Cambridge Underground 1992 pp 29-30

On the dole....

Dan Mace

'.... so you see, things that live in one dimension are really very simple - they can only move in two directions so they have very few decisions to make in their lives.'

'Thank you Mr Mace, your PhD. sounds fascinating, although it isn't quite what we're looking for. Production lines tend to be built in three dimensional space and we ignore quantum mechanical effects. Anyway, let's move onto your leisure activities, I believe you go caving don't you?'

Thank goodness for that. Hate talking about work in an interview; even if the interviewer doesn't know a thing about what you're talking about. Caving is a doddle - especially when the interviewer doesn't know what you're talking about. And at least he hasn't asked me what the difference is between caving and potholing. Dunno why everyone - novices, interviewers, aunts - all ask what the difference is. How the hell should I know - even dictionaries don't help. Caving is defined as 'the sport of climbing in and exploring caves' whereas potholing is 'a sport in which participants explore underground caves.' Totally useless, and what sort of cave isn't an underground one? There is no difference - funny that people think there is really. Shit, I'm in an interview... guess I should answer the guy's question.

'Well yes, actually I....'

'Tell me, why do you go caving ? I really can't see the attraction of it myself'

And that's the other question they always ask. I suppose if I'd really prepared for this interview I would have a neat slick answer to slam back to the interviewer. Something like 'cos its great fun, and I enjoy it,' or 'because expedition caving is the only opportunity to do original exploration available to humans these days.' Of course, maybe I should have brought along a photocopy of Julian's article in the 1990 journal. No, on second thoughts I want this job and I don't want to put the guy off me.....or ring Julian up and offer him the job.

One of my favourite answers to this question uses the 'in the back door' technique:

'Well to be honest, its because its so nice when you get out!'

This usually raises a laugh, well at least a smile, but not this guy. He looks totally serious and agrees with me. The advantage of this method is you get the interviewer to laugh, relax, and then hit them with the stuff about how underground is a completely different world, in which the senses, except pain and exhaustion, are depressed for 90% of the time. Hence those rare nice feelings that you get underground are magnified ten thousand times. A dirty stal is a feast for starved eyes. The elation felt when you finally get through a squeeze is fantastic. Flying down a rope with the wind whistling past you sets all your nerves singing for joy; jumping off the UL on a sunny day in Cambridge would be dull in comparison. Then there is getting out of the cave itself. I never realised that the world smelt until my first long expedition trip, and I've never worked out who comes and paints the plateau green whilst I'm underground in Austria. Of course, you have to be a bit careful with this self-deprivation theory. Saying you like to lash yourself with a horsewhip isn't going to impress anyone. (Well no-one I know anyway.)

But the whole thing loses its effectiveness if the guy takes you seriously. Then all the over the top marvelling starts to sound like a lame excuse for doing something that isn't very pleasant at all. It would be wonderful to be able to instantly transport people into a caving situation, just for a few seconds, to show them how it feels, and then say 'there, that's why I go caving.' But you know that before they can make it through the Darren entrance crawl, or abseil into Knossus, or swim across Black Dub there are the obligatory P8 trips that you know someone like that is going to hate. Trying to imagine your interviewer attempting to get through the wet crawl at the bottom of P8 is impossible, and probably a really bad thing to do in the middle of the interview. People who make faces don't get jobs. And so you concentrate on the interview and waffle on about the attractions of caving.

The nice thing about this is that it seems to work. Even the guy who seemed totally disinterested is beginning to look as if he is trying to see your point. Most people haven't even begun to think about exploration so it has never really occurred to them that most of this planet has human footprints all over it. Most places are covered in billions of footprints, and even the more inhospitable places like the top of Everest must have a few thousand. Come to that I hear Everest is getting crowded these days. Even the few obscure places that haven't been trampled by curious (and suicidal) folk with the explorer's bug get peered at by nosey satellites every few hours. With caving everything is different. If we lived in Austria we could take folk pushing on their first caving trip. The blurb about the novice trip could scream 'See what no-one has seen before!' Well, its more exhilarating than peering in to egg shells.

And so you paddle along happily in this vein talking about straws and squeezes and how safe it all is and you think everything is brilliant when:-

'So, how much can you use your physics in all of this?'

Probably the correct answer to all this is 'not at all.' Problem is that few people are quite that honest in this situation. After all, all the cash for expeditions comes from the science program. Say you're going exploring down an unknown cave and you'll get a five pound voucher and three tons of golden syrup. But say you're going to drop leftover slop down there and study the cave moulds; or transport rats down there and map the way they try to get out; or dig up gravel that was probably transported down there by your mate's boot and produce a geological gravel map, well then thousands can flow in. Problem is that all cave science tends to be biological, geological or psychological. You never hear of the expedition physicist. But then this is an interviewer and the golden answer springs to mind - surveying! The interviewer looks interested and so you launch into an explanation of how a skeletal line survey becomes a picture of the cave with all the observable features thrown in . Trouble is that surveying has bugger all physics in it. The first thing they teach you about physics is experimental error and how to guestimate it, report it and reduce it. From then on the amount of time you spend thinking about errors falls exponentially. In the last three years I have only read a few papers that even bothered to mention the existence of the things. So very quickly you find yourself quoting things you had a hazy idea of five years ago and then realise you'd better finish it all by saying that 'no there isn't really that much physics in surveying, but I can convert polars to cartesian co-ordinates.'

So although you haven't actually inspired your interviewer to go caving, you have at least made him aware of what its all about and convinced him that its not all grovelling about in body sized tubes that are half full of water. All that is what usually happens; but occasionally things can be very different.

'I believe you were involved in a rescue underground. Could you tell me about that?'

'Yes, it was a detackling trip - er, a trip where we take all the rope out of the cave. There were three of us on the trip, myself, Chris and Juliette. The weather was awful so ....'

And you launch in to the story that has been told many times before. If you haven't heard it, its in the '90 journal or better still, buy me a pint and I'll tell you myself. After a few minutes you're going full tilt - this is really impressive:

'....Chris couldn't move himself so we hauled him out. We didn't know at the time that he had a broken pelvis.'

At this point you suddenly realise that the interviewer is looking quite pale and is clasping his hand to his forehead.

'Are you all right - do you want me to carry on?'

'Yes, Please do - This guy survived did he?'

After some reassurance I continued. The interviewer looked visibly better; but his reaction was explained at the end of the interview.

'Sorry I looked a bit pale during that last bit. You see I go climbing a lot, and at least when we have accidents we're just a helicopter ride away from hospital. I went caving once - can't understand why anyone does it. I was taken down some wet hole - very unpleasant. Spent most of the time grovelling about in body sized tubes that were half full of water at the bottom somewhere. It was quite frightening.'

'Where was the cave?'

'I dunno. Somewhere in Derbyshire - funny name - just a number I think.'


'Yeah that was it - you know it, do you?'

> Index to Cambridge Underground
> Table of Contents for Cambridge Underground 1992
> Back to CUCC top page
> Austria expeditions