X-TREME: In at the deep end

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Despite being labelled "a high-risk sport in a hostile environment", caving is actually relatively safe thanks to the sport's sound organisation

Being trapped underground ranks with being bitten by a snake as one of our most irrational fears. The chance of it happening during the average lifetime is, of course, negligible, but this doesn't prevent the notion ghosting into our subconscious from time to time. But the sport of caving is far from claustrophobic or dangerous. It opens up a hidden dimension, inhabited by enthusiastic amateurs who are happy to keep their discoveries to themselves.

By the National Caving Council's own admission, it is a "high-risk sport in a hostile environment". But, as high-risk sports go, it seems to be one of the safest, with one fatality last year compared with the 39 mountaineers in England and Wales, and 58 in Scotland, who died in the same period. You have a much higher chance of being killed driving to a cave than you have once you're down it. The dose of radon that cavers inhale on a typical trip underground (the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette) is, for the vast majority of cavers, as dangerous as it gets.

These impressive safety credentials come down to the organisational structure of the sport. Beginners are very strongly advised to go with one of the 350 clubs affiliated to the National Caving Association. Experienced cavers accompany first-timers, and clubs will loan them the required equipment, such as a helmet and lamp.

As good a place as any for your first speleological experience is Giant's Hole, near Buxton. This is the deepest in Derbyshire, or was until 10 years ago when it became the third deepest with the discovery that two neighbouring caves plumbed greater depths. Bob Deerman and Richard Griffiths from the Eldon Caving Club were my guides to the underworld.

Entering the dark mouth of Giant's Hole, I was reassured that Bob, a cave-rescue member, and his "apprentice" Griff, a Buxton cabinet maker, were with me. The first few hundred yards could be attempted by anyone with a torch and waterproofs, as the stream led us steadily downwards along a tapering passage. I foolishly ventured a comment about the narrowness of the cave. "Narrow?" spluttered Bob. "You could have a barn dance down here." It was only later that I appreciated the wisdom of this remark.

After 10 minutes, our progress was halted as the stream disappeared into a gaping black hole called Garland's pot. At this point, a sensible chap with just a flashlight and anorak would be advised to turn around and head for daylight. I thought wistfully of that chap as we uncoiled a wire ladder, attached it to a hook embedded in the rock and descended 25ft, safely tied together, through the freezing waterfall. Although the air temperature in caves is a constant year-round 52F, the water remains a lot colder. But the initial soaking provides a layer of water between the wetsuit and your skin which your body soon warms up.

Giant's Hole is 460ft deep, with the trickiest section being the "crab walk". It is a 70ft-deep passage worn into the limestone rock by water over millions of years. For the next three quarters of a mile, we splashed and squeezed our way sideways along what is essentially a twisting, meandering underground stream - "an enormous underground intestine" in Bob's words. In this section, I was taught how to climb like a chimney sweep - an invaluable technique for climbing the walls of narrow passages by pressing your back against one wall and rising with an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders with your knees pressed to the opposite side.

Despite the passage being no wider than my shoulders and, in places, narrower than my torso, it was strangely comforting and in no way claustrophobic. Bob then warned me that to rescue someone from the bottom of Giant's Hole would take 30 hours - I made a mental note not to twist my ankle.

Caving suffers from an image problem and is perceived by many as a fringe activity for aspiring Swampies. However, environmentally and scientifically there's a lot to appreciate. The snaking walls of the crab walk, for instance, are covered by beautiful scallop formations left by the lapping water of the stream.

"I was a little apprehensive before my first trip down," Griff confessed. "The idea of wriggling into a small dark hole and all that. But, once I was in, I felt comfortable." Gazing around in innocent awe at the serene formations he seemed a man at peace. "How many people see this?"

LOW DOWN

Info: Caving clubs are based all around the country and most organise trips away. For addresses of clubs in your area send an SAE to: The National Caving Association, Monomark House, 27 Old Gloucester St, London WC1 3WW

Equipment: Most caving clubs work on a "try it and see" basis and will loan you the equipment for your first few trips underground. This would include a helmet (pounds 12 new), a lamp (pounds 10-pounds 60), rubber boots and possibly a wetsuit (pounds 40-pounds 60)

Where: The main caving areas in the UK are in South Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and the Mendips. Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland also have areas worth exploring.

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