Mind the gap – Swan Dike cave rescue ends with drill operation

Enjoying a hot cuppa after the all-night mission to rescue a caver.
Enjoying a hot cuppa after the all-night mission to rescue a caver.

Cave rescues invariably are long duration and demand major logistical movement of rescue gear not just to the cave entrance but getting it through the complicated cave systems.

Many members are needed for this exhausting work. Last month we had our first major caving incident of the year involving a trapped caver that required all our expertise to save him.

The call out was to Swan Dike Pot below Pen –y-Ghent where a member of a university caving club was stuck in a tight section of passage.

The rescue operation also included members from the Cave Rescue Organisation, our adjacent team.

Team member Joe Parsons gives his account of the all-night rescue operation; 9.50pm, my phone rings “Standby, possible call out for overdue caver at Swan Dike Pot”. 20 minutes later, the phone goes again.

I am in the car within minutes and driving up Littondale. I haven’t been into Swan Dike Pothole before, but I know the reputation of the place.

It is a tight, arduous caving trip that many would shy away from.

I find I am the first to arrive at the rendezvous location. A party of four cavers had entered Swan Dike at around noon.

They successfully made it to the bottom, but on returning one member of the party could not manage to squeeze through a narrow section. A second member of the team stayed with him whilst the other two made for the surface, and raised the alarm.

Apparatus, equipment, vehicles and team members are all making good progress towards our location.

Two of my colleagues are also kitted up and with a small amount of medical and emergency equipment, we head underground. I make fast progress to a section of cave called The Trick, so called because the position that one has to adopt to successfully pass this obstacle.

I make contact with the friend of the stuck caver, and as I descend the ropes into his location, we shake hands and he looks relieved. I reassure him that further help is just minutes behind me, and food and drink was on its way… these chaps have been underground now for 12 hours, the chilly air, coupled with serious physical exertion, lack of sustenance and the peril of the situation is taking its toll.

I crawl forwards into the tiny slot and speak to the stranded caver. I am too big to fit through myself, but I can certainly offer words of encouragement, as well as looking at his technique and try to recommend the best way ahead.

A flask of Fell Rescue warm Ribena and a Mars bar might just do the job.

2am, I have been joined by more colleagues. Supplies, equipment, communications, food, drink, medical equipment, ropes, carabiners, you name it, and we have it.

At around 3.30am, we had exhausted most of the easy options. Our caver was becoming colder, less enthusiastic and more distressed by the minute.

I told him that our only option was to start demolition work on the narrow section, a potentially dangerous and time consuming operation.

I will not forget the look on his face, the realisation of his situation, and the feeling of being utterly powerless to help. He looked like he had accepted his fate.

Well, we had other ideas. Cordless drill, specialist equipment, goggles, ear defenders…. they were all making their way slowly down Swan Dike, carried by the huge number of caving Sherpas.

4.45am, He is out! Hand shaking and many thanks all round. Well done chaps, we will be home for breakfast!

We all began the slow job of retrieving, repacking and extracting our gear.

It’s about 6am as I reach the surface.

The taste of the fresh air is truly amazing after many hours underground breathing the quite stale air.

Members on the surface have endured near freezing conditions all night, keeping the underground teams fuelled and supplied with equipment.

Some 50 rescuers have worked tirelessly for many hours – 400 man hours in total.

At about 7.15am I go to bed for a few hours, phone on charge, kit cleaned and packed away – ready for the next call out.

Typical, I have been awake for 35 hours and I can’t sleep!