For weeks, all my friends must have been dreading hearing my voice on the other end of the phone. "Gingling Hole on the 11th of May....the sumps are 40 metres above Brants Gill....if we get a good team it won't be that bad...." As ever, most replies were cautious and I had no idea how many sherpas would turn up on the day. Imagine planning a football match on the basis of the referee being the only person certain to turn up, and you have an idea of the logistical problems involved in an assault on a remote sump.
Furthermore, to play a football match, all you really need is a football. In Gingling Hole you need three sacks of rope, assorted ladders, tapes and bolts just to reach the bottom. The dive required two tanks, two further sacks and a line reel. Most of the equipment in the sacks was fairly delicate, and so had to be packed with care. Before packing could start, a checklist of essential items had to be ticked off, so that nothing was forgotten. Imagine the embarrassment and waste of effort if a vital piece of equipment was left behind. In fact I spent all week getting ready; lights had to be charged, wetsuit mended, valves serviced, tanks filled, line tagged.... The list is endless. On Friday when I went to bed I was already exhausted!
Saturday came, and I was busy making final preparations when the first wave of sherpas arrived. Why they are known as sherpas is beyond me; they are more likely to address you as 'Old Dog Breath' than anything faintly grandiose, such as 'Sahib'. Of course nothing was ready, but eventually a camel-train of motor-cars left for Fountains Fell. When we arrived there was no sign of the fell, since it was completely covered by what seemed like hundreds of willing helpers. I had obviously overdone the sales pitch and was now in danger of being thwarted by a choke of people. However, natural selection soon came into play. Most of the older, wiser hands left for the cafe, reducing numbers to manageable proportions.
With Del rigging the pitches, a crocodile of eleven cavers descended the cave. A second phase of natural selection occurred at the 'Ammered 'Ole when Tony, Wadders and Adam all called it a day; once again the more experienced were leaving the sinking ship. Eventually I was perched on a smallish ledge above the sump, surrounded by all the necessary equipment. Despite all the preparation I would have given anything at this point for a half decent excuse not to dive, but the sherpas had done their job well and now stood watching expectantly; there was no escape!
The sump looked an evil one; a long rift about 20 metres in length, but only a metre wide. The water was peat-stained and mud on the walls added to the expectation that this would not be a good visibility dive. Still, a decent line belay was found and I was helped into the water. After a few quick checks I tried to settle my nerves and slipped below the surface. I made a slow, cautious descent feet-first down to a depth of 8 metres. The rift became gradually narrower, and I had to weave from side to side to stay in the slightly wider parts. The bottom of the rift was hopeless; very narrow and full of silt. On ascending slightly, I noticed a small bedding at about 6 metres, and concentrated my search at this level. I saw a small eyehole and looking through this, I could see what seemed to be a passage leading off. By now, visibility had deteriorated and although I gained the impression that there might be another, larger hole below, I was unwilling to investigate further. I was somewhat concerned about reascending the rift, as it was not passable in all places and it had been impossible to belay the line. As it turned out, I was able to gently feel my way back out, and regained the surface after about ten minutes, not ecstatic, but pleased that some progress had been made in a difficult and remote site. Apart from anything we had increased the explored depth of Gingling to 177 metres.
Now the real fun started; we had to carry most of the equipment back out. I was at the back with Julian, and by the time we had reached the top of the Big Pitch, the party was well spread out. In an effort to regroup, we put on a spurt and soon I could hear voices ahead of me. Suddenly, after climbing a ramp of boulders, I reached a blank wall. Realizing I should have crawled underneath the ramp, I turned round and began to retrace my steps. Suddenly, with an indescribable roar, the whole slope collapsed. As other people have described in similar accidents, the whole world seemed to slow down, and I retain a vivid memory of trying to 'ride out' the avalanche by jumping from boulder to boulder. This was nearly successful, but a stone about the size of a refrigerator caught my left leg, and I went in up to about my waist.
When everything stopped moving there was complete, shocked silence. My left leg hurt so much, that somehow it didn't hurt at all. Looking down, I could see that my wetsuit had been absolutely shredded, but as far as I could tell I wasn't bleeding heavily. It also seemed that the boulders had settled in a position that wasn't actually pinning my leg, so after pulling away some smaller boulders I managed to wriggle free and crawl away from the danger zone. Now I could hear shouts - urgent and frantic, trying to ascertain what had happened and whether anyone was hurt. I groaned and lay back; all I cared about at that moment was still being alive. Julian appeared on the scene and, not surprisingly, looked worried. A quick examination of my leg showed no broken bones, but the knee was unstable and I could put no weight on it; I had obviously done some serious damage to the ligaments.
More shouting was heard from behind the boulders; we could hear Pete and see his light, but there seemed to be no passable way through. Julian started cautiously moving boulders out of the way; extreme care had to be taken to avoid further collapse, but a way was soon opened up. The only slight snag; a huge boulder we would have to crawl under, which wobbled to the touch! It wasn't too bad for Julian, but I could only control one leg and was very worried about accidentally bringing the boulder down. This was solved by Julian coming back into the choke and guiding me through feet-first; a courageous piece of team-work that I shall never forget.
Del and Harry had obviously not heard the collapse, and were way ahead, leaving five people to evacuate the casualty. Andy went ahead to arrange transport from the entrance, while Pete, Julian, Becka and Mark M helped me slowly make my own way out. The pitches gave no problem, as they were rigged with ropes, and I could simply prussik one-legged. Much more difficult was the climb into Stalactite Chamber, and the narrow rifts near the entrance, where in places I had to be dragged along. About five hours after the accident we reached the surface, to be greeted by the welcome sight of the gamekeeper's four-wheel-drive vehicle.
It was only when we arrived at the car park that we realised that the EXCS contingent in the shape of Iain Crossley and Jill Gates was still in the cave, having entered some time later than us and gone down Big Rift route. When they had not emerged by midnight and had quite possibly encountered further trouble at the choke, it was decided that the situation was serious enough to initiate a rescue. Four members of the Northern Pennine Club accompanied by a CRO Land-Rover went back to the entrance and found no sign of the missing cavers. The cave was quickly re-descended, and Iain and Jill were met in the Stalactite Chamber, having spent several hours digging before they felt the choke was stable enough to pass. Everyone was out for about half-past three in the morning; not surprisingly, little was achieved on Sunday!
It remains only for me to express sincere thanks to those who assisted on this trip and subsequent rescue. Although everyone helped (even first-years with only seven months experience), I feel one person who must be singled out is Julian Todd. In digging the choke and helping me through, he exposed himself to considerable danger without even a second thought. Such friends are what, to me, caving is all about.