Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for October, 2012

Caves (again)

Monday, October 15th, 2012

This is  an image of me and Florence, in a rather lovely Mendip cave, picture taken by Will. This is why I cave. Look how lovely it is.

I go caving about once a week.  Some weeks I may manage two or three trips, others none, but on average, four caving trips a month.  Some interesting things are happening.  Some of them are good.

This is a good bit.  Here is a link to a BBC programme (The One Show).  This features – quite near the start – a short film about a ‘new’ cave that has recently been discovered in the Mendips.  It’s officially the largest known underground space in the country, the previous largest known chamber being Gaping Gill in Yorkshire.  Now this Cheddar cave – which the diggers who found it have called The Frozen Deep – is the biggest.  A year ago if I had learned of this discovery, I’d have been all meh, OK whatever.  But now, now that I have discovered caving and fallen in love with it, I am beyond excited.  Now I get it!  Now I understand the lure of digging.  Digging is an activity that cavers and clubs undertake all the time, in small teams, often as joint club activities.

This is a specialised activity largely devoted to enlarging known caves, with a view to seeing if there are further passages or chambers beyond the known cave.  The skills of the diggers are awesome, as are their tenacity and ingenuity.  They seem to me to be to be able to smell a new area of cave, to see a cave as it currently is and penetrate its secrets.  Divining.  Yes there is science here, and methodology – where does the water go to or come from?  Is that draught of cool air a sign of a space beyond?  How does this cavern link with another that may lie close by?  But there is also an instinct and a wealth of experience that makes so much of their work – hard, dirty, tight work – highly intuitive.

How can I tell you what finding The Frozen Deep must have felt like?  OK.  It’s like you – yes, you – just discovered knitting.  And cake.  For the first time.

Luckily for the diggers, I wasn’t there and I don’t dig caves though I’d like to have a go.  Some day.  I could maybe schlep the muck out of the way and bring flasks of tea…on maybe some baby digs where I can’t mess it all up.  Had I been in the party that broke through to the new chamber, my emotions might* have let me down in a possibly shaming way.  There is no way I’d be able to be part of something like that and not cry like a baby for maybe an hour or so.  Thus making it noisy and possibly spoiling the moment, not to mention becoming so exhausted from emotional sobbing that I might have to be dragged back out of the cave’s narrow tunnels and steep climbs.

* 100% certainty.

Caving kind of messes with my mind.  This is awkward as I need all my remaining mental facilities.  I have caved a lot now, though not by experienced cavers’ standards and I have explored a lot of different places.  I tend not to go back to the same caves over and over again, though there are some classic ‘standards’ that I am consistently re-visiting maybe every month or so, mainly to see if I can make progress further into the cave and maybe learn some route-finding.  One of these is the beautiful, playful (a euphemism for pushy), lengthy and very tiring Swildon’s Hole.  If you’ve ever caved or know someone who has, they’ll have done Swildon’s.  Swildon’s varies according to the water levels.  Sometimes it’s quite gentle, though never really tame.  Others, after much rain, it actually roars and boils at you.  Once, it pushed me down a little climb called The 40.  Swildon’s, you joker!  Funny.

I have a pattern to my caving.  It goes like this:  I plan a trip and I am very excited at the prospect, excitement tinged with fear if it’s a new cave as it often is.  I research the cave and read any trip reports.  I used to find this led to further anxiety but now, having read so many and found that a good deal of what Caver A thinks/felt isn’t at all what I will think/feel, I only check these for important things like tackle used.  I start actual caving on the day – and at some point in the first 20 minutes or so, I will probably have a (sometimes private) ‘moment’ where I come across a challenge and think:  can’t do this, need to go back.  I do, however, complete the challenge (usually) and once this has happened, the rest of the trip is lovely!  It is as if I need to get over a mental barrier first and then it’s alright.  In fact, if the thing that threatens to trip me up is quite a big challenge, and I am successful, I usually have an amazing trip after that.  By my standards.

Too much fear accompanied by extreme exertion is a bad thing though as it fills you up with adrenaline.  This powerful hormone is part of our survival kits as humans who might be hunted or need to fight.  I find it can get me through for a very short time but then it leaves me actually shaking and feeling a bit odd.  I counter this with my faithful energy gels, so far only ever accepted by one fellow caver, though I always offer them round, and she was almost sick.  Fail.

Anyway I am going to carry on caving.  I am far less anxious than I was, less tired during and after arduous trips and I’m physically stronger.  It’s now possible for me to lift my own body weight, briefly, and I do not ache after caving, nor do I get covered in bruises.  If I get a bruise now it’s rare whereas at first even the simplest trip left me covered in mini-bruises, as if some mean-spirited so-called friend had pinched me all over in the playground;  along with some massive bruises that only the main school bully could have inflicted.  I still have one bruise from a trip literally 3 months or more ago.  It came up, like an egg – a duck egg – on my right bicep.  How odd.  I have no recollection of doing it;  for some weeks it was a quite interesting range of surly blues and greys, but its main feature was its size and hardness.  It’s still there, not really visible but there’s a small ‘knot’ of damaged muscle deep in the arm.

I very much dislike ‘free climbing’, especially down;  I don’t really like climbing wire ladders though I don’t mind them, except for the ones that go into waterfalls and/or over boulders, thus presenting me with endless opportunities to trap my hands.  If they are in shafts or rifts, I prefer it as you can usually wedge your back against the other wall and use the power of your back/legs to help – or have a little rest.

Given how much I fear free climbs – I think this is linked to strength – I am surprised that I like ‘rifting’.  For example, imagine there is a narrow gap in which there is a drop that might be only body height or it might be a nasty depth that you really wouldn’t want to fall into, between 2 walls of cave; and it’s possible to get past this rift by placing your back against 1 wall and your feet against the other and shuffling along – move your bum and back a foot or so, walk your feet a foot or so.  All the time you’re braced and though the width of the rift may vary, as long as you can always have your back and feet in play, you really are unlikely to fall.  You are using the strongest muscle groups in your body – all the big leg and bottom muscles plus your back muscles.  I really love doing this.  Sometimes the rift means you can shuffle along a narrow ledge on one side and, standing upright, lean across the drop and place your hands on the opposite cave wall.  Sometimes the rift is too wide and so a line of thick wire rope is bolted into one side and you attach yourself to this with short lengths of rope and clips and move slowly and steadily along (this assumes a shelf at least wide enough for a sideways foot, ideally a little wider!);  as you reach each bolt, you unclip your ropes, one at a time, so never are you unclipped, and off you go again.  I have only done this once.  It loomed in my head for the first part of the trip, but I think I knew I’d be fine and in fact I really enjoyed it.

I like crawls and flat-out crawls, and (except for waterfalls) I like water in caves.  Going though a ‘duck’ – water in a small, low passage but which leaves an air-space, even if you have to go through with your head on one side and an ear in water – is something I really like doing.  But I have not yet been through a sump.  A sump is where there is no air space but you get through by holding your breath and pulling yourself past the low point.  These, if they are short, are possible for any caver to do whilst longer ones are passable only by cave divers.  When I began caving, I was 100% certain that I’d never do a sump.  But now I know I will.  It really doesn’t frighten me, though it will make me anxious at the time, I am sure.  No, the problem will be getting to the blasted sump, as this tiring trip entails the joys of wire ladders in waterfalls.

I want to do the sump in order to see what lies beyond – to extend the cave, for me.  Not because I want the challenge.  Well, maybe a bit of both, but if I could go on in the cave without sumping, I would.  If there are options – you can climb over this or wriggle through/under – I’ll take the least difficult option whereas I observe others choose the challenge.  Ah well, as in caving, so it is in life.  I choose Waitrose pasta, others choose a 2 day course in the Coltswolds to learn to make pasta…


Crochet! Ah yes, the C word – and it’s lovely

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Recently a rare event took place at Court Cottage.  We held a workshop.  Not unusual, we have about 8 every year.

No what marked this one out were two factors:  one, Millington wasn’t here.  I know!  I played the role of Sarah, as I wasn’t teaching (Sarah does teach when she’s here but I didn’t, I swanned about, made tea and distracted the participants by sitting next to them and gossiping while the real teacher, Dr Donna, was talking.  Naughty step for me).

On learning that Millington wasn’t going to be here, Lily muttered about it being at variance with the laws of nature and knitting.  It did feel odd.

Two, it was crochet.

Beginner crochet, with the objective of learning to make a twirly scarf in Pure Wool DK and KSH.  Even I cast (?) one on that night.  And now an email and image of a FO from the course has flooded in.  Here is the gorgeous scarf that Emma made: