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Thrupe Lane Swallet

Even in this modern age of wet suits and other caving clobber, cavers on Mendip still hold on to the old style of dress, the good old woollies and boiler suits.  The following account by Marie Clarke gives one a feeling of ‘Hell, I’ll keep to my warm and comfy rubber clothes…

During August 1977 Clive North invited me to accompany him on a trip to Thrupe Lane Swallet, the weather had been inclement and the stream was considerably swollen.

The route to the bottom of the cave was to be via Perseverance Pot, Butt’s Chamber, Marble Chamber and the streamway to Atlas Pot.  From there on, the 20ft pitch to the platform, followed by the descent of the muddy Slither Pot route and so arrive at the bottom of Atlas.  This route was chosen in preference to the Atlas Pitch, as the trip was being undertaken after continual rain, and high waters were anticipated.  But how high, we were yet to discover.

The party consisted of Clive North, Richard Whitcombe, Simon Meade-King, Dave Everett, plus a few members of the West London Caving Club, including two novices and the writer.  Quite a large party!

The first wetting was down Cowsh Crawl, but this was only a minor indication of what was to follow. In Butt’s Chamber there was a sudden reshuffling of the boulder slope, which quickly dispersed the cavers of the party.  This may well have been the result of the water rushing through the mass of boulders. However, we proceeded to Marble Chamber where a shower bath greeted us, reminiscent of a downpour above ground. The streamway looked high and I followed Clive who had become jammed in the streamway with the outsize box he was carrying.  This contained equipment used at regular intervals to flood light the cave; all extremely impressive.  But this was no time to become jammed with a box as the water rose immediately behind us. We were an effective dam.  Care was necessary at the head of Atlas Pot where the water that was rushing down the streamway could easily sweep a caver over the pot.

It was agreed that the only possible route to the bottom of the cave was by Slither Pot, and at this point above Atlas, the two novices and one other caver turned back.  The descent of the 20ft was uneventful, although when once on the platform it was very draughty.  In fact, I shall always remember that platform for the intense cold, which appeared to be caused by the rush of water over the edge of Atlas and doubtless channelled up Slither.

As I only use a carbide lamp and the trip seemed to be lengthy, I was allowed second down the pitch. I found I had run out of rungs before reaching the bottom, but a swing on the ladder to a more or less convenient boulder and I was down.  Dave Everett followed me being the only other carbide caver in the party, and with Simon we went to look at the Atlas stream thundering over the boulders.  To accomplish this we crawled under a low arch which seemed to assume a magnitude of almost a sump, and climbed up about 8ft to witness the magnificent spectacle of a thundering cascade.  On my return under the low arch the draught blew out my lamp and I was plunged into darkness and up to my neck in water.  Simon rushed to my aid and we both tried to re-light the lamp, but without success.  By this time Dave, who was still on the Atlas side of the arch was also plunged into darkness, so Simon hurried off to Dave’s assistance.

By this time two more cavers had arrived at the bottom of the pitch, but none of us could re-light the lamps. So we patiently waited for Clive's box to arrive with the matches.  Lamps once again lit, Clive decided that Dave and I would have to return up the pitch because of our inadequate lighting, and also on account of my wearing the usual caving gear of boiler suit and woollens, not possessing a wet suit like the rest of the cavers; or like Clive, who was wearing a dry suit.  I was beginning to feel cold and even wet suited cavers were complaining too, of the cold.

While climbing the 70ft pitch, at about 20ft from the top I became aware of not possessing as much strength in the right arm as the left.  This was due to having torn a ligament some months previously; and I was feeling the unwelcome results of this minor injury.  This I felt was no time to discover my incapacity, so exerted extra effort; to battle my way up the remainder of the ladder.  Once at the top I experienced some difficulty in untying the bowline, but was assisted by the lifeliner.          

It was while waiting near the platform below the 20ft pitch, that shivering spasms began, the effects of exposure I knew.  Soon afterwards, Dave Everett joined me here, and I told him that I was experiencing shivering spasms.  He decided that we would make our way out as soon, as the next caver arrived equipped with a NiFe cell.  Dave and I could not attempt the exit together, as it seemed impossible to negotiate the 20ft pitch without being plunged into darkness by spray from the stream and our lamps were now burning low.  Matches and spares in Clive's box were somewhere at the bottom of the cave!

However, when the next caver did arrive he was reluctant to climb the 20ft pitch without a lifeline for fear of being swept off the ladder and down Atlas Pot.  It should be remembered that the trip was being undertaken in high water conditions and the water was running over the ladder.

So the three of us waited for another caver to appear who would climb the 20ft pitch and light it for Dave and I if necessary.  However, there seemed to be some delay at the 70ft Pitch, and my shivering spasms continued. I may have been standing on the platform for nearly half an hour; when Dave took the initiative and decided to climb and I would follow.  At this, the reluctant third caver sprung into action and climbed first after all, lighting the pitch for Dave and I.  The climb was straight forward and presented no difficulty, though very wet, and now fortunately we were both well lighted for our exit.

Once I started climbing the shivering stopped and did not re-occur even after another soaking in the streamway.  Our progress out of the cave may have been a little slower than the descent, but this was to be expected.  The extra weight of clothes, when soaked, is considerable and only fully realised when removed after a trip.  The only incident at Perseverance Pot was when Dave's light finally failed before reaching the top.  My light was barely glowing and after a short distance was completely extinguished and so we three reached the entrance shaft caving on the Nife cell only!

Form this experience I have learned, that once thoroughly soaked you must keep moving and above all, especially where there are ladders to climb, on this occasion there were four, it is essential to prevent the circulation from cutting off to the hands. I do this by wearing a pair of nylon gloves under rubber gloves and when wet can be wrung out if necessary.  Also on this occasion I warmed by hands by placing them on my neck as it was vital to be able to grip the rungs of the ladders.

Regarding the shivering spasms, I was fully conversant with the consequences if this state continued, but I was also determined to reach the surface again and I knew I could do it without help.  Determination increased tolerance and I remained calm, and also being a caver of some experience I felt I was capable of climbing all the ladders, and take further soaking in the streamway.  Never for one moment did I entertain the thought that I should not regain the surface.

Congratulations To Roy Pearce

‘Caves in Camera’ is the title of an appreciation of the cave photographer and member of the club - Roy Pearce.  He has the privilege to address the zoology section of the British Association. Those who know Roy will be well aware of his series of ‘bug’ photographs that are quite unique.