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InDepth Magazine - Issue 2
- Going to Ground

InDepth Magazine, issue 2 editor's introduction:

2020 has, no doubt, proved to be a testing year for many of us. It certainly has for me. Starting with shielding for months at the beginning of the year, deciding to leave the dive centre that I first set-up in 2016, to tentatively emerging from lockdown... to at least try and salvage some semblance of normality and get a bit of diving in during the summer, albeit restricted entirely to the UK and predominantly underground in a vain attempt to avoid the vast majority of the rest of the human race in the hope that the nightmare might all be over when I later emerged. 

InDepth Magazine - Issue 2 - Going to Ground.

Alas, the nightmare continues, at least for a few more months, and regrettably  the diving world has lost at least one very special individual to the pandemic who will be deeply missed, especially at NDAC. Luke Hart was a very dear and special friend and I have no shame in admitting that I shed a good many tears when I heard the news that he had passed away after contracting Covid-19.

Luke Hart

In memory of Luke Hart.

He held a special place in my heart, his jovial (and mostly inappropriate) greetings first thing in the morning will be sorely missed. And whilst he is gone, he will never be forgotten. I am absolutely certain that a great many of you will also feel the same way. May he rest in peace, I’m sure whoever he is with will not be short for conversation! 

 

And so, as we say goodbye to 2020 and embrace a New Year I must admit that I’m so very happy to be doing my own thing again... and, like many of you, I will not look back!

 

I should wrap this up by saying, mine diving is extremely dangerous, please enjoy the editorial, but don’t do it! It requires specialist training.

James Neal

Publishing Editor, InDepth Magazine

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Mine Cart at Holme Bank Mine.
Holme Bank Flooded Mine
Holme Bank Mine.
Aber Las Mine.
Scuba Diving at Holme Bank Mine.

Going to Ground
 

What better way to get away from it all... 

than heading underground!

I found myself in Watford, taking part in a ‘Service Technician’ course for Atomic Aquatics, Hollis, Oceanic and Zeagle. The room was tightly packed with some of the industry’s finest... the news was dominated by speculation of a strange new virus... it was March, and the country was just days away from lockdown!

 

I returned home to news that I was being put into the ‘shielded’ category and that, with immediate effect, I should refrain from leaving my house. And so I spent the next three months, prisoner in my own home, locked away in the ‘Dive Den’ learning photogrammetry, writing articles and making models to while away the hours. 

 

To be fair, this was no hardship, I’m quite content in the Dive Den and I had plenty to do to keep me busy... the photogrammetry was a blessing but after 112 days dry I was starting to get a bit antsy for some dive action!

 

My local dive centre was shut, the club was suspended until further notice and none of the hardboats were running. Car sharing was off limits and social distancing had just become the new normal. The world had changed...

 

During lockdown I had plenty of time to think and reflect, I made a few decisions as to what, and whom, was important to me. Spending more time diving for myself and with my friends was very much at the top of that priority list. But how on earth could I do that in this strange new world? The answer became obvious during one of our weekly Zoom get-togethers. As we had all ‘gone to ground’ it seemed sensible to head underground!

 

The club I’m in has a small group of cave and mine trained divers, of which I am a part, and so we started chatting about diving a few of the mines that we’d dived in the past. Holme Bank, Hodge Close, Aber Las to name but a few.

 

I have a real soft spot for Holme Bank. 

 

I did my very  first  over-head course there with Ian France and have been back several times, assisting on courses, refreshing my own skills and helping others... it’s a great dive site.

 

Unfortunately, the original (and easy) entrance has been locked and so it has become something of an epic struggle to haul kit in and out of there. As a fifty-something year old who has a degenerative muscle condition I find this particularly difficult, I pay a heavy price for days afterwards as the multiple trips, stooping down with heavy kit has my

Atomic Aquatics Regulators.

muscles screaming out and my MH (Malignant Hyperpyrexia) reminds me who’s boss! I refuse to let it beat me though... but I am always grateful for a helping hand!

 

I just love the whole adventure with this type of diving, the logistics involved, the planning, the equipment, the effort... it’s almost as though I haven’t grown up!

 

Now, let’s talk about the diving...

 

Holme Bank

Nestled in the Peak District, with access by prior appointment only, Holme Bank is a joy to dive and an ideal training site. It is, however, hard graft getting your kit in, and out, of the mine. Each trip is roughly half a mile. That’s half a mile in and half a mile out. Depending on equipment and how you’re carrying it, it can be done in two trips. If, however, you’re taking a camera, extra lighting or have to help one of your fellow divers it can take up to four trips... each way! And then four more, after the diving’s done! Suffice to say, Holme Bank gives you a workout!

 

For this type of diving you need robust kit. It’s going to take a pounding. A hard hat is a must and you will hit your head, usually with a hard jarring that runs right down your spine and exits with an almighty groan!

 

Kitting up in the dark is an art and takes extra effort. It is essential that your kit fits you well and that you’ve checked it in advance... now is not the time to be trying out anything new! Dive what you know works and can take the punishment!

Pegs and Cave Diving Markers
Kitting Up Underground.
Cave Diver with Line Marker.
Scuba Diving in Holme Bank Mine.

In the cold darkness I can see my breath turn to vapour in the still air, I’m up to my waist in cold water, my dive helmet has two back-up torches, one strapped to either side, I test them in the water to ensure they’re operational and then prop the helmet on the side to help illuminate  our base camp as we kit up.

Sidemount is ideal for this type of diving, easier to carry in / out and easier to put on in the dark. I clip the left hand cylinder on first, attach the inflator to my Hollis Katana wing and test it. The short hose regulator is necklaced around by neck and I take two long breaths from it. I then check the umbilical torch is free and clear and clip it back onto the top D-ring whilst I clip the right hand cylinder on. Bottom first, then looping the bungee around the modular pillar valve having connected the inflator to my BARE Expedition HD2 dry suit. I check the long hose is clear and run through an S-Drill. I take 5 long breaths from the right hand Hollis 200LX, they deliver a crisp blast of air as I watch the SPG for any sign of movement, 5 breaths ensures  that the cylinder is open and that I’m not just breathing off the air contained within the long hose!

BARE Expedition HDC Drysuit.

I don my hood, grateful for the warmth that the Exowear provides. Next is the Oceanic Shadow mask and then, finally, I reach across and pick-up my dive helmet, switching off the back-up lights and placing it on my head, the bungee holding it snuggly in place.

 

As I drop below the surface the darkness  is replaced by a swirling of silt suspended in the water column, my Hollis canister torch illuminates the particles as I inch my way forward along the primary line. The particles soon give way to crystal clear water and I can now clearly see my buddies, one in front of me, the other behind. We exchange a clear OK signal with our torches and push forward into the mine.

 

On this trip I am the only diver on open circuit... which allows me to relish in the orchestra that takes place with each breath, as I exhale the eruption of bubbles race towards the roof that is only a matter of a few feet above me, they impact on the ceiling with explosive force, dislodging any particles to rain down, as the bubbles dance across the roof in search of their elusive exit, cracks in the rock above which they rush into with thunderous zeal. I draw another breath and, after a few seconds of silence, the orchestra starts up again as the bubbles erupt from my Hollis 200LX second stage and engage in their frenzied quest to escape the mine. And so this symphony plays out, a rapturous explosion followed by a few precious seconds of silence as we inch our way ever further into the bowels of the earth.

 

I find myself in awe of my environment, this is no playground... you need to have absolute faith in your equipment, there is little to no margin for error.

As enchanted as I am by this place, it demands respect and proper training is essential. Literally everything in the mine can kill you! The water is bitter cold, the air in any of the air spaces may not be breathable and everything is in a state of decay. 

 

Keeping me warm against the biting cold is BARE’s phenomenal SB base layer system. The first layer of which is a two piece under garment that wicks away any sweat. Over this I wear the one piece fleeced SB layer that really keeps me warm and this layer possesses some kind of magic... I’ve no idea what the technology involved is, but the SB system  still retains the ability to keep you warm even if it should get wet. Which is pretty essential when you’re in frigid waters and your only exit could be several hundred metres away!

Keeping me dry is BARE’s Expedition HD2 dry suit. I absolutely adore this suit, it’s almost two years old now, it’s taken a pounding in dozens of mines and quarries up and down the

UK and it’s been dragged through numerous wrecks and yet, despite the abuse, it still looks great. Almost like new in fact, with just a few visible scuff marks to the knees from crawling in and out of various places. Most importantly though... it’s never let me down, not once!

 

The same can be said of my Zeagle Recon fins... these things are virtually indestructible, they’re built to take some serious abuse and are the ideal bit of kit for this type of diving.

 

As we reach the 100 metre mark on the main line we can see an area where part of the roof has collapsed, we squeeze through the gap and drop back down the other side, continuing forward, we are now venturing into an area of the mine that I’ve never dived before, but have always wanted to explore and see what lay beyond the collapse... such is the lure of this type of diving, but you must be disciplined and ensure that you stick to your turn pressures and not push your limits or your luck!

 

Eventually we reach a point where we can go no further and are forced to turn the dive and make our way back, we didn’t hit our turn pressures and so we have ample gas reserves, this gives us some extra time for photography on our way back out.

Diving Deep Within Holme Bank Mine.
Scuba Diver in Holme Bank.
Rebreather Diver in Holme Bank.
AP Rebreather Diver in Holme Bank.

Hodge Close

Hodge Close can best be described as something of a ‘mini expedition dive’. It’s certainly not an easy dive site to get to. You need to plan well and think of everything you’re likely to need... well in advance. You should also undertake a serious risk assessment as there is absolutely no access for the emergency services. Not even by air! So you’re at least an hour away from any help and need to consider how you might evacuate a casualty!

 

An early night and a hearty breakfast is well advised, it takes a fair amount of effort just to get your dive kit to the water and finding the quarry itself can be difficult. The first challenge is to find the road that takes you down to the tunnel that leads to the quarry, you actually have to ignore the sign that clearly states ‘no vehicle access’ and drive through the gate and down a track that is very steep, potholed, really isn’t suited to your everyday hatchback, and  really isn’t going to do your suspension a great deal of good! Once at the bottom, assuming your vehicle makes it, the area opens out and there is ample parking. (Recent reports suggest that this access has now been deliberately blocked and that you have to carry all of your kit down!)

The  quarry is accessed via a tunnel which, depending on the time of year, has varying depths of water running for most of its length. For this reason, an inflatable dinghy can be very useful... to float all your kit down the tunnel and, much like Holme Bank, a hard hat is essential!

At the other end it pays to rig up a block and tackle to lower everything down the rock face. There is a makeshift ladder made from scaffolding, but being able to lower kit via a rope winching mechanism is a lot easier and safer!

 

Once you make it to the quarry itself you are met with the first ominous warning sign, which reads, amongst other things: ‘The tunnel system has killed, it is foolhardy to enter it’.

 

It’s at this point that you should start to look around for the ‘skull’. You can’t see it, even looking in every direction, nothing even vaguely resembles a skull! Now reach for your camera phone and look through that instead, move it around  until you see it... it will send a shiver down your spine! What the eye does not easily see the camera very clearly picks up. The rock face directly in front, combined with its own reflection in the water below creates this eerie image that gives this place its name, ‘Skull Quarry’, and it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end!

KUBI Expedition Bags.
Hodge Close Mine.
The entrance to Hodge Close tunnel.
Hodge Close No Vehicle Access Warning Sign..
Hodge Close Dive with Care Warning Sign.
An inflatable dinghy to float kit down through the flooded tunnel.
The makeshift ladder at the end of the tunnel.
The skull and cross bones sign at Hodge Close mine.

The  quarry is accessed via a tunnel which, depending on the time of year, has varying depths of water running for most of its length. For this reason, an inflatable dinghy can be very useful... to float all your kit down the tunnel and, much like Holme Bank, a hard hat is essential!

At the other end it pays to rig up a block and tackle to lower everything down the rock face. There is a makeshift ladder made from scaffolding, but being able to lower kit via a rope winching mechanism is a lot easier and safer!

 

Once you make it to the quarry itself you are met with the first ominous warning sign, which reads, amongst other things: ‘The tunnel system has killed, it is foolhardy to enter it’.

 

It’s at this point that you should start to look around for the ‘skull’. You can’t see it, even looking in every direction, nothing even vaguely resembles a skull! Now reach for your camera phone and look through that instead, move it around  until you see it... it will send a shiver down your spine! What the eye does not easily see the camera very clearly picks up. The rock face directly in front, combined with its own reflection in the water below creates this eerie image that gives this place its name, ‘Skull Quarry’, and it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end!

 

At first glance the water looks a brackish brown colour and I fear that the visibility is going to be atrocious. I enter the water with an elevated pulse and my nerves jangling. The excitement of this little adventure is now very real, and I’m loving it.

 

It’s gloomy, dark and foreboding. Yet the visibility itself isn’t too bad. We start to make our descent towards the bottom and come across numerous wrecks of old cars and vans that have been dumped off the cliff edge over the years. There are dozens of them littering the bottom. 

 

Now we’re searching. Searching for the entrance of the mine itself. We’re at 23 metres, whilst not particularly deep, you certainly don’t want to be messing about too long looking for the entrance. Eventually we find it and I deploy a DSMB to mark its position.

 

I line off from a secure primary tie-off outside the entrance and set a secondary a short distance in. Checking my two buddies are set and that all torches and back-ups are operational we start down the first shaft towards the main chamber.

 

The darkness is absolute within seconds of entering. It’s hard to describe the complete and utter blackness of it, pitch black doesn’t do it justice, there simply is no light whatsoever, it’s like being in a void.

 

I turn on my Hollis canister torch and its light pierces the blackness with its razor sharp beam, the tunnel ahead of me is bathed in light and its dark mystery revealed. The water is gin clear. My heart rate has slowed down, my concentration has focused, this shit has just got really, really serious!

 

I fine-tune my buoyancy with breath control, whilst my Katana wing holds me steady, I modify my frog kick to keep my fin movements to an absolute minimum and the Zeagle Recon fins glide me forward with the slightest of movements. We start making our way down through the tunnel, reeling out line and fixing it in position as we venture in... further and further. Eventually we come to the 2nd sign at Hodge Close. This one simply reads ‘OUT’ in bold capital letters. We continue onwards, reeling out more line.

 

As I venture deeper into the mine the ‘orchestra’ starts back up as the bubbles exit from my Hollis 200LX 2nd stage and commence their frantic dash across the rocky ceiling, seeking their exit with thunderous aplomb. My senses are attuned  to the environment, taking in every detail, noting features and visual references. Eventually we come out into one of the main chambers. Here there is another sign, this one even more to the point than its predecessors, it features a skull and crossbones and simply reads: ‘This passage is not an exit. GO BACK!!!’

 

We tie-off onto the main line and follow the passage down towards chamber two. The temperature has plummeted, it’s now getting extremely cold, around 4 degrees Celsius, my Exowear is earning its keep on this dive as it staves off the frigid cold. As we reach chamber two it’s time to make a decision, do we push on for chamber three as planned or turn back? My buddy’s hands are getting cold; I’m wearing dry gloves coupled with Exowear under gloves that have kept my hands warm and whilst my buddy does have dry gloves, he isn’t wearing Exowear under gloves... we elect to turn the dive.

 

Retracing our path, having already clocked up almost 15 minutes of deco it’s time to head out of the mine and start decompressing. By the time we reach the  exit of the mine, which is at 26 metres, we’re looking at 35 minutes’ deco to off-gas sufficiently before we can safely exit the water.

 

My thermal protection now really comes into its own, as we hang at 6 metres, motionless, watching the minutes slowly tick by... grateful for the fact that I’m not freezing!

 

We haul ourselves out of the water, each grinning broadly, imagining what it would be like to venture further, deeper, longer... but it will have to wait for another time. We do complete a 2nd dive and take the obligatory photos next to the signs, but both the time and the penetration is kept shorter. And then it’s done. But the challenge isn’t quite over as now we have to pack everything up, haul it all the way back up and out through the tunnel. Load the vehicles and then drive for four hours to get home!

Aber Las

Aber Las is in North Wales and it’s access seems to cause some debate. For me, I think it's the easiest of the mines to access, others disagree. You would easily miss the entrance if you didn’t know where to look, and I’m not about to share its location, so please don’t ask! 

 

It is literally a hole in the ground, that’s completely innocuous looking, and yet it hides the most remarkable, and potentially dangerous, dive site. Access is aided by a rope that’s tied to a tree and drops through the entrance, we usually take a wire ladder for added ease of access. It’s a short walk from where you park and it’s best to get your kit lowered into the entrance first and then carry it down the steep, almost 45 degrees, incline.

 

I found it best to use the rope and walk backwards for the first part. The slate under foot is wet and extremely slippery. Yet, despite this, I found that the relatively short distances, without having to stoop over, made getting all of the gear in and out a lot easier that the likes of Holme Bank or Hodge Close. I did, however, get soaked, as water is literally seeping out of the rock above and running down the tunnel to the head pool.

 

Kitting up as a three was a little awkward, and the slate dust gets everywhere, it’s horrible stuff... and all the while we’re kicking it up and it’s being washed down the mine. You need to have absolute faith in your kit for this type of diving, what is about to happen is not for the faint hearted. I run through my equipment thoroughly and complete a self-reliant check and S-Drill, all is in perfect working order. We recap the dive plan, to ensure everyone understands and, as I’m the underdog on this dive, I’m allocated ‘diver two’ and sandwiched between my two colleagues.

 

We depart the surface... as I slip away from the darkness above the water I’m struck by just how bad the viz is. I am literally only inches underwater and I can’t see a thing outside my Shadow mask. It’s a swirl of silt and dust particles suspended in the water... and as I drop deeper it gets worse, and worse, and worse. It’s difficult to retain orientation and all I can think is ‘don’t lose the line’... if you do, it could be fatal! I feel my heart rate quicken a touch, as experiences go, this is horrible!

 

I continue to fin, not sure if I’m going down or forward, or both... my only guide the thin line in my right hand, I’m literally having to grope my way through the horror by touch. And it is a horror, ‘why am I doing this?’ runs through my mind, I look back and I can’t see Andy, I look forward and I can’t see Simon, both are on rebreathers, and so I can’t hear them either! I take a deep breath and my Hollis 200LX delivers a sharp reassuring blast of air and I kick forward, this time thinking to myself ‘I must be mad!’

 

The visibility doesn’t improve and I must confess I’m now starting to push the limits of my comfort zone, normally after a few metres things are much improved, not so at Aber Las, it takes a good while longer and it feels like an age, I continue to grope my way along and edge forward... 

Eventually I’m rewarded with a glimpse of my buddy’s fin, a few more metres and then the visibility breaks and at last I can see where I am... the environment has transformed, now the water is crystal clear and the scene that unfolds before me is staggering in both its awe and its foreboding!

 

The darkness is complete, my Hollis canister torch slices a white beam through the utter blackness and starts to behave as though it’s something out of H.G. Well’s  ‘The Time Machine’ as it reveals a scene that is from a time long past... 

It feels as though I’ve swum back through the ages and that the swirling void was some sort of portal through space and time!

I’ve emerged in a strange new world... a world of darkness and decay, the tunnel runs out before us and we swim down it and back through time itself.

 

Suspended beneath my Hollis Katana wing I glide across the top of an old railway line built for the mine carts, there are levers rusted in place and these hold the main penetration line that we are following which is adorned with directional markers and cookies, we use our own and pegs to mark our way as we  penetrate further into the darkness. The railway line meets with another and forks off to our right, we put in a jump line and make our way across, a mine cart comes out of the gloom and further ahead is the staircase that we descend, taking us down to about 25 metres in depth.

 

At another junction my buddy puts in a further jump line, on completion I signal to him that we’ve reached our pre-arranged turn time and we turn the dive, leaving the spools and lines in place for collection on the next dive. Retracing my path and following the line back up the staircase, past the mine cart, turning left at our jump line and back to the main penetration line, I’m met with another jump line... I’m confused, I don’t recall that, I can see my other buddy ahead, he’s next to an old winch, which I’m certain we didn’t pass. This sends a bit of chill through me... this isn’t what we planned, I‘m not entirely certain I know where we are, this makes me feel ever so slightly anxious... not a good feeling to have in a place like this. I look at my buddy and he signals for me to take a photograph and that we then need to U-turn and go back to the main line, I realise then that he’d put in an extra jump and that once we were back to the previous junction we were back on our exit route. 

Ammonite Heating and Lighting.

We’ve now been in the water for about an hour, yet despite this I do not feel cold at all, a combination of adrenaline and the BARE SB system working its magic. My Exowear gloves, under my dry gloves, are superb, my hands are lovely and warm which is essential for laying / retrieving lines and my Hollis canister torch is still illuminating the tunnel ahead, it’s superb burn-time gives me great comfort, as do the three back-up torches that I have on my person!

As we continue back down the tunnel the visibility starts to deteriorate once again, our exit point is getting closer, but distance is relative, the 100 metres or so through swirling particles feels like an eternity as they cloud around my Oceanic Shadow mask getting ever denser making it impossible to see, only the touch of the line guides me once again. I can feel the line wrap around a pipe, it hasn’t been laid correctly, it’s not ‘continuous’ and I have to feel around the pipe to ensure I’m not accidently following another unknown line down the wrong tunnel. Once again I can’t see, or hear, either of my buddies. I’m grateful for quality training.

Technical Diving in Aber Las Mine.

The final leg of the dive back through the silt feels like an age again, and it’s difficult to orientate until I can feel the gas expanding in both my BARE dry suit and my Katana wing, keeping the line firmly in my left hand I’m able to dump the excess gas with my right, gradually making my ascent in zero viz, I can barely see my computers, I’m forced to squint to try and ascertain my depth in order to complete my safety stop... a few minutes later and I’m emerging back into the darkness that is the head pool.

 

As the only diver on open circuit I had planned to do only the one dive, and so I had plenty of time to haul my kit back out whilst the others went back in for a second dive and retrieved the spools and lines. My kit was absolutely covered in fine powdered slate; it was ingrained in everything! My poor kit had really taken a pounding on this dive and had absorbed the punishment in its stride. It had performed reassuringly, which in an environment such as Aber Las, gave great confidence to continue.

 

Having said all of that, it would be remiss of me not to say that this type of diving is also very much about your ‘head game’. Your equipment needs to be robust and reliable, you need to know that it will perform, and you need to know that you will keep your head and use your training. Lose your head and it could easily cost you your life. Appropriate training is essential and you should not try any of the dives mentioned in this article without it.

 

I am also happy to admit, there are times I question myself about this type of diving. Am I really cut out for it? It’s not for everyone... And it’s a good idea to question yourself from time to time.

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Comments (1)

I wrote this article during the hight of the Covid pandemic and it was great to get underground and away from all the fear and madness. It somehow felt like a refuge underground, away from it all. I'm looking forward to the next time I dive a few of these sites, but it will most likely be after going to Mexico and diving the cenotes now.


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