After a busy week at work, yesterday should have been a relaxing and enjoyable trip to finish off. The plan was to head to sump 1 in Swildons Hole Cavern with Robin, Ben and a few members of Robin’s family. As the numbers were low and I wasn’t really needed, I suggested that I just went home, but then for some reason had the idea that to help, I would go ahead of the main group and rig the ladder pitch to access the lower reaches of the cave.
I headed of on my own across the fields and into the cave. I took the quickest route (the short dry way) down into the cave throwing the heavy bag (of rope, ladder and other associated hardware) ahead of me. The cave was surprisingly dry with only a trickle in the first chamber and the entrance dry and dusty encouraged by the cold dry autumnal air.
On arriving at the chamber known at the old grotto, I decided to take the upper route towards the stream way and onto the water chamber as I had done hundreds of times before. I threw the tackle bag ahead of me down the drop and into the passageway ahead where I would pick it up in a few moments.
I lowered myself down and sat on the edge of the drop as I had done so many times before. I reached forward and grabbed the familiar had hold in the stal opposite and then reached my foot out for the well-worn and obvious footstep opposite in a way that almost passes for muscle memory. My foot went out, hit the step, but then unlike every time before, slipped.
I saw my foot leave the step and just hang there. I looked forward and my hand was slipping down the stal. I thought to myself that this wasn’t right. I seemed to be hanging there in mid air like Wyllie Coyote after being outwitted once again by his arch nemesis the Roadrunner. Quite obviously I wasn’t levitating as it felt but just about to start my downward journey at 10mS2. Then I noticed, the wall in front whizzed past my face in an upwards direction meaning that quite obviously I was heading he opposite way, then, Whack!!
This is bad I thought, very bad indeed. I was on my own in the cave, not being sure if the rest of the group would happen past me or if there was even anyone else in the cave that day. I figured that even if they had gone another way that when they got to the ladder pitch and saw no ladder they would have to turn around and see where at least their ladder was.
My initial thought was to go through all the first aid checks I would do if I found a casualty myself. I wiggled my fingers, they worked, same with the toes. Without moving to much, I took my helmet off and checked my head. I was certain I hadn’t hit it, but you have to check these things. Then I moved my attention to my back. Having just about recovered from quite a serious neck injury I knew vaguely what to look and feel for. A bit of squirming around and I was elated and surprised that I seem to have got away without hurting my back again. Let’s sit up and get out of the water I thought.
F&^%!!!!! That hurt!!!! There was a stabbing pain coming all down my left hand side where I had hit the rocks on landing. My thigh and my hip were agonising. Had I broken them? I don’t think so, we’ll see, there was also a sharp pain from my ribs under my left arm. All considering, not as bad as it could’ve been. Now what to do next? Robin and the others would be here in a bit. Could I get myself out and let robin carry in with the trip or would I need someone to go outside and call the MCR (local cave rescue). Not wanting to make a fuss and not wanting to ruin others day I decided that I could get myself out.
After what seemed like hours but in reality was only a few minutes Robin (an ex doctor) appeared above me. We had a chat and he gave me a quick check over. I said I was happy to try and make my own way out. This proved a tad harder than I had thought. What were normal simple passages were awkward hands and knees crawls and the few climbs were seeming cliff faces almost with recourse for a portaledge half way. Eventually I was outside and crashed to the ground taking in the lovely autumnal sunshine the birds and the rustling of the trees. Only at this point did I realise just how quiet the cave was with noting but my rustling and breathing to break the silence.
Still pondering what to do next, do I go to my car or do I head to the Wessex Cave Club (where ironically the rescue were practicing stretcher rescues). Decision made and off to the car it was. Getting there, the first thing I did was to get out of my caving kit, expensive as it is, I didn’t fancy having it cut off me at hospital. And off to hospital I went.
So, what do I think about this incident? Well the first thing I’ve realised is the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. This was a move I have done so many times and in so I probably didn’t concentrate and / or give it the respect it deserved, after all it is quite a serious move that I’d never dream of taking a client down.
I realise that I was extremely lucky and if I’d gone 50cm left id have landed on a ridge and probably broke my back. 50cm right and I’d have gone down another 2 metres, both scenarios much worse. Is this going to make me give up? No! what it has made me realise in those few moments led there on the floor going through the different scenarios was that if I had hurt myself properly (more so that the 2 broken ribs and the deep tissue bruising that I have) that what I would have missed more than anything was being in the outdoors, going up mountains and possibly and hopefully back down a cave quite soon.
Be safe out there.