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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.