Saturday, 30 September 2017

Midweek Tunnelling

One of the few advantages of a 10 day shift pattern is the occasional long weekend so when Bob Hall posted on Facebook looking for company for a Thursday caving trip I was able to respond fairly quickly.
The fact that it was a planned trip into Tunnel Cave made it even more attractive. It's a cave I've never visited before so I was quite keen to give it a go, although I was a little nervous. It was to be my first trip underground since picking up a collection of minor, but fairly limiting, injuries over the summer.
Morgan was able to not just get the time off work, but even convinced his boss that it would be a valid part of his CPD, preparing for his Level 2 assessment later in the year.

After a night's heavy rain, it was a comfortably warm and pleasant walk up from the DYO car park to Tunnel Top where, once Bob had wrestled with the lid (note to Fixed Aids, some WD40 needed at Tunnel Top!), Morgan got on with the rigging while Bob and I enjoyed the views.
 The rigging takes a little while due to the two slightly offset pitches. There's not really a lot of room to hang around at the re-belay so it made more sense to stay up in the sun until Morgan shouted up to say all was ready for us.

 I'd be the first to admit that I don't so enough SRT so I'm not quite as slick on the rope as some. However, I had grabbed a look ad Adrian Fawcets Topo so had a fair idea of what was waiting below. Clipped in, standing on the cross bar I run through my methodical checks. I've managed to mis-thread my stop so it's off the rope, re-thread, re check and off we go. Past the re-belay (no mis threading this time) and the deviation. Then I'm off the rope and waiting with Morgan for Bob to join us.
 Since we've got SRT kit, it makes sense to keep it on for the exposed traverse. The slope that follows is freeclimbable but, again, we've got our kit on so why make things difficult. There's a fixed line there so it's a simple walk/abseil down

From here on, the cave is pretty much linear. A meandering rift that works its way all the way down to what becomes Cathedral Cave in the DYO showcave complex. Of course, getting there is not quite as simple as that sounds. The rift varies in size at different heights. In places, it's too narrow to pass while, in others, it's wide enough that you end up clinging onto one wall or suddenly finding yourself at the top of an impassable pot. All this means that you move up and down the walls, averaging a downward trend but often climbing up into the roof tube to find the best way on before descending to floor level a few metres later. Since neither Morgan or I had been in the cave before and Bob hadn't been in for 20 years or more, there was a fair bit of backtracking and changing of level as we hunted for the way on. A proper rehab for my recovering shoulder and knee! 
It's not a fantastically well decorated cave (certainly the West Passage isn't) but there are some nice grottoes here and there, all surprisingly well preserved for a cave that's been open for 70 years and effectively has just the one trade route down and back.  

 Eventually you reach the end of the "wild cave" you get to the Airlock leading to the show cave. As if suddenly finding a concrete wall with a UPVC door in the middle of the cave isn't odd enough; sitting in the dark, eating flapjack and listening to the strains of Pachelbel's Cannon through the vents is just surreal.
The journey back out of the cave is quite fun. The obvious places to climb and descend the rift aren't quite the same from the opposite direction so, even though it's a linear cave, it's actually possible to take a totally different route to the one you took in. It's also possible to find yourself ( as we did more than once) up in the roof tube, several metres above the way on! Although it's only a short cave, it's quite a good workout. And of course, on a good day, you pop the lid open to one of the best views from a cave entrance anywhere  in Wales. Due to other commitments in the evening, we didn't have time to fully explore so we never went into the East Passage or Cascade Aven extension but, now that I've sorted out concerns over post injury fitness, a revisit is definitely on the cards.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Downpours and dog-legs in Devon

Trip dates: 8th September - 10th September 2017

Team: Stuart Bennett, Duncan Hornby, Barbara Lane, Kevin Munn, Pam Munn and Claire Vivian


A slow start (caused by a late Friday night and Barbara’s bottle of Baileys) meant we all met up about 10am at the campsite adjacent to the Baker’s pit entrance. Just as we began to change into our gear it started to rain; equally it rained when we returned to the car after the trip. This seemed to set the pattern for the rest of the weekend...


Baker’s Pit

The entrance is an easy climb down two fixed ladders entering a large chamber.
Kevin at the bottom of the fixed entrance ladder, Bakers pit.
Kevin, Barbara, Claire and Stuart at the entrance of Bakers pit

Duncan meets the Judge.

Stuart at the Baker’s Pit ‘waterfall’.

We wandered around following the description, seeking places we had not previously visited. We eventually relocated the start of the Plymouth extension (i.e. we were locationally challenged for a while) and Stuart and Claire forced their way up into it only to decide enough was enough. Kevin and Barbara explored nearer the entrance whilst the rest of us explored various leads in the Lower Stream Series. We were all out by about 2pm. Back at the car it started to rain...

Trip time: 3 hrs

Afton Red Rift (with SPIDERS)

The cave description said this was a sporting trip. It did not mention anything about the giant cave spiders that lurked within the entrance and for a fair way into the cave as well. I would have taken a photo of them, but they were big enough to take the camera from me, so I declined and stealthily snuck past.

Most of what you need to know about Afton before visiting it can be learned from the name (apart from the spiders). It is located near the village of Afton, has a lot of red mud and it is predominantly a rift (i.e. it has less floor to stand on than is comfortable). The caving starts off fairly innocuously, with walking and scrambling over boulders, then holes start to appear in the floor. No problem at first, you just step over them, but then you lose the floor and end up traversing over some fairly high drops, 30-40 feet probably. Not too bad to begin with, but then the walls start to bell out and things get smooth and nice handholds and footholds get fewer. I was very glad to get around one particularly slippery corner and see floor ahead. Before the next section of traversing, that is. But the worst was behind us, and we soon found ourselves sliding down to Flower Chamber (apparently so-called because there were formations resembling gypsum flowers here originally). We then negotiated 2 small down-climbs and a traverse over a fairly deep hole to end up in Cascade Chamber. There was some nice red flowstone here. Fairly soon after leaving this chamber I crawled forward to come face first with a 3m drop and, in a very ladylike fashion, allowed Stuart to go first. He made it look easy, with no need to use the sling. I made it look much less elegant and found that the sling we had placed on a tiny stal that looked like it was going to pull off any second, was actually not going anywhere at all and needed me to climb part way back up to remove it. We were then in Mud Hall and on our way to finding Watkins Squeeze and the climb back up the rift. The squeeze was fine, just annoyingly uphill, and then it changed in to more of a chimney. At the top of this, we found it was time to start the climb up. Thankfully, this was far easier than we had been anticipating and I even enjoyed it.

The cave description we were following was very good and apart from 2 small route-finding mistakes, we were able to complete the round trip in around 1.5 hours. A great sporting trip, and I’d probably go back again when I’ve had enough time to forget about the spiders, the slippery corner and the awkward climb.

After walking around Buckfastleigh looking for somewhere to eat that could fit us in, we found room at The Globe and had a great meal there.

The team enjoy a meal out.


Dog Hole

Duncan, Claire and Stuart at the entrance of Dog Hole, a short distance from the larger Pridhamsleigh cavern

This was only going to be a short trip. Around 30 minutes, we thought. Well, it didn’t quite end up that way. The key to the Dog Hole extensions was included in the DSS cave key pack. We figured that it must be worth a visit. Things began well. The gate was located and opened fairly quickly, then Claire went through first. On the other side of the gate, it was immediately in to a tight right-angled bend. Hmm. The others may enjoy this I thought. Then as if that wasn’t enough fun, it was followed by a tight downward sloping tube. I tackled this head first and it was small, but doable. A second downward sloping small tube was next, but then everything opened out into a small chamber with a slot in the floor and a passage coming off on the far side. I poked around exploring a bit while Stuart and Duncan negotiated the Dog-Leg and tubes, but did not come across the spectacular formations I was expecting.

Stuart soon joined me and we waited for Duncan. After a while when he did not emerge, I went back up and found that he was having a bit of trouble [ understatement of the year ] with the right-angled bend. He had come through it, not liked the look of the body-sized tube and had turned around to go back. The bend was not easy to negotiate in the opposite direction and he was forced to take his welly off to get his foot close to getting around the corner. Any taller than Duncan, and you will probably find yourself having to get your leg amputated to get through!

Claire exiting the right-angle bend at the start of the dog leg extension...

The tube wasn’t easy to come back up either! It was easy to slide down, but coming back up with arms above your head, there was little room to move and very little to hold on to within reach, so I inched up that for what felt like several minutes. Finally getting out of the tube, I helped Duncan get his foot around the corner and then exited the extension. Duncan was well and truly wedged in the bend, discovering his right femur was too long to get round the bend. Twisting his bootless foot and pushing forwards enabled him to slowly force himself around the bend. Stuart was behind me enjoying coming back up the tube but made short work of the bend.

The dreaded dog-leg bend! (Looking back out towards the exit)

Duncan - Whilst trapped in the bend I became aware of a regular thudding sound, I stopped panicking and started wondering why Claire and Stuart were thumping rocks, it then dawned upon me it was actually my heart beat I was hearing whilst entombed in this nightmarish bend. If you are taller than 1.71m (my height) think seriously about attempting this extension!

The tube that leads on after the right-angle bend, foot for scale, hmmm quite small…

Having all got out - without finding the fabled formations - we then went on to explore the various other nooks and crannies of Dog Hole before exiting.

One of several large spiders guarding the entrance of Dog Hole! (tiddlers compared to the Afton ones!)

Duncan happy to exit Dog Hole with 2 legs still attached

Total trip time: 1 hour

Pridhamsleigh Cavern

After Dog Hole, Pridhamsleigh Cavern is a 30 second walk away with an impressive entrance. The initial wow factor is quickly replaced by “oh is that the entrance…” a squalid muddy crawl into the system. A phreatic cave system with a maze of passages makes for an interesting navigation exercise. Thankfully Duncan has visited the system many times when he was a student with Exeter University Caving Club and his general compass only let him down a couple of times.

Stuart and Duncan in the entrance to Prid

Pridhamsleigh cavern is a very muddy cave which gets much use from commercial and other novice cavers so there are very few intact formations. You basically visit this cave for the mud!

Claire in the “worm hole”, next to the lake.

The end of the system is marked by a deep lake. After a play in the wormhole we exited the system via the coal chute, a “wet way” out back to Bishops Chamber.

Stuart and Claire at The lake, this marks the end of the cave system, but not the mud…

No visit to Pridhamsleigh Cavern should go without a quick dip in the nearby stream to wash your gear. Might be cold but saves covering everything else with mud. On schedule it started to rain as we changed...

The traditional end of trip washing the mud off in the nearby stream.

Trip time: 2½ hours

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Banishing the end of summer blues

The summer expeditions might be over, but the club is still as busy as ever. We have evening trips starting back up, new Provisional Members who started caving at the June beginners' weekend coming back to SWCC to expand their caving skills, cave photography trips, visits to theme parks and plenty of socialising, including a curry at a local Indian restaurant. Time to join us and get involved!

An evening round-trip in OFD2 via Timo's Table
Steve and Paul at Top Entrance

This was closely followed by a first trip in to Cwm Dwr for new SWCC Provisional Members Lucy and Matthew. They found the trip challenging, but enjoyable. It was their first experience of a long crawl and a boulder choke. It is great to see our newer cavers returning for more trips. 

Steve, Lucy and Matthew ready to go

Lucy about to tackle the Cwm Dwr entrance

About to take on the notorious Cwm Dwr crawl

Matthew on his way out. Looks like he enjoyed the trip!

Muddied but happy

Barbara also had her first trip to the mini-columns this month and took her camera with her. She was highly impressed by the formations and took this great shot:
The Mini Columns  (Photo: Barbara Lane)
There have also been some fun socialising events as well, including a trip to Oakwood Theme Park on a gloriously sunny day. 
And a curry attended by around 10 local members. Perfect for new cavers to meet some more established members of the club and chat about potential trips.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Chilled in the Cheddar Chamber

Trip date: 26th August 2017

Team: Tarquin Wilton-Jones, Morgan Specht, Dave Coulson. Warden: Mike Kushy

Another of those caves on my wishlist, Reservoir Hole had traditionally had access problems, but access is now possible with a formal warden system. Once again, the trip was set up by our club meets secretary. With a last minute substitution of warden, a change from morning to evening, and three separate changes in team members, it really does help to have someone patiently taking care of the arrangements. Dave, Mike, Tarquin and Morgan at the entrance - picture by Morgan

Located below the tallest cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge in Mendip, its presence had first been suspected when the construction of a small covered reservoir was plagued by water sinking through its walls. A draughting hole at the foot of the cliffs above the reservoir was the start of an extremely long digging project, which eventually uncovered a streamway, enormous rift passages aligned on a series of faults, and then finally the crowning glory of one of the largest chambers in Britain, adorned with spectacular formations.

This was to be my first attempt at cave photography in over 9 years, and by far the largest underground space I have ever tried to photograph. Definitely a little rusty. My two flashguns were rated for 30 metre and 15 metre use, which would not be enough for a chamber that size, but Morgan had the foresight to bring a second 15 metre flashgun. With two slave units, it should have been possible to take the pictures on bulb setting and manual firing of the first flashgun. However, one of the slave units consistently failed to operate, so we resorted to using manual firing of two of the flashguns. Without a tripod, shaky hands and slight timing differences between flash firings meant that there might be some unexpected duplication and ghosting in certain areas, but this is a limitation we would have to live with - it only affects a single picture. Unless otherwise stated, camera, setups and edits by Tarquin, flash and modelling by Morgan, Dave and Mike.

The trip began at dinner time on a bank holiday weekend, competing with the droves of sightseers for parking space. We handed over our signed liability waivers and access fees, and headed into an oddly placed hole above the reservoir - the hole which must once have been a sink taking water from the gorge before the gorge was cut deeper below it. Surrounded by a host of cave spiders, their eggsacs and shed skins, and a single sleeping lesser horseshoe bat who seemed not to know what time of year it was. Dave at the Main Dig spiral staircase, flash by Mike and Morgan

The sloping little passage soon reached the Stanton's Drive dig, and the beginning of the finest example of underground engineering that Britain has to offer. The boulder choke had been neatly rearranged into a perfect dry stone wall, leading into Moonmilk Chamber, whose walls were covered in a thick coating of soft, white moonmilk, with a pristine bobbled surface texture. In the floor, the Main Dig began, following a seemingly insane path downwards through a boulder choke for a depth of some 45 metres. Step after step, climb after climb, all neatly arranged into dry stone walls, and perfect spiral staircases of rocks. Mostly with no scaffolding or shoring (though one section had a few sleepers). Every bit as impressive as the final chamber. Dave in the Grand Gallery, flash by Morgan
Dave with the Three Wise Men formation in Topless Aven, flash by Morgan and Tarquin

A tiny inlet brought a sudden change in character, as the cave broke into a large phreatic tube; Grand Gallery. This short-lived spectacle ended at the climb into Topless Aven, the first immense rift soaring some 30 metres up into the darkness. A handline served to deter cavers from accidentally touching the formations. From here, the route split, with the original digger trying ahead into Hard Times, then giving up and trying upwards instead, eventually finding Golgotha rift. The most impressive extensions were then found by retrying at the end of Hard Times, with the original digger sadly missing out on the major breakthrough which had been so well earned. In order to avoid tracking mud into the decorated parts of the system, we went ahead first, through the Hard Times crawl, and into Resurection, another immense aven lying on the original fault. A ladder climb part way up the rift gave access to a balcony where a double ladder pitch dropped into an immense fault rift. Resurection Columns in the Frozen Deep

This is the beginning of the Frozen Deep, the largest chamber in Britain by surface area at 2981 square metres, but second by volume at 39328 cubic metres (after Gaping Gill's Main Chamber). Ahead, the far point of the chamber was some 79 metres away, with calcite flows decorating almost every part of the rift walls, and a superb grotto in the rift ahead. Morgan set up the ladders and lifelines, and we took our turns to enter the vast space. As we dropped into the rift, it became apparent that this was just one end of the chamber. To the right, a 40 metre wide archway adorned with two stupendous stal colums and a lengthy stalactite, gave access to the vast open space of the chamber, disappearing for 71 metres into the darkness. This was no ordinary space, and lighting it would certainly be a challenge. Towards the grotto, note the vertical scratches at the left edge
The grotto, flash by Mike and Morgan

We started by heading towards the grotto, passing a stal slope climbing 30 metres up the wall, topped with a giant stalactite. The grotto itself was quite stunning, though in order to preserve the floor, the only possible viewpoint is a little obscured, and it is hard to photograph, with no way to provide a sense of scale. It is definitely best seen in person rather than in a picture. Scratches on the overhanging fault wall from falling boulders at first seemed to make no sense, until they were explained as the scratch from a boulder slowly descending on the surface of a melting ice plug, constantly being pushed into the wall by the ice. Something none of us had seen anywhere else before. The dustings of mud on the rocks all over the chamber were revealed to have a similar origin, essentially the moraines from the underground glacier, which filled the space that must have existed for eons before the last ice age. Morgan and Mike in the first quarter of the Frozen Deep The phreatic two thirds of Frozen Deep

Heading through the archway into the other three quarters of the chamber, the size could be really appreciated. The stal became less prominent, though still admirable. The paths climbed down little ladders and created a looping route through the phreatic arches, where the oversized scallops on the walls showed that this colossal chamber was an active phreas in its largely original state, and not the result of a collapse. At the far end of the chamber, a hole in the floor dropped to the lowest point of the cave, which we avoided because of its mud. Up in the ceiling, some 52 metres above, avens accessed a series of roof passages, climbing high up to separate tops, including the highest point in the cave. On the right at the end of the chamber is the ascent into High Country, whose passage ends very close to the floor of the gorge, apparently close enough to hear the traffic. We avoided this so that we would not bring its mud back into the chamber. It would have needed SRT kit to do the roof passages anyway.

The bottom half of Golgotha
Instead, we returned, taking our pictures on the way back to Topless Aven. The other team members proved to be admirable models, patiently obeying commands shouted across the huge spaces, and retaking each shot with each little adjustment. Cave photography is a slow, cold process. Turn a little left. Aim the flash a little higher. Put your foot on the rock. Try not to look like you are peeing on the stal. Close your oversuit because it makes you look ... big boned. Light up that stal so I can focus. Light up the scene so I can frame the shot. Ready? Lights off. Open. And FIRE! Close. Nearly right, but the middle flash didn't fire properly. Can we put the more powerful flash in the middle position instead? Try again.

Tarquin with skull-shaped stal in Herbert's Attic - camera and setup by Morgan, lighting by Dave, edits by Tarquin

At Topless Aven, we climbed up another set of grand dry stone walls, rising 25 metres through a boulder choke. No scaffolding, no cement. Just dry stone walls, vertically climbing through a boulder choke. Crazy. Suddenly another change, and we were in Golgotha rift, the old main destination of the cave, and truly impressive in its own right. It climbed far into the distance above us, becoming steeper and steeper. We left the main camera at the bottom, and climbed up the roped climb through the hole far above us. This led to another rope climb, followed by a ladder and another rope ascent leading over an enormous boulder. At last we could see the muddy roof, where a final climb through a hole reached a dry-stone walled walkway, ending at a dig - Herbert's Attic - and one of the highest points in the cave. A large stalagmite is supposed to look like a skull (the reason for the name of the rift), where Morgan's compact camera took over from my DSLR.

The return through the boulders seemed a waste of height, since we would have to drop 90 metres back to one of the lowest parts of the cave just to re-ascend over 65 metres through the entrance chokes. The bats appeared at Topless Aven, flying around us as we made our way through the cave. At the bottom of the Main Dig choke, the sounds of the bats flying through narrow tubes created a very odd effect, combined with a strange roaring noise that sounded more like a collapsing choke. Once we emerged from the cave, these sounds were identified as the engines of the cars racing up and down the gorge, some 20 metres above where we had been standing. Clearly the cave had more surface connections than were currently known.

This really was a fascinating and very beautiful cave. Not just for the huge size of the chamber, and not just for the stal, but for the fault controlled rifts, the phreatic tubes, and the underground glacial moraines of the Frozen Deep. It is possible that the chamber may at some point have a route created for tourists, so that it can become another show cave like the others in the gorge. But the original entrance has its own attraction for cavers; the engineering has to be seen to be believed.

Thanks to Morgan and Dave for the company, to Mike for showing us around this awesome cave at such short notice, to all for making the pictures possible, and of course, a massive thanks to Claire for arranging yet another excellent trip.

Trip report: Tarquin Wilton-Jones