I am sitting on top of a hill. The sun is warm on my back and a wind is playing with my hair. Blue, green and orange tents dot the hillside, voices murmur. A robins-egg blue sky arches over the dusty green fell. The conversation turns to caving. Tourists stroll by with more on their backs than necessary, gawking at us. I breathe a deep breath, and my stony heart begins to mend, a contentment breeding where before there had been only despair.
I want to feel at ease, but in this moment, I cannot. I am happy. I am content. I could not wish to be anywhere but here, in this moment. I am not free, but I am alive. My heart is in shambles, my future decided yet uncertain, but here I am, on top of a hill with the sun shining down on me. I smile, and my heart loosens.
This weekend is the Gaping Gill Winch Meet, where a winch mechanism is set up to lower curious visitors into the gaping maws of one of the UK’s largest caverns. It is hosted by the Bradford Pothole Club, the nicest bunch of cavers I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. When I walked into the beer tent last night, I felt like I had come home, to my family. We talked and laughed and sang, swapping stories and telling tales. A room full of warmth on the cold windy fell.
Cavers are a special type of person, the best type of person. Think of the most interesting person you have ever met, and throw in about ten times as many crazy stories. Cavers with the means have traversed the globe, over and under ground. They are open to new things in a way that might frighten most people. Many are scientific-minded, others simply fascinating, and all have stories to tell. From expeditions on the other side of the world to daring adventures at the pub ‘round the corner, there is not much that would shock a caver.
One BPC member talked of his 13 years serving in the Armed Forces. From Northern Ireland to Desert Storm, he had travelled the world. However, it was hard to take him seriously in his Rastafarian-style beanie with fake dreadlocks dangling past his shoulders. Silly hats seemed to be a winch meet tradition, I realised, looking over at the man whose baseball cap brim was laden with a fake turd and emblazoned with the words “Sh**head.” Another tale took place closer to home: many winch meets ago, when instead of a latrine trench (fitted with actual toilet seats and tarpaulin doors, mind you), the toilet up on the hill used to be a chemical Porta Loo (Porta Potty). Early one morning, one of the Rattray brothers stumbled back across the hill with an odd red line down the front of his face. Turned out that he had caused the chemical toilet to flip over in his drunken state, while he was still in it! Needless to say he needed a rinse and some new clothes.
Sure, some of the stories seem juvenile, idiotic, but cavers are intelligent people. Your brain must always be switched “on” when you are navigating passages underground; every detail is important, your team is important. You trust your life to these comrades, and form strong bonds. It is something that is difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it. “You’re going to spend your weekend in a tent on a blustery fell? Poking around muddy holes? Drinking beer under an icy moon?” But in that tent on the blustery fell you snore so soundly. In those muddy holes you discover beauty. Under that icy moon there is warmth and friends. This is caving, and this winch meet is my family reunion.