Cambridge Underground 1991 pp 54-55

On Being A Novice

Mark McLean & Fran Lane

"I went with them caving, P8 was the place,
They only killed two and lost three without trace."

If they are spared P8, a novice's first insight into CUCC comes outside the tackle store one Friday night. With a few fellow 'persons new to caving' the novice watches while people run around asking each other:

"Have you got the tackle store key?"
"No, Juliette had it but she's halfway to Yorkshire now"
"Are there enough lights?"
"Yes, but the batteries are probably flat, do you know if Dave's coming?"
"Not sure, he may have gone already with Mark."
"Oh well, Andy can use his gear if he gets left behind."
"Anyway, who's driving the bus?"

Eventually the tackle store is opened and emptied into the back of a small minibus, which everyone then climbs into. During the journey friendly second year cavers alternately assure the novices of how safe caving is, and then tell gruesome tales of near misses; "rope half cut through", "hanging by a rack that wasn't actually attached to me", "slipped off a ladder and put himself on crutches". The novices are soon convinced that the most adventurous caver is the one with red and green gear tape, for his stories of amazing subterranean deeds are certainly the best.

Many hours of sitting in A1 traffic jams later, the bus reaches the Karachi in Bradford. Here quantities of curry are consumed and Seb in his innocence makes the mistake of taking up the chapatti challenge. We are past Skipton before he finally swallows the last morsel and is able to talk again. Deep sighs are emitted as eleven o'clock comes and goes while we are still several miles short of the YSS hut with its adjoining pub.

The pattern for Saturday morning is that everyone stays in bed. Then they stay in bed some more. Then they crawl out of bed and cook large cholesterol-laden fried breakfasts. Several hours of discussion follow as to who will do which cave and when, during which the experienced cavers with cars slope off to avoid the novices. Eventually something is decided and everyone gets in the mini-bus and goes to find a hole. Despite the incredible amount of time spent faffing around, the experienced cavers are convinced that they've done everything in fantastically quick time and are being amazingly organised.

There follows some caving. This a disgustingly dirty, cold and generally foul activity which for some completely incomprehensible reason everyone really enjoys. It is begun by taking all ones clothes off while standing in the middle of a windswept moor, and putting on very silly orange suits and vile green helmets. Likewise afterwards the orange suits are removed only this time it is even colder and raining to boot. Better still you can be a certain female novice, stuck half in / half out of a tight wetsuit, while sleet comes sheeting down over you. While wearing the orange suits and helmets it is customary to walk for many miles across expanses of freezing moorland, saying "Is that the right hole?", "Not sure, think it could be the next one". Eventually, just before the smaller novii succumb to exhaustion and hypothermia, the wrong cave is found and an 'experienced' caver confidently leads the party down it. If they are unlucky enough to have an OUCC reject for a leader, one of the novices will now be told to "Have a go at leading" ostensibly so that s/he can "Feel that they've really been caving". Actually of course the bloke is completely lost himself, and hoping to manage to shift some of the blame. Eventually, thanks to some minor miracle, and after much crawling through 10 inch diameter muddy tubes, the novices re-emerge into the pallid light of an overcast Yorkshire day. They declare what a wonderfully wonderful sport caving is, and thank Dan so much for taking them down a such a lovely cave.

Once back at the hut, one of the best bits of the weekend gets under way: FOOD! With an appetite that only a troglodyte that has eaten nothing but Mars bars since breakfast could have, vast amounts of grub are consumed, including half a pound of spaghetti each. Happiness indeed!

But of course, the important part of caving isn't the actual grovelling in slime beneath the ground. The important bit is the pub afterwards (or instead of if you have a black beard and a fast white car). Here experienced cavers lay impressive plans for the bottoming of Grade 10 caves, requiring the free-diving of 50-foot sumps and 3000 yard entrance crawls. Many pints are consumed (until times well in excess of eleven given the chance), while tales are told and retold of happenings above and below the land of Austria. If the venue is Yorkshire, there are bound to be a few old codgers around, veterans of numerous caving seasons and several expeditions, yarning on about the days of hemp rope, wooden ladders and prussik loops. Meanwhile novices drink beer and play pool, while hoping that someone will achieve just the right level of hangover next morning to want to do an easy cave.

Next morning the novices learn a new verb: 'to jack'. This is quite unrelated to such constructive activities as lifting things, meaning in fact to do nothing until the pub opens, and then sit in it until it is time to head back to Cambridge. Just possibly they may go to Bernies as a prelude to the pub, or if they can't be bothered to cook breakfast. A more refined form of jacking is to say "Yes, I'll go caving - I think", and then choose a cave for which one must park outside the Hill Inn. Of course the combination of wet caving gear and such close proximity to a source of Theakston's Old Peculier makes not jacking look like plain insanity.

Newly introduced to the delights of caving, the novices cannot understand why anyone would want to sit in a warm pub when they could be up to their armpits in cold water. They clamour to be taken caving, preferably a "harder one than yesterday". Eventually someone who had been planning to do a decent string cave decides that perhaps they did imbibe a little too much last night, and agrees to lead a crocodile of novii down a fun, splashy, streamway. The intention is to lose a few by taking them down a fast flowing three foot deep waterway. Happily the plan fails and the novii emerge from the cave convinced of the absolute safety of caving and the total trust that can be put in their leaders (except when they tell you to crawl through a nine inch gap and then go a different way themselves).

And so as the sun sets on Sunday night, next year's experienced cavers head back to Cambridge, fuller and happier people for their weekend with CUCC. Such are the pleasures of caving that they are back in the Granta (Now of course the Panton Arms - Ed) the very next Tuesday, signing up for the next weekend...

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