I’m hanging from a tenuous rope over a black pit adorned with the sound of rushing water underneath. The river is out of sight, it is too far down, all I see under my feet is a gaping black hole. The water is too loud to hear any instructions from the experienced cavers with me, I´m on my own for this one. I place my feet in the rocky wall now in front of me, lean back, grab on to the rope and monkey my way sideways over the pit till I reach the next rope and switch my two life lines, one by one. I don´t think about the ropes ahead, I just get through it, one at a time. This is called a ‘traversée’, it’s a horizontal rigging used in caves for high passes.
So how did I find myself hanging at dizzying heights in the dark? Oh yes, I decided I needed more excitement in my life and joined Spekul, the Leuven Speleology Club. On December 23rd we decided to celebrate the start of the Christmas break with a visit to Réseau de Fresnes, a big multilevel cave in the mountains of Namur, Belgium. The team consisted of three experienced cavers: Hans, Jo, Bram and the newbie, me.
The day started with a visit to Lucienne’s house for a key to the cave, she is a sixty something year old lady who still goes caving on occasion and has done much exploring and mapping of unknown passages, a legend in Belgian caving. Key in hand, we got to the site, carefully stepped into our caving gear and made our way to the entrance of the cave, we knew it would be wet since it had been raining for the past two days. The entrance is a vertical drop some 50 meters deep -ok… ok… it´s maybe 15 m, but it feels like 50m when you´re looking down from the top-. It’s not a problem, I’ve been training for this every week at the gym, so I make use of my newly learned rope techniques, with some corrections from the cavers. I make a very slow way down because I discover once more that wet muddy ropes in the dark are different than dry ones at the gym.
After that we keep going down through a ladder and some crawly ways. The cave has pretty cool rock formations, some of them still have a pristine white color, and in some corners there are glittery crystals. It´s like exploring another world altogether, fascinating. After some time we reach an intersection and Hans says that he wants to explore some upper levels that he hasn’t been to before. The choices are: climbing up a mud wall, a vertical climb in oppossée through ‘Puit de l'Oppo’, or a climb up ‘Le Tube’ (also in oppossée but just a little bit less vertical). Opposée is a climbing technique used when there are two walls facing each other, you lock your back against one wall place your legs in front of you against the other wall and slowly inch your way up using mostly leg strength. No one is sure that I can make the climb, myself included, but I don’t mind waiting at the bottom. Just out of curiosity I climb up to look at ‘Le Tube’, it is a not-quite-but-close-enough-to-vertical chimney, that starts about a meter off the ground and goes up for some 8 meters. At that moment I decide that I need to be honest with myself, there is no way I can get up there. I watch Bram and Hans struggle their way up, and decide to voice out my hesitation. After a couple of minutes of arguing I find myself with my back to one wall of ‘Le Tube’ and my legs in front of me gripping the other side, Jo is at the bottom in case I slip down…..thoughts stop.…body takes over.…I start going up, one foot hold slips but I lock my arms and my butt against ‘Le Tube’ and hold myself in place ---geen paniek--- Silently thankful for my big behind, I keep pushing my way up. Before I know it, I´ve crossed the distance and Bram is already taking my life line so I can get over the uncomfortable rock before the top. After that it’s just four meters of vertical opposeé, the walls are a bit too far apart for me, but now I feel like I can do it. This is what it’s all about, that moment when you realize you are capable of doing something you thought was beyond you. So, I gloat to myself for about two minutes and then we set out to explore this upper gallery. We wriggle on through low passages, small horizontal passages, small vertical passages, small rocky passages, small muddy passages, small zigzagging passages. The upper gallery is pretty exciting, but alas, time is short and we head back the way we came from. Going down ‘Le Tube’ is a lot easier than going up, it’s just about not going down too fast.
The tour continues through some more galleries with cute names like Sal des Français, Réseau Dynamite, and Salle de la Cigogne. I have no idea which one was which, but they were all equally entertaining. After some more time we arrive at the famous traverseés. I see Hans start making his way through like it’s just a regular walk in the park, nothing to it, he just grabs the rope and starts walking along the wall until he disappears around a bend. There´s nothing to do but follow on and do the same thing. As I was switching from rope to rope, listening to the sweet melody of the unseen river below, I decided that I need to start doing push ups and pull ups, these arms need to be stronger. Traversées overcome, my Dutch is good enough to get some hints at their conversation about ‘doing a waterfall’. My memory travels back to the Eglise cave and that frightful 6 meter free climb up the waterfall…I still can’t remember it completely…I blocked it out of my conscious memory. This one wasn’t quite so bad, it was a descent down a waterfall, it took me a few moments to gather my courage and step into the water, but I got through it.
The last hurdle was the hardest one, it was either taking a bath to come up to a climb or a vertical walk holding on to a slippy rope. No one wanted to do the bath, so the walk up it was. I really thought I wasn´t going to be able to do this when my grip on the rope kept slipping. But just like all the other hurdles, I got through it and learned that I can trust my body a lot more than I thought I could. Needless to say it was a great day, and I would go caving with these three strong cavers any other time. Thanks Hans, Jo, and Bram for the helping hands, the encouraging words, the funny mud fights, and the ready life lines