Monday 15 May 2017

The Top Five Things I Learned While Going Caving With the Dudley Caving Club by Sarah Lotz

It started a couple of years ago. I was trawling YouTube for inspiration for a book I was thinking of writing, idly browsing caving videos. All I knew at that stage was that I wanted to write about an adrenalin junkie who has an unfortunate experience when he breaks into a cave that’s been out of bounds for years (I should probably point out that I write commercial horror fiction!). Top of the heap were a series of superb clips by Keith Edwards of the Dudley Caving Club, which left the other videos in the dust (in the acknowledgements of the book I call him the Spielberg of the caving scene – although I suspect Keith has a far keener sense of humour). I was on the edge of my seat watching them, peering through my fingers like I used to do as a kid when the scary bits of Doctor Who came on. I contacted Keith, and asked him if he’d be prepared to let me pick his brain about the caving scene. He did much more than that; he invited me to visit the windmill and offered to take me underground. Everyone I met at the windmill was welcoming and kind, even though I’m fairly sure they all thought I was bonkers. Talk turned to which route to take me. I’d heard somewhere that if you go underground for long enough, when you emerge you can smell what the air ‘really’ smells like. It was Mark who suggested we do the OFD 1 to Cwm Dwr through trip – five hours should give me that. And so my husband Charlie and I set off to meet Keith, Mark and Brendan on a drizzly Welsh morning.

I did get to smell what the air ‘really’ smells like. That and much, much more.

The trip wasn’t easy, but it was bloody brilliant. And I got the inspiration for half a novel out of it (the other bit is set on a mountain), even if I did get some of the caving terminology wrong.

Sarah and Charlie the start of their adventure
Anyway, in the style of Simon Newman, the book’s protagonist, who as well as being a hapless adrenalin junkie runs a nasty little website that becomes the precursor of Buzzfeed, fake news and all that’s wrong about the internet (and yes, he is what most people would call an arsehole), here are The Top Five Things I Learned While Going Caving With the Dudley Caving Club:

1) A sense of humour helps

And you have to have one to take a neurotic writer and her gung-ho husband under the earth for five hours. It was a big ask, especially as I had zero caving or climbing experience (I have a condition commonly known as laziness), and Charlie is at the other end of the scale – he has no fear.

Keith, Brendan and Mark told us exactly what to bring, were endlessly patient, and at no point, not once, did they ever lose their cool. Brendan even took a photograph of us balancing on a pipe on top of a churning pool, which took a great deal of setting up and generosity.

They are exactly the kind of people I would want by my side in a zombie apocalypse. And they’re also what my brother would call ‘as funny as fuck.’

Sarah negotiating the Letterbox

2) Claustrophobia was the least of my worries

In one of Keith’s Cwm Dwr videos there’s a moment where Mark gets stuck in a pipe (I can’t tell you exactly where on the vid it is – I have only managed to watch it once). Those few seconds of footage made The Descent look like Bambi and gave me nightmares. This trepidation was fuelled by Capetonian friends who, on learning I was going down a big hole, all had horror stories about people getting stuck in the notorious Cango Caves, trapped in a funnel for hours with nothing to look at except an American tourist’s giant arse.

But when I was actually underground, the squeeze bits were my favourite – I loved every second of corkscrewing our way through a boulder choke and scrabbling along a squeeze the height of a microwave. And I didn’t experience one second of claustrophobia. I put this down to the head-lamps, which were far brighter than I expected, and the fact I was being shepherded by the best in the business.

I’ll put my hands up and say that I fudged this in the book and made it a thousand times scarier than it actually is. (I’m a horror writer – if I don’t tap into people’s fears then I’ve failed). But I have told everyone I’ve met since writing the novel that claustrophobia really isn’t an issue and was the least of my worries.

And when I say it was the least of my worries, see below.

Sarah on the Diver's pitch
Sarah said it was more frightening than being held up by four armed men and being attacked by lions

3) Screaming doesn’t help

There was one point (shortly after we were posted through the letterbox) where I had to be winched over and down what looked to me to be a bloody great sheer cliff (and what everyone else termed a ‘small ledge’). I did have a bit of a cry on the way down (especially when I realised Keith was filming me). Keith, Brendan and Mark lowered me down inch by inch, never once losing patience or calling me out for being pathetic. Charlie showed me up and crawled down there like a monkey.

I did things on that trip I never thought I would do: reaching for a chain and dangling backwards over the unforgiving stone floor; being shoved up a slippery pipe; being hauled across the yawning maw of a plummeting ravine (more a crevice, but still). And although I couldn’t have been further out of my comfort zone (and admittedly had a bit of a meltdown) I never once felt unsafe.

An expression of pure enjoyment

4) Leave it to the experts

At one stage I remember looking up and seeing Mark scooting up a rock face like Spiderman, and then peering down at us from what seemed to be a huge height. I still have no clue how he got up there.

Charlie practically had to be held back bodily from having a go at this. As Keith had just explained to me in detail how difficult it was to get an injured person out of a cave (and we’d passed a crevice in which a young woman had been trapped for hours), we wisely dissuaded him.

Glad to be out

5) Sometimes you can depend on the kindness of strangers

There are many things I took away from this experience: That anyone can go caving if they have a crack team with them (even unfit foul-mouthed writers). That the sport is beyond exhilarating, and the unique perspective you get from being under the earth is priceless, rewarding and like being in another world – something few people get to experience. In short, it’s a real privilege.

But most importantly, that the people who make up the caving community are generous, funny and pretty much unshakable.

Keith, Mark and Brendan have a cameo in the book as the rescuers who show up and risk their lives to pluck Simon out of his fictional cave when he runs into trouble (inspired by Keith telling me that only cavers can rescue cavers). I thought this was fitting, as I could picture them doing that.

Thank you, Dudley Caving Club. The novel couldn’t have been written without you.

You all rock (no pun intended)

Sarah Lotz

A Short Video from the Trip

The Book

The book was published in the UK on 4th May 2017.

No comments:

Post a Comment