A cave-walk, you say!?

Yesterday, I joined some of my colleagues on a cave walk. Having previously experienced Ailwee Cave in the Burren, I was expecting a leisurely walk through some beautiful geological features. In retrospect, the name of the cave–Hölloch, or Hell Hole–should perhaps have provided a clue.

Switzerland’s wonderful public transport got us easily to Muotathal, where the cave is situated. Four-minute connections between Swiss trains are a solid guarantee that you’ll get there on time – unlike Ireland, where they’d be a pretty good guarantee that you’ll miss your connecting journey and have to re-route via the furthest point on the island.

The first clue should perhaps have been when we got to the caving center, and they asked for name, address and phone number – specifying that they didn’t want our mobile numbers, but a number that could be used in case of emergency :-) Next clue, had I been watching, might have been the welly boots, full suit overalls, heavy gardening gloves, and good solid helmets. But I wasn’t watching, and once we were all suited up, we headed off happily up the mountain to the cave entrance.

We crossed a few small bridges on the way up the mountain, which I found a bit terrifying – but I pressed on, assuming that once we got to the cave, all would be well. Our guide stopped for a moment along the way, and asked if anyone had asthma, was afraid of heights, or narrow spaces. Thinking back to the last time I was asked that latter question, in Newgrange, I thought “well, yeah, I am petrified of truly narrow spaces, but the spaces in Newgrange weren’t so bad, so maybe this will be fine.”

I am, I will readily admit, an idiot.

So, we walked in to the cave, it’s not nearly as beautiful as Ailwee (and we’re all on headlamps – no artistically arranged electric lighting here!), but that’s ok, we’re only at the entrance. Next up, the guide warns us, is a little bit of scrambling. I’m mostly ok with that – I’m afraid of real climbing, and heights, but this is more just low ceilings and craggy floors.

Mild terror sets in when we come to a bit where you have to lie down and wiggle through the crack, but it’s a very short stretch, and I can see that it opens up to standing-room on the other side, so it’s fine. We all get through, and the guide takes a photo of us from way above, down through a fairly narrow gap. He had gone around the other way, and I’m assuming we all now go back the way we came, and on the way he had gone. But no. Now we’re meant to climb up there!?

Offsite at Hölloch

With a bit of a boost to get me up as far as the first foothold, and plenty of encouragement from those who’ve done it, I manage to get up. Argh! Scary!, but I’ve made it. We get everyone out, and start walking down further into the cave. As we walk along, I’m thinking “y’know, he asked about heights and claustrophobia, but he never asked about fear of the dark. It’s pretty dark in here. I’m kinda scared”. I try not to be a scaredy-cat, but heights, narrow spaces, climbing, and the dark are all things that will set me off.

Next stop, whaddaya know, it’s time to turn the lights off. There is no place darker than a cave with all the lights off, unless it’s a few hundred meters into the cave, and several hundred meters down, and even if there were cracks to the air above, they’re all filled in with an alpine winter’s worth of snow… And now he wants us to walk along like this!?

I put my left hand on the shoulder of the guy in front, and the guy behind me puts his left hand on my shoulder. Right hands are on the rock face, and off we go. The guy in front races ahead, and I’ve lost him within seconds – the guy behind keeps gently pushing me forward. I didn’t scream, but only because my breathing was far too panicked to get enough power into my lungs. I’m sure we can’t have gone too far, but it was horrific.

We spent about 3hrs exploring the cave, and I’d estimate less than half an hour of that was in spaces where I could stand straight. We climbed and crawled across sharp rocks, wedged ourselves into spaces to keep from slipping back on sandy spots, and at one stage traversed a two-foot-deep pool across a space that can’t have been more than 3’6″ before the water came. I was crying by the time I made it across – and I would never have made it at all if it weren’t for a colleague holding my hand, coaching me, telling me to breathe, keeping my balance right! Thank you Matthias!!

Two-thirds of the way through, we stopped for a rest, and an optional side tour. Stephen, Pierre and I opted out, and sat down on the rocks. Then, it started to get cold. So Steve and I found the one spot where we could stand mostly-upright, and broke into the Charleston :-) With a bit of encouragement, he even managed to do a swing-out, although I had to be careful where I stepped, as we had a “slot” just wide enough for one foot at a time between the rocks!

The break, and the dancing, did me good. When the guide returned with the others, he suggested that I stick straight behind him – keeping the whole group at the pace of the slowest member. I would have felt bad at doing so earlier, but I was getting tired and sore, and I was glad of his help. With lots of grit, and plenty of help from my friends, I made it through to the last hurdle.

“There’s a ladder”, he said. “You should go last, so I can help you”, he said. We got to the spot, a ravine with a ladder stretched over it. Hard to see what was on the other side. The guide went over, then the first of our gang. Across the ladder, and then somehow “up”. Rocks in the way, no way to know what happened next. Sitting beside the chasm, petrified of the ladder. Everyone else goes across. The guide tells the other person who’s afraid of heights “just look at me, don’t look down”.

I can do that. I have to, to get out of the cave. I crawl across to the ladder, fix my eyes on the flame of the guide’s lamp, and slowly make my way across. Hang on, it’s a dead end. Where now? Up!?

The way out of the cave is a 50m climb, straight up. Through a narrow crack. In the dark.

I can’t even get my foot to the first foothold. I climb up on the guide’s knee, and make it from there. I have never been so afraid. There are metal rungs sticking out of the rock. Some of them, I can get. Most of them are a few inches too high. Sometimes, the guide can push my foot up, and I make it. Other times, I just have to wedge my back against the wall behind me and make that leap of faith. It was, without exaggeration, the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It seemed to go on forever. Towards the end, the rungs turn into a ladder. There’s more space, but there’s also a ladder in the way :-) And it’s offset, a couple of feet to the left of the rungs I’ve been relying on.

I’ve screamed a couple of times along the way, and cried once. But it’s nothing to this ascent, which is punctuated by a stream of terrified invective against the cave, the ladder, and my slippery wellingtons! By the time I make it to the top, I’m barely breathing, and shaking from head to toe.

In the finest Swiss tradition, we finish with an Apéro. Beautiful plates of cold cuts are laid out, with fresh bread, and delicious wine. I go straight for the bottle of water, fill my cup, pass it on, take it back to refill my cup, and repeat until I’m almost calm. I’m still shaking, but the food helps a little. My lungs are full of cave dust – it’s a solid eighteen hours before I can breathe properly again. We head out of the cave, and back down the valley, where the wonderful Swiss transport system conveys us safely home.

Yesterday, every muscle in my body was jelly. I could barely stand (although I did an almost-convincing Charleston a couple of times on railway platforms to keep warm!). Every movement felt like fire. My legs were constantly threatening to cramp.

And yet, amazingly, today, I’m generally alright. By some miracle, I can move, I can walk, I’m not a solid mass of stiffness. My right shoulder is oh-so-sore, and my neck is beyond painful. My knees are skinned, and bruised to halfway down my shins. My back is blue and purple, my left forearm is yellow and blue, my right upperarm is just solid purple. But overall, I’m just thrilled that I made it out alive!

Lessons learned:

  • When someone suggests an offsite, do some research before signing up.
  • When someone suggests an offsite outdoors, be doubly careful.
  • When someone suggests an offsite in a cave, just say no.
  • When in doubt, Charleston! It’ll keep you warm if you’re cold, take your mind off the cave if you’re panicked, loosen your muscles if they’re threatening to get stiff :-) (A swing-out is an acceptable alternative, but requires slightly more space, and should perhaps be avoided on busy train platforms.)

Does anyone have some arnica?

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