Line Crime - Dudley and Stephens go Potholing
CU 1971 Contents Page Next:
Report on the 1970 Ireland Expedition

Cambridge Underground 1971 pp 29-31


I suppose that most people who go caving feel justified in considering themselves at least a little hard; after all, not everyone in full command of their faculties would voluntarily venture into the dark, dank underworld. The mythical Man In the Street seems to regard caving as dangerous and dismisses cavers as madmen who are always getting stuck. But it is the idea of doing something dangerous that probably attracts people to caving in the first place. The ad-man selling the sport would exploit the idea with such slogans as

"Are YOU hard enough to go caving?"

"YOU TOO can be part of a cave-in!"

There are basically three objective dangers in caving:

1. Water - too much;

2. Gravity - falling rocks and falling cavers;

3. Air - foul


Respect for meteorology should minimise the danger of being trapped by rising water, and in any case few systems flood completely and utterly even under freak conditions. But non-swimmers may find that on occasions it pays, even in normal water, to be near friends who can swim!


The risk of falling rocks in natural systems is normally extremely small while the correct use of lifelines and the standard S.U.D. whistle code makes ladder pitches as safe as going down stairs.


It is extremely rare to meet foul air underground, except where the man in front of you has breakfasted on curried beans.

Novices soon discover, when the initial apprehension has worn off, that caving is not really so dangerous after all; in fact, it often comes as a bit of a disappointment to find that caves are just wet, cold and muddy places, and that caving is simply a very physical activity which at times verges on plain masochism.

In the old pre-wetsuit days when heavy and bulky rope ladders were the rule, big Yorkshire pots were major undertakings, and gradings of 'supersevere' were justified. To-day, wetsuits and electron ladders have greatly reduced the difficulties of such trips - cavers have never had it so good. P. Chevalier's book, "Subterranean Climbers" is strongly recommended for anyone who wants to find out what it meant to be a real hardman thirty years ago.

Modern British hardmen have to join expeditions to the deeper Continental systems to experience the great underground trips, since Britain has no system 300 m deep, and only a few are over 200m. In this country it is now cave diving that is, quite justifiably, thought of as the 'hard' thing to do. Just carrying heavy air-bottles down awkward cave passages soon sorts out the hardmen, well before any attempt to dive constricted sumps in often poor visibility. One Easter, I remember, six of us were down Aggie carrying in gear for two divers. The divers themselves eventually caught up with us and amazed us by handling what, up till then, six of us had been struggling with - and then disappearing in the distance faster than any of us could follow. No, most of us have to admit that we're not so hard after all. Anyway, who wants to be hard?

Right then -

read on about

How I Gave My Wetstuit To A Man With a Horse And Cart In Exchange For A Nun-Runner and Three Goldfish In A Plastic Bag.

Well, it's like this, you see. I was reading about some big-time rockclimber and it said he had GRADUATED to rock climbing from Potholing. That word worried me; it seemed to imply that he had moved on to greater and more noble exploits, as if somehow climbing was, well, "superior" to potholing. "God's Bridge!", I swore, tearing at the blasphemy-seams of my wetsuit.

Then I began to think that perhaps it was right after all. The only reason I had not tried climbing before was that I was scared of heights. It came to me in a flash - potholing is a refuge for FAILED CLIMBERS. So I had to give it a try. Well, I started slowly at first, with VD, which they tell me means 'very difficult'. I found out about jugs, mantleshelves, finger-jams, hand-jams, foot-jams, knee-jams, head-jams - in fact things soon began to get quite sticky. When we moved on to Severes I saw what 'gripped' meant V.S.s brought home to me what it was like to be 'gripped out of your mind'.

That is what climbing's all about; you do more and more difficult climbs until you either fall off or scare yourself so stupid that you vow never to go near a rock face again, and I've done both!

The extraordinary thing about climbing is that there is for everyone a standard that they can climb to but not above. You discover exactly how hard you are, and YOU CAN'T CHEAT. The different techniques and attitudes involved make it unfair to compare the gradings of the two sports, but here is my opinion of how they compare in Britain;

VbHard Very SevereNo comparison
VaVery Severe

IVbHard SevereSuper-Severe
Just SevereSevere
IIIVery Difficult
DifficultVery Difficult

Hard climbing is obviously harder than hard caving and involves greater risk to life and limb. In the last six months in Snowdonia I have seen five climbers fall before my very eyes. They were all saved from injury by their climbing partners 'fielding them', but during that same period at least as many were not so lucky.

You have the choice - climb hard and be hard (and perhaps dead); or cave hard, full stop.



Line Crime - Dudley and Stephens go Potholing
CU 1971 Contents Page Next:
Report on the 1970 Ireland Expedition