Sunday April 5th 2015
Members present: Andy Hurlbatt, Sophie Hentschel
Then the waiting game began. At first, our conversation kept coming back to discussing possible negative outcomes of this situation. In our initial gloomy mood, the most successful plan of getting us out that we could fathom involved blasting the damn passage with explosives to enlarge it sufficiently. However, knowing how crucial a positive mind set would be to keep up our morale and increase our chances to succeed in getting out under our own steam, I insisted on steering away from any negative thinking. I also had to explain to Thomas how cave rescue is organised in the UK. Caving being a much more widespread sport in the UK compared to Germany, the infrastructure here is excellent with a quick and efficient response. We tried to estimate how many hours it would take for the first rescuers to reach us, the most optimistic estimate being at least four hours.
So we made ourselves as comfortable as we could, sitting huddled together on our rope bags. Every twenty minutes or so we would get up and do gentle circuit training around the chamber: pull ups from the traverse line, press ups against boulders, squats, climbing up boulders and other exercises with the aim to warm up to a maximum using as many muscles as possible whilst avoiding overexertion. Conversations became more light-hearted as time passed. All our efforts resulted in our morale improving significantly with doom, gloom and desperation giving way to optimism and confidence that we would eventually make it out safely, even if it were at four in the morning. We also stayed warm and well-fed, rationing our food and drink reserves wisely. In that manner, time passed very swiftly, with me preventing myself from constantly looking at the watch and getting bored or impatient. I had to keep my sanity!
We had just finished another circuit and were standing around stretching, when I perceived a new sound in the distance, but I did not immediately believe my ears. Then Thomas voiced what I did not dare to hope, “Can you hear that, Sophie? That sounds like cavers thumping through the traverse!” We strained our ears and listened carefully and came to the same conclusion: Thomas was right! It was now 19:30 and we could not believe our luck. Soon enough, the first glimmer of a light was just about visible in the passage but quickly drew closer. When ten minutes later the rescuers were close enough, we welcomed them cheerfully. We could not believe that barely two hours and forty minutes after Andrew’s departure we had already been joined by the first team of rescuers. We were ecstatic. I can only guess that they did not expect to find us in such good condition! Maybe they were wary of our cheerfulness; maybe they thought we were border line delirious… In any case, I’m sure that they were relieved that no injury, fatigue or hypothermia had to be dealt with.
After initial introductions, they explained their plan for our rescue and we immediately set to prepare ourselves for the next step. It became clear immediately that explosives were not part of it – I wasn’t sure if I felt more regret (dammit, got to get through this horrible s*** rift AGAIN!) or relief (so no possible death by explosion). Potential communication issues due to us being German were shown not to be the case. Whilst the rescuers installed a very tight belay rope just below the T part of the infamous final four metres of the rift, I had to strip off my undersuit and was only allowed to wear my oversuit, wellies and kneepads just in case that this would make a difference in the tighter parts of the passage. The belay rope was meant to support my upper body and prevent me from falling into the rift whilst I was to lie diagonally in the top section and push through. The end of the rope was tied around my chest and underneath my armpits with a bowline knot as a chest harness to pull me through the rift. I was warned that it would almost certainly leave me completely bruised, but I couldn’t care less. Getting out was more important than that!
After gathering all my courage and confidence, I engaged into the rift with one person pulling on the rope and another pushing my feet where there weren’t any footholds. Needless to say that not wearing a helmet in a constricted passage does make you feel a little blind without your light and very vulnerable without the protection for your skull! But, after few minutes, I made it to the part where the rift floor rose up and slipping down a drop was no longer a danger. I put my helmet back on, took off the rope harness and under the encouragement of the rescuer continued forward into the traverse, resting from time to time but otherwise making good progress. It was literally just the final four metres of the passage that had caused me so much trouble! The thought of that was infuriating. Quickly, I made my way through the traverse, following the rescuer and then emerging in the next chamber where the next person sat and waited by the radio.
In the meantime, Thomas was prepared to head out, but I didn’t see or hear anything at all until twenty minutes later when he finally joined us. All our gear had already been retrieved as well. It seemed like getting Thomas, a tall and chunkily built former weightlifting champion, through the constriction was a little trickier. In the end, though, they did manage and apart from badly bruising some intercostal muscles, he was uninjured and in good spirits. I had to wait for my undersuit to be brought back and then had to spend what felt like hours to re-dress properly. Meanwhile, Thomas was escorted out, but he insisted he carry his own (ginormous) tackle bag. Then I was ready to leave under the supervision of the rescue team. The return to the surface was swift and uneventful and by around quarter past ten or so, I emerged from the entrance climb. It was then when I suddenly felt exhausted. To my delight, Andrew was waiting for me on the surface looking glad to see us back in good health. We were escorted down to the farm where CRO had set up a tent. Tea and hot food were provided and after making sure that we really were OK, we were driven back to our car around the corner.