RISING What’s been your most extreme moment during a cave dive?
ANDY TORBET ‘The solo cave exploration I did in Scotland’s ‘The Cave Of Skulls’ was probably the most hardcore. It involved a lot of abseiling underground and crawls through tight, flooded passages. I was crawling through a partially-flooded passage on my belly, and there was barely enough room between the roof and my back. As I crawled in it got tighter and tighter, and dipped underwater. I had my scuba gear in a bag leashed to my ankle, but I knew I was close to the end. I thought: “Well it’s only a couple of feet so I’ll hold my breath, duck underwater and push through.” Unfortunately I got stuck fast. I was thinking: “Shit, this is bad news.” Then I realised I had taken a really deep breath before I plunged forward, so I decided to breathe out, to exhale completely so that the gap around my chest increased just enough for me to squeeze through and swim into the next air bell.’
RISING How do you deal with the risks?
AT ‘Cave diving is a purely cerebral sport. It’s probably the most psychologically oppressive environment you can be in – you’re underwater, underground and in the dark. So there are two things that I do: I will sit at my desk going through the plan beforehand and think of everything that can possibly go wrong. I will be as paranoid as I can be. If I can’t eliminate those risks, I will assume they are going to happen and I’ll have a plan B in place. No matter what goes wrong I have pre-thought of a plan to get out of it, so there’s no: “Shit, shit this has gone wrong, what do I do?” The more paranoid you can be in the risk assessment beforehand, the calmer you can be when you hit the water. You have to become a geek to do the maths, to calculate the right gas, emergency gas and decompression schedule – deep sea and cave divers, we’re all massive geeks and we all like maths because if you don’t then you’re just going to die.’
‘If you don’t spend 90% of your time on an expedition wishing you weren’t, then you’re probably on holiday’
RISING How do you avoid freaking out?
AT ‘You’re on your own, one kilometre from the nearest exit, 100m underwater, 400m below the surface of the earth – how do you cope with that thought? The answer is I don’t – I don’t freaking think about it, or I’d lose my shit! I concentrate on swimming the next section or checking my kit; always doing the job in front of me. I always think very ‘small picture’ because once you start letting your mind wander into: “Oh my God if something goes wrong now, I’ve got an hours’ swim to get out, or four hours decompression before I get to the surface,” that’s not the time to think that way – sat at your desk with a cup of tea is. But once you’re in the water don’t think bigger picture and don’t let your mind start to wander because once the spiral starts it’s very hard to regain your composure. In that moment you have to nip panic in the bud, so I tend to concentrate on the job that’s in front of me.’
RISING What’s been your scariest moment in a cave?
AT ‘In Greenland a couple of years ago I abseiled 70m into this moulin (a vertical ice cave in a glacier) and saw a horizontal tunnel leading away underneath the glacier. I thought: “Amazing, we’re going to explore this ice cave.” Two of the other guys abseiled down and we started to get ready to go into the cave. Suddenly, this massive block of ice about the size of a Mini sheared off above and smashed apart on the ground next to us – everything started to collapse down around us. We were immediately like: “Let’s get the hell out of here!” We then had to jumar [ascend] back up the rope one at a time, going as fast as we could because you’re holding your mates up – jumaring isn’t that quick and it’s hard work so everyone was red-faced and sweating their bollocks off at the top.’
RISING How do you calm yourself before a dive?
AT ‘Your mental state will influence your physical state. I go through all of my checks, and then just before we do a jump or a dive I will run through the whole thing in my head and ask the question: “Am I good to go? Yes I am, OK.” Then take a few nice, relaxing deep breaths and go for it. It’s not whooping and doing high fives to build up aggression – you try for the exact opposite. You sit to calm yourself down, breathe and almost force your heartbeat to settle down, just forget about everything and what you are about to do – wind down, almost, and then bang: go!’
RISING What unexplored cave system do you most want to be the first into?
AT ‘There are flooded caves in Northern India that I’d love to explore. There’s a supposedly bottomless pool inside a Cave Temple - it’s proper Indiana Jones stuff. A German guy dropped a camera and a rope down there in the ‘90s and his footage showed that on the ledges going down there were coins and little bits of bone because people had been chucking stuff down there for hundreds, or even thousands of years.’
RISING What’s the most extreme, first deep-water dive you want to do?
AT ‘There’s a new Blue Hole in the South China Sea called Dragon’s Hole, which has never been dived and is probably about 1000ft deep – it would be amazing to dive that and it’s on my radar.’
RISING Are there any caves you would never go into?
AT ‘I had a message on Facebook from someone who said they were thinking of exploring flooded coal mines in Scotland. I said: “Mate, the reason no one dives coal mines is they’re a deathtrap because they’re so unstable.” I’ve dived other flooded mines but coal mines are just going to collapse on you. No matter how good you are, if the thing collapses then that’s it, game over – it’s all about the risks you can control – any risk I can control is irrelevant because I can make it not exist.’
‘Cave divers are all geeks and we like maths because if you don’t then you’re just going to die’
RISING What have been the most extreme conditions you’ve experienced during a dive into an unexplored cave?
AT ‘We were doing a cave dive in Finland last December – we had to smash through the ice on the surface of a lake to get into the water, and then dive down into the cave at the bottom. Four hours later we swam out of the cave almost hypothermic with cold and had to smash back through the ice to get out. That was a bit emotional.’
RISING Is it possible to be a genuine ‘everyday’ explorer?
AT ‘Yes, the word ‘explorer’ is overused on social media but if you want to be a genuine explorer then grab a mask and a snorkel, and go into a local river or lake (if it’s safe to do so) because there’s a fair chance what you will see has never been viewed by human eyes before. It’s very easy to be a real underwater explorer.’
RISING Why do you want to be the first person to explore these extreme places?
AT ‘It’s human nature – you want to find out what’s around the next corner, through that door, over the next hill, out there beyond the darkness. It’s the idea that you’re going somewhere that no human and maybe even no living thing has been before. And there’s always the potential for discovery. The undiscovered WWII wreck I dived in the English Channel in 2016 was just a blip on the sonar; for all we knew it could have been a shipping container, a weird-shaped rock, or a bloody Spanish galleon. That couple of minutes as you freefall through the water in darkness, it’s like being a nine year old on Christmas Day again. When we saw it was pretty intact and sitting upright, it was like: “Oh my God, this is Lara Croft-type stuff!” The sense of anticipation and possibility is phenomenal.’
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