If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Manchester Hole

Boy left to die alone in flooded cave as pupils swam to safety.

Oh dear. 14-year-old Joe Lister drowned after the cave he was exploring became flooded and the rest of the party left without him. I can't begin to say how angry I feel about this story.

I feel strongly about this because I used to take groups of schoolchildren potholing myself. This was back in the late 1970s and early 80s, before the H&S bandwagon became a juggernaut, and we relied on common sense, and a couple of really experienced cavers who led the expeditions.

Manchester Hole, although a Grade 1 cave (easy, no pitches or difficulties), is known for its susceptibility to flooding. I have in front of my my ancient copy of Northern Caves Vol 1, which contains a description of Manchester Hole.

MANCHESTER HOLE, SE100764, Grade 1
Length 503m, Depth 17m
Warning: Fills to roof in severe floods, when river flows into entrance

Like this:

It's an easy first cave - no ladders, no tight squeezes. Some mud, some hands-and-knees crawling, and some spectacular stalactites to make the journey worthwhile. I have never visited this cave, but I have been into plenty like it, and it is a great adventure for anyone who is active, reasonably agile, and interested in seeing geology at first hand. Once you are far enough away from the daylight and the mud, caves can be spectacularly beautiful.

But it floods. Any research - any research at all - will tell you that it floods. Contrary to what most people think, caves are not dangerous places. You'll be wet and uncomfortable, but the likelihood of dying in one is tiny. It is always said that the most dangerous part of any caving trip is the drive to the cave. And yet water, combined with narrow, confined spaces, can be deadly. All experienced cavers know this. The first job to be done when planning a trip is to check the weather forecast, and to amend plans accordingly if there is the possibility of rain - some caves are totally dry, and can make an excellent alternative if the cave you want to visit is looking like it's going to be moist. The second job is to tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be out. This means that if you do not check in at the appointed time, someone is aware of your absence and after an hour or two Cave Rescue will be alerted and someone will come and find you. The police have always been excellent for this. In Horton-in-Ribblesdale, where I did most of my caving, the police station posts an up-to-date weather forecast outside, and are more than willing to take your names and destinations, and then to do the necessary if you don't show.

What all this means is that, if the worst comes to the worst (and unexpected showers and flash floods do happen), all you have to do is retreat to a high point, well above the water, and wait for rescue. You might be cold and wet and hungry; you may be there for many hours; but you won't die. (A cave where there is no safe haven from any flooding would be marked as dangerous and 'experts-only'.)

So what did this party do? Well, it was led by a local authority outdoor education instructor and a trainee. Their risk assessment for the trip did not foresee the possibility of flooding and did not have a contingency plan for if things went wrong. The wet crawl that they had made on the way in became submerged - an underwater tunnel - on the way out, and to make an exit they needed to dive the sump. I've done short sump dives, and if you know where you are going they are quite safe, but to attempt to dive a sump in an emergency with inexperienced youngsters is an incredibly foolish thing to do. Most of the youngsters got out, and Joe tried, but came back, frightened. For some reason, then, the last teacher made his own way out without realising that Joe was still in there. It seems that he tried to dive the sump himself afterwards, because the Cave Rescue people found him drowned.

So, feeble risk assessment, bad planning, incorrect response to a change in circumstances, and finally someone - a Maths teacher - who can't do an adequate head-count. Any of the kids I used to take caving in 1980 could have done better.

Funny, isn't it? When caving trips were led by enthusiastic amateurs, there were few problems and, certainly in my experience, no youngsters were killed or even injured (although one lad did lose a pair of expensive glasses in Alum Pot). But now we have Outdoor Education, run by a Local Authority, with trained and qualified instructors, and this kind of shit gets to happen. What's the betting that his actual caving experience was almost nil, but he had been on a course where he got 'qualified' in six different outdoor disciplines in an afternoon? He was trained and qualified. The magic words that we rely on these days.

We never wrote risk assessments for our trips; we just relied on common sense and experience. Bewerley Park had carried out a risk assessment (that's another box ticked), but it was totally inadequate.

And a boy died.

UPDATE 24.10.2010

This post has received a lot of hits recently. While I am delighted that people think my ramblings are worth reading, please don't take any of what you read here as gospel. It is over 20 years since I went underground to a non-commercial cave. Acquire and study a proper, recent guidebook (I think the Dalesman Northern Caves series is a long time out of print) and make sure you know what you are tackling before you set off. Thanks.


  1. An interesting piece which made me (hopefully) a bit more informed about caving. In an ironic sort of way, "dangerous" sports and hobbies should be inherently risk assessed, since the risks are obvious, I would have thought, rendering the activity less dangerous, if you know what you are doing.

  2. Thank you Ged. I wrote it in a bit of a hurry and a fit of impatience with our culture which is happy to rely on anything which has the right paperwork, but discounts genuine experience if it can't be documented. If I wrote it today (having read more of the contemporary news reports) I think I would say certain things differently. It seems, for example, that the Maths teacher thought that the boy had gone ahead of him when in fact he hadn't, and the likeliest explanation is that he passed him in the dark, drowned passage and didn't realise. The decision to take the rest of the party out of the cave was a good one, but not to leave someone down there in case the boy tried to get through on his own is inexplicable. I may well come back to this one.

    You are right - with an activity where the risks are obvious, it's relatively easy to minimise them. It's the non-obvious ones, like climbing Snowdon an a sunny day in shorts and trainers, that tend to catch people out. But checking the weather forecast and the level of the reservoir, and having a chat with the youngsters first that says "OK, if anything goes wrong, this is what we do", is so bleeding obvious that I can't understand how the fatality happened. We did this every single time, and we weren't trained or qualified, we just had plenty of experience and common sense between us.

    I ought to make it clear that I don't blame any individual for this tragic event. It's the cultural thing, that sees caving (and a lot of other 'dangerous' sports) as part of a pick'n'mix buffet of 'character-building' activities, which can be adequately controlled by ensuring that a youngster with the right ticks in the right boxes is in charge. It needs someone with years of experience and a true love and understanding of the sport.

  3. Sara (posted comments that were trapped in spam queue):

    First off, an apology for taking so long to reply to your comments. They got stuck in the moderation queue and I didn't see them until recently. There are so many spam comments that I block-deleted several hundred and I am afraid your comments were in that block. However, I read your words carefully several times over the last week or two and I think they deserve a reply.

    If anything I wrote caused you distress, then I apologise. It was not my intention to do that. If you look at my reply to Ged above, you will see that I didn't hold any individual to blame for the incident. My point was that before the days of the Health and Safety culture, trips like this were led by experienced cavers (and your Maths teacher may have been one) and accident were very rare. However, these days sports like caving are seen as just another way to get youngsters away from the X-box, and local authorities seem to be more concerned with ticking all the qualifications boxes and writing risk assessments than they are with providing a safe experience for the participants. I'd say it was of a piece with their over-reliance on CRB checks, for example, which seem to be more of a fig-leaf for administrators than a tool for keeping children safe. I don't think the rescue was handled well, but I wasn't there and like everyone else I had only the media reports to go on.

    I think you may have been influenced by my choice of words to open this post. "Oh dear" was intended to be an indication of great regret, but I accept that it could sound flippant and that the words were a poor choice. I am truly sorry that you have lost people you cared about, and I can assure you that my sympathies are entirely with the teachers and kids in this matter.

    In no way am I a macho caver, as you imply. Of the people I went caving with, I was the least experienced, but I was lucky enough to be introduced to the sport by some really sound and genuinely nice people who I felt totally safe with. I only wish Joe could have had the same.

    If you wish to respond further, my contact details are in the 'Contact' page, top left.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...