The first few minutes underground were straightforward and gave the newcomers time to cool down both literally and metaphorically. A winding passage led to the head of a waterfall into a wide, vertical shaft about five metres deep. Descent was on a wire ladder away from the water. We thought it best not to mention in advance that climbing down one of these pesky ladders is a lot harder than climbing up. However, the novices (protected, of course, with a safety line) excelled and all sallied down like old timers.
The ensuing tall, narrow, passage, the “Crab Walk”, is so named because shuffling sideways is the only way to progress. A stream flows in it but it was not deep enough to come over the tops of wellies unless you stepped carelessly into one of the deeper pools that there are instead of stepping over it. Our novices probably thought our prior warnings about getting wet were just to wind them up. The first to find things otherwise was the biggest member of the party. The narrowest point along the Crab Walk is called “The Vice” and it slows down even thin cavers. Slightly larger cavers have to make an awkward upward shuffle into a marginally wider place, but if you do not fit there, the only option is uncomfortable. The passage is widest at the bottom and so you lie on your side in the stream and drag yourself through a bit at a time. The water is not deep, but our man got thoroughly soaked (and is to be congratulated for battling through). That gave the rest of the cavers a good laugh but things changed when, soon after, we first slid down an awkward water-chute and then climbed down a short fixed ladder, right in a waterfall.
Stompy passages and a couple of mildy-worrying climbs aided by fixed, knotted ropes led us eventually to the “Giant’s Windpipe”. The regular cavers knew what they were in for, and it was their turn to go quiet. The novices sensed the unease – probably because Matt told them how awful it was going to be. The Giant’s Windpipe is too low even to crouch in. You have to crawl, which would be all right expect that there are several inches of very muddy water in the passage. Lest you should otherwise get through partially dry and partially clean, for a metre or so the roof comes down so close to the water that you have to turn your head sideways, with one ear (and, of course, most of your body) immersed.
That got us properly wet for the final part of the journey – some more stomping and clambering until we were back in the Crab Walk but right up near the roof. This gave the novices their first opportunity to try traversing – proceeding with hands and feet on ledges on each side of the rift, straddling an alarming drop into darkness (or, if you are daft enough to look down, a drop to the stream we had earlier shuffled along in, far below). They approached this challenge with varied emotions – some of them seemingly unperturbed, others more wary – but they all conquered their fears. A lifeline-protected climb down got us back to the bottom of the Crab Walk.
Thence it was but a short shuffle to the ladder climb and the passage back to daylight. On stripping off to get changed, the novices discovered the one last thing that every experienced caver knows. Wrapped up in fleeces and waterproof overalls you may be, but the muddy water leaves nowhere untouched. White underpants are never the same again after a caving trip.