Hidden Earth 2011

BCRA 2011 - Monmouth, Wales

Editor's note: Jan took photographs of the conference, but our access to these was lost with the closure of Picasa.

23-25th September

For the third time this year I found myself at a provincial railway station, late at night, with a heavily laden bicycle, about cycle off into the night...

This was the first Hidden Earth I've been to for a several years and though I recognised many faces there weren't many people I had the confidence to go up and talk to.

Dave Wilson, Dewi and his wife where there and kindly brought a tent for Jarv and I, Mike from expo, Fleur Loveridge from Oxford and Hugh Penney I saw very briefly judging some photos; so I was glad to meet up with Andy Sewell! The die hard, hedonistic, super lag from WSG, who I later hung out with in the bar on Saturday night, joined by Helen another WSG caver. Later we went to the Stomp, Jarv made some lame excuse about having to a prepare for some talk at 9.30am the next day...whatever.

I'm sure something happened to the Stomp in the last few years, I remember the moshing but I don't remember so many people dancing in their pants...but maybe that's what you call selective memory?

So while some things felt strange, others were instantly reassuring and exciting, the lectures, the people, the competitions, all that is caving, all in one place. From the start I was drawn to the Technical lectures, I stepped in apprehensively..., and was relieved when the guy talked in plain English not pure geochemistry. Cave formations are useful for telling us about the past environment[1], caves are more widespread than places for taking ice cores, so looking at stal can be very informative, the BCRA can give grants to anyone interested in doing cave research, including simple things like dating formations...; when the next lecturer got stuck into U-Pb dating[2] I confess my attention did flag - though dating back 3 millions years is pretty cool; but I actually got excited when the next lecturer[3] explained in simple terms, and with pretty pictures, how sediment effects the formation of a lot of cave, a real joy if you have ever found yourself wondering how a bit of cave passage came about; and a shock, I never thought I'd find myself excited by sediment, or clast...;)

I took a break to watch some highly amusing antics by the teams attempting the speleo olympics course (Jarv and I gave it a go later). I saw Jarv briefly before we returned to the lectures and some of the overseas expedtions...

Jarv went to a talk on an Albania expedition, and I went to one on prospecting for caves in remote eastern Ethiopia[4], around Harar, (James Evans and Tetley from Imperial went there a while ago ' Buses, dragons and churches ') every trip was accompanied by a following of bemused locals, above ground and below! Despite two of the team nearly asphyxiating from CO2 and the whole expedition getting histoplasmosis, they said they plan to return in Easter 2012 for some promising leads, this time with face masks and CO2 detectors; what was suprising was the amount of surface recceing they could do before going, using Google maps. The next talk was by Fleur describing her second expedition to Myanmar(Burma)[5], a beautiful country with huge potential for discovery, but where the more remote caving areas are in control of local monks, not the government, and to get to them officially requires lots of red-tape and advanced itinaries. But they identified very promising areas for a return trip, and now are more familiar with the locals and officialdom so may take a larger team this January, this will probably mean they'll be looking for keen interested cavers...?

Afterwards I set off to pester Jarv about the speleo olympics, he didn't seem too keen! One of the obstacles was a 10ft black pipe - barely shoulder width, both team members had to slide down into a little cage at the bottom, then your partner pushed you out and you had to reach back, pull out two tackle bags and grab your partners hands and haul them out, it was hard work, but a great laugh.

The last lecture I went to was by the cave diver Rick Stanton[6], about a year ago he got a call to lead a rescue of Eric Establie, a very experienced cave diver in France, it was a remarkable story, told in a matter of fact way, at times absurd and funny, others harrowing. The incident wasn't reported by the media in this country, Eric had not returned from a dive in a cave near the Pont d'Arc in the Ardeche, Rick and his diving partner flew out to the south of France as they were some of the few divers well known and experienced enough to be able to help, and they spent a week assisting the operation.

On Sunday morning, feeling a bit fragile and with vague flashbacks to the Stomp - spinning some poor girl on a beer soaked dance floor, a caver with his name badge pierced through his nipple (ouch) and Andy Sewell's Hannibal Lecter impression - Jarv and I joined the early risers in the cafe, I provided Jarv with sustenance as he finalised his talk[7], the first in the series of university expeditions, and credit to him, he was a concerned since this was his third talk about it being same-y, but it was great, a nice balance between pure facts and people: what happened to Will and Tim?, who were the new cavers? On expedtion for the first time, the biggest laugh was when he mentioned the two Slov cavers getting back together after being marooned in underground camp. The next talk on the Cambridge Austria expedition[8] had some impressive discoveries, but no background history or expedition preparation..., it was a bit hard to follow, there were a couple of videos, which had funny moments but videos I think need to be really good if use them instead of talking. The Oxford expedition to the Picos in Spain[9], was a revisit to a previous discovery 30 years ago, Xitu, and an attempted through trip, but they also had atrocious weather and Xitu is very active, so they didn't manage it, but they did some useful re-rigging down to the camp.

Technologies in cave rescue[9] demonstrated some new web applications that are being developed: for cave and mountain rescue team callouts (SARCALL); locating casualities using their phone (SARLOC) they managed to locate someone outside the conference hall! And the latest method of surface to underground communication (Nicola Phone MkIII), it was interesting to see Oxford used one at their underground camp this year. This talk was followed by a lightweight fly-drive recce expedition to Morocco[11] looking at areas around Agadir and southern Morocco (Imperial got a mention for their exploration in 2001). And a final talk was on some impressive cave diving in Spain[12], with just two divers, getting help from various random people, like unsuspecting tourists visiting the caves, to ferry their mountains of gear!

The closing ceremony had a video by Rob Eavis, "...put together with over a 1000 still shots, many with exposure times up to 5 minutes and it was all done in the camera (no computer trickery)." and it's pretty amazing: .

After the closing ceremony Jarv and I had an hour to cycle to Chepstow to catch our train, it was a beautfiul evening, we followed the river Wye for 16 miles downstream and passed Tintern Abbey, and we were doing well, but then we had a long climb, it scuppered our attempt and we arrived in Chepstow five minutes late! Matt from Beast was waiting on the other platform, and since he is based in Battersea we joined him for the journey home, via Newport rather than our intended Gloucester.

The lectures I saw:

Jan Evetts