Forty eight hours earlier four people had heard a strange humming noise coming from a sump pool at the bottom of a 25m pitch that bars the way on to the rest of the cave.
The objective was to put a second team of divers into the final sump to confirm the findings of the first team who had exited around twelve hours ago.
Once the pitch had been descended it was clear why the sump was making strange noises; the water level was 4m higher than usual and could clearly be seen to be rising against the walls of the cave. One of the most important pieces of kit for the push divers which had been left to air out was now underwater, owing to the simple nature of this rebreather this was now an inconvenience rather than a serious issue as it might have been with certain makes and models which rely on complex electronics to keep the diver alive.
Rescuing what equipment we could the four of us ascended the pitch and set off back to camp 1 quite amazed at what we had seen, on the way back to camp 1 we checked out some of the other sumps in the cave off the main route but none of these showed signs of any high water levels.
Whilst the rebreather was dried out over night and plans changed I found it tricky to drift off to sleep that night, my hearing became super sensitive to any noise that might indicate that the flood waters were on their way after all the signs were clear throughout the cave that water courses ferociously through these vast passages.
Waking in the morning the team decided to have another look at the sump, we had left some markers to give us an idea of high the water had gone. It appeared to have risen about another metre after we had left yet now where else in the cave was this apparent. The water level had since dropped but was still 3m above ‘normal’.
We made the decision to exit immediately so as not to waste any more resources underground and seek advice from the first team who had spent 9 days beyond in camp 2, also we wanted to see how much it had rained to cause such a fast ‘flood’ and to see what the forecast for the next few days was going to be like, many unlined low airspace areas exist beyond so it wasn’t as simple as just diving through despite the higher water levels.
Once we reached the surface and informed the first team of what we had encountered the immediate concern was from where the water come from, most seemed to think from the many inlets in the roof in the passage beyond the sump, the problem here being the location of camp 2 which is thought to be under such a place. What might be left of camp 2 was the major concern and we agreed that the next push attempt should be delayed until the state of the camp was established.
I was due to fly home four days later so had my hopes of seeing the rest of the cave dashed when we had to abort our attempt but now had an excuse/ opportunity to blitz in and inspect camp 2, I regularly cave/ dive on my own so was happy to have the chance to volunteer myself for this role and declined the offer of others joining me on the trip but stated it would be nice to have company back in camp 1 where I would spent the night before exiting.
Trying to sleep on the surface that night my head was buzzing with details for my trip agonising what to take and what to leave so as to be adequately equipped but not over burdened. Whilst posing no major difficulties the cave would require me to pass four sumps, over 100m of SRT and many other obstacles from which a slip or fall would mean serious injury and a lengthy agonising wait for rescue.
I left the others eating breakfast in the morning around 9am not sure if I was over extending myself with an ambitious plan, I tried not to dwell on it during the 7km hike down to the cave entrance purposefully stopping a few times to take in the views and the noises of the birds/ insects knowing it was going to be a long day.
I didn’t have a watch or anyway to mark time but knew approximately how long each section would take having been transporting supplies and diving gear for 12 days in the cave beforehand, I estimated I would be back in camp 1 by around 7pm if all went to plan, unsure if but hoping I would have company for night.
In the run up to the trip I had been given the survey data from the previous expedition and had worked out the distances between the sections, they were:
Entrance to Sump 2: 513m
Sump 2 to Sump 3 : 227m
Sump 3 to Sump 4: 2140m (camp 1 around 1/3 into this)
Sump 5 to Sump 7: 664m (camp 2 just above sump 7)
(A normal days sherpa’ing might consist of leaving the house and making several runs to camp 1, shuttling gear through each section in turn two or three times or making three runs between camp 1 and sump 4 certainly wears one out as the terrain is never level, constant ascent or descent of large boulder piles or sand slopes sets the scene for the most part).
Before leaving for the trip most of the UK team had been finding ways of stripping bulk and weight from their gear in order to save effort in the cave, my biggest savings were from the tops of my wellies (now ankle high and 500g lighter when dry) and adding some rings to my SRT harness to allow it to carry cylinders when diving meaning I could leave my diving harness behind saving over 1kg and quite a bit of space when packed in a bag.
It is the combination of many of these small savings that make a difference during a trip like I was on that day, my bag was still bulging despite carrying only what I needed to get myself to the final sump and back.
It was good to get out of the canyon and into the cave and get the real journey underway strange to be alone in a cave which previously has seen steady streams of people shuffling gear backwards and forwards like ants in comparison with the size of the passages. I don’t remember much detail from this part of the journey, my aim was to get to camp 1 and cook some food to keep me going for the rest of the day.
Two bowls of breakfast mix and some fast washing up I was on my way again bound for sump 4 and the scene of the high water levels encountered previously, approaching the pitch this time there were no weird noises and I was pleased to see the water back at it previous level, it doesn’t take a lot to spook oneself when alone !
Packing my SRT kit away and sorting out my diving kit I was soon immersing myself in the pool, glad to cool off after a few hours of carrying a heavy bag around, the visibility was about 4m and the underwater passage spacious, for the most part the passage was unseen apart from the odd projection attempting to jump out and catch one unware. Surfacing after a short dive it was clear now that we had made the right decision to turn when the water level was high this entire chamber would have been underwater and unlined, but now with the levels back to normal I had a pleasant 100m surface swim to the next sump which was longer but of very similar nature to the previous one. On surfacing a swim again brought me to a spot where I could safely de kit and stow my equipment now way beyond my previous limit in the cave I was keen to see what else the cave would bring.
Climbing out the water and up the passage I was investigating the previous teams boot prints and other signs in the mud, it was clear the water here had up a similar amount as you would expect at the other end of the same sump pool but above this line there were markings that hadn’t been washed clean suggesting the water had risen from below rather than flowed down the passage.
Up various and climbs/ pitches and through various swims I was fast approaching the ‘end’ of the cave having had little time to reflect on my ‘position’. If the others were coming in to join me for the night at camp 1 then the nearest humans might be four hours away at best, if they decided not to then the nearest humans are at least 7 hours away by this point.
The last few hundred metres of the cave has been trending upwards with many small active inlets coming in from above as suggested, when I did reach camp 2 I was surprised to see it intact, hammocks strung between walls Nalgenes stacked neatly containing supplies all as left by the previous team, perfectly habitable.
I choose not to stop but to carry on, I soon saw the dark void of the 70m pitch down to the final sump pool ahead of me. It was vast, my lights barely touched the far wall and certainly failed to illuminate the bottom.
This is what I had come to see so I carefully attached my cows tails to safely traverse to the head of the pitch then began the descent. The first members of the team to reach the pitch this year suggested it made noises like a drowning dog, muffled yelps made by stones falling and the echos reverbing off the shear walls and I certainly agree with the description. From about halfway down my lights finally picked out the red portaledge installed at the bottom for the push divers to kit up and rest upon before and after diving. A few rebelays later and I was myself on this ledge, I rested for a while and took in my surroundings.
A camera is the one non-essential item I had carried with me but it had become badly steamed up and quite damp so most of the photos taken were very hazy, the best one is of my legs and cut down wellies on the ledge.
Lingering a little while longer at my ‘summit’ I begun to think of my journey back and how remote I currently was which is one of the reasons I enjoy caving, its taken me X hours to get here so its going to take me more than X hours to get out !
I made the mistake of not taking my wetsuit top off before I started up the pitch and awkwardly had to stop halfway up as was getting too hot and was already a bit dehydrated, I thought this would be a really bad place for my helmet to fall off as it would certainly be irretrievable if it did and it contained all my light sources which would sink out of reach into the sump pool.
Back at camp 2 I ate the only energy bar I could find that doesn’t contain raisins and made a few calls to camp 1 over the phone but to no avail, resting 5 minutes longer I started off again and reversed the journey back, I got random bits of music stuck in my head and end up whistling these endless loops enjoying the acoustics of the cave making progress towards my dive kit.
Packing my SRT gear away and again reverting to diving gear I bidded this part of the cave good bye and ducked beneath the surface once more. Mentally I was much closer to home now having been in this part of the cave many times before. Tiredness had set in so I prussik up the pitch unladed and hauled my bag up afterwards arms not willing to take much strain. More incessant whistling seemed to pass the time back towards camp 1, I descended the final series of pitches and stood at the top of a large rubble slope that leads down to camp 1 some 100m away and could see two lights bobbing around, I let out a whoop to let them know I was there and begun the descent pleased to have company for the night. I probably talked a bit too fast but had lots to tell them about the cave beyond and flooding signs I had seen, we settled down for food and I find they have brought some cheese in, just what the food has been missing I thought !
Sleep came easily and the next day we exited and saw a few of the others heading in getting ready for the next assault of the final sump, though I came on the trip as a sherpa to help others push the limits of the cave my personal goal was to see the final sump, though this seemed unlikely at one stage I am content I took the opportunity.