I know all of this because the crushing reality of my body’s dimensions are being impressed upon me while I’m bobbing in a waterlogged tunnel in Bagshawe Cavern on a Sunday morning.
The sun is shining somewhere above but down here it’s cold and dark. I’ve just crawled 10 metres across sharp rocks and icy mud to reach this point. The roof of the tunnel — already scraping against the top of my helmet — dips down further in front of me into a pool of grimly opaque water that my little headlamp fails to pierce.
I can’t pass and I can’t go back because the nose of my wife, Zaneta, is at my feet behind me. The only way forward is to sink my head into the water and swim-wriggle through to the other side of the blockage. I take a big gulp of the carbon dioxide-rich air, swear to never have another beer, and get ready to slip into the black.
I hadn’t realised this is what I’d be letting myself in for when I’d agreed to spend two days with Lost Earth Adventures, climbing, abseiling, gorge scrambling and caving in the Peak District. Zaneta and I had done a bit of bouldering at our local climbing wall, and I foolishly mentioned this to Richard, our guide, on our first morning. He promptly spirited us away to Stanage Edge, a gritstone escarpment that draws climbers from around the world.
Our challenge for the day was a section of the rock face known as Black Hawk Hell Crack — 53ft of slate-grey ‘no thank you’. It rose up out of the chilly Derbyshire morning with a sheer and foreboding countenance, frowning down at the last vestiges of confidence we had. Richard was at the top of the cliff and had rigged us up with harnesses and ropes so that we were — technically — safe. It didn’t feel like that halfway up as my hands scrambled for purchase on wet rock, my face exfoliated against the gritstone, and my head swam when I made the mistake of looking down at the sawtooth rocks 25ft below. I slipped as I got to the very top slab and dangled from both hands, legs kicking in the air, the tug of the rope at my belly providing little reassurance. But I quickly flung myself over the top and gave a sly middle finger to Death.
After lunch, we headed off for some gorge walking — basically, climbing up a stream. We wiggled into wetsuits and set off across a glade to the rumbling, tumbling waters, set against blinding greenery. As bracingly cold water sloshed over the tops of my boots, I said goodbye to feeling warm for a while. The shifting rocks were sharp and slippery underfoot and it took a while to settle into the right gait. Along the banks, sheep stood looking bemused as we slowly slipped and slid our way upstream.
Every few metres, we hit a small waterfall that we had to climb, water exploding around our heads as we scrambled for purchase on the mossy rocks. It was exhilarating to have our faces smooshed right up against so much beauty.
At one point, the streambed fell away under our feet, a deep hole opened up and we were treading water. This spot became our target for a cannonball rock-jump from a shelf above. The finale was a 10ft waterfall that we had to climb with a rope. At the top, I laid down in the stream, panting, feeling the water rush into my wetsuit and the energy rush out of my body. What a day.
We explored a number of tunnels and caverns, dipping into little offshoots, before eventually abseiling down to the lower levels, where impressive rock formations abounded.
It’s wasn’t long before we were caked in mud, and crawling through watery tunnels, made all the more challenging by our distorted senses. Soon we were rigged up with ropes again, abseiling down a dark hole, with Richard and Tom shouting down encouragement.
After landing on solid ground, it was back to crawling through freezing mud puddles that slowly began to rise. We were hitting the underground river. Soon enough we were in water up to our chins, helmets grinding against the cave roof, mouths tilted up to snatch oxygen from the thin pocket of air above us.
Bobbing along, we used the rocks below to propel ourselves forward — which brings us to now, and the seemingly impassable obstacle. There’s no way forward other than down and through. I take a deep breath, shut my eyes and go for it. Everything goes dark and cold as I grab the rocks along the bottom to pull myself down and forward beneath the overhang. Even though it can only be about a metre long and takes just a few seconds to pass, I feel like I’m dying and crossing over to the other side. I come up spluttering with my mouth tasting of dirt. I can’t use my mud-caked hands to get the water out of my eyes, so can only blink quickly and shake my head. We high-five each other for surviving our River Styx and press on.
After slithering through a few more mud chutes, we crawl into a new space. The cave roof is low here too but it’s much drier, with just enough height to for us to get up on hands and knees. It’s also relatively wide, with hundreds of small stalactites and stalagmites stretching beyond the beams of our headlamps. They glow in the light, throwing phantasmagorical shapes against the shadowy walls of the cave. It feels like being a giant inside a Lilliputian cathedral, with limestone columns and spires erupting around us.
Without being prompted, the four of us stop talking; there’s no sound save our breathing and our heartbeats. Life is carrying on in its brash fashion far above our heads, but where we are, right now, there’s nothing — not the flutter of a bat, the scuttle of an ant or the scurry of a rat. Just an immense lack of life.
We back out slowly, sliding in the mud, and soon we’re talking again, sharing our thoughts on what it felt like to be entombed by such all-consuming silence. It’s a great moment.
And then we realise we have to do that underwater swim again.
I love pushing myself and this weekend seemed like the challenge of a lifetime. I’m interested in bouldering and climbing, and wanted to try rock climbing in stunning surroundings. Gorge walking sounded gentle… oh how wrong I was!
How prepared did you feel?
I’ve done a bit of indoor bouldering so climbing wasn’t completely new, but I was completely out of my depth when it came to gorge walking and caving. Thankfully, our guides were incredibly helpful, and knew exactly how to push me against my better judgement.
What was your favourite moment?
Scaling the equivalent of a four-storey building, hanging on a rope belayed by someone I’d just met, looking back and absorbing the beauty of the Peak District while breathing in the crisp, spring air.
What was the biggest challenging?
Squeezing through the tightest, muddiest tunnel on our hands and knees — if I had any remnants of claustrophobia they were eradicated by that. And that one part of the cave system we could only enter by ducking into ice-cold water.
Any advice for first timers?
Do it! Don’t overthink it. There’s no amount of mental work you can do to prepare for a weekend like this. It’s going to be challenging and difficult at times, but it will make you feel wonderful about yourself and your achievements.
Lost Earth Adventures runs privately guided weekends for two, climbing, abseiling, gorge walking and caving in the Peak District, with qualified instructors plus safety and technical equipment for £390. It also offers skills courses and experience days from £35 per person.
Published in Experiences 2017, free with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)