I got up early to meet the caving club members at the nearby sports centre. Last night, almighty Google said it would take 6 minutes to walk there. I seemed to have adjusted my schedule well, taking in account snoozing, getting ready, eating breakfast, along with walking time. As I arrive, friendly, familiar faces welcome me and help me get ready for the adventure ahead. I met a few of them at a social event a few days ago, so familiar faces were nice. I choose a pair of rubber boots that fit me, it’s a little hard, most pairs are either too big or too small for my feet, but at last, I found some bright yellow ones that fit me quite nicely. They seem to call the boots “Wellies” which took a little used to at first, but the term grows on me. As the leaders organise people into cars, I take a moment to breathe in the fresh Manchester air. Five people are chosen to squeeze in a Ford Fiesta. I chose to sit in the middle back seat, to be polite. As we’re driving, it reminds me of a self driving car since there’s no steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle. Still got to get used to that.
The trip is scenic, driving through the English countryside. I watch the green rolling hills covered with a pattern of small stone fences holding in grazing sheep. Certain twists and turns reveal valleys with small towns wedged between the hills, not fully awake yet. “You don’t see that in Canada.” I thought. The car slows down, there are two sheep on the road, minding their own business. As they move out of the way and we drive by, I notice dyed markings on their backs, probably from their owner. After about an hour, we arrive in a small town called Castleton, mostly made of stone brick buildings. It feels like travelling back in time, in the middle ages but with cars instead of horse-drawn carriages. The church, the inn, the houses, all built from stone bricks and wooden shingle roofs. Some chimneys were lit, puffing out smoke, dissipating in the sky. The car parks beside a war memorial laid with wreaths and poppies around the old stone monuments. We walked not five minutes before entering a building through a low wooded door. Even the shortest of us needed to duck in order to get in. The others were already there, preparing our equipment. The leaders helped us getting ready: “These are the undersuits, put these on then grab an oversuit to go on top. Find some your size. I recommend getting one size larger than you usually do, you’ll need to be able to squat comfortably. And don’t wear anything else but your underwear, or else you’ll get cold. If you want to have some dignity, there are bathrooms behind you if you want to change there. You should leave your phone in your bag here, it’ll get pretty wet down there.” I spot a green wool onesie that seems my size. It was comfortable and a great fit. As I put it on, I notice a huge hole in the crotch area. I’m debating weather to keep it or find another one. “It won’t hold much heat if there’s a hole in it.” I thought “But it’s the same story with the boots, all are either too big or too small.” I finally decided to test my luck with another one. After a couple tries, I find one that was a little snug, but hole-less. Next was the oversuit. They remind me of the engineering coveralls back home, but thicker and waterproof. Same story; couldn’t find one my size. “Maybe I’m just too slow, plenty of people here are my size.” I opted for the XXL one with a belt to keep all the extra fabric not flapping around. This aint a fashion show, so who cares. “I hope you all don’t mind getting wet and muddy.” One of the leader says to the group. It would appear so; most of these oversuits are covered in dried mud. “This is going to be fun!”
A short walk through Castleton later, we arrive at the foot of a tall cliff, maybe 70-80m high. I read the infographic sign headline: “The Devil’s Arse, biggest cave entrance in the UK.” I ask one of the leaders about the name. “It used to be called that, but when queen Victoria visited the cave, it was considered unproper, so they renamed it Peak Cavern.” The entrance to the cave was the shape of an almond carved into the rock maybe a dozen metres high, with a touristic showcase inside. I ask about the star-shaped wood structures on the ground. “They’re tools to make rope, 100 years ago, rope-makers lived and worked here. If you look closely enough, you can spot the foundation remains of the houses along the right-hand side of the cave.” an older gentleman answered, who was suited up to come with us. He seems to have a lot of experience caving, so I kept a mental note to direct him any questions I had.
As we entered the cave, the sunlight shining through the clouds slowly dimmed away and bright floodlights lit the corridor-shaped cave. We passed through a locked gate, the floodlights were no more, and our headlights remained our only source of photons. We arrive at an open chamber with a steep incline at the back. On the incline was a slide. Seems like plexiglass. We split up into two groups of 8 and the first group went ahead, down the saddest slide I’ve ever seen, due to a high friction coefficient. Mud and sand prevented proper sliding to take place, so a few people just walked down beside it. I waited with the second group, observing the wet ceiling around me. A few minutes later, I install myself onto the slide and push myself down into the darkness. I have no idea when this slide is going to end and not ten seconds later, I arrive at the bottom with my bottom all muddy. After waiting for the others, we proceed through a long corridor for a little while. The ceiling was almost semi-circular with several rock formations that looked like round holes carved by thousands of years of erosion. I was walking on an elevated bed of clay, slightly soft to the touch. Beside the bed, a small stream of water trickled down the corridor, serpentine in nature, forcing me to cross it a few times. The next chamber accumulated the water in a large puddle, with an artificial dam holding it in place. As I continued down the corridor, the ceiling got lower and lower, eventually forcing me to an awkward squatting duck march, my helmet rubbing against the rock. The ground started changing from rock to clay, then from clay to water. I arrive face to face with a large puddle, the ceiling suddenly drops to a meter above the murky water’s surface. As I start walking through the water, I can feel the hydrostatic pressure on my boots getting higher and higher. The depth is now greater than the high of my boots. Cold, murky water floods into them. I grunt at the sudden rush of cold enveloping my feet. The ceiling is getting lower and the water deeper. It seems to stabilize around thigh height, with the ceiling around a foot above the water’s surface. I have my torso bent forward, keeping it above the cold water, feeling the rocky ceiling with my hands and back. Hurray! It starts to rise and quickly I get the luxury to stand on dry land. Yet my cold, wet clothes are sticking to my legs, slowly sucking away my heat. As I move along, they warm up to my body temperature, so I barely feel them. What I do feel, is the water sloshing around in my wellies, making my feet heavier than usual. I consider stopping and pouring the water out, but I then realize that it would be a good idea to leave it in, since it’ll eventually warm up and keep my feet “warm” during my next water encounter.
I arrive in a low-ceiling chamber, where I could stand in a few select spots. A leader is sitting beside a small crevasse on the ground, asking if anyone wants to go in. My hunger for exploration drives me into it. I put my feet first and slide down on the wet rock into the dark. It’s only about a foot wide, and inclines slightly to the left. At the end of the crevasse, my feet feel a flat rocky surface. I enter feet first into a small open area, not even big enough to turn around in. The small hole continues down, which I decide to go into, feet first, sliding on my back with the ceiling only a few centimeters away from my face. I feel a sudden drop with my foot. Holding myself with my arms, I try to feel how deep this drop is with my feet, to which no bottom could be found. “Ok, now is a good time to head back. No way I’m going down there.” I then make my way back up, pushing with my feet and arms in the most awkward positions possible. When I got out, a great sense of satisfaction fills me. After squishing through those tight spaces, I now know that I’m able to fit in such small crevasses.
Continuing down the cave system, another creek lead down the passageway. This time, it carved a trench right smack in the middle, giving the passageway the cross-section of a mushroom with a thin stem. The trench is barely wide enough to fit in, facing sideways. It’s depth made the walls of the trench reach my armpits. As I’m strafing through the trench, I hear the sound of a waterfall getting louder and louder. “We must be getting close to something.” The trench ended in a steep cliff, the creek spilling over the edge into a tall chamber. The drop was about 4-5 metres high, with a large puddle at the bottom, fed by the waterfall. The puddle split into two creeks flowing in opposite passageways out of the chamber. A chain and ladder assisted us down into the chamber. I followed the leader into the passage on the left, stepping into the creek that flowed down the narrow passageway. He pointed out a rock that we stepped over, saying “Some people take it as a challenge to go underneath it, instead of simply stepping over it.” “Maybe on the way back.” I said, since we crossed the group ahead of us, I thought that we’ll make our way back through here afterwards. The passageway lead to a sump; where the water level reaches the ceiling and thus is a dead end without proper diving equipment. On the way back, I decided to go under the rock this time. The space under it is maybe a little above a foot in height, so I lay down in the creek to crawl under the rock, cold water rushing into my face. I power through and get up after, proud of my little stunt, with my entire front dripping wet. “I can’t feel my toes” is the running thought in my head. The feeling goes away for a little while then comes back after any water-related obstacles.
Returning to the chamber with the ladder in it, we go down the passageway on the right, which bears a striking resemblance to the other one on the left. After around 10 minutes of walking through the creek and puddles, we finally arrive on solid ground. A small hole above to the right, leads into the dark and the creek continues down strait. Following the creek, we arrive at what appears to be a sump. A rope tied to the rock wall led into muddy water, where the ceiling went low over the surface into the darkness. The leader goes ahead, splashing his way through the water. He says “There’s a few inches of air under the ceiling, so it should be fine. As long as you don’t have to hold your breath, it’s ok.” It wasn’t a necessary part of the trip; there was a detour we could take to avoid getting wet. Again, my sense of adventure wanted to try it. Following the leader’s instructions, I float on my back into the cold water, pulling myself along with the rope. I could see the other end through the couple of inches above the water, it wasn’t far. My headlight flashed a few times, indicating that the battery was low. My helmet rubbed against the rocky ceiling and I plunged my head into the water. Using the rope, I pulled myself across, coming out of the water a few seconds later. I was little confused as to why I unnecessarily dunked my head in the water, but glad I did it. I felt the cold shock through my body as soon as I got out of the water. I moved a little bit to warm up, transferring heat to my water-drenched clothes. I now know by experience the purpose of the wool undersuit I was wearing.
Continuing down the cave system, we arrived in a chamber with a very steep incline leading up. A knotted rope was attached at the top, which came in useful when we started climbing. “I’m used to rock climbing, so this shouldn’t be too hard” I say to myself. As I started climbing, I noticed the cold affected my hand in a strange way, greatly reducing my dexterity, adding to the difficulty. I still made it, with great trust in the rope. The top ledge was covered in mud and clay, and a dark narrow crawlway started at the back. When everybody climbed up, the leader said, “Prepare to channel your inner earthworm!” as he squiggled himself into the muddy crawlway. I followed him on all fours, watching my oversuit change colour from red and blue to a milky coffee brown colour. The small crawlway had two grooves on the ground, made from countless hands and knees before me shaping the clay. I laugh at myself in this situation; “I miss standing, lol.” After a few awkward slides through muddy crevasses into more puddles and creeks we arrived back at the top of the tall chamber, where the ladder was. Heading back where we came from brought me a feeling of relief. “Ok, now I can’t feel my toes.” But now that we’re headed back, the cold, numb feeling is more tolerable. The leaders take us by a small detour, climbing a small underground hill, and reaching a nice spot on dry mud. I notice a few black waterproof bags in the corner and a small plastic bag hanging from the low ceiling. “We call this place the treasury. In those bags are emergency supplies in case cavers are stuck down here and can’t come out due to flooding. This nice elevated spot is a good place to set up a shelter, which can be found in the bags.” As the leader explains, I look around at the plastic bag hanging from the ceiling. I take a closer look and notice that it’s a radon test kit, measuring radiation doses in the cave. I remember the paperwork I signed before coming down here, saying that “We are not responsible for elevated radiation doses that could cause cancer bla bla bla…” I’m down here with professionals, I’m sure it’s fine.
We head back to the entrance, passing by the artificial dam to bathe and clean ourselves in really cold water. We scrubbed each other’s backs with brushes and rolled around in the water. “Ok now I can’t feel my entire foot. It’s just all cold. Everything’s cold.” I know that we won’t be crossing any water on the way back from here, so I put my foot up on a rock, tilt my boot backwards and watch the little waterfall of water, sand and mud exit my boot. As we walk back through the steep slope beside the slide, I notice the floodlights, lighting the entire cave with ease. The colour of the ambient light starts to fade from an artificial yellow to a natural bluish colour from the outside clouds. Fresh air at last! But the worst was yet to come: wind. I just washed myself, and still soaking wet, walked outside into the English countryside. A slight wind pierced right through my layers, stealing my heat. Only five more minutes until we arrive at headquarters and we can change. Arriving into town, I still admire the stone architecture of the old buildings around me.
I’ve been winter camping before, been much colder. I’ve been canoe-camping in the rain before, been much wetter. But never have I ever been that cold and wet at the same time. Changing into my dry clothes was a very special type of comfy feeling. My feet itched as my blood recirculated through them. I helped to clean up and we were on our way back. Tired and exhausted, I dozed off in the back seat of the Fiesta. Suffice to say, the shower that followed was one of the best showers I ever had…
Looking back, it was an awesome experience. Now I know a little more what to expect when it comes to caving, the next time will be much better (I hope). The feeling of exploring the unknown was by far the best. Squeezing through those crevasses and braving the cold pushed the boundaries of my body to a point I never would’ve known if I didn’t go. I’m definitively going to the next outing organised by the club, but for now, it resting time. Got another trip lined up tomorrow.