‘Caves are the last frontier’: an experienced explorer on keeping his cool during dramatic rescue operations
The thought of someone being trapped in an underground network of stone crevices, some so narrow that they can be navigated only while crawling face down, might fill many of us with dread. But for Gary Mitchell, an incident in the Brecon Beacons which made headlines earlier this month was just another day at his outdoor office.
Hundreds of people helped to rescue an injured man who had become stuck in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave network. But Mitchell, the warden of the South and Mid-Wales Cave Rescue Team, played a crucial role. One of the first to arrive on the scene, the 47-year-old father-of-two responded as soon as he was alerted to the plight of a fellow caver trapped in one of the UK’s longest underground systems.
He took on the role of incident controller, co-ordinating what turned out to be a 54-hour rescue mission. A painstaking operation eventually succeeded in bringing experienced cave explorer George Linnane back to the surface safely. The 38-year-old had seriously injured his leg, jaw and chest in a fall. But thanks to Mitchell and the close-knit caving community, he has survived to tell the tale.
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“From the description that Mark [another caver who was with Mr Linnane at the time] gave us, we knew this was going to be a significant, drawn out, rescue right from the word go,” Mr Mitchell tells i. “In terms of normal caving time it was 90 minutes to two hours from the nearest entrance to the cave.
“But the injuries that George sustained were significant enough for us not to be able to come out of that entrance because it’s really tight, really grotty, small and twisty.”
However, cavers “keep our calm under most circumstances”, says Mr Mitchell, who is unphased by the whole experience. It’s not even the highest-profile or most challenging rescue he has been involved in. In 2019, he travelled to Thailand to help save 12 boys and their football coach who spent more than two weeks trapped underground.
As the assistant chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, an umbrella organisation, Mr Mitchell, from Staylittle, Powys, was drafted in to assist in retrieving the group which got into difficulty after entering the Tham Luang caves.
“There were well over 1,000 people on that site in a very small area – lots of different military uniformed services, some civilians, the family, the media,” he recalls. “That was impeding on the divers’ ability to concentrate on diving and the rescue plan. So three of us were sent over from the UK to support on the surface. I spent a lot of time in high-level meetings trying to negotiate with the Thais and explain that there wasn’t an option that didn’t have a risk attached to it.”
It was a huge contrast to how operations unfold in the UK, and not just because of the unfamiliar terrain and severity of the situation.
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“In the UK, because we are seen as effectively the only rescue service that’s going to operate at those depths and underground, we get called out by the police and pretty much left to it because they know our skill sets are best placed to do that,” he says. “Often the police will literally just pop up for a cup of coffee, see how we are getting on, check in with us if it’s a long, drawn-out rescue… And if everything’s going OK, they leave us to it, which is fantastic.”
Like any activity, caving has risks attached to it, but with world-famous incidents and highly experienced explorers encountering difficulties and sustaining serious injuries, some have questioned how safe the pastime is.
The last time Mr Mitchell and his team were called to a similar incident to the Brecon Beacons rescue was around a decade ago, and he describes caving as “an inherently safe sport”. “It’s no more dangerous than almost any other sport you could imagine,” he says.
One thing that is guaranteed if and when a caver gets into trouble is that there will be no shortage of qualified rescuers to lend a helping hand. There is a strong sense of community among cavers. Some of those who travelled to Ogof Ffynnon Ddu at the start of this month came from as far as Northumberland, or had postponed holidays and, in the case of one doctor, interrupted maternity leave to lend support.
“I think caving definitely is quite a unique community and I would argue that cavers are quite unique in their nature,” Mr Mitchell says.
“In fact, they maybe want a bit of a screw loose to really enjoy caving. And that perhaps puts people on quite a level playing field. Male, female, young, old, there are absolutely no barriers to going caving, which is great.
“If you get into it, you are sort of drawn into a really welcoming space, I would argue.”
Having spent around 25 years delving into some of the deepest and darkest underground networks in the UK, does Mr Mitchell foresee a point when he will stop chasing the light at the end of a tunnel?
“The key draw is [caves are] actually quite amazingly beautiful, pretty places in the main and that that’s definitely an attraction. The geology is an attraction, the formations you might find, the active stream ways, the climbing pictures, things like that all really appeal to me.
Despite his enthusiasm, Mr Mitchell hasn’t managed to convince his partner of the joys of delving below the Earth’s surface – but his nine-year-old son is already following in his footsteps.
“He has been underground with me on several trips and he is really getting to enjoy it. He can see the excitement and the thrill behind it.
“Caves are still the sort of last frontier, I suppose, where we haven’t yet finished mapping them all. There are still places where you can go where nobody has ever been before. There are places certainly even in South Wales that less people have been to than the moon.”
With around 25 years of caving under his belt, Gary Mitchell knows his way around the earth’s underground network