Arch Cave and Back

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…

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Trip report: Arch Cave and Seventh Hole

Adventure caving is addictive behaviour – it’s a high you keep chasing; it intrudes on your psyche back in the real world and makes you hungry for more. It was just six weeks since we emerged from a 29-hour overnight epic in the passages deep under Oman’s high Selmah Plateau; but risk and exhaustion fade fast from memory and soon enough we were back.

During a winter of caving on Selmah we had abseiled into all of the great sink-holes and hiked, squeezed, crawled and swam through all of the main passages that link them underground to the system’s lower exit, the vast Kafh Tahry cave mouth deep in the nearby canyon of Wadi Fins. Every sink-hole but one: Arch Cave. It was time to complete the collection.

We had a big group with different levels of experience, so we split into two teams of four. Team One would drop down Seventh Hole, navigate down through the system to exit at Kafh Tahry, then schlep back up out of the canyon and across the plateau to camp. Meanwhile Team Two would drive 2km northwest, drop down Arch Cave, push through to its intersection with the main system, then turn back uphill and climb out up the ropes that Team One had left rigged in place at Seventh Hole.

If all went according to plan, Team Two would be back at camp first, in time to warm the curry and chill the beer.

There was plenty of chilling, but it wasn’t quite according to plan.

Baked Alaska

Summer had just arrived and the plateau was an oven. The car thermometer on the drive up had hit 45°. John, Dee, Blair and Thoby got an early start down into the welcome shade of Seventh Hole while Pike, Nicky, Nadine and I headed over to Arch Cave, hidden in a nondescript wadi nearby.

We had recced the entrance pitches earlier in the winter, from the wrong side of the wadi as it turned out, but placed new bolts halfway down that would provide a free-hanging drop to the bottom. The plan had been to install additional bolts higher up that would allow us to route the rope friction-free down the 30m or so of jagged crags around the rim of the hole. Unfortunately, I had left the drill behind in Dubai, so we anchored off trees and rock threads and did our best to protect rub points with tarps. (Still, the rope took a pounding and later had to be retired.)

Dropping down another 40m into the void, I found myself hanging close to the knots at the bottom of my ropes, swinging in free space at the point where the funnel-shaped cave entrance narrows into a smooth vertical tube. Level with me and less than 4m away I could see the shiny bolts and hangers that I had placed back in the winter, on the underside of an overhanging nose of rock. I thrashed around and managed to swing over to the opposite wall, then pushed off sideways in a pendulum arc just wide enough to wedge a couple of fingers in a pocket near the anchors. A bit of aid climbing malarkey with a skyhook took me to the bolts to fix a new rope for the 85m free-hanging cruise to the bottom.

 

A shaft of sunlight speared down from the heavens, beautifully illuminating a weeks-old goat carcass whose pungent aroma had no doubt attracted the large Egyptian vulture that later jumped out on Nicky.

The Dungeon

Meanwhile 2 km southeast, Team
There you must climb a 6m fixed rope to get up and out of the far side of the plunge pool and through a narrow opening to the anchor bolts for the bottom pitch, a messier 90m abseil into the Canyon Room.One was trucking on down into Mother Earth. Seventh Hole has three drops. The top pitch is a free-hanging 108m abseil down a 10m-wide chasm which soon opens up into a huge chamber, glowing orange with sunlight from cracks and holes in the ceiling. From here, the middle pitch drops into the gloom down a smooth 50m ramp into a large plunge pool, normally dry.

But team One were in trouble: the fixed rope wasn’t there.

They ground to a halt at the foot of the middle pitch in the belly of the boulder-filled plunge pool, which they named The Dungeon because it seemed inescapable. Shaped like a 20m-wide brandy glass, it is surrounded on all sides by an overhanging wall, coated with mud and seemingly unclimbable. There was no way on.

Time passed, and they abandoned their plan to make it through the system to Kahf Tahry. It seemed they had no option but to turn back the way they had come, climbing up their abseil ropes to the surface. This of course would be very bad news for Team Two, who would arrive at the bottom of Seventh Hole to find no ropes rigged down the bottom pitch – and no way up.

Lost property

Oblivious to this drama, Team Two were having a great time.

It is striking how random accidents of geology give each Selmah cave so distinct a character. Majlis is an indescribably large dome, just below the surface, with no exit. Funnel is a world-class 170m free-hanging chimney abseil into a filthy grovel. Three Window is a technical test-piece with water slide park and bouldering walls. Seventh Hole is a subterranean canyon chocked with flowstone mazes.

Arch is an excellent cave. The passage leading from the base of the sink-hole is fringed with striking rock formations: pendulous crystalline baubles, curtains of flowstone glittering with water droplets, buds of crystal, waves and streaks of multi-coloured rock.

Most of the 2.5km passage to the intersection with the main system is narrow and low, with many crawls and a few very narrow but brief squeezes. A couple of lightweight wire caving ladders are in place to aid through short steep sections, but there is no rope-work almost until the end. Several sections are very low but also wide and smooth, and early on we perfected a synchronised log-roll technique with all four cavers and four dry-bags tumbling sideways beneath a low ceiling. There was also a lot of water, with frequent pools to plunge into and canals to cruise along, buoyed by inflated dry-bags.

We were on good form, moving fast and efficiently in high spirits. Having made good progress we stopped for lunch near a chamber called the Red Clay Room.

The theme of the day was missing equipment. As well as the drill, I had forgotten my kneepads and boots, and spent the whole trip in lightweight water sandals. Things kept getting left behind: by now both Nicky and I had no gloves, and Pike was without a helmet. Nadine, on the other hand, was fully equipped including a huge watertight plastic drum containing a comprehensive wardrobe of dry clothes.

It is, of course, a tradition of MECET expeditions for Nadine to unleash thermonuclear wrath on somebody and – at the exact moment when we were speculating who might become this trip’s victim – Pike accidentally elbowed Nadine’s open dry-drum top-down into a lake. Everything was soaked.

Around this time, 3km away in Seventh hole, Team One smelled the smoke.

Waterworld

We moved on, and eventually Arch Cave began to open up. The passages became bigger and steeper and the rope-work arrived in the form of short drops, climbs and traverses over walls of flowstone, into and out of deep pools of water. This topology was starting to feel like the airy canyons of Seventh Hole. We must be close to the intersection.

But a nagging concern remained that the passage might be blocked. This cave is rarely visited, and we had read an account from a team forced to turn back. Nicky remarked that there was almost no air flow, even in narrow sections where you would expect a breeze in a cave that is open at both ends.

I rounded a corner to find a deep pool leading nowhere. It looked like the end of the road. This was either a U-bend sump filled with water (and I wasn’t in the mood for exploratory cave diving), or a narrow passage choked a wall of pebbles and mud banked up by storm-water.

Fortunately, it was neither: a short way up a sidewall we found an unpromising passage that opened up into a larger chamber echoing with an unexpected sound from far off to the right: a waterfall. We must be close to Seventh Hole – but we knew that passage well, all of us having passed through it several times in recent months. This didn’t look like it. It was too small. And there are no waterfalls in Seventh Hole – so our fatigued thinking went. So we abseiled down a final 5m drop straight into a large and very cold underground river, unclipped from the ropes and swam off, away from the noisy phantom waterfall.

Cold cold cold

It was beautiful and fearsome. The water seemed fresh, pure, black and bottomless. The lake was wide, with water-worn walls dropping sheer into the depths. Five metres above us, the ceiling rippled with the reflected beams of our headlamps. We paddled in convoy, for 15 minutes or more, pushing inflated dry-bags in front of us as floats. As each minute went by we got colder. The featureless walls provided nothing to hold, let alone a place to stop. We had never seen anything like this under Selmah; but I couldn’t shake off a subconscious sense of déjà vu.

“Could we be in Seventh Hole already – but not recognise it because it’s full of water?”

“No way. Seventh Hole is much bigger than this.”

On we swam. Then, rounding a corner, we saw a rope rising out of the water up the right-hand corner of a flowstone wall. I recognised it immediately. We were indeed in Seventh Hole, and this was the section called Freeform Flowstone Fantasy. The canyon floor and the walls we knew so well were submerged way beneath us and we were floating in a small space near the ceiling, many metres above the familiar ground.

But we were going the wrong way. We had swum all that distance – several hundred metres – downstream towards Khaf Tahry! We had to turn around and paddle back to the point where we dropped into the water, and continue in the opposite direction. We were getting steadily colder and colder.

It was hard going. I was happy with my water sandals now, but the others were weighed down with boots. There was a slight current which was now against us. The situation was getting serious. We had to get out of the water soon, and meanwhile keep moving fast to generate body heat. Several of us were borderline hypothermic, starting to shake uncontrollably, starting to freeze into lethargy. We urgently, urgently had to get out.

We reached the waterfall that we had heard earlier, and had to tread water beneath it while fitting our ascenders to climb a fixed rope. Nadine went up first. I attached my ascender handle to the rope, then turned to grab our bags and pass them up – but the flow from the waterfall had pushed them away downstream. I unclipped and dived out across the pool to retrieve the bags. When I got back to the rope, my jumar handle and foot loop were gone – dropped, and sunk to the bottom. This was bad news. I would have to improvise a way to climb ropes without a hand ascender, and there was no time to hang around.

Somehow I found the energy to climb that rope up the waterfall pitch hand over hand. Upstream the freezing river continued, blocked intermittently by flowstone walls several metres high which had to be climbed up more fixed ropes. The next couple of pitches were bigger, and I made it up by wrapping a loop of rope around one foot, using that as a step and shuffling up a few feet at a time. As we moved on I shuttled between Nadine up front, helping her to keep moving, and Nicky and Pike behind, making sure we didn’t get split up. We pushed, pulled, shoved and hauled each other on up.

Gradually the deep, cold, moving river gave way to shallower standing pools whose relative warmth felt like bathwater. We reached dry land and walked on, thawing out of danger, no longer shivering, close now to the bottom pitch of Seventh Hole – where Team One’s ropes should have been waiting for us to climb.

If they weren’t, the only way out would be back down through the water. This was unthinkable. We weren’t carrying wetsuits for a cold-water cave and wouldn’t survive more immersion. And we knew of at least one point lower down where deep water might reach the ceiling, blocking the way, if we even got that far.

We were confused to have seen no sign of Team One. They were supposed to have come this way in the opposite direction six hours ago. We understood that they might have reached the water and turned back, but even above the waterline it was clear nobody had passed this way since the flood. Freshly formed banks of gravel were undisturbed; not one footprint marked the mud.

Escape

Meanwhile back in the Dungeon, Team One hadn’t given up on us.

Up above, John had jumared back up the middle pitch and was scouting the walls for an alternative abseil route that might avoid the plunge-pool and land on the far lip. Down below, Blair had spied out a possible climbing route that might give access to the top of the 6m pitch where the missing fixed rope should have been. But she had no lead climbing equipment and only static caving rope, not the dynamic kind that rock climbers use to protect against the forces created in a lead fall.

The walls were overhanging and slick with mud. Climbing in bare feet for better grip, Blair threaded a series of slings through natural eyelets in the rock and protected herself in aid-solo style but without weighting the slings, clipping in above and clipping out below as she moved up, coached on by Dee. She made it to the top and found the missing fixed rope, which the floodwaters – since subsided – had washed up and over the edge. Meanwhile, high above, John had traversed around and found the alternative abseil route down an adjacent ramp – double salvation.

Thoby and Blair hauled the last spare abseil ropes up out of the Dungeon and rigged them down the final 90m pitch to the bottom of Seventh Hole, where not long after, our bedraggled Team Two arrived to a beautiful sight: a red glow-stick marking the bottom of the pitch.

We climbed the ropes out of Seventh Hole. Nicky and I brought up the rear, de-rigging and hauling up gear as we climbed. I used a sling and a little ratchet pulley in place of my dropped foot-loop and jumar handle. This worked just as well but, lacking a handle, mashed up my hands nicely after 250m of rope climbing without gloves. Still, we made good time and steamed up 108m top pitch in a little over 20 minutes. At 11 p.m. we heaved over the edge and onto the moonlit plateau with screams of joy.

The final act

There had been another twist to the tale. John and Dee, last seen four hours ago, had decided they didn’t fancy the big jumar up the top pitch and instead borrowed a dynamic climbing rope from a commercial guide leading a group through the top chamber of Seventh Hole. John lead-climbed out up a different  route, using only sling thread runners, and emerging in the wadi bed. They were less than 150m from camp, but night had fallen and the devious maze of ramps, arches and platforms around the cave exit led them up the wrong side of the wadi. We hadn’t left directions because we weren’t expecting them to come out this way – and the guide was no longer around. They crisscrossed the plateau for two and a half hours trapped between uncrossable canyons, before finally arriving back at camp around the same time that Pike popped up out of Seventh Hole.

That night, all safe around the campfire, I dozed with a stupid grin on my face. It’s hard to describe the fulfilment and elation that comes from a day like this. Part of it comes from testing your physical limits, fitness and endurance, and pumping your brain full of those addictive natural endorphins. Part of it is the problem-solving: the cave threw all kinds of unexpected challenges at both teams, and every one of us rose to them. Part of it is the keener appreciation of life that follows a taste of danger. And a big part of it is the human factor – the teamwork that pulled us together during our darkest hour in the cold water, and the initiative of the Dungeon escape team. We relied on each other completely. We made it. And we’ll be back.

 

Trip report: Three Window Cave

–          “What time is it?”

–          “12 o’clock.”

–          “Midday or midnight?”

It was 29 hours since we had roped down into a pitch-black sink-hole on a remote rocky plain high in the mountains of Oman. I had lost sense of time in a relentless sequence of abseils, aid climbs, Tyroleans, water jumps, swims, swings, crawls, squeezes and shivering half-sleeps. There was still a mile of rock between us and the exit and we were running on empty.

This is the story of how five very amateur cavers took on a quite serious cave, had a bit of an epic, and emerged with a new appreciation of adventure, teamwork and the ethics of staying alive in wild places.

No deposit, no return

The four great sink-holes on the east side of the Oman’s high Selmah Plateau follow the same pattern – a more or less vertical drop of several hundred metres, feeding storm-water into a network of subterranean veins that wind gradually downhill. They converge one after another and emerge far away at Kahf Tahry, a vast maw of a cave deep in the canyon of Wadi Fins.

We had been exploring this system since October 2011, including through-trips to Kahf Tahry from two other sink-holes (Seventh Hole and Funnel Cave) as well as a drop and climb out of the famous Majlis al Jinn, an immense dead-end chamber nearby.

In March 2012 we took on Three Window Cave, knowing it would be a challenge. It is the most technical drop on the plateau, with 10 separate main pitches including several Tyrolean and aid traverses just in the sink-hole, plus dozens of rebelays. Its bottom is also the farthest from Kahf Tahry, with almost 6 km to cover underground.

Three Window Cave is rarely attempted: asking around, it seemed that since the Selmah system was discovered and mapped in the late 1980s only five or six teams had set foot inside, at least one of which retreated. In all the accounts I had read, the teams took the short route to the surface by roping back up Seventh Hole, which intersects Three Window halfway to Kahf Tahry. It’s possible that nobody had pushed right through from Three Window to Kahf Tahry. If so, we might become the first team to complete the longest possible traverse of the Selmah system.

We had allowed a full day to rig anchors and ropes for the main descent before starting the trip. We considered splitting into two rigging teams with one equipping the route we would take down Three Window and the other dropping ropes that we might use to exit up Seventh Hole, just in case. After much discussion we decided not to rig Seventh Hole and instead to focus on rigging deeper into Three Window, which would allow faster progress on drop day, and be prepared to overnight underground. This was a more committing plan, since without an exit route up Seventh Hole, the only way out would be to make it all the way to Kahf Tahry.

We had plenty of time to consider that decision.

It’s fair to say we underestimated this beast. Several of us were strong climbers and mountaineers, but only Nicky had caving experience (from the glorious grottos of her native Belgium). Most of us had basic rope-work proficiency from many evenings sweating up and down the girders at the TRAX industrial rope training centre in Dubai, but not a lot of real-world caving. Nadine and I dropped our first cave five months ago, and four since. For Sal and Pike, their only previous trip underground was the long but straightforward single-pitch drop and climb at Majlis six weeks ago. So if someone called us a bunch of reckless amateurs, I wouldn’t disagree. I might say, that’s half the fun (if you make it back alive…).

“Go find the white lady”
Selmah’s landscape is deceptive. From afar it resembles a rolling, rocky high-mountain plain, but up close it’s riven by hidden dips and wadis. The sink-holes can be hard to find. Three Window is less than 50m from the main dirt road – we had driven past it unseen dozens of times on previous trips.

The main drop was straightforward to rig – a large but suspect tree, reinforced with a pre-tensioned back-tie to a chunk of countryside. Nicky dropped down a couple of metres to rig deviation slings on the far side, providing the rope a clean drop down the first pitch. A safety line anchored separately to a big rock thread completed the setup, and down we went.

Our first surprise was at the gloomy base of the second pitch when we looked round to find a local Omani dude hanging out next to our anchors, having climbed down 35m unroped in his flip-flops without putting a crease in his immaculate white dish-dash. This was the guardian of the caves, employed by the government to keep an eye on us. Nice guy.

The next drops looped down a near-vertical shaft through a series of rebelays and deviations hooked through natural thread-holes in the rock, to keep the working rope hanging free from abrasion. Nicky pushed ahead to 90m depth while we stacked up behind on the rebelays.

We had come fully loaded with bolting equipment, expecting almost no in-situ anchors, but found the main pitches ready-bolted. Someone had done a good job, and not long ago. So when the third pitch landed us in a dry plunge pool (“Wash n’ Go”) and we saw more shiny new 10mm bolts and Petzl hangers in place ahead, we decided to travel light. Nadine and Sal set off back up the ropes to hump 15kg of drills and metalwork back to the surface, while Nicky and I pushed on down to rig more ropes for the next day.

Around the corner came our first challenge – a 7m overhanging aid traverse high above a large black pond bubbling with methane. We cut away and replaced most of the tattered ropes, swung across and continued via a low-angled Tyrolean traverse and a funky narrow passage to the top of the next pitch, which we dropped with not an inch to spare at the bottom of our last rope.

At its base was a shallow round pool of crystal water and a network of side-chambers hung with curtains of flowstone and constellations of glittering water droplets. Time to go back for more rope and return in the morning.

The jug back up was long and hard. The others had a three-hour start on us so we were surprised to find the exit pitch still occupied. Sal had run out of steam below a jammed karabiner at the top deviation, parked himself up on a ledge and hollered at the local spectators squatting around the cave rim to “GO FIND THE WHITE LADY”. They roused Nadine from her nap in the car to help from above while Nicky climbed the safety rope and I free climbed out through the wadi, finding new respect for our guardian in his flip-flops. Nadine and Nicky sorted it. All safely out, our guardian reappeared with a pot of steaming tea made with zaatar, wild thyme, goat milk and a lot sugar. Nothing ever tasted better.

At least, until tomorrow.

Drop day
In the morning we scooted down yesterday’s rigging at a fine pace, if only to get our sunburned hides back into the shade. Fresh ropes took us down the last long drop and to the start of the 6km sideways section. As our keenest climber, Pike was getting jumpy with all this going down and no going up, so we unleashed him on the first upward section of aid climbing. This included such shenanigans as hanging off trad climbing wires cinched over the heads of old 6mm studs, and an entertaining pendulum using a rock thread in the ceiling to swing heavy packs across the chamber.
The next technical section was a high traverse above water along a steep-walled passage just narrow enough to bridge legs across to start with, but widening gradually to require acrobatics even from those of us with normal human-length legs. Fortunately, it was protected with an attractive green lifeline. Unfortunately the important section had been mashed to tatters by storm-waters – a salient point for those who ended up hanging from it (or sitting on me below it).

This was all shaping up to be a lot of fun. Three Window is a wonderfully varied cave combining nice big drops with technical rope-work, aid sections, cool rock formations, and the dominant feature of the mid-section: water. The wet stuff appears as a narrow gutter down the middle of the floor, easily straddled, but grows until scrambles to avoid wet feet turn into proper bouldering across sidewalls and ceilings. Soon enough we gave up, packed away dry gear and prepared to get moist. With the exception of Pike, who kept up the Spiderman show until a hold snapped off dumped him arse-first in the drink.

Filthy and sweaty, we found the water refreshingly cool – to begin with. It deepened, until we were no longer wading but swimming, buoyed by inflated dry-bags, through flooded passages up to 100m long. The water was clear and clean, flowing in little rapids over rimstone weirs. Nicky could not be restrained from treating the place like a waterpark and sliding down anything she could find with terrifying Flemish war cries. At many points a high jump and splash was the only way forward — cue plenty of malarkey. Pushing off and gliding through the water made a pleasant change from humping heavy packs over rough ground, and we made a good pace through this section, labelled on the map as “Opportunity Knocks”.

But time and exertion were adding up.

Cold and late

As a team we were not moving at the same pace, but we had to stick together, so those at the back got little rest and those out front got cold as they waited. Nobody really warmed up after this point. The mood turned serious, especially for our photographer Pike, who had dunked a $2000 camera lens in a sump. We stopped to eat and rest, and progress slowed – no thanks to the terrain. The ceilings began to close in from above while from the floor rose ranks of gours – walls of deposited flowstone blocking our way like rows of hurdles to be clambered and squeezed over. As the ceiling dropped further there were long sections of crawling or hunched-down lumbering. Exhausting, back-breaking work.

It was hard to figure out our location on the map, because for almost a kilometre there is little to mark out one section from another. We came upon a large open room on the left which I was convinced was Downham’s Chamber, meaning we were only 300m short of the bottom of Seventh Hole. All tired, we pushed on, while 300m turned into 400, 500, 600 – and still no opening.

Seventh Hole was psychologically important. Although we couldn’t escape up it because we hadn’t left ropes rigged down it, three of us had already come down that way right through to the exit at Kahf Tahry, so it would be familiar ground. For now, though, we were in the unknown. I was aware that at least one previous team had been forced to retreat back up Three Window. We would find this arduous considering how far we had already come, particularly tackling the water sections uphill.

I was also aware that the topography of these caves changes radically from season to season as storm-waters push tons of rocks and gravel from place to place. The exit to the bottom of Seventh Hole might be blocked. We wouldn’t know until we got there.

As we pushed on the team became strung out, with Nadine and I up front and Pike, Nicky and Sal behind. Nadine called a halt to wait while I scouted ahead a short way, finding what seemed to be a big opening. Was it Seventh Hole? No – a dead-end room that could only be Downham’s Chamber, the point I thought we had reached three hours ago. There was no going on. Cold and exhausted, we put on dry clothes, ate, lit a candle, broke out our silver emergency blankets and settled down to wait for the others.

They never came.

Fright night

Tired as we were, it was impossible to sleep. Water dripping from the ceiling onto ancient formations made bizarre noises, including one just like a dog barking. Even the movement of breathing under silver blankets makes an eerie metallic rustle like campfire popcorn.

Weighing on our minds was the fate of the others. Most likely, like us, they had just stopped to rest and would catch up soon enough. Possibly someone was injured, but it couldn’t be worse than a twisted ankle on this easy terrain. There was only one passage, so they couldn’t be lost. But still, we hadn’t made Seventh Hole, so everything was in play.

After a couple of hours (or three or four?) the cold began to bite; I was shivering continuously and worried about hypothermia. We had to move. Nadine sprang into action and booted me up. Leaving all our gear we hustled fast back the way we had come, looking for the others. We covered hundreds of metres, through an area of floor-to-ceiling pillars called “Selmah Forest”. How could they be so far back? Eventually we heard shouts and came across three lumps of shivering rescue blanket in a chamber just about tall enough to sit up in.

We figured out what had happened when we split. They hadn’t been far behind us at all – in fact, they came 50 metres short of Downham’s Chamber, but lost sight of us in front. At that point there is, in fact, only one way to go, but it’s a nasty crawl that doesn’t look promising. They had shouted for us, but it’s a feature of narrow curvy caves that sound doesn’t carry. So they sensibly retraced their steps to the last point we had all seen each other and stayed put, knowing we would return.

Camp Two also had a dark and surreal night. Sal spent the night fighting off small imaginary creatures that kept trying to invade the camp and nibble him. Pike was freezing in soaked clothes from a failed dry-bag, and passed the time shuffling around trying to find a place to pee in the pitch dark after his head-torch got hidden as part of Sal’s alien-defence mission. I hear Nicky put on a show to cheer everyone up, which I’m sorry to have missed.

No way back, and salvation

Back together again we forged on, warmed up and made good time back to Downham’s Chamber and beyond into wider passages where we encountered several more drops requiring ropes to abseil. We had only one 30m rope remaining. Until now we had left all of our ropes rigged in place, ready to retreat back up if needed. Now, to move forward, we would need to thread the halfway point of our remaining rope through a sling at the anchor, abseil down it doubled, and then pull one end to retrieve it at the bottom – leaving no rope rigged up the pitch, and no way back. Confident we were very close to Seventh Hole, we pulled the rope; and again; and again.

Soon enough, we made it. Writing about this moment sends shivers down my spine. Three Window Cave comes out part-way up a sidewall of the Canyon Room at the bottom of Seventh Hole, a chamber vast enough to swallow a city block of 15-storey buildings. We picked our way down a maze of massive flowstone walls to the boulder field at its base. Far, far above, we could see a rose-orange glow filtering down from sunlight on the upper walls of Seventh Hole.

We had slept 250m directly below our warm camp on the surface.

This was a moment of salvation, because from here we knew the way and what was involved: a couple of hours of time-consuming ups and downs of rope-work through flowstone barriers, then about 3km of underground hiking and scrambling through the boulders and underground canyon chambers of the “Selmah Highway”.

We were wiped, and it took forever. We did, however, find time to get creative. Pike binned his ascenders, free-climbed everything and introduced a ladies-only baggage handling service. Sal invented a magnificent new technique of upside-down abseiling with his feet in the air and his arse against the wall. I slipped above an abseil anchor to test the hypothesis that a tied-off Piranha eight and a single old 10mm bolt can take a factor-two fall on static rope. Passed!

And eventually, the monumental arch of Kahf Tahry hove into sight, framing the sunlit cliffs of the opposite canyon wall. We stumbled out into the heat of the afternoon. It was a magical moment in an ethereal place. It felt like walking out of the gates of the Underworld. But we weren’t home safe yet.

The walk

At Kahf Tahry we drank the last of our water. We had judged our supplies fairly well, balancing weight with safety, and those with more had shared generously with those (like me) who ran out early. But we should have refilled water in the wet sections of the cave, which were probably clean enough to be drinkable. Now we were all out, dehydrated, exhausted from 29 hours on the go, and in the middle of nowhere in a hot, bone-dry desert mountain range.

The most direct trail back to camp is a strenuous scramble directly back up out of the canyon to the plateau. Instead, expecting to be tired, we had left a car at a spot on the nearest dirt road that can be reached via a “donkey trail” (pity the donkeys) – a longer walk but on easier ground and with (only) a net 1000m of ascent. None of us had taken this route before, but we had a GPS and waypoints.

It was too much for Sal, who had been running on fumes for many hours already. Halfway, he sat down and couldn’t get up – even after a helpful scorched-earth motivational speech from Nadine. He self-diagnosed a “mild case of death”, and was moving nowhere without water.

We were screwed.

At that moment, singing and whistling around the corner came a local mountain man on his way back up to Selmah with a large gathered bundle of wild thyme. Nadine and Nicky communicated the dehydration-collapse situation, and our thyme-gatherer ran off around the canyon wall with an empty water bottle, promising to return in an hour from some secret spring or water cache. He left his thyme, so for sure he was coming back.

We had an hour of daylight remaining, just enough to get out and get help; but who should stay with Sal? Nobody volunteered. We left Sal alone. It was easy enough to rationalise: without water any who stayed would soon be in the same condition. First rule of rescue: don’t create more casualties. The thyme-gatherer is coming back to help. We can’t help unless we get out, get water, regroup and return.

These rationalisations felt wrong then because that’s all they were. Our decision weighs on my conscience now because that’s not why we did it. We did it because human beings close to their limit get selfish. None of us wanted to stay. Evolution favours self-preservation. So we took GPS coordinates and photos of Sal’s location, made him promise not to move from that spot alone, and fired off for the road.

We only just made it with what energy we had left. It was really close. We tore into the car and feasted on water, dried sausage and cold beer. Nothing ever tasted so good. We sprawled on the ground for half an hour before even noticing we were sitting in a circle around a large pile of donkey shit. Something of a moral metaphor, looking back.

Three hours later I stood in the dark at the edge of the plateau trying to get a phone signal. Pike and I were planning to head back down the canyon at first light. I was calling to raise the alert that if we didn’t find Sal, we would need help to mount a search. At that moment, a pickup pulled over the brow with its back door swinging open.

Out stepped Sal and his saviour in a waft of fresh mountain thyme.