No Picnic at Hanging Rock

Following my lengthy entries in the Disaster Special, I had hoped to be able to progress safely towards fame, fortune and eternal happiness without further interruption. This unfortunately was not to be. The next incident to engulf the hapless Eric was the one of the most likely to give cavers sleepless nights: the roof collapsing without warning, and without even the consolation of having anybody to blame.

The day in question was Friday 29th October. Martyn and myself had travelled down to Wales on Thursday night in order to be in plenty of time for the bonfire festivities (and in order to get bunks). The plan was to spend Friday continuing with our long term project of surveying Ogof Fynnon.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the cave in question, it is a situated in the Forestry Commission above Ystradfellte. It's significance is in the sizeable stream it carries, and it's relationship to Porth Yr Ogof. In spite of the great potential it holds, it is a little visited site. This is probably due to the entrance series which is a climb down through a boulder choke until the streamway is reached. The boulders are shored up in places with bits of 4 by 2, and the cave has over the years acquired a reputation for instability. So much so that some club members refuse to go down.

It was a dry day on the surface, and we were surprised by the amount of water which was trickling from the roof of the entrance and down through the boulders. This did not seem to be a cause for concern though as we had been down in much wetter conditions in the past. I was in the lead as Martyn's lamp was a bit dim. We were making good progress until as I descended a boulder strewn passage I heard a rumbling from behind. 'Clumsy Git' I thought as I hurled myself towards the dubious shelter of a rocky outcrop. The initial deluge seemed to miss me. Just as I thought that I had escaped the largest boulder of all arrived. I had not had a chance to pull my legs into cover, and with the unerring precision of a cruise missile seeking the Baghdad Hilton, the rock locked onto my left leg. A bolt of pain shot up my leg as the weight settled down onto my poor tootsie, and I felt that my leg was about to break under the pressure.

"Martyn - get down here quick. My leg's trapped and it hurts."

Help was soon at hand, and together we were able to move the rock a little, thus removing the pressure from my calf, and reducing the pain somewhat. Amazingly my leg wasn't broken, but I couldn't feel my foot and had no way of assessing the damage. I was now relaxed enough to give the rock some serious consideration. It measured some 0.5 x 0.5 x 1.5 meters, and somehow in spite of it's speed had been brought to rest on the edge of a drop. Equally amazingly, most of the weight seemed to be supported so that my foot was trapped without being totally crushed.

Attempts to free my foot were unsuccessful. Martyn could not get in a position to offer much help, and I was unable to brace myself sufficiently. "Try this", said Martyn as he offered me a length of wood which presumably had until recently been holding the roof up. This I managed to get under one edge and use as a lever. The rock moved slightly and I was able to use a stone as a wedge to keep it in the new position. Attempts to produce further movement were unsuccessful as I was now unable to produce sufficient leverage, and the wood was starting to splinter.

I was by now able to feel my foot slightly, but was still completely unable to move it. I felt fairly convinced that with the aid of a crowbar I would be able to free myself, so after a brief discussion Martyn set off to get help. It was now 1.06.

I knew that time was going to drag, so I tried to work out how long I would have to wait. Out of the cave, to the road, down to the village, fetch a crowbar, drive back, down the cave. It would probably take at least an hour. My first aim was to reach 2.00. I was wearing a heavyweight furry, so cold shouldn't be too much of a problem, and for the first time ever I had remembered to bring a balaclava to wear while surveying. The first ten minutes were passed in getting it out of my inside pocket and putting it on. I then turned my attention to making myself more comfortable. I was unable to stretch out as there was a drop beside me. After some experiments I discovered that if I moved towards the offending rock, I could bend my right leg underneath me and lean against the wall. This produced a lot of tension in my left leg which I sought to alleviate by searching for flat stones and piling them under my left buttock.

When ones leg is trapped, unsurprisingly ones thoughts turn periodically to how best to free it. Intermittent attempts to achieve freedom had revealed that my foot rested on a largish stone. Unfortunately it was not possible to remove this as it was also supporting the boulder, and any attempts to move it would only make my situation worse.

At about this time I turned my mind to lighter matters. I felt certain that after the event people would want to know what I was thinking about so I made a conscious attempt to monitor my thoughts. All I can reveal however, is that when you have a rock on your foot, it is incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than about 10 seconds.

Somewhere along the line I became seriously concerned about the lack of circulation in my foot and renewed my attempts to get free. I found that by bracing my right foot I could use my leg to exert considerable leverage. I was only able to produce a small amount of movement, but by inserting a chockstone some of the pressure was relieved and I could feel circulation returning. My foot was still trapped, but I was now even more convinced that I could easily free myself when the tools arrived. To this end I located some more suitable stones which I kept ready to jam in when the moment arrived.

Eventually 2.00 came. Not much longer now I thought. Martyn should be here in 15 or 20 minutes. 20 minutes passed. 'Where is he?' I fumed. I set myself new deadlines which came and went. My temper rose and then subsided as I resigned myself to further waiting. Eventually after 2 hours I heard voices calling in the distance. I called back and after a while was able to establish communication with Chris Crowley and Andy Todd. "Which way is it?" called Chris. How could I tell? Where were they? In time my instructions and their common sense prevailed and after 15 minutes they were close enough for me to see their lights. Andy stayed where he was with some of the tackle, while Chris came down the final drop into the passage where I reposed.

Very rarely can anyone have been so glad to see him. "What do you want, coffee or freedom?" he asked jovially. 'No wonder they were so long' I thought 'fancy stopping to make coffee - all I want is a crowbar.' Getting free was not as easy as I had anticipated. Firstly the two bars Chris had brought were both fairly large and were difficult to wield in the confined space. Secondly the rock I was using as a fulcrum started moving. As this was also holding my chocks in place, I became concerned that the boulder would settle further onto my leg. Chris asked a series of questions like "Can you pull your foot out?" and "Can you free it from underneath?", not appearing to appreciate that I had already considered these issues at some length. After some consideration, Andy passed down a wire tether and a rope. After several minutes of trying I was able to wrap them around the lower end of the boulder and pass the loop to Chris. He was then able to haul on this as I worked, thus alleviating some of my anxiety. After several attempts we appeared to have reached the limits of movement with my foot still securely wedged. We stopped for a couple of minutes and had a breather. The pressure was definitely less than before so grasping my boot with both hands I pulled and twisted it as hard as I could until out it popped. I wasn't keen to stay in the area any longer, so as soon as I could I picked up the tape measure and we retraced our steps to rejoin Andy. Surprisingly, my foot seemed to be working alright and we were soon able to start out at a reasonable pace. After only a few minutes we met the advance guard of the CRO who promptly about turned and in only a few more minutes we were back on the surface.

On this particular occasion the Rescue Organisation was called out unnecessarily, although the members seemed unworried by this. They arrived surprisingly quickly given that it was not a weekend, a fact which may comfort you if you are ever unfortunate enough to be injured underground. The general attitude was that it was better to be called out early as any delay may result in the victim's condition worsening thus making rescue much more difficult. This does not mean of course that attempts at self rescue should not be made, but a call out should not be delayed by the fear of embarrassment. Most cavers do of course support the rescue organisations financially, but I would like to urge you to continue that support, as you never know how or when disaster may strike.

Following any underground accident we should perhaps ask ourselves why it happened and what can be done to prevent similar incidents. I have considered this incident at some length and in this particular case it is difficult to know the answers. The collapse did not appear to be the direct result of our passage, and having happened there did not appear to be any further avoiding action to be taken. Perhaps it reinforces the view that a trip should consist of more than two cavers. In this case entrapment would not have been prevented, although an early release might have been effected. Equally possible however is that any additional people could have been injured more severely in the collapse.

Should the lesson be to avoid caves that are known to be particularly hazardous? This might seem an obvious solution to an outsider, but is hardly in keeping with the average caver's desire to explore the unknown and to discover new passage.

The only suggestion I can put forward is to ensure that a large gap is kept between individuals when negotiating hazardous passages. The sizeable gap between myself and Martyn prevented us both being trapped in the same fall. A gap that was larger still might have prevented the rocks reaching me at all.

PS. My spellchecker suggested the following alterations:

CAVERS: Cagers, caners or capers.
CHRIS: Crass or christ.
TODD: Toad, toddy or tit.

Eric Downer