Peter Hall

The life of a cave diver

It isn’t everyone’s idea of fun

  • From Spectator Life
Andy crawling through Otter Hole (Peter Hall)

It was one of those beautiful August mornings, birds singing, not a cloud in the sky – not that we could tell. We’d set off before sunrise and were now a hundred or so metres beneath Chepstow Racecourse sorting through diving kit. Here, several hours descent into the hillside, Andy and I were hoping to find the elusive underwater continuation of Otter Hole, one of the strangest caves in the British Isles.

It’s hard to know what to say when someone thanks you for returning the body of their dead friend

With its entrances just above the tideline on the River Wye, many flood over in winter, limiting exploration to the summer months. Even then, a tidal U-bend an hour into the cave cuts off the passage for six hours at a time, necessitating our early start. We had to get passed the bend before it flooded, temporarily sealing us beneath the hills.

This isn’t most people’s idea of fun, in fact, I would wager that for many people, there would be nothing more terrifying than squeezing between solid beds of limestone, breathing from a steel cylinder strapped to your side, with only your hands to guide you, blind in the muddy water. I’ve been caving for 12 years and still occasionally feel uncomfortable.

I started on sporting trips to well-known caves, then began exploring. In the UK, this generally means digging; unblocking systems that have been filled by sediments or boulders to find a way on. Sometimes exploration means continuing where others have stopped, where the cave roof meets the water; what we cavers call a sump. As a chink of black space opens up ahead, your heart races. Is it just another small pocket, or is this it, the big breakthrough, an unexplored cavern or hall? I suppose it’s a bit like gambling. With every small win, the cost to get there is forgotten. But it’s more than gambling: the camaraderie, the physical toil, the commitment to turn up, week after week. All that to shine a light where no light has penetrated before. To set foot where no human has been before. It is one of the last frontiers of exploration.

Here in Otter Hole, the cave was explored as far as sump seven in the early 1990s, but nobody had managed to get diving equipment back into the cave to continue exploration. Over the last few trips, with dozens of helpers, we’d brought in diving equipment and later removed old diving lines, laid to give a route back to surface when visibility is lost. These had become loose and tangled, creating a potentially fatal hazard. New lines were laid as far as sump six and now we were ready to push on into the unknown.

Although we always dive solo (another diver in a confined space can be fatal) the long stream way between sumps four and five is best not undertaken alone. Loose rocks underfoot and unstable boulders overhead are a concern and we were all too aware of how challenging a rescue would have been from this point. Our friend George, who was with us the year before, was still recovering from a nasty accident; he had been only an hour underground when a rock collapse nearly killed him. It took 54 hours and over 300 volunteers to bring him back to surface. Fortunately, incidents like this are extremely rare and cave rescue volunteers are more accustomed to pulling dogs or sheep from open holes on the hills.

Andy and I had both done our bit during George’s rescue the previous year, 14 hours at a time, and we both knew that in our current location, even a minor injury would be serious, while a severe accident would likely be fatal. While Andy set off to dive sump seven, I wasted no time. I’d previously spotted an open archway, the top of a blocked passage, leading off in the low wide passage upstream of sump six. Armed with a small crowbar, I began digging through the fill until I’d created a body-sized opening. From here, a wriggle headfirst over the constriction dropped into an open passage. It was a flat-out crawl, with the odd silt bank to dig through to make headway. After 15 metres of hard-won progress, it was time to back slowly out, with a further 15 metres of passage visible beyond the next constriction. Given the vast caverns found elsewhere in the cave, this small passage may yet yield some impressive finds, but it won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, Andy had experienced an equipment failure and lost a significant quantity of breathing gas from one of his cylinders 70 metres into the sump. With depleted air reserves and the risk of further problems, he’d had no choice but to abandon the dive. Nine hours after we’d left the half-light of dawn, we were back outside in the baking heat of the day, with an hour’s walk still ahead of us. We had not found the main route on, but it’s there somewhere for those bold enough to look.

Our pastime isn’t entirely pointless – we’d learnt a little more about the cave and continued pushing the limits of exploration and our own physical and mental endurance, invisible to the world. Last year, we helped mountain rescue team recover a body from a popular tourist destination in South Wales. Police and fire service personnel reported that the body was trapped underwater beneath a waterfall and eventually called for diving assistance from South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team, having failed to recover it themselves. Details were sketchy and we had no idea exactly what we were dealing with; from what they let on, we suspected a suicide and prepared for a grim discovery.

We’d been put on standby on the evening of the incident, but since the casualty was already dead, the recovery was postponed until the morning. This would be the first time I’d handled a body and I can’t say I slept well that night, turning things over in my mind. It was a huge relief to get the go-ahead the next morning. Emotion was put aside, and we got on with the task in front of us. Only afterwards did we learn what had happened. A young man had entered the water to assist his young nieces who were struggling near the waterfall. When he slipped and sank beneath the surface, there was nobody who could help. His friends had kept vigil by the pool all night, holding out faith that he was alive, perhaps trapped in an air pocket below a ledge. Only when we carried his body from the water was the truth confirmed to them. It’s hard to know what to say when someone thanks you for returning the body of their dead friend; all we could manage was that it’s all any decent human with our skills would do. Skills not learnt for any magnanimous purpose, but skills learnt in the pursuit of a mad hobby, a life passion.

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