In the midst of midterms I was given a break with a trip to Argyll Forest offered by my study abroad program, IFSA-Butler Scotland. This trip took us to the west, past Glasgow, onto a rocky ferry ride, and to a hostel located in a beautiful manor. It was approximately a three and half hour trip.
So far this semester I haven’t participated in any events that IFSA has put on, so this trip became the first time I would be reunited with the year students and greeting the new spring students. When we arrived we were handed our room and group assignments and had dinner. I also met a girl from Lee Summit (which is by my home town Overland Park) who I ended up sharing a room with.
The main activity for the night was a night hike.
When I stepped outside I thought I would fall on my face or run into a tree because it was extremely dark, but gradually my eyes adjusted and I was even able to avoid the puddles. There were 90 students and we were split into four groups. A few in each were given “torches” (head lights) and with a leader we marched into the dark forest. We made our way along a marked trail that would be a simple walk in day light, and our main focus was on not slipping, running into poky branches, and getting our feet soaked. The hike lasted about an hour and I became a proud survivor in that I did not fall on my face.
The next day and our only full day on this weekend trip we were told to rank activities, and we would be split into teams and participate in two of them. We could have chosen from hiking, gorge scrambling, sea kayaking, underground caving, canoeing, mountain biking, or a high ropes course. My top three were gorge scrambling, underground caving, and the high ropes course. In the end I was put in team three where we would spend our morning in the caves learning about Scottish history and our afternoon on the high ropes course building on our team work skills.
Waking up at a bright and earlyish my room of seven girls got ready and headed down to 8:30 breakfast. We got there early and were on the slightly hungry side having not eaten for over 12 hours. Breakfast was good and hearty to prepare us and fill us up with carbs for the active day ahead. Our group met up outside in the courtyard to be outfitted into waterproof jackets and trousers, that were glaringly red. We then received helmets and harnesses, took a group photo of our team, the Bellbottoms (because Andrew’s red trousers flared out to an exaggerated degree), and then piled into a small bus and drove off to the caves. It should also be noted that we were told to sit as close to the front as possible in the bus because of all of the potholes on the road. My experience with these potholes in any story or retelling will never become a hyperbole; The drive was literally more bumpy and jarring than some simulated rides like Dinosaur, Indiana Jones, the Mummy, Thunder Mountain, or any ride that jerks you around, this drive had the potential to give you whiplash, and all I have to say is thank God for seatbelts because if I hadn’t been wearing one I would have turned into a dish of scrambled eggs.
We were told that the caves are not the usual type that we are used to seeing. These are not limestone or even really caves, but fissures that were created by glaciers during the ice age. What I thought that I would be doing before I left for this trip was taking a relatively easy walk to an opening in the ground that had a stable and safe staircase leading into a cavern were we would get a tour of the cave and a briefing of its history. Reality was much different and more exciting.
Once we received our torches and our ensemble was complete we had a strenuous hike to get to the cave. We had to climb over large logs and rocks, which involved some clumsy crawling and scooting; this was probably the dirtiest I have ever gotten on a hike and I did not even slip and fall into mud. Once our group of eight students, Morna our guide, and Andrew one of the IFSA coordinators had all gathered at a flat area we were told that we were going to enter the cave. Looking around I couldn’t see any cave or opening, but there was this small crack. This crack, that looked only big enough for a small child to fit through, was the mouth of the cave we were going to enter. Morna told us that the opening was much larger than it looked and proved it by slipping right in. Only three people could fit at a time inside the cave so we were split into smaller groups. Now, I have never claimed to be the most graceful person, or even someone who could create a resemblance of a somewhat graceful movement, I am downright klutzy. My skills were shown off to new degrees in this particular cave. First when I went through the opening my harness got stuck on the rock so half of my body was in the cave while the other half was out. My legs dangled for purchase and suddenly I got free and slipped down the rock wall to the ground. Now it wasn’t a long drop (since I’m tall my feet had only been about a foot off the ground), but not being able to see made it unexpected. Once I was inside I was strapped to a rope and lowered into the depths of the cave. I felt like I was being lowered into a rabbit hole; the hole kept going and going and once I thought I was at the bottom I was told to turn sideways between two rocks and keep going lower. Once I was at the bottom I couldn’t see any of the lights from where I had descended and the voices calling out to me from the people waiting above were distant.
Once my small group of 3 was gathered at the bottom all that was left to do was follow the directions we were given and find our way out. We moved down the cave and worked our way under a boulder where there was a rope with knots, we lowered ourselves farther down, and then we crawled, slid, and contorted ourselves until we arrived at the exit. At the exit, we once again strapped our harnesses to a rope and attempted to climb out. Now pretty much everyone climbed up just fine, but thank God for that rope and hard hat because if I didn’t have them I can guarantee that I would have seriously injured myself. I slipped off the rock wall I was climbing and hit my head on the rack wall behind me, but due to my gear and the rope I felt no pain or even fear. I was able to righted myself and get to the top of the opening and wait for the rest of my team, the Bellbottoms, to get through the cave. I might have not felt fear but I do have a slight embarrassment, so to anyone trying to dig up a video of my graceless exit, good luck because it will be a hard and most likely fruitless search.
Once everyone made it successfully up we moved to the second cave which laid 20 meters farther up, so we began hiking again. This cave was a bit different. Instead of being lowered we would move up and sideways. We crawled into the cave (which was much easier entering compared to the first) and then pulled ourselves up onto a shelf. The entire Bellbottoms group was able to fit here and we turned off all of our headlamps, plunging ourselves into complete darkness. I thought the night hike from the previous day was dark but there was no comparison to the complete darkness of a cave where the sunlight does not reach. In this darkness we took group photos and scrapped some granite rocks together that set sparks, but for any wondering there were no ghost stories told.
We turned our lights back on and told that we had two options that we could use to exit. We could go back the way we had come (which seemed to be the suggested route) or there was the second way. This was how it was described to use. We were given no information, and it was kept vague, so being the smart, fun, and adventurous group that we are of course we chose the route that we had zero information on. We were given many opportunities to change our minds. We were told if you had even the slightest claustrophobia or apprehension then route 2 was not the route you should be taking. We were also told that the space was so tight that if you were bigger than a certain amount that you would get stuck, and if that happened you would need to take a slightly different direction and crawl through muck, kind of like the escape from Shashank Redemption but with a wider space. I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t fit because of my difficulties with the first cave opening and my harness getting stuck, but I marched on ahead. To get in to the opening you had to lie on your side and go feet first. You then used your hands and arms to push your body forward. In previous posts I have said that if you were claustrophobic then you shouldn’t do certain things like go to the top of Notre Dame or St Peter’s but those spaces seem overly spacious compared to this cave. There is no room to adjust yourself to find a more comfortable position, and if you are not careful and do not stay aware of the position of your helmet then the helmet will get stuck. Luckily for me I have not been overeating or going crazy on ice cream and cookies so I actually didn’t get trapped and was able to move with relative ease; but just because I was able to get through with no problems does not mean it was easy. Getting through was uncomfortable, dirty, and took focus. Even the skinniest and tiniest people in the Bellbottoms had difficulties. Once we got past this part there was a turn that swung our legs around and then the rest of your body just seemed to follow. The rest of the way was easy and only involved some ducking. We were then finished with the caves and headed back for lunch and to get ready for our afternoon activity, the high ropes course.
I have never participated in a high ropes course before, but I love zip lining, and this was just as fun. The equipment for high ropes was a helmet, a lower harness, and an upper harness. The site was walking distance from the hostel/manor/activity center. We began with practicing on a course that mimicked some of the challenges we would face up in the air. I actually have really good balance so I didn’t have any troubles balancing on the wobbling logs or the thin ropes and chains. My only problem was with the swinging tires where you stepped from one twisting tire to another.
Our first challenge for the high ropes course was balancing on logs and walking across. For this you climbed up staples and walked across a wet log, and once you reached the other side you would climb more staples and walk across another wet log. Once you finished you would just step off into the air and be lowered to the ground. I have mentioned before that I am a klutz and that even while walking on a perfectly flat surface I am klutzy enough to trip and stumble, but when it comes to walking across a log where balance is essential, I have no problems. In fact, they told me that I was like a monkey climbing up the staples because I was so fast; the people watching beneath me didn’t have time to take photos or record a video because I was done so quickly.
The next obstacle would be more challenging. On this one you climbed a ladder and then staples. You would move sideways on a rope while leaning forward on another and make your way across. Once on the other side you climbed up more staples walked sideways on a chain, using a few dangling ropes to help balance you. These ropes and chains were not thick. They were probably the thickness of two to two and half fingers. Once again I had no problems moving across.
The last obstacle we were faced with was the trapeze, and it was by far the most challenging and the one I most looked forward to. This one is set up for teams of two, and my team was the first to step to the plate. I went up first. I started with the ladder, which actually ended up slipping around the pole it was leaning against while I was climbing up it, so it was a good thing it was tied or I would have fallen. After the ladder were wooden pegs. I climbed these pegs up higher and higher to a small perch at the top that seemed barley big enough to fit me let alone two people. Then I waited. The pole swayed side to side and all I could do was try to maintain my balance without falling off while I waited for my partner to make her way up. This was the most difficult thing that I had to do the entire day. Once my partner got to the top I carefully moved my feet to one side to give her room, but at the same time making it harder for me to balance as I was no longer centered. Once she was up she had a difficult time gaining her balance while trying to stand up, and ultimately ended up falling off. I then waited for her to reach the ground and make her way up again. Finally she was up and we were both in position. On the count of three we would leap off of our perch and into the air to make a grab for the trapeze bar. This was the moment I had been anticipating, the moment of glory. We leapt. And I grabbed it. My body extended and both of my hands got a firm grip, and then I slipped off. The bar was incredibly slick from the rain and we ended up with an epic fail, a hilarious video, and one second of disillusioned glory. Apparently we wiped off the bar enough (I was told by the other groups that they could see my hand prints) where it was no longer damp so the other teams had an easier time of grabbing on, and some even did tricks in the air, but I had a great time almost making it and laughing at our slip-up on the way down.
What I learned from the caving and high ropes course is that I have no real fear of danger. Being in a tight space, falling, hitting my head, walking through the air, and trying not to fall from an unstable perch, being in danger don’t faze me at all. I have more fear for the mundane things in life like being late for a class or meeting, failing a test, or making a bad impression (and spiders and bugs).
We then had dinner and watched Braveheart to wrap up our weekend excursion. The next day we would head back out across the ferry and return to Edinburgh.
This weekend trip was a blast. I got to enjoy numerous new experiences, make new friends, and be part of the awesome Bellbottoms team (our team is very proud and got close very quickly). This was a great break from the stress of midterms and I am returning with unforgettable memories. Now I feel ready to give my presentations, write my essay, and once classes end go and explore the world.
Helpful Hint: Before signing up for tours and activities know the risks and what you are in for because not all activities are suited for everyone. If was claustrophobic or acrophobic I would most likely have had a panic attack and not have enjoyed my weekend as much as I had.