THE SUN IS SHINING, the scenery is picture postcard at its very best and there is a sense of anticipation like no other.
We are embarking on a dive that verges on the unique; in every sense it promises to be a real Alpine adventure. This is Switzerland, our destination is the Rinquelle Resurgence Cave
and history is in the making…
Few of you will have heard of the Rinquelle, and why should you It nestles in a dark ravine high in the Alps.
About an hour’s drive south-east of Zurich, it is an area understandably popular with winter-sports enthusiasts, mountaineers, climbers and walkers, and lies next to the beautiful Lake Walensee.
Few of these people will be aware of the unexplored cave network stretching back beneath the snow-fields and mountains near the village of Amden.
The Rinquelle is inaccessible for at least 80% of the year. In winter it is simply unapproachable because of its location; in summer, the cave is likely to be inaccessible because of rain or ice-melt from the mountains above.
The cave is a seasonal resurgence, a periodic outlet for water which, when it appears, presents a very dramatic mass of foaming white water, spouting from the cliffs at an altitude of about 850m into the gorge below.
This is one of the largest springs in the country and the flow (up to 10 cubic metres per second) indicates a substantial cave system that is largely unexplored.
This is a strange place, and with water an important resource to the Swiss there is a genuine interest in monitoring levels, charting the extent of the underground aquifer and protecting water quality.
I am here as photographer and historian. Although I have never been here before, I have known of this place for well over 30 years.
It came to my attention during the production of the second edition of my book, The Darkness Beckons. At the time the cave highlighted a notable feat of exploration by the then-leading cave-diving activist, the German Jochen Hasenmayer.
Hasenmayer was a man many years ahead of his time, a genius and a renowned cave-diving pioneer.
Over a series of missions dating from the early 1970s, he explored the Rinquelle for over a kilometre in an upstream direction, finding a very complex labyrinth of passages at the furthest point.
Most interestingly, at a point 250-300m from the dive base, he discovered a junction, a place where a strong cave stream flowing out from the cave disappeared in a separate tunnel away from his point of entry.
This explained why the Rinquelle entrance didn’t discharge water all year round; it was an “overflow” passage, just like the overflow outlet from a household sink or bath.
Hasenmayer nearly always dived alone, but he was a man of steely determination and unparalleled competence. The eventual outlet for the cave water lay somewhere in the extreme depths of Lake Walensee, many hundreds of metres below the cave entrance.
Never mind the origin of the water, clearly there was a lot more cave to be explored in the downstream direction.

HASENMAYER WAS EVENTUALLY to chart more than 950m of flooded passage from the dive base into the “sinking” downstream tunnel. His diagrammatic sketches had been passed to me in the late 1970s, and appeared in The Darkness Beckons.
Amazingly, no further exploration, certainly no additional advance, had taken place in this cave since 1981.
In 2010, leading British explorers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were invited to try their hand. The pair returned home with respect and confirmation of the sheer audacity of Hasenmayer’s work. They also outlined a stirring proposal for high adventure.
John was keen to return, but he had to choose the moment carefully. The cave was rarely in condition, and his primary objective demanded perfect timing. He planned to try to push on downstream.
He had developed his own compact, streamlined rebreather, which would, he hoped, allow him to pass the restriction at the 950m terminus.
The rebreather could be hand-held if necessary, and had ably proved its worth during the exploration of Wookey Hole to 90m depth in 2004 and 2005.
John had friends in Switzerland who could monitor the conditions and advise accordingly. Winter was deemed a good time to go, as long as the team could reach the entrance – and accessing the entrance was an adventure in itself!
It’s now early February. Conditions are perfect in every sense. Not only are water levels low but there has been no significant precipitation for many weeks.
John has invited Charlie Reid-Henry and myself along, and our Swiss friends are providing magnificent local support.

I’VE HEARD ALL ABOUT getting the gear to the cave. It starts with a fair haul up a hillside, then comes the breath-taking finale – crossing a deep gorge by hanging from a thin metal hawser.
A minute cable car is installed on the crossing, but this is normally used purely for transporting hardware. We will cross on self-propelled pulleys; fairly physical and certainly exciting stuff!
While the technicians set everything up, I am warned not to get carried away. A couple of years before, a local caver had failed to control the speed of his crossing. He crashed into a metal pole and lost some of the most valuable parts of his male anatomy. Sobering thought!
The crossing itself lies beneath the highest waterfall in Switzerland, and by 10am the drama of the action is heightened as large chunks of ice and debris begin to fall from high above.
The ravine echoes to thumps and explosive-like bangs; the spring thaw has begun. The radios are pressed into action, and slowly but surely a huge array of equipment, including cylinders, rebreathers and a scooter, is dispatched to the far side.
John Volanthen is in his element. He climbs in the little spare time he has, and the airy exposure he takes in his stride. But it’s a very apprehensive Welshman who takes his turn on the wire!
Once everyone is across, the equipment is ferried slowly a short but slippery distance up and into the cavernous entrance. By 1pm John is ready, and I marvel at his composure. The water temperature in the well-like sump pool is 7 or 8°, and he gives us an expected time of return of 10pm.
This will be a long dive by any standards, but if he’s able to pass the sump, John is well prepared to explore the dry passage beyond.
He has been preparing for this operation for many weeks, and his attitude and approach is flawless.
John is a consummate professional. Everything is thoroughly tested; nothing is left to chance. As he scooters into the crystal water, we know that there is no one better to tackle the place than him.

IT TAKES THREE AND A HALF hours before the dark pool of water slowly begins to glow. Minutes later, the tale is recounted. The Rinquelle is not giving up its secrets easily.
Predictably, John had gained the termination uneventfully. He parked his scooter and carefully tied off a knotted length of climbing rope, which was then trailed down into a narrow opening where the flow intensified.
Nothing had been overlooked and, with a predictably stronger current at this point, John was making doubly sure that he could pull himself back should the flow prove problematic.
If the restriction was localised and the passage enlarged beyond, the cave would effectively be “wide open” once more and, with the rebreather’s duration, he would be able to cover many hundreds of metres, and almost certainly succeed in passing the sump.
As John manoeuvred feet-first into the restriction, everything felt under control. It was just 15m deep at floor level and, as he looked into the unlined ongoing passage, he could see perhaps 6m, with no evident enlargement.
Prudence demanded that the return through the initial narrowing be checked. His caution was justly repaid. He was only a few metres into the narrowing, but trying to ascend proved almost impossible.

THERE WAS NO QUESTION OF FURTHER EXPLORATION – in moments, that heady feeling of pushing the unknown had been replaced by the basics of survival. His positioning in the passage was crucial; streamlining was imperative.
Extreme composure and controlled breathing was paramount. To lose grip on the rope or succumb in any way to stress could spell disaster. You can’t underestimate the sheer force of water.
Even with the aid of the knotted rope, it was a case of inching back very, very slowly. It took all of five minutes for John to extricate himself just a few metres to the “safe” upper side of the restriction.
Only then could he gather his thoughts and muse on the gallows humour we had experienced from Rick (Stanton) two days previously:
“I’ll come and post some food parcels down the hole to you.”
Rick had been firmly convinced that Hasenmayer’s restriction would prove to be the effective, practical, end of the cave.
The water clearly runs away into caverns measureless to man… but whether the flow or an effective equipment configuration will ever permit a human to follow the course
of the cave remains to be seen.

ESCAPING FROM THE CLUTCHES of the cave would be enough for most people, but John Volanthen is nothing if not determined. He had staked a lot on this mission, and he had one more lead to follow up, one he had described to us during the planning stage.
It lay at the extreme upstream terminus beyond a localised blockage, again charted by Hasenmayer.
This was duly checked, and here John successfully wriggled through to gain airspace and a short section of previously unexplored dry passage terminated by yet another sump.
As we sped back across the zip-wire, it was dark. Stars twinkled overhead, the temperature had fallen and at last the valley was silent. It had been a very successful mission and spirits were high.
Yes, the cave holds fast to its real secrets – for the moment. But we haven’t heard the last of the Rinquelle.