caving – meet the earth

[@Bristol, UK]

Maybe a decade ago, the prospect of exploring a closed deep tunnel deep into the very womb of the Earth… may not have seemed very endearing.

Well, to begin at the beginning…

I went to this doctor on Monday about my otherwise normal back except occasionally very painful back (thanks to a fall on 30th April down a staircase). I knew I’d have a tough time explaining it to him because it was so hard to pinpoint the problem. He asked does it hurt here? hurt here? and I had to say “no” “no”… and finally he asked me to touch my toes without bending my knees which I did easily. Then he said “nothing to worry” (go away). But I tried to explain that that’s exactly what I was worried about: that I hadnt worried about it. But he said it would take some time, but nothing has happened. I explained I hadnt been able to sleep well for a whole week, because though I’d fall asleep, every time I moved, it would be so painful I’d become wide awake. He only prescribed some painkillers and I just took the prescription and never used it, one thing I’ve usually evade are painkillers.

And anyway yesterday, I couldnt resist a club members offer of going caving in the Mendips.

We left the city center around 6:30 and reached the Mendips, a hilly area to the south of Bristol. While waiting for others to turn up, I had time to grab a Quiche – something like a slice of pizza but made of egg.

All the others turned up, and Natalia, the lead, unpacked all gear (rented) from her car after a round of introductions. We were a group of 6. Natalie being an expert and the organizer of the trip, was leading us, and Frank was a very experienced caver too. Then there was Richard – I had met him once before a couple of weeks earler. He had said he was a Nurse, which I found quite unusual, but then off late I dont know what is “usual”!

I put on knee pads and a waterproof and rubbery suit, kind of like a scuba outfit but not as tight. We had to loop a waistbelt through a battery, then connect the battery with a thick wire which ran up to a lamp fixed in our helmet. After putting on all our climbing gear, we had to make a short trek up the hillside to the entrance of the cave.

Started off at a comfortable 5 foot high tunnel, which turned into many strange contorted shapes as we walked on, our eyes getting gradually used to the darkness. The air was damp and cold, and the light illuminated my breath as clearly as I was smoking a cigarette. At times the tunnel became as narrow as 1 or 2 feet foot wide, and we had to squeeze through them walking sideways at an angle, taking care with every single step. And just to make life easier, it wasnt even horizongal in most places, it was a downward slope, with deep holes at some places. Water were seeping in through the rocks forming muddy puddles making them really slippery. The only sources of light were the torches fixed to our helmets.

Maybe a decade ago, it wouldve been my worst nightmare. Exploring a closed deep tunnel deep into the very womb of the Earth… the prospect of claustrophobia or even worse, just getting stuck without being able to move forward or backward, wouldnt have seemed very endearing. If a person gets stuck in a car, in the worst case, they can get chainsaws etc and and extricate him. But in a tight passage in a cave, with a minimum of 200 meters of solid rock in any direction, theres nothing much that can be done.

It was a descent most of the way, and was quite painful with my troublesome back. Every now and then I had to just stop and wait for around 30 seconds for the occasionally electrifying pain to subside. The lead had made me the offer that if I ever wanted to go back, she would take me and the rest of them would continue. (No way I couldve found my way out alone, it was a maze down there.) It was sometimes tempting to give up, but I doggedly kept on.

The rocks were mostly smooth, with very few handholds or footholds, and at some places there were 8 feet deep and 1 foot wide fissures, and when I looked down them, they two surfaces narrowd down to touch each other like a V shape. If one just slipped and fell in them and got stuck… ugh… I tightened my handgrip while crossing that one.

In one or two places, we had to simply slide down into pitch black emptiness, taking the lead’s word that we would stop soon, …even then it was quite intimidating! When such passages were upwards, it was easier crawling through them like earthworms on our bellies, and in one of them I found that it started off upwards but started going downwards and I had to slide out head first!

But as I went deeper and deeper, I saw some beautiful limestone rock formations. Could hear an underground stream flowing somewhere, and the sheer ambience was absolutely captivating. Everything around me seemed to tell a story – the story of a million years about the erosion of the Earth, some water that flowed somewhere, some acidic bacteria eating away at the rocks at some other places. Nobody seemed to be interested in any of this, they just wanted to keep going. Except Frank, the other expert. He seemed to have good background of geology and told me about how black or white marble gets formed, and showed me a sample. He also showed me some fossils (seemed to be of some molluscs) and I found many more of those all along the way.

Couldnt take any pictures, no way I could carry anything with me, let alone my camera. And anyway it wouldve taken quite some time for me to set up my tripod and use the long exposure, and these people generally dont like to wait and just want to “get it over with” – want to get there in a hurry, and want to get back in a hurry. Apparently it was only a sport for most of them, nothing more than physical endevour. True that physically it was very demanding, it seemed to be a combination of yoga as there was a lot of bending and stretching and twisting involved, plus climbing as we had to often use a single arm or leg to take the entire weight while searching for the next foot/handhold.

The plan was to upto the end of the tunnel and then head back in a different way. After around an hours walk/crawl/other new techniques of movement invented as situations demanded, we came to the worst part. This was an almost 25 foott stretch of the smallest tunnel I had seen so far. My backache had weakened me a bit and the prospect of getting stuck somewhere in the middle too tired to crawl any more seemed less than attractive. At this point I gave up and said I’d just wait here, they had to come back the same way anyway. Frank the last person, agreed and went on, and left me there alone.

I found my body had ended up in a strange posture and tried to sit up and relax but the place was too small for that. I thought of going a bit back to a bigger cavern earlier, but by then I could already hear the others coming back. It had been the end of the tunnel (I doubted if there had been any light there 😉 ) anyway so I hadnt missed much by not going further. We were to start heading back.

The upward journey was very strenous. There were a lot of places where we had to pull ourselves upwards up with solely our arms. At many points, I found myself helplessly clawing or kicking at slippery rock with no way to progress even an inch upward. Even the smallest inch of jagged outgrowth of rock was the greatest luxury in such situations! I was glad about my helmet for the number of times I bumped my head against the ceiling.

At one point, Natalie agreed to my request that we sit down and switch off all our lights for a minute of silence, just to see what it would be like. So we all sat down, turned off the lights, and incredibly enough for a change the ever-chattering britons could manage to keep silent. It was the darkest dark I had ever known. It made no difference whether my eyes were open or close! All we could hear was the distant underground stream. After maybe 15 seconds, Natalie asked “is that enough for you Sanjay?” and turned on her light, and we were off again.

After a while the going got easier, anyway this was a different route we were taking back. I noticed one strange thing – my backache – it was gone! I just couldnt believe it!! I somehow mustve bent in some particular direction or something like that, cant imagine what.

Anyway we progressed upwards at a faster pace now, the going had got easier, and also I was more used to it. Natalie knew her way quite well around the maze. At one point, I saw a very strange cavern in the distance… it seemed to have a certain glow, and some strange and beautiful very intricate dark pattern! As I went closer and closer, I was more excited wondering what it could be! Even the atmosphere was changing, it was getting a bit fresher. I finally reached it, stared around and it took me a full 20 seconds to realize I was standing outside on the grass, under a canopy of low hanging tree branches siloutthed against the dimly glowing night sky! It was 10 PM.

We climbed down again, dropped into a pub to unwind, and I finally reached home at midnight, dropped by Natalia. Shes a really nice lady, a health care professional and caving was just a hobby for her. After all this caving trip was a piece of cake, it meant nothing to her. I could see caving was more a passion for her than just a hobby, but still if left to her own devices she couldve done a lot of advanced trips instead of this simple one. There was no monetary benefit either, all we had to pay her for was 3.50 for having rented the equipment for us. She was one of the many extraordinary people Ive encountered in the UK, who being an expert in something, takes the effort of introducing others to it, expecting nothing in return.

Another thing I found particularly interesting, was that she was married with 3 kids… (sometimes her kids join her too). Still she could found time for caving. She said it was all about striking the right balance.

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