Saturday, 12 January 2019

12th January 2019 - The morning after two nights before

Given our caving season and the times we're able to cave, we don't often go caving in daylight.
A sunlight visit to regular haunts therefore feels quite strange.  I didn't realise quite how windy the road up to Leck fell is nor that there's not actually a lot to see on the moors when you get there anyway, as they are covered in dense fog.

Once again it was back to counting steps to judge the 500m along the wall before a ninety degree right hand turn and a further hundred metres. Fortunately, dead ahead was not only the pot, but also our rope, still tied around the fence post.

I;m not sure whether it was being on my own, or that in the daylight you can see the depth of the pot, but I felt quite nervous as I set off towards the edge.  Calm was restored as the usual routine of passing rebelays kicked in and it seemed like no time at all before I was looking over the final pitch into the main chamber.

Having forgotten to tie the bag onto the end of the pitch rope meant descending the last pitch to collect it, before up, up, up towards daylight.

On reaching the surface it was nice to find that the fog had been blown away by the wind and the van (and now multitude of other vehicles) were clearly visible.  Despite the weight of the tackle sacks, the view made it a terrific stomp back across the moor to the van and gave time to reflect on Thursday's amazing trip.

Friday, 11 January 2019

10th January 2019 - The Iron Way

Satellite picture - Google. Surveys - New Northern Caves Guide
The via ferrata of the Dolomites were created using iron melded with rock in order to allow safe passage for troops through hazardous mountain terrain.  Diggers in the Dales have too being using iron (well probably steel) to shore up their digs, allowing tourists to venture safely in places previously inaccessible.  The trip from Death's Head Hole to the Iron Kiln Hole entrance of Notts II, makes use of three stunning pieces of engineering.  Tony takes up the tale...  

This was the piecing together of the two known ends and the unknown middle bit. Conditions were right and the moment had to be seized; cold symptoms were suppressed with a slug of Day Nurse. At the bottom of the big pitch in Death’s Head, Alistair noted the traverse line of bolts that would have avoided the precarious rubble where we landed. We stuck with what we knew for speed, and trod carefully down to the ‘Y' hang leading to the main chamber. Arriving at the bottom of the more recently excavated shaft, we set off towards the final descent into the streamway. Once down, drysuits were unpacked and put on over caving suits.

We set off on the walk upstream, and it wasn’t long before we were wading into deeper water, eventually up to our necks, with the roof not far above. There was soft collapsing sand underfoot, and we made for the shallower sides of the winding passage to keep our heads above the surface. Tell-tale fragments of grass stuck to the scallops above, although no reminder was necessary that there are times when visits to this site are not possible. Our movements caused gentle waves that made an unearthly ‘gloop’ sound as they hit the sides.After a couple of hundred metres the passage became increasingly more shallow and the roof got higher. We strode on until we arrived at a narrow inlet on the left. ‘Groundsheet Junction,' Alistair announced with a grin. It was almost exactly two years since we had reached this point via Lost John’s, and I wouldn’t have recognised it. I was heartened again by Alistair's route awareness and very reliable memory. Another 150m and we were at the start of the ascent into Lyle Cavern.

After the scramble up we stopped to take in the atmosphere and spectacle of this large chamber. There at the back was the in situ rope and our climb to the very beautiful Helictite Rift. We removed our drysuits and geared up for the ascent. Once up, we continued along the rift to the distinctive free-standing flake that marks the beginning of the 140m crawl - the last challenge of the evening.This was our third trip through this impressive excavation. I’d like to restate our admiration for the endeavour and commitment that created it. At times I find this contorted, corkscrew crawl bewildering. Pushing my tackle bag ahead, I got confused. ‘Alistair? Alistair?…ALISTAIR!' Nothing. 'It has to be this way.' I followed my bag headfirst down a drop and turned my head at the bottom to look along the horizontal tube. There was the reassuring loom from the headtorch of my speedier fellow earthworm. The route becomes easier as you get towards the exit, not withstanding a couple of wet crawls that allow the muddy water to finally find its way into your underwear. Emerging into the welcoming space of Sir Digby Spode’s Inlet, we had a congratulatory hug. What a journey!

After the precarious downclimb into the streamway, we splashed and tramped along to the Notts II inlet and made the final climb up out of the pot, burdened somewhat by the tackle bags. The evening still allowed time for a beer in The Royal Hotel in Kirkby, where we reflected on a very satisfying journey, a trip through richly varied and sensational caving terrain.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

28th December 2018 - The Faery Islands of Loch Sween

A holiday cottage on the Crinan canal for New Year inspired us to load up our boats and after a very hard work trip along the canal to Crinan, portaging for miles round the locks, it was nice to head to the other sort of loch.

Tayvallich was just around the corner and offered easy access to the pristine Loch Sween and it's resident black brittle stars.

Leaving one of the lagoons formed by the Faery isles

A few of the thousands of black brittle stars

Dick navigating through the islets

Looking back down Loch Sween, a change in the weather looming

After a lunch stop, dressed in everything I had with me for the return to Tayvallich. I love poggies! 

Thursday, 20 December 2018

20th December 2018 - The forgetfulness spell

My excuse is that it's the end of term, but I don't think we've ever forgotten as much on a single trip before.

Once again it was wet and as we're beginning to run out of wet weather options, I decided I'd like to go on a trip to practice taking photos on pitches. The most convenient place I could think of and a place I always enjoy going, Bull Pot of the Witches beckoned.

While changing Dick realised that he'd forgotten his helmet.  Fortunately though he had with him a prototype, kevlar reinforced, caving flat cap. Though the stiffened brim serves as a handy place on which to mount a candle, Dick also had a new headtorch he wanted to test and so eschewed the more traditional form of illumination.

After inspecting the fantastic new interpretation board at Bull Pot Farm, we took the short stroll to the pot's style and carefully traversed around and down to the entrance tunnel.

Free climbing the pitch saw us swiftly at the bottom of the open pot and heading down to the continuation pitches. Dick descended,  positioned flashes and partly reascended while I placed another flash and prepared to take a few shots. With the shot perfectly composed I pressed the shutter.  The flashes fired and for a split second the finest caving photo I've ever taken was displayed on the camera's screen. I had only just started to revel in its artistic perfection however, when it was replaced by a stark black and white message, "No memory card".

Accepting it was just one of those days and with the upside that all the pitches had been beautifully rigged by members of the CDG, we set off for an explore. The streamway was no place to be, so we visited the long gallery and had a bit of a ratch around before returning up the main pitch. I love the fact that I struggle to work out just how this cave is all connected.

The Barbon Inn was doing a roaring trade, a group who I presume had been young farmers a number of years previously were having a great night out and we're fully dressed for the occasion. As always we were warmly welcomed, but did quickly head for the quieter room, next to the fire.

On leaving, the party in the main bar was in even fuller flow and I hate to think what the gentleman stood on one of the tables was about to do with the stuffed (taxidermy not sage and onion) pheasant he was brandishing.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Friday, 14 December 2018

13th December 2018 - An unexpected journey

Dick beginning to rig in the biting wind
It's been wet so the plan was to rig Death's Head, a new cave for Tony and I, before negotiating the dug connection to the Lost John's master cave and then turn round once we saw what we presumed would be a raging torrent heading towards the sump.

For the second week in a row we found ourselves parked next to other cavers, it's definitely becoming a very popular sport!  We changed under clear skies and in a biting wind, before heavily laden with a 100m rope, set off across the moor in the trail of all the other cavers. 

Despite the crowds, we had Death's Head to ourselves and Dick was soon rigging from a post in the encircling fence.  We're not sure if the pin from a bolt, hammered into the top of the post signified a survey station, or a specially reinforced belay fence post, but it certainly seemed less rickety than the others. Fortunately it's just steep ground down to the belay tree below, rather than a vertical drop, so it wasn't going to be taking that much weight.

Down the rabbit hole...
Dick soon had a sling round the tree and set of down to the first rebelay.  Joining Tony at the tree I was glad to be out of the wind. Putting my gloves back on after taking photos had left me with sickening hot aches, though I was glad that blood was returning to my fingers again.

Meeting up with Tony again at the rebelay we both looked skyward as the wind rushing over the top of the pot emulated someone blowing over an enormous milk bottle, producing an eery, resonating howl.

As rebelay followed rebelay, I realised it had been a long time since we'd done a cave with 'big' pitches. I'd love to do this pot again in the light as I'm sure much of its glory was hidden in the shadows.  The howls of wind noise from above was now replaced with hollers of delight from Dick below as he dropped the final pitch and landed on the boulder slope floor of the main chamber.

While I could see the other two below me, my attention was grabbed by the huge jammed boulder that acts as the take off for the final pitch. Sometimes it's best not to think too much about these things.

The main chamber is an incredible place and the dug shaft at it's base an amazing piece of engineering,  completed in just 7 weeks. This must have been a much more comfortable place for the diggers after their travails in the link between Notts II and Lyle Caverns. A lone bat had decided it was a nice place to spend the winter too.

The clever mammals know how to avoid all the brexit twaddle

Tony soon had a rope down the scaffolded shaft and Dick swiftly followed.  In readiness for the squirminess I believed to be ahead I stopped at the bottom of the pitch to take off my SRT gear, the other's voices disappearing down the continuation crawl.  The crawls and short squeezes completed a handlined climb dropped us into a beautiful piece of streamway and suddenly we were there at a short, rigged pitch down into a gently running stream.

Tony on the dig pitch
Tony with his gear still on was soon down into the Lost John's master cave with Dick not far behind. Kindly Tony passed his harness up and I was able to join them as they returned from upstream, where they had turned round at a deep pool. The stomp was now on down to the sump. Despite both Tony and I having been to the bottom of the Lost John's pitches and down to Groundsheet junction, we'd never actually been to the sump, so it was great to be there, especially as we hadn't been expecting to be able to make it down into the streamway.

In spite of the increasing weight of rope below and the worrying rubbing of the rope above as I removed a deviation, I felt really pleased that we'd all made it down to the sump, an added bonus to an already great trip. Shouts of, "Hurry up, we're freezing.", signalled my proximity to the tree and I hauled the now burgeoning tackle sack up the steep slope above, rope spilling from it as it was dumped finally on horizontal ground.

It was then back into the long line of everyone making their way back across the moor to the cars, headlights acting as a homing beacon to weary cavers. Though the moors had been crowded, we were the only customers in the welcoming Whoop Hall, though we hope they did have at least one other guest, a large gentleman in a rabbit onesy passing the bar causing me to lose track of the conversation on a couple of occasions.  

A few years ago the barman had complained that no one had mid week work's Christmas do's anymore and though he didn't raise it again, it certainly felt that things were even quieter this year. Changed social attitudes to drink driving (which I'm definitely not complaining about); cheap supermarket drink (which I definitely appreciate); a decade of austerity?  Whatever the reason I hope that there are enough people stopping in each week to keep country pubs like this one open, it would be a sad end to the night without half an hour of chat round a warming fire.

Friday, 7 December 2018

6th December 2018 - Jingling all the way

As we're now properly into advent and it's raining, a cave without a stream and a festive name felt in order and so off to Jingling we set.

The fog was thick as we eeked our way along the Kingsdale road, trying to pick out the relevant gate and parking spot.  Fortunately, even though it looked pretty miserable through the windscreen, the change wasn't too bad and we were soon heading up the hill to the Turbury road.

I don't know how many times we've headed up this way, but we always seem to arrive at a wall not fully sure which way to turn to get to a gate.  On this occasion we chose correctly and after a few metres arrived at the gate allowing access to the road.  What could have been quite a long search for the pot was made infinitely easier by Dick's GPS and the familiar entrance soon emerged from out of the clag.

The last time I'd done this pot was with Tony and we'd had to engage skills from our distant past as we unceremoniously lunged for tree branches, selecting the thickest to wrap slings around in order to rig the first pitch.  It turns out though that this is the same pot I'd also previously done with Dick and his niece and nephew, which begins with a lovely descent down a short gully, before a fine traverse along a ledge overlooking the main pot.  As two and two were slowly put together in my brain, Dick set off down the lovely gully.

Despite this being a "dry" pot under normal conditions, the last bolt on the traverse seemed to be under a leak of some sort and I didn't envy Dick even though he was rigging swiftly. A short descent from the traverse dropped us into the lateral cleft, where we swapped rigging duties.  This really is a superb little pot, with some terrific positions, the homely cleft ejecting us once more into the dank open shaft.  Oh for a deviation, the "leak" from the end of the traverse seemingly having increased in volume by this point.

The final pitch dropped us into the bottom of the rift and while each end of it soon closed down, a dig at the foot of the rope offered a way on.  The tail of the rope offered a useful hand line down the dug shaft, but I wasn't tempted by the horizontal continuation and I squirmed my way back up to the bottom of the pitch.

Even given the traverse's leak, which managed to deposit a drip right down by neck, we emerged onto the moor mostly dry and warm.  I could definitely get used to this type of caving!  We're also getting quite used to finishing the evening in the Marton Arms and it's great to see that they've even a few caving prints on the walls too.

Friday, 30 November 2018

29th December 2018 - But smart old blue, he took the Milky Way

With the tail end of storm Diane passing over the country it was wet.  One of the descriptions I'd read of where I wanted to go for this evening's trip read, "You might not drown in wet conditions". I prefer better odds than that so a change of plans was in order.  I'd like to say that Tony turning up in a brand new, blue caving suit was the inspiration for the choice, but unfortunately it was purely chance.

First stop was Valley Entrance.  The comparative warmth inside the entrance was short lived as we soon found ourselves stooping in bottom edge of boxers deep, not warm, water.  My memory must be very selective as, what as I remember as a quick stomp along the roof passage, is actually quite awkward stooping for much of its length.

The very aqueous entrance to the Milky Way didn't look overly enticing so we left our harnesses and carried on down the tunnel with the hope that we might feel more inspired on the return.  Looking down into the master cave we were quite pleased that this wasn't our way on, as there was quite a lot of water running through it.

Trying to put off the inevitable even further we stopped to set up a photo of one of the prettier bits of the roof tunnel, but were still soon back at our bags and the inevitable wet crawl.  Fortunately the cold water numbed the pain in my knees from crawling over cobbles and the white deposits that give the Milky Way its name also provided further distraction from the cooling effects of the water.  Occasional avens provided brief respite from the crawling, but the standing up almost made it worse when the crawling commenced again.

At a T-junction a rope, just visible through the waterfall filled rift on the right, finally signalled the end of the crawling.  It didn't though end my struggles.  While the first part of the climb up was lovely, the narrower rift with its in situ rope proved my nemesis.  I opted to try climbing the knotted rope with my jammers, conducting half a dozen or so "passing a knot" procedures and getting myself in a proper tangle, which only putting on my pantin alleviated. Tony though climbed the rift stylishly, using his cows tails in the knotted loops only for protection.   

Tony making his way up the Toyland climb
Emerging from the climb into a small chamber, two ways on seemed possible. The one at ground level looked tight and while the one 'over the top' looked more spacious a rope signalled a further pitch ahead.  From what I had read prior to the trip I felt this meant that we were in Toyland, our destination for the evening.  The sound of rushing water from beyond definitely didn't feel enticing and so we descended back down to the Milky Way.  Tony kindly took the camera case and my only excuse for my poor performance on the climb up away from me and I proceeded to show that it really was just my lack of skill that had caused such issue, adding in some extra bumbling on the descent.

Now knowing how long the crawl was, it seemed to pass much more quickly on the way out and sopping wet through now, even the return to Valley Entrance along the roof tunnel didn't seem so long either.  This really is road side caving at its very best and seconds later we were back at the van, pouring wellyfulls of water onto the road.

As well as Valley Entrance being convenient for the road, Kingsdale is also very convenient for the Marton Arms which, with its new owners, has been a bit of a hit this season.  Straying from our usual "packet of salt and vinegar and a packet of cheese and onion", Tony went for the wasabi nuts and spicy bar mix, which turned out to be a master stroke. As we sat, huddled over our pints in our grubby duvet jackets and with our mucky faces, it's great to know you're made to feel just as welcome as the other clientele, dressed to the nines and drinking gin cocktails.