Porth-yr-Ogof: The Cave of Death

Porth-yr-Ogof is often translated from the Welsh as 'entrance to the cave'. However, in Celtic mythology 'Ogof' was a demon of the underworld, and it was believed that caves were the entrances to hell. Maybe the Celts were right, because one thing is certain: Last year Porth-yr-Ogof was the exit from the world for another 2 people, and to my recollection at least 16 people have died there in the last 20 years.

Is it not time this death toll stopped?

If this were a privately owned quarry or mine site, it would have been levelled or filled in long ago and the owners sued out of existence. Whilst the filling in of the cave is neither desirable or practicable, it is time to think of more effective ways of preventing the deaths other than warning notices.

Although I don't have access to the statistics, it is my view that the publication of the UBSS guide to the cave has had the effect of making the world of club cavers aware of the very real hazards of certain parts of the cave so that, apart from the death of a diver, all of the incidents have involved 'led' groups of inexperienced people undertaking general outdoor activities. There has been a huge upsurge in this type of caving at Porth-yr-Ogof. At weekends the car park is often full of upto 15 large minibuses of kids being kitted up. Some of them look as young as 10 or 12. Usually there are only 2 supervising adults per van load who are no doubt qualified for general outdoor activities, but how many are regular cavers in touch with the relative hazards of the different parts of the cave?

Having caved in the Ystradfellte area for 20 years and as a club leader for the major South Wales systems, it is my opinion that the current situation at Porth-yr-Ogof will inevitably lead to a continuing and increasing death toll. This cave is not safe for the role of training ground for groups of inadequately supervised children or youths. Although there are many areas of the cave that are not very hazardous on the face of it, it is all too easy for children to wander off and get lost. Then they are swept away in rapidly flowing sumped water.

I personally will not lead people through the ressurgence and will only attempt it in low water with a wet suit and a light weight battery. Anybody I go with does so at their own risk. Overcautious possibly, but I neither want to drown nor be responsible for the death of another. The entrance area is also highly unstable and large rock falls have occured. I have been to the local hospital to visit a friend half killed/burried by a rock fall.

So who is to blame (if anyone)?

  1. The Forestry Commission who bought the land and built the car park, toilets, etc. It is my theory that they did this to counter public dissatisfaction with the way that they were covering the Mellte Forest with blankets of fir trees that are apparently completely useless and cost more to fell than they are worth. The car park was ill conceived and has increased the use of the area 100 fold. The Forestry Commission has effectively almost totally destroyed what was once an area of wild woodland by accelerating erosion and by permitting the felling of natural deadfalls. The area is now an environmental catastrophe.
  2. General outdoor activity/school groups with inadequate supervision. In my opinion they should not go anywhere near the river as once out of their depth the fast flowing water means that hazardous situations can occur quickly that are way beyond their ability. Some groups have wet suits, many do not, but as there are also dry routes it is difficult to assess the situation. Perhaps a survey is required? Inadequate knowledge of the cave is certainly a problem, especially in winter when leaders attempt routes that are open in summer but are semi-sumped in higher water conditions.

Possible actions: the following is a list of possible solutions for discussion.

  1. Prosecute any surviving leader of a death trip for manslaughter on the grounds that warning notices were recklessly ignored. This would probably be effective at frightening people out of the cave, but a bit unfair on the person concerned who would probably be in enough trouble anyway!
  2. Circulate all school/outdoor activity centres with a CRO letter stating that, in their opinion, all wet trips in the cave are intrinsically unsafe. This would probably invalidate their insurance and stop them going.
  3. Shut the car park at Porth-yr-Ogof and put bollards up the verges. People would then have to walk from the top car park. This would probably be one of the most effective ways as it is well known that many people are not prepared to walk more than 100 yards. They will often return to find all their belongings have been stolen which is a severe inducement to never go their again. This would also have the advantage of reducing the pressure on the environment in the area.
  4. The owners (The Forestry Commission) could possibly prohibit the use of the land by recreational groups undertaking caving on safety grounds. In practice it would be impossible to enforce. However, most official school groups would probably comply.
  5. Institute a permit/leader system along the lines of the Charterhouse system as used in the Mendips. Again, this would be impossible to enforce as you could hardly lock the cave up. Also, it would probably not be effective as many of the death trips have been led by relatively inexperienced people.

The above is intended to promote a discussion, so if you disagree with what I have written, please write in with better ideas. One last thought: If you saw 300 children heading off down the Coolah River Cave on a wet day, would you say anything? Remember, no one has been killed down Coolah River Cave; 15 have died in Porth-yr-Ogof. Which one do you think is more dangerous and why?

Chris Crowley