On the Fringe of Tragedy
- Sunday 29th September 2019
Andi Turner takes a close look at what climbing means to him and how it compares to another so-called ‘extreme’ sport.
There was a time when climbing was more of an eccentric pursuit than a sport, those days are gone. Perhaps though the magical age of amateur adventure isn’t quite over yet, but maybe we have to look outside of climbing and instead to one of its brothers. The brother which never quite grew up.
Norbert Casteret was an extremely accomplished athlete. Despite all his other adventurous achievements, it was in cave exploration that his candle burned brightest. To some, he is known as the modern father of speleology, but most of us have never heard of him. Why would we? He spent his life underground, often solo, feeling his way through undiscovered passages to uncover some of the least visited delights on/in Earth. Norbert came from Saint Martory in France and between around 1920 and 1970 he was one of the most important speleologists operating. He discovered cave paintings, human remains and models from prehistoric times. He would cave naked (except his swimming cap), taking his candle and matches along with him. When he came to a sump, where the water’s surface meets the roof of the cave, he would blow out his candle and wrap it, together with his matches and place it under his cap. Taking a deep breath in this ultimate blackness he would then submerge with one hand keeping contact with the cave ceiling and one hand in front he would drag himself along into the unknown. Whilst most of us would probably be grovelling at this point through the sheer claustrophobic tightness, the near freezing cold water, absolute darkness Norbert was counting: une, deux, trois...
Andi Turner makes the long reach on One Chromosone's Missing (E7 6b), Harston Rock, Churnett Valley. Photo: David Simmonite
He may not have known where he was going, but he knew what he was doing. He remained cool and collected. He knew how long he could hold his breath, he knew how caves worked and he knew his way out. If he counted to half of how long he could hold his breath, he knew he would struggle to get back the way he came before drowning. But, if he felt the current change, the cave ceiling alter, the water temperature change, he might just press on.
Now that redefines what I see as being ‘committed’. As much as that last rock-over you did might seem completely irreversible, it probably is. Although I don’t really have any interest whatsoever in caving, let alone cave diving, I am totally captivated by its charms. The adventure and mystery which I used to find in climbing seems to still be present in caving. I can see where the appeal lies and the similarities between the two sports, but where climbing has gone mainstream, caving seems to still be amateur extreme, a place for the enthusiast. There is no climbing wall for the cave diver, no kids parties, no finger board or bouldering mat or ready rolled brush sets. Instead, from my perspective (and that is all that counts) it is an activity, one which seems incredibly dangerous and one in which aficionados rule. Even at the top level, tinkering is a prerequisite. I read about David Shaw’s exploits in Bushman’s Hole in South Africa. To take himself to the supreme depths of this cave he has to reduce his oxygen intake to a fraction of what we breathe in air. To breathe air at these depths (200m+) would be like taking a bullet to the brain. So, he takes his ‘Inspriration’ re-breather and mates it with another ex-Navy Seals rig, he does this all himself in his little workshop and then takes his diving deeper than ever. Can you imagine making your own gear and using it to do the most extreme rock routes in the world? It was par for the course a few decades back, but now I see people who are almost unwilling to use a standard toothbrush to clean holds, let alone re-slinging their cams. Which of the ‘top climbers’ these days would take the parts of the harnesses they liked the most and then restitch them into their own customised rig? The parallels are clear, but where climbing has gone stratospheric and conventional, caving has remained at grass roots level, or at least I hope it has... if it hasn’t, please don’t tell me and burst my bubble.
The case may be that while I’ve been carried along on the wave which is climbing, immersed in it, I’ve began to realise how far removed I am from it and how distant the climbing world seems to be compared to when I began, or even where it was at the turn of the millennium. I have these memories of halcyon days and whilst I’ve seen climbing develop and pull itself into the place where it is today, my knowledge of caving has never really gone beyond the books I’ve read and the adventures that I’ve salivated over, it has retained its unobtainable status, its romance. I wonder how many people out there have the same opinion of climbing.
I can hear the retort: what do you know, Andi? Climbing little bluffs of gritstone is as far removed from ‘real climbing’ as a visit to sea world is from cave diving; but I’d disagree. Even in the last 10 years I’ve seen such vast changes in climbing itself, its reportage and its mystery. I remember routes which had such an air of mystery but no more. A select few climbers operated at the top level, they had incredible talent born from genetic gift, obscure training regimes and way of life. Their mental preparation as well as their route preparation gave them the best chances of success. Ethics were important but not the be all and end all. But the routes did captivate, they were a mysterious realm of blankness. Magazines and new routes books were drooled over and scoured for information. Now, training is no longer the dirty word it once was. You are more likely to get a funny look for not having a fingerboard in your dining room and the de rigueur camper van.
But perhaps things are on the change. Even in the world of caving the number chasers are there. Rather than caving for the reason of adventure and exploration, some are in it just for the numbers, dragging themselves down a depth marked rope to pluck the deepest flag (some call it ‘soap on a rope’ diving), whilst for others, they’re still in it for exploration of the limits of possibility, the depth simply being a hurdle which needs overcoming, but not the be all and end all. It’s as much about moving through the chambers without kicking up silt, without succumbing to the narcosis of depth which some have described as a feeling of such euphoria that they are willing to allow themselves to die with no feelings of fear. I can’t remember the last time I felt that on a climb.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I’m not a caver, that I’m not part of that scene and I can happily sit in my field gazing over at how green their grass looks. Instead I can peer, aghast into their world only imaging what horrors they take in their stride, what low key circulars they publish and the characters that their pursuit has as members. An endeavour which still remains extreme and obscure in the same way that I remember that climbing was when I first pulled on rock, as an activity for those who weren’t sporty or cool. I was a climber because I was last to be picked for any football side or game of British bulldog, but I was the first to be chosen when someone locked themselves out down the street but they’d left the upstairs bathroom window open. Perhaps if I was a seven year old today I would grow up to be a cave diver instead of a climber
So, with all that in mind, I’m going back old school. I’m going to re-stitch my slings, dig out an old copy of High to see what’s been going on and take down the fingerboard . Only problem then is, where will I hang my coat?
This article first appeared in the Climber's Voice section of Climber magazine.