Royal Warrant

Pressure Is One Kilometre Of Rock Over Your Head

Making split-second decisions with a calm mind and under immense pressure, is the difference between life and death for cave diver, and extreme adventurer, Andy Torbet

We like to think we’ve known pressure. In our always-on-world, we feel the drive to succeed as a force in our guts. But how many of us could really keep our cool during a deadly emergency in an underground cave, 100m underwater, one kilometre from the exit, while being squeezed between two layers of rock?

This is what underwater explorer Andy Torbet prepares for, but cave diving isn’t about throwing yourself into life-and-death scenarios and trusting adrenaline to drive you through. ‘It’s a totally cerebral sport,’ he says.

Part of an ancient Samurai’s mental preparation for battle would be to imagine their deaths. The Bushido code said that meditating on being run through with swords, burnt by fire, or trampled by horses would allow you to remain calm in combat. It’s a similar story for cave divers like Torbet, who imagine the worst possible outcomes to plan for disaster.

Even then, Murphy’s Law says you’ll eventually be caught out. During a solo exploration of Scotland’s Cave Of Skulls, Torbet freedived without his scuba gear into a ‘squeeze’ between rocks but became stuck fast. If he hadn’t had the presence of mind to empty his lungs underwater, to make his body thinner, he would have drowned.

The depths and extremes of our world can be as alien as other planets, so the modern adventurer needs to be able to handle the pressure...

If you don’t spend 90% of your time on an expedition wishing you weren’t, then you’re probably on holiday

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Q: What’s been your most challenging flooded cave or mine dive?
A:
‘Ojamo is an abandoned mine system in Finland and I was out there in December 2017 in a six man team. We went down to 90m deep but that’s a couple of kilometres underwater, inside the mine system. It was some of the hardest diving I have ever done because of the cold.’

Q: How did the cold make it even more difficult?
A:
‘The mine entrance is at the bottom of a lake and we had to smash through surface ice to get in. It’s four hours of diving and the water in the mine is 2ºC but it’s fresh water so you get a reverse thermocline – the water closer to the surface is colder. When we came out of the mine at 20m we entered 0ºC water and had to stay there to decompress for two hours, then smash our way back through the ice. The cold means your limbs don’t get as much blood so your decompression actually has to be longer, which is a bit of a kick in the balls.’

Q: So what’s it like being the first into an abandoned, flooded mine?
A:
‘In Ojamo there were tunnels with bridges in them and doorways, gigantic cambers, and a 100ft high wall called Hell’s Gate built to support the mine. A cave is a natural thing, it was never alive so it doesn’t feel dead, whereas a mine is like a haunted house because it was once a thriving place, full of men working hard – there’s this very obvious feeling of something missing. You find a moment frozen in time, the last day the mine was open. Exploration, as well as going somewhere genuinely new, has to have some purpose – be it historical or scientific – otherwise you’re just on holiday.’

Q: How do you cope with the thought that you’re two kilometres from the nearest exit, 100m underwater with hundreds of metres of rock above your head?
A:
‘I don’t think about it. Cave diving is an exercise in being very, very close to death, so I do the job that’s in front of me and what I need to do to keep myself alive for the next 30 seconds. I don’t worry about what’s going to happen in an hour. You shouldn’t be thinking about shit that’s going to go wrong when you’re on your own, inside a cave system miles from the exit, deep underwater – you should have thought of it sitting at home with a cup of tea.’

Q: So you wouldn’t describe yourself as an adrenaline junkie then?
A:
‘Cave diving is very, very safe as long as you remember that it’s very, very dangerous. You can’t be complacent. I’m not fearless, I’m just the same as everybody else, but I am slightly more paranoid than everyone else and I’m a massive control freak. It’s not the adrenaline, it’s the being in control. Unless you’re a psychopath, you cannot completely inhibit the little caveman who lives in the back of your head and doesn’t understand physics and physiology – he just understands drowning – but he does keep you on your toes.’

Q: So, must know the importance of attention to detail?
A:
‘Yes, you sweat the small stuff. With cave diving caves don’t collapse on people’s heads (mines can though). What’s going to kill you is you get a C02 hit or you breathe the wrong gas because you didn’t pay attention to which mouthpiece you put in your mouth. I’m obsessed with the physics and physiology of diving – if you don’t like doing maths then you’re going to die.’

Q: Do you think that ability is trainable?
A:
‘Yes, but the biggest obstacle is people’s inability to think logically about the problem. I worked as a bomb disposal officer in the Forces, and that teaches you a lot about how to deal with fear, stress and risk. Most people look at the risk and react emotionally – the fact that it’s dark 120m underwater in a cave doesn’t change the physics and physiology of the problem. Through cave diving, mountaineering, skydiving and ten years in the Forces I have built up self-confidence in my ability to survive because I have been in a lot of potentially fatal situations. I’m pretty good at not killing myself!’

Q: What’s been the most amazing animal encounter you’ve had underwater?
A:
‘I was hanging in 60m of water in deep blue sea off Japan and out of the gloom this massive Giant Hammerhead appeared, cruised along side me for a bit and then disappeared back into the gloom. She was showing no signs of aggression and you are thinking: “This is amazing I should be very grateful, but in a small way I am shitting my pants.” As she cruised away into the gloom you’re thinking: “OK, shows over, but at the same time, thank God it’s over. Oh, now I don’t know where she is…”’

Photos by Rich Stevenson & Leigh Bishop. Find out more about Andy Torbet’s career at www.andytorbet.com

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