Hi all, I thought it might be helpful to share a write up of a rewarding, but very challenging experience trying to further my overhead environment training. I know a couple of others on here have been dabbling in the "dark arts" recently - and with even the BSAC mag now carrying several cave diving stories in recent months, it's clearly of growing interest! Over a period of a few days training, I feel I have learned a hell of a lot about diving, and a hell of a lot about myself (and there is still more to go!) Background Before October last year, my overhead experience had been limited to the PADI Wreck course and then some small swim-throughs at local puddles or looking into the edge of holes in wrecks or walls on holiday dives. Line laying experience was pretty limited and I never really had the opportunity to further those skills. Then, in October I did the Cavern diving course with Martyn Farr (http://www.farrworld.co.uk/) , finishing in the Dinas Silica mine after starting out in the river outside it. I found the course fascinating but challenging, and was keen to have another go. Fast-forward a few months and I had managed to book myself onto Ian France's "Intro to cave" course (http://ianfrancetechnical.co.uk/) and was into discussions about the relevant equipment needed. This was a vital conversation and one which had important implications for the rest of the trip and course. On Martyn's cavern course, students are limited to single-cylinder setups. This is a deliberate choice to prevent divers from feeling encouraged by redundancy to venture beyond the cavern zone. For the more advanced "Intro to cave" course - twin cylinder configurations are needed - so either back-mounted manifold twins, or sidemount. My own twin setup being independent twins so not entirely suitable, and after discussion with Ian - we all decided that sidemount would be the way to go (another lovely chap called Paul was also taking the course who I actually knew from the same cavern course with Martyn). This meant taking a few days at Stoney Cove to get used to the new kit configuration - Ian provided the relevant bits of kit. The plan was to try do the course in four days - two days at Stoney and two days at Holme Bank Chert Mine. This was ambitious as the Intro to Cave course is a minimum of three days, but we thought we would give it a go... Stoney Cove - starting with sidemount and overhead techniques Day 1 - 13 Feb 2017. I won't dwell too much on sidemount configuration itself - there are others on this forum far more experienced than me who would be able to shed light on how it all works - but one of the key things to understand is that it is very different to back mount. You have to put it together carefully in the right order particularly to be speedy and efficient). Ian spent a good deal of time explaining how to kit up properly - where to loop long hoses for quick release when air sharing; how to set things up for easy donning and generally the reasons why things go where they do - this was a foundation we would need for the rest of the course. Then - with cylinders and wings etc., all set up and ready to go - Ian ran through various finning techniques. The techy minded amongst you will be familiar with these - frog kick, modified frog kick, modified flutter and back finning etc. This started with us lying on our bellies in Stoney car park waving our legs in the air, before Ian asked us to get in the water without kit (except dry suits and masks) and try to get these techniques to work, on the surface in good horizontal trim (face out of the water) with no fins on.).. Wow! It was hard to do at first! It may sound like a bizarre exercise but it really helped drive home the techniques! Then, we kitted up (full cave kit including helmets and lights etc.) ready for our first dive. I have always thought of myself as a reasonably fit individual - but right from the start and for the first couple of days, I often found myself struggling against my kit while donning it - rather than trying to work with it - particularly when attaching cylinders out of the water. This knackered me out and was entirely my own fault. Sidemount was not coming naturally to me! We jumped in and headed down to a platform in fantastic visibility to run through various basic skills - all of which were to be done neutrally buoyant. I was overweighted and had too much buoyant padding in my helmet - all noted for correction later. The skills included reg swaps and shutdowns etc., as well as trying out our finning techniques. Diving sidemount for the first time was like being a baby learning to walk or going back to my first day of open water training and the skills I am usually confident in were all over the place. After a chilly 75 minutes in the water we headed back for a debrief and to warm up. Getting used to sidemount... Day 2 - 14 Feb 2017. Once again, we started with dry skills. We began by laying lines learning about which way to wrap for single and double locks, and then did blindfold "continuous contact" and "bump-and-go" line following which are key in water zero visibility skills. We then kitted up and I again struggled with the cylinders out of the water. I also found, in the water, that my short hose was too short and therefore got caught up or was very tight around my neck when on the left cylinder. All of this flustered me at first - but I eventually relaxed and began to get into the swing of things. Shut down drills went well but I struggled with the small toggle on my wing dump valve and felt my buoyancy therefore could be much better. After an hour in the water we returned to the surface for some lunch. At this point we were hit with the first of several kit issues - with Paul's drysuit having proved decidedly wet. In the cold February water (circa 5 or 6C) this was bad news for the long dives we were doing - so waited for him to hire one from the centre. We returned to the water for a much better dive in terms of the sidemount but the blindfold line skills were proving difficult for both of us. I, in particular, found that I could follow the line, but if required to then do an additional skill (such as shutting down a free-flowing regulator) I would let go of the line completely and therefore potentially be unable to re-find the line without visibility - a cardinal sin in cave diving. I also tended to forget to regularly switch regs when blind - not great when you can't see your air gauges! We finished day two late, cold and decidedly behind schedule. Blindfolded following the line Day 3 - 14 Feb 2017. After our delays and struggles - we decided that an extra day at Stoney Cove was needed and I was pleased to go back, because this was by far the most successful day yet. We re-ran through our previous skills on dive one though I still let go of the line once when blindfolded doing a free-flow shut down. We also introduced air sharing techniques (without the blindfold) and finished the dive with a full mask removal - following a line for 20m or so and then replacing the mask. Not pleasant in such cold water! The dive time was a full 90 minutes. We returned for dive two after some warming lunch and coffee for another long dive. This time we introduced blind air shares while following the line - and swapping diver order while doing so, so the out-of-gas diver leads the team out. At the very end of the dive Ian removed our fins completely and we tried to maintain neutral buoyancy and propulsion. One of the weirdest and funniest diving experiences I've ever had! Finally, we felt ready to head onto Holme Bank and the overhead environment. Day 4 - 15 Feb 2017. We knew from the outset of this day that we would not be able to finish the course as originally planned. We had simply not taken to the sidemount configuration naturally or quickly enough though we had come on leaps and bounds since day one. Ian rightly pointed out that certification is earned and not bought and I would have not felt remotely confident had we tried to rush everything into one day. Both Paul and I were excited to get into the mine though. It was to be a fun day but one, again, frustratingly marred by equipment problems. We started off with Ian taking us on a tour of the mine and telling us about its history. Ian really knows his stuff and it was great to hear about the place itself which was still in full use into the 1960s. We discussed the specific dangers of the mine environment and re-ran through line laying drills in the dry - but effectively the same environment as we were to find once in the water. I have no photos from inside the mine - though plenty can be found with a quick Google search. The (sadly locked) lower adit. We then took a few trips to carry our gear round to the entry point (which is further but much less steep than Dinas) ready for our planned dives. Unfortunately, the kit gods were against us once again. After changing a hose needed for a backup drysuit (which took longer than expected) we fully kitted up only for me to realize I had left my fins in the car. After a half hour round trip we finally entered the water with Paul's drysuit completely unzipped causing a sudden, serious and unpleasant flood. Even after all of this - we thought we had time for one dive, but disasters come in threes! Our 8 minute dive wasn't worth logging beyond the fact that we carried the kit around and got wet... Just a few minutes into the dive I went to do my first regulator swap - and where the hose was very short (noted earlier) the regulator had pulled around the side of my head - when I went to take it and tried to adjust it - the mouthpiece got caught in necklace or under the bottom of my hood - the cable tie attaching it snapped off and the mouthpiece descended into the depths - effectively making it useless as redundancy (another cave diving cardinal sin). We thumbed the dive dejected but safe and can put it down as "a good dive is one where everyone can dive again". This was a real lesson about cave diving - the need for backup equipment, backups for backups and repair kits. The fact that proper planning is really important and that some times it's just not to be were both very apparent! Our planned four days were up - so we agreed to return again in March... Day 5 - 13 Mar 2017. It had been a month since our failed dive at Holme Bank and a 5am start after a restless night was adding to my nervousness. I had been ill during that month and only squeezed in a couple of dives when I had hoped to return much better practiced. I had, however, had plenty of time to reflect on ur previous experiences and came mentally well prepared as well as having further modified my kit to be better suited to the environment. I had arranged a longer hose on my left cylinder, tied a larger toggle to my dump valves and brought several spare regulator mouthpieces. Learning from the general experience of last time, I also brought a spare drysuit. Also- based on conversations with Ian, I had got hold of a heavy stainless steel caving real and replaced the line with 5mm nylon and changed my safety reels to 4mm thick nylon. I had also got hold of some 3d printed plastic cave diving markers. We started by refreshing line laying drills and air shares, both in the dry and re-familiarising ourselves with the environment. We then ran through lost-line, lost diver and broken line drills before bringing our kit round to the entry point. We calculated our maximum dive times using the “rule of sixths” – the standard gas-planning process for this course and the “intro to cave” level. Our first dive was into the mine to a point of about 100m led by Ian (familiarising ourselves with the place) and then turning back. At this point, Ian dropped out and Paul and I formed up the team. We then a blind exit and air share following a simulated free-flow (me donating). It took 16 minutes to get in and 32 minutes to get out – which shows why such conservative gas planning is vital in the environment! Clearly we would need to get more efficient at this as the dives went on! After a short interval, we returned to the water to repeat the dive with Paul in the lead – adding in a lost-line drill for Paul and then a blind exit with Paul donating and me leading the way out. The exit was quite a bit quicker than dive one, but still slow. By the time we returned, both Paul and I were getting cold – this time it was my drysuit that had sprung a small leak – and I was grateful to have a spare for the following day! Day 6 – 14 Mar 2017. We returned to the water to do a repeat of the previous day’s second dive with me to do the lost line drill. I was very frustrated by this as in my mind’s eye, I could work out where I thought the line should be but could not find it – I was on the right wall of the mine, but I was expecting it to be running along the wall itself when it was in fact on a ledge on top. After several minutes of searching in vain, Ian put me out of my misery to repeat again later. We did another blind exit and air share and I was pleased that we were now getting better at this. The second dive we topped up our cylinders (whipping from several spares we had brought with us through a gap in a locked gate – mercifully meaning we didn’t need to bring entirely fresh cylinders around). I was then tasked with laying line from my primary reel and joining the main line at around 50m into the cave. I didn’t do this as neatly as I would have liked and felt the weight of the reel messing with my buoyancy – though we did successfully make it to the line and tie off. We repeated my lost line drill – which this time I managed quite successfully - my blind tie-offs with the emergency reel being better than some of those I managed with my primary! We then did another blind exit successfully. On the third dive – we reversed roles with Paul laying the line and recovering it when lost. Paul’s line laying was generally neater than mine but all in all we were both getting much more comfortable in the water. After a great couple of days we were unfortunately once again out of time and had to pack up all of our gear before heading out for a debrief. We had a good chat with Ian about how far we had come in six days of diving (honestly the difference between the first and last day was amazing) – but acknowledged that we still had some way to go before we had truly mastered all of the line laying and recovery skills. On this basis – Ian has signed us off as “Limited mine divers” (which qualifies us to carry on in the same environment) but has asked that we go away and practice, practice, practice! We will then return in the next few months for one final day before hopefully being signed off on the full “Intro to cave” course. As Ian points out – certification must be earned not bought – and I couldn’t agree more. I had a great few days diving – learned a hell of a lot about diving, about equipment and my own limitations. My advice for others who would like to pursue this, is if you want to do it side mount – try and get some experience with that first. Also – don’t be disappointed if things take longer than expected – the transport, volume and complexity of the equipment means that Murphy’s Law could well kick in – things probably will go wrong and there could easily be delays. Don’t let it stress you out! It’s worth taking the time to get things right. I also learned that the environment can be haunting and beautiful and I’m sure will be well worthwhile the effort, should I be lucky enough to be signed off in a few months’ time. I would like to thank Ian for his excellent instruction and patience - he is a true inspiration, and to thank Paul for sharing this adventure.