I have always maintained, very strongly, that I love Outdoor Adventure, the ‘outdoor’ aspect being the focus here, so why oh why would I ever want to go caving? It is dark, muddy, you have to squeeze through impossibly tight gaps and with gazongas like mine, trust me that prospect has never appealed. But, I have started working with one man who has started to turn me to the dark side….literally…
One word of advice, don’t ever, ever call a caver a ‘pot-holer’. They are not exploring holes in the road, they are out there exploring the vast tracks of underground cave networks all over the world. They are discovering new networks every day and in the pursuit of this adventure they put themselves, as far as I am concerned, through hell and back. It is a pursuit I have always turned my nose up at, I am not a fan of tight spaces. The idea of getting trapped and having a panic attack is all too real for me, especially as the last panic attack I had was in a supermarket.
The thing is, over the last couple of years I have met some truly amazing people who have supported me on my (long) journey to become a qualified outdoor instructor. One of these very people recently rescued me after a particularly bad bout of anxiety and depression. So, when he asked me if I wanted to go caving (he is bonkers about it, I think he would live in a cave if he could), I had to say yes. This guy has gone out of his way to support and help me so the least I could do was have a go. That way when I said I didn’t like caving it was with a modicum of knowledge.
So, the day dawned, I raided the shed for my husband’s boiler suit, grabbed my canoe knee pads, my climbing helmet and head torch and headed off to Symonds Yat. Jon was taking a group of Hartbury College Public and Uniformed Services Level 3 students and introducing them to some of the caves in the Wye Valley. I was to go along and ‘assist’ (laughable really, I was bloody terrified!).
It was the day when we had the weird weather occurrence; Hurricane Ophelia was sweeping over Ireland and we in the UK had bizarre yellow skies and a red sun. It was also impossibly warm. Walking down the cliffs towards the cave entrance it was like a scene out of Zombie Apocalypse and we were a group who were going to find a safe hiding place from the horror scenes. I couldn’t quite work out if it was an omen…
Of course, I need not have worried. Callum who was leading our group (another of my outdoor heroes) took us through a series of caves which gradually tested our mettle. At first I chose not to do the squeezy bits and surprised myself by actually feeling quite comfortable underground. There was a certain peace to it, almost like hibernating. If there is one place you can truly escape the real world it’s in a cave system.
After two relatively easy caves we then moved on to cave C10. Here we worked our way through to C7 and out. I make this sound easier that it was, for me it was a CHALLENGE with capitols, and bold. It involved squeezes, a little wiggle and some long crawls. Having bottled out earlier Callum calmly introduced each stage to the group and then quietly said ‘Ok, Eli and I will lead and then if you can all follow’. Well….I gulped down the small amount of sick that had risen in panic and as I had been working with the students for some weeks now as a bonafide ‘Outdoor Instructor’, what could I do other than smile and just go for it. I sure as hell wasn’t going to make a fool out of myself in front of them.
So, I only went and did it, I was so close to Callum’s feet that at times I think I was snorting the dirt of them but that made me feel safe. As long as he kept talking to me and I could see him I was ok. Strangely enough I never, at any point thought about being in a tight tunnel. Yes I could at times feel the rock on my back as I lifted slightly to move but it never worried me, I just focused on Callum’s feet and voice and slowly dragged my way through the squeezes.
At the end of it I could quite happily have leapt off the pinnacle at Symonds Yat I was so proud of myself. However, if I am honest I don’t think I would wake up of a morning and say ‘oooh lets go caving’, but if I am invited again, I sure as hell will go. And do you know what, Jon has asked me to be his ‘guinea pig’ for his Cave Instructor Certificate (the highest level of professional qualification in the UK) which will mean a range of caves and challenges and I am up for it. 100%. Wouldn’t say I can’t wait, but it will be an adventure and half.