The title of this piece refers to the seven adults who spent a three hour journey to Somerset discreetly freaking out at the idea of climbing into very small, dark places on a gloomy autumn morning. We were later joined by another journalist and our caving guide. Fortunately for the sanity of all concerned only one of them was visibly concerned at the prospect of the small, dark and dangerous.
HeyUGuys may appear to the untrained eye to be a band of merry movie men but in fact some of us have never met. I will never forget the day I met HUG Dave because it was the day I broke my very sensible never engage in activity that requires you to wear a boiler suit rule. It was the day we went to Goatchurch Cavern…
Our guide, caving expert and jolly enthusiastic fellow, Andy Sparrow advised on the look and location of both the Descent films. His expertise ensured the quality and authenticity that won the first film such praise. Indeed he told us that only the most discerning eye could recognise the six girls as novice cavers. During the drive up we had split into hushed huddles consoling each other that no one would take writers proper caving. We would, we supposed, wander through echoing chambers looking at stalagmites and stalactites and trying to remember how to remember which was which. We might be offered, as the email suggested, more adventurous fare if we were game but on the whole it would be a jolly old jolly before we retired to the pub.
I don’t think Andy got the email.
The woodland walk up to the mouth of the cave was brisk and steep ““ a clue that the lazy Londoners were in for a challenging afternoon! We passed improbably small entrances to cave routes that Andy assured us were regularly used. The angular twists of the contorted tunnels in The Descent: Part 2 leapt unbidden into my mind. Dave skipped along oblivious, he hadn’t seen the film yet the poor unsuspecting fool. Neither had most of the others ““ I had to warn them we were doomed! *Breathe* my extra huge sweatshirt (all the better for cushioning my fall) was clearly restricting the airflow to my lungs as it crumpled inside my funky yet functional boiler suit. I had to calm down. We would be fine. We were all adults and one of us knew where they were. How bad could it be?
It was quite bad.
Don’t get me wrong I see now, in hindsight, that it was all it was great fun and it was a grand day out but I had recently seen The Descent: Part 2, the following night I was going to see it again. I was a woman with Crawlers on my mind (and dying alone in the darkness). Because we had already done the tourist bit you see, it was smallish and there were spiders but little in the way of Danger of Death. Two caverns in, we ran out of smallish and smacked straight into very small!
One of the things The Descent: Part 2 does very well is to conjure the handicap a helmet gives you. I smacked my head so often that day that I remember a constant staccato beat following me around like a tiny drummer boy. Obviously it is good to have the helmet in place to protect your skull, beauty and brains but each time you strike your head the helmet slips and you lose your line of sight. It is truly disorientating – sound pinballs underground and without your vision you are utterly lost. The hysteria Rios feels trapped in a flooded cavern came alive for me as I struggled to keep my head upright in a tight passage and wriggle myself free before I lost sight of the man in front. The sense of powerlessness is overwhelming.
I had never understood that caving was so three-dimensional. At times the boulders we lily-padded across came to sharp non-negotiable points at others they dropped swiftly away to nothing. The physical demands of the actors roles were bashed, bumped and bruised home to us all as elbows, knees and ribs held our tumbling weight. The need for teamwork was paramount and it was a comfort to have Dave’s enthusiastic grin beaming in my wake or a fellow writer’s foot blocking my fall. Messing around under the ground seems the quickest possible way to bond with a total stranger. Management training types should pick up on the benefits ““ and if they don’t all make it back well…win-win.
At the deepest point of our own descent Andy had us turn out our headlights (?) and only then did it really hit home that we were at the mercy of the cave. It was pitch black. That phrase is often misused, so to clarify it was a deep visceral enveloping blackness that obscured everything. Though he had been a funny and cheeky guide ““ coaxing us into ever tighter spots and climbs with teasing encouragement – Andy was deadly serious when he told us that every hour of progress you make into a cave adds ten hours to your rescue time. One of the regular routes he visits takes twelve hours to navigate. That is a hundred and twenty hour rescue. Gulp.
The climb out was harder, all of us more serious and determined. We had each pushed ourselves further than we intended and the overall mood was one of pride and shell shock. We were tired, bruised and a little sobered I think. We achieved a great deal on our Grand Day out in Burrington Combe. One of the “˜squeezes’, The Superman, was a Cirque Du Soleil feat of mind over matter – of “should my knees really bend back that way?“ We did things that English people rarely do sober ““ we encouraged one another. It was all very satisfying and totally exhausting.
The following evening I bravely attended the multimedia screening of The Descent: Part 2. Another caver was there representing Freud and we exchanged knowing smiles. “How were you this morning?” she asked “couldn’t raise my arms to wash my hair without weeping” I replied. “I know what you mean” she said, my fellow survivor.
The Descent Cavers
With huge thanks to Pathe for funding the event and to Tanya at Freud & Charlotte at Substance for organising.
You can also see a video taking by the guys over at SciFi.co.uk from the day too here.