One Hundred Meters with Oli

Copyright 2000, by Ronald Bourret

"Geht es?" (Does it go?)


"Bist du sicher?" (Are you sure?)


Oli wriggled back out of the boulder choke and told me I could have a look if I wanted. I wormed up into the pile of unstable blocks, careful to touch as little as possible, and reached the same dead end as Oli.

It was puzzling. The map clearly showed a long, thin passage leading from the end of the subway-sized passage we had just left into another subway-sized passage 100 meters away. We were in the obvious extension to the current passage, but all leads appeared to be blocked.

I wriggled back out to where Oli was waiting. The others had gotten tired and left to check other leads. As we exited the crawlway and stood back up, we met Ralf, who said they had found the connection.

We walked a short way back along the main passage, then dove down a rabbit hole hugging the right-hand wall. This lead into a small room where the rest of the party were leaning against a large, fallen block. On the opposite side of them was a short climb to a small hole in the wall.

The connection, they told us, followed a triangular crawlway for 50 meters before pinching down to a wide, low squeeze.

"How long does it stay tight for?" I asked. I hate squeezes.

"As far as we could see."

Oli was eager and I was ... curious. After nine hours in the cave, the others were ready to head back. It was several hours back to the exit and already early evening, although the never ending darkness made that fact slightly irrelevant.

We agreed that Oli and I would go for a look, then come back and make plans. I climbed up into the hole and turned right into the passage. It was a perfect triangle and glowed yellow in the beam of my carbide lamp. It was too low to duck walk and I was forced into a painful crawl along the cemented cobble floor.

After 50 meters, the passage ended in a bathtub-like depression. I sat down in it and peered into a low passage on the right, about five feet wide and a foot high. It turned almost immediately back to the left, parallel to the triangular passage, and disappeared from view. According to the map, the connection was 100 meters long. We had done half. How long was the squeeze?

The methodical scrape of Oli's nylon cave suit echoed along the passage, growing louder as he crawled toward me. Vwip, fwump, vwip, fwump, Vwip, Fwump, VWIP, FWUMP. He stopped in front of me and grinned.

"Schoene Gang, ja?" (Nice passage, huh?)

Oli had knee pads.

I motioned toward the horizontal cleft.

"Hier ist es nicht so schoen." (Not so nice here.)

Oli peered over my body and into the squeeze.

"Na, ja. Es geht." (Oh, well. It goes.)

Didn't anything rattle him?

We turned around and retreated back along the cobblestones, my knees flinching in pain. The others were cold and ready to leave. Oli tried to convince them to stay, but they had had enough. He looked at me.

I was torn between curiousity -- where would the passage lead? how would I cope? -- and my dread of squeezes. I had never done anything remotely like a 50 meter belly crawl. At the back of my mind was another worry.

The club had a project cave in the Alps. It was 500 meters deep and still going. I had been rebuffed on an earlier attempt to join a trip to another large system in the Alps on the grounds that they didn't know me or my caving abilities well enough. I badly wanted to go on this trip.

We had gone on a number of trips by now and I thought I was in, but no one had said anything one way or the other. Joining Oli now might do the trick. I swallowed my fear and said I would join him.

While the others packed up to leave, we unloaded most of the gear from our packs. No point in dragging them through the squeeze for a two-hour reconnaisance. I put a candy bar, spare light, and a few extra batteries in a fanny pack and led back into the triangular crawlway. At the bathtub, I moved to the side to let Oli pass.

"Du zuerst." (You first.)

"Nein, du." (No, you.)

Oli grinned again and told me there was no point in him going first. If anyone was going to back out, it was me, and he couldn't see the point in going all the way through the squeeze only to have to reverse it if I chickened out. Much as I didn't like it, I could see his point.

I slithered out of the bathtub and into the passage. It wasn't bad at first. I could turn my head from side to side, move my arms back and forth. I could even have turned around if I had needed to. It just went on forever.

After 15 meters, the passage opened into a small, bell-shaped room where I sat up and waited for Oli. A few minutes later, he emerged from the belly crawl, smiling as if it was nothing. It hadn't been that bad, I told myself. Not really tight, just long.

The passage exited the bell in a vertical slot. I took off my helmet and placed it in the passage, then wriggled in on my left side with my left arm extended. There was an inch or two between my chest and the wall and the ceiling quickly dropped to within four or five inches of my right shoulder.

Still, I could move my right arm from my hip to above my head, and turn my head to look forward or back. Like the previous section, I couldn't really say it was tight, but it was definitely a notch higher on the claustrophobia scale. We still had 35 meters to go.

I inched forward, pushing my helmet and carbide canister ahead of me and pulling my fanny pack behind, all the while trying not to think about the passage ahead. Still, I couldn't help but look, and it continued the same size and shape for as far as I could see.

After five meters I hit a puddle, then another. The second was almost too much for me -- water oddly frightened me -- and I lay in it, wondering whether to continue. I didn't think I could take another 30 meters of this. Behind me, I heard Oli scraping along the passage, then stop.

"Und? Wie geht's?" (And? How's it going?)

"Ich denke." (I'm thinking.)

"Na, gut." (Sounds good.)

I closed my eyes. It was comfortable and, with my eyes closed, I didn't have to think about the passage ahead. Most of me was ready to quit, but a little spark of curiousity remained, along with that wish to go to the Alps. Some of the people who had turned back had been to the Alps, so hadn't I done enough? Still, I wasn't sure.

In the end, it wasn't the trip to the Alps that convinced me. It was the knowledge that if I backed out now I wouldn't forgive myself. Yes it was tight, yes it was longer than any squeeze I had ever done, yes I was scared. But I wasn't panicked, I could move easily, and the passage wasn't getting any tighter. I thought of the words of the climber Dougal Haston, who said that you kept climbing until, "you had a reason to turn back." I had no reason to turn back.

I told Oli I was going again and scrunched forward. Two meters later, the passage opened into another bell. I waited again for Oli and his hideous grin.

"Gut, ja?" (Good, huh?)

It was almost as if he thought this was fun.

The passage continued in the same fashion, a bit tighter, a bit more sinuous, but it didn't matter. I had already made my decision.

Five meters later, the roof suddenly rose and I could crouch sideways, then stand up. After ten more meters, the canyon took a sharp turn and exited into subway-sized passage. We were through.

We took a short rest, then started up passage. My carbide light eventually sputtered and died and my electric light slowly turned yellow. I had one more set of batteries, but I wanted to save them for the walk out. There was a cache of carbide an hour on the other side of the squeeze, but we had no guarantee the others had left it as agreed.

After an hour, I said that I had had enough. Oli looked longingly up passage, then turned with a smile and started back. He didn't seem worried about the lights, so I tried not to be.

At the entrance to the squeeze, we had a candy bar and I changed batteries. Oli agreed to lead, saying I had done enough on the way in. I didn't object.

It didn't seem so bad on the way out, just a long, annoying wriggle. By the time we reached the bell before the belly crawl, I felt as if we were already out.

The rest of the trip out was uneventful. We found carbide at the cache as promised and, on the drive back to the caver's cottage, I finally learned to understand Oli's German as he regaled me with a solid hour of caving adventures. And one other thing. In the triangular passage on the way out, he mentioned how much fun we would have in the Alps that summer.