Wednesday 20 December 2017

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Saturday 18 November 2017

August 2017 - Isle of Man

Living in Lancaster, the signs pointing the way to Heysham with their ferry symbol, seem to disappear into the background. To enjoy adventures with amazing wildlife and crystal clear waters, it was the blue M6 sign that you wanted, the gateway to the West Coast of Scotland or North Wales.
Once again though, Jim Krowieke's paddling guide to the North of England provided inspiration. He'd been so right about the waters around Barrow and he made this sound even better.

So it was Dick and I found ourselves heading the wrong way for an adventure on roads I normally associate with going to Asda or Screwfix. Flashes in the sky which we initially thought to be the death throws of Heysham nuclear power station,  turned out to be an incredible thunder storm. It might be an interesting crossing. 

We parked in the car park next to the ferry port and carried our boats the short distance to the terminal building.

A note on logistics. The car park is very close to the terminal but is very expensive. The cheap ferry is also in the middle of the night so we parked the van for Dick's wife to collect at a more reasonable time in the morning. The process was then repeated on the return.  This allowed us to travel as foot passengers with our kayak 'hand luggage', going free. It's worth mailing the Steam packet company with your intentions as they're very helpful. A trolley would make portaging the boats easier, but these obviously take up valuable space or look very unaesthetic on the rear deck.

Having checked in we began chatting to a fellow passenger and began learning of the inexorable link between our destination and motorcycling. We also learnt that we had timed our visit with the build up to the Classic TT, with practice starting in a few days time.

Doing things on the cheap, often requires a little more effort and it was now time for us to pay our dues. While the distance from the car park to the terminal had been a relatively easy carry, from the terminal to the ferry felt like miles and the narrow walkway to the side of the car ramp awkward, even one boat at a time. We slotted our kayaks in the shadow of an arctic trailer and went to find our seats which were to be our beds for the remainder of the night.

Dawn saw us carrying our boats once again, but this time even further from the ferry port to Douglas's outer harbour. At least with this portage we could stop for coffee part way through.

Shopping completed, we loaded our boats and Dick radioed the exceptionally polite harbour control to ask permission to leave, you don't want to be mixing it up with the ferries or larger ships.

With permission granted and just a short weather window before stronger winds, we headed north across Douglas bay past the Tower of Refuge, built by the founder of the RNLI,  who came to live on the island.

Once across the bay we were paddling beneath stunning cliffs. While they make for superb scenery, landing is nigh on impossible and we were looking for any breach in them to make camp.

Just before Laxey we were escorted to our home for the next couple of nights by a few locals, swimming effortlessly around and under us, snorting with derision at our cumbersome craft. Ever present seals and the birdlife on the island make this a very special place.

With high winds forecast it was time to be a tourist for the day and we paddled the short distance to Laxey to visit its famous water wheel and enjoy a pint of locally brewed beer. On returning to our boats in the harbour, we were once again carrying, the dock drying at low tide.

While sheltered from the main force of the south westerlies, a gap in the hills made paddling against the funnelled wind a surprising struggle and we were relieved to make it back to our camp and one of the finest beach BBQs I've had.

The morning brought calmer weather and we decided to see how far we could get in the brief weather window.  We set off from our beach and headed South, retracing our steps.

Carried by the tide we were soon south of Douglas and marvelling at the Victorian engineering of the Marine Drive, a road that hugged the cliff edge. Unfortunately sections have not faired well and some of the bridges can now be found crumpled at the bottom of the cliffs they once proudly stood at the top of.

We'd spied a couple of potential spots on Google Earth that seemed to offer good camping for the night and the second we came to turned out to be a beautifully secluded bay.

With stormy weather on it's way once more, we decided to see how far southwest could push, very aware that we had to get ourselves back for our ferry.  We knew the day would hold at least a couple of tidal races and we planned our day to try and arrive as close to slack water as possible at key points. Rounding the northern tip of Langness my ability to be rather slow on the uptake soon proved to be an issue. I really need to stop thinking, "Oh that's a big wave, I wonder where that came from" and instead need to think, "BRACE!!". As they say though, experience is something you gain just after you need it. Still the inverted sight of big, black, jaggedy rocks racing towards me sharpened my instinct to roll and I was quickly following Dick into calmer waters.

I'm sure the next stretch of coast was beautiful, but all the way I was thinking, the Northern point was meant to be the warm up, it's the southern point that has the proper race.  As it was though, it proved to be pleasantly exciting rather than intimidating and with whoops of joy we passed the most southerly point on the Manx mainland and glided round into Castletown bay.

We wanted to visit Castletown and pulled up on the shingle beach next to the road and enjoyed fantastic coffee and great fish and chips. The welcoming and helpful nature of the Manx also saw us with full gas cylinders and petrol bottles.

On returning to our boats though we were met with hundreds of metres of sea weed covered limestone. The boats had just been restocked too and were far from light. Leap frogging one boat at a time, we would go back for the second boat to find on returning the tide even further out.  The never ending tasks of Greek myths came to mind, but either we speeded up or more likely, the time's recession decreased and we were water borne once more.

We wanted to push on, to camp near Port St Mary, but we found ourselves in a much more populas region and having been spoiled the last few nights, we were once again looking for an idyllic campsite. It just wasn't going to happen though and leaving further fantastic coastline to be explored, we turned our boats and started paddling back the way we had come. Keeping close to the shore we kept surveying the coast for a potential campsite and finally found a spot between the sea and a golf course. It wasn't in the same league as previous nights, but at least we could wander into town and the belled buoy in the bay gave the feeling of remoteness as I drifted to sleep.

Mannanan had dropped his cloke the following morning and rather than risk rounding Langness in limited visibility, we employed a classic viking trick and portaged the narrow isthmus.  Setting off into the fog was an eerie experience, not helped by knowing that none of the planes at the airport next to us, with all their high tech navigational aids, were grounded by the conditions. As we paddled the visibility increased and as ever when paddling with Dick when we could finally see where we were going, we were headed straight towards our destination. 

It felt like returning home when we pulled into the bay in which we had camped a couple of nights previously and we soon had the tents pitched with the very same stones of our previous visit holding down the guy points.

We were now a couple of nights closer to a big spring tide and both of us had a few sleepless hours as the water seemed to get ever closer, reaching a high point just over a boat length from our tents.

Though our trip had been planned by high winds, we had had nothing but blue skies and the following morning dawned the same. We had hoped to keep close to the shore on our way back to Douglas, enjoying the fantastic rock gardening but a healthy swell, reflecting from the cliffs, kept us further out to sea.

I feel that I can cope well with wild places, but needing to camp close to Douglas for our ferry the following day had me feeling quite stressed. I needn't have worried though, as once again the laid back attitude of the islanders found us with our tents pitched on what must be one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the town.

I'm not a biker and if flicking TV channels I came across bike racing, I would keep flicking. Standing just metres away though from the classic bikes doing their laps is an utterly visceral experience. All your senses are bombarded, you feel the sound as well as hearing it and the smell of the two stroke engines is one I'll never forget. If these were modern super bikes I would have been awe struck, but some of these bikes were older than me and their skinny tyres made their speed utterly ludicrous to me.

Our experience in carrying the boats from the ferry to the harbour me us determined to find an alternative landing spot. Closer reading of Jim's book yielded a better landing spot, a stone's throw away from the ferry and more importantly a quiet place to dry and sort gear as well as reflect on the trip.

A final meal, courtesy of a biker's caf, saw us replete before our ferry arrived to return us to the UK.  The Steam Packet staff were exceptionally helpful and there was no messing with funny walkways, the traffic being held while we used the main ramp.

Huge thanks to Em and Sharon for looking after the boys and saving us a fortune in parking charges by picking up and dropping off the van. Thanks to to the Steam Packet staff who made loading and unloading of the boats as simple as possible. Finally massive thanks to the people we met on the island for making us feel so welcome, we'll definitely be back.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

10th April 2017 - Team effort

Over the years we'd slowly been piecing together the parts of the traverse and with the final part, out through Pippikin, now recced it was time to put it all together.

Having done the traverse back in the day, Dick didn't feel it necessary to repeat the experience, but kindly offered to support our attempt.

So it was that the two of us set off across the moor laden with rope on a pre rigging trip.

First to Lancaster. Having the pitch rigged here would provide us not only with an escape route should we need it, but would also allow Dick easy access to the high level series where he planned to meet us the following day at the entrance to the Stake Pot series.

Then it was down into Ease gill to rig Link pot. Again this would give us bothanother escape option and another place for Dick to meet us. We also cached a stove and some goodies before a quick squirm down to Echo aven to make sure there was a healthy rope in place.

Finally we climbed steeply up and out of the gill to make sure we would be able to get out of Pippikin, before heading back across the moor to the vans. Normally we would start getting tea ready, but instead we sat down and relaxed with a beer. A little while later a set of headlights began making there steady way up the valley, accompanied by Tony and due to his impressive skills, our still hot fish suppers, as well as more beer. 

The idea of a BLT has always puzzled me, the L and the T seeming utterly superfluous when all you need is a bit of brown sauce. The morning saw me a convert as Tony once again excelled himself and put a gorgeous bacon sarnie, with lettuce and tomato into my hand. I envy the guests at his B and B if this was the kind of food on offer.

As I munched my way through my second sandwich, Pete arrived. We now had in our team someone who actually knows about caving, a handy person to have about on this sort of endeavour.

Task one, find Top Sink. My 'it's somewhere near a sheepfold', not being particularly helpful. With a bit of help from multi million pound satellites, we retraced our steps and prepared to descend into the darkness.

I quickly began to realise that I'm quite selective in my memory of caves. The pitch isn't, 'just round the corner' and I'm sure the others were cursing my advice to put SRT gear on from the entrance as we scrapped and scratched our away through the meandering passageway. 

Fortunately Mike Cooper's descriptions in NFTFH are first class and I wouldn't have to be relying on my inaccurate memories. I was also pleased when Pete followed down a rope I'd rigged,  I was half expecting him to spend a few minutes shaking his head, before re rigging it. It may be that we've a vague clue about this caving lark after all.

One of the things that has always amazed me about Ease gill us how you the passage way changes in magnitude as you pass along it. The route opening out into the vast Nagasaki Cavern, before once again shrinking down to a meandering passage at the end.

We made good time and the cave became more and more familiar as we made our way along the high level series. Then ahead, a glow of a light and the welcome sight of Dick with a stove already almost at the boil.  I'd tried to theme the food, so at the entrance to Stake Pot inlets we 'enjoyed' steak pot noodles amongst other delights. All nobly carried in by Dick from Lancaster.

Fed and watered we disappeared behind the boulder into the inlets, while Dick would negotiate Stake Pot itself and return to the surface via Lancaster. 

I was exceptionally grateful of the excellent description in this part of the system as it was definitely the part I was most hazy on.  After so much horizontal caving the 88' pitch proved a welcome distraction before the nature of the cave drastically changes on entering the well named Wormway. 

After crawling through what seem to be the bowels of the system, the rope dangling down Echo Aven allowed escape back up to higher levels and a few minutes later we arrived at our second pit stop in Hylton Hall. Once again a banquet had been laid out for us by Dick, the main course being duck pot noodles in an exceptionally tenuous link to the more aqueous passage ahead.

Through no fault of the description it took a couple of minutes to find the way on up Pybus Bypass. Squid junction was too quickly passed and we were soon into the highly appropriately named Wet Wallows, the 'warm up' to the Muddy Wallows, which were actually more gravelly than muddy.

At Dusty Junction I put the description away, as we were now in passage recently visited by Tony and I. Being able to move quickly also helped rewarming after our wallowing. 

While following well known passage can be reassuring, it also means you know what's ahead and it was with some trepidation that I dropped into the streamway below Hall of the Ten. We don't have big tackle sacks this time I thought, another part of my brain quickly countering with the fact that we'd already done a fair bit of caving compared to the last time we were here.

Once again we fell into our Pippikin routine: gear on; pitch; gear off; squeeze. Our individual techniques in the tighter bits providing the only variation. I would chuck tackle sacks through and then get myself stuck as tired arms could no longer prevent me from sinking into the tighter bottom of the rifts. Pete's otherwise smooth transits were only hindered by the need to extricate me first (a task I am truly grateful to him for) and finally Tony would be right behind, as though gravity had been turned off for him.

Passing through the final tight bit without getting stuck, I clipped all the tackle sacks to the traverse rope, preventing them from falling into the blind pit but also ensuring one more that Pete wouldn't have it easy, the weight of the bags pulling the rope he was trying to pull on tight against the rock.

Then the smell of fresh air, Dick's voice and daylight. Only a short, easy pitch separating us from the outside world.

As with our earlier trip through Pippikin, I know people regularly fly through not only this traverse, but also the longer and harder version out of Bye George, taking in desperate variations on the way. For me though I was absolutely chuffed to complete this classic trip, especially in such great company. My only regret being not able to stop for more than one pint in the Whoop Hall with those that had made it possible.

Post script. The following day was a significant birthday for Pete, which he celebrated by...

...going caving with his family!

Happy birthday!

Sunday 2 April 2017

Friday 10 March 2017

9th March 2017 - Pippikin Pot

After a couple of weeks exploring from Mistral and looking down into the Pippikin streamway, along with thoughts of trying the Ease gill traverse, the time had come for a trip down 'Pip'. Most of the trip reports we'd read involved a through trip, in Pip and out of Mistral. We wanted to see though what it would be like coming back up too, so we planned a return trip, to the Hall of the Ten and back.

Having watched the fantastic Sid Perou film on YouTube and done a bit of reading, I shared with Tony as we crossed the moor, that I was feeling quite nervous. Tony too let me know his thoughts and we agreed that we'd take it step by step (or squeeze by squeeze), each of us having the power of veto.

The first thing I'd been worried about was finding the entrance, but helped by the longer evenings, in the end we almost tripped over it. A rope anchored to a rock leading into the dark taking away any doubt as to which hole we needed to be heading down.

I can't remember the last two wee trip I'd been on, but just as I was putting my harness on, I needed to go again. Definitely nervous then! Clipping onto the traverse line brought me back to the task at hand.

Here we go.

A short crawl at the bottom of the first pitch and a traverse over a blind pot, aided magnificently by an in situ scaffolding bar, brought us to our first obstacle.

Squeeze one:

Lying on my right side I timidly began udging into the polished tube. On the upside, I could almost immediately see the end of the squeeze.  On the downside I couldn't see a floor and the only holds seemed a long way away on the other side of the chamber. At full stretch now, I was hoping the squeeze would be long enough to allow my body to bridge across the void. With not an inch to spare, my hands made contact and I could extract my legs. In what was to become a general theme of the evening, Tony then completed the same manoeuvre, but in about half the time and with genuine style.

We checked that we were both happy carrying on and then popped through a perfectly sized window and down a short climb to a small chamber.

Squeeze two:

Laying on my side again I began wriggling my body into the gap. My head was in a bit of a funny position and with my helmet on, I couldn't change it. I eased back out and with my helmet off, my second attempt felt much easier.  Tony too went for the helmet off approach and, once body was properly aligned, was through.

We were getting into a rhythm now: pitch, gear off, rifty bit, squeeze, check we’re both happy, pitch…

The second pitch and it's associated rift were both short, but that of course meant we were soon at…

Squeeze three:

With feeling much happier in the last squeeze without my helmet, I took it off before even trying this one and we were soon both through and putting our gear back on above the third pitch.

All the pitches so far we had found rigged and we had been leaving our ropes at the top of each pitch head. The temptation now, to dump the rest of the ropes, was becoming ever stronger.  The thought of having to go back unnecessarily through any of the squeezes though and also the satisfaction of knowing we could do the trip carrying our own gear just tipped it, but only just.

With pitch three we felt we were back in a 'normal' cave, abseiling down a typical Yorkshire aven. Normality however was to be short lived.

Squeeze four:

This was it, the main event, Stemple Rift. Slightly longer than the previous squeezes and once again with an awkward drop beyond. Helmet off and once again on my side, I began the wriggle, trying as hard as I could to stay as high as possible.  Soon the stemple across the drop ahead was visible and once perched on it, we man handled the bags through. I'd only just started taking my SRT gear out of a sack, before Tony was through and hand over handing down the knotted tape to join me.

The fourth pitch seemed fairly unique in that, rather than being followed by a rift and a squeeze, only a short piece of streamway intervened before the short fifth pitch. Though I didn't say anything at the time, in my head I was quietly pleased to have made it here, with no more obstacles before the Hall of the Ten. I'd missed an 'awkward' in the text though and when the 'awkward 2m drop into a pool' arrived, I suddenly found myself unstuck, or more to the point, stuck. With legs waving in the air, the only thing I had to be thankful for was that Tony was still further back in the rift and not able to see my flailing efforts.

With order restored we dropped down into the pool before climbing back up into the continuation of the rift, keeping high to avoid its narrower lower reaches. Fortunately our sacks were now light and didn't impede us too much as we made our way along the strenuous traverse. After a few minutes we dropped down into a decorated chamber. Here we left our last rope and dropped down yet another narrow rift to the final pitch. Seeing the final rope, I headed directly for it and once again had a bit of a moment.  In extricating myself I happened to look up and see a far easier route to the pitch head.

Down the last pitch, we abandoned our SRT and began what felt, comparatively speaking, like a stomp along a main drain. Only interrupted by a short slither over some slabs, the streamway took us to somewhere we finally recognised and I scampered up the boulder choke into the vast silence of the Hall of the Ten. I wanted to shake Tony's hand, but I knew our journey wasn't over yet.  I also had to stop myself from draining the water bottle he proffered. Now it was decision time. We knew we could gain the surface easily through Mistral, but it was this return journey that we had come for.

We'd better get a move on.

Rift by rift, pitch by pitch, squeeze by squeeze. Gear on, gear off. Packing tackle sacks with the previously abandoned ropes. Obstacles passed, but harder obstacles becoming ever closer, the bags becoming more and more cumbersome.

On the stemple once more, Tony clipped the bags onto the end of the tape and once I'd pulled them up, threw them as far as I could into the rift. Trying to urge them forward and make progress myself definitely wasn't the easiest thing I've done in a while and in the end I moved over the bags and extricated myself from the squeeze.  Turning round, the bags lay just out of easy reach, Tony giving them the final required push before coming up effortlessly through the rift as though on a travelator.

We were set in our routine now, the only differences to on the descent being that the bags were getting heavier and we were no longer asking each other if we were OK carrying on, the entrance getting closer pitch by pitch.

I know that other people now rattle through Pippikin both in ascent and descent, with SRT gear on and probably not even bothering to take off tackle sacks. For me though, in my minds eye casting back to the Sid Perou film as we approached each obstacle,  this felt like a right of passage. Tony made a fantastic companion to share it with too.

The only problem now was that our whole reason for being here was as a rehearsal for the Ease gill traverse. Having found we could get through Pippikin with all our gear we now had no excuses...

Friday 24 February 2017

23rd February 2017 - Return to Gour Hall

With storm Doris on her way, I wasn't even sure if we'd get a trip in. A midday mail though from Tony confirmed that things weren't quite as bad as forecast and he was happy to make his way over from the Lakes. A lot of rain had come down though and so an all weather trip was needed. There was something about Mistral that was calling me back and I was pleased when Tony too was happy to return.

Even though we set off an hour later than last week, it was still light as we headed across the moor, the big difference being that Easegill was in full flow as we crossed it by Link pot. After the initial climb, Tony took over route finding duties and we were soon crossing through the Hobbit chamber on the way to Dusty junction.  Having to concentrate less on route finding allowed us to take in more of our surroundings and notice more of the lovely features that we had unwittingly passed by last week.

At the Hall of the Ten we briefly dropped down into the Pippikin streamway, but it definitely wasn't the place to be on this evening. At Gour Hall we dropped down to its end and tried taking a couple of pictures of the pools themselves.  Released from modelling duties and free to move again, Tony disappeared into the terminal digs, following the bang wire up a narrow tube. Once through we made only the briefest of forays along the two possible ways on. Tony quickly declared his option too tight, where as mine was too wet.

The gour pools in their eponymous Hall.

One of the pools.
Back in the main Hall I poked my head into what I thought was the way into Extreme Ways (reading up later it was), marvelling at the number of caps that had been required to gain just the first few initial feet of passage.  It was then back to the reps of stoop a bit, crawl a bit, all the time noting beautiful features, tucked away in inaccessible alcoves.

We've given up with the child lock on the gate and just climbed over, it's definitely beyond both of us.  We might not be able to cope with gate furniture, but we could definitely appreciate the now cleared skies. A myriad of stars shining down on snow dusted hills.  Every day's a learning day and it was great to be able to add another constellation to my limited knowledge courtesy of a sky map app. As a Leo, I'm not into things like astrology, but it's nice to be able to find the constellation.

Approaching the Barbon Inn our hearts sank as a gentleman in the doorway announced they were closed. We were just turning away when the air was filled with deep laughter and we were ushered into the warmth of the pub. There are some nights when it's a real pity we're driving, but even on lemonade the chat was superb. We reluctantly left the pub, both a little wiser, having been regaled with tales of race horse training, boxing and piglet suckling women.

Thanks to Tony for sharing the trip and John and the bar lady for rounding off the evening perfectly.