Downer Da' Pitch...

I was invited by the editor to relate the "rescuer's" side of the story over the Cow Pot incident at the end of last year. Despite a caver's apparent ghoulish interest in other speleo's misfortunes, writing articles such as this are I believe necessary, for by learning through others mistakes we hopefully do not make them ourselves. Stories involving victims require tact, something for which I am not always famous for. I have therefore tried to keep this account fair to all concerned and also hope that readers of the article will have learned something from this episode together with the unwilling participants.

Over the New Year an (odd) assortment of cavers from Croydon and Plymouth stayed at Bull Pot Farm for just under a week. Being right next to Casterton Fell meant that sooner or later we were going to have to leave the barrels of beer alone and go caving, so a few days before New Year's Eve an exchange trip was arranged between Lancaster Hole and Cow Pot.

My group consisted of Eric Downer, Martyn Pickering and Adrian Paniwnyk whilst the other team was to be lead by Carl Gibbs supported by his Plymouth mates. After the usual disorder it was decided that we should descend Lancaster Hole whilst Carl's group would descend Cow Pot and meet us somewhere underground (the Cow Pot route joins the rest of the cave after a 90ft abseil from the roof into Fall Pot). Because of the walk to Cow Pot, the extra rigging considerations and the good humoured but strenuously denied, alleged incompetence of the other group, they were given a head start before we set off towards Lancaster Hole.

Arriving at the entrance shaft just before another group from Red Rose Potholing Club, I hurriedly rigged the entrance 110ft pitch and we all descended. After having a good natter to the other group at the bottom, we set off ahead of them not wishing to demonstrate how unfamiliar we were with the route finding. After surprisingly little blundering about we reached Fall Pot and thankfully we didn't have to wait long until Carl's group appeared. Sitting ourselves down we watched the impressive sight of the Great White Hunter from the African Savana (Carl) and his coolies abseiling into the chamber. Due to the amount of water in the main streamway, the unsettled weather conditions outside, and the booze back at Bull Pot Farm we all decided that an 'if in doubt don't hang about' type trip was the most appropriate.

We sloshed up stream until we found a climb which made us feel only slightly worried about having to go up it. Ascending a tatty bit of rope amongst big nasty boulders we gained the high level series. There were now just three of us as due to the pace we had somehow left Adrian behind with Carl's team back in the main streamway. Feeling pleased with our route finding however we bumped into the Red Rose crew again and seemed to leave them with the impression we knew what we were about. Finally we made our way back to Fall Pot and waited for Carl's group to appear. After a short wait it seemed that the young tigers were obviously either too keen or stupid and would be gone for a little while. By the time I was ready to ascend the rope up into the bottom end of Cow Pot the others caught us up. The plan was then re-commenced only with a slight modification, Adrian would exit with Carl out of Lancaster, leaving Eric, Martyn and me to de-rig Cow. All went well and we finally reached the 70ft Cow Pot entrance pitch.

Eric ascended first, nicely sweating in his neoprene (they don't call them wetsuits for nothing), followed by Martyn. De-rigging on the way up I removed the one deviation and unscrewed the maillon from the new DMM P-hanger that had been placed for the main re-belay, leaving the knots tied as usual. Struggling over the edge of the limestone platform that juts out over the 70ft sheer gash that is the entrance shaft of Cow Pot, I immediately noticed how dark and claggy it was on the surface. Slackening off my chest harness to enable me to resume a less Quasimodo like stance I finished the de-rigging and left Martyn to push all of the rope into the tackle bag. Eric had already de-kitted and as he stood there in his black wetsuit, his bright red SRT kit bag was the only thing that was easily visible in the gloom. None of us was entirely sure of where Cow Pot was in relation to Lancaster Hole so I skirted round the deep shaft to try and see where we were on the Fell.

As I made my way up the shakehole bank directly opposite the other two, a movement suddenly caught my eye and I saw what looked like a red tackle bag disappear down a crack to one side of the pitch. This was immediately followed by a sound of something having all of the wind knocked out of it, followed by a plummeting/thumping noise. My initial reaction was that somebody had accidentally back healed a tackle bag over the edge, although somehow it didn't sound quite right as if it hadn't gone all the way to the bottom. Martyn had had his back to Eric but he quickly jerked around at the noise and then back to me with an startled look on his face and shouted "Sh*t! Where's Eric?!".

From my view point I couldn't see Eric anywhere and it then became alarmingly obvious what had happened. After a stunned silence Martyn said with finality "That's it then." Not knowing or being able to accept what had just happened I tried to reassure Martyn and raced around the pit, back to where Eric had last been seen. Lying down I leaned carefully over the edge of the drop and some half way down the shaft at one end was a motionless light shining upwards, but I still couldn't actually see Eric. Eric had by now been silent for a distressingly long amount of time and so I tried to elicit some response by shouting to him. By the third yell I was getting worried, but as I shouted I heard a faint noise coming from near the light. The moaning got louder until an unmistakable "Below" drifted up from the depths; better late than never I suppose!

Eric was definitely hurt and not knowing either his injuries or what had stopped his fall meant that I had to find out as soon as possible. Within a few minutes Eric's condition thankfully improved such that although he was still slurring his speech and not making a lot of sense (concussion), I was able to establish some two-way communication with him. As it was now clear that he was only half-way down the 70ft shaft my first fear was that he was in imminent danger of accidentally falling down the remaining distance and finishing himself off. I tried in vain to get him to stay put until I could see where he was and what his injuries were, but partly due to his disorientation he was intent to see what he had done to himself. Thankfully either Eric had regained enough sense by now to realise where he was or was so incapacitated that he was unlikely to roll off the ledge anyway. Eric didn't know how he had fallen but although he was badly shaken and winded he thought that he hadn't done himself too much mischief.

I quickly conversed with Martyn about going to call the CRO out. Better to get them out ASAP I thought even if we didn't really need them, rather than wish I'd called them out when the victim had started to go into shock or worse. One of us had to stay with Eric and one had to go for help. We weren't sure who knew Casterton Fell the best, but due to my experience I was probably the one who should stay with Eric. This was agreed and after a less than professional exchange of how to find Bull Pot Farm in the fog at night, Martyn tried to get his bearings before he left.

Eric heard me sending Martyn away to summon help and called me to stop him. At the time I was torn between possibly over reacting to the accident, or possibly making a fatal mistake by taking a decision based on the victim under-estimating the seriousness of his predicament. Calling Martyn who was starting to disappear into the fog to hold on for a moment, I decided that I would try to further ascertain Eric's condition. If anything seemed to be broken or seriously wrong I would initiate a CRO call-out, if not we would try to get him out ourselves.

This on reflection was probably not a good idea for if Eric had had back or internal injuries I might not have realised until he had started to ascend. Once on the rope, his condition could have gone downhill rapidly with us being even less able to help him. Although everything eventually turned out OK, with hindsight I should have continued to get the CRO call-out initiated and then stayed with Eric on the ledge. The first few minutes after an accident are very often the most important; possibly the difference between life and death.

Martyn came back and I pulled out the last rope from the tackle bag, and attaching it to two fixed hangers we threw the rest down the pitch. Abseiling down a few feet, I stopped to untie the knot that had been used for the rebelay and then asked Martyn to keep an eye on any abrasion over the top edge of the pitch. Eric was by now sitting upright on a ledge at the extreme end of the shaft below me. Abseiling down about 25ft I hung above Eric to ascertain if I could get close to him. The sloping ledge was about the size of two doors joined together and because of the position of it, I had to pendulum over to it. Staying on the rope for protection I then dealt with Eric.

Eric had checked himself over and although still concussed seemed to be in good spirits with no obvious breaks. Before he had stopped at the ledge he thought that he had bounced off several things on his 'descent' and although these had slowed his fall they had exacted a price. The ledge was sloping and combined with a layer of soil and vegetation had provided a better crash mat than could have been expected. Eric had landed on his back with his feet just a yard away from the next 40ft drop and (unfortunately) his head on a number of small rocks at the cleft end of the ledge. Although his helmet was still on there was a rather nasty looking deep cut up under the back of his helmet from which a not insubstantial quantity of blood had already flowed. On examining the cut it seemed to be already clotting and so I decided that it was probably not too serious. Trying to avoid the pool of blood I suddenly noticed a bony/organic looking lump in its centre, and thinking it had been a part of Eric until recently I picked it out (with gloves on) and showed it to him. Upon asking if he knew what it could be he answered "probably my brain"; on closer examination he was nearer than he might have guessed as it turned out to be a hazel-nut!

Eric was still too shaken and winded from his fall for the ascent so I sat with him for a short while being aware of the gradual stiffening or possible shock that might be setting in. Not wishing him to rush him too much I dressed him in his SRT kit as safely and comfortable as possible, and checked him over again. Eric still had enough mobility to prusik, albeit very slowly, so I placed his cams on the rope and loaded it so that his descent would be as easy as possible.

Shouting to Martyn that he was on his way up Eric started off. Eric's return trip up the shaft for the second time that day took less time than I had expected and Martyn soon man-handled him over the edge. Taking him to a position of relative safety on the surface he sat him down. The abrasion point at the shaft edge seemed to be doing no damage to the rope so I ascended whilst Martyn de-kitted our victim.

Having packed all the bags yet again we guided Eric round the shakehole keeping the possibility of another plummet down to a minimum. Eric still seemed to be suffering from slight concussion as his balance was a bit wobbly and speech still slightly slurred. Partly by luck we found the path back to the farm in the fog and started the walk back. As soon as I saw the lights I left Martyn and ran to raise some help. Bursting into the main room still in my caving kit I hurriedly explained to an alarmed crowd that we had had an accident and needed to get Eric to Hospital as soon as possible. Trying to put peoples minds at rest without also wasting valuable time describing what had happened I asked for a driver with car.

Sarah Blundell offered her car and Catherine Dunkling prepared the back seat of the car for Eric, giving him some warm blankets and something to lay his head on (!). I removed my SRT kit but kept my oversuit on and jumped into the back to keep an eye on Eric. I had decided that although I had already had enough excitement for one evening it was best that I also went. If Eric had blacked out before arrival to casualty somebody should be there that could describe exactly what had happened. The fog was continuously thick all the way to Lancaster making the journey very slow. Keeping an eye on Eric I became concerned as I had noticed on several occasions that he had started to shake.

Arriving in Lancaster we soon found the Royal Infirmary without too much difficulty although we did at one stage almost drive into an area marked 'MORGUE' which thankfully Eric didn't seem aware of. As the two girls helped him into a wheel chair and took him away I gave Eric's details as well as a brief overview of the accident. The casualty department in Lancaster is used to receiving all 'outdoor' accidents from the Three Peaks area and so Eric's injury was nothing unusual, they were however a bit perplexed to be told that he had actually finished caving when he had then had his accident 'underground'. Despite the injuries they were able to remove his caving kit off him without the time honoured ritual with a scalpel. On the X-rays nothing seemed broken and the nasty cut had to have nine stitches, very little damage considering the fall. During this time I had to sit in the waiting area fully kitted up, sweating and trying desperately to persuade the punters that caving really wasn't dangerous. My furry suit was still draining and on several occasions I had to empty my wellies out in the toilet as pools of water kept forming under the seat I was sitting on (incontinence, moi?).

We pleaded with the nurse to let him stay over night but they thought that he would be alright lying down amongst the rats at Bull Pot Farm! If delayed concussion had then set in, to get him back to Lancaster might have been too late. Still grumbling we returned to the Farm and bedded Eric down as best we could.

The next day we examined the shaft to see how and where Eric had fallen. He had been extremely fortunate. It seems he had put one foot back on a clump of moss that was over-hanging the shaft and then over balanced backwards and fallen. His initial plummet was slowed and controlled for the first 10ft down a narrow rift and it had stopped him falling out into the shaft. Hitting a sloping bulge plus an overhanging branch had then directed his fall for the next 15ft away from the main drop and into the only part of the rift that contained a ledge just big enough to land on! I bet he couldn't manage that one again if he tried! Eric has thankfully mostly recovered although he did suffer from recurring shoulder and neck problems for a while afterwards. I am glad to say that this has not put him off caving totally as it might have done to lesser mortals.

Paul Stacey