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.  

Saturday 24 November 2018

22nd November 2018 - Got to get yourself connected...

...the writing's on the wall and what it said was "Far away".

Long before I had even set foot in Pippikin, I felt I knew each of its pitches and squeezes intimately. Whether from reading and rereading guides and descriptions, or watching the classic Sid Perou film, it had become in my mind a pot, the navigation of which, would be an important mile stone in my caving journey.

Similarly, hearing Dave Ramsay in Inglesport talking about his digging exploits with a quiet and yet deep passion, as well as pouring over the pages in Descent as the ever more final pieces of the three counties jigsaw have been put into place, the new, dug connections on Leck Fell have held a magnetic draw.

As with Pip though, the single and yet very major stumbling block separating fantasy from reality is that, in my mind at least, these were the realms of proper cavers. Inhabited by multi week night enthusiasts and possessors of multiple washing machines. Definitely not the place for Thursday night tourists.

The draw though was strong. If we researched and prepared well, taking small steps, would our impetuous incursion be overlooked and safe passage be granted? It was time to take our first baby steps.

Dave had told us that the navigation through the connection between Notts II and Lost John('?)s('?) was considerably easier from the Notts end. So, having read and combined the knowledge from multiple descriptions, reversing them where necessary, Tony and I began our trip down the scaffolded entrance of Iron Kiln Hole.

Entering the natural cave we met up with Dick and Andrena who, having set off a bit earlier, we're kindly waiting for us and headed down to the main streamway. I know I'm very guilty of stomping through passage, eager to get to the destination rather than enjoying the journey and so it was great to have Andrena on a first visit, pointing out the many formations that I'd normally race past with my blinkers on.

Dick stopped at the knotted rope allowing easy access to Bruno Kranski's above and with expected return times exchanged, while they carried on up stream to visit the stunning formations beyond, Tony and I made our way up the rope.  Very quickly we found ourselves at the 'muddy puddles' and just beyond we caught our first glimpse of the scaffolding that would guide us for the next 140 metres or so.

Lying in the first puddle and looking ahead I decided that what lay beyond looked like warm work and made use of the space to take off my hat and readjust my clothing. With no more excuses for inaction it was then onwards into the dig.

It really does have to be seen to be believed. Each foot, in a resonant echo of the Committee pot entrance, singing a song of human determination and team work. While the going was on occasion awkward I knew I had no cause for complaint when I compared my situation with the tribulations of the diggers. The last corner might well have been a bit squirmy, but at least I wasn't attempting it while transporting a pile of scaffolding and the sides and roof of the passage were well shored, rather than constantly trying to entomb me.

Now in scaffold free cave, three tricky little climbs had me waving my feet, unseen below, in the search for a foothold to allow a final udge up into the small chamber above, before finally the cave once more began to open out.  My first navigational blunder of the evening saw us heading past some bang wire under some huge boulders. As I descended a few words of Ramsay wisdom rose from the depths of my memory, "just don't follow the bang wire into this old dig, it's death on a stick." Slowly and gently we reversed back out and descended a few metres to the right instead, dropping down into the magnificent West passage.

Before heading on, we looked carefully at the view behind us, a prominent, club shaped rock marking the way for our return journey. Straight on at the T junction, where right would take you to Boxhead, the aptly named Helectite rift just gets better and better. In many caves, passageway like this would be festooned with conservation tape and it must have looked staggering to the original explorers when the calcite floor was pristine. The descriptions I'd read mentioned holes in the floor and it is true, there are. Abyss might be a better term, the bottom of the rift visible through them metres below. We stayed high in the rift, enjoying the spectacular speleothems, too high though for the way on, the head of the Lyle Cavern pitch appearing 10m of unclimbable rift below us.

Well aware of our limited time we turned around, noting places where we thought we could climb down and hoping that the route would be even more obvious from below. Back past the T junction and very pleased that we had taken the time to look back at where we had left the choke previously. Finding the entrance to the connection from this side would be much harder on first acquaintance.

Gravity assisted, the return journey felt much faster, especially with the added amusement of tackling bits which should probably be tackled feet first, head first. On the last section of descent before the sump, on a yellow band supporting the roof, someone had scribed in the mud "Far away" and while physically only tens of metres away from huge passageway, that's definitely how it felt at times in the connection.

Perhaps it was just my angle of approach, but the drained sump felt deeper on the return and I definitely came out wetter. Glinting on the rock ahead though I could see light at the end of the tunnel, Andrena and Dick having climbed up from the streamway after their explore  further upstream. Team reunited, I was glad of the stomp back down the meandering master cave to warm me back up before we encountered the cold air sinking down the entrance climbs.

The spot with the arm chairs next to a fire in the Whoop Hall had been taken by the only other customers so we made do with the other fire, the seats though being just a little too far away. We were though very close to a speaker, the soothing music almost drowning out conversation.

Thanks to Dick, Andrena and Tony for sharing the adventure, but especially to the now generations (?) of diggers that have made this trip possible. From the opening of Notts II to non divers, to the more recent three counties connection, your work is greatly appreciated and we now can't wait to try some of the longer through trips you've made possible.

15th November 2018 - Bull Pot

With Tony paddling Scottish rivers, it was just Dick and I that returned to Kingsgale and made our way through the Yordas gate and up on to the Turbary road. This definitely isn't the best way to get to Bull Pot as we now realised we'd walked further up the hill above the pot than it lies above the road. Having wandered along the road for a bit, we dropped back down the fell and to the entrance.

It could be my memory, but I'm sure the bolts were in a different place last time we were here and it felt a lot easier rigging from a handy natural to the first two bolts than the previous setup.

A short traverse took us to a y-hang, a pitch and a swing onto a ledge. Last time we were here I remember stepping over the slot and continuing to a pitch before being stopped by water and having to retrace our steps. This time, with no further a do, we headed directly down the slot. From the landing ledge we dropped into the stream and to the traverse for the forth pitch.  I could tell it's still the start of the season from the number of times I had to untangle myself from tackle sack leashes or found myself on the wrong side of traverse ropes. Bolt by bolt though things began to run more smoothly.

I'd love to know how tall some of the people who bolt are, they're definitely an inch or two taller than me and it was only by holding a krab in the very tips of my fingers that I was able to clip the first deviation.  Fortunately the water levels were fine and I didn't need to attempt to reach the second. At the foot of the pitch we dropped into the streamway again before ducking down and under to follow it's course.

With getting to desperation point, taking snap gate krabs off tackle sacks we sat chatting at the start of the traverse before deciding the pub was calling and began heading back up the pitches.

At the entrance we took a more direct route down to the road and as per last week stopped off in the Marton Arms, a darts match in full flow in the adjoining room.

While I don't think I'll ever tire of pouring through my hard copy CNCC rigging guides, the new topos and descriptions on the website are absolutely superb, perhaps we should start looking at their great maps and descriptions of how to get to the caves too!

8th November 2018 - Yordas

For the first outing of the 2018 season we wanted to brush up on our skills for doing pull through trips involving traverses.  Yordas, with its easy access seemed the perfect choice.

It didn't bode well when I initially couldn't even find the entrance to the cave, finding us too low in a small dry valley.  I'm using the excuse it was dark. Entrance located we crossed the main chamber to have a look through the window to inspect the water levels. It was wetter than when I'd last done a pull through, following the water down. That was definitely not going to be an option today and there was quite a bit of should we/shouldn't we as we headed up the side of the valley to the middle entrance.

After looking at the water entering just above the entrance we decided the trip was on and set up the first short pitch for a pull through.  At the bottom, as I pulled 40m of rope through the bolts rather than 10, I was glad we were having a shake down trip that wasn't too committing. The second short pitch was slightly trickier to rig, but at least I'd got my rope management sorted this time and with the tackle sack quickly repacked, we were heading down into the main streamway.

Fortunately we'd gauged things right and the water level was fine as we headed to the main pitch.  I set off rigging and Tony followed a few bolts behind derigging. After a short traverse, an abseil was required to reach a further bolted traverse on the opposite wall. Rigging this as I normally would it was only when I was safely belayed that I began thinking about the options Tony now had. I so hoped that there would be enough rope in the derigged 'tail' of rope for him to perform his own mini pull through. Once again I was glad we'd decided to have what was quickly becoming a much needed 'practice' trip. Communicating anything to Tony was impossible,  the roaring of the waterfall in the confined chamber was deafening, but he's a good few tricks up his sleave and he was soon making his way down to me.

Even with closer proximity, conversation was difficult and this definitely wasn't the time or place for a discussion on the relative merits of different techniques.  Rechecking I was on the right end of the rope, I unclipped and swung into space.  There was no point in rigging the deviations as Tony wouldn't be able to make use of them, but fortunately the hang meant a wetting only in the final metre or so before the chamber floor allowed a sprint out of the water and onto the drier window 'sill'.

Tony followed down and to our combined relief the rope ran smoothly, landing in the plunge pool in front of us.  With the bag quickly packed we crossed the main chamber once again and climbed the short bank to the entrance. Outside there wasn't a sound but our ears were still ringing as we dropped down to the road.

Even warmly ensconced in the 'under new management', more welcoming Marton Arms we became aware we were probably still shouting at each other, or perhaps it was just our scruffiness that drew glances from the much better dressed members of clientele. Still the beer and crisps were good and their prices a bit more reasonable than previously.

A grand evening out in a cracking little pot with superb company, even if we couldn't hear a word each other were saying.

Saturday 20 October 2018

18th October 2018 - Paddling the lights

Once again inspired by Jim Krawiecki's excellent Northern England and IOM 50 Great Sea Kayak Voyages book, I'd spent the last few weeks consulting tide tables, weather forecasts and sun set times.
Finally an evening with light winds and a high tide an hour and a half after dusk came round and a school night adventure was in prospect.
With the boats loaded, three quarters of the team headed down the motorway to the town that has given a moniker to so many others: Paris, the Blackpool of the South; Las Vegas, the Blackpool of the West and Shanghai, the Blackpool of the East.
When it comes down to it though, there is only one Blackpool and what better welcome sign than a high end black Merc, across two lanes of traffic, surrounded by broken glass, pursuing policemen and an assortment of their abandoned vehicles.
We spotted the final member of our team a short distance further down the road and unloaded the boats at the top of the extremely convenient slip. Geared up and with Holyhead coastguard aware of our intetentions we left the sandy beach and headed due north, the sun becoming ever lower on our port beams.

Following a path parallel to the coast the first of three piers stuck out into the sea ahead of us. With it being light and with virtually no swell, their was no choice but to head under it. It's not often we paddle with a soundtrack and I'm not sure that the strains of karaoke from above would really suit any other paddle than this.

As the sun dipped below the horizon the lights of the illuminations came on, there was going to be no problem with navigation on this trip and my head torch was beginning to feel superfluous. 

After north pier, a quieter section of coast was pinpointed with the incredibly bright lights of fishermen at regular intervals. Asked very politely by the first to move further off shore we wondered just how far they were able to cast. 
At the end of the lights we turned around and headed back south, the lights now in their full glory.

The smell of donuts and chocolate pervaded the air as we once again threaded through the piers and I realised it had been quite a while since lunch.  I needn't have been too concerned as in an incrediblely timed piece of team work, we had just finished tieing on the boats when Trevor appeared with fish and chips, a fantastic end to a very memorable trip.

Huge thanks to Dick, Gareth and Trevor for sharing the adventure and especially to Trevor for treating us all to a fish supper.