Birthday Doom in the Diau

I often wonder where the time goes, which is perhaps why I take a lot of satisfaction from reading past trip reports, a lot has happened since my first caving trip in May of last year and it seems the bar keeps being raised, not only in regards to my experiences and confidence but also with my abilities and ambitions. 
Quite often writing the trip report feels like an extension of the trip itself and to me it signifies one very important fact, I'm still alive... which strangely is about the only criteria that needs to be met in order for me to wax lyrical about my strange and sometimes nigh on unbelievable trips.
I quite seriously question why I would keep partaking in a pastime that could cause me enough consternation to consider things such as life insurance and who is going to get my collection of original Star Wars figurines but the answer always presents itself as soon as I turn my light on and take those first tentative steps into the gloom just as I hope it shows in the various adjectives and the occasional expletive that I throw around in my journal, that way in the unlikely event that I ever needed to remind myself of why caving is a good idea, I'll know where to look.

So after a somewhat tumultuous but most excellent weekend learning what real SRT was all about via a fantastic action trip down Diccan followed up with a more psychologically taxing and committing pull through in Swinsto, I felt I was probably ready to at least make the journey to France and try and gauge my options from there. Of course I never really had a choice from the moment I agreed to all of this, it had the makings of a fantastic trip and I was going to be in good company.

The Twelve;

Mark Helmore.
Jude Vanderplank
Adrian Vanderplank
Dave Meredith
Paul Wakeling
Kev Hilton

Day One; Wednesday 23/07/08

    As I mentioned before, it all started when Mark Helmore turned fifty, and it soon became apparent that he wanted to take as many other people down with him as he possibly could, so it was that twelve of us gathered at the Dover ferry terminal on an grey Wednesday evening and would you believe it? no sooner had people gotten out of their cars and the windups had begun.
I would have been happy with a handshake, a courteous nod or perhaps just a plain greeting, but instead I was met with "You realise you are going to die" and "Here comes the dead man!" and the short and pleasant... "You're doomed!" I nodded with perhaps a hint of resignationand couldn't help feeling that I might be on the receiving end of a massive windup.
I think if they had assured me that things would be OK and that everything was going to be great, I would have been far more concerned, after all... pisstaking is the norm that I have come to expect from the caving community (at least the one I am a part of) to the point that I have only ever had two moments where everyone was serious, one was when I was on the verge of sinking forever and the other was when I was about to take a freefall, both were only split second interludes of seriousness, each time resulting in very quick and calm instructions and with normal service resumed shortly after (except now with added hilarity).
So I would expect nothing less, felt completely at ease and as we settled down in the ship's bar, I got the feeling that if nothing else, this would be a funny trip....even if I did die!

Day Two; Thursday 24/07/08

Once we had disembarked I was quite relieved to find that there weren't any armed police waiting to send me back home (last time I was in France I got in a spot of bother) and we were off into the night for what was to be a seriously long drive. After a rest stop for a couple of hours we resumed at dawn and another five hours or so found us on the right side of Thursday, parked up at the base of some mountains and ready to begin a very memorable ascent, it was at about this point that I had a rather major realisation.
    Quite often before departing on these trips my friends and colleagues enquire as to where exactly I am going and quite often I don't know the answer, usually I just turn up, get into someone else's car and end up in strange and amazing places, it is a formula that seems to work quite well and results in explanatory phone calls such as "Hi, I'm on a volcano" or "Hey I just got arrested in Paris". So I was genuinely surprised when "some mountains" turned out to be the French Alps, at which point my mobile went on overdrive again and various folks in blighty received more confirmation that I really was completely clueless.

Our destination was a Refugio, a concept that I was taking some time to get my head around. I had always thought a hostel needed roads to function, mainly so that deliveries could be made and guests could actually get there, it turns out that I was dead wrong. Apparently deliveries are made by helicopters every two weeks and the regulars that frequent it are the sort with compasses, laminated OS maps and fancy carbon walking poles. Thus we set out partaking in one of Les's least favourite things... Walking... a lot... up a mountain.
    I thought it was fantastic, which was a good thing, because it was a sod of a long way and the sun was blazing hot. To be a complete bastard I often went on ahead and up the trail until I could look down on Les below and point out how far he had to go, this retained it's value for the entire trip and was repeated often.
After some hours we finally reached the refugio to the cheers of our compatriots (who had already gotten there before us) and the promise of waiting beer, it was a very surreal sight to see what was for all intensive purposes a drinking establishment on the side of a mountain, like a beer oasis!
It was teeming with people too, even the Mayor of some Mont was there, which was surprising, the last thing you expect to find up the side of the mountain and hours from any road is a packed out hostel which also boasted what had to be one of the most amazing views in the world.


"You're where???!"
Photo by Les Williams


The Alps are big
Photo by Les Williams

    This was the first time since leaving England that we could relax and after consuming some beer and a fantastic and very welcome meal we hit the sack. The next morning we set out on a further ascent to take a look at a glacial lake and there seemed to be a lot more up than the previous day which resulted in Les remaining at the Refugio for an action packed morning of tea consumption.

Day Three; Friday 25/07/08

Being young and foolish I was dead keen to see this lake and upon finally reaching it after a couple of hours of climbing and a brief side trip to inspect one of the entrances to the Jean Bernard, I was equally as keen to give it a test wade, after all.... how cold could it be?.
It turned out that it wasn't cold, rather it was agony... I genuinely couldn't feel the cold for all the shooting pain and cramps in my nearly frozen feet, worse still Mak was a complete bastard and made me stand there for what seemed like a damn eternity while he took photos of me hopping around in misery, still.... I can at least tick off 'Glacial lake wading' from my list of stupid things to do before I die.

      After we had returned to the Refugio and repacked we set off back down the mountain which actually felt harder than it did on the way up, and after about thirty minutes drive we arrived at the campsite which was to be our base of operations for the next couple of days.
After pitching my tent and sorting out my gear it had finally begun to set in that tomorrow was the big day and also the conclusion of the entire trip, needless to say I took a little extra care and paid a bit more attention when handling and inspecting my SRT kit that night. Whilst this is occuring I spot Les committing an act of complete and utter betrayal, no longer is he sporting his trusty Petzl Myo, a light that he has long sung the praises of due to it's functionality with little or no maintenance whatsoever and it's inability to ever let him down. He has another light!, I can't help feeling other forces were involved, and sure enough it turns out that absolutely no-one had any confidence in his dodgy Myo and so it was time for a new light! A sad day indeed.
Day Three; Doom! Saturday 26/07/08

No matter how you cut it a 6am start feels like a truck hitting you in the face and at that time of the morning even a group of beautiful scantily clad women would have a hard job of dragging me out of my tent, so the prospect of descending to my doom in a dark hole somewhere had no chance and if it wasn't for all the noise that everyone else was making I could have quite happily stayed there.
Alas we were soon on our way up the mountain in our fleet of cars (Labelled A,B and C just in case anyone forgot where they were meant to be) Mark's roof rack on the A car was held on with Tie grips which would have meant we would have copped it in the B car should it have come off, although we were clearly in a better position than the C car, after all... no-one likes being last.
After we had arrived a few of the group went back down the mountain to implement some car switching tactics and we wetted the rope in a nearby water trough while we waited.
Our actions had attracted the attention of a huge slobbering dog that towered over Biff who was dozing off and scared the hell out of him, the dog then hoovered up various snack bars (still in their wrappers) and made a nuisance of itself.. much to my amusement.
Soon everyone had returned and we were off towards the cave and ready to start the trip in earnest. There was a great deal of walking in the hot sun, which was something I was growing accustomed to by now and after nearly an hour of stopping with the occasional start, we were there.

Along the way I had managed to drop a pair of gloves and a wetsock, just as I was starting to swear profusely, Adrian turned up holding them for which of course I am eternally grateful, Mark pointed out that if I hadn't had my gloves I would have died. Great.

Fairly soon the time had come, the pitch had been rigged, the SRT gear donned and after a team photo (for the coroner) I tried to keep calm and prepared for my descent.
It was decided that being a bit of a novice, I would stay up the front with Mark and Bean ahead and Les and Simon behind me, that way I had less of a chance of making a mess of things and if I did then at least all of the biggest pisstakers would be there to see it, Mak took the role of roving paparazzi which would involve jumping the line, getting in peoples ways and taking photos of them in all manner of compromising positions, a job he took to rather well I might add, although there were difficulties (more on this later!).
So while Bean headed down first with Mark close behind, I stood clear of the entry pitch head (lots of loose rocks....more on this later) and thought about things. My primary concern with this trip was the fact that once I was in and we had pulled down the first rope, the nearest available exit suddenly became 25 pitches and an estimated 12 hours away. that was at least how I saw it, one quick pulldown on a rope and you were suddenly in a whole world of shit, I wondered if I would fit, as if there was some horrible squeeze 6 hours into the cave that would defeat me, I wondered if I would get cold or whether I might find myself freaking out over the concept of being far enough underground to make even a sprained ankle something serious enough to be a real problem. Oddly enough, I used to have these thoughts about Swildon's, I remember that, because it was only a year or so ago that I took my first trip there. I remember looking down pitch 20 and thinking it was a very long way, just like Jacobs ladder felt tight and challenging, I guess I have raised my confidence and ability a bit since then and I think it is only going to get better, and so when it was my turn to descend into the Diau I just got on the rope and went.

I should possibly elaborate a bit on 'went' because I didn't even press the handle in on my STOP before I had started going down and rather than push it in, I actually found myself pulling it up to try and halt a rather uncontrolled and desperate bit of abseiling, this wasn't a good start at all. I'm all for new experiences but my STOP should do what it says on the tin and so I found myself on a ledge asking Mark for advice about 'Interesting' rappels.
With the advice I received from Mark, Bean and Les I had changed my entire SRT technique in just three pitches, everything from the position I held the rope (up above my shoulder... now down by my waist) to the way that I fed the rope through (in long heavy pulls, now in super fast small motions) and now instead of a slow ardous descent I was descending like a rope melting pro. This was fun and I nearly forgot about all manner of mortal peril until a terrifying and unmistakable sound came clattering down some fifty metres above me....Rocks.
Falling rocks scare me, they start off small and innocent, and yet by the time they have descended fifty metres of thin air, they become deadly boulders of clattering doom, it's the silence that I hate too. All you hear is the rock because you know everyone else is waiting fearfully and hoping that no-one gets hit, at least that is what I do (not that I kick rocks down), so it was that the sixty odd quid I paid for my Petzl Vertex Best was instantly rewarded in full when a resounding clank on my helmet heralded the end of the first rocks descent.
A quick check to see if I was alive and then I was threading my STOP and feverishly descending before anymore came down, which I did and they did.... by the end of it I was nearly a gibbering wreck. The entrance pitch was extremely loose and we had a large group, the odd bit of gravel coming down was inevitable, it was still rather unnerving however.

We were soon off the rope and finally things were coming together, which is about the time I remembered that a 70metre mega pitch was coming up, the only hint of a survey I'd seen on the entire trip was printed on the Shirts that Bean had designed and gotten made for everyone who attended, which were stylish and educational, for instance I knew that the 70metre pitch was the 8th one in, just as I knew that the 50metre pitch (the next biggest one) was about 5 pitches further on, that way I had plenty of time to torture myself in an accurate and informed manner about how terrible it was going to be. Unfortunately fairly soon I had lost count, and Mark and Bean wouldn't tell me anything (they knew the place inside out, having been there more than a few times now) therefore I found myself peering down pitches trying to work out which one was the monster.
I needn't have wondered, the down side of a Scurian is that there is little chance of deluding yourself into thinking you are about to abseil a small pitch, and so after a couple of smaller abseils I found myself hanging next to Mark at the edge of a black hole with the very distant sound of Bean shouting far below. Mark who had previously told me to go fast on all the other pitches now imparted the sage advice that I should "Take my time and go steady on this one" which instantly confirmed the worst, this was the one, this was also confirmed by Les who after appearing behind me uttered words to the effect of "Oh f$%k, this is the one then, I know this because I counted" which offered little or no comfort to me whatsoever.
Mark took the time to kindly point out a rub point before he descended and after what felt like a very long time I heard a very faint "rope free", this was it then, I tried not to think about the rope rub (which was on the first metre of hang) and threaded myself onto the rope. I couldn't get it out of my mind though and so hoping for some encouragement and 'playing down' from Les I pointed out the rub to him. This didn't get the desired effect I was hoping for, and so instead of "that's nothing, don't worry about it" I got a "OH F%*K" instead. This didn't do much to reassure me, but luckily it was remedied when Les used one of the rope bags to counter the rub, which brought me back to a milder level of hysteria and I quickly began my descent before he spotted another one.
It was a long way, twice I tied my stop off and at one point I wondered if you could get motion sickness from abseiling big pitches. eventually I hit the bottom and had to lay down and let the rope stretch back through my stop before I could get off it (I am sure there are better ways of doing that).
That was it, psychological barrier well and truly smashed, suddenly all that fear and worry had turned into real excitement and satisfaction, I was actually doing this! It really was a fantastic feeling and once Mark had taken us safely away from the pitch and out of the draught we wrapped up to try and stay warm while we waited for the others.
It was quite a large group and so it naturally took some time for everyone to get down, we had arranged to meet in a safe area at the base of this pitch whilst Mak tried his best to photograph everyone as they came down.

As I mentioned earlier, whilst Mak did an excellent job of taking everyone's photos in various action poses, he did encounter the odd difficulty, this particular one occurred at the base of the 70metre pitch (which is a huge shaft with a straight drop) as Mak set up to take peoples photos, I stood with the others in the next chamber and picked up tips on how to keep warm. Our conversation was interrupted by a rather large clattering sound from somewhere immediately above Mak, some 70 odd metres in fact, this resulted in a very scary 5 seconds while we waited to see if Mak was OK. Mak didn't answer immediately but soon made up for it by firing his own volley back up the pitch in the form of "STOP KICKING F$*%&#G ROCKS YOU TWAT" and then stormed back in to join us.
When I started SRT I found myself adopting the philosophy that no matter how hard you try or how careful you are, sometimes a rock can fall, and if it does and no-one was hurt, then no harm was done, therefore if no harm was done it is clearly a source of hilarity and pisstakes can ensue. I find this formula works rather well and whilst it was unfortunate that the odd rock was falling down a pitch, luckily no-one was hurt. Thus as we all sat expectant and shivering at the bottom of the pitch, we eagerly waited to find out who the culprit could be. It could have been anyone, it really could, these things happen after all, and so when Biff emerged from the gloom with a sheepish "is everyone OK?" we were rolling about in hysterics. The cold, the wet and the uncertainty were forgotten about straight away as we all fell about laughing, it was a moment I won't forget in a hurry and it sums up one of the main reasons that I partake in this pastime.
There were some issues with the pulldown and Dave did a great job saving the rope, which we were close to having to abandon due to everyone getting cold from waiting, soon we had pressed on and it was about then that I realised I had broken the one and only rule, I hadn't collected a rope bag from the top of the pitch.
I wonder even now if the others know (of course they'll know when and if they read this), Mark, Bean and Les already knew but luckily I had used the old "let's not tell anyone about this, OK?" trick, which never fails, yeah right... chances are everyone knows, but it turns out that karma is indeed a kind mistress as later on it came to my attention (as a rope bag was swiftly and silently passed forward) that someone at the front may have done the same awful thing as me. I might even tell people who... for a pint.

We were soon well on the way and the dry jagged seeming entrance series was replaced by wetter more interesting pitches of varying sizes, they ranged anything between 7 metres to 50 or more and my technique was improving with each and every pitch. I felt like I had transformed, I was straddling pitch heads and staring down with no fear whatsoever, and I was descending with confidence and control, I was absolutely loving it.
The only slightly worrying points were when some kind soul pointed out that we were rigged on a rusty Maillon (later perhaps the same kind soul added that they estimated it to have been rusted at least 75% of the way through) and after this pitch I found myself belayed off a bit of stal, which was disturbing too, I remember the oddest thoughts running through my head as I abseiled off it, such as whether stal really does sound like a carrot snapping when it breaks and maybe I can grab the wall in time....

Occasionally we would stop to regroup and consume various high energy foods and Simon would often kindly dispense a container of fizzy sweets around like some sweet peddling sucrose pusher, Bean complained that I got more, I'd like to think that this was due to me being a vulnerable rookie instead of the reality that his hand probably slipped.
Eventually we came to a traverse that was pretty high up to say the least, and required some effort to get around, the rope was pretty slack (we didn't rig it) and so we had to go down quite a bit to load it, down wasn't a problem as there was a lot of it...too much in fact, but other than feeling a little bit nervous here, I was still on an adrenalin high. There was only one other traverse like this, over a sump pool which looked like it was a very long way below us, but that wasn't a problem... at some point in the background I was vaguely aware of Simon singing "Free Nelson Mandela".

After a small and slightly awkward abseil I suddenly felt like I was in a concert hall, certainly the sound resonated in the same manner, and so I looked around and the chamber didn't seem extraordinarily big, mainly because I could make out the sides (just) and then I looked down and realised. This was the Puits des Echos.
This was one of the highlights of my trips, my new found confidence had me stood on the edge gazing down into the most fantastic gaping black hole of a shaft, it seemed to be bottomless and even my light on full power was struggling to make out any details.
I couldn't wait to descend and once Mark was clear I threaded my stop and headed down, as I abseiled I could hear various voices resonating up and down the shaft which is clearly how it got its name, and once I was at the bottom I joined Mark and Bean as we shouted at the tiny glowing specks of people abseiling and then we lit the entire shaft up for Les.... just to be complete bastards.

Shortly after this fantastic pitch, the nature of the cave seemed to change again and it was suddenly a lot wetter, slimy moonmilk covered the walls and floors here and walking was a little bit tricky. A few more excellent pitches and we were near the end, after walking down a fantastic waterfall, and then doing one last pitch with a Tyrolean traverse, we were in the main streamway proper and what a fantastic streamway it was!

It was gigantic and I remember feeling totally invigorated as we waded our way down it, rather than a bare rock or gravel bed, it was filled with huge rocks that were great for hopping along (and falling off of) morale was pretty high now, it wasn't far to the exit... only two or three hours of walking in downstream, not far at all then!
Every now and then the stream got deep and we found ourselves pulling our way across on wire traverses or climbing down on small ladders, I was very aware of other traverses some fifteen metres above me, a grim indicator of the terrifying potential of this streamway.
We waited and regrouped every now and then and due to all the fixed ladders and aids that we were encountering it was apparent that we were nearing the main entrance of the cave, some exposed crawling took me across and down to a ladder and further on a fantastic if not slightly strange rubber ladder brought us even further downwards.
An interesting rift had what looked like wooden chair legs placed across it which made for a rather interesting climb, we were close now and sure enough a blast of warm air hit us as we entered the colossal entrance chamber, it was evening now and so as we stumbled for the exit it was hard to even tell that we were outside, the cave entrance really is that big.

I'd done it!, in ten hours and thirty minutes I was part of a team of twelve that had completed the through trip, the sense of achievement I felt was immense, more importantly I was alive! suddenly my credit card was looking a lot better, as was my justification for buying a new car. I had my life back again and I actually felt like I had done something with it, of course, where I had doubted myself all along everyone else had known I was capable. I even waited for the inevitable accusation of being slow from Mark and Bean, but it never came, awesome, for once I felt like I was my own hero.
I could spend a long time throwing about colourful descriptions, but I just hope I did the trip justice in my description, Mark and Bean did a fantastic job of rigging and leading with Dave Meredith kindly working hard at the other end to derig it all and it was great to be part of such a skilled, competant and FUN team.

There was a lot more walking in the stifling evening air and eventually we were back at the cars that had been parked earlier in the day and we quickly changed and headed to the pub... actually we didn't it was too late. So we retired to the camp site and Bean and Mark cooked some potatoes and Chilli which when washed down with beer was pretty much the best thing in the world! I think everyone slept well that night.

Day Four; Sunday 27/07/08 Final day of the Trip.

I awoke a complete cripple, barely capable of movement, almost incapable of speech and it turned out I wasn't alone. Any gallant plans to do another cave today had fallen by the wayside as everyone opted for a more relaxed walk up the same mountain we had previously traversed through the middle of the previous day. Thus after a relaxing cup of tea at the restaurant we headed up into the mountain to explore a truly massive cave entrance that actually had ice inside it (which was somewhat surreal as just outside the sun was blazing down).


Man starts fight with dragon
Photo by Les Williams

Later that evening we hit a local hotel for a decent meal and some decent beer and watched a farmer drive around the town in his tractor retrieving various bales of hay that must have fallen off his trailer earlier in the day, now that's rural!

Monday morning soon came and it was time to go home, which saw me getting lost in a giant supermarket and buying some cheese, fairly soon I was back in Britain and headed for the daily grind, it's just that now, everything seemed a little bit better and even as I write this, it still does.

Thanks to Mark for inviting me (are you sure it wasn't just for the trip report?) Bean for rigging, Les, Simon, Mak and everyone else who took the time to teach me something new, share their sweets/chilli/beer with me or for any of the numerous hilarious moments that were too many to write of.
Perhaps most oddly of all is that one of the most startling things I have taken away from this trip is a yearning to do bigger and better ones, I'll give it a go, perhaps I'll even live to tell the tale.



Cracking write up gnomie.

One thing though it was two rocks that were chucked at me  :mad: - and I may have used a few more expletives  :mad: but then the second rock had just landed on me camera case  :eek:


New member
That has to be one of the best trip reports I have read in a long time. Really entertaining to read and capturing the atmosphere of the trip superbly.

Please, somebody take Gnomie on another epic caving trip again soon!  ;)