Cambridge Underground 1994 pp

Life the Universe and Descending

By Sam Lieberman

This story details an experiment, conducted a year or so ago, that provides tangible proof of Mr. Murphy's law. It also proves that luck and gravity are inextricably linked, which may explain why nobody can construct a reasonable theory as to how the universe works.

'Bullshit!', I hear you cry, but this is what actually happened

Having arrived on Friday night at the Hill Inn in Yorkshire, we were debating the pro's and con's of various caving trips for the Saturday. The criteria for the trip were largely laid down by a table load of beer, but there was some help from the club braincell. Since this was an Annual dinner weekend at the beginning of summer (ie. before Expo.), team photography - Tony Rooke & Andy Atkinson, wanted to practice taking pictures of large uninterestirig looking passages such as you find in Austria, but still be out in time to make the dinner. The braincell, which on this night happened to be in the possession of Big Paul, suggested Rift Pot on Ireby Fell. Now Big Paul is named as such for obvious reasons, he is not particularly cave sized, and hence eminendy qualified to give expert advice on which caves would suit our needs, at least that's what the beer thought...

Saturday morning; after varying degrees of breakfast (from Bernies best, to self catering charcoal) several car-loads set off for a pleasant days caving. I managed to coax my car up to the top of the Masongill track (a mistake as it later turned out) and there we sat sunbathing until the rest of the party appeared. When they finally arrived they opted for parking at the bottom followed by heat exhaustion from the walk up. This was bound to take some time, so we delayed changing even longer and continued working on a nice even sunburn. Eventually we could see people staggering up the hill into view, which brings me on to the one of the great questions facing modern cavers :-

"Where do you keep your Mars bar on a caving trip?"

In your helmet?, the inside pocket of your oversuit?, the outside pocket of your furry suit?, an ammo can?, a dangley bag? and girls, how about wedging it in your breast cleavage? This final solution was of course the one opted for by one of the more curvaceous ladies in the group (name withheld to protect writer's health). However given the prevaillng weather, hot, hot, hot!! the said Mars bar, despite its privileged position was in a very sad and wilted condition by the time it reached the top of the hill.

Anyway, back to the caving. Finding the entrance was easy enough, and, keen as we were, the first pitch was rigged for people to descend through the dodgey scaffolding, rotten corrugated iron sheets and bang wire that held the entrance up. Fairly soon it was getting crowded at the bottom of the pitch with folk gazing down near the floor and many a mutter of

"It's a bit small, isn't it?"

This is where the aforementioned braincell owner had terminated his trip - the entrance to a flat out bedding plane crawl, with - for extra interest, puddles in the floor. Being small and easily bullied I volunteered to go first, with the tackle sack. After much crawling and some entertaining four foot drops in the passage,

"Best to go head first", I suggested, Tee-hee!!! The next pitch was reached.

This consisted of a tightish takeoff, down about 30ft to a 20ft section of roomy, rifty ledge that looked out over the main, 30 odd metre, pitch. Since nobody in the party had been to this place before and the guidebook described the cave as a 'sure-fire winner surface dig' it was time to play SRT (Short person Rigging Technique). Apparently, as I later found out, you are supposed to rig an airy fairy traverse over nothing to give a nice hang down the pitch. This is where I was lucky and ouly rigged out as far as I could reach from the edge.

Traverse line in, check.
'Y' hang in, check.
Cows tails on, check.
Connect rack to rope, check.
All ok?, check.
Remove cowstails and start descending.

It all seems so easy doesn't it? However it is at this point that luck and gravity start interacting. Gravity was fighting a losing battle with a nice dry rope and five metal bars, so, about 15ft down the pitch I got fed up with this and decided to even the odds - Gravity vs. four metal bars. At some point during this procedure Sod's law was invoked and luck went on a holiday for a moment, gravity went wild with its new found freedom and I remember the next second as follows :-

'ping', this is a fairly normal sound for the last rack bar to make as you take it off.
'whoosh', Right, well we're going down a bit fast now, control descent....
'oh shit, where's the rope',
Bang! The whooshing stops and darkness descends as my carbide light bursts into full peril-sensitive efficiency.

Well I can feel a wall behind me - best lean on it eh?
Probably ought to get the light working again, click, click, click, click .....
Ah, there's the rope, best grab hold of it.
Looking up - there's my rack??, puzzlement, probably ought to attach myself to the rope, now where are those jammers?

One theory is that my initial very bad luck must have set up an instability in the space time continuum, which explains why gravity was having such a good time. However the instability was short lived and luck came back from it's holiday feeling much better and obviously somewhat guilty, because it then went to the expense of buying and installing a nice limestone ledge on the pitch for me to land on. (Admittedly, it was barely large enough to stand on, let alone drop 20ft onto, but I wasn't about to complain)

A second less tenable possibility is that the krab attaching me to my descender was facing gate towards me, unscrewing down, which it did, despite having checked it at the top. At some subsequent time whilst flailing about trying to remove the fifth rack bar the gate opened and 'ping!', I was gone. This theory is not as neat as the first since it does not explain where the ledge came from.

Team photography who had been watching this from the comfort of the large ledge at the top were sounding more shocked than I felt. But eventually they got over it and shouted down :-

'Saaam ?', just to make sure I was still alive 'Yes'
'Are you alright?', (ask a silly question)
'Yes, fine', (Get a silly answer)
'Can you reach the rope?'
'You'd better attach yourself to it'
'Done that already', (seconds and seconds ago)
'Oh Right, stay there then, I want to get a picture of this'

So there I stood, ever so happy on my little ledge, waiting for flashguns to be charged, f-stops to be fettled and have my picture taken.

This being done -

'Just one more...'

This, finally, being done, I was allowed back up the pitch, having to do a descender pass (Why can you never find the really useful SRT techniques like this in a manual???) as I went. Having reached the top I decided that exiting the cave was probably wise, so while I was explaining the situation to the queue at the top of the pitch, Andy & Tony tried to continue down the rope. For some strange reason neither of them seemed to have any enthusiasm left, and fairly soon elected to derig and bravely follow me out.

As a punishment for ruining the trip I was forced to dangle about on the entrance pitch (remember the dodgey scaffoldmg?) for about an hour, within sight of daylight, until they were satisfied that they had taken enough pictures (none of which came out anyway, or so I'm told).

Exiting the cave, walking back across the field and getting changed were all fairly uneventful so I won't mention them. However driving back down the track obviously had a profound effect on the structural integrity of the car's exhaust, but not until later.

Before I even arrived at the annual dinner I'd decided to stop messing with the fundamental forces of nature and try alcohol poisoning as a more pleasant means of passing the time. The next morning, judging from the bodies strewn outside the Punch Bowl, myself and several others had succeeded in this aim, the rest of the day was spent acquiring headaches in the sun and not moving except to go and buy soft drinks from the bar. Finally somebody decided I was sober enough to drive them home, so we loaded up, drove ten miles or so and then stopped because the exhaust had fallen in half. So much for a quiet trip home.

I spent the next half hour under the car with a jubilee clip and an old coke can effecting repairs. Meanwhile the person who's driveway we were blocking took pity on us and brought out a tray of tea, telling us to leave it on their doorstep when we were done since they were about to go off shopping. Lying under the car + a horrible hangover + pint of coke + some tea all took its toll on me. So, repairs complete, it was a quick chunder in the bushes and time to roar home, stopping only to buy some anti-headache pills, and repair the exhaust again when the thundering got too loud.

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