Going Underground

A few thoughts on the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand.

Firstly, I’m obviously glad they’ve been found alive: after more than a week lost underground, I was surprised. Sure they have enough water so survival ought to be easy enough, but I’d not want to think how well I’d have fared trapped underground for 10 days when I was 13.

Extracting the children looks to be a complicated task, as the only route out is narrow, blocked with debris, and likely to stay flooded for months. Either they bring in enough food, drink, and medical supplies to last until conditions improve or they teach the kids to do some advanced cave diving – while in the cave. I learned to use scuba gear in a swimming pool in Kuwait, and it was difficult enough then: very little of it is intuitive and must be learned, and much depends on getting used to the odd situation. Not only are these kids – some of whom can’t swim – going to have to learn to keep a regulator in their mouths without much practice, but also avoid panicking. According to the linked BBC article, one section is so narrow you can’t go through it with the air tank on. Even with several experienced cave divers per child this is a tough ask. The good thing is their survival is assured; it’s just the next few weeks may be a little rough yet.

The boys’ football coach, a 25-year old man, might opt to stay down there, for I imagine he’s in for one hell of a bollocking. I don’t know how easy it is to wander into this cave system, whether it’s just like strolling through a tunnel when conditions are good, but the reports say it is off-limits to the general public. So it appears this chap who is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of 13 young footballers decided to take them on an unofficial expedition into a restricted cave system prone to flooding without telling anyone (it was only realised they were missing when someone came across their bikes lying outside the entrance). In a lot of countries he’d be facing charges of reckless endangerment, and in a few he’d risk being lynched by the parents.

I did potholing twice with the school cadet force when I was in my late teens. It’s something I’m glad I did, but boy is it a miserable experience when you’re down there. On the second occasion we were somewhere in the Brecon Beacons and our subterranean excursions were led by a lunatic Welshman who’d been in the paras (he was a mate of Steve Gerrard’s, and it was all organised by the unflappable Keith Woodcock). The first thing we were told during the briefing on the surface was that the most dangerous thing we could face was sudden flooding, which is why you always leave a spotter on the surface to come and warn you if it starts raining. The natural fear is that the tunnel will collapse, but these had been intact for a few million years so if that was to change in the two hours we were down there we’d be unlucky indeed.

The briefing over we began looking for something resembling a cave entrance. Instead we saw a pair of boot soles disappearing into a hole right at our feet we’d not even noticed. We wriggled and squirmed our way in, bumping our helmets and catching our battery packs on seemingly every outcrop. We gathered in a small cavern containing a large tree trunk. Our guide told us you see these things miles into the system, giving you an idea of how strong the floodwaters can be. The next step was to get us used to the water, so we waded into a freezing pool that was chest deep. From that point on we were cold and wet so getting colder and wetter didn’t make any difference. This was also the point at which I wished we’d done something else that morning.

Each time we came to a new cavern our guide would tell us something, and I’d wonder if this was the end of the road, so to speak. But each time he’d disappear headfirst between two rocks and we’d continue on our way. At various times we were on our bellies, crawling forward like snakes. We got to one section called the Smartie Tube, and it soon became clear why. Lying flat on the floor the roof was so low you couldn’t raise your head fully before your helmet struck it. You could only really look down at the loose gravel and rock of the floor three or four inches below your nose, and all you could see up ahead was the soles of the boots of the person in front of you. It was claustrophobic in the extreme and someone up ahead started panicking so we all came to a halt. Our guide had told us when you panic you take up more space, and doing the old rugby league move is the worst thing you can do. He assured us he would not take us anywhere we could get stuck, if we kept calm. It was all about controlling your breathing and being sensible: if your battery pack got caught on a rock, just back up a few inches. Don’t start flailing around wildly, but it sounds a lot easier on the surface than it does in a dark, wet tunnel.

We eventually got to the end of the Smartie Tube which was one of the worst things I’ve done. It was horrible. We assembled in the cavern at the end and the guide gave us another little talk, and then said “Guess what the bad news is?” We guessed: there was only one way out of there, and it was the way we came in. I reckon this tiny tunnel must have been about five or ten metres long, but it felt like you were in there forever. All you wanted to do was scream and smash your way to the surface, and it took some effort to suppress those urges. You began to appreciate space and sunlight in ways you never did before. After that we crawled over a nasty outcrop aptly named Castration Rock, positioned in such a way you had no choice as to how you crawled over it. Then we turned all our lights out, plunging us into an absolute blackness which is hard to recreate anywhere on the surface. Quite literally you could see absolutely nothing, yet we made our way along a few passages in the dark using voice commands. We pulled ourselves through flooded tunnels using ropes fixed to the wall, and at one point had to submerge completely for a second or two. That wasn’t very nice either.

After a couple of hours of this we popped out of a hole into the sunshine; the look of relief on everyone’s face was palpable. Everyone completed it, including two girls. Nobody freaked out completely or refused to go any further, and I think in hindsight everyone enjoyed it. Or at least, they were glad they’d done it. I don’t think anyone was too keen to do it again, but some would have and, as I said before, that was my second time doing speleology, or potholing as it’s sometimes called. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’m sure I’d not enjoy it. What’s interesting is I know people who have done all sorts of crazy, cool, and dangerous stuff especially the guys in the military, but very few who’ve done potholing. It’s also the one thing a lot of these daredevils say they don’t want to do, and they’re not sure if they even could. I’ve never done a parachute jump and I’ve found it handy when someone is talking about skydiving to ask if they’ve done potholing. They normally coil away in horror.

Whenever these kids get out of this cave in Thailand, they’ll have a story they can tell the rest of their lives.


32 thoughts on “Going Underground

  1. I’m not sure how safe they are in there, given that rains are predicted.

    However, seeing the miracle of the rescue of those Chilean miners, uou have to believe this is easier than that.

  2. I felt queasy just reading that. I’ll probably never go skydiving, but if I was forced at gun point to chose one, i’d much rather do that than go potholing.

  3. Same story,

    did pot holing once as a teen and something I have no appetite to do again. Day 2 the choice was pot holing this time with some water to duck through, or abseiling. Jumping off cliffs was the obvious choice.

  4. As Nancy Mitford said, you should do anything once, except incest and morris dancing. Having done it once, I’d add potholing.

    The two stroppy kids (mine) I was trying to scare the bejazzus out of were remarkably unfazed by the experience. They were about the same ages as these Thai kids.

    Given the unlimited resources (Hollywood here we come) available for this rescue, it could be a lot easier than we think. Stockpile banks of HP air at way stations and give the boys full face masks. They won’t need scuba tanks, the rescuers can hold emergency plug in supply in the unlikely event of supply failure. You could even bring them out semi-sedated. The biggest risk for learner divers is self inflicted: holding your breath while ascending the last few feet to the “surface”, resulting in pulmonary embolism.

  5. Odd but true: you don’t need to be able to swim to dive in these circumstances. In fact, that might even be an advantage.

  6. Like The Manc, I felt queasy. Nasty places.

    I remember an account of a potholing crisis from some thirty years back. It was in Derbyshire, I think, and if anyone else can remember it, I apologise for any inaccuracies. Experienced cavers took a group of boys through a “sump”, where you have to take a deep breath, submerge yourself, crawl along for a few feet, and then straighten up into air again at the far end of a flooded passage. There were adults at each end, sending each boy into the sump and then waiting for him to emerge at the far end. Like your story, OK if you don’t panic. You just have to have confidence, duck down into the water, and crawl forward until you bump into the receiving instructor’s legs, and he helps you straighten up into the air again.

    One boy set off, and didn’t emerge from the far end. They followed the safety drill to extract him, except that the instructor who went in after him could find no trace of him. He went back – ditto. It turned out that there was a narrow slot, a sort of detour, through which the boy had wriggled. It also came out into a chamber with air, but no way out. The boy had straightened up, probably with the usual sense of relief, which turned out to be short-lived. He was all alone in a tiny chamber, and too scared to get back.

    The instructor found him and got him back out. I think the report said the boy was “very distressed” by the time the instructor got to him.

  7. I’ve been following this one and was amazed they were found alive after so long. My first thought was, as you say, stopping the parents lynching the bugger that took them in there.

    I don’t know whether it’s the Buddhist reincarnation thing or what, but Thais seem remarkably sanguine about risking life and limb. Not being afraid of getting hurt is one thing, not being afraid of getting other people hurt, or their children, is something else.

  8. Like Recusant, I’m not so sure they will get them out alive, sadly. If Thai Navy Seals are experiencing difficulties diving through the system, as has been reported, and only the experienced cave diving guys can manage it, then there is zero possibility of getting teenage non divers through a reported 2000m dive in extreme conditions without them killing themselves and possibly their rescuers too.

    I really don’t know what can be done – waiting it out isn’t an option as its the rainy season and more rainfall will be coming, potentially drowning the lot of them, drilling into the pocket (if even possible) could a) be too late given the rain, and b) risk drowning them if they’re in a pressurised air pocket. None of the options look like resulting in a happy outcome.

    I think if it was me, I’d be asking the US Armed Forces for the biggest f*ck off pumps they could lay their hands on and get them on a Galaxy to Thailand immediately, and start pumping, in the hope of a) dropping the water, and b) stopping it rising any more if it rains, then see what could be done after that. And only attempt to dive them out if the alternative is certain death, in the understanding its highly likely that most if not all won’t make it.

  9. Yes, also made me sick just reading it. I knew someone who was into this in VI form. Being a tiny slip of a girl was an advantage, apparently. Her bumper sticker said “Speleologists do it on their bellies in their wellies”.

    Who reckons the movie rights are being negotiated as we speak?

  10. I was once taken down Swildons Hole in the Mendips, as far as the first sump. Not something I’d ever want to repeat, but it was character forming.
    Halfway to the sump, you have to descend a rope ladder, right through a waterfall. An old hand helpfully offers assistance to the designated newbie by sitting on the waterfall edge, damming up the water. Designated newbie duly reaches bottom of ladder and looks up to shout “clear”. Old hand stands up, designated newbie receives 100 gallons of icy cold water in face. Character duly formed.

    Perhaps the biggest trial for these young lads will be the delay now they have been found. But they will indeed have great maturity when they emerge.

    And I’m glad to see the Thai were not too proud to avoid calling in the world’s best cave rescuers. There’s something exceptionally British about the whole sport, don’t you think?

  11. I was amazed to see how calm the kids seem to be; I mean 5 days without mobile data reception must be one of the most traumatic experiences you can imagine!

  12. I’ve done it a few times and weirdly being entirely the wrong shape, I bloody loved it – this was however through the fearless prism of invincible adolescence.

    I reckon they need to take the conservative option and run a comms cable through and as many supplies as they can manage. I suspect the Thais will want to be seen to be doing something to get them out and I’m afraid they will ignore words of caution and then it’s not going to end well. I hope not but…

  13. A friend of my Dad was into caving as one of his enthusiasms, and he took his son & me caving near Ribblehead when I was about 10. He also took me down Gaping Ghyll a couple of years later. It was interesting & I never felt particularly anxious, but I never tried it again. A guy at work was into cave diving but that gives me the willies just thinking about it.

  14. Before my kids came along I used to do a lot of UK diving, particularly in and around wrecks. Never did cave diving but knew lots of guys at the time who did. All completely mad.

    Going inside a wreck had some similarities to cave diving, in that there are small gaps, there is the danger of getting stuck or lost and you can’t just get to the surface when you want to. Cave diving is much
    much harder due to the distances involved – I might have gone 20 metres into a wreck – these kids are kilometers into the tunnel.

    While they can drop bottles along the way, use chains to guide, give them full face masks, the risk of panic is so severe that if they try it my guess is that at least one would panic, try and pull his mask off ( seen people do very stupid things when panicking underwater) and end up dead, maybe taking one of the rescuers with him. Then you have to get the body out, as you can’t take it back to the cave with the boys in.

    The sedation idea might not be a bad one on the face of it, though having done plenty of training drills around this it’s bloody hard to manoeuvre an unresponsive diver around in the water – and that was just in nice relatively open sunken tug in a quarry in Leicestershire, and in some easy spaces in a ferry in gin clear waters in Cyprus. Through very narrow tunnels, in the dark with zero Vis? No thanks.

    The boys are going to need some serious luck to get out.

  15. How deep is the cave? Maybe drill a vertical shaft? I know… But at this stage is there a good solution? What is the least worst?

  16. I’ve been shot at. I’ve fallen from airplanes at night. I’ve taken too much of the wrong kind of LSD. I’ve barrel-rolled race cars.

    I’ve never been so completely terrified as I was when I did some basic, easy, close-to-the-surface cave diving in the Florida caves. If I wasn’t already swimming, I know my pants would have been drenched. I was underwater, and there was go**amned ROCK over my head instead of air!

    But, 12-16-year-old boys are the least susceptible people in the world to the wisdom of fear, plus they’re the most resilient in terms of bashing themselves about and sliding through small openings, so I’m optimistic about this group.

  17. The problem with drilling into the area where the kids are is that if it’s a pressurized pocket, the air in it may be keeping the water down.

    Imagine filling your sink half full with water. Now take a glass, invert it, and push it down into the water. The air stays inside, even if the glass is completely below the surface of the water. Now drill a tiny hole in the bottom of the glass…

  18. You wouldn’t drill into the area where the kids are, you would try to drill to an adjacent flooded section then they only need to go underwater a short distance, then up the hole.

  19. Yes potholing is not for me either, I have been in a few underground mines on management type inspections and realized then that I am an earth’s surface type of guy.

  20. I did black water rafting in New Zealand (Waitamo), was cool but terrifying, and not something I’d do again. Hope these kids make it out ok.

  21. Drilling won’t work: a drilling rig can only make a hole about 18″ in diameter, and to do even that you need to clear a large, flat area and build access roads. On a remote Thai mountain, this is about a year’s work.

    There’s also the problem with geology. If you start digging or drilling you need to know what rock formations you’re going through, which requires extensive survey work. If you make a mistake, you could easily cause a collapse in the cave system, which wouldn’t be helpful.

    The two options are: 1) get them to a safe spot in the cave and prepare for a couple of months of dark camping; 2) somehow take them through the flooded tunnels one by one.

  22. “Drilling won’t work: a drilling rig can only make a hole about 18″ in diameter, and to do even that you need to clear a large, flat area and build access roads. On a remote Thai mountain, this is about a year’s work.”

    Well, the latter may be somewhat true, though I doubt it’s actually as much as a year if you went all Manhattan Project on it. But the 18″ is clearly wrong, especially obviously given that a bunch of Chilean miners were recently rescued up a 28″ hole which had been drilled from the surface (albeit in multiple stages, over the course of over a month).

    It’s definitely a fantastically difficult operation, but you couldn’t say it was impossible.

  23. But the 18″ is clearly wrong, especially obviously given that a bunch of Chilean miners were recently rescued up a 28″ hole which had been drilled from the surface (albeit in multiple stages, over the course of over a month).

    I stand corrected: I thought 18″ was about the max size using a conventional rig. Not really my area, though.

    It’s definitely a fantastically difficult operation, but you couldn’t say it was impossible.

    Not impossible, but unfeasible. The Chilean mine was in an industrial area, rig access and making a suitable pad will be a massive undertaking.

  24. @Andy

    Did that too. The most terrifying aspect was the sense of humor of the guides. No more than 19 years old, thoroughly bored by having gone through the caves a hundred times already. Their only source of comfort was teasing the terrified tourists who took everything they said *so* seriously.

  25. Day 2 the choice was pot holing this time with some water to duck through, or abseiling. Jumping off cliffs was the obvious choice.

    Yup, the afternoon after the potholing we did abseiling. No bother.

  26. I was once taken down Swildons Hole in the Mendips

    I may have done that one the first time I did potholing. It was somewhere in the Mendips, I know that.

  27. And I’m glad to see the Thai were not too proud to avoid calling in the world’s best cave rescuers.

    Quite. A lot of countries would rather see them die than accept foreign help, or would be demanding the rescuers apply for expensive work permits.

    There’s something exceptionally British about the whole sport, don’t you think?


  28. I quite enjoy wandering about underground. Don’t really like potholes, mines are much more interesting, and generally being built by humans, you don’t usually spend much time crawling round on your belly (usually only when squeezing round collapses). Unlike pot-holes, the prospect of the roof coming down on your head, or launching through a false floor is rather greater.
    I don’t much like abseiling above ground level, I find it’s much easier when I can’t see down the drop!
    One of my acquaintances once said (and he is right) – the most dangerous thing underground is what he termed ” fear of ghosts” – the human tendency to panic if stuff goes wrong. Get lost, stuck, lose your lighting, or otherwise get into difficulty underground, and most of the time it’s pretty survivable – but if you panic when it’s all going wrong, and do something rash, that’s when you get really lost, step over a cliff edge, lose essential kit, etc…

  29. Late to the fray here.

    Given the context, this line gave me the absolute collywobbles:
    ” Then we turned all our lights out, plunging us into an absolute blackness which is hard to recreate anywhere on the surface.”

    They’ve been in there for 10 days. It will have been that completely dark for probably 8 of them. Can’t begin to imagine the terror. On top of the cold. And the hunger.

    I’m with everyone else on this one: I think – never had to find out, but I think – that I’d do a parachute jump, but I would never ever go cave diving.

  30. I had a ‘total darkness’ experience at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
    The NPS guide turned off the lights and everyone covered the red lights, etc on their cameras. Completely black. Then the guide lit a cigarette lighter and the whole cave was visible. Amazing how sensitive the human eye is.

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