Friday 14 January 2022

13th January 2022 - Grey Wife Hole

Mike's thoughts:

The secrets of the Grey Wife revealed (13/01/22)

The Grey Wife is not to be subdued, vanquished, battled into submission, overcome or mastered, but rather treated with care and thought; an awareness of the diverse situations and a measured approach best access an appreciation of her delights.

The entrance itself (a small manhole the same colour as the bog, overgrown with turf) needed quite some finding and then some gardening before allowing admittance. The flat-out gravelled crawl required a little attention and excavation to allow through passage, the following winding streamway was constricted enough to slow progress and a pitch head that needed a thoughtful approach (especially on return). The Pond a Paradox indeed, the way on looking blocked but with surprisingly easy passage given under the far arch to the continuation streamway beyond. Further delights and increasingly impressive formations only accessible by the devious and airy Jim’s Traverse, once again more straightforward than first sight suggests, till the climax of the final chamber - Poet’s Corner -in this case a place of pilgrimage for subterranean rather than literature lovers. The sting in the tail, a low airspace duck merely an acceptable and suitable payment for disclosure of the secrets to the Grey Wife.

Al's ramblings:

Another high pressure has come to dominate our weather, so a trip to make the most of two days without rain was required. Flicking through NFTFH, Grey Wife Hole seemed to fit the bill perfectly, being a short (3-5 hour) trip that suffers from flooding in wet conditions.

While I've been caving for 20 years and hope I've picked up some skills in that time, NFTFH trips still fill me with trepidation: "None of these trips are suitable for inexperienced, unfit or unwary cavers". Despite the fact that we'd only gone to the sump and back, I still felt that our recent 6 hour time for Pen-y-Ghent pot meant that we were moving through cave well and if we took Grey Wife steadily, one obstacle at a time, I'd be ok.

First obstacle: finding the pot. Not a problem, with GPS satellites and posh phones we know where we are on the surface of the planet to within a few metres. Standing in the indicated spot we looked around.  We were definitely in a shake hole, but there was no sign of the concreted entrance and lid. We widened our search and then Mike, returning to where we'd started, shouted that he'd found it.  This was no Aquamole or Lancaster Hole entrance, but a small metal lid recessed into the ground, partially covered by grass. As Mike prized open the lid, I felt like we were urban explorers having discovered some long forgotten bunker.

Second obstacle: crawl at the bottom of the entrance shaft. "May need some excavation", read the guide. I wouldn't call it excavation, but I pushed aside some of the bigger cobbles and the crawl was definitely more comfortable for it.

Third obstacle: Cable passage.  A winding, ever narrowing rift.  Most of the 60m of passage passed straightforwardly, succumbing to a steady, thoughtful approach. Only in the last few metres, just after a stashed ladder, did I need to climb up in the rift and continue a metre or so above the floor before dropping down to the head of the pitch.

Fourth obstacle: bolts. NFTFH says a mention of "bolt" can mean anything from an 8mm spit requiring a hanger, to bits of rusty old angle iron. We'd thereore taken some hangers with us.  Currently though, there's no need for this as everything is hangered.

There's plenty of room to put on SRT kit at the pitch head and once on the pitch, while narrow at the top, it didn't prove an issue on the way down.  I'm not quite sure about "the" big flake for the deviation, but I found "a" flake and it kept us out of the water, landing right next to the appropriately named sump. 

Fifth obstacle: Paradox pond. While a thin, black dive line led from one bolt down into the froth and debris (it looked like pine needles?) covered sump, on one wall; a cheery, yellow rope stretched it's way along the pool and under an arch before disappearing out of sight on the other. Not being able to find the underwater ledges, I was glad of the rope, a mixture of back and footing and its support seeing me back onto dry land. The last time I'd been covered in this much froth was collecting glasses at a foam disco back in my student days.

Mike was then off, moving rapidly through the varied passage, following the water upstream. We heard the waterfall before we saw it and a final corner revealed it, issuing 8m above us from the roof of the chamber. Turning back on ourselves, we climbed up 2m onto a sloping ledge where I readied the climbing rope for Mike. As we wouldn't pass this spot on the return, I threw the emptied tackle sacks down onto the main chamber floor. The initial boom was followed by, what I at first thought was an echo. Unfortunately the deep rumble continued as the waterfall steadily pounded down onto the bags. Sorry Mike, it's going to be noisy.

Sixth obstacle: Jim's traverse. The overhanging wall above us leading to a threaded piece of tat was reminiscent of a "classic" Lakeland diff. While the traverse itself looked unlikely, Mike flowed across it, pausing only to place slings for protection. Though the first hand hold I pulled on did part company with the wall, once on the traverse itself, the rock seemed more solid and I almost enjoyed the airy few steps across to Mike, belayed at the top of the waterfall. Here we deposited our SRT kit and the rope I had derigged as I seconded across the traverse.

Crawling along in the stream I saw Mike, first able to stand up and then uttering an audible, "Wow!" Just before I entered the small chamber to join him, I glanced down to my left and saw a low, aqueous passage with froth adorning its gently arched ceiling. Standing with Mike looking at the incredible 2 m long straw stall above us and the fine helictites around us, that glance was pressing on my mind. If I was going to do this, it was now or never and had it not been for Mike I would probably have thrown myself head long into the duck, hoping it would all be over in a few thrashing seconds. 

Seventh obstacle: the 3 m low airspace duck. "On your back, feet first", assured Mike and following his sound advice manoevered myself into position. The more I lay down in the water, the more the buoyancy of my wetsuit offered reassuring support, my legs weightlessly leading the way on. This wouldn't be too bad after all. Leaning my head further back, my bald spot submerged into the water and an instant ice cream headache began. I breathed more deeply and the foam on the ceiling was drawn into my nostrils. "Just keep it steady", I firmly told myself, fighting the urge to sneeze and thrash about. My feet were now in open, black space but it was a good few more seconds before I was able to lift my head out of the chilling water, my headache instantly receeding. Mike's wellies were proceeded by comments about some "silly idiot" and he was probably right. The grass was definitely not greener on this side of the duck. The stunning decorations of the chamber before it replaced by a dark, forbidding boulder choke. 

I'm always wary of the sections of the guide in italics, often they describe even more esoteric sections of passage. It was therefore a fairly half hearted glance I had down a short sideways squeeze before following Mike back through the duck. Happy to be reunited with my hat which, not wanting to get it wet, I'd left in the stal. adorned chamber, we continued retracing our steps. Rather than repeating the traverse however, we were able to ab. directly down into the chamber using the in situ tat belayed to a natural and a bolt. Removing the bags from the bottom of the fall the deafening booming was replaced by the more natural sounds of water spraying from rock and the noise level reduced further as we made our back down the stream way.

Obstacle 8: the pitch head on the return. This was purely a personal obstacle, Mike having passed it as smoothly as on the way down. Stuck between a rock and the tension on the rope, I squirmed, tried to get Mike to release my foot jammer and squirmed some more. Finally, resigned to the fact that I'd properly cocked this one up, I relaxed and was instantly released.

Obstacle 9: the entrance shaft. Again this was purely a personal issue. It's worth noting that if you cross an old shovel lying across the passage, you've gone to far. A couple of steps back and the draft from the innocuous looking hole leading to the entrance was felt. Trying to rush through many parts of Grey Wife will see progress grinding to a halt. Taking it steadily, you can move your body in harmony with the passage, where as trying to force your way forwards, you soon strike an off chord. While I laboured through a lengthy cacophany of grating tunes, Mike once again gave a short and sweet virtuosso performance.

The couple of metres of remaing climb out onto the moor gave time for the grin to spread across my face and Mike too was smiling as he joined me. It's difficult to imagine a more varied trip that could be had on a work day evening and still allow plenty of time to get to the pub. There's definitely a correlation between quality of trip and the speed with which Mike's first pint of Monumental goes down and today's must have been a very good trip.

Post script. Laying in bed, aching muscles and bashed joints preventing the finding of a comfy position in which to sleep, I realised that there was still a smile across my face and have a feeling there will be for a few days to come. Huge thanks to Mike B for joining me in the adventure, Mike C for the superb guide and Tony, hope your presentation went well.

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