Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Return

Prologue: The last write up of this blog was in 2014, recounting my accident in the Aven de Hures in the Massif Central, France, and its initial aftermath. The recovery has been a long process, and indeed at the time of writing it is still ongoing, but thanks to the support of so many it has been a positive process and I'm at the point where I have been returning to significant caving again. I'm aiming to write a separate article on the recovery itself, but this one is a deeper, more personal one that directly complements 'The Fall' since this is the return to the Aven de Hures...

The plan had always been to return to the cave, the question was would I be able to? Would the body fix enough and would the mind be up to it? This was also not a journey to do 'alone'. Whilst I may have been the one who twatted themselves in the accident, the effects go deeper and affect not only you but also those you are with at the time of the accident. Ali, Rhys and Pete – the team on the fateful trip - are friends I have known for many years and shared many adventures with. The horror felt when they realized it wasn't a dropped tackle bag but me that was descending that 40m pitch would have been deep and have effects of its own.

Recovery from the accident has not been an easy process, and has needed additional repair work along the way, but after a journey of over three years I once again find myself clad in caving kit and standing at the entrance to the Aven de Hures cave. The experience brings many strange feelings to the fore. Some of it excitement at the journey ahead but alot of it nerves, an edginess, thinking 'what the f**k am I doing here again'... Ali is with me – we said we'd be back to do this cave together – and we're joined by a good friend and neighbour Malcolm. A good team for this return trip.

That 'Oh Shit - what am I doing' feeling...
Ali kindly offers to rig, and sets off, himself feeling the edginess and nerves of the occasion. The caving doesn't feel natural and we move with more caution and care than we would normally. The first pitch is descended and the pair of us stand looking at the line of bolts leading to the point of my disaster. On the floor in front of us a huge toad sits oblivious to it all! A big hug, and Ali pushes on with the rigging...

Crossing that pitch head traverse again proves a challenge to the mind – it is fairly straightforward caving but it presents a huge barrier to me. I quietly push on and reach the resin anchor where it all went wrong. The thoughts come back – I was rushing, and my mental health state was in a bad place due to work place stress – I shouldn't have been rigging. Maybe I shouldn't have been caving. In hindsight I should have just chilled for a few days, drank some beers and talked some rubbish but adventure time is precious, the urge to grab it maybe too great.

Ali rigging across the head of the second pitch - the move beyond this point is where it all went wrong for me!
I take time at the pitch head observing the drop down the shaft. In my mind the walls of the pitch are completely vertical, but in reality the first 20ish meters are slightly off vertical on this side of the shaft, but only slightly! However enough to absorb a little fall energy maybe?
Looking up the upper half of the P40 pitch I fell down. Photo Ali Garman
I slowly descend absorbing the cave around me, past a rebelay, and then to a deviation rigged off the opposite wall. Here the pitch bells out for a free hang of around 15m, dropping onto a large calcite boss with a couple of big gour pools in it.

The potential landing spot... Photo: Ali Garman
We spend some time looking at the potential 'splat' point and developing the possible survival hypothesis. Its probable that I pinged out of the upper section of the shaft, rebounded off the far wall, then hit the slope of the stall boss while somehow missing the two gour pools. This then propelled me in the direction of the third pitch, but thankfully I came to rest just before the descent into that... However the conclusion was still the same – how did I survive a 40m fall like that? Fortunately I did, and was able to return to ponder the question, even if I couldn't answer it, but at least the demons had been tamed a little.

Ali rigging the beautiful 3rd pitch where we started to relax and enjoy the caving.
It was now time to explore onwards, and suddenly it became a caving trip again. Ali continued with the rigging, traversing along a wall and then descending a beautiful 11m pitch, A few more short pitches saw the start of a narrow meander, and its here I took over the rigging. A few short easy drops brought us to a constricted pitch head gained via a short crawl. Popping through this put me above a series of 20m pitches, but the way on was via a sporting bolt traverse line along the left wall. So putting the memories of past rigging cock ups in this cave aside I got stuck in whilst doing a lot of double and triple checking on the way...

Back to rigging - on the start of the main hang on the Puits de l'Echo. Photo: Ali Garman
After the traverse a short section of horizontal caving brought us to the classic Puits de l'Echo shaft in this cave. Initially rigged via a couple of shorter parallel pitches, an airy traverse then took you round to the main hang point in the shaft proper – a fabulous circular pit dripping with stal formations. This 40m hang was broken into two by a rebelay around half way down, and as I descended I took the time to marvel at the beauty of my surroundings, and consider how fortunate I've been to make it back to do this trip properly.
The superb Puits de l'Echo
The survey suggested we now had a nice section of streamway that would take us to a short pitch prior to a constricted and wet section of cave just prior to joining the final section at the bottom of the system. However this was not the master cave we expected, but a constricted rift needing more thrutching and crawling than we desired, before arriving at the last pitch of our planned journey. It had taken us four and half hours to get to this point, and it was now time to head out.
Malcolm rigging the last pitch on our journey into the Aven de Hures. Photo: Ali Garman
Despite there being only three of us with some 400m of rope to take back out the derig went well. Steadily we headed out of the cave. Gradually ascending the accident pitch with two tackle bags of rope gave me both a quality physio experience and further time to ponder past experiences. A flashback or two did come back to the mind, but the awkwardness of before was no longer present.

We emerged into the fading light of a beautiful September day, and embraced after what had been an emotional but very excellent caving trip. Priority was now to find food and beer to celebrate – a definite challenge in this neck of the woods on a Sunday night out of tourist season. Despite a couple of holdups with sheep flocks on the road off the Tarn plateau we made it back to Florac to find a lone pizza takeaway place still open, complete with a fridge of cold beer, enabling us to celebrate the 'return' in an appropriate style!
Enjoying a fine walk in the Gorge du Tarn
We used the following day to have a steady start, initially sorting and partially drying ropes and kit. Then taking a tourist drive down the Tarn Gorge, along with dinner and a decent walk. Steadily we drove back to Toulouse to take up an offer of food and a bed with a good friend Denise who lives in the area. An evening of great food, fine wine and vaguely intelligent conversation catching up with Denise finished a fabulous couple of days that was important on so many levels. With fond farewells to Denise we headed home via Easyjet.

A much better way to end this journey to the Aven de Hures, and far better than hospital food!
Whilst it may have taken over 3 years to be able to return to this blog and recount this journey, the fact I have been able to do so has been remarkable. The accident is not without ongoing issues – after all there was a lot of damage – and whilst strength and ability continues to steadily return, there may well be issues later on relating to the injuries through change in posture, or damage to joints. Plus some things will not be returned to such as the fell racing and road running. But adventure comes in many guises, and the key is to enjoy these opportunities and the company that comes with them. This journey may have needed my personal fortitude, but without the support of family, friends and the medical services it is a journey that would have been considerably harder. My thanks and love go to so many.

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