I've been compelled to write about a few trips in the past, each time it was something of significance - but only to me. This time however, getting something down on paper (???) feels slightly bizarre. I've dived (and caved) in a place I never dreamed I ever would, a place I've read a lot about and had at the back of my mind more often than not. I'd never heard of Wookey Hole previously and it was only from reading, "The Darkness Beckons" (soon to be republished) that the incredible stories of how men would use the ever improving technology of the time and couple it with the constant of their own will to progress the exploration. Sometimes with success, sometimes will failure and sometimes with tradegy. They were incredibly forward thinking for their time (1930s), with many of the tools and techniques divers now take for granted being either developed or perfected here. The fact that one of the principal explorers (using Siebe Gorman hard hat gear) was a woman (Penelope "Mossy" Powell) gives you an indication into their mentality and it's one I greatly admire.
If you can do it, do it.
I want to be clear up front before writing anything and make a distinction between these men (and women) and myself - I am not them. For this trip I am effectively nothing more that a tourist who got to pay his respects to the efforts of others
I'm also not going to fill in all the blanks - if you're curious, you'll find out more.
11am and I'm already standing on the shoulders of giants, our trip starts in Chamber 9 and is accessed via a man-made tunnel directly outside the showcave which permits tourist (and diver) access. We would be diving from here and emerging in air in Chamber 22, reverting back to dry caving and repeating the process twice more to arrive at our ultimate goal in Chamber 24.
My equipment for these dives is very similar to that which divers have used here for the last 30-40 years and has it's roots firmly wedged in the world of British caving...wellies on your feet (standard caving fair), a 5mm wetsuit, neoprene wetsocks, gloves, hood, sidemount harness (which itself derived from the use of single strap caving belts - please visit Duncan Price's excellent sump4.com for more information - http://www.sump4.com/sidemount/) A helmet with four lights on, a set of tools and an extra torch mounted on my forearm and a dive computer. Last but not least, two seven litre bottles and one three litre bottle. Everything was configurable to allow us to adapt and move from environment to environment easily. Nature finds the best solution over time, depending upon the conditions of a given environment and it's the same with the people who dive here. Despite there being subtle differences in each person's configuration, they're all variations on a species, and that's born through necessity (and not wanting to have to carry some bloody thing more that you have to).
All of the gear has been brought into the cave, we climb the railing and descend the short ladder into the pit with the pool of water at the bottom of Chamber 9 - dive base. Despite diving with another TD (CDG Trainee Diver) and two QDs (CDG Qualified Diver) everyone is responsible for their setup and checking that everything works as they want it, although we were in a group everyone was diving "solo" there was no buddy check, we had no buddys and this is correct for this type of diving in this environment.
Everyone had stopped talking bollocks (a sure sign that there was some very careful final checking going on) and we were ready. I felt some apprehension, "Good, I am still human" I thought to myself...everybody ready and we headed down. The apprehension lifted the minute I hit the water to be replaced with relaxed paranoia, it's wrong to call it autopilot because it's not, you are paying very careful attention to the line, the surroundings but perhaps it's part of the training, number of dives and experienced accrued to date that allows you to move through in a less heightened state than you'd expect. This initial part of the dive (progressing through "The Deep" section) was fairly mechanical although the diver in me loved looking at the reflections in the water, the light beams in the other divers' torches and geological aspects of this part of the cave (passing from Conglomerate into Limestone).
We slowly descended past the oxygen rebreather limits of the divers of the late 40s and 50s, passing below chamber 12 and 13* and Bob Davies' famous phrase, "The Devil is a gentleman." floated through my head. I briefly thought of him sitting above me in the airbell with his feet dangling in the water deciding what to do...
We were soon on the ascend and arrived in Chamber 22, we would return here (but exit via the "Shallow" route). One seven litre deposited and it was back on with the job of caving, climbing over boulders and the odd bit of crawling. There are quite a few ladders that have been carried here over the years to help with the transportation of equipment (be it for filming of pushing the limits beyond chamber 25, "The Lake of Gloom"). We arrived at out next diving destination which was the other side of a large boulder where a very useful platform had been constructed with scaffolding and wood to allow you to kit up prior to jumping into the deep rift. This was a static sump and the conditions (on the way in) were excellent. Polyprop located, I sank below the water, followed the line down and quickly arrived in chamber 23 at the other side. I was now in for a proper treat - mud and lots of it. Another ladder climb and another cylinder drop off, this time leaving fins behind as well, just one more static sump and we emerged into chamber 24.
It was here that the QDs allowed the TDs to go first, with the only proviso that we shut up and listened. It was a special moment, this is what is was like for Bear and Yeadon all those years before, the sand floor, the giant expanse of the passage - this is what it was like. Torches on full, I slowly gazed around, hardly daring to breath...and then in the distance I could hear a low roar. The underground River Axe, it was long and deep, without saying anything we all quickened pace - I can only imagine the excitement that the original young men must have felt.
More boulders, more ladders and more rifts, were the order of the day punctuated with a nice vertical wall climb and thoughtfully placed rope. The River was now directly below us and I moved ahead placing a foot on either side of the rift, to arrive at Sting Corner. The water here was very low allowing us to jump in and wade through the chest deep water channel once round the corner.
We arrived at "The Camp"- used for the 1982 and 1985 explorations which would push the limits of chamber 25, this is where it happened, this is where mixed gases were pioneered and it was great to see it in real life.
So that is pretty much it, we've all read tales of diving in absolute zero viz and I experienced that first hand exiting chamber 24 and 23 which I won't bore anybody with here - and despite them not being a good experience, they were good experience.
I have the usual very long list of people to thank, but until I get their permission I won't be adding any of their names just yet.
Here is a short video of some of the activities, it doesn't really capture the scale of 24 or the noise of the River Axe, but it's what I have to remind me
*I'd originally said 13 & 14 so many thanks to Mr. Price (he who knows) for the correction!
Update: Harnessing the magic of t'internet, you can now experience the underwater magic of a dive from chamber 23 to chamber 24. It was not this nice on the way out...