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Thursday, 02 July 2015

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Caving in to conquer my claustrophobia

LARGE caverns, underground streams, waterfalls and small tunnels provide a totally new world for many first time cavers. And keen to explore, RACHEL HERMOLLE booked herself onto a challenge filled trip with High Points Outdoor Pursuits.

APART from a dislike of spiders, my only real phobia is being trapped in small spaces – a fear me and my partner Daniel both share.

So, when planning a day out, an afternoon spent crawling through a network of claustrophobic caves in Ingleton would be far from the top of our list.

But in what must have been a moment of sheer madness, we found ourselves kitted out in protective clothing at the mouth of Longchurn cave, on a mild Monday morning in April, faced with doing exactly that.

Having been set the challenge of navigating the 1,100 metres of the Alum Pot cave system, we had arranged to meet High Points founder, Alyn Griffiths, who kindly agreed to be our own personal guide and caving guru for the day.

With more than 18 years’ experience working in outdoor education, and holding both an honours degree in Outdoor and Science Education, along with qualifications in caving, first aid and expedition medicine, we were in good hands.

After a brief safety talk, and a run through of how to use all the equipment, we were thrown straight into the deep end.

Choosing to enter the cave through the tight Diccan entrance, Alyn helped us to navigate our way underground, which involved scrambling across the damp floor through seemingly smaller spaces as we wound our way deeper into the earth.

Terrified by the thought of being enclosed in a dark space with someone in front and behind me, I allowed the boys to go first, leaving me peering into what seemed to be a never-ending dark passage and an extremely tight fit.

I couldn’t move.

Extremely determined, it is very rare that I back out of a challenge, but the fear I felt looking into the gloomy hole had me paralyzed.

“I cant do it, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to go home” I shouted to Alyn, mid panic attack. And in that moment no words of encouragement could make me go any further into the caves murky depths.

Told to sit and calm down for a few minutes, I eventually stopped shaking and once again took a look into the gap he wanted me to travel through.

Promising the crawl would take a matter of seconds, and that I would soon be able to stand up, I gingerly made my way over the threshold, focusing on the end of the passage towards the cheers and words of encouragement.

Seeing the passageway open up and being able to get onto my feet was a great feeling, and a mixture of relief and pride at what I had achieved left me giddy and raring to tackle the challenges ahead.

Thankfully, the next 10 minutes involved walking through, relatively wide open spaces, giving my jelly legs time to recover. And Alyn took the opportunity to teach us about the caves and point out different features in the unique environment.

Explaining the geology of limestone and the science of cave formation, we learned how to identify stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone, calcite and straws.

But a strong sense of foreboding meant I couldn’t relax and enjoy the surroundings properly as I knew the scenic route would not last.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Alyn introduced us to our next challenge – the cheese press.

Aptly named, the passage was a winding tunnel, only just wide enough to allow you to shimmy through on your stomach and lined with rocks that we had to contort and squeeze our bodies around.

“There is an easier route if you don’t feel comfortable going this way,” Alyn reassured us.

“But I think you will be disappointed if you don’t attempt it.”

Making his way to the opposite side of the cheese press, Alyn readied himself for our arrival.

“Try to take small shallow breaths as big ones will make the space appear even smaller.

“And, although you may feel like you are going to get stuck, I assure you that your not, the space is more than big enough for you both.” Alyn cautioned.

Once again Daniel went first to suss out the route, and I anxiously waited with bated breath as he began to make his way through the tunnel.

Despite being almost as terrified as me by small spaces, he did his very best to fake bravery, until getting his hat caught in the rocks and struggling to push himself out of the hole.

Seeing Daniel start to panic, made me even more anxious, but his warning ‘you won’t be able to do that’ brought out my stubborn competitive streak and I decided I would prove him wrong.

Perching on the ledge I mapped out the route I would take, psyched myself up and decided to shimmy as fast as I possibly could to the other side.

Firmly focused on the end result, and buoying myself up by remembering how good I felt after the last challenge, I got on with the task.

And it wasn’t until the same point Daniel got stuck that I too started to panic.

With the route suddenly becoming smaller I could feel my helmet scraping the rocks above, making me scarily aware of how tight the passage was.

Feeling my chest tighten and palpitations beginning I decided the best option would be to remove my hat and carry on.

After my little blip, I shockingly made it out without any help from Alyn, and a feeling of relief and satisfaction instantly washed over me.

After tackling my greatest fear, and enjoying the surge of adrenaline it brought, I was genuinely looking forward to what lay ahead.

Sensing that we were both feeling more confident Alyn handed us a map and suggested we venture further into the cave alone.

Pointing out a location on the map and assuring us that he would be waiting at the end of the route, he was off and we were on our own.

Using the skills we had been taught, we confidently set off into the black hole, finding that we were finally able to relax and enjoy the experience.

And despite there being a few low caverns, it was the icy cold waters we had to wade through that proved the biggest obstacle.

After 15 minutes alone in the darkness, we finally saw Alyn’s headlamp ahead in the distance, signalling that we had found our way to the correct location. And were congratulated with a surprise cup of hot chocolate from his thermos flask.

I had imagined that emerging from the cave would be my favourite part of the day, but as it came time to leave I found myself wishing we had a little bit longer underground.

Although caving may not have cured my claustrophobia, Alyn’s encouragement and guidance helped me to deal with and confront my fears.

And I definitely had fun in the process.


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