It was a relief to actually start our expedition down Titan, Britain’s deepest cave shaft. It was an even bigger relief when our leader Tim announced the plan.
“I think we should ascend back up the ropes once we reach the bottom, rather than doing the Titan through trip”.
“Thank god for that,” I said.
I’d been fretting all week about swimming through freezing underground lakes and squeezing through tight passages.
Harnesses over waterproof suits, thick socks inside wellies, the five of us headed across fields laden with big bags of rope and smaller ones of flapjack, flasks of tea and spare clothes.
We gaped in awe as Tim unlocked and swung open the metal door to reveal the first shaft. It was like staring down a long gun barrel carved of rock. A 170ft abseil and a crawl through knee-deep water along a horizontal passage lead to the edge of the 460ft Titan shaft proper. My feet were sodden already, but I hardly noticed.
“How’s it looking Andy?” shouted Ed somewhere behind me.
“Insane,” I said.
It was a team game from the outset. I fed out the rope to Tim who tied it to steel bolts fixed to the rock before vanishing into the void. His large shadow projected on to the curved wall opposite.
“Ok,” he yelled eventually.
I set off. The fear of now being suspended by a single piece of rope dissipated as the beam of my light illuminated a weird jellyfish-like calcification, wet, glistening, with dangling stone tentacles. It seemed to take an age to reach Tim.
“Watch those giant blocks they’re loose,” he warned.
I clipped into safety next to Tim.
“This is the halfway point, known as the Event Horizon,” he said. “Right I’ll crack on with the next abseil.”
Above me, the lights of Ed, Jon and Ross were pinpricks in the black. Below me, Tim’s light flickered on the wall. If something happened to one of us in here, we’d have to sort it out ourselves (there is no mobile reception whatsoever). I’d experienced this isolation before as a coalminer and when pioneering ascents on remote Himalayan peaks. In both situations the chance of rescue was negligible. For this reason, the Titan feels very committing too.
When Ross, the last one, joined the rest of us on the bottom, we congratulated each other, laughing nervously, aware of the huge climb back up ahead of us. Before setting off, we turned off our lights for a few moments and experienced utter blackness. It would take each person at least an hour to climb back up the ropes using jumars.
The magnificence and scale of the place was awesome and helped take my mind off the brutal physical effort. At half height, back at the Event Horizon, Tim encouraged Jon and I to explore a side passage while the others continued up. We set off along a spectacular horizontal slot over a series of awkward steps against a tide of crystal clear water.
“I’m not sure about this,” Jon said at the second step.
“Let’s go a bit further,” I enthused.
At the end of the passage, untouched delicate straw stalactites hung from the ceiling. Then the slot faded to a hole just two feet high.
“That is the stuff of nightmares,” I said, stopping abruptly.
“Yes, I don’t fancy that,” Jon concurred.
Hardcore cavers would have continued into another chamber, but I had reached my own goal and, stunned by Titan’s natural splendour, ascended the next two ropes deeply relaxed, despite the burning ache in my arms and rods of water bouncing off my helmet.
We had been down the cave for seven hours. Popping my head back out into the light, warmed my heart – the green of the grass, the sunlight filtering through a bank of cloud towards Manchester. It was the same sense of relief I’d felt every day as a miner, emerging from the cage after a shift underground.
The entrance is locked and covered by a steel lid. A few feet away it is hardly noticeable, with little evidence of what lurks beneath. Cows graze. The five of us shook hands, smiling, then coiled up our ropes.
“We must do the through trip next time,” Tim said.