Caving the World’s Deepest Caves – August 2014

Phil Oakley and companions before the caving trip
Phil Oakley and companions before the caving trip

My adventure this summer was caving in France. I have been caving and potholing for over 20 years before losing my foot. In the RAF I caved with the Combined Services Caving Association (CSCA) who every 10 years organise a major expedition to the Gouffre Berger in the Vercors, France. Discovered in 1950, it was the first cave to pass 1000m deep and contains some of the largest and best cave formations in the world. At 1123m deep, it is still one of the world’s deepest caves and is one of the classic cave trips. I went to the bottom in 2004 (pre-amputation) so I knew how hard and technical it was. Caving with one foot is not easy as I have discovered. Being throw off-balance is a major problem, as is wading through waste deep water which makes my prosthetic slowly slip off. I also need to be particularly careful when near vertical drops especially when not on a rope as balance is now that bit more difficult. Overcoming and adapting to new situations is a must when disabled and with every cave trip I learn something new. But, having a major problem at 1000m below the surface is not to be taken lightly, especially in a cave that is prone to flooding and in a region known for flash thunderstorms. With only six caving trips since amputation I hadn’t learnt enough about possible problems; also, I wasn’t cave fit. This time I decided just to go to ‘Camp 1’ at 500m below ground.

On a pitch
On a pitch

On the vertical drops (or pitches), the method of SRT (single rope technique) is used. To get on and off the rope I found myself straddling across pitches of 40m. With all my weight (uncomfortably) pressing into the socket, while keeping in balance and while connecting into the rope, required all my concentration. Fitness and agility was required to swing out into the open shafts. I always felt my prosthetic was slipping off while dangling on the rope as it hung from my stump without support and the build-up of sweat meant it was becoming less secure each passing hour.

Drying the sweat
Drying the sweat

Going up the rope was especially hard as most of the power now comes from my good leg and arms. One of the most unnerving parts was in the ‘Meanders’ section where for about 40 minutes I was straddling across a rift with drops below of up to 20m with nothing but my feet and bum in contact with the rock to hold me in place. When one foot does not always make good contact with the rock, your mind is very focused on getting the other points of contact right.

In the Meanders
In the Meanders
Some formations in the Cave of Thirteen
Some formations in the Cave of Thirteen

After 9 hours of hard caving I was back on the surface – with my two other companions. But this is not the end of this trip: There is still an hour walk back – up hill – to the car park. I was pleased I did this trip to Camp 1 and back. My apprehension about going into one of the most hostile environments for adventure sport does help push my mental strength to new boundaries. Once on the surface, I did feel ‘if only’? Maybe I should have pushed myself to go to the bottom? But it’s always there to be done again – in 10 years time?

Phil and his companions safely back on the surface
Phil and his companions safely back on the surface

Phil Oakley