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!

Friday 30 December 2016

22nd December. The exchange trip that wasn't.

The first email read, 'Anyone up for a Christmas  trip?  Exchange trip down Lost John's.  Cross over at Dome Junction.'  One reply said 'can't its my works do that night'.  Another said, 'it'll be too cold'.. deafening silence was the reply from the other three members but still, Al and Tony were coming and Tony had a mate who could make up the 4 to do the exchange... and then the final straw.  Al succumbed to the dreaded winter vomiting bug and was going to be unable to make it as well.

So three of us made our way up to the changing spot in the cold and wet on the last trip of the year with ropes packed for a there and back trip down Dome route to the head of Battleaxe Pitch.  Once the stream passage was dispatched Tony took on rigging duty and set off down the first pitch just as Nat realised that he had been there before on his level 2 training.  It was also about this time that I realised that I had forgotten the camera so no photos this week.

Down, down, down we went with Tony rigging and particularly enjoying the deviation into the eye hole that leads off Dome pitch and into the passage that ends up at Dome Junction.  No 'other team' were there to meet us so I rigged Candle and Shistol pitches and we soon ended up at the head of Battleaxe where the sound of the water emerging from the upstream sump was deafening due to the large volume of rain that had fallen recently.  After a quick look along the Battleaxe traverse we headed back up with Nat derigging.

Once out we headed to the Whoop Hall Inn, which was suprisingly quite subdued as it was the last week before Christmas.  Over a fine pint of Black Sheep the bartender bemoaned the fact that people don't seem to have mid week Christmas  'do's' anymore.

No photos so heres a thought for the day instead :-)

 Get well soon Al.

Friday 16 December 2016

15th December 2016 - Stylolite City

“I'd really like to see one of these stylolite things”, said Tony as we shivered our way back to the vans. I didn't have the heart to tell him that at nearly every hang, as my chilled fingers fumbled with the maillons, I’d been looking at stunning examples. There was also no way I was going back, my ears still ringing with the continuous crashing of waterfalls, my core still numbed from too much time on spray lashed ledges.

So it was the following week we found ourselves walking back up the lane towards Alum pot. There would be no return to Diccan though. We were hoping for a much more comfortable descent of the main pot. Unfortunately Tony had been unable to join us, but we might still be able to get him a nice photo.

It's all too easy to become reliant on perfectly placed hangers in this part of the world and so it's always a little unnerving when you're choosing which exposed tree root to belay from before stepping over into the vastness of the open pot.

Reassuringly a pair of p-hangers lie not too far below, allowing an airy free hanging descent onto a wide ledge. The braille trail of bolts leads across to the foot of the natural, fallen block bridge that spans the pot and from under which a further pitch leads to the stream below.

The final pitch we found pre rigged, courtesy of Newcastle University. Had we looked at the forum before the trip, we would have known to bring this out with us. As it was though we thought we should leave it be, as it could well have been there for a reason. A better read Langcliffe kindly brought it out the following day.

The final drop to the sump looks like a precarious down climb, but Dick as always with his vastly superior memory of systems, saw us safely following the oxbow that bypsses it. Just like reaching the top of a mountain, it's always great when a trip takes you to the final sump, but I always find it amazing sitting at this particular one, imagining the incredible journey the water must take to rise, not at the bottom of the valley, but up, on the other side of it.

As we returned from the sump, we humbly watched the water pouring down from Diccan, the noise resulting in flashbacks to the previous week’s trip.

Heading back up the pitches we found a stylolite conveniently placed for a photo, though I think we need to find one in a drier, more horizontal location so we can get the flashes out for better lighting. The cardiogram trace, left by insoluble material when two layers of rock have been squeezed together, reminded me of my own heart beat a week ago as I tried to pendulum to a deviation in Diccan’s roof.

Returning up the main pitch one of the disadvantages of caving in an open pot became very apparent as it started to rain. Despite this, I still felt considerably warmer and drier than on other trips of late.

We don't normally cave this far East and so we thought we'd explore a different pub, The Station Inn at Ribblehead providing a warm welcome and a quality pint. Tony we will find you a nice example of a stylolite too, but I'm not going back to Diccan. For a while at least.

8th December 2016 - Witch way?

Every time I've visited Bull Pot of the Witches I've been somewhere new and so I was excited to be once again making the short walk from Bull Pot Farm. We crossed the style and followed the airy path around the edge of the open pot, dropping down in even more exposed position to the small, eye hole entrance.  The free climbs at the end of the passage brought us out close to the bottom of the main pot and we headed down slope, past the waterfall, until the sky disappeared once again.
Past the little museum and the rope leading up into the gods we dropped, until we came to the small slot that drops into a rift leading to the Gour pools and the upstream sump. In a recent visit Dick and I had utterly failed to find this, but here it was clear as day??!! We slithered down and a few metres along the bottom of the rift came to the polished climb leading to the Gour pools.  Tony had, slightly more excuseably, also failed to find this on his most recent visit but made no mistake on this trip.
The Gour pools are a beautiful sight and it was great to see they were as white as on our last visit a good few years previously. Climbing up the well decorated slope above the pools we were able to drop into the top of the rift and continue our traverse. At its end a rope snaked down a steep slope into the darkness. With no SRT gear this didn't look inviting, but a few metres back Tony found a way down through boulders that offered a more pleasant descent to the river.
A dive line led further upstream, but the lowering airspace and the temperature of the water put a damper on further exploration. Retracing our steps, back past the Gour pools, we made our way back towards the open pot. Just before reaching this though, we took a right hand turn down Burnett's passage, once again I was covering new ground.

Monday 5 December 2016

1st December 2016 - Wet and Wild

Leaving the horizontal world

Down and down

One of the few horizontal sections

Tony making his way along the traverse

Passing a deviation on the return journey

Almost at the end of the pitches

That was a trip!

Tony doing sterling service derigging

Back on the surface

Friday 25 November 2016

24th November 2016 - Kerplunking

The well landscaped entrance 

The scaffolding section of the entrance pitch

Spout above Kleine Scheidegg

Beautiful curtains in Estonia 

The curtains continue up into the aven

Stalagmites and curtains in Estonia 

Tony making his way along Curry Inlet

Emerging from the entrance

Huge thanks to Dick and Tony for standing around while I messed with flash guns, especially as it wasn't really happening today.

Friday 18 November 2016

17th November 2016 - Welcome to my world

With heavy rain falling, plans for the evening needed changing and driving up the Lune valley, the flooding reaffirmed we'd made the right decision. As we climbed up to Bull Pot Farm, the rain changed, first to sleat, then to snow. It was going to be a chilly one!

I set off rigging down the entrance tube and was quickly followed to the well watered base of the pitch by Tony, international guest star David and finally Dick.

Rigging the Lancaster Hole entrance pitch

Tony leaving the ledge and heading down the main pitch

Dick arriving at the bottom of the main pitch
Normally the words, "Welcome to my world." hold fairly negative connotations.  If however your name is Slug, I'd be a pretty chuffed person uttering them. Slug's World is a grand little place!  There are some lovely little features including some pretty big helectites.

Quick break at the end of Slug's World

Helectites in Slug's World

Another view of the helectites
From Slug World we retraced our steps back past the pitch before following the well trodden route to Bridge Hall and the obligatory trip up to see the Colonnades. Mention has to be made of the fantastic work done here and elsewhere in the Dales, by the likes of Ray Duffy, painstakingly cleaning formations and trying to return them to their former glory. It's massively appreciated.

Back down in Bridge Hall, we slithered into Kath's way, stomped along Bill Taylor's passage and stepped gingerly across into Montagu Cavern. Whether it's a trick of the memory, or the action of water after last year's floods, it seems that some of the holes in the floor in these parts are bigger than they ever used to be!

We followed the climbs down into the vastness of Fall Pot, before climbing back up into the high level series and Montagu East, finally making the traverse of the areas that allows passage across Stake Pot.  We had decided that our turn around point would be the Painter's Pallete, but again our collective memories seemed to be playing tricks on us as we remembered it being much closer to Bob's Boss than it actually is.  Just short as it turns out,  we began our return journey.

The foot of the pitch was fairly damp and unfortunately I was wearing my leaky suit which just seemed to collect and funnel water to places that generally prefere being warm and dry.

Time to head back up the pitch
Tony's speedy ascent and de rig allowed a collective trudge back across the slowly becoming snow covered moor and the shelter of the van.  For those that grade changes, this must have rated quite highly, the sleaty snow stinging briefly bared flesh.
Closing the lid

At first I was concerned about trying to reach the Barbon Inn, the van's wheels spinning on the freshly fallen snow as we climbed up from Bull Pot Farm. As we descended the valley though it soon turned to rain and we arrived just before the bar man shut up shop. A grand pint and a warm fire were a fitting end to the evening.

Friday 11 November 2016

10th November 2016 - Changes

When all is going mad on the surface, it's great to be able to retreat to the subterranean world where everything feels constant, where changes normally take thousands or tens of thousands of years.  It is easy to forget that sometimes dramatic events can take place in our caves too, caused by events such as the catastrophic flooding that hit the north of England and Scotland at the end of 2015.

While the moon light picked out beautifully the dusting of snow on the fells, unfortunately it washed out most of the stars. There was nothing it could do though to diminish the stunning views of a number of planets, lying low on the horizon. So it was, invigorated by the chill in the air, we made our way over the moor to the cave entrance.

Preparing to head undergound
Dick quickly set off rigging down the opening pitch and we followed, admiring the engineering of the entrance.  The initial climbs soon opened out to where the main pitch descends into a large chamber, one of the rebelays airily positioned on a nose of rock.

Rebelay on the "last" pitch

Descending the "last" pitch

The landing of the pitch was on a slope that showed definite signs of movement, but provided an easy walk down to the sump which in the past we had had to access by rigging first a traverse and then a short pitch.

The difference in the sump from our last visit was incredible. Where once a thin rock bridge had arched metres above a sump and the air echoed to the sound of the waterfall feeding it, there now lay an eerily silent and foreboding pool.

Dick and Sharon at the sump pool in 2012

Dick at the same spot, but taken from the opposite direction (due to my inability to swim with a camera) in 2016
Another view of Dick standing on the "bridge"
How much debris had come down the slope to cause the backing up of this pool can only be guessed at, but it must have been an incredible sight to witness.  Returning up the slope we visited some of the other areas of the cave, before returning up the pitches.
Returning up the main pitch
The air was crisp as we emerged once more into the moonlight and retraced our steps across the moor. 

Emerging into the moonlight
While we would normally have headed back to Kirby for a pint in the Snooty Fox, a bit of quick thinking from Tony saw us in the Whoop Hall which offered a pretty decent pint.

Sunday 6 November 2016

3rd November 2016 - Dorset delight

With a family holiday once again taking us down to the stunning Jurassic coast of Dorset, I hoped I'd be able to fulfil a dream of doing some exploration of the coastline in my sea kayak.  Incredibly as the departure date came closer, the stunning autumn weather we've been having looked like it might just hold too.

Had we had one good paddling day that would have been great, but the weather was absolutely superb and not only did I get a morning paddling with my wife (thanks Tom and Annabelle for looking after the boys), who has made all this paddling business possible by buying me a boat, but I was also able to have a great day paddling from Wareham to Swanage.

Emma exploring the caves near Old Harry rocks

For our quick trip to Old Harry we set off from the National Trust car park at Knoll beach which gave a short carry to the water, with only a barrier wall of seaweed making launching slightly trickier than it otherwise might have been.

Setting off just before the 'stand' between the two high tides they have in these parts we hoped at worst the tide wouldn't impede us and at best may actually help on both the outbound and return journeys.

Hugging the shore the cliffs get bigger and bigger as you approach the headland and the stacks and arches of the rocks themselves make for absolutely superb paddling and far too soon we had to start our return journey.

A couple of days later the family dropped me off at the Quay car park in Wareham at local tide. Parking here is a bit of a bargain compared to some of the coastal car parks and offers incredibly easy access to the water. There are even free public toilets with the best taps ever which kept the kids entertained for a bit (we really know how to live it up in our family!).

The first part of the journey is down the River Frome. Walls of towering reeds on each bank limit the view slightly, but there is plenty of interest in the hundreds of leisure craft that use the river as a mooring. Around a final bend though and the vista widens massively as the estuary opens out to great Poole Harbour.

Lots of small boats were scurrying around on the flooded part of the estuary, though remaining in the buoyed channel I didn't get close enough to find out what they were gathering. On the opposite bank a group of stand up paddle boarders were enjoying the tranquillity of the bay, escorted by the noisiest safety RIB I've ever heard.

The Harbour narrows again briefly before opening out into an island studded expanse of water, it's entrance still kilometres away. I chose to try and take the quietest route along the southern side, accompanied by hundreds of wading birds, but sadly no seals.

Ahead now lay the bit of the day that I had least been looking forward to, leaving the mouth of the Harbour.  The 300m wide entrance is guarded by a chain ferry that regularly shuttles between Sandbanks and Studland. Not only do you need to avoid the ferry which can do nothing to change its course, but I was also worried about the chain fore and aft of it to. Fortunately I was able to time my passage 'behind' the ferry, just as it docked at Studland and maintained eye contact with a member of the crew so he knew I was there.  It's worth noting the black ball that is raised on the 'front' of the ferry just before it departs.

The clapotis from the swell reflecting from the ferry did little to diminish my relief at having passed this obstacle and I landed on the stunning beach to report my progress before heading once again out towards Old Harry.

There was lots going on in the bay. First the Poole all weather lifeboat passed me returning to Poole on what must have been one of its final outings. Its patch is shortly to be covered by the new Swanage boat. Then a large military plane which had passed overhead a number of times while I was in the harbour flew very low before dispatching something on a number of parachutes out the back and into the water. A very militaristic RIB then flew by, blue lights flashing (I later learnt this was the Dorset Police RIB).  Finally a coastguard helicopter that had been hovering by the rocks set off in pursuit of a RIB towards Knoll beach before landing.

Heading across Studland bay towards Old Harry
Arriving at the rocks the water level was lower than on our previous visit and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to utilise the gap we'd used previously.  Going to have a closer look there was suddenly no real choice as I was whooshed through a gap that fortunately did exist by the ebbing tide.

Might need a bit more water
Old Harry isn't the only bit of interest on this section as not only do the impressive cliffs continue, but there are also further stacks known as The Pinnacles. I felt very small at the foot of the cliffs and it was quite reassuring when the Swanage inshore lifeboat sped past, crew waving.

The Pinnacles with Swanage bay just visible in the distance 
Entering Swanage bay the cliffs fall back to be replaced by familiar sites in the bay. As I neared the shore I thought I spied an extremely familiar site and stopped to ring my wife. Sure enough, she confirmed that it was our van I could see and that she'd drag the lads out of the penny arcade and be there to meet me, a fantastic end to a superb trip.

Huge thanks to Mark Rainsly and his South West Sea Kayaking guide, without which I would never have thought of starting at Wareham and would have then missed this contrasting part of the trip. Thanks too to Em for looking after the boys while I had the day paddling. 

27th October 2016 - A County round

At the entrance to Whirlpool passage
With finishing for half term on a Thursday, it seemed a good excuse to make an early start on the caving season. So it was that Dick, guest star Tony and I met up at Devil's bridge and then made our way up to Bull Pot Farm.

Whether we slipped through a temporal portal on the way up onto the moor I don't know, but there ahead of us was the Farm with Vango Force 10s pitched in the garden and myriad caving suits drying over the walls, just like old photos I've seen. The Forest School Camps group though they belonged to though were a new generation of cavers, rather than the old. Many thanks to this group too for lending us a helmet and lamp and making our trip possible.

It was then off over the moor, with Dick giving me a helpful nudge in the right direction as I absent mindedly walked past the junction to the footpath that takes you to the gill. Down through the trap door and the first pitch, closely followed by the climb down to Broadway.  Right now into Showerbath passage, before dropping the bag at the entrance to Battle of Britain Hall and a quick diversion to Spout Hall and the bottom of the Poetic Justice climb.

Back in Battle of Britain I was comforted by Dick's memory of the route as it was at this point that things got a little hazy for me. The haze soon became a fog as he led us down through the Trident series and to the other side of Poetic Justice.  Finally I knew where we were again and once again dropping the bag, this time at the entrance to Wretched Rabbit, we made the quick trip down to Eureka junction before retracing our steps.

For once I didn't feel too bad as we made our way out, normally I'm shattered by this point and the final climbs require every last ounce of my energy, but soon we could smell the damp earth of the surface and we were out into the murky night.

A newly refurbished Snooty Fox provided post trip refreshment and cheers to Dick and Tony for a great opening trip of the season.