Monday, 16 March 2015

Season in the Abyss

Published recently - February 2015 - on The article is heavily censored especially when taking my original vision for the piece in to consideration, it would have upset a few people for sure....

Season in the Abyss
I had a bad feeling about today, it was there when I woke up...  a dull, hollow ache in the belly, maybe even a hint of doom, enough to make you pause and maybe even re-consider.   The feeling stuck with me throughout the entire trip, albeit, like I've mentioned elsewhere, I probably sensed that my Voodoo Doll was being hacked to death, dismembered, burnt and tortured.   I tried to appease these feelings of doubt by stacking the odds up a little, although such odds were not easy to handicap in favour of the cave, with me being me and all.   I travelled light with zero contingency.  A satisfying sensation existed at the prospect of defying what felt like a daunting prediction.  But superstition aside, i wasn't going to compromise in the slightest.   For such melancholy is the spice of life.   A thunder cloud could have reared overhead, and still I sense, I would have done it anyway.

Nothing beats the terror, exhilaration and excitement of visiting caves that flood badly!  The fix I receive from knowing such an event may occur has always been the one element that has attracted me firmly to this pursuit.  I recall a conversation more than a decade ago with someone who said something along the lines of if they were ever caught in a flooding cave they'd give it up.  Each to their own of course, but I didn't agree then and I still don't now, the promise of such is reason enough.  If I repeated the last decade of caving in the manner in which it was undertaken at times, I do wonder whether i would be fortunate enough to survive all those occasions when caution was thrown and reckless chances were taken.  Although it was never just me, the few hardy souls I was fortunate enough to cave regularly with, were as inclined to sticking their necks out, as I was, if not more so most of the time.  In some ways I am a by-product of those few people, especially Ian who is one of the most fearless, cool and collected people I've ever operated with.  Fay was pretty radical as well, she'd show most of those politicians how to do it, and would no doubt show them up at the same time, which is probably the reason they wouldn't let her in their gang.      
On the issue of zero contingency - hole in the floor has wrecked this place.  I try to ignore it's existence but obviously it is there.   Unless I had good cause to use it, I'd like to think it would be blocked or collapse on me if I ever used it as an escape route.   Anyway, only those that venture from the true heights deserve to see the bottom or tick the place as having been done.

It's a year almost to the day since I was, 'Losing myself (with Sid) in Langstrothdale', which is the last time I did it alone.  Yet the two trips have so very little in common.  The anniversary trip was not by design or anything like that, it's just one of those trips I thoroughly enjoy and use to condition myself for greater things or just to stay where I need to be.   

The true prize awaits but I am hesitant...

It's been the usual disjointed winter period for me, flitting subconsciously from one vice to the next, some sanctioned, some not so..  Fortunately the Christmas period brought weather incompatible with the caves fitting with my mood, for I was anything but in the zone for caving anyway.  
A month had passed since I last donned a wetsuit and did anything worthy of mention.  A solo trip to the end of the Northern Line – Far Waters – Gaping Gill was the trip, albeit this trip was a major cop out considering what I did have planned for that week.  The Far Waters, a place I hadn't visited since that big weekend back in February of 2008.  I'd arrived in Clapham late the previous evening, with the intention of pulling an all nighter, but after twenty minutes on foot I turned and called off the trip, I was just too tired.  The weather was due to break the following day so I'd written off getting anything of substance done by that point.  But when I woke to favourable weather the following day, I headed back, although typically on arrival at Bar Pot it chucked it down and then snowed for three quarters of an hour.  My memory of descending Bar Pot is hazy, almost non existent, I'm not sure where my head was, but it wasn't in the moment.  A smoke and a bottle of beer against the far wall brought things back into focus a little, and took the edge off my wandering mind, mainly relating to a female, but I also missed the music.  I would give up most things before I gave up the music, my daily fix of melodic anarchy, darkness depravity and disorder, addiction and excess, life, love and loss, courtesy of many bands but mainly that of one in particular.... 
Methodrone, Aufheben, Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, Pol Pot's Pleasure Penthouse, Bravery Repetition and Noise......  Infinite Wisdom Tooth, Deep in the Devil's Eye and You, Cold to the Touch, Open Heart Surgery.....    For those who like being spoon fed, for example; those who expect bolts exactly where they'd expect bolts, why not try Tepid Peppermint Wonderland.......  
I'm not sure what came first in my life, the music or the vandalism, they compliment one another well and influence one in the other.  And it's not because of age that I have given it up, there's just a lack of anything in society I presently need to destroy, but as those who grew up with me know, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment if ever there was!

I think I needed a moment to think about things before tunnel vision kicked in.  Placing emphasis on what brought me here, how I felt prior, always helps in greatening the rewards.  Thoughts and memories of the life I'd lead since the last time I'd been to Henslers and beyond were most prevalent - I shalt not even comment – but also pressing was the knowledge that I would return to this point feeling different, altered, better maybe.  That's assuming I managed to return to this point, for if such an end was guaranteed then I doubt I would bother in the first place.  I partly wrote an article in December about this trip to the Far Waters and called it 'As Far From Zero'.  I gave up on it the moment I decided I could not publish or share it.  I seem to be gathering ever greater distance from the caving world in general, which is mainly through choice, I much prefer my own frontier like existence and that of just pleasing myself.    

I couldn't prolong the inevitable any longer. I knew that if I sat here at the bottom of Bar Pot for much longer I'd get nothing done. I still couldn't see any point in my objective. The act of standing up and heading in the direction of the Far Waters didn't change anything, but I guess I just couldn't sit around any more and kid myself that the surface had anything better to offer.  I also knew that by the time I got to Southgate I'd be thoroughly enjoying myself and would be totally immersed in what I was doing.  

What stood out the most about this trip was the silence! A silence to make you self conscious.   So little was is in motion down there, the place was on mute, and with being alone, it allowed me to truly appreciate the music of those far regions.  For once the wading begins, you only have to stop and listen, and like eyes adjusting to the dark, the gradual sound of ones travelling wave, tells of it's journey, with a score like no other.  The Far Waters is a place where you can forget there is a world up there, forget you are even human, a truly unique and enchanting place.  With the terminus of the Northern Line reached I turned, for home.  The dynamic of the journey alters at this point, the turn around.  The outward trip gives me purpose even though I am heading nowhere, but for the duration at least it feels like somewhere.  Whereas the inward one will inevitably lead me in a circle back to where I began.  I had intended on visiting Hallucination Aven on the return, but I felt the need to leave something, some sacred ground, ground I hadn't touched in seven years, it was also an excuse to return one day.  

There are so many places underground in the dales I know I will never visit again.  I neither have the time nor the drive to revisit them all once more, but sometimes that is just the way it must be and the way it must stay.  These things would cease to offer warmth if we out stayed our welcome, plus it is not through lack of trying that I didn't embrace them enough in the first place, for there were very few, if any, of the hardest pots that weren't visited and bottomed multiple times by us, in a very short period.  I remember one busy twelve month period, 2007/2008 ish, when, If my memory is serving me well, i managed 120 (ish) trips, the vast majority would have been grade 4/5.  So I can not complain really, I made the best of it when the need was there.

Mountain Hall beckoned on the return, surprisingly a spot I hadn't visited before.  In passing I also paid tribute to memories of the time spent in Nevada and the 2nd Cross System supporting a dive at Deep Well some years prior.  The returning landmarks began to pass by in quick succession and the closer I got to Bar Pot the greater I could sense the change in me.  I was now relishing the thought of the heightened reality that awaited me on the surface.  But a part of me was still upset with the fact the fight was now over.  I reached the surface at around nine in the evening and was blessed with a full moon and a lethal icy path back to Clapham.

Eager for more I was after the Far Waters trip.  But the longer I left it the more my feelings towards such dissolved.  The urge was almost non-existent by Christmas, and even more so when my new year turned epochal.  But as is usually the case, when I succumb to a period of inactivity, apathy begins to set in.  I do know what needs to be done during times like these, but the very act of doing becomes the hurdle.  The thought of caving ceased to appeal at all come mid-January when I decided I was in desperate need of getting something done.  A few days on the rock, climbing, had very little effect, although I could sense that with better weather I would no doubt begin to enjoy it again, or at the very least gain an appetite for it once more.  I was aware though of where I would rather be or the person I would prefer to be, the 'F##k You Hero' using potholing as a form of self expression maybe.

My mind is never far from those deep dark dangerous places.  My cylinders and diving gear are forever getting under my feet, my quiver of wetsuits hang from the airing cupboard and I'll find a wetsuit sock jammed in the washing machine.  I think at times like this I am offered some comfort by the fact that, I can grab my stuff and go and do anything I decide I want to do at any given time.

The dawn did eventually come, albeit the same horizon.  On impulse and literally after getting out of bed, I grabbed a suit, a Bacon Sandwich from the van and headed for Kettlewell.  My familiar direct approach to Providence Pot from Park Rash, across country, was through an alien and savage landscape, even in a thick Neoprene suit I never once warmed against my surroundings.  Not a soul stirred and apart from the post van, I had seen barely anybody on the drive or since I'd arrived.  After my previous one hour through trip I had swore to myself I wouldn't move at those speeds again, unless it was necessary.   I didn't listen though and although I didn't move quite so recklessly I was probably through almost as quick.  Dowbergill Passage, a more than familiar venue and trip after thirty times, but not a place I will turn my back on for long.   Even I will admit that I am destined to get into trouble at some point, if not in there, then definitely somewhere else.  But why consider or discuss what can not be controlled, I have never even been in control of myself, let alone the environments I choose to test myself in.  

Three days after Dowbergill I wanted more and decided on Langstroth Pot the following day.  The fact it had been a topic of recent discussion probably had some influence on my decision.  Maybe that is why on waking that day I felt like the one that might be jinxed.  The feeling I was doomed only strengthened my resolve to do it, because now I felt challenged in some way.  These trips are generally done for fun so suddenly it felt a bit more serious.  I travelled as light as I could, with only a single 9mm 30metre rope, a knackered old climbing harness (which desperately needs binning), two 2kg weights and a mask.  I did consider ditching the weights but a bit of lead does help in the sumps, when clad in thick buoyant neoprene.  In the past I've often dived in at the bottom first and stashed lead and a mask or left the breathing apparatus for the dive out at the end.  But I do enjoy the almost on-sight nature of not seeing the bottom first or knowing what might await you down there, like the dive line having disappeared or something.  This trip was like any solo trip, in that, the experience was unique.  What goes on mentally tends to govern the separation from one trip to the next, the things you think about, the baggage in your head, highlighted and amplified due to the devoid nature of your surroundings.  

Although I hail the entrance series for it's intensely varied initiation, the going does get intensely heated in a thick suit.  One of my favourite annoyances of late, is that of having the choice between a multitude of 2.5/3mm wetsuits and a 7mm suit, the preference of having one in the middle has thus, long since deteriorated.  Finding a suitable replacement for my once beloved 4.5mm suit is either overpriced or spoilt for choice.  

I much prefer a double rope descent to the kink happy alternative although there is a time and a place for the latter.  Pulling the rope down at the base of the first pitch was the only one I held my breath on.  It didn't matter about the rest, that bloody middle entrance was to blame for that.    

It felt afterwards like I had crept silently along the entire length of that cave, but I think it was more down to my relaxed calm and graceful pace throughout which had instilled this idea.  I had one of those rare kind of moments at the bottom, one that can't be contrived.  I'd peeled off my suit to take a piss and before re-dressing I sat down on the shelf above the sump pool.  I must have been there for ten minutes, making the most of an urge that doesn't always come in such situations, my helmet and lights were off to one side illuminating the peripherals, it was bliss, a moment of both clarity and contemplation relating only to the present.  A part of me sensed room for error still existed, or something bad was still going to happen.

Between us, Ian and I, we've probably journeyed these sumps both free and with breathing apparatus as individuals more than anybody.  I will not hurry to forget that weekend when we first did the free dives.  We had both dreamt about the sumps during the week prior, the air hung heavy all that week, a storm was brewing.  We rigged Langstroth Pot on the Saturday taking only the gear necessary to descend, there was no backing out.  Once at the bottom we free dived out and returned the following day, doing the trip in reverse and de-rigging.  I remember this weekend well because Rupert S held a lecture in Clitheroe on the Saturday evening.  We were also fortunate on the Sunday to miss the thunder storm which threatened to wash the Bradford away at Gaping Gill.

After that weekend we were both well and truly addicted to freediving and completed all the others in the space of a few weeks.  We ended up doing Langstroth, Rowten and the Old Ing sumps quite a few times in the space of that month.  I wrote a report on 'ukcaving' charting a solo trip to free dive the upstream 68 Series Sump in Sleets Gill Cave, during that period.  This was spring / summer, and if the airbell in Langstroth was really as lethal as is suggested or requires a lot of time to be replenished, then it would have got one of us during this period.  But I am not going to speculate because I really don't know, I base my assessment on the fact I have very rarely not stopped for a breath or two in the bell.  I am certainly not going to predict that such an event will occur again either and as long as large groups do not attempt it at the same time, then I think all would be fine.  But still you do take your chances and that is the name of the game.  Plus sumps 2 and 3 are short enough as a whole to need not stop for a breath in the airbell anyway.   

During the winter of 12/13  I dived the Langstroth sumps on two occasions during a flood.  On the first occasion I found the going intimidating but not as bad as I had hoped.  But the second time had me bricking myself, the airbell only just accommodated my helmet and part of my head above water.   Highham Hall felt like a sub woofer with all the vibrations and the whirlpool that met me on the Langstroth Pot side was a staggering sight.  But the grand finale in the last chamber was something else, it made my hair literally stand on end.   The entire chamber appeared to be engulfed by a black terrifying curtain of falling water, the noise was just overpowering! If I had to choose where I would prefer to be in such conditions in this cave, it would not have been here.

When wearing only two weights I always mount them either side of me when free diving, ever since an incident in the longer of the Rowten sumps when I got stuck briefly between a rock and the ceiling, this was purely down to the weights mounted on my back suddenly catching and stopping me dead.

I was glad of the thick wetsuit, gloves and hood on immersing myself in the sump pool, the water was bitterly cold!  I quickly ducked through sump 1 to Highham Hall dragging my rope behind me.  Here I coiled the rope and with my harness clipped them to the juncture of lines to collect later.  A last minute decision but I must admit to never having liked dragging ropes through sumps on my own.  I need an excuse to dust off the cylinders so will get them in a few weeks.  Initially I struggled to get down in sump 2, probably due to all the Neoprene, for a second or two I was stationary in the first few metres, I pushed myself off the ceiling of the sump and eventually got going.  I reached the airbell moments later, paused for a moment and carried on, no breath was exhaled or taken.  I reached the other side feeling nowhere near as ecstatic as I would have, after doing this in the past, but nevertheless it felt like the end of something amazing and the beginning of something that I can't quite put my finger on.  I left Langstrothdale harbouring good feelings toward the present and the future.  For where the future is concerned I dare to wonder where I will find myself.

© Simon Beck, 2015. The copyright for this article remains with the author. It should not be reproduced without permission. 

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