IIt’s the fall of 1982 we descended into Little River, the flow was higher than normal so we pulled, there was no glide just pull and hang on. We made it to the sign and the flow was impossible. We grabbed at rocks and hugged the wall looking for handholds. We made it to the low section and now we had some handholds at 60’ and another 40’ before we make it to the lip of the Syndrome Shaft, named after all the CO2 headaches from fighting the flow to make it there. We dropped down the shaft angling down to 100’ grabbing at the walls so we don’t get blown back. You don’t want to give up any ground while making your way in, to be pushed back can be dangerous, once you lose a handhold you are pushed out of control back to the entrance. After he made it down the shaft it’s down for a short rest. Chris, my buddy, is acting strange, he changes regulators and starts to hyperventilate, he changes back to his starting regulator, after a couple of breaths he spits it out and gives me the out of air signal. I give him my regulator and switch to my backup. He appears to be breathing normally. I give him the thumbs up, he just stares at me, I give it again and again and he just sits there and breathes, using my air. It’s time to move, I get behind him, inflate my BCD and grab his manifold. I lift us both off the bottom and start us up the shaft. Chris is not doing anything to help but he is breathing so I swim us both out. When we get to the surface he asks his wife for his inhaler, he had an asthma attack.
This was my first out of air experience involving another diver, and my very first was me, I ran out of air in Peacock Springs 1979 coming back from Pothole. I saw lights coming down the crack and did an out of air ascent to the surface from 70’. I elected not to share air with my buddy since we didn’t have an octopus, he had just 100 psi more than I did when I made the decision to get out on my own. He made it out before his tank was dry.
The training materials state exit in the most efficient manner and let the out of air diver lead if possible. I have to wonder about this statement since I have had three experiences that required totally different approaches. There are some misconceptions about out of air scenarios. I once had an instructor argue “if everything is equal let the out of air guy lead”. I shouted back “he just ran out of air nothing is equal”. Drills are great learning experiences for procedure and difficulty depending on location but divers need to think and evaluate the scenario. Real life is not a drill. Out of air situations fall into two categories perceived out of air or actually out of air.
Most situations are perceived, meaning the diver is not actually out of air, remember we are discussing trained cave divers not open water divers. These are valve roll offs, dislodged regulator, burst hose and similar situations. These can be handled by closing a valve and/or isolator valve (see Jeff Bozanic’s article on Isolator valves). The initial response is the same, immediate attention is required but after the silt settles you realize your buddy couldn’t possibly be out of air since you aren’t at thirds. You check to see how much gas is remaining and exit, sharing air when his gas supply gets low.
The lead and follow positioning only applies to single file restrictions, if you can be next to your buddy it keeps him calm and communications are easy. Zero visibility situations are more difficult and usually include more variables than most divers want to admit to. Zero visibility exits with your buddy on a main line that is secured for traffic is much different from the same exercise in a side passage with line traps, fragile tie offs and possible tee’s that aren’t well marked.
My point is different caves and mixed teams call for different strategies, there is no cave I would let an out of air panicked diver lead me out of. The truly traumatized diver is not leader material; my own real life experiences show me circumstances will dictate the exit protocol if both divers want to make it out alive. Drills are easy and make you feel good, but take that last breath, cough and wonder where your next breath is coming from. Take another and you get water. You finally get a working regulator and still get water on a couple of breaths while you get you hyperventilation under control, you settle to the bottom as you realize what happened and you realize you are still 45 minutes from the surface. This is the reality of a gas sharing situation.
The other type of gas sharing scenario is the real deal that more often than not lead to both divers dying. Between two cave divers a real out of air situation is a dive that has gone wrong and the team gets lost, disoriented, misses a jump. When a team is comprised of trained cave divers that know how to plan dives a diver running out of air is the diver that ran out first. The other diver is just a few minutes behind. Sharing gas ensures both divers die together, does it really matter who leads or follows? On one particular recovery operation the two-man team died 100’ from their stages. I still wonder if the diver who gave gas to the other would have made it out if he hadn’t shared his last 200 psi.
I want divers and instructors to think about the desired outcome of drills. An out of air drill is just that, a drill. Divers are comfortable with the fact they have plenty of gas and they have alternatives. Training should focus on diver response and thought process to survive not completing a drill so it can be checked off the list of requirements.