo, but I've reached the point where even if I do get down, I'm more likely to be a liability than any help.  My strength has drained noticeably, and my enthusiasm even more.

To reverse the Z-bend, I need to be as high as possible.  I shuffle my feet up again, gather up all my resolve, and push back off the stemple.  Like last time, I manage a few inches, then run out of both holds and strength.  My toes can feel the far end of the dog-leg; beyond that is the freedom I crave, if only I can wriggle the rest of myself after!  Try as I might, though, my effort is not rewarded with progress; eventually I slip downwards and the attempt is aborted.

 

I look down with increasing envy at Sam's comfortable position below.

Slumping into the rift, I know I'm steadily using my reserves.  Why didn't I shove a chocolate bar under my helmet back at the Farm?

I gather my remaining strength for another go at backing out the way I went in.  I think I already know it's not going to work; perhaps that means that I'm not giving it my full effort.  So it's no surprise that I reach the same position as I did last time, and no further.

I've now exhausted the two most obvious avenues of escape.  Next possibility - I consider going forwards, over the head of the pitch, but there's no handholds and I don't particularly like the thought of precarious manoeuvring above such a drop, where the consequences of any injury are too much to contemplate.  We are already somewhere that most normal-sized cavers never get to, and I can't imagine how any meaningful rescue could be conducted.  Best to put that out of my mind, and concentrate on not needing a rescue!

 

"Have we still got those two slings?" I shout down.

 

"Yes, we have.  What are you going to do with them?"

 

"I don't know yet, but at least we've got them."

 

I'm not wearing a belt, which means that one of the slings will have to go round my waist, leaving just one to attach me to something more solid.  I know that slings are completely static, and can't properly protect a fall, but on the other hand a bit of psychological protection is never something to refuse.  I scrabble around the pitch-head for five minutes searching for a good anchor, but that yields nothing, and in the end I can only attach it to the ladder.  The ladder itself is too close in; it's hanging down a too-narrow slot, about a foot or two back from where it's wide enough to descend.  If I try descending it like that, I'll certainly overbalance and fall

 

 

I remember that there's a crowbar in the tackle bag.  Sam brings it up, and between us, we manage to use it as an additional stemple to bring the ladder out.  While he watches nervously from below, I begin to ease myself down the ladder head-first.  It's difficult, and more than a little scary.  I'm acutely aware that if my legs swing over my head, I won't be able to hold on.  Carefully I descend, hooking my toes wherever I can feel a hold - rock nobbles, the ladder wire, anything.  As the pitch widens, it gets more difficult, but I'm committed now; I'm not even considering climbing back up in this position.

 

I get far enough down for Sam to reach me from a ledge, and ask him to guide my foot as I swing upright.  It's a combined effort as we very slowly tip me right way up again, being extremely cautious to keep the whole operation under steady control.  I don't want to fall off, and I don't want to dislodge him either.  I'm now hanging from the ladder with my hands above me, and quickly get my feet on the rungs.  I can now unclip the psychological sling and step down to the floor.

 

For the next few minutes, I'm shaking all over.  I stretch both arms out, enjoying the freedom - though every so often, I look up at the top of the pitch and wonder whether I'll get back out again.

 

Toby Speight

 

 

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