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Dead Man’s Handshake

Dead Man’s Handshake

Alex Jeffers
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Martyn Farr's The Darkness Beckons charts the history and development of cave diving, from early underwater expeditions in France in the late nineteenth century, through to cutting-edge modern dives across the globe. In this extract from the book, Farr tells the gripping story of the linking up of Kingsdale Master Cave and Keld Head in North Yorkshire between 1976 and 1978.



Further dives up the Kingsdale passage were clearly serious undertakings. The last air-bell to be found lay at 259 metres from the entrance, and so was of virtually no use for a push at the end. The logical answer was to search for a connection from the downstream sump in Kingsdale Master Cave, and activities began here in June 1976. For such dives deep underground wetsuits were more appropriate than drysuits, for they could be carried virtually anywhere without too much trouble or risk of damage.

On the second dive Yeadon reached an air-bell after 305 metres of very mixed passage. His third dive, on 1 July, was more eventful. Having laid an extra 90 metres of line downstream, he commenced his exit. With 90 metres to go to reach base the valve suddenly flooded:

"Having just breathed out, I quickly reached for the purge button but found none. All that was left was the rubber mouthpiece, the main body having dropped off. With lungs now demanding air with increasingly more urgent twitches I started to feel for my second valve, as the visibility was now too poor to see it. The first attempt followed up the wrong hose to the contents gauge. The second was successful, with a rush of air to put out burning lungs."

A minute was spent resting on the floor before moving on. On Yeadon’s fourth dive on 10 July he reached 488 metres. On 24 July he reached 600 metres and another air-bell, while on 27 July he passed some tight squeezes to dump his reel at 630 metres. The gap between the two caves was narrowing and he was becoming obsessed by the exploration:

"Throughout these few weeks my flatmates in Harrogate had to suffer a vast survey wandering across the living-room floor. Seeing the limb of the Kingsdale Master Cave creeping towards the limit of our Keld Head explorations was intoxicating."

On 5 August 1976 Oliver Statham claimed the British length record when he reached a point 838 metres into Keld Head. Previous dives here had reached the safe limit for air carried (two 40-cubic-foot cylinders and one of 80) and on this occasion an improvised ‘hypersystem’ was used, consisting of two side-mounted 50-cubic-foot cylinders and a twin 50-cubic-foot back-mounted set. ‘Herbert’ (the nickname given to Statham’s drysuit) was really to prove its worth on this occasion. Initially the diver was grossly overweight, carrying 73 kilograms of equipment, but, on inflating the suit, equilibrium could be achieved. Having made a rough survey over these dives, they were now only about 275 metres from the furthest point reached in Kingsdale Master Cave.

Progress was slow and it was not until February 1977 that another push was made. This time it was Yeadon’s turn and, in appalling visibility, he progressed to 925 metres. The European distance record was close, but the chances of a link-up seemed to be receding and Yeadon had become doubtful:

"After my dive in February our hopes faded, for although the gap was closing on my survey, the depth in Keld Head had now increased to 60 feet and the two caves were getting further apart vertically. The extra depth also meant that we now had to devise ways of carrying more air."



cave diving the kingsdale passage




News of Keld Head and the two Yorkshire divers spread abroad. In January 1978, with events drawing to a climax, Statham invited the experienced German cave diver Jochen Hasenmayer to join the exploration. His ability was immediately apparent for, on his first familiarisation dive, he swam to the end of the line. A few days later, on 5 February, a major push was planned with all three pioneers participating. It was to be an exciting day. The water was cold and visibility typically atrocious.

Hasenmayer had 270 cubic feet of air (more than Yeadon and Statham) and was to lead, since it had been decided they would dive independently at half-hour intervals. With his usual twinset back-mounted, the German reached the end of the line. The upstream continuation was horribly tight and Hasenmayer was convinced that something had been missed. Reeling in a few metres of line, he started to search for another route. Hasenmayer:

"About 15 metres downstream from Geoff ’s end point I found the main continuation went through a low bedding with the only way forward, illogically, on the left where a long slit was passable through a widening of a roof channel. On the washed-out rock floor it was not possible to fix the rope in the correct way. But as this was clean rock without mud I felt sure that the others would see the problem immediately and observe the fundamental rule ‘don’t pull back the line of a diver who is in the sump’. Beyond the constriction, I continued along a spacious tunnel to 1,006 metres – at that time a European record dive in a single sump."

By this time Statham, also wearing a backpack, had reached the constriction and quickly recognised the problem. Visibility was poor and due to a lack of belay points, he realised that if he continued he would jeopardise the lives of both himself and Hasenmayer. Mindful also of his depleted air supply, he prudently made his exit, meeting Yeadon within a hundred metres or so and writing the now-immortal communication on his friend’s slate:

3,000, small with back and side, No Jochen, Trouble?

Yeadon replied that he would go and look. He later described the ensuing events:

"At the constriction, which was a peculiar little slot … the line was pulled tight into the corner, because it went in and around a rock wall and then back at an angle … I thought, ‘Christ, I’ll just sit here and go down to my third margin and then I’ll have to leave you’."

Like Statham before him, Yeadon knew that it was unwise, indeed dangerous, for him to try and follow Hasenmayer. But by remaining at the constriction he might be able to assist the German as he made his outward journey. In the following minutes a drama was to unfold that could have proved disastrous.



"Somehow Hasenmayer’s line had been displaced from its original position on the cleanwashed cave floor, and he was inadvertently drawn off route into an exceedingly low area, impossible to pass. Such an occurrence is every cave diver’s nightmare"



Somehow Hasenmayer’s line had been displaced from its original position on the cleanwashed cave floor. When this happened is immaterial. The upshot was that on his return Hasenmayer was inadvertently drawn off route into an exceedingly low area, impossible to pass. Such an occurrence is every cave diver’s nightmare. Hasenmayer described the situation:

"When I came back the rope was tightened, so that it was pulled out of the position of the through route. It ran partly through a sand bar and partly on the left side of the main constriction and there disappeared under this impassable part of the low bedding. As the visibility had now deteriorated to 1.5 metres and as I still had enough air, I decided to search systematically. I began at the extreme corner of the left-hand wall, the rope tracking with me in my right hand. Just when this was cleared I was pulled back so violently, that I could not stop until I was drawn under the shoulder of the roof where I could wedge against it. Naturally, I couldn’t let go of the rope, the visibility was zero and the rope was pulling into the sand bar. In spite of all signals a tug-of war began. I had to resist with all my force. One lamp was torn from my helmet and my right arm became longer and longer. Why was he doing this?"

For his part Yeadon was very concerned Hasenmayer was getting low on air. He had not dived with Hasenmayer before and needed to get Hasenmayer’s attention in order to try and help. He could not communicate with normal hand signals due to lack of visibility and his only option seemed to be by tugs on the line. His attempts to establish some form of communication might accidentally have made matters worse, but he was becoming very concerned about the German’s air reserves. Hasenmayer: 

"Suddenly Yeadon rested, and I took the risk of giving up my stable position and squeezed as deep as possible into the constriction and tried to reach his hand along the rope. I succeeded, took hold of it in a very calm way, and patted it. He understood my calming touches and signals and at last freed the line which was anchoring me in this impassable slit, pulling and squeezing me into the constriction."

In the poor visibility the situation in which they found themselves was extremely confusing. Both divers were doing their best to try and solve the predicament. Hasenmayer again:

"With the line slackened I could pull it back, out of the sand bar, and retreat. I knew the right direction in principle, but Yeadon had taught it to me in an unforgettable way. Now, together, each on his side, we threaded the line out of the slit back to the proven route. Eventually, when the line was in the correct ‘way-out’ position, the passage was again without problem."

Yeadon had felt certain that the German was facing an imminent crisis as he cast around looking for a way out. Hasenmayer had been delayed on the far side of the constriction for at least ten minutes, maybe longer, but when he emerged he was completely calm and in full control of the situation. He still had ample air and needed no assistance (indeed Hasenmayer also transported their big reel on the journey out). After a steady swim back down the line Hasenmayer and Yeadon made their exit after two and three-quarter hours and two hours respectively. As Yeadon surfaced behind Hasenmayer he told Statham, ‘I thought I was shaking a dead man’s hand in there’.

Today, the story ‘Dead Man’s Handshake’ is firmly enshrined in caving folklore. Hasenmayer’s experience, skill and determination enabled him to maintain complete composure in a very stressful situation. If there is a lesson to be gained it must surely be that divers unfamiliar with one another’s techniques and capabilities, especially when there are language difficulties, should be extremely wary when operating together.

It was inevitable that the constricted section at 914 metres would get dubbed Dead Man’s Handshake and there could not be much doubt that it constituted a real deterrent to progress. Ever resourceful, Yeadon constructed an amazing side-mounted harness to hold four cylinders (two of 80 and two of 50 cubic feet). Despite an acutely painful arched back, owing to all the weight being supported around the waist, Yeadon reached Dead Man’s Handshake without too much trouble on 16 April 1978. The line was secured to a block of lead and in minutes the route through was proven reasonable. Continuing to Hasenmayer’s limit (1,006 metres), another 30 metres of line were reeled out. The way on was still wide open, but the depth continued at about 18 metres.

Meanwhile, Keld Head was not only being extended up the Kingsdale passage but also elsewhere. A major find took place on the corner at 335 metres, where Yeadon had discovered a large submerged inlet in February 1978. Over the course of a few more dives this was extended to 823 metres and is presumed to be the ‘true’ Marble Steps passage.



The Darkness Beckons: the history and development of world cave diving by Martyn Farr is available now from Vertebrate Publishing



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