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GUE Cave 1 course report - Part 1

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I was very, very worried about doing GUE Cave 1 in Mexico. This was for a couple of reasons. I had a very unpleasant experience getting lost inside a wreck eight years ago, and despite the fact that I use my experience in talks about how not to dive safely, and despite the fact that I went to counselling about it, I still to this day ocassionally wake up in a cold sweat feeling like the room is closing in on me.

So being properly, properly underground, with a significant distance and time before I could surface, and the very real possibility of getting lost, frankly scared the shit out of me. I was terrified that I would go into the cavern, bottle it, and spend two weeks drinking by the pool, with my dreams of becoming a Tech1 instructor (cave1 is a prerequisite) now in tatters. However, that's not the main reason I was scared. You see, I've been to South America before, and the one overriding memory of being in the jungle was that everything wants to eat you. Or sting you. Or lay eggs inside you. Or shag you. I am especially not good with wasps. When I say not good, I mean I once ran out of the 3M UK boardroom in the middle of a meeting because I saw a wasp land on my hand. "Not good" as in I cannot stay in the same room as them. I cannot be outside when they are around. I am properly, properly terrified of the little bastards. And they know it. So it was with some trepidation that I googled mexico and wasps and found that not only does the mexico paper wasp have a sting like a red hot needle, but the american tarantula hawk moth has been reported in Mexico, is two inches long and has a sting rated second in the world on the Shmidt pain index. FFS. In the end, I decided it was time to nut up or shut up, and way back in January I booked the trip. 

Cave 1 for me was something I had to do as a prerequisite for becoming a Tech1 instructor. I knew that just as some people say you can spot a GUE diver in the water, I reckon I can spot GUE cave trained people. They slow down. Their fin kicks become more precise. Their movement more fluid and less wasteful. I fancied some of that. I didn't have any particular interest in caves if I'm honest. I just needed to get it done. The first thing I needed was a team. Well, the first team member was easy. I don't get to go to Mexico for a fortnight without taking my wife, and I sure as hell don't get to spend all the time there cave diving without her, so that was two of us. She's IANTD ART and GUE Tech1 trained, and was looking to build her confidence and finesse, and experience something completely new. We decided we needed a third, and when we went looking Neil Powell, a GUE Instructor Intern popped up and just said yes on the spot. 

Next up was the instructor. It's fair to say GUE has some awesome cave instructors. Cave instruction is where the training element of GUE was born. In one part of the world you have Jarrod Jablonski and David Rhea, two of the most accomlished cave explorers in the world. In another part of the world you have Danny Riordan, Fred Devos, and Christophe le Maillot, 3 divers whose exploration background has to be read to be believed. I wanted to train in Mexico, as I have always wanted to visit, heard great things about the caves there, and had read great reports from the likes of James Sanderson and Howard Payne, good friends of mine who had done Cave1 in the Mexico in the past. That just left the instructor. The name Danny Riordan just kept cropping up. Google enough mexico cave diving and you can't help but stumble across Danny Riordan. He invented and developed the non-directional cave marker known as a "cookie". He has explored over 21,000 metres of cave, 6,000 metres of which was on a single penetration. He wa a founding member of Grupo de Exploracion Ox Bel Ha, the group that explored the longest cave system in the world, and is GUE's Cave Training Director. Now I don't mean to detract from the other guys at Zero Gravity. Having met them all, they are all great guys, accomplished explorers and educators in their own right. I just had to pick someone, and the beauty of GUE is that the course will be identical no matter who you do the course with. Really you are just trying to pick someone who's personality and teaching style will make for a pleasant course. Beyond that it doesn't, and shouldn't, matter which instructor you pick.

A few emails with Danny to work out dates and the decision was made. GUE Cave 1, on the Yucutan Peninsula in Mexico, in September 2014. With the exception of my wasp issue, and the tiny worry that I might soil my drysuit the moment the lights go out, we were on our way. Preparing for the course was easy. I've struggled with enough students who have tried to prepare for Fundies by learning all the fundies skills to understand it was important not to make the same mistake ourselves. Going through GUE courses is simple enough as long as you remember to do one thing - make sure that the skills learnt on the previous course are completely familiar and comfortable. If they are not, then the instructor has no choice but to basically brush up your fundies skills. Not fun when you want to be learning about caves. So we basically made sure our fundies skills were nailed and left it at that. To be honest, as a GUE instructor trainer, my skills damn well should be nailed, and with the other two being instructor interns I pushed them pretty hard to ensure their skills were approaching demonstration quality by the time the course came aroumd. Once we were happy with all the fundies skills, we left it at that. 

Choosing accommodation was a dilemma. Do you go for the cheap option, and rent an apartment, which brings with it associated stress and hassles of searching for, buying and cooking food, or do you go for the all inclusive which Puerto Aventuras is famous for, which costs quite a bit more money, but means zero stress in terms of cold drinks and food at any time of the day. We decided Cave1 would be stressful enough, so went for the all inclusive. We decided on Dreams in Puerto Aventuras, on the recommendation of a bunch of US GUE divers who stay there regularly. It turned out to be awesome, with endless food and drinks at any time of day, 6 restaurants to avoid repetition, a great spa and fitness rooms, several huge pools and - my personal favourite in any hotel - a seawater-fed rock pool. Awesome. 

Day 1 - Saturday

We arrived in Dreams on the saturday afternoon after a ten hour flight. Imogen was wide-eyed and refreshed, and ready to go. I felt like shit, as I do after every long haul flight. Neil played the brave man, but turned into a dribbling vegetable after one mojito so was clearly exhausted. Then we noticed the weather. Until a few days before we arrived, it had not rained in a month. Then, Nature played catch up. The only thing I have ever seen approaching the amount and ferocity of rain falling on the day we got to Mexico was in Barbados in Hurricane season. The good news is that the weather in Mexico is binary. It's either raining hard enough to make you give serious consideration to building some kind of ark, or it's so hot that you can amuse yourself by sitting in the sea and watching all the little kids on the beach burst into flame. At times it was 41 degrees and so humid you had to wipe your watch to read it. The hotel porters looked a little sick when they saw all the gear was had brought, but the service was excellent, as was the Mexican meal we had that evening, even if we all took it easy on the jalepenos.






Day 2 - Sunday

The plan for Day 2 was to take all of our kit to Zero Gravity, the GUE facility owned by Danny, Fred and Chris so that we could then chill out for the day and know where we were going for the first day of the course on the Monday. It was only five minutes up the road so we decided to hop in a taxi and take it there. Then it started raining. It was raining so hard that the raindrops were bouncing back up and hitting the ground again. It was raining so hard that we hid underneath a metal roof from it and it sounded like the end of the world. Kids were crying not because they were getting wet, but because their head's hurt. Then, just like that, it stopped and the temperature immediately rose to the high 30s. It was baking hot. So we decided to get going before we melted. 

Zero Gravity was something I hadn't seen before. They are almost 100% geared up for GUE cave divers. Combine the fact that they have thousands of miles of caves and are only a couple of hours flight from most places in the USA and this makes sense. No air, and only 32% and GUE standard trimix and decompression gases. Only GUE compliant gear available for hire. The retail outlet was a GUE wet dream. Don't think for a second that focussing on GUE divers limit the size of their business. The 100 or so twinsets going in and out of the door, the awesome new facilities they are about to move into, and the fleet of brand new trucks suggest they are doing ok. The fascinating bit was the walls of the shops, which are covered in images of local caves, which it has to be said are jaw-droppingly, almost mind-bogglingly beautiful. Then you notice each picture has a little bit of text, with a typical one reading "explored by Danny Riordan, 1997", or "Fred Devos, 2003". the place was ready for us, and the process smooth and easy. sorting everything out took no longer than 5 minutes so we had the taxi wait and then take us back to the hotel. then it was more mojitos and to lie in the pool and hope the temperature dropped before we had to get out. We had a very pleasant evening, and chatted about what we thought the course would bring, whether we would be up to it, and at what temperature human hair reaches it's flashpoint.

Click here for part 2

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Gareth Burrows is a GUE Instructor trainer, and a personal diving coach for recreational and technical divers of all levels, specialising in improving buoyancy control, trim and stability, in-water confidence, and ascent management. He has trained with PADI, TDI, IANTD and GUE as well as serving as a DO in a BSAC branch. He has been diving cold water wrecks in Europe and around the UK for over a decade, and can usually be found diving out of Brighton, Portland or Plymouth. He is qualifying later this year as a cave diver and looking to become a GUE tech1 instructor in the 18 months. He has trained or coached hundreds of divers from newly qualified open water divers, to course directors and technical instructors.