Hidden Depths

Originally published in the Time Out Adventure Guide

Caving Six


Having a fear of being trapped in a cave is no more irrational than being scared of great white sharks or finding bird-eating spiders in your breakfast cereal. That said, I’m genuinely bad in tight spaces; not clinically claustrophobic, perhaps, but scarred for life by a childhood mishap involving a duvet cover that still brings on cold sweats in cramped tube carriages and overcrowded clubs.

Thank heavens, then, for Betti. As our team splashes ever further down the dark gullet of the unfortunately named Giant’s Hole – as the wet walls close in on all sides and the framed shard of overcast Derbyshire sky fades and finally flickers out behind us – it’s this Hungarian student’s eager stream of Time Out-related questions that keep me rooted in reality and stop me turning into one of the hyperventilating refuseniks that so regularly cut expeditions short. Not that I’m taking any chances: those rare occasions that I dare look up reveal a line of red and yellow boiler suits snaking eerily into the blackness; for the most part, however, I keep my headlamp trained on my Wellington boots, only too aware that taking a tumble and breaking a leg deep in the cave system could mean the difference between my next meal being dinner back at the hotel or a hospital breakfast following a night of protracted rescue efforts.

It’s one of a number of harsh insights into the intricacies of caving given less than an hour earlier by Duncan and Daryl of Acclimbatize, the former a gruff giant with a shaved head and a knack for unnerving anecdotes, the latter a softly-spoken Northerner with a wool hat and a reassuring smile. Their office is little more than a walk-in wardrobe in a disused mill outside Matlock; its walls hung with shelves of battered helmets, coils of once colourful rope and framed pictures of erstwhile Acclimbatizers up to their bug eyes in torrents of muddy water. On one side of the room, a series of buckets mark how many hours are left on the battery packs of various headlamps; on the other is a rack of barely wearable bin-end fleeces and an unnatural crush of those red and yellow boiler suits.

Through the front door, the lowering sky is upturning an inverted ocean of rain. I make a nervous joke about how at least caving is one sport that the great British weather can’t ruin; Duncan, calmly stroking his beard, informs me that this isn’t the case for ‘active stream caves’, notorious for flooding in heavy weather. But we won’t be going into one of those today.

“Actually,” says Daryl, scrutinising his computer screen, “it says here that the sun should be coming out later this afternoon. I think we should risk it.”

It sounds like a sick joke, but there’s not a hint of irony in either man’s eyes, and before I can argue the scene is stolen by a gaggle of giggling students from Nottingham University, who tumble out of their cars and, introductions over, begin rifling through piles of Wellingtons and striking amused fashion poses in their oversized boiler suits. I smile and play along while surreptitiously sizing up my companions as one might on an aeroplane they’re convinced is going to crash: who will freak out first; who will display a surprising capacity for leadership; who will provide the most meat should we be forced to resort to cannibalism. This sense of pre-destined doom colours everything up to and including our descent into the hell mouth itself: the funereal procession of our cars as they wind their way through the lonely limestone escarpments of the Peak District; the obvious futility of Duncan’s safety instructions as we double check each other’s harnesses, test headlights and don helmets.

Caving Three

Abseiling in an active stream cave, which may flood in heavy rain

All of this changes, however, after five minutes in the cave system itself, when that initial smothering panic is replaced with an expeditionary sense of adventure, the unknown suddenly becoming something to be explored rather than feared. Unlike rock climbing, in which the majority of routes can be pre-emptively scrutinised over tea and biscuits – which foot goes where, which ledges look most likely to support a person’s weight – there’s something about caving that defies planning. Who knows what lies around the next blind corner, or which tunnels will lead into cavernous chambers and which dwindle into nothing? Having guides who could navigate the caves with their eyes closed is all well and good, but there’s still something unquantifiable and otherworldly about the experience, a sense bolstered by the unexpected beauty of the immediate environment and its bizarre geological formations – from the barnacle-like accumulations of ‘cave popcorn’ to the roofs studded with fossilised marine life. The further we descend, the harder it is to believe that this landscape existed all along – that we were, in fact, driving over it less than half an hour earlier.

At no point does our caving trip inspire the stomach-tumbling terror feared by those fed on horror stories and half-remembered episodes of 999 – there are no underwater tunnels or suddenly collapsing ceilings to negotiate – but nor is it a complete walk in the park. Some of the passages are tight enough to necessitate crawling on hands and knees, while the ‘active stream’ itself is periodically deep and rapid enough to demand the regular emptying of squelching Wellington boots. At one point, our team abseils one by one down a three-storey overhanging rock face; later on, we’re clipped onto a running line and made to traverse a perilous shelf, the roughly 30ft drop on one side leading individuals to abandon the search for slippery handholds and simply cling on to the rope for dear life, legs flailing gracelessly over the abyss as they slide down in limbo.

It’s the final flourish, however, that provides the most powerful rush of adrenalin. Emerging grazed and much muddied from one of the tighter tunnels en route, we find ourselves in an enormous chamber dominated by a deafening waterfall, atop which Daryl has fixed a wire ladder with all the rigidity of a ship’s rigging. At the same time, another caving group emerges from a separate tunnel, and is forced to stand waiting in the cold as one by one we climb blindly, Daryl’s shouted instructions drowned out by the raging cascade of falling water. The second party, increasingly impatient, begins to sing – I Vow To Thee My Country, Dancing Queen, Angels – the echo of their chorus lending the scene a symbolic gravity, like that legendary orchestra playing on as the Titanic begins her slow submergence.

Reason clouded by the surrealism of my surroundings, I leave the team assembling above the waterfall and wander alone down an arterial side passage before turning off my headlamp for a moment. Sure enough, the darkness that descends is like nothing I’ve ever known – I pass a hand in front of my face and convince myself that I can see it, only to then witness exactly the same thing with my eyes clamped shut. It’s a deeply unsettling sensation, and one that makes the sky seem all the more heart-breaking when we finally emerge blinking into the open air some ten minutes later – not least because the clouds have parted and, as Daryl promised, the sun is streaming down across the Peaks. And what a gorgeous, glorious thing the sun is. I’ll never make a joke about the great British weather again.