Sunday, 3rd October 2021
Our Epic Caving Experience Written by Ruth Horne-Turner As I was hauling my sodden-self up a spindly, dangling, rope ladder, with rungs only large enough for one hand or foot at a time, climbing face-first into a waterfall cascading from the rock above me, in the pitch black of the Giant’s Hole cave, I paused briefly to consider how I had ended up in this situation, especially on a seemingly normal Sunday morning in October. I’m fairly sure it was Julie’s fault, it usually is – she always has the enthusiasm to push me into trying things out, new things, which is how we had ended up hiring kayaks in May, buying kayaks in June, paddling on the Soar all summer, and looking for a friendly paddling club to join in the Autumn.
Caving though, how did that happen?
We joined PaddlePlus on Friday and was telling a friend about it over lunch on Saturday “What’s the plus part?” she asked innocently, so Julie whipped out her phone and showed her the other sorts of activities on offer – “Look, see, there’s a caving trip to Derbyshire tomorrow, it’s only a fiver!” That was how Julie and I ended up driving slowly down a pot-holed farm track near the top of Winnats Pass, just up the road from the Devil’s Arse (no, really). There we met fellow caving novices Anneka, John and Michael, along with cave guru Steve. As advised, we had brought wellies, waterproofs, and a sense of adventure for what we thought would be a gentle, splashy, stroll down into Giant’s Hole – the rain had already forced Steve to change the location for safety reasons (danger of drowning) – so we assumed this would be a relatively low adrenalin exploration of a wet cave. I suppose the climbing harnesses that Steve handed out should have been an indication that audience participation would be required, but I guess I thought he was just very safety conscious as we donned hardhats and headtorches and headed off into the darkness.
And it really was dark – once we had stumbled down out of the daylight, Steve got us to turn off our head torches to see if our eyes would acclimatise to the darkness, but no matter how wide I opened my eyes, or how long I waited, everything remained inky. With our lights thankfully back on, we carried on in single file, towards the Base Camp chamber and the increasing roar of water – this was exactly what I was hoping for, stalactites (hanging), stalagmites (rising), pillars (the boring name when they meet in the middle), water flowing in our path (proving that only one of my wellies was waterproof), and cascading down from higher levels making it very difficult to hear any instructions or history, but creating a magical experience nonetheless.
Steve told us to carry on until we reached Garlands Pot and that we’d know we were there when the floor ran out! That was the point at which Steve would set up the ropes and ladder so we could safely navigate the descent to the Crab Walk, and what a hilarious descent it was. We hung freely on the tiny ladder, swinging in and out of waterfall which cascaded over our helmets and down our necks to fill up our wellies, unable to see the bottom of the cave until we splash landed into it – talk about being thrown in at the deep end!
I think we all felt deservedly marvellous for making it to the bottom of that ladder, and then we hit the Crab Walk (so narrow that you have to walk sideways), which could be a bit of a shock to the uninitiated (well, it was to me anyway). I was just getting used to slithering along between the rocks, navigating a path that all parts of my body could squeeze through when we realised that the passage possibly wasn’t quite wide enough for one of our number. We decided that rather than carrying on with the route Steve had planned as a loop, we’d head back to the base camp chamber and reassess our options. This meant climbing back up the ladder into the cascade! And honestly, I think that was the standout moment for me in a day full of new challenges and experiences – that was the moment that put a massive, soaking, grin on my face – it was brilliant fun!
We made our way back to the cave mouth with no dramas – I mean John didn’t actually get stuck in that tiny crawl hole that only he and Anneka had a go at, he just had to wriggle out backwards! We emerged onto the hillside in the daylight and driving rain, like (it seemed to me) superheroes who had just saved the day and were going quietly back to their normal lives and Sunday dinners, feeling epic. What a fabulous first outing – I can’t thank Steve and PaddlePlus enough – we each paid a fiver for an experience and ended up having a real adventure!
I’m looking forward to meeting you all on the water, or somewhere else adventurous and improbable, soon.