Photography beyond the sumps……gotta get there first!

Photography beyond the sumps……gotta get there first!
In 2004, whilst on holiday I took my PADI open water and advanced qualifications and haven’t dived since.

I wasn’t what you would call a natural in the water and the training didn’t exactly leave me feeling confident in my abilities, and so, although a nice experience, I figured it was probably not for me.

I have also been reminded of a conversation with my mum when I first started caving. I was keen not to be nagged by her and told her something along the lines of  “No mum caving is really quite safe, far less accidents than climbing, it’s not like I’ll be cave diving….now that’s dangerous!”

Fast forward several years and I get a phone call from an enthusiastic Christine Grosart whom I had met at Eurospeleo 2016 and had been underground with a sum total of once.

After a quick round of pleasantries she dove in telling me she had a cave project in Croatia called Licanke, that a team had been the previous year and this time they wanted someone to come along to help with stills and video. I explained the photography would be no problem, but video would be all new to me and whilst I was happy to give it a go, I couldn’t promise what we would wind up with. I had a flick through the diary at the dates she had proposed and pretty much agreed that I’d be available.

“There’s one other thing,” Christine added, as I was about to hang up. “You’ll need to dive a small sump to get in to the cave.”

I spat out my tea in my lap, and laughed nervously and then realised she was serious. For the life of me, I have no idea why I went and agreed, but that is exactly what I did. We would have 3 months to see if I could be turned from an underwater version of Bambi to someone who wouldn’t be a liability to himself and the team.

This had all happened just before I was due to head off to Meghalaya and so I put it to the back of my mind and headed off for a month.

I had been back less than a week when I got a message that the first thing we would need to do is see if the CDG would agree to me joining as a member specifically for this project.

I would be diving a back mount twinset, the same as the rest of the team, and so would train in this configuration. At the CDG meeting everyone was most welcoming and agreed to my membership with the caveat that Christine took responsibility of me as my mentor.

What have the CDG let themselves in for!
Our first couple of training sessions would be in a pool in Bristol. This would mean driving down from the Midlands after work to meet up for the evening pool session at 8pm and typically getting back in the early hours as the M5 was going through night time closures for road works.

I have to say I think I really did look the part in my shorts, t-shirt and wellies; certainly it seemed to impress the other ‘try dive’ students who all seemed to be pointing at me admiringly!

Rocking the look!
It was immediately obvious to Christine just what she had taken on as I coughed and spluttered my way around the pool with all the finesse of a hippo!

Christine is however a very patient and skilled teacher and, eventually, I begun to grasp some basic diving concepts such as….. how to NOT somersault under water every time I lost my buoyancy…. NOT to try and breathe when the regulator isn’t in my mouth and finally that although you can get away with peeing in a wetsuit in open water this is frowned upon in a swimming pool ūüėČ

With these important basics covered it was time to move on to something more serious.

We then progressed to quarry diving in Vobster Quay and Stoney Cove. Apeks Dive equipment had kindly offered to sponsor me all the dive kit and so I was even beginning to look a little more the part.

Under advisement I had purchased a 5mm semidry, which isn’t dry at all, but a two-piece wetsuit.

The quarry temperature in May was around eight degrees and whilst I pulled on my neoprene the more experienced divers, all in dry suits, looked at me like I was mad. Christine assured me that as the water temperature in the sump would be around seven degrees that it was a good idea for me to train in a wetsuit…she explained this whilst struggling on another layer and getting in to her dry suit ūüėČ
Apeks Kit Talk
All dressed up and nowhere to go!
I didn’t really notice the cold as we submerged – I was far too nervous. This would be the first time I had properly dived in over a decade.  I had been briefed and practiced on the surface the drills we would be performing and Christine would demo what she wanted first and then I would try to replicate.   I would be so engrossed in the lessons I often didn’t even notice the cold until I surfaced with a blue tinge to my skin and lips, and so it would repeat.

Video was shot so I could get feedback between dives and slowly over the sessions I begun to feel I was progressing.

Feedback time
As things slowly begun to drop into place the quarry sessions would become more complex to include: following line reels blindfolded to simulate zero visibility, then lost line searches then gas failures. The itinerary was full on and hard work, but I found the more I was taught the more comfortable I was becoming in the water.

After a couple of evenings in the pool and several weekends in the quarries practicing drills, skills and overhead environments, Christine declared me ready…well she kinda had to.  We were out of time!

Photo’s and video courtesy of Christine Grosart

The Top Five Things I Learned While Going Caving With the Dudley Caving Club by Sarah Lotz

The Top Five Things I Learned While Going Caving With the Dudley Caving Club by Sarah Lotz
It started a couple of years ago. I was trawling YouTube for inspiration for a book I was thinking of writing, idly browsing caving videos. All I knew at that stage was that I wanted to write about an adrenalin junkie who has an unfortunate experience when he breaks into a cave that’s been out of bounds for years (I should probably point out that I write commercial horror fiction!). Top of the heap were a series of superb clips by Keith Edwards of the Dudley Caving Club, which left the other videos in the dust (in the acknowledgements of the book I call him the Spielberg of the caving scene – although I suspect Keith has a far keener sense of humour). I was on the edge of my seat watching them, peering through my fingers like I used to do as a kid when the scary bits of Doctor Who came on. I contacted Keith, and asked him if he’d be prepared to let me pick his brain about the caving scene. He did much more than that; he invited me to visit the windmill and offered to take me underground. Everyone I met at the windmill was welcoming and kind, even though I’m fairly sure they all thought I was bonkers. Talk turned to which route to take me. I’d heard somewhere that if you go underground for long enough, when you emerge you can smell what the air ‘really’ smells like. It was Mark who suggested we do the OFD 1 to Cwm Dwr through trip – five hours should give me that. And so my husband Charlie and I set off to meet Keith, Mark and Brendan on a drizzly Welsh morning.

I did get to smell what the air ‘really’ smells like. That and much, much more.

The trip wasn’t easy, but it was bloody brilliant. And I got the inspiration for half a novel out of it (the other bit is set on a mountain), even if I did get some of the caving terminology wrong.

Sarah and Charlie the start of their adventure
Anyway, in the style of Simon Newman, the book’s protagonist, who as well as being a hapless adrenalin junkie runs a nasty little website that becomes the precursor of Buzzfeed, fake news and all that’s wrong about the internet (and yes, he is what most people would call an arsehole), here are The Top Five Things I Learned While Going Caving With the Dudley Caving Club:

1) A sense of humour helps

And you have to have one to take a neurotic writer and her gung-ho husband under the earth for five hours. It was a big ask, especially as I had zero caving or climbing experience (I have a condition commonly known as laziness), and Charlie is at the other end of the scale – he has no fear.

Keith, Brendan and Mark told us exactly what to bring, were endlessly patient, and at no point, not once, did they ever lose their cool. Brendan even took a photograph of us balancing on a pipe on top of a churning pool, which took a great deal of setting up and generosity.

They are exactly the kind of people I would want by my side in a zombie apocalypse. And they’re also what my brother would call ‘as funny as fuck.’

Sarah negotiating the Letterbox

2) Claustrophobia was the least of my worries

In one of Keith’s Cwm Dwr videos there’s a moment where Mark gets stuck in a pipe (I can’t tell you exactly where on the vid it is – I have only managed to watch it once). Those few seconds of footage made The Descent look like Bambi and gave me nightmares. This trepidation was fuelled by Capetonian friends who, on learning I was going down a big hole, all had horror stories about people getting stuck in the notorious Cango Caves, trapped in a funnel for hours with nothing to look at except an American tourist’s giant arse.

But when I was actually underground, the squeeze bits were my favourite – I loved every second of corkscrewing our way through a boulder choke and scrabbling along a squeeze the height of a microwave. And I didn’t experience one second of claustrophobia. I put this down to the head-lamps, which were far brighter than I expected, and the fact I was being shepherded by the best in the business.

I’ll put my hands up and say that I fudged this in the book and made it a thousand times scarier than it actually is. (I’m a horror writer – if I don’t tap into people’s fears then I’ve failed). But I have told everyone I’ve met since writing the novel that claustrophobia really isn’t an issue and was the least of my worries.

And when I say it was the least of my worries, see below.

Sarah on the Diver’s pitch
Sarah said it was more frightening than being held up by four armed men and being attacked by lions

3) Screaming doesn’t help

There was one point (shortly after we were posted through the letterbox) where I had to be winched over and down what looked to me to be a bloody great sheer cliff (and what everyone else termed a ‘small ledge’). I did have a bit of a cry on the way down (especially when I realised Keith was filming me). Keith, Brendan and Mark lowered me down inch by inch, never once losing patience or calling me out for being pathetic. Charlie showed me up and crawled down there like a monkey.

I did things on that trip I never thought I would do: reaching for a chain and dangling backwards over the unforgiving stone floor; being shoved up a slippery pipe; being hauled across the yawning maw of a plummeting ravine (more a crevice, but still). And although I couldn’t have been further out of my comfort zone (and admittedly had a bit of a meltdown) I never once felt unsafe.

An expression of pure enjoyment

4) Leave it to the experts

At one stage I remember looking up and seeing Mark scooting up a rock face like Spiderman, and then peering down at us from what seemed to be a huge height. I still have no clue how he got up there.

Charlie practically had to be held back bodily from having a go at this. As Keith had just explained to me in detail how difficult it was to get an injured person out of a cave (and we’d passed a crevice in which a young woman had been trapped for hours), we wisely dissuaded him.

Glad to be out

5) Sometimes you can depend on the kindness of strangers

There are many things I took away from this experience: That anyone can go caving if they have a crack team with them (even unfit foul-mouthed writers). That the sport is beyond exhilarating, and the unique perspective you get from being under the earth is priceless, rewarding and like being in another world – something few people get to experience. In short, it’s a real privilege.

But most importantly, that the people who make up the caving community are generous, funny and pretty much unshakable.

Keith, Mark and Brendan have a cameo in the book as the rescuers who show up and risk their lives to pluck Simon out of his fictional cave when he runs into trouble (inspired by Keith telling me that only cavers can rescue cavers). I thought this was fitting, as I could picture them doing that.

Thank you, Dudley Caving Club. The novel couldn’t have been written without you.

You all rock (no pun intended)

Sarah Lotz

A Short Video from the Trip


The Book

The book was published in the UK on 4th May 2017.

Behind the locked doors of Bagshawe Cavern

Behind the locked doors of Bagshawe Cavern
After meeting for the obligatory full English breakfast  in Buxton, our convoy headed in the direction of Bradwell village, in search of Ye Olde Bowling Green pub where we were due to meet our ‘fixer’.
After a quick briefing of the cave system and an exchange of keys, we kitted up and headed to the entrance where some 130 manmade steps descending steeply into the cavern awaited us.
Our first port of call was Calypsos cave just off the main passage way; we spent a few minutes here scrabbling up into a small tube which ends fairly quickly at a dig. Returning to the main passageway to drop the kit bag off at The Dungeon, we continued our way down via the hippodrome to Top Stream Passage and the sumps.
We spent a bit of time here studying the survey, looking around and getting our bearings before retracing our steps in search of the glory hole and the first of the two locked gates that we had come to visit. Behind the first locked gate was Snake’s Pyjamas.  We crawled our way in, one by one, and admired the pretties seen on our left as we made our way up to the furthest point which we could squeeze up to.     
Back on the main passage we made our way towards our final locked gate of the day known as Coronation Crawl. This was a slightly bigger and more decorated passage then the last, so we split off in different directions to see what we could find. I climbed up into a tight rift on the right and crawled head first through water until I couldn’t progress comfortably any further, with the rest of the group returning from their little explores with similar result.
Before returning to the surface, and with time to spare, we thought we would rig the ladder and descend into The Dungeon, but not before we attempted to see if we could fit through agony crawl! This was short lived when it was soon apparent that I would be forced to remove my helmet to ‘maybe’ fit through! Not keen on getting stuck or having everyone laugh at me, we retreated back to The Dungeon pit and rigged the ladder.
The team did a grand job of rigging the ladder and soon we were lowering our test dummy (aka Kay) down the pitch. With the reassuring sounds of the rope being “free” it was our new recruit Ollies turn to descend. Ollie made easy work of the ladder and rope, and one by one we all reached the floor of the Dungeon.
It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be going too far as the water levels for our route ahead were looking too high, and after wading in to chest deep water it was confirmed that we wouldn’t be able to explore the lower routes at all, so we quickly retreated to the dry banks and made our way out.
At this point we all agreed that we had seen what we wanted to see and we made our final ascent of the 130 steps to make our way out of the cave. After a quick change of clothes we made our way back down the hill to Ye Olde Bowling Green pub’s garden for some well deserved refreshments and sunshine.
Present: Mike, Lucy, Rich, Kay, Ian and new recruit Ollie

Trip report: Mike Bonner

Potholing – Where Big Men Get Into Small Holes

Potholing – Where Big Men Get Into Small Holes

The Dudley visit Eldon Hole in Derbyshire. With apologies to the Fast Show circa 1993 from which we stole the script, to the Buttered Badger Potholing Club, and to women cavers who everyone knows are equal to or if not better than their male counterparts.

This is a work of fiction and the Buttered Badgers mentioned bear no relationship to the actual Buttered Badgers. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s fevered imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

The video was taken on 13th November 2016.

Withyhill Cave

Withyhill Cave

On 1st November 2015 Dudley Caving Club members Phil, Ian, Brendan, Mark and myself set off for the Mendips to visit Fairy Quarry to explore Fernhill and Withyhill Caves. We explored Fernhill Cave but never got to see Withyhill. In fact I didn’t get home until 18 days later and didn’t see the inside of a cave for another 6 months. Last year I got to do Withyhill twice (15th May & 27th November) and managed to take some video. It’s a bit rubbish but the cave is fantastically decorated and hopefully the video gives a flavour of its beauty.

Grebe Swallet, A Parallel Universe!

Grebe Swallet, A Parallel Universe!

As Mendip Digfest virgins this year we eagerly scanned the list of diggers looking for willing volunteers/ victims for their dig,  to see which one seemed the most alluring.

Chris Binding’s looked most tempting; ‘Absolutely guaranteed to go’.

How could we pass by the opportunity to join a dig that promised so much? (Though ‘excellent picnic facilities’ was also a strong contender. )

We therefore met up with Chris on a lovely sunny morning to go and find miles of new , cavernous passage in Grebe Swallet.

On the way Chris gave us a potted history of the cave and pointed out how the landscape and geology of the area indicated that cave passage to rival Upper Flood was almost definitely waiting for us to just tap in and discover it.

In my mind’s eye I saw us emerging into huge chambers and having to be careful we didn’t get lost as we wandered past huge crystal white formations. ” Wow,  like a parallel universe! “ I exclaimed.

The entrance was heavily guarded by an army of slugs, which nearly cut short my caving trip , but the lure of fame and fortune won and soon we were underground.

Chris gave us a guided tour of the known cave and mine which was thoroughly enjoyable. As a big Willie Stanton fan I fully appreciated how much of his engineering had gone into the cave and how well it had served to protect delicate areas and historical artefacts.

Our role was to clear and make good two areas where Chris and the rest of the team had been ‘teasing’ the rock to see what lay beyond.

At the first location Chris spent his time mostly throwing rocks at Mark,  while I played with mud.
At Perdition the dig face and air space was limited,  so I stayed back out of the way while the boys took turns prising away at the heavy mud and rocks. Once they had both worn themselves out,  I was invited to  ‘Have a Go’.

Easing away at the mud and brittle calcite was quite fun! I was just getting into the swing of it when the boys got bored and decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to make any further progress that day. rolling the last few bits of mud towards me, to leave it tidy,   I found that my hand was now waving about freely on the other side of a calcited wall! A Void!

The next couple of hours passed in a flurry of activity as Chris and Mark sweated and cajoled the calcite wall and mud floor,  revealing a tantalizing decorated rift passage beyond . More of the mud floor was pushed aside until Chris could wriggle forward  into the passage to see where it led to . An exciting prospect lays ahead – the rift pinches in,  but a dark void can be observed beyond it – a Parallel Universe? ?

A quick guestimate of the amount of passage gained was about 5 metres,  which Chris thinks is possibly a Mendip Digfest record!
I certainly think there is about 5 tonnes of mud to be cleaned off the suits. ..

The rest of Digfest was really enjoyable too, lots of great people and plenty of fun and Potholer. Who can ask for more?

The Dig Face On Arrival (Photo Christopher Binding)
Mark Furtles with a Crowbar (Photo Christopher Binding)
And Creates A Filthy Hole (Photo Christopher Binding)
And Keeps Creating Till He Fits! (Photo Christopher Binding)

Chris crawls over the pit to check out the newly discovered passage (Photo Mark Burkey)

Trip report: Jess Burkey

Present: Christopher Binding, Jessica Burkey & Mark Burkey

That Sinking Feeling once again

That Sinking Feeling once again

On the Monday, the return trip to Top Sink to retrieve the ropes did not seem anywhere near as attractive as it did when we thought of it on the Saturday. Luckily we had managed to attract another member to our little group for this final trip of the long weekend. Jane, from UKCaving, offered to come along and be our model for the pitch shot.
As the three Dudley cavers slouched along through the boggy ground on the long trip to Top Sink, Jane was skipping along happily praising the lovely scenery.  With trepidation we approached the entrance – even without tons of kit the rifts would be hard going. Jane however still didn’t seem worried, and it soon became clear that at the various ‘pinch points’ in the rift where we three had to crawl and thrutch, being rather smaller she was waltzing  through upright, swinging her arms!
Once we reached Walrus Pot I went down first and set off along the second rift to de-rig Penknife pitch while Brendan started setting up lighting at the foot of the pot. After he got so cold in Long Churn, we had thought ahead, and he was wearing a waterproof jacket, which despite being wet through, did make a difference to body temperature.
When I got back to the bottom of the pot with the second rope, the photo shoot was nearly finished, with Jane on the rope, Mark hanging over the top of the pitch with his camera and Brendan jumping in and out of the waterfall with various flash guns and bulbs.
I viewed the climb back up with trepidation – the bottom half of the pitch would all be through water and I wished I’d remembered my pantin. However, it didn’t prove to be as bad as I feared; in fact Brendan and I both agreed that the water was quite refreshing!
The ‘crabwalk’ back to the entrance was not at all refreshing, but Jane ran through the rift with a bag and camera box and then came back for more!
A windy walk back to the van and a nice cup of tea at Jane’s was a good end to an excellent long weekend in Yorkshire.

Walrus Pot

Present: Jess Burkey, Mark Burkey, Brendan Marris & Jane Allen

Joining the dots for an Easegill through trip

Joining the dots for an Easegill through trip

After a tiring trip on the Saturday, we were all quite achy when we set off once again to Bull Pot Farm on Sunday, with the aim of completing the last leg of our through trip route-finding; Lancaster Hole to Wretched Rabbit. It was a beautiful morning, with sun in the sky and snow on the hills.
Taking some lessons from the amount of kit we carried the day before, we left two SRT kits tied to the end of the rope at the foot of Lancaster Hole and left the tripods in the van! The route finding went well and we made good progress.
We stopped for a quick photo at Bob’s Boss and Painter’s Palette, then passed Fall Pot, Montague East and West and Stake Pot, following descriptions we had printed out.
The highlight of today’s trip was a section of passage called The Minarets; a beautifully shaped and decorated tunnel where we stopped and took a few photos. Brendan however found that his camera lens had developed condensation on the inside from its dunking the day before, so again his photographic plans were foiled.
There seemed to be a lot of awkward climbs up and down, some with bits of muddy rope to help us. The longest of these had a long, muddy rope downwards which led to an even muddier rope upwards where I managed to get my cowstail caught on a knot and had to be rescued by Mark.
Eventually we were into passage that the boys recognized from previous trips and they romped off into the distance, leaving me to stumble my way over greasy boulders. After pointing out to them delicately and with hardly any swear words that I couldn’t learn the route if all I was looking at was my feet, they let me go ahead and soon I too recognized the way we were going.
Taking a shortcut to Wretched Rabbit we climbed out of the now far too familiar entrance. All the snow had gone and we were even out in time to join some local friends for dinner at a nearby pub. 

Bob’s Boss (Photo Brendan Marris)
The Minarets (Photo Mark Burkey)

Present: Jess Burkey, Mark Burkey, Brendan Marris

Brendan feels a bit Blue in Long Churn

Brendan feels a bit Blue in Long Churn

After a rather manic couple of weeks at work our boss asked if we fancied a couple of extra days off to make a long weekend. Jess and I contacted Brendan and so a plan was hatched to finish off our route finding in Ease Gill of the main routes. After a bit of faff Friday morning we eventually left late and arrived at Inglesport gone 11am.

As we hadn’t managed a lot of sleep in the last week, and we had some new toys to play with, it was decided we would just start the weekend off gently with a trip into Long Churn to have a play with the new flash guns and bulbs.

This culminated in a shot being taken from the top of Dr. Bannisters hand basin.

Looking down from the top we needed a little more reflection coming off the walls and Brendan began using his boot as a bucket to throw the water. After one successful go he slipped and nearly fell so I told him I would continue. Filling a welly I went to toss the boot full over the wall , slipped and tossed the whole lot over Brendan’s head. His response was to curse me loudly, turn, slip and fall in to the pool behind him! 
Once we had all stopped laughing, Jess climbed up onto the water chute so that I could get the shot, while Brendan waded into the pool with flash bulbs. One shot led to another, as these things do, and a few bulbs went off prematurely, so by the time I was fairly happy with the camera angle and lighting, Brendan had been in and out of the pool so many times his teeth were chattering.
With a bigger trip on the cards for the next day, we were quite happy to leave the water behind and set off to the Bradford hut to eat and relax.

Upper Long Churn (Photo Brendan Marris)
Upper Long Churn (Photo Brendan Marris)
Upper Long Churn (Photo Mark Burkey)
Dr. Bannisters Hand Basin (Photo Mark Burkey)


Present: Mark Burkey, Jess Burkey, Brendan Marris

Doing things the Wet Way in Swildons

Doing things the Wet Way in Swildons

It’s a little known fact that Wells Museum has an excellent Caving Exhibition, and each summer a photographic competition of Mendip caves is held. Mark and Brendan have both been placed highly in previous years, so Mark and I headed down to the Mendips to see if he could get any decent shots of Swildons Hole for this year’s competition.
Within feet of the entrance Mark had me climbing up and down through the water to position flashguns  (“Well there’s no point in both of us getting wet!”)  until one of the guns took on some water and blew up.  With some of the older flashguns also refusing to work, Mark’s original plan of taking photos of me lying in Sump 1 was abandoned, (Yay!) and we decided to try for a pitch shot on The Twenty.
We followed our noses along the dry high-level passages until we came to the stream way. When we got to the pitch we were surprised to find a group of young military personnel practicing their SRT, so while we waited for them to finish Mark sussed out a vantage point for the camera.
Whilst rigging the ladder pitch Mark tossed me the end of a rope to hold, and called something out, but I couldn’t make out what he said. To my surprise, he then pulled the rope out of my hands and threw the whole thing down the pitch! Apparently he’d asked me to attach my end to the P bolt… Good job we had another rope with us, and once we had retrieved the first one we were ready to start the photoshoot.
While Mark hung around with the camera I was Up the ladder, Down the ladder, Along the passage, Up the rift, Under the water, Up the ladder, Down the ladder.. . Smile! My worries about getting cold as I was already wet through were completely unfounded.
With time moving on and the mill to get back to, we derigged and made our way back out of Swildons along the Wet Way.

Swildons Hole Entrance Series
Swildons 20ft pitch


Present: Jessica Burkey, Mark Burkey