Friday, 17 February 2017

16th February 2016 - Mistral to Gour Hall

Formations in Gour Hall
With the days starting to draw out and a slightly earlier start, we stomped across the moor in daylight, passing Lancaster Hole before heading up and over again.  The final gate leading to Easegill had been equipped with a child lock, but having figured this out we were granted access to the dry river bed.  Directly in front of us we noted the position of Link pot, knowing that this may serve as a useful waypoint on our return in the dark. Turning downstream we followed the true left bank of the gill until we came to the beautifully dry stoned enclosure around Mistral, a real improvement on the pile of planks that used to mark the entrance.
The description says to carefully down climb the 6m pitch and it is worth noting that the bar belaying the knotted rope that can assist the climb will take a downward pull, but definitely not a horizontal one.  Having regained my composure for a brief moment a wobbly hold saw me wobbling again too. Then into the blasted rift with its 90 degree bends, past the fallen block, over the boulders, enjoying just moving through the passageway. Little squirms were always followed by stand up and stretch chambers and before long we were in much larger chamber that I recognised, The Hobbit, distinctive with its large, flat roof.
Crossing the Hobbit, the detailed RRCPC route description constantly reassured as we picked up features, rope on the left, rope on the right, squirm over calcite, until we arrived at our next major landmark, Dusty Junction.  Here I'd pieced together two descriptions, one coming from the Hobbit and the other coming from Pip.  By putting the two together we were pretty sure our right turn was the right direction, though there was still some uncertainty.  The draught, mentioned in the description, that should have been coming down the crawl leading to Link was entirely absent.  This was not too disconcerting as I distinctly remembered a huge draft blowing along Mistral on my last visit, the name of the entrance unquestionable and this too was now non existent.  More worrying was the lack of an obvious cairn mentioned in the description.  I know there has been a lot of tidying up done in caves of late, but to remove a cairn?
Our description now became a little less detailed, follow "sandy tunnels" to Hall of Ten.  Taking the most well worn way on at each possible junction payed off though and despite encountering more smooth mud than sand, we soon entered the huge darkness of the Hall.  Enthusiasm to enter its vastness had to be curbed as a convex, muddy slope lay directly between us and its bottom, a good way below and a more indirect, but pleasantly slower route down was taken.  No sooner had we reached the base of the chamber but we had to climb back out on the other side, once again on smooth mud.  Turning right from our balcony we once again found ourselves alternating between low squirms and much larger pieces of passageway.  These larger sections being filled with beautiful formations.

On the way to Gour Hall
Ascending into Gour Hall it is hard to imagine the sight that greeted the original explorers.  Tucked away in alcoves lie patches of pristine mud formations, towered over by brilliant white stalagmites.  Liquid mud has though over the years been spread over an ever larger area, it's advance only now  stemmed by conservation tape.  Fortunately Tony had admirably dragged a tripod to this point and I was glad of it to keep the camera out of mud's way.
With only one slight navigational glitch on the return, leading to a hasty backwards squirm down a crawl which thankfully Tony had't followed me down, we had worked up quite a sweat by the time we reached the surface.  Rather than emerging into a stunning star filled night though, we ascended to thick clag, our torches' range only a few feet.  Noting Link on the way payed off and Tony spotting it in the murk allowed us to find the end of the path, a helpful arrow, and our route back across the moor.
Even though we weren't as cold as last week, it was still great to have a warm welcome in the Barbon Inn and a very tasty pint.  We are definitely going to have to return to this part of Easegill and spend a little more time getting to know our way around amongst some of the most consistently well decorated passages in these parts.

Friday, 10 February 2017

9th February 2016 - Caverns measureless to man

Caverns.  Even putting aside Coleridge, forgivable for both poetic licence and the large amount of opiate coursing through his system, the word cavern is normally associated with a large, voluminous cave. Do cavers then have an over developed sense of irony, or is it that both of the caverns that I can think of in Yorkshire are still thought to have incredible potential.  Mossgill Caverns, a place I have never visited, is theorised to have much greater depth than currently explored and Aygill Caverns, is potentially the key to a missing link between the caves of Barbondale and Easegill. Cavernous is certainly not how I would describe the entrance series to Aygill, but perhaps on our brief foray we failed to reach the caverns measureless to man.

A chill was in the air as for the first time in my caving career we left the van and walked in the opposite direction to usual, away from Easegill and towards Barbondale.  Fortunately the walk in is short and there is a handily placed dig in which to exert a bit of energy and warm up, before the final 50m push up the stream to the boulder surrounded entrance.

A quick slither down and a very short crawl leads to a very polished chimney that is the way on.  A meandering, dry rift, with handily placed chock stones for foot holds then leads to a small chamber.  On the opposite side of this, behind a large boulder, lies the first pitch.  Fortunately this was rigged so Tony was able to leave one tackle sack where it was and finish the traverse unencumbered.

At the bottom of the first pitch, the description suggested that a stream would be met, but despite the sound of a stream it lay below, out of sight.  A small hole on the left though allowed a slither down into the chilly stream.  I was hoping to be able to dash ahead and see if the second pitch was rigged allowing the others could leave the second bag, but banging and crashing around with the camera box in the low and narrow passage, they soon joined me.

An old Elliot thread in the floor of the passage indicated we were near the top of a pitch and sure enough, just around the corner I could see a p-hanger.  Tony tied the rope to a choke stone a few metres back and duly protected I set up the hang from the sole bolt.

The pitch became ever more spray lashed but fortunately Dick had stuck a long sling in the bag which allowed a deviation from another natural and kept us out of most of the water.  With only a short amount of time available we headed off up stream, bridging over deep pools in the beautifully clean, water sculptured passage.  Tony explored till it became too low, while I set up a shot before a swift return to the rope.

Upstream from the bottom of the pitches
Perhaps it's because you're going the opposite way to the water, but pitches always seem wetter on the way back up and I was glad of the deviation.  While Yorkshire water is often refreshing, today it was deeply chilling.  You don't have to think for long at all to understand why they called this Cascade pitch.  Removing SRT gear made the return to the chamber at the foot of the first pitch much easier and following Dick, we went for a quick explore up a side passage, this time the water that had carved it absent, finding another route perhaps millennia ago. In places the roof looked precarious, thousands of small cobbles cemented together, defying gravity.

How's this staying up?
Back then up the short, Traverse pitch, through the small chamber and down into the entrance crawl.  Though the climb at the entrance is quite narrow, fresh snow had still found it's way to the bottom and we were soon out into the crisp night.

Back up the pitches

Out into the chilly air
Trying to park in Barbon we were unsure if there'd be standing room in the Inn, posh cars lining the road.  Fortunately the occupants of the cars must have been elsewhere (where??!) as the pub was quite and we were able to install ourselves in front of one of their fires.  It's only a small thing, but when the friendly bar staff let you feel free to throw more wood on the fire, it makes you feel very welcome.  The Old Speckled Hen was superb too.  Cheers to Dick and Tony for a grand little trip.

Friday, 27 January 2017

26th January 2017 -

Friday, 20 January 2017

19th January 2017 - Ah-ah, ah! Ah-ah, Ah! Valhalla I am coming...

Given that Tony was so impressed with his first visit to Lost Johns with Dick that he'd gone back a few days later, it seemed right that we should try a trip to the bottom of the pitches as soon as possible. 

Unlike the last time we had tried this, when all I can remember was gathering every bit of rope and every maillon we possess and shoving them in innumerable tackle bags, split between the two of us, Dick had pulled off an organisational master stroke. There were three neatly packed bags, one each and a plan that would have us each rigging a couple of pitches.

Dick set off like a whippet down an enlarged rabbit hole and was soon rigging the first of his pitches while Tony and I followed more sedately, enjoying what seem to be the purpose built traverses above the streamway and holes.

The first two pitches swiftly dispatched, I took over for Candle and Shistol, before a short piece of horizontal cave brought us to the Battleaxe traverse.

The traverse is a fantastic piece of cave, exciting bridging above the heard, but unseen, streamway far below.  Passing over the first y-hang we made our way to the very end of the traverse, where a rather cramped game of leap frog crossed with cat's cradle put Tony on point.

Muttering something about "progression in SRT skills!", he moved up to rig the y-hang before descending the superb Valhalla pitch.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Saturday, 31 December 2016

30th December 2016 - South stacked it

Al's account:

It all looked so good on paper the night before. 

Forecast: F3 gusting F4. 

Tidal planning: Last of the flood should take us from Porth Darfach, past Penrhyn Mawr after its most lively. Quick trip round South Stack lighthouse at slack water. Start of the ebb to aid our return to the beach.

So it was we set off at early doors and arrived at a slightly breezier than expected beach. Using the designated water sports drop off area, we unloaded the boats conveniently next to the sand, before parking the vans a little way up the hill.

There were a few more white caps than I expected looking out from the bay, but I put this down to the spring tide still running swiftly. It was still a little while before we set off and by the time we were out of the bay it would all have calmed down.

Al's account cont...

Spirits were high as we launched and headed away from the beach. I love the sensation as the first waves break over your bow, the salty spray lashing your face. Approaching more open water, the swell was definitely bigger than I was expecting and in places waves were breaking in more confused patches of sea. "It's the last of the flood," I told myself, "it'll calm down soon." Anyway, the roller coaster of the swell was exhilarating, I was enjoying myself!

Rounding a small headland, Penrhyn Mawr became visible for the first time. It was still at least 500m away but there was no doubting the line of white water extending from the headland. If it looked that big from here, how big would it be there? It didn't take me long to decide I didn't want to find out, even if the strength of the tide was decreasing.  Dick and James looked like they were enjoying themselves, so it was reluctantly that I shouted across, telling them I wanted to bail. It was a relief to find that they felt the same way and so swinging my bow around I didn't feel too bad.

Now this was a different experience, the swell was now hitting on my rear quarter, giving a much more discomforting ride. While I was confirming with Dick that we'd made the right decision, he noticed that James's track was not in line with ours but in an Easterly direction, parallel with the swell and not in the direction of landfall and our beach. As we paddled to join him, James went over. My worry was short lived though as he soon rolled back up and we were once again on our way, heading for our cove.

The Irish Sea at the end of December isn't known as being one of the World's balmier seas.  I hadn't brought my pogies and my hands were definitely feeling it. Despite his body being cocooned in a drysuit, James though had had his head in, I couldn't imagine the ice cream headache he must now be feeling, the cold being completely energy sapping. It wasn't surprising, therefore, that shortly afterwards he was in again.  Despite valiantly attempting to roll again, he wet exited and we set about getting him back into his boat and the water pumped out.

Glancing up during these manoeuvres, we suddenly realised we were drifting quickly and not towards a nice soft landing, fingers of rock sticking out between the breaking waves (you can see the drift towards the fort on the GPS track on the map above). We quickly arranged a tow and I set off paddling, away from the cliffs while Dick and James, rafted together, finished pumping and putting on spraydecks.

Paddle, paddle, tug. Paddle, paddle, paddle, tug. Paddle, tug. There never seemed to be a constant rhythm to the tugs on the line as I was surfed away from the other two and the anticipation of the jarring that I knew would come didn't make the paddling easy. Little by little though, our cove eased closer. Entering into the bay I was concerned the others would be surfed into me. James and Dick though managed to prevent this happening and even managed to shout me a warning as the larger waves reared up behind. At one point a shout of "Big wave!" had me thinking, "How big!?", but the waves were losing their energy now.

Just a few more strokes brought the bow of my boat up onto the golden sand and before I knew it, James was dragging my boat further up the beach so I could step out onto dry land.  Almost immediately the "what ifs?" started going through my mind, but here we all were, back on terra firma, a bit more experience under our belts.

Dick's account.

Like Al, I was looking forward to a trip in some slightly rougher water to develop my paddling skills. A journey through the overfalls Penrhyn Mawr as it calmed down, followed by a circumnavigation of South Stack was an exciting plan.  The sight of the whitecaps outside the cove as we arrived at the drop off point, however, had me thinking that maybe it might be a bit more of an adventure than I had planned but Al and James seemed confident so, hey, lets give it a go.

Once out of the bay the swell and occasional breaking waves necessitated more than the occasional support stroke as we headed towards the headland that hid Penrhyn Mawr from our view.  Once around this, the sight of the white, boiling mass of water that was the tide race made me question my skill level and the thought of one of us capsizing in it filled me with dread as to how we would effect a rescue. The weather conditions were not those we had seen in the video we had watched a week earlier of a team playing in the waves in sunshine and smooth seas, laughing as they sat in a back eddy and recovered a paddler who had come out of their boat.  This looked way more serious but ... Al and James were paddling purposefully towards it so if they were OK so should I be.  Then Al (to my great relief) suggested that perhaps this was not our day and we turn back.  I readily agreed and turned the boat to head back.

As described above things developed after this, as paddling into the wind and waves on the way out was (comparatively) easier than wind and waves on the rear quarter.  When James went over the first time and I watched him fight to stabilise the roll I realised the amount of effort it had taken to do it and the effect of the cold, despite the drysuit must have been debilitating.  Once he was in the water the seriousness of our situation hit home.  We had to sort this ourselves and quickly.  The suddenly noticed drift towards the rocks prompted a quick discussion about whether we did a rock garden landing but the remoteness of the headland and high cliffs would have meant no exit.  Al towing while I held James up was the only answer.  And as it was it worked.  We arrived (eventually after a monumental effort by Al towing) back at the beach.  Metres from the shore I cast James adrift to land and as he pushed off I realised that my paddles were stowed under the deck lines.  In the next wave, over I went and in the final five metres ended up exiting the boat and wading to the shore!

So what did we learn from this experience?

  1. If things look a bit rough out at sea while standing on the beach, they will be a lot bigger when you get out there
  2. Share concerns earlier rather than later.  Just because people look confident doesn't mean they are.
  3. A group of 3 is the minimum for a safe party of our experience.  I'm not sure what we would have done if there had been just the two of us and one of us had experienced a similar situation.
  4. Tow lines are the length they are for a reason!  (The towing boat could be one side of the wave and the towed boat the other).
  5. Have your paddles in hand before you split up a raft!
Was it a fun trip?  Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly gave us something to talk about when we got back home!