MY FACE WAS BEING LASHED SO SEVERELY, it felt as if it was being cut open. We were emerging at the cave entrance into a gale, and it was dark. Nautilus Dive Centre, Perm, 007342 2373309
The snow was thigh-deep and it was reassuring to have the rope to pull on.
The sanctuary of the "warm base" was only 200m away, but the temperature was -28°C, with the wind-chill reducing this to perhaps -40°. Amazingly, the camera was still working, so a couple more images were taken.
The seriousness of our predicament had yet to sink in. I was in dry clothing, and apart from my face I was OK for the moment, but Rob was in his drysuit, wet after making a reconnaissance dive. Within minutes of exiting the water, our Russian dive guide Misha had vanished. The consequences of our inexperience were not slow in arriving.
"I'm really struggling, mate," said Rob.
Wearing his Otter Britannic suit, and with state-of-the-art thermal underwear from the same source, Rob was still warm, and I assumed that it was just the bulk of his attire and the deep snow that was causing him difficulty.
"Come on, we're nearly back. We can't hang around in this," I said to him.
"I can hardly move my legs at all," he replied. His facial expression said it all.
"Just pull yourself on the rope - come on, come on!"
Back in the UK, we had joked about a scenario like this. We had even joked about the title of the subsequent article: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time! Rob, with significant Alpine mountaineering experience, had volunteered to pose "iced-up" for a photo. But now, more than 2300 miles from home and with no support, the reality was rather more serious.
"Can you get this sack off my back?" asked Rob. "I can't move my arms, either." The situation was becoming more critical by the second.
We were on a steep slope and Rob was encased in an icy suit, like a medieval knight clad in too-heavy armour. Over the next five minutes we would learn a lot!
ROB DAVIES, HELEN RIDER AND I were in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, in central Russia, and it was mid-February. Yes, the weather was predictable and, yes, we had all the equipment for the job. But absolutely nothing could convey the experience, the essential lessons to be learnt, other than being there!
The key facts are these: the area in which we were operating lies at the western edge of the Urals, about three hours by road from the city of Perm. (Perm itself is 22 hours' travel time by rail east from Moscow). This sensitive area has been "opened" to visitors only since the monumental political transformation of perestroika took place in 1990.
This was, and presumably still is, a locality that attracts close satellite surveillance by "western" powers, because it is where the Soviet regime stationed a cluster of its intercontinental missiles, trained on the West. As we discovered, "visitors" here do not travel around easily. Very few people speak English, and we were accompanied at all times by an interpreter who had spent more than six months setting up the visit on our behalf.
So what was so special that we would go to such lengths, and subject ourselves to such physical discomfort? Rob (who did eventually thaw out), Helen and I had come to dive the longest underwater cave system in Russia, fact-find and photograph a unique location.
Relatively few caves in the world are found in gypsum rock, but the caves here are plentiful and possess huge underwater tunnels. They are some of the largest in the world, with clarity to rival the incredible tunnels in Australia.
On top of this is the fact that these caves, lying at the edge of Siberia, contain the finest ice formations in the world. To see and experience the ultimate splendour of the exquisite ice-forms, we had to be there in mid-winter, even though the average temperature
at this time of the year varies between -10 and -30°C.
To venture into such extreme cold was not something on which to embark lightly, and it had taken me many years to rise to the challenge. The lure of the place finally proved irresistible - it was to become a fantastic experience in every sense.
ORDINSKAYA CAVE HAS MORE than 2.2 miles of passages to date, of which almost 2 miles are flooded.
Descending the hand-line into the cave was like sliding into an ice palace. Out of the wind it might have been, but inside it felt no warmer than outside.
White encrustations hung everywhere from the ceiling, like Christmas decorations. The place was more akin to some sci-fi film set than a dive site.
About 60m below lay the tranquil pool of delicate green water. The air temperature here was perhaps -10 or -15°C, but presumably the water surface did not ice over because of the water temperature and air movement.
Our host, Andrey Gorbunov of the Nautilus Dive Centre in Perm, had installed several invaluable dive aids in the cave: ropes, a couple of electric lights and, at the final access to the water, a steeply inclined flight of metal steps.
Perhaps the most prudent addition was a small gas-burner and billy-can. The flame had absolutely no effect on the intense cold, but the water it warmed was essential post-dive to thaw out and unscrew frozen regulators from cylinders, release iced-up zips and so on.
Items such as weightbelts, quickly discarded after the dive, were rendered rigid in minutes, their normally soft, pliable webbing transformed to stone. Many pieces of kit required immersion before use, and dipping our gloves and hood in lukewarm water was to prove the ultimate luxury.
Moving around above water required great care, because everything was coated in a veneer of ice deposited by previous divers dripping for just a minute or two as they sought to vacate the site as quickly as possible.
Ascending the metal steps to the kitting/dekitting area was like walking on wet paint. Wet gloves were unbelievably tacky; if we held the metal handrail for longer than a second at a time, we risked becoming attached as securely as if super glue had been applied.
The cave really is a labyrinthine network, like a Swiss cheese, with its furthest point more than half a mile from dive base. In theory it could extend for many miles. The sump pool was quite small, but as we descended between the large boulders we suddenly, within a few metres, emerged into a huge passage trending away in either direction.
In the vodka-clear water, it became immediately apparent why the site has become such a place of pilgrimage for Russian divers. Such is the size of the tunnel that it can accommodate even the largest group swimming abreast of one another and, extending as it does to a vast dry chamber some 100m from dive base, it's an ideal place for training.
The downside is the water temperature: a chilly 4°C all year round.
Operating in such temperatures in the UK would be regarded as fairly serious, but here the underwater world is one in which, for an hour or so, one can feel nice and comfortable. Without any doubt, the traumatic part is the exit.
Over the following week, we became increasingly slick in our actions. From day one we understood why our guide worked the way he did. He wore an ingenious lightweight over-suit on top of the dry suit, and raced back to the warm base before he became immobilised.
In the absence of an oversuit, we decided that it was altogether more sensible to travel from the warm base to the water in our dive suits, then get out of them immediately after exiting the water. Our weightbelts, harnesses and various other items we left under water. Foam mats, woollen hats and the full array of Arctic clothing was laid out in readiness before we got wet.
FROM THE MOMENT OUR REGULATORS were powered up, malfunction was possible. Equally disturbingly, some basic instrumentation, such as computers, closed down completely in the time prior to water entry.
Reassuringly, everything came back to life under water.
The people who dive here are as extreme as the environment. Misha, our dive guide, was as hard as nails, and this became a stock phrase. But all the divers we met were seriously determined, physically powerful, cold-tolerant individuals.
Few women had ever dived the cave, and Helen became only the fourth to dive the site in winter. But without question "Amphibian Man" was the most amazing person we met.
A "well-to-do" man from the city of Perm, Andrey Philimonov was more relaxed in the water than anyone I have ever come across. A real adventurer, his prowess on mountain slopes mirrored his aptitude for water. Amphibian Man had decided that using scuba was too easy, and had taken to freediving - in a wetsuit in the caves!
As he swam past me at 10m depth on the floor of the cave, he exhibited all the calmness, poise and grace of a dolphin.
I have never dived with a dolphin, and can only imagine what a sensation this must be. To see a human exhibiting such affinity with the environment, as he swam from one small air pocket to the next, was incredible.
We asked our Russian scuba guide Misha what he thought of Amphibian Man's daring freediving in the cave. He thought for a moment, then summed it up with body language, a deft swivelling movement of an outstretched hand. "He says he's diving right on the edge," said Elena Maximovich, our interpreter.
As we all know, there is no room for error, miscalculation or stress when freediving. But I was mightily reassured to see that he carried a 1 litre cylinder just in case of emergency!
EVERYTHING, BUT EVERYTHING about this two-week experience was extreme. From the 95° heat of the banya sauna to wallowing virtually naked in the snow outside, these people really are as hard as nails. They are survivors and, given the opportunity, they live life with amazing vigour.
Our reception was heart-warming. Next time you meet a Russian in the Red Sea doing something crazy, don't think it unusual. There are Russians who can handle it all and more!
The entrance to Ordinskaya Cave
Iced-up - Rob freezes solid on day 1!
Spectacular ice crystal formations.
Line junction in Ordinskaya Cave
Amphibian Man - freediving in a wetsuit in a cold cave system is unusual to say the least!
Helen at the Ruins Grotto.
Rob and Helen at dive base.
A cold sunset in the Urals