Blog posts from Gareth, Imogen and Neil
Cave 1 is GUE's introduction to cave diving. It has limits of using a about a fifth of your available gas on the penetration, which sounds awfully conservative until you see what happens when something goes awry. On Cave1, things tend to go more awry than they go well.
We got up and had a hearty breakfast. Actually, we had a fairly restrained breakfast. I think we were all feeling a little nervous.
We were due to be picke dup by Danny at 0745. We thought he meant the main gate, so we hiked the 1.5 miles and waited. And waited. Turns out he meant just outside the hotel. Oops. He figured it out faster than we did and returned to pick us up in oneof the biggest dive wagons I have ever seen. Thank god it had powerful air conditioning too or when we arrived at ZG fixe minutes later they would have opened the back door and I would just have poured out onto the floor. We had slept well, but ut turns out if you ever go abroad to somewhere with a mosquito problem, remember to pack a Neil Powell with you. Imogen and I had been left pretty much in peace by the evil little bast*rds, but Neil had been eaten alive. Over the course of the fortnight he had hundreds of nasty welts appear. On one day we counted 25 nasty looking bites on his face alone. I averaged one or two a day, so felt like I got lucky, apart from one day when I woke up with 20 odd bites on my back itching like a bast*rd. Naturally we took the piss out of Neil ruthlessly despite his obvious discomfort. We hopped into the car/truck/wagon/train that Danny had turned up in and drove the 5k or so to Zero Gravity. I think the front of the truck might have already been there. Clearly gas is not super expensive in Mexico.
At Zero Gravity, and Danny put us in an air conditioned room (thank you god) and began the course. He began it exactly the way I start fundies. He asked us what our concerns were about the course, and what we wanted out of it. I told him frankly that I wanted three things out of the course
1. I wanted to develop my personal skills in terms of speed and finesse
2. I wanted something to create a new passion in diving
3. I needed a cave1 qualification to become a Tech1 instructor
In terms of worries about the course I was honest about this too. I told him that I was worried I might go underground and just freak out and decide cave diving is not for me. He didn't look particularly concerned about this, and told me we would be taking things slowly, but also told me that it's not for everyone. For some people, the dark and confinement just plays with their heads. I was very, very worried that this would be me.
The course began with a GUE introduction, which frankly Danny spent more time quizzing us on than teaching. He was clearly changing the course to suit his audendience already, which I thought was cool. He outlined the course limits and requirements very clearly. The limits are simple. Reserve a third of your gas, and you can use a third of whats left to swim in. You can go past one intersection, and no jumps. I thought this was quite restructive at the start of the course. I don't now. Thus might mean you can use 40 bar of a twinset to swim in. That doesn't sound like a lot until you remember that soe caves average 4 metres, and with twin AL80s on your back this might mean an hour underground. I suspect it might be a little while before I worry about that being too restrictive, although deeper caves will obviously be limiting. The course is designed to give you all the necessary skills and knowledge to start to safely cave dive, not turn you into instant gurus. However, if there is one thing I have learned about GUE, it's that they have a slightly different interpretation of the word "introductory" than anyone else, and we knew the course would be very challenging. Minimum decompression, which means no mandatory stops, and no sneaky taking a stage to extend your gas. Simple.
We went through all the skills we would be required to do. Start off with a review of fundamentals skills. S Drills, Valve drills. Move into valve failures, line laying, following lines, exiting the cave, contouring, torch failures, blind exits, blind gas sharing exits, lost buddy procedure, lost line procedure. the list went on. I started to realise that this course was going to be as acfiton packed as the others I had done. I had somehow convinced myself that Cave1 would be easy. Almost a tick of the box. It hit home fairly quickly that this was not an extension of my existing skills, but a completely new skillset, and accompioning knowledge. Shit. I'd spent a few years now in the luxurious position of being a stronger diver than most of the people I see in the water. I suddenly felt very new and inexperienced.
However, it's impossible to be stressed around Danny Riordan. He has an amazingly relaxed manner, and exudes calm. He is also completely bat-shit crazy about caves. He will talk with passion for hours about how caves form, how we can negatively affect the environment as divers. He talks with as much passion about mayan culture, about how the glith enters a cave, about the local flora and fauna. He is a walking wikipedia about cave diving, but presents everything with a profound and very honest passion. I knew immediately we had picked the right instructor for me.
We also had an intern on the course, Meredith Tanguay. "Mer" was friendly, and clearly as nuts about cave diving as Danny. She was also Tech2/Cave2 so obviously a very skilled diver in her own right. We spent the week trying to teach her offensive British slang and pass it off as normal. Unfortunately she was too clever for us, which is a shame, because I think "you're such as twat" is a perfect way to thank your grandfather for a christmas present"..
We went through all the required paperwork, with Danny sticking rigidly to the requirements at all times, and then talked about the plan for the day. We would do some more theory, then head to Cenote Eden, which was only five minutes away. There we would do our swim test in open water, then do some field drills about line laying. the theory was interesting, because frankly up to then I knew nothing about cave diving. Nothing. The lectures focussed on gas management. Simple calculations to ensure everyone agreed on the amoutn of gas available for the dive, and turn pressures. Danny kept it very simple, and adjusted the pace based on how quickly we were taking it in. Basically, he was pressing all my "good instructor" buttons. Once we had all got that, we decamped and went outside. At which point my face melted, my clothes burst into flame, and all I could hear through the sound of my own ears crisping was the sound of everyone else screaming in pain. Well, not quite, but you get the picture. Apparently, the room had been spectacularly air conditioned whilst Mexico heated up in the morning sun. It had been raining the previous day so this was the first time we had experienced the real heat of the sun. We stepped over the several gazillion army ants that had decided to walk through Zero Gravity on their way somewhere ("don't step on them Garf they bite and they've got a lot of friends") and climbed into Danny's truck.
A quick drive and we arrived in Eden, the location of our first cavern and cave dive. as anyone who has been there will know, it's well named. I mean, just look at it.
First up, was the swim test to cool everyone down. The water was about 27 degrees, crystal clear and loaded with fish, so plenty to look at. I wasn't particularly worried about anyone failing the swim test. I had recently put Neil and Imogen through the instructor swim test of 600 metres and they had both finished comfortably in 12 minutes or so. I had recently done the same thing at an instructor requalification in 9 minutes. Thw swim test for Cave 1 is easy by comparison. The requirements are a minimum of 375 in 14 minutes. Notice I say minimum. There's nothing stopping an instructor from ramping it up if he wants to. Danny wanted us to swim 40 metres in 12 minutes. Easy peasy. Except for one thing. I had neglected to allow for 1 thing. Jet lag. I had been up since 3am and felt utterly exhausted. Within 6 strokes I knew I was in trouble. Real trouble. I had zero energy. Nothing. What technique I have fell apart and I ended up muscling through the water. I actually felt like quitting. I seriously considered it. I thought I was going to fail the test, fail the course at the first hurdle and end up totally humiliated, sitting out the course whilst my wife and friend continued. I genuinely don't know how I got through the next 10 minutes I don't know but it hurt. I ended up finishing it in 10 minutes, with everyone else doing it in 8. I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself, even though I knew the cause. A GUE instructor trainer who could hardly complete a simple swim test. I felt like a fraud.
Danny gave us a few minutes to get our breath back and we did the underwater swim. This I definitely wasn't worried about. I didn't even listen to the requirement because I know I could double it. I lovely underwater swim for about 20 metres looking at the fish and I felt a little more like I belonged there. Everyone completed with no issue, so we swam back to the starting point. Underwater, of course.
With the swim test ticked off it was time to do some diving and get our fundies skills assessed. So it was valve drills and s drills in 3 metres of water. Imogen dropped into the water and just slipped into position. Absolutely rock solid with no movement. Whatever combination of weights and undersuits she had chosen had left her looking like she was suspended on wires. for comparison take an average completely neurotic farm cat. give it come form or neuromuscular disorder. and a signficant quantity of Cocaine. That's what Neil and I looked like. On that day you could have thrown your washing into Cenote Eden along with some washing powder, and Neil and I would have cleaned your clothes with us. It must have looked like we were doing some kind of futuristic robotic dance. Or having a fairly major seizure. We just couldn't settle down. Procedurally, the drills were spot on, but we were definitely a bit wobbly, with Neil and dropping half a metre at one point before getting it under control. I couldn't stop my fins waggling and Neil was in the same boat. Amazingly, Danny was delighted with the skills and said he was happy to move forwards. I guess he had seen whatever he needed to see, but I knew Neil and I were not happy.
So, off we went for our first cavern dive. Well. I don't know what to say really. I didn't freak out. It was just stunning. There's no way to describe seeing the light start to grow as you swim back into the cavern zone. There's no way to describe the peace and quiet in there, or the precision required. I can't adaquately express how seeing a ceiling covered in speleothems that took thousands of years to form before being frozen into place by the water takes your breath away. It's like swimming through a time capsule. It's just maginificant. Now you understand why cave dives require great precison. It's for two reasons. Firstly, you will do anything to avoid being the one that damages the cave. The floors are littered with the wreckage where people have banged into the ceiling and snapped things off. Secondly, and I didn't grasp this until later in the course, no amount of gas is enough. You could spend forever in there, lost in the beauty of the cave. So your 40 bar needs to last as long as humanly possible. how do you achieve that? You slow down. You become very efficient. You ensure your propsulsion techques are perfect. You avoid doing any movement that isn't necessary. To protect the cave avoid getting snagged in anything, and extend your dive as long as possible you become as efficient as possible, and become aware of where every arm and leg is. To avoid flooding the cave with flashing lights your torch hand goes into slow motion. This is why cave dives look so calm, so slow. They are protecting the environment, their team, and themselves. and trying to get as much out of the dive as possible. We swam from the cavern, along what's known as the cavern line, along a short line to the next cavern, and back. No issues, no failures. Just a gentle swim, and a lovely introduction to diving underground. I knew I was in trouble. Real trouble. I had the same feeling when I took up diving for the first time. I knew when I first when I did my first confined water dive that I had just changed my life. I had the same feeling on my first dive. the trouble comes form the fact that I've spent quite a bit of money on gear since that first confined water dive...
We left it at that for the first day. Danny asked us som esimple questions. Did we notice the colour of the line. Yep. Was it braided or twisted. Got that. did we pass any markers. Yup. How many? Excellent. What did they say on them? Bollocks. We learned even on that first day that you go into a cave like an empty notebook, and as you enter the cave you soak up information. Depth, time, gas, compass, flow, debris, gemoetry of the cave, flow, temperature, , light, absolutely any clies that would help you find your way out if you got lost. As you swim in you fill up more pages of your notebook as you pass line markers or knots in the rope. You are building a mental picture of the cave. Danny does not want to create was he calls "line followers", soneone that just trusts the line and swims in and out. He wants to create cave divers, who soak up what they see like a sponge, and file it away for later in case there's a problem. I understood why this was so important to him. As we would find out later in the course, a cave is a very different place when you take the comfort of the line away. Very different.
Once we were done we headed back to Zero Gravity where Danny briefed us on the events of the next day. Line laying and then a "proper" cave dive well out of the cavern zone. Awesome. I went back to the hotel with mixed emotions. I was throughly humiliated by my performance in the swim test, pissed off that my normal rock steady trim and buoyancy had obviously been left behind in the UK somewhere, but totally exhilarated by the experience in the cave.
This isn't us I'm afraid, but I did find this video on youtube, which will give you a good idea of what the cavern is like.