I had just lost Rich Walker...
Updated: Feb 16
Morning broke and the team were treated to myself and Rich arguing over our identical 5mm wetgloves…
This is normal. It’s pre-dive stress and we had to get rid of it somehow. Better with each other than the rest of the team.
Breakfast and coffee out of the way and normality resumed, we headed to the cave via the local shop, to get some provisions. The underground food was getting complaints, so Ash and Rick, given that we had very little to carry on this day, decided that they were going to cook hot dogs. We ventured into the butchers to purchase some BBQ food for the evening and Rick sought out some European looking sausages in a jar from the supermarket. But we needed buns. So, spotting some likely looking hot dog buns, Ash gathered up a good handful…
Myself and Rich got into our drysuits and it was a careful caving trip to sump 2, trying hard not to slip over and rip them. We took 5 minutes to ourselves whilst floating in the lakes to talk through our dive plan and deco schedule on the fly – we simply didn’t know what depth this cave would go to or where it would go next, so we opted for 60 metres maximum depth and a total run time of about 40 minutes from the bottom of the shaft.
This gave us 10 minutes to get to the end of last years line and another 10 minutes at whatever depth to lay some more. I was running the line again and Rich would be trying to jot down a survey behind me. We also knew that we needed to bridge the buried line with a spare spool, so that went in the kit list as well. I would go in first and tie off the ‘good’, larger camera to the oxygen drop to give me something to do on deco. I’d take the go-pro all the way but, having lost the attachment which tied it to the new halcyon cordless torches, I’d have to hand hold it, which is a bit tricky really when laying line! I’d have to see how it went…
On unpacking the bags of ‘stuff’ I realised I had left the carefully cut out and laminated “Eurotek Divers Get Everywhere” cookie back at the ranch. Oh well, that was the least important item. Eurotek Divers Get Everywhere. And forget to take the glory marker….. Kitting up was a relatively chilled affair. Rick helped me on with my 4 sidemount bottles and Ash did the same for Rich. We had lots of light from the filming lights, which was quite welcome and the promise of hot dogs when we came back. Mark had a good go at taking photos and video but the water was chilly and I was itching to get on with it, knowing how cold it was last time. We had a lot of dexterity work to do with camera, line reels, bottle juggling etc so opted for 5mm wet gloves again. Next time we’ll definitely go dry…
Setting off the visibility was noticeably clearer than last time and we soon passed the oxygen bottles which Ash had placed. Going along the right wall we got a birds eye view of the shaft and could see that the line was not in a good place against the overhanging wall. Frank had doubtless had very little option as he’d experienced much worse visibility. I had a good look and spotted a much better route for the line which we would be replacing on a follow up trip if the cave ‘went’ this time. The line was laid in 1998 and was thin and had been given a good battering by the winter floods every year since. Typically for Frank, it was well laid and belayed, just needed re-routing in the shaft.
The shaft was my worry. I was very pleased that Rich agreed with me that we would not hang about there decompressing, rather we would rattle through it and fix the deco at the bottom and the top. The mud on the overhanging wall turns the visibility to zero and coupled with a frail line, we were worried about it snagging on our multiple bottles and breakages. A line break in there would be a nightmare and pretty dangerous.
We soon met the 50% deco bottles and continued down the gravel slope to bridge the buried line. Rich set about doing this and we went on, enjoying the cave and its stunning visibility. It didn’t take long to reach the end of Frank’s line and the beginning of ours from last year. It was still in good condition and we carried on in gently undulating cave at an average depth of 38 metres until I recognised my last tie off. I unclipped my line reel and tried to keep relaxed. Going into unknown cave is exciting and it takes experience to keep your cool. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast, I thought. I didn’t want to waste time fumbling about, so I sorted my regulator switch and tied in the reel. I signalled to Rich and he signalled back, digging out his wetnotes and compass. We were off! The cave, to my relief, didn’t really trend much deeper.
We did reach 50m at one stage but it stayed roughly in the 45m mark. The undulating sand dunes in the floor were rippled and pretty. The left wall continued sweeping around shallow bend and the right wall could be seen about 10 metres away. I found good tie offs every 15 metres or so. As much as I wanted to just string out the line as fast as possible, the nature of the cave means that line breaks Unknown territory right ahead are inevitable as it takes thunderous amount of water in flood. Tie offs would make future issues easier to fix. I kept swimming. The go-pro became a pain with the line reel so I reluctantly clipped it off.
My gauges began to threaten to turn me around. I was approaching my gas margins and the cave was still going… At -43m I met a gradual slope upwards with hardly any tie offs. Typical. I went a few metres further and found a slab of rock in the floor. It wasn’t perfect but it was all we had. I wrapped the line Chris reels out the line around it, cut it free and Rich and I both thumbed the dive. The release of pressure as we turned is instant. Of course, you’re not out of the woods. Mountain ascents don’t count if you die on the way back down. But for 10 minutes Rich and I had a fantastic dive along the new passage, especially as I was now behind him and could enjoy the view with the benefit of his silhouette behind his light. Caverns measureless to (wo)man… Rich was swimming about and clearly enjoying it. We negotiated the sand slope and had some bottle juggling as we ditched the very buoyant Ali 80s and got rid of them onto a leash. We clipped the 50% bottles on and did our gas switch in deteriorating visibility. We set off up the shaft. Rich was now just behind me and all seemed to be going well.
As the shaft became more awkward, we went single file. I was just thinking that it didn’t seem as bad as last time, when the unthinkable happened. “Oh Sh*t!” I repeated it several times in my head and also out loud to myself through my regulator. “Just keep calm, keep your head….you have loads of gas to go looking for him and he has plenty of gas too…..” Despite loads of training and plenty of “Oh sh*t” moments over many years cave diving in less than desirable conditions in British caves….nothing quite prepares you for that moment when your boyfriend is in acute danger.
I had just lost Rich Walker.
The broken end of the line flailed behind me and I stared at it in horror. We knew this would happen. A 19 year old, thin exploration line in a slightly off-vertical shaft, which gets battered every winter by floods and melt water from the mountains above the cave entrance, with sparse, psychological belays and zero visibility…add to the mix a bouquet of spent ali 80s and there we had it. An emergency.
I gathered up the loose line to stop it forming another hazard and wrapped it around a nodule of rock on the sloping wall. Trembling, from both fear and the cold, I unclipped my exploration reel whilst staring into the fog in the hope of seeing his light. There was nothing but silence and the glow from my torch. I tied in the line reel and set off to where I had come from. Rich, doubtless thinking I was trying to assassinate him, calmly deployed his search reel and headed upwards, following the overhanging wall. No sooner had I set off down the shaft, we ran into each other. Fear turned to overwhelming relief and the sicky feeling turned to butterflies.
We tied our reels off and made our way to the 6 metre oxygen drop, shivering in the 7 degree water at the end of a 97 minute dive. We had just discovered beautiful, virgin cave passage but for 5 extremely concerning minutes, it barely seemed worth it. We finished our deco, cold but relieved.
On surfacing, Mark was at the ready with his camera. I gave him 5 minutes to get is shots. Poor guy, but I was super cold and by the time Rick waded into the sump pool to help me off with my gear, I was shivering uncontrollably.
We really, really needed those hot dogs!
Ash and Rick eating the hot dogs…with bread! Image: Mark Burkey
We climbed the small boulder pile to the make shift kitchen to be met with a very sheepish Ashley, who was poking the sausages around in the boiling water.
“The bread fell in the water…” he lied.
“You mean there is no bread?!!” I wailed.
Like two naughty school children, Rick and Ash started giggling and Mark hid.
“Well, on the upside…they were covered in sugar!”
Ash had bought the Croatian equivalent of iced buns instead of hot dog rolls and we felt a little more smug.
Rich and I scalded our fingers fishing the hot dogs out of the boiling water and ate the lot in minutes.
Ash raided Rich’s wetnotes, wanting to know how much line we had laid. We didn’t know and didn’t care. Last year we only laid 42 metres at 42m depth on our first dive in sump 2. In France we had laid 42 metres on our last dive in Fourmi Perdreau. I had laid 42 metres in Garrel in 2012……
“You’ll never guess what!” Ash called out.
“Don’t!” I said “DON’T tell me it’s 42 metres!!”
“Nawwwww…you laid 99!!!”
Bloody 3m knot intervals. That’s going to change next time…..