Deadly Surprise in the Auburn Lost Slate Mine: Exploring the Dark Depths

Deadly Surprise in the Auburn Lost Slate Mine: Exploring the Dark Depths
Incident LocationDiver Full Names
North Wales, United KingdomWill Smith

In a small town in North Wales, one of the most historical and beautiful countries in the world, lies an old abandoned slate mine called Aberlas. Working men forced to abandon their livelihood because of a flood, caves both dry and fully submerged in water that were unexplored, creating an exhilarating adventure for those daring enough to enter. But not all return home. The three men that entered the mine that day were part of the UK Mine and Cave Diving Exploration Group, but the Auburn Lost Slate Mine would change their lives forever. This is their story.

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Dry Caving and Cave Diving Risks

Dry caving and cave diving both come with their own specific risks, and many people become experts at one or the other, but very few are great at both. While cave diving, you have a very specific set of equipment that is required to be underwater in the pitch-black. Cave diving often seems the more extreme of the two similar activities because of the inherent risk of the cave combined with being underwater, breathing a complex mixture of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen called trimix. Divers have to adjust the gas mixture depending on how deep they dive to prevent nitrogen narcosis.

Nitrogen Narcosis and Dry Caving Risks

Nitrogen narcosis is the breathing of air under pressure that impacts how much the nitrogen molecules are dissolved into your tissues and blood. Too much extra nitrogen can affect the brain and cause an inebriated-like symptom, leaving the diver open to easy mistakes. While some dry cavers may shy away from these risks, their chosen hobby is still not the safest way to spend your free time. Some caves are more harmless than others due to the large passages and being short in nature, but other deeper caves that contain tight restrictions are inherently more dangerous.

Risk of Flooding and Air Pockets

A restriction is a small space that a person can squeeze their body through. In dry caving, these restrictions can go on for a few feet to hundreds of feet. Imagine lying on your stomach, unable to move your arms and legs up or down while you wiggle your body forward inch by inch, feeling the pressure of the rock on your spine and in your stomach. This is not for the faint of heart or those that suffer from claustrophobia. Not to mention, some dry caves have a risk of flooding, and you do not want to be trapped hundreds of feet under the surface with gallons of water roaring at you.

Exploring the Auburn Lost Slate Mine

In the UK, there are groups of experienced individuals that take on caving as a hobby, and for the more advanced, they look forward to the few opportunities that pop up in their lifetime: mapping an unexplored cave. While dry caving and cave diving both carry their own risks, mapping an unknown cave can lead to increasing the possibility of something going wrong since you are plunging into the darkness with no idea what is ahead of you. This can lead to incredible discoveries and sights, but it makes mapping and traversing these areas difficult.

August 23rd, 2014

On August 23rd, 2014, Will Smith, Darcy Foley, and Sasha London entered the Auburn Lost abandoned slate mine, as they had done the month before and the month before that. They were part ofthe UK Mine and Cave Diving Exploration Group and were mapping out the unexplored mine. The three men were experienced divers in their late 30s and early 40s with hundreds of dives under their belts. These were not your average explorers. Will Smith was one of the founding members of the group, which was created to connect like-minded people who had a love for adventure and exploration. This is what drove them all.

Exploring the Auburn Lost Mine

While originally a working slate mine, over the years, it had been abandoned and flooded, causing some areas to collapse. The landscape was vastly different from when it was an operating mine, thus making it unexplored and unmapped—an exciting opportunity for the three experienced divers. They had been mapping different areas of the cave once a month for the last year and a half and were very familiar with particular areas of the mine. But there was still a great amount that had yet to be seen. Their goal in August 2014 was to reach a dry area of the cave, a thousand feet from the entrance, to continue mapping that area they had already previously explored.

Diving Preparations

The mine was thought to be around 1900 feet, but they were not completely sure, as any old map was unreliable. So, as they arrived at the entrance, and like the months before, Will Smith began going over the dive plan with the other members. They had brought 12 canisters of gas and would be staging them along the route, as there was a worry that certain areas of the cave had poisonous air. Another key risk while underwater was the enormous amount of mining equipment littered throughout the route. This was one of the reasons they were here — to document the many spades, picks, lanterns, infrastructure, and decomposing explosives that were encapsulated underwater, as if they were entering a time machine every time they entered the mine.

Descending into Darkness

After the trio was comfortable with what was to come over the coming hours, they grabbed their gear and began the long trek down the first passage to enter the water. They lugged over a hundred pounds of gear and gas canisters, their heavy breaths labored in the dark cave lit by their headlamps. Eventually, they reached the edge of the water and, without a second thought, walked in, putting in their regulators and submerging themselves into the dark.

Swimming Through the Mine

They made quick work swimming through the passages as they knew them pretty well. Each movement was extremely precise. With cave diving, you use short, powerful kicks that do not extend very far past your hips, called frog kicks, so that silt sitting on the bottom of the cave is not affected as you pass through. One wrong kick would erupt a cloud of dust all around them, making it virtually impossible to see a few feet in front of you. It is not an entirely beautiful dive as it is muddy, dark water, but it is littered with amazing pieces of history. It was beautiful in its own way and a peaceful experience for the professional divers.

Mapping the Mine

As they swam through the main passage, they could not help but feel overwhelmed. Everywhere they looked was a black void leading in a different direction — left, right, up, down — all potential passages to explore, but none of them particularly inviting. Being experienced, they ignored the temptation on their shoulder and followed the route that had already been explored, which was part of the main passage that stretched for most of the mine. This is why it had taken over a year and a half of diving to lay the line and arrows amongst the rocks and equipment below them. A dive line is a thin but strong piece of rope that follows the path of thecave. It is one of the key rules of cave diving: always use a line. Should there be any emergency, such as a silt out, there would be a way to exit the cave.

Reaching the Unexplored Area

They slowly progressed with slow kicks, their lights bobbing in the pitch-black broken by the occasional ladder or minecart in front of them. Soon enough, they had reached the unexplored area and surfaced through a nearly vertical shaft into dry air. Will had already explored similar passages along the route and had a feeling it would lead to an added entrance. An adit is used in mining as a small ventilation and emergency exit leading from the mine directly to the surface.

Surface Exploration and Troubles

Surface passages in the Auburn Lost Slate Mine are typically tight passages that had collapsed over time due to lack of upkeep. Will planned to get out of the water and explore the passage while Sasha and Darcy stayed on the edge of the water, resupplying and waiting for Will to return. If it ended up being a larger cave system, Will would regroup with them, and they would explore and map the cave together.

Will’s Solo Exploration

They watched as Will exited the water, leaving his regulator in his mouth, and began walking down the tight path. He looked rather odd walking through the cave with his tanks still firmly on his back and his fins on his feet, almost like a duck walking into a dark void alone. The passage they emerged in was a sharp incline, almost like a stairway, and Will was slowly making his way up. But then, something caught his attention.

A Deadly Discovery

Will noticed something odd about his gas cylinder. Sasha and Darcy, checking their own equipment at the edge of the water, noticed a headlight shine directly at them. As they looked up the sharp incline, they were initially blinded, as if staring directly into the sun. Will was pointing at his cylinders and looked uneasy. He managed to utter a couple of words: “There is a problem with my gas.” Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and Will tumbled down the slope, falling into the water with an awful echo.

Toxic Air and Tragic Loss

Will had been breathing the air in the cavern, and he was right. It was poisonous. The air in the chamber was a strong mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, accumulating from the leftover mining equipment and decaying explosives that could not reach clean air. Sasha and Darcy immediately jumped into action, pulling Will’s heavy body, bogged down by pounds of equipment, from the water. He was already unconscious and not breathing. They tried to administer CPR, but there was no way to get clean air into him. They realized their leader and friend would not wake up. Will was gone.

A Heart-Wrenching Decision

Sasha and Darcy had to make a decision quickly. Staying in the passage could lead to neither of them making it out alive. They had to decide whether to leave Will’s body in the cave or try to bring him back to the surface. They wouldn’t be able to haul him out safely. With heavy hearts, they laid him down on the rock and submerged themselves into the water. They began making their way out of the mine, following the route they had entered.

Swimming in Shock

As Will’s body lay alone in the cave, Sasha and Darcy slowly made their way back to safety. They swam in tandem, unable to fully grasp what had just happened. They swam in shock, only worrying about their own safety. Even an experienced diver could succumb to the emotional burden of losing a friend. Eventually, they reached the exit in the early afternoon, emerging from the water into the dry cave. The smell of fresh air hit them, and they finally had a moment to grieve their friend. In the dark, nothing would ever be the same.

Emergency Response and Closure

They made an emergency call to the North Wales Cave Rescue Organization, and the North East Wales Search and Rescue team would be on-site later that day. However, nobody knew the exact reason for Will’s death, and the team was wary of rushing into the cave without knowing the risks. The mine remained closed after Will’s death, deemed too dangerous for explorers due to the toxic gas from the rotting equipment. However, it would eventually be reopened due to pressure from the UK Mine and Cave Diving Exploration Group. Over the next year, the full 1961 feet of the mine would be mapped, with a second level of 984 feet just below the main passage. They achieved the goal that their leader had set for the group, completing it in honor of their fallen friend.

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What is the Auburn Lost Slate Mine?

The Auburn Lost Slate Mine is an old abandoned slate mine located in North Wales, United Kingdom.

Who were the divers involved in the incident?

The divers involved in the incident were Will Smith, Darcy Foley, and Sasha London.

What were the risks associated with cave diving and dry caving?

Risks associated with cave diving and dry caving include nitrogen narcosis, tight restrictions, flooding, and toxic air pockets.

What happened to Will Smith during the exploration?

Will Smith encountered a problem with his gas cylinder, resulting in him breathing poisonous air and losing consciousness.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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