By Blair Hoover and Will Hardie
WILL’S STORY – May 2013: a big group of 19 made the familiar pilgrimage to the Selmah plateau for a caving expedition. It was planned as a rite of passage, for a group of shiny brand new cavers, and also for a new generation graduating as team leaders.
Everyone got more than they bargained for.
A dozen rookies fresh out of the MECET training programme in Dubai were getting ready for their first cave. Split into three groups led by Pike, Nadine and me, the plan was for them to abseil 260m down Seventh Hole, push right through the system to its resurgence at Kahf Tahry, deep in a canyon 4km away, then hike back up to camp next to Seventh Hole.
Meanwhile four not-so-new cavers — Blair, Thoby, Shawn and Terri — were preparing to take on their first solo expedition, “without adult supervision”. They would rig their own way down the Arch Cave sink-hole, with its big pendulum swing, then scramble, splash and crawl through 2km of narrow passages to a final abseil dropping into the main system. From this intersection they would turn right, uphill, and climb out of Seventh Hole on the same ropes that the rookie crew descended earlier.
Hergen and Alan were wildcards — they would help the rookies down Seventh Hole as far as the intersection, then turn into Arch and do a “salmon run” upstream, crossing over with Blair’s team coming in the other direction, and de-rig the ropes up the Arch entrance pitches on their way out.
We had planned for the possibility that the passages around the intersection — almost always a large, dry cavern — might be filled with water as they had been when we had a major epic the year before. I had agreed a signal with Blair, that when I passed the intersection I would tie three knots at the bottom of the rope so that when she arrived there from Arch she would know that the way up to Seventh Hole was passable, and that this was the point to turn right. This is where we got lost and turned left on the same trip last time.
As the sun rose, Blair left camp to drive over to the Arch Cave sink-hole while we began coaxing the new cavers over the edge and into the pit of Seventh Hole. And that was the last we saw or heard of Blair. Over to her for the next chapter…
BLAIR’S STORY – It’s 10 am. I’m hanging on a pair of bolts at the top of the last pitch, a 90m free hang into the bottom of Arch cave. My team is above, dropping down towards me through a series of rebelays. I look down realize that I cannot tell if the rope reaches the bottom, even though I was sure it had when I’d rigged it the day before. If it didn’t reach I could just attach a piece of the spare gash rope. But I had forgotten the gash back at camp! I descend. Halfway down I could clearly see the meters of slack coiled on the bottom of the cave, so this drop was safe; but we would still need spare rope for rigging later in the cave. I could cut the slack to carry. I’m waiting. Can Terri hear me? Can Thoby go back for the rope? Then Terri calls out to me: “Do you have the rope?” “No!!!” “Do you need the rope” “Yes!” Thoby hadn’t started descending yet and was going back for our gash. Crisis averted.
The sun rose high over the hole in the ceiling of the cave. Its rays beaming into the cavern. A Wadi Racer snake sunned his pale body on a nearby boulder. I wait. One by one each of my team members joins me. First Terri, who brings confirmation that Thoby had indeed remembered and fetched the gash rope. Then Shawn who brought with him humor and a keen sense for photographic moments. We entertained ourselves trying to remake some of Pike’s famous rockstar photos from the Majlis Al Jinn. That was just over a year ago when Thoby and I were fresh-faced and new. Now we’re the experienced ones.
Thoby soon joined us, rope in hand, and we set out into the labyrinthine passage. It was noon.
The cave soon narrowed and the ceiling came down to nearly meet the floor. We were in the crawl. We never were quite sure where the “squeeze” was, but Shawn’s 100kg frame made it through without incident.
Finally the first ladder, leading into a pool of water. Shawn put on his life jacket. Though he is a confident scuba diver, his muscular frame with the added weight of boots and gear doesn’t float unaided.
Past the first big swim we took out the map and realized how slowly we were progressing. The first third of the cave had taken us four hours. We were told this cave would take 4-6 hours in total, as far as the intersection. By now, we were expecting Alan and Hergen be to passing us, coming in the opposite direction. They were only two, and both strong cavers unencumbered by additional rigging gear. They should be moving faster than us. We should see them soon.
Water, in and out of water. Crawling through puddles, wading through ponds, some deep, some not. Fortunately the water was refreshing and kept our spirits high.
The second ladder. After Thoby had descended I noticed that its entire weight was suspended on a a single rusty thread. This needed re-rigging. It had been over 4 hours and I had yet to use the heavy power drill. The in situ anchor was literally a handful of rubble wedged in a crack in the wall. I merely nudged it and it all came loose. But rock was choss and useless for drilling. Fortunately Thoby found a better thread and we were able to leave a safely anchored rope behind. The drill was still unused.
Everyone was a little annoyed at the hold-up. But I insisted on resting and eating a snack. I wasn’t going anywhere without more fuel. Shawn and Terri held off on their rations, thinking of the comfort of the campfire that waited at the end.
We picked up the pace and moved along through more swims. This cave was wet, and we struggled to keep the drill dry.
Finally I found the place that Will told me needed rigging. The rope angled sharply down form an overlook to a boulder on the far side of a small pond. The drop was about 5 meters to the lake, but without swimming the only way across was an awkward rebelay. There wasn’t enough slack to progress vertically, so I ended up suspended horizontally, with the weight of that blasted drill hanging below me. My harness dug into my kidneys, I had to put the drill bag on my back instead of suspending it below me, otherwise it would be submerged. I groaned loudly, and snapped at my team, and promised that I would make it easier for them. Shawn, Terri, and Thoby likened my shouts and groans to the sounds one would hear when next in line for punishment in hell. The only difficulty for them was the breeze blowing through the narrow passage chilling their soggy bodies.
Finally across I ascended the existing ropes and then drilled (Finally!) a new anchor. I rigged the gash with plenty of slack to alleviate the kidney crushing horizontal tug. But I couldn’t do more until Terri came across with the bolt bag.
We were losing time. It was late, we were tired. But the old bolts were corroded and clearly not safe. I planned my rigging strategy. I would make a traverse across to the high passage rather than going down and back up. But it meant drilling four more bolts. More time.
The others were finally able to join me after nearly 2 hours of stalling out waiting on rigging. I was exhausted. It was 9pm. We ate lunch.
WILL’S STORY- Meanwhile, back at Seventh Hole, it all started off so well…
The new MECET members were all coaxed over the edge and down the spectacular first drop into Seventh Hole. It was slow going as people stacked up on the rebelays, but eventually everyone was down in the Canyon Room — where immediately it became clear that we were going to have a very wet and cold day. Nine times out of ten, this cave is bone dry. Today, we plunged straight into waist-deep pools, then chest deep, then it was time to swim.
Pike, Nadine and their teams (Kelsi, Dan, Qais, Rachel, Roger, Omar and Julie) had pushed ahead and were out of earshot. I was bringing up the rear with Amr, Sal and Diana; some of my group were struggling with the water, ropework and generally intimidating spookiness of the situation. It soon became clear that it wouldn’t be safe to put all of them through much more of this. Turnaround time.
At that point we bumped into Hergen and Alan, who had planned to turn up the Arch Cave junction, from which Blair’s team would be exiting later, but instead had just emerged from a long swim up the flooded passage towards us on their way back towards Seventh Hole. Alan had found and climbed the ropes towards Arch but found stuffy air with no breeze in the narrow passage, and concluded that it must be impassable due to a floodwater sump further up, and turned back. I asked what they knew about Pike and Nadine’s teams, who had all swum the lake and were on the other side. They said Nadine and others were cold and also preparing to turn around, swim back towards us across the lake and climb back out of Seventh Hole.
This was one of those supercharged moments where the plan has fallen to pieces and urgent decisions are needed, but based on incomplete information. Everyone was wet and freezing in the intimidating, flooded cave. Waterfalls were pouring, echoing through the chambers, and a cold wind cutting through our soaked clothes. We had no idea what was happening to Blair’s team in Arch; we had to assume they would have found it flooded and blocked, and turned back. We knew some of those up ahead in the main system were cold and in trouble. My own team were definitely ready to turn around, rather than take on the main lake. Time to improvise.
I handed my three rookie cavers over to Alan and Hergen and shouted for them to guide them back to Seventh Hole through the High Salvation Bypass, a narrow passage that avoids most of the water in that section. Then I dived into the lake and swam forward alone, planning to catch up with Nadine and Pike on the other side of the lake, see if I could help and at the very least find out what was going on.
The swim went on and on. I kept expecting to meet others coming back the other way and regularly stopped to shout and blow my whistle, but met only with echoes of my own sounds and then eerie silence as I floated in the black water, my headlamp reflecting psychedelic ripple patterns onto the walls and ceiling. I splashed on and reached the rope dropping down into the water from the Arch intersection, and as promised tied three knots in it for the signal to Blair, then swam on. It took 20 minutes of swimming before I heard the first voices. Soon after that I reached the ropes at the far side of the lake and climbed through a series of rope manouvres up and across huge gours — walls of flowstone blocking the passage like dams.
Here I caught up with Julie, Roger and Nadine who all looked ready to turn back but also too cold to get back into the water and contemplate that icy swim. I overtook them and reached Pike and his group of five apprentice cavers, also shivering but generally in better shape. Pike was inclined to push forward, on the assumption that they had passed most of the water and in any case could keep warm by striking up a faster pace as a smaller group. This was likely to be true, but unknown because nobody to our knowledge had ever passed this point when the cave was flooded.
There was no time for discussion; Julie, Roger and Nadine were too cold to wait. Pike’s team were huddled on a ledge below me. I shouted down a speech intended to scare anyone who was uncertain into turning around and coming back with me. Anyone who went on must accept the seriousness of the situation and responsibility for a very committing and risky decision: the condition of the cave ahead was unknown, likely wet and cold, and possibly with more long lakes, or even blocked by a sump. They had 30 seconds to decide whether to go on, or come back. It was a close call for several of them, but they all chose to continue. Yella.
I scrambled back to Julie, Roger and Nadine who were in a gravel pit, sheltered from the cold breeze between walls of flowstone. We did our best to warm up and cheer up before getting back into that lake. We put on the few dry clothes we had, jumped around, wrapped in rescue blankets, trying to get the blood flowing again. I dug around in the rubble to find a handful of damp sticks and managed to get a tiny fire going by piling them on top of a burning tea-light candle. We channelled the warm smoke up through our silver rescue blankets, trying to absorb every dose of heat.
The fire ran out. There was no putting it off. Time to go. Another speech: once we get in that water, nobody slows down and nobody stops but nobody gets left behind until we are all out and clear and safe. Movement is the only way to keep warm and once in the water, the hypothermia clock is ticking. We will be totally reliant on each other to keep moving and keep up the pace. All or nothing.
Back into wet clothes, then climbing over the gour wall as if out of a trench into war, and plunging down into the lake. GO GO MOVE MOVE GO GO. Julie was at the front; I swam behind, pushing her forward as she slowed. We swam for 15 minutes. Roger was dropping further and further behind us at the back; Nadine was in the middle, wanting to go faster to cope with the cold, but not wanting to let Roger out of her sight. MOVE MOVE GO GO GO
Eventually — and with precious little warmth to spare — we made it to the Salvation Bypass, and out of the water. Saved, again. Déjà vu. And on to the Canyon Room, and the bottom of the Seventh Hole ropes, where we gathered more waterlogged wood, and after an hour of desperate attempts, finally got lit a roaring bonfire to warm us as we waited two hours for the ropes above to come free for the big climb back to camp.
It was around midnight when I pulled over the edge and onto the plateau, wiped out from the long rope climb. I was expecting to see a lot of faces. I assumed Blair and her team would be back from Arch, having turned around long ago and climbed out. Pike and his group should also be there, if the rest of the cave was fairly dry and they made good time. But with a sinking feeling I saw that of the 19 cavers who dropped down into the mountain that morning, only five were back in camp.
Two separate groups were missing and overdue, somewhere in a huge flooded cave system.
It was at this moment that I made what turned out to be the most dangerous mistake that anyone made that weekend. When I realised how many people were missing I immediately began gathering information and starting to plan rescues and was so distracted that when I detached myself from the rope I had just climbed, I left it hanging straight on the sharp rocky edge of the hole instead of on the smooth metal edge rollers used to protect it from abrasion. Nadine, following behind me, climbed that entire 110m pitch on that single rope until, very close to the top, she saw that it was running directly over the sharp rock and called up for a safety rope. It was terrifying for her and I’m ashamed of my unforgivable carelessness and thankful for the miracle that the rope did not break.
Alan and I drove straight off to Arch cave and peered over the edge into the darkness, shouting and whistling. Silence below. Wherever Blair, Thoby, Shawn and Terri had got to, they certainly hadn’t made it back to the sink-hole. I was very aware of some of the the last words I had said to Blair when I handed her my expensive drill which would be ruined if it got wet in Arch. I had joked darkly that if they all drowned in the cave then the rescue team had better find her cold dead hand raised above the surface holding my drill dry. Not so funny now.
There was nothing to do but get some rest and prepare for a rescue in the morning and hope for a better scenario. That was a dark night of worry. It brightened when five bright headlamps appeared over the horizon to the east — Pike and his team had made it back. But by dawn, Blair and her crew were still missing. Alan drove over to Arch again, and blew his whistle down into the depths. Silence again.
Rewind 24 hours — and over to Blair for the rest of her story…
BLAIR’S STORY– I rushed through the last swim of the cave, feeling the strengthening breeze from 7th hole, and beginning to shiver. When the cave emerged on a balcony above the river that was 7th hole I gasped. There was a strong cold wind, and the water seemed to be rapidly flowing to the left. We would need to swim upstream, against the current, in order to make it out to the Canyon Room. My teeth began to chatter.
I called back, “Thoby, I need you to come look at this.” Knowing how cold I was already, and that Shawn was not confident in the water, I didn’t relish the thought of swimming upstream just to take a look. Not to mention that blasted drill. Why hadn’t I brought another dry bag?
Still there was no sign of Hergen and Alan, who should have met us coming the other way. How could we know that the passage wasn’t blocked?
Will had told me he would tie three overhand knots at the bottom of the rope at the end of Arch cave so that we would know when we arrived at the intersection with Seventh Hole not make the same mistake they had a year earlier and swim the wrong way. My fears of hypothermia grew, remembering their epic.
From the balcony I pulled up the rope. It wasn’t nearly as long as I’d expected, and there was only one knot at the bottom.
The four of us huddled overlooking the frigid river. As Thoby said, it was a decision we needed to all make together. Not knowing if we could make it through the river, feeling the cold, and having no sign that the other cavers were able to pass.
We turned back.
There was a lot to contemplate. Why hadn’t Hergen and Alan reached us? Why hadn’t I found Will’s rope signal? Where would the rest of the team expect us to be? We were already hours behind our expected arrival. We had been underground for 12 hours at this point. Subtracting the hold-ups for rigging, I figured it would take us about 7 hours to get back to the cave mouth.
I was tired. The trip was gruelling. Squeezes and crawls are challenging enough the first time through. Then I looked up. A familiarly shaped rock. Too familiar. I was dreaming, hallucinating. Surely there were many such peculiarly shaped rock formations. It was just in my head. I pushed through.
A minute behind me, Shawn called out “Hey Terri, isn’t this that same rock?” I refused to believe. It was just in his head too. We were going the right way. I couldn’t bear that we could be lost, retracing our steps. By chance, only a short while before, Shawn had pointed out that very same rock to Terri who also remembered it. This made it clear in their minds, but even then with the fatigue of the cave…how could it be?
A stalemate. Shawn was sure we needed to turn back. I refused. We stayed on, locked in opposition for several minutes. Eventually my pride gave in. Begrudgingly I retraced my path, catching up to the others.
Worried and cautious, we left cairns every few meters. Then we found it. A T junction. This must be where we turned around earlier. I made another cairn to show we were turning right. Shawn, not accepting my measly cairn, wisely shaped a very clear arrow showing the path we took.
Our side trip might have only lost us 10 minutes had I not obstinately refused to turn around. Humbled, and thankful to have a forgiving team, I pressed on.
Though we were sure we were on the right path, the delirium of 3am made us all suspicious of anything that didn’t seem just right. More than once we thought we had found a dead end, only to thankfully have fresh eyes point out the not-so-obvious passage. The squeezes seemed so much tighter now.
Then the cave opened up. A large boulder hall. It didn’t seem right. none of us remembered this. Were we lost again? But there were fossils. Familiar fossils! I didn’t notice the size or shape of the chamber on the way in, but by golly I stared at these blurry gold fossils. We were near the cave mouth. Thoby saw it first. Hoping for stars, it seemed to be moonlight, but was actually the pre-dawn glow of the sun. Our shouts of joy echoed back to Shawn and Terri who were about five minutes behind us, and they too knew we had made it. It was 5am.
In the pre-dawn shadows we tried to sleep wrapped in our emergency blankets for warmth. We needed to rest before the the long, long climb up the ropes.
A whistle. I heard a whistle from far above. Where did I put my goddamn whistle? It was Alan! it was 6am. It was daylight. Now we only had 200 meters of rope between us and a much deserved icy beer.
Later we discovered that at the moment we decided to turn back, we had been only a few minutes’ swim from the way out up to Seventh Hole. Will had indeed tied three knots in the rope, it was just another rope, down closer to the water. Nonetheless, not for one instant did any of us regret the decision we made together.