Whilst I never claimed to have retired from caving, my recent trips have unmistakably labelled me as a born again caver. My one trip per month instead of one a year brings a new level of refinement to the zimmer-frame jokes. The final insult came when Dave asked me to write an article about '70s caving, implying a) there have been lots of changes since then, and b) that I was the only one who could remember. Interestingly, a) is correct. As for b) I'll speak to you later Gibson.
Picture the scene. Your humble author struggling into his well-proven, lived-in wetsuit prior to a quick foray on the Allotment. Amongst the rest of the nouvelle pot-bashers in the party, my wetsuit causes mixed reactions. Mixed, that is between underhand smirks and hysterical laughter, with the odd pitying smile by way of consolation. They, you see, are resplendent in their furry fibre pile undersuits and PU nylon oversuits. They're so much more comfortable and ever so warm. Alright, alright you bastards, lets get on with the trip. At least wellies seem pretty universal nowadays.
Following a quick breeze/wheeze up to the entrance: Lighting. Its still dark down there. Now I've always had a pathological hatred of carbide lamps. My Premier caplamp was only wheeled out when absolutely necessary, ie. 14 hour trips, ie. hardly ever, and even then I always carried an electric backup. The dirty, smelly, unreliable thing cast miserable light and always went out just when you least wanted it to. And lighting it - oh God! I figured on spending half the trip getting/keeping mine lit. The other half was spent illuminating other people getting/keeping theirs lit. Oh God! Oh God! Enter Jean Pierre la spéléologist celèbre sporting this year's model, the Petzl Laser. This natty piece of ironmongery neatly combines the disadvantages of a carbide with the bulky waistband features of an electric cell. You can now get stuck and be in the dark! This is madness. Who on earth is going to buy one?...
Yeah, ok, I did. The piezo striker's pretty good, and the generator isn't that heavy, and it does last the whole trip without a refill, and it has its own electric backup that I've hardly ever needed, and, and, ...oh shut up and get down the first pitch.
"I think we'll just tie a quick Double Overhand Alpine Bowline on the Bight on this clown", they muse, "then traverse, deviation, traverse, rebelay to reach the pitch head", etc., etc. What?! The knots are different, the rope is thinner, someone's gone berserk with a battery powered rock drill, the rope is definitely thinner, the rigging's all different, rope protectors are definitely passé and the rope is seriously thinner. It's still called SRT apparently, but they teach it to novices nowadays. As an aficionado of the technique, I applaud the progress here. This is probably only because I can now repeat all my favourite trips and they all seem so different from the new perspective - that of the roof rather than the floor - bike clips essential.
I still think my trusty rack is the best way down, but I do note that those other rack users have five dinky bars not six chunky ones. (For anybody else with ageing gear, I have founded the Goldlock Owners Club. Thus, you too can replace those worn bars after being humiliated in the local caving shop - "Those were obsolete ten years ago, Pal!" - contact me for membership details, but I digress...). Things are no better on the de-rig. Prussiking means Frog. Frog by name, Frog by nature, Frog by nationality: its Frog techniques, Frog gear. Just FROG ok? Chuck out the roller boxes, ropewalkers, floating cams (it's enough to make a grown man cry), foot ascenders, knee straps, Howie straps, jock straps (that's enough straps - other ed).
So there I am - a convert. Adorned in my fibre pile undersuit, the oversuit, the wellies, the Petzl Laser zoom, the Frog SRT gear, and I can tie an Alpine Butterfly along with the best of 'em.
"That's a nice fibre-pile suit Nick"
"Thanks, just got it. Pretty good eh?"
"Why didn't you get the new Super Daleswear Lycra Impregnated Onepiece Fleece Suit?"
"A Fleece suit - they're much warmer, hold less water than fibre pile, drain faster, much better all round. They're all the rage now."
"Oh I see - Aaaaaaaagh"
You will recall the story so far. Just when you thought it was safe to hang up your helmet, along came Born Again Caver. Recent months have seen hordes of hopeful retirees getting their gear on again. In the guise of Berger training, lots of ageing flab has been grappling with new tackle and new techniques. Amongst these ranks we find your humble narrator, manfully mastering the new technologies. Now read on...
The scene is one deep beneath the Yorkshire Dales. (Well 100 feet actually but I needed the big BUILD UP). There we were whiling away the hours (the way you do with the new rigging techniques), waiting for Julian to come down from the ceiling. Ah, what a lovely mover! The rest of us were huddled together on this ledge (room for 4 men). (You call that a ledge? - big enough for a snooker tournament in my day!).
"Tell me something personal will you?"
"How big is my... thingy"
"Oh, about right I'd say"
The subject under discussion was of course the flame on my super Petzl Laser carbide light, with electric Zoom backup and remote Malham generator, but then you'd probably guessed that. Phew - it's awfully warm in here. Now where was I? Oh yes, another couple of minutes and it'll be my turn on the pitch. Bright in here too, isn't it? What on earth is Julian doing? Another re-belay - typical - two more and a deviation and he should reach the bottom. Sniff Sniff. Funny smell in here... sort of like... burning. Aaaaaaaagh! My helmet's on fire!
In the film of the book, there now follows a terrific stunt sequence, as this caver flails about with a burning helmet in one hand, and a flaming hose in the other. To the smell of burning, melting plastic the flames defy our efforts to put them out. It even burns underwater! DON'T PANIC! I'm not panicking dammit, it's just bloody hot. Aaagh. Put the thing out! After yet more stunts the helmet is eventually blown out, and some quick-thinking individual pulls the pipe off the generator. (Sorry guys, can't remember who). All other lights are extinguished due to the explosion risk (my God!), as my generator spews out copious quantities of gas, and gets REALLY HOT; I say, would you mind awfully removing my generator from my belt... BEFORE IT MELTS MY SIT HARNESS! Owwww! Pschhh! The mangled, sooty remains of my high tech lighting fade into the enveloping gloom, and the generator cools in a convenient puddle. My usual urbane, sophisticated manner soon returns. "Shiiiit!". And I collapse on the floor.
You'll be pleased to know that that I made it out alive. I'm sure that the scars will heal in time. With the Petzl electric backup light also burnt out I had to rely on my trusty Mightylite for the ignominious exit.
There are obviously drawbacks to the new technologies - in this case the lack of a jubilee clip. Pioneers have always had to learn the hard way, and no matter how sophisticated the equipment there's always room for improvement. Don't you agree Iain? Take a look at this one and see if you can see why the flame's gone out.
Did Iain survive? Will he ever go ballroom dancing again? Can you get eyebrow transplants on the NHS? Who cares anyway? Stay tuned to find out, in this never ending saga, as the Burnt Again, sorry Born Again cavers weigh up the advantages of their new gear against its calorific value...