Many years ago, during a caving trip with the Scouts, I was asked to propel myself headfirst down a tunnel so narrow I could barely wiggle my hips or lift my face out of the dirt. I can’t remember much else about the experience, other than a rising sense of panic, and a very fervent desire to be elsewhere. The realisation that I’m mildly claustrophobic has bugged me ever since, so when the Alpkit Foundation offered a day’s caving instruction for 15 quid, I figured it was finally time to face my fear and, hopefully, bury it forever in a cavern under the Peaks.
This is how I found myself peering down a hole in Stoney Middleton with six other punters and a steely-eyed instructor called Neil Bentley (whose name, for some reason, was ringing a little bell at the back of my head). The hole in question was an entrance to Carls Wark cavern - a ‘grade 1’ excursion that would involve crawling through natural and mined tunnels, sometimes on our bellies, for the next two hours. I smiled and nodded enthusiastically as Neil explained all this, in an effort to show just how appalled I definitely wasn’t feeling about the prospect …
The initial descent was simple enough, after which came some easy crawling, before a tighter section that dived steeply down and round a bend. For reasons still unknown, I tackled this part head-first, struggling to walk on my hands down a rocky chute while my legs (which would have been eminently more suited to the task) clattered along behind like two pieces of awkward luggage. This stupid technique did, however, have the advantage of feeling more ‘adventurous’, and by the time I plopped out into the larger area below it felt like I was already starting to gently kick claustrophobia’s arse.
This next space was big enough for all eight of us to crouch down together, and Neil took the opportunity to point out thousands of fossil shellfish called brachiopods that covered the roof and walls around. We paused in this atmospheric place to take it all in: up a hill, down a hole, in a cliff that was once the seabed, it struck me that we were just eight more future fossils, trapped like all the rest within that steady accumulation of sea life, pressure and time that geologists call limestone. I also realised that I badly needed a wee … but by this time Neil had scuttled off down another hole, so such thoughts had to be put on hold.
As we followed our brilliant guide deeper into the rock he explained the sights revealed in our lamplight. We learned how the neat oval profile of phreatic tubes came to be, and how the delicate cave straws slowly dripped themselves into existence on the ceilings. We learned about the flowstone-covered floors and boulder clay beneath our feet, and we saw where the old lead miners had left tunnels and wonders of their own. For a moment we experienced it all as they would have, when Neil lit two candles and asked us to turn off our electric lights. It was a little brighter than I expected but infinitely more atmospheric, and when he blew those candles out the blackness was so complete it seemed tangible - like an all-enveloping tar that stuck to your skin and eyes and was impossible to wipe away.
By the time we turned to retrace our route out, the confined space had pressure cooked a real sense of camaraderie into the group. What had been a collection of strangers was now a team of explorers, looking out for each other as we stooped, crawled, squeezed and waded back to the light. Just as we neared the end, Neil proposed a final trial; an optional tunnel called the ‘snake squeeze’ that was considerably tighter than anything we had yet encountered. Realising this would be the crucial test of my resolve, I reluctantly joined three others in accepting the challenge.
When we laid eyes on the tube in question, memories of that fateful day with the Scouts came rushing back. Could I do it, or would I freak out? I know Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t talking about cavers when he said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, but at that moment his words made perfect sense to me - I was literally scared of getting too scared. So I simply decided not to be.
“Who’s going first?” asked Neil. My hand went up – partly because I needed to get it over with, but also because one of the other guys was really nervous too; and if he got stuck ahead of me I’d be faced with the unappealing prospect of having my only route to freedom blocked by two wellies and an arse. So in I went, reminding myself to focus entirely on the job in hand, look ahead, plan my movements and make damn sure I didn’t contemplate the many tons of rock bearing down on all sides. As I pushed through that tube my world reduced to nothing more than a series of wriggling, dragging, crawling, skootching, pulling and slithering movements, until … freedom. I was amazed how quickly I’d made it to the chamber beyond, and even more surprised to note that, mixed in with all the adrenaline and relief, there was just a slight aftertaste of ‘enjoyment’ too.
When my nervous companion emerged from the same hole we slapped each other on the back and shook hands like people who’d just conquered Everest. Which, in our own little way, I guess we had. It was a wonderful feeling, and ten minutes later life got even better as I emerged to savour the glorious autumn sunshine and a long-overdue pee.
Once back at home the name ‘Neil Bentley’ was still ringing that bell in my head, so I Googled it and finally realised who my instructor for the day had been. Life-changing phobia therapy in the company of a true climbing legend; comfortably the best £15 I’ve ever spent. Thank you, Alpkit.