IN WHAT WOULD BE pitch black if not for our cave-helmets and dive-torches, Paul fixes Petzl climbing anchors to a ceiling at the end of a tunnel. It looks out onto the skeletal remains of a long-collapsed bridge some 20m above a massive flooded chamber.
The anchor and resin have been selected for their suitability for attaching overhead and coping with the peculiarities of fixing into slate, but there is always some trepidation when you’re the first person to hang off these bolts. Still, there is no shortage of volunteers to give it a go.
We’re setting the anchors away from the ledge and above the lake so that we can abseil directly down into the water. To do this, Paul has to be suspended from the ceiling above the lake while drilling and fixing. Watching him work helps to highlight how difficult life must have been for the slate-miners who worked this quarry in a bygone era.
In fact many aspects of our expedition serve to bring the past into sharp contrast. Every day to get to work the men would have had to trek for several hours from the village up the mountainside, come rain or shine.
At some quarrying locations they would stay on site for the entire week, descending only to be with their families briefly for one day at weekends.
OUR OWN ACCESS to the quarry had started with a good hike up the mountain, but we had considerable assistance from Land Rover with transporting equipment and some divers up the mountain, and from a kind sheep-farmer who gave us permission to cross his land.
Neither Land Rover, the farmer nor, indeed, his sheep could help us to get our equipment deep underground. This had to be done manually.
The bolting done, equipment carried into the quarry and the team prepared, it’s time to execute the plan. The dive is, as expected, exceptional. Anyone who has done a night-dive will begin to understand the ethereal gliding, floating feeling – but only those who have dived in absolute darkness fully understand the isolation and complete freedom of this unique enveloping experience.
The clear waters absorb you, removing the concept of up or down. Your buddy’s light is the only link to the surface. As you sink that light becomes distant – a star to follow when the dive is complete.
The darkness encircles you, your senses piqued as your focus becomes dominated by the circle of light from your torch. This circle narrows and becomes sharp-edged as you approach a wall of crisp, untainted rock. There is no moss or earth to soften its edges.
Flying over such a landscape has been likened to space-walks – so far from other humans, connected only by that umbilical of light from your buddy’s torch, rippled by the surface on which it is trained.
Time is precious; relaxation and efficient techniques practised in a pool for months allow dives that seem to last an eternity, but our time is always limited. Buoyancy takes hold as we ascend the last few metres, gently lifting us towards the surface, our buddy and our next breath.
At the surface silence reigns, because communication within such a huge stone void is useless unless the other person is right beside you. But there is nothing to say – the other freediver has experienced what you have, and smiles knowingly, waiting to dive again.
THE TRANQUILITY IS BROKEN only by the last forced breaths before a dive, or the hushed tones of a departing diver exiting the water. The darkness is so complete that even this simple task must be acknowledged, both by those left in the water and by the support team receiving the diver at its edge.
Exits to all phreatic dive-sites are continually lit – it could take hours to find the way out if a black-out situation occurred, hours that we don’t have in this freezing water.
After all the divers have been accounted for, we exit the subterranean world to bright daylight and fresh espresso coffee – thanks to the ingenious Handpresso machine. For at least half an hour we hardly talk. The experience has been too overwhelming, and information-overloaded minds lose themselves in contemplation of it.
Anyone who has tried any caving will understand that the environment is challenging, both physically and in terms of safety. Even a relatively simple task can call for significant manpower and time. Such a trip requires specialist equipment, a back-up team and adequate resources.
To attempt a dive in this environment pushes the boundaries of diving, caving and the human experience. We look forward to the next unique experience and amazing adventure!
CAVING IS A NICHE SUBSET of sport-climbing, using simplified and specialist equipment, and techniques unique to the underground environment.
Freediving is a niche subset of diving, using simplified and specialist equipment to enable people to dive effortlessly on a single breath of air.
Combining these two sports has given rise to a new discipline that uses specialised equipment and new techniques, some modified from the two sports and some developed from scratch. Phreatic diving provides an opportunity to step into the uncharted world of subterranean lakes.
The core team of Julian, Kiri, Paul and I have dedicated hundreds of hours to developing the necessary skills over the past two years.
Many of those hours were spent underground with our caving instructors at Dolomite Training in Derbyshire.
Personal Specialist Equipment: Darkwater freedive kit (two-part long fins, 5mm open-cell suit). Standard & vertical caving kit (two dry and two wet light sources each). NoTanx uses Anchor Dive lights.
Individual Skill-Set: Freediving, vertical caving, climbing, high fitness level, hiking, teamwork, body and spatial awareness, exceptional communication skills.
Group Skill-Set: Expedition-planning, dive-planning & supervision, climbing, anchor-bolting & rope-rigging.