Tips that could save Chile's trapped miners

A Briton who spent 105 days alone in a cave offers advice to the 33 men who may be underground until Christmas
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The Independent US

The national celebrations in Chile after 33 workers were found alive almost 700m underground in the collapsed San Jose mine in Copiapo, turned to horror as it emerged that the miners may not be brought to the surface for another four months.

Supplies have been sent down a bore hole 8cm wide but the men – buried since 5 August – must remain holed up in a 50m2 emergency shelter at the gold and copper mine, where temperatures are above 36C, perhaps until Christmas. Some will cope better than others, but already five of the group were said to be exhibiting signs of depression, refusing to take part in a video film the other men made for relatives.

One person who can understand the miners' coming ordeal is Geoff Workman, 81, from Harrogate. He spent 105 days living alone underground in a cave in 1963 – breaking the world record at the time by 45 days. His aim was to prove that people can survive, psychologically as well as physically, for so long. Although his effort was planned meticulously – he had enough food, plenty of space and a busy work programme studying the geology of the caves – Mr Workman's experience offers insights into how the Chilean miners will be feeling and the challenges that lie ahead.

He believes discipline and a daily routine are vital to ensure they come out in one psychological piece. "I'm sure they are feeling disappointed... but they must stay disciplined: get up every day, wash, do their exercises, as this is what will help them mentally to survive those conditions," he says. "Even though they don't have much space, exercises like hopping on the spot are essential for their physical and mental well-being."

Dr James Thompson, a psychologist from University College London, says it is vital that the miners maintain trust in those above ground who are trying to secure their release. Mr Workman agrees that any doubt will make it much harder to stay strong.

"They must also remain hopeful and confident about being rescued; the uncertainty will be difficult but they mustn't lose hope," he says. "Having each other will be a great advantage. If one or two of the men are going through a low point, the others can support them. When I went through low points, being alone was difficult. Before me, it was thought that human beings couldn't survive underground any longer than 65 days. So right after I broke the world record I started to worry about whether I could survive, and having no one to talk to about this wasn't easy."

The heat is causing a number of problems for the Chilean miners: dehydration, fatigue and weakness. Not so for Mr Workman. "The most difficult thing for me was the damp. Keeping my clothes and sleeping bag dry was impossible. In Chile, it seems heat is the big problem, which will tire and dehydrate them. Though I came out much paler, a lack of sunlight didn't bother me so much – the light from the lamps I had with me was fine."

A caving enthusiast, Mr Workman still spends three days a week slowly burrowing through a vault, 6ft high and 11-inch wide, at Stump Cross Caverns in North Yorkshire, trying to find a set of beautiful caves and an underground lake which have been hidden since the 1920s.

"The single most important thing for the miners is keeping busy with a day-to-day routine. This is a must for their physical and mental well-being."