As a mountain guide I have a healthy respect for heights, but hanging around in exposed spots comes with the job. In contrast and rather surprisingly both my brother, Chris, and father, David, have a real fear of heights.
As a young man my father found his adventurous streak riding motor bikes, (a sport Chris has followed and I’ve sensibly steered away from), kayaking (he built us wooden kayaks in the kitchen), and pot holing, where presumably he couldn’t see the exposure.
When I was about 10 years old Dad decided it was time for my underground initiation. Recalling his pre-war Bristol Grammar School exploits he took Chris and I to Swildon’s hole deep in the Mendip hills. I clearly remember squirming through muddy squeezes in our cagoules, fighting the rising tide of “I’m stuck” panic and Dad desperately trying to remember which way to go. Fortunately we stopped short of the first sump and, on emerging at the surface, I consciously vowed from then on to get my adventures in the open air! We tried rock climbing next and on Tryfans Milestone Buttress, Chris confirmed he’d inherited Dad’s vertigo and I confirmed I hadn’t.
Onward, upward and forty four years later with caving still well off my radar I get a call from Leo Houlding inviting me to join him in Borneo….
“Yo Papa Gnah” (my nickname from our powder skiing exploits in Greenland) “I’m co-presenting a new series called Lost Worlds for Discovery, we need someone to help my co-presenter Monty Halls follow me up an unclimbed tower deep in the jungle, are you interested?”
Split second decision …
“Yes!!! Sounds more fun than dodging rocks in the Grand Couloir” I reply, recalling back to back summers of near misses in Mont Blancs notorious black spot.
Leo outlines more of the plan, rigging, jumaring and porter ledges all feature in the conversation and just at the end he mentions.
“Oh by the way we’re also shooting a cave episode whilst we’re there, you ok with that?”
“Uh.. yes ….. why not?” I put my mobile down thinking, how bad can it be? After all I’ve shot Man Vs Wild….yes exactly.
A month later we’re entering Mulu’s Clear Water Cave in Borneo. With over 250km of underground passages so far explored this is one of the biggest cave systems in the world. Our cave guide is Andy Eavis. In 1978 he was a member of the Royal Geographical Expedition that discovered Mulu. He has spent a significant portion of his life underground exploring caves systems across the globe but keeps coming back to this extraordinary place where the locals hold him in such high acclaim many have named their sons after him!
The previous evening when Andy and co-guide Dave Nixon had outlined the ‘plan’ for our 4-day cave journey the penny finally dropped we were about to become the real deal ‘Men vs Wild’. Mulu lies just 4 degrees below the equator and rain forests in the tropics are hot and humid, the caves are no exception either – don’t bother packing a spare jumper.
Just before coming away to Borneo I had driven down to Guildford to meet Andy Blow, a member of the GB sprint kayaking team for a ‘sweat’ test. Robin Kaye, who I had recently spent an enjoyable few days with introducing him to ski mountainesering, had hooked me up with Andy. Together they are at the forefront of promoting the right hydration for athletes. They have developed a range of hydration drinks called H2ProHydrate.
Climbing on copious cups of tea was about as far as my hydration in the mountains usually went. So I was fascinated to hear that we all lose sodium at different rates, in fact it’s genetically controlled, and putting back the correct level of sodium into our system has a significant effect on our overall performance. My wife says I don’t sweat, and in cool climates it’s true I hardly ever change my socks! However the test revealed my sweat does have a reasonably high level of sodium and so I was keen to see how my performance faired underground in 95% humidity using H2Pro.
Even though I’ve never sweated so much, my energy levels remained good throughout the trip and I am sure H2Pro made a difference . As I write this blog I’m returning to the jungle, this time in Southern Mexico, armed with my H2Prohydrate drinks for more sweaty adventures. There’s talk of rats down the caves this time which even makes the keys of my laptop sweat!
It might sound an obvious thing to say but caves really are dark and although we were lighting the caverns and passages brightly for filming I was amazed, and fairly terrified, at the variety of life that lives underground in total blackout. Midges being eaten by ten’s of varieties of bats in the entrances and swifts many kilometres deep inside, who in turn are being caught by cave racer snakes hanging in the narrow passageways and believe it or not Cloud Leopards preying on all of them!
Have you got the picture? The 10 year old boy, choosing a life time of mountains over potholes, heading into an endless labyrinth of cave passages inhabited by all manner of creatures, I forgot to mention huntsman spiders as big as your fist with a punch to match, crawling through chest deep (just) narrows, seating buckets just standing still, camping in slimey mud, pooing in cling film… And I thought I was climbing a tower!