Cambridge Underground 1991 pp 57-59

We are stuck

Julian Todd

Flow experience exists - official. As defined in Mihalyi Czeckmihalyi's experimental psychology book 'Beyond Boredom and Anxiety'. Flow experience is that aura of optimal performance you feel halfway between the states of being bored and being anxious. The demands put upon you are exactly matched by your abilities. Technologically speaking, there is a correct speed at which to run a production line conveyor belt such that it isn't so fast the workers are put under great stress trying to keep up with it, and not so slow that they are perpetually bored. Given a cave passage that is not so trivial that you can stomp through it at speed and lose your breath, you will (on your own) move through it at optimal speed. At the right rate. It is as if you are controlling the speed of the conveyor belt. The speed the world moves past you. Or driving a car faster and faster and faster until you are no longer bored, you are happily excited, and all the passengers are anxious.

However there is an upper bound: when the passage becomes so difficult that you not only slow down, you stop.

You become stuck. Wedged in like toast in a toaster. Perhaps unable to go back. Not all squeezes are passable, and there are some which are unretreatable. You have been breathing out and push-crawling forwards. Your body has become wedged between the floor and the ceiling. Due to the friction on your chest and upper back, any attempt to pull yourself backwards results in hauling your spine towards your feet so that your ribcage expands and your chest grips the rock more tightly. You are thoroughly stuck. You can only think or panic. There are hundreds of metres of rock above you, and an infinite expanse of it below. It is not a matter of sliding a car jack next to your head and cranking it up to make more room because it would simply explode. You are stuffed, up the creek and in the hole.

I was in this reconditioned underground supermarket and there were all these aisles, and there were these serpents which you could buy with these kind of sparkling jewels for eyes, and they were red and green and blue, and I was intending to buy one but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the stream.

Whenever you are running purposefully anywhere, you are either running away from something, running towards something, or hunting for something, for example a way out of this labyrinth; you hope you are running towards an exit and not away from one. That is like running towards something, but not knowing where it is. Where you are running may be a mistake. You may be running towards something you wish you were running away from. You may be anti-hunting: running away from something you don't know where it is. This is fear-induced panic. On a large scale we have panic-hunting: you are in a labyrinth and are running away from it.

In times when I am on my own, among people I don't know and who don't know me, I sometimes believe that caving might impress those who are not cavers when I tell them that I am a regular caver. Unfortunately it doesn't; someone who doesn't know and doesn't want to know what it is about won't ask you the right questions. No one is impressed by how hard you are unless they see it, or are told by someone else. They will always ask "have you ever done any cave diving?" You answer "no, of course not, do you think I'm suicidal?" But you were just now trying to tell them how hard you were!

Due to several dumb reasons we all have to put up with, cave diving dazzles everyone with far more glamour than so-called ordinary caving. It is underground and underwater and completely trapped - a closer melding with the dark unconscious than anything else. Hence, even though it accounts for only 0.09% or less of all caving done, it receives 90% of the TV coverage. I suppose this is partly due to the fact that a really good cave dive requires so much furtling gear and manpower that the total mass of TV crew plus lighting system plus electricity is small beans in comparison to what is already being transported underground and what the divers are carrying themselves into the water. Whatever it is, the cave divers at the front end of the operation are under a lot of pressure to perform. They are gazed at in awe as they go down into the sump which is said to have a great deal of potential. They are expected to find large unexplored caverns and airless connections into other parts of well-known caves. It would be far better to die there than to surface 13 minutes later reporting that the way on runs immediately into a boulder choke too dangerous to pass. What could they be complaining about? Rocks don't fall very fast underwater.

There must be cave divers who delay and fret about for hours before resurfacing to lie about what they have found. They cannot fake the existence of above water passages, or they would be given a note pad and pencil in a plastic bag and ordered to go back in and survey it. Their trip would be expected to last longer than the amount of air in their tanks, for they would obviously breathe the air that is available to them as they survey. Bottled air in a cave is a precious commodity when you calculate how much sweat and effort it represents. So an invented survey of underwater passages is what they require. While the sherpas are waiting at the sump for news, the cave divers are frantically wrapping their diving lines around various bits of rock, kicking up opaque silt so they cannot be seen and hiding their bubbles in cavities in the ceiling. Naturally it is a terrible embarrassment to all involved. The bogus survey must not link into anywhere or they will be found out. When the expedition is completed there must be no leads remaining. If a lead remained, and it really existed, the cave divers would be dead keen to return soon to explore it. If they are not very keen, then the extensions cannot exist in their minds and the surveys will stink of fish. As the expedition packs up and moves out, one of the leading cave divers stops for a piss in a little recessed pool on the side of the track and suddenly, in one chilling moment, realizes that this is The Sump, the one which they should have been diving all along. The one which actually had potential. Unlike the blind pool they had spent the last week diving into and making false surveys of. What to do now? He wants to explore it, naturally, but it would take an expedition the size of the one which has just packed up to do the job properly. If he had been honest from the start and surfaced after 13 minutes of diving and reported that the sump was impassable everyone would have shouted and sworn and stomped around the place and probably have stumbled upon this, the correct sump. But he didn't. And he can never return again. A frustration of epic proportions.

walking with cavers in a cave-rich land is a great satisfaction. Not often do a group of people share a common wish so shamelessly that they all know it and can act upon it decisively.You want to poke around underground. You pass a slab of exposed cliff with a possible hole halfway up it and everyone grabs their torches, fights their way through the steep vegetation and climbs around the edge of the rock to get to it. Who does that? How often do you find a reason to trample through untamed landscape except when you are lost and want out? Further along there is another hole in the path. You throw rocks down it and then insert yourself into it because the rocks make it sound reasonably safe. And then you get stuck in the dust. The other cavers wait; they want to hear news about it. It doesn't happen this way if you are walking places with non-cavers. You say to them: "Hey look, a two foot high hole just to the side of this pine tree. I wonder where it goes." You dump your rucksack, grab your torch (which you always have) and crawl into it with an uneasy feeling that the non-cavers are not really interested. In fact they have walked past you and have carried on walking. You poke your head out and see the backs of them ambling away. You now have to climb out, dust yourself off, shoulder your rucksack and run as fast as you can to catch up with them. Why don't they wait? Where are they rushing that they can't stay for a few minutes for you to do what you must do? "Hey folks" you shout at them, "I seem to have found something hidden in here! Looks like it could be a box of gold coins." The non-cavers come running back. Greedy buggers. Only interested in stopping for money. You wonder if they'd come back if you got stuck and needed help. Probably wouldn't even realise.

But that doesn't matter because it's still dark and your neck is beginning to ache. You are still wedged in by your ribcage in that flat-out squeeze you can't get out of. The other cavers in your party can't reach out and help because you are blocking the way with your feet. You and they can shout at each other, but all it shows is that they still care. The cold of the rock against which you are pressed seeps into your skin. Your head is on its side. You cannot breathe very deeply. Your friends discuss whether to call out the cave rescue and who will do it; they are unsure as to what the rescuers might possibly do that they couldn't do themselves right now. They encourage you to try yet again to get out. One of them wanders away to a discreet distance to have a piss. Oh, what you could do for a piss right now except that it would foul up your wetsuit: one of those cherished smells associated with caving. Stale piss. Rotten carbide. Unwashed expedition furry suit. The delightful delicate aroma of clean fresh neoprene. Your plight is not as pitiful as that of a cave diver miles into a sump and bursting for a piss while wearing a dry suit. He imagines he can get his fly undone without several gallons of water spilling inwards. It reminds me of Sunday mornings festering on the bunk in a nice warm pit desperately trying to have a decent lie-in while my bladder screams in pain. If only I had had one less pint last night I could have co-existed with it. Now I have to get up, and when I stand up the little valves in my veins and arteries re-align themselves, blood goes shooting to the muscles and into different parts of my brain as I walk down to the bog. Now that blissful physiological state of the lie-in is lost forever. I can crawl back into my pit afterwards, but it is not the same. I am awake. Might as well haul myself down to the kitchen and Make Some Tea. Key by kettle.

A common icon of a common caving club is the bat. No attention is paid to the insects and the blind fish that inhabit there too. It is not a very good ecological system, the underground, there are no fish-eating bats. They use sonar so cannot 'see' into water unless they swim along upside-down with their heads and ears in it. Can bats swim? All they seem to do is flutter about and screech. They don't do proper flying any more than snakes can run, they never glide. They go flutter flutter flatter flitter screech all night long, and hang-upside-down and screech all day in caves where foxes and owls and cats can't get to them.

There is only one way for a caver to fly, I am likely to say, and that is to hang-glide. "You don't seem to like the surface of the earth, Julian," people observe to me. And you don't admire a great painting or sculpture by treading upon it all the time. I have seen scenery underground and views above ground which you do not know even in your dreams. Your flying dreams. Your falling dreams. Your drowning dreams. Your being buried alive dreams. I can fly with my own wings. Just hanging there, looking down, holding the bar in my hands and pushing it about. Steer to the left, then steer to the right. (Gets a bit boring after a while.) Again to the left. Again to the right. You ski this way, then that way, this way, that way, alternating between the two ways you can turn. The world is horizontal. Maybe it's a road winding. Maybe it's your legs walking. Maybe it's your knees and elbows crawling. Or a conveyor belt trying to be exciting. It takes two sides to get anywhere.

One comes to admire the design of the human body, it is so good for so many things, at getting itself about. I tried canoeing recently. The day after paddling a horrendous distance down a river, all these strange parts of my body started to ache. What is this? The action of paddling a canoe uses muscles that haven't been exercised before in my life. One day, your body decides to grow this little slip of muscle down by your waist because it would be rather good at stopping a particular loop of intestine from bulging out. Like all exterior muscles, a spare nerve fibre runs to it from your brain even though it isn't really necessary at the time. But suddenly, years later, you go canoeing and your brain decides that this slip of muscle is in just the right place, just what it needs to complete its grand muscular plan of paddle manipulation.

And this is how you get unstuck. No squeeze problem is entirely symmetrical, unless you have slithered down, say, a gun barrel - that's very symmetrical: you can move neither your left arm or your right arm. Somewhere in your neck is a muscle which helps you sulk, gives your face that added twist of miserableness, so it's probably quite strong. Your cerebellum, which ought to have an accurate plan of your body if it is doing its job properly, finally works out after two and a half hours of being prompted by your unhappy expression due to being badly stuck in a cave, that this muscle can be used as a lever. It displaces the action of one of your powerful back muscles by a small amount such that you slide sideways one centimetre. Then you can wriggle out.

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