I’m so organised. Everything has a set time. Everything has a date, a schedule, a particular way. I am constrained by the clock, an invention of man that has me in its noose. Every lesson must not be missed. Every book must be in alphabetical order. Everything task must be done in a specific amount of time, or it’s pointless. Every action must have meaning. Every emotion must be analysed. I have lived like this for years and it’s something that has secretly tortured me. It never stops. It’s there every second of every day and I can’t begin to comprehend a life that would allow me to be free of this ‘thing’ that holds me down. I’ll get back to this point later.
The small pools in the ground became bigger and bigger as we headed into the depths of the cave. The large corridors surrounded us and made me feel but a needle in a haystack. The more we walked, the more I noticed how the water in these small pools were beautifully blue and transparent. I could see the bottom of each one, and felt indecent for stepping my muddy boots into the centre of them, but it was the only way forward. I am following Michael. He is slightly ahead of me across a large pool of water, and there is a pipe that runs across the pool. The pipe looks unstable and I do not understand the necessity behind this pipe that so clearly runs across the water. I look down at the pool and it looks perhaps knee deep. I take a big step in to get to the other side.
This is the first time I have experienced how deceptive water really is. Water, as a force of nature, is one of the most beautifully deceptive forces out there, and I learned this as my whole body became swallowed underwater, perhaps as an ungraceful seal belly flops into the sea, so did the water and I become one. It crept up into my neck and hair and I gasped for breath as my mouth returned to the surface. After a struggle, and being thankful that I can swim, Michael turns round and gives me a hand. He pulls me up and I see the shock on his face, but I laugh to let him know that I’m fine and we press on. He tells me that the pipes are to walk along when the water gets deep. I don’t make this mistake again with the even deeper pools, but now my water-seeped clothes weigh me down and teach me a hearty lesson for next time! After a short walk and a pit stop, we decide to climb up along some walls using the help of conveniently places ropes. I struggle, but the others help me get my footing and it takes me a short while. Rostam is helping Corin and Michael train to help others for when the new freshers arrive next year, and so they both carefully help me along and keep me calm if I struggle.
One thing I have noticed is that, Rostam is a wonderful singer. I remember, on the first night, when the music died down and people began to sleep, Rostam stayed up in the front room and sung whatever his heart told him to- passing between English and Welsh. As I listened to him on that first night, I felt every emotion he wanted to convey, while in another room tucked up in a sleeping bag. It warmed my heart. Singing is a fundamental skill to have in a cave, no matter who you are. When I am told to follow Corin into a squeeze, where the ceiling almost touches my back, and I am forced to keep my head down and arms in front of me, then I panic. Rostam tells me that we’re not going back. I look into this hole, and I don’t see where it leads. I don’t look big enough for this hole at all, but I know I trust the others and need to press on. I look at Rostam. I panic and the only thing I can muster up is: “Sing for me Rostam.” Rostam laughs and asks me what he should sing. I reply: “Something that makes the thought of dying more… ok.” He sings ‘The Bare Necessities’, and sure enough, the hole seems ok, and I make it through, crawling bit by bit. Throughout caving, singing makes you feel more grounded to almost any situation. I’ve heard many of you sing, and every time you do, it brightens my attitude up all the more, no matter who you are. We next come to a sandy area where the ceiling is low, but allows us to do the roly-poly underneath it, much to the satisfaction of all of us. We all role and come out into a large area with dizzy heads and light hearts, smiling at each other.
We come into a huge room filled with centuries of fallen rocks that lay before us, now mostly stuck into positions that would make you wonder how much disturbance they would need before they’d budge. Some of the rocks are too big to scale for the small limbed, and others small and easily dislodged. All caked with the mud that inhabits the cave and glues them all together.
I feel beautifully small. It’s then I finally realise. Something is peculiar about this cave that I can’t put my finger on. It’s a situation I’d never been in, and I didn’t understand what it was. Rostam tells me: “You’re leading now Elise”. I look back and see the others behind me. Sure enough, I’d never expect to be leading, and that was what was so strange. Corin also allows me to lead and never overtakes me, much to my surprise. It feels good. I looked about the room gaping, searching for anything with my small light. I climb up, higher and higher, with the others following me, feeling the excitement of leading, and the anticipation of if I was taking these people I so dearly valued anywhere of actual importance. We climb up and up on the jagged rocks until I find a small squeeze in the corner of the ceiling. It looks slightly uncomfortable, and I’m not sure it should be explored because it does not look like a trodden path. I protest but Michael urges me to squeeze through, and I begin to compress my body in to a strange angle to get into this new room.
I look inside and my flashlight hits it, I feel the cold air brush my face and my eyes are taken aback. I felt like I was the first human in the world to see inside into this room, even if my dim light could not help me comprehend.
Michael: “What do you see? Does it go? What’s going on? Are you alright?”
No response comes back, but I stutter to him. “Michael. You just have to come in and see this” We slowly both come in, and view a room full of huge stalactites and stalagmites. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was no path, no signs of pervious entry anywhere. It felt magical to arrive in such a room. It felt like we were the first ones. It turns out it’s also a dead end. We all stayed here for a while to admire this room and gape at the formations, but knew we needed to head on. We asked around for the time, and collectively, none of us had a watch. We decided that, as callout time was 6, we had plenty of time to explore more.
We pressed on into different rooms until we came into a big enough ‘squeeze drop’ that forced you into a tensed position to hold the body up. The walls were smooth and not much grip could be found. I never did know how scared I was of heights, but now I knew, that I was very scared of heights. I started to panic and went into a deep and dark state of mind that I had never been into before. The normal swearing started to turn into screaming and every ounce of my body had convinced me I was going to die if I fell. I suddenly heard Rostam hold me and talk to me. He took some of my weight. He talked me through a few things, like how he would hang onto me if I fell, and how Sean (correct spelling?) would stand at the bottom so as to be a support base for my legs. [Being short doesn’t help in this particular bit], and with listening to a lot of calm talking from Rostam, I managed to inch my way down. I was shaking from the experience afterwards for quite a while, but I was so glad Rostam was there to get me through that mental break.
We began to filter through down a rusted ladder across a huge drop and onto a ledge, where we waited for everyone to come through. Michael had previously gone off to scout out the place, doing some traversing. Rostam came through and I smiled at him. I was happy to be out of the previous situation. He scanned the area and his face dropped. “Oh.” That was all he could muster. He muttered how this was “the wrong place” and how he “forgot about this part.” He quickly sent Corin off with the last SRT set to find Michael, and after 5 minutes, Rostam went off himself, leaving half the group behind.
In those minutes, all I could think about was Michael. Was he ok? I had no information on the situation apart from the fact that we were in the wrong place and that we needed to find Michael. I began to get cold but I didn’t care. I needed to know if Michael and Corin were ok. They began to flood my mind entirely as I sat, still feeling limp from the exhaustion. I exclaim that it’s annoying that we don’t have the time, and Wahab says “Oh! I have a watch! It’s 5:15!”
“Ya wat mate? That’s 45 minutes from bloody callout right there.”
As soon as Corin gets back, I tell him the situation and we both have a mutual panic. We need to work fast right now, but we all know we’re not going to make it out on time. We don’t tell ourselves this yet, but we all know the truth.
Corin throws me an SRT kit. “You’ve done SRT training before, right? Put this on.”
I remember all the times Gambles so patiently had to tell me I put my SRT kit on the wrong way round, or inside out, or perhaps on the wrong body part. I remember how Gamble and I practiced traversing together that one time and I hated hanging on the wire so much that, I grabbed onto anything I could at the risk of looking goofy. But I also remember how much Gamble trusted me to do all those things and told me the only thing I was lacking was: confidence. Well, Gamble. It was now time to prove you wrong on just one thing. If I was going to do this I atleast had to fake confidence within myself and pretend to be a better caver than I actually was. Now was the time. Corin looked at me deep in the eyes and put both hands on my shoulders. He didn’t need to say anything because we both knew what he was thinking. Before he said anything I blurted out “I’ll be ok. Let’s get this fucking done.”
Corin followed me whilst traversing off this high ledge, where I promised myself that I’d stop looking down, although you couldn’t see the bottom of the drop anyway. Hanging onto the thin metal wire, I seemed to work quickly and remembered all the advice anyone had ever told me. In all honestly, I was so scared I almost began crying up there. It’s not easy being scared of heights when you’re traversing on a slippery ledge. I came to a section where you had to hang onto the wire for some time, as the ledge became shorter and more slippery. Then another mental sticking point came and I became scared shitless. It took me some time to move. I heard Corin behind me, trying to help me get across the ledge that was hardly there. I started to do whatever it took for me to complete this task: I began to pretend Gamble was there telling me, “It’s ok to hang on the wire, in fact, hang on the wire just to make yourself feel comfortable. You’re safe and you’re not going anywhere. Do you see your cow’s tails both clipped on? You’re totally strapped in and safe. You’re wearing a harness. It’s ok.” Once I had this short monologue of Gamble saying this to me, I began to repeat this to myself out loud on repeat again and again. Telling myself that Corin would be so proud of me too. “Yes I am”, he says. He is still behind me, looking after me, watching my mental process as I try to get across this ledge. My breathing at this point is out of control but I manage to see Rostam sitting, waiting in silence. I get into safety and unhook the cows tails. I laugh and smile, whilst still questioning where Michael is in the back of my mind. I’m told he’s gone out to scout for the exit to tell everyone that we’re safe and to extend our callout.
After we all traversed, we begin to try and find a way out. We hit many landmarks we previously hit, some that inspired Dejavu within Corin and me. This maze could have taken us anywhere, but we had the advice from Michael that we were to find a wet crawl to get out. We sure found the wet crawl. Going through those tunnels as a group made me think of Michael doing the same route all alone, and somehow finding the exit. My perception of this man utterly changed within the space of an hour, being completely stunned that he could do all that by himself and find the exit. I cannot put into words how impressed I am and how in awe I am that he further enjoyed this process. My respect shot up for him from then on. We manage to find our way out, exhausted, but Corin is not exhausted. Not until he finds Michael alive and well. He presses on whilst many of us collapse from the severe exhaustion that trip bought onto us, whilst Rostam casually waits. All I can see is Corin almost running to get Michael and I respect the fact that Corin can muster such energy for Michael after all of that. Michael had done an excellent job and managed to stall callout in a quick and excellent fashion.
Do you remember the paragraph about me at the start? Well, it’s now rendered false. In these caving moments, time is nothing. The earth still turns and I let it turn. I don’t force anything to happen and there is no schedule. The rocks teach me that there are no rules, only the way that’s right for me. My peers teach me that [apart from call out] time does not matter now. Here, I am put to rest. I don’t have to force myself to become someone I’m not. All I’m doing is focusing on what’s happening right now. I can finally be carefree again. This is the real me! This is the fun me! This is what I want to be all the time and this is who I really am! I want the whole world to see that, even through anxiety and paranoia, you can still find yourself at moments like this once again! In those moments, all I wanted to do was spread my arms out and tell everyone around me that all I cared for right now is them, and nothing else. I don’t care for the chores, the university work, the people that hurt me so badly in the past, none of those matter in those moments. All that matters is the next step I take, and the people I so dearly love around me. And perhaps that’s why Michael liked to go off on his own? He can truly be with himself, look after himself, and not have to worry about any of the world’s, or his problems.
I walk back with the others, and Rostam and I talk. I’m very glad I met him, he’s so interesting. All of a sudden, a man springs up behind me and gives me a bottle of water and a smile. I’m tired, but after a second, I realise it’s Michael!
A notable highlight from this caving weekend:
-When I wake up at 1 in the morning, James Deakin was the first person I talked to once I came out of my deep sleep. He gives me a small chit chat, and then offers me a tea. Having tea after you wake up is a childhood memory for me, so when I had that tea, it not only warmed my body, but warmed my soul a bit too. Thanks James. The best thing perhaps, was his intention to give me this tea in bed too.
-Leo then offers me a chocolate banana on the same night while I’m having this tea and he points out that he made it with vegan chocolate. I try some and it is so wonderful. It makes me want to hang round Leo a bit more, you know?
-A big thanks to everyone that cooked, including BBQ and Breakfasts. It was bloody beautiful!
-Getting to meet Rostam finally and finding out he’s a cool human being.
-Getting to know Suss more in general. Really nice to actually interact with you guys at a deeper level and feel more connected.
All in all, a great weekend and I would definitely go again when I come back from Korea.