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CHECC 2020 My favourite cave entries
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Spending 28 hours in Daren Cilau was one of the most memorable caving trips I have done until now. It was type II fun, like all quality caving. Any trip that doesn’t make you wish at least once you were tucked in your bed is barely worth remembering. What follows is a story of friendship, courage and growth.
The scene is set on a rainy weekend in South Wales back in February, on which CUCC had the brilliant idea to go camping in the famous Hard Rock Cafe in Daren Cilau. We were a party of five keen, slightly overconfident students and graduates, none of whom had the good sense to check the weather prognosis.
The cast is, Tom Crossley, a disillusioned student, Chloe Crossley, Natasha Wilson, second-time caver to whom the appeal of camping in a cave was very much greater than any of the dangers such an activity could entail, Harry Kettle, whose main character trait for that weekend was his hatred for his oversized tackle bag, and me.
As is typical of student caving, we woke up at 12:00 after a night of intense partying with Kent. By 15:00 we were ready, we’d had the famous caving breakfast, packed our sleeping gear, cooking gear, alcohol, and all other things you could need in the darkness below.
The first sphinx that barred our way was the entrance series, a 517m meter long, half-flooded tight crawl, the pleasure of which was increased tenfold by having to drag tackle sacks, that seemed to get stuck in every crevasse. Very quickly did Harry realise his mistake in taking the largest bag, I was very relieved that I’d arrived at the tackle store after Harry, because I had planned on taking that exact bag. Passing the Vice was as bad as expected, resulting in lots of swearing and lots of tugging on tackle sacks. I have a distinct memory of being stuck between two people, half submerged in water, and to top it off, cold water was dripping on my face. Just thinking about it makes me want to repeat the whole experience.
By the end of the entrance series, we were completely chilled to our bones from the cold water, but this is not where the pleasures of Daren stooped. We went around the Loop Route 3 times, before the combined power of the survey Tom had and the fact that he’d been here already helped him remember which way we were meant to be going.
How can a ladder be upside down? That is what I asked myself before arriving at the 20-meter pitch and seeing that monstrosity for myself. And you, my dear reader, are doomed to ignorance on the subject of the ladder, unless you visit that cave. At the top of the pitch was a collection of of clay figurines so abstract and varied as to put the Tate Modern to shame. One theme was predominant among the exhibits, the phallic looking argil statuettes.
The next segment of our odyssey was the Time Machine, the largest undeground chamber in the UK, so large that caving becomes a 2 dimensional exercise, instead of the 1D we are used to. To help the poor souls erring in those God-abandoned regions, the path had been marked by reflective tags. It is at the end of the Time Machine that we passed KUCC, who seemed to be in no hurry and was casually exploring some side-passages.
Some more caving got us to the Bonzai streamway, which is renowned for its many helictites. Curiously, it is still not known how they form. Ruairidh Macloed, a famous academic (you heard it here first), who sometimes likes to partake in the thrills of potholing, believes the process forming them to be one the few truly random ones found in nature, akin to Brownian motion. The last bit before reaching the Hard Rock Cafe entailed some mild wading in water, which was supposed to be only knee deep, but on this blessed day was chest deep. Ah, the joys of caving!
We arrived at the cafe at 11pm, tired, but very satisfied with the last 8 hours of caving. We were greeted by some diggers who were smoking a certain plant with a distinct smell under the light of the discoballs that had so tastefully been hung from the ceiling. We cooked some couscous curry in the stove I had brought, drank the port Chloe had heroically dragged along, and were ready to go to bed.
This is when the first (un)pleasant surprise revealed itself. My sleeping bag was damp, bordering wet! The drybag, at least so I had presumed, wasn’t very watertight at all, and thus, all of my belongings had been soaked. The sleeping bag had been spared a bit, because I had wrapped with in many layers of plastic. So off to bed I went, in a soggy sleeping bag. Off to bed, but not off to sleep. Tom, who was sharing a sleeping area with me, seemed to feel the same way, and thus we engaged in a conversation, the topic of which shall stay between Tom and me until the ends of time.
At 2am the shuffling and rattling by the Kent Uni Caving Club started. There was some talk of rising water levels and other nonsense which was stopping a grumpy and sleepless me from getting some rest.
At 3am, I had definitely given up on the idea of having a good night of sleep as the babble was getting more intense. Tom, again, shared the sentiment, and we had both realized that the water level was actually rising and were aware that if the trend continued, that could be it. Tom was oddly at peace with the prospect, saying that while it wouldn’t be the most peaceful way to go, it wouldn’t be the worst either. On the other hand, I realised that I wasn’t! I still had so much to live for. I had never enjoyed life as much as I had in the last few months, and the prospect of losing it all, made me appreciate it, alas, too late!
We decided to get up, and see what was keeping the Kent cavers so entertained. By that point, the main chamber of the HRC was starting to fill with water, where we had most unfortunately hung our gear to dry. A courageous KUCCer was saving any kit that he could reach. Slowly everyone else started getting up and helping with getting as much stuff to higher and drier land. And so, 14 cavers, instead of faffing, were producing some actual results by jointly moving caving kit, sleeping bags, bivies, food to the island that would prove to be the last bastion of dryness in that display of Welsh weather in the nethers of Gaia.
By 4am we were all huddled on that tiny island in our sleeping bags, sipping hot drinks, eating chocolate that had expired in 2013, and singing caving songs, and I couldn’t help but think that there were few places I would rather be at that particular moment. Despite the chaos and danger, I was happy. Slowly, we all started to make ourselves comfortable and started going to sleep, now properly exhausted.
Around noon (again!) it was decided that it was time to go, which required many steps, such as finding the kit that had been washed away, putting on very wet oversuits and helping with general camp chores. Needless to say that the gear that had been hung up to “dry” was even more wet than when we arrived.
The way back was occasionally accentuated by the deep and genuine love shown by Harry to his tackle bag. Enthusiastic about sharing his euphoria, he proposed a Faustian bargain to the four of us, where he would buy three pints to whoever was ready to be liberated from any remaining trace of self-respect and carry his bag to the exit of the cave. Tom, all too eager to play into the devil’s trap, took the bait. This changed nothing much for the rest of us, except for the source of the swearing.
The little mentioned champion of this trip was Natasha, who not only had thought that this whole sleeping-in-a-cave business was a good idea before doing it, but seemed to not mind the cold and wet of the entrance series too much and was singing from the bottom (or in this case, from the point furthest away from the entrance) of her lungs while the rest of us were engaging in the caver’s favorite activity, second only to faffing, complaining and wondering what exactly it was about this whole caving business that made us come back every time.
We were greeted by nothing less than a snow storm when we came out, and Harry and me, being the cheeky chaps we are, decided to run to the hut, instead of walking with Tom, Chloe and Natasha. The only problem with our brilliant plan was that we had no idea where Whitewalls was actually located. And so, cold and tired, we had to run around to find the hut. In the end, we did, but long after the others had. Remember, slow and steady win the race.
That hot shower was arguably the best I have had in my life. Tom was having some slight problems with his body temperature regulation mechanism and had to be undressed by Harry and me and pushed into the warm shower. The breakfast leftovers from 33 hours ago tasted so good, rarely have I enjoyed cold beans, cold eggs, cold hashbrowns and cold bacon so much. After some faff, but less than usual, we were back on our way to Cambridge, were we arrived at 1:30 in the morning, craving only one thing, some sleep to consolidate the amazing memories we had just made.
In conclusion, if you happen to find yourself in South Wales on a rainy weekend, and have a group of kind cavers nearby, I would highly recommend you go visit the Bonsai Streamway to see the helictites, and you might be sursprised by a sudden feeling of appreciation, happiness and friendship!
Reporting, Wassil from CUCC
All pictures: https://camcaving.uk/Blog/Album/16
There are significantly fewer pictures on the way back for obvious reasons.
September 30, 2020
GIANT'S HOLE - EAST CANAL
Trip route: Giant's round trip, plus a crawl to the start of St Valentine sump, and a journey to the East Canal.
People: Tim, Alan and myself.
Time: 7 hours.
My expectations for this trip were low. When Tim asked me if I wanted to go back to Giant's Hole for the second day in a row, I said yes not because I was expecting a particularly exciting trip, but because after 6 months of lockdown I wanted to take every opportunity I could to get underground. In actual fact, it turned out to be quite possibly the most incredible trip I have ever been on so far.
Tim, Alan and I set off from the cars at around 4pm. I rigged Garland's Pot; we descended, and made our way down the crabwalk, this time with the SRT kits in a tackle sack on my shoulder. Having read a previous trip report of East Canal in which someone said they were glad to have a neoprene suit with them, I had worn leggings, a thick fleece, a wetsuit, AND my oversuit on top. By the time we reached the junction to the Eating House, I was sweating profusely.
We continued from there along the dull, muddy, wet, crawl to St Valentine Sump. Tim began hacking at some tubing which needed to be replaced with his knife, and I very helpfully contributed with a rendition of 'God Save The Queen' using the broken tubing as an instrument, with Alan accompanying me using a bucket as a drum (there is a video of this wonderful talent on https://overgroundvunderground.blogspot.com/2020/09/giants-hole-east-canal.html ). It was the first time I've had a proper jam in a cave but it won't be the last. Perhaps I should bring my tin whistle too next time.
After our little session we backtracked through the muddy crawl, and turned right into some maze-like passages leading to a very fun traverse above a deepening rift. We continued down a short roped climb, to the top of Geology Pot. I descended the in situ rope here first, and started collecting a large amount of plastic litter at the bottom of the pot, which the others helped me with when they were down and stuffed into the bottom of the tackle sack. Perhaps 'Rubbish Dump Pot' would be a better suited name for the pitch - by the time we were finished, our tackle sack was holding a large variety of discarded chocolate wrappers, tape, and gloves. We found another pitch with a slightly dodgy looking in situ rope which wasn't on the survey I had read, and I decided to take one for the team and descend this somewhat dodgy rigging first, because I like playing Russian Roulette with old muddy ropes. Following this came another cascade, this time with a large, deep hole at the bottom - Tim and I traversed around the right-hand side; Alan, being taller, waded through the middle.
Finally we reached a point where the cave roof got lower, the water got higher, and the two merged together. Tim and Alan both looked at this uneasily, and asked if anyone wanted to go through it. At this point, we weren't certain about whether this was a mere duck or a prolonged passage. Despite having always anxiously avoided caves with ducks and sumps in the past, I was feeling rather good today, and eagerly volunteered to go through it. It was indeed a short duck which opened back up into a lovely little den with air. The others begrudgingly followed through the water, and I led the way through a second duck into a rift. The cold water slipped down my neck, and instead of feeling scared or uneasy as I had expected, I felt quite the opposite. I felt alive. Rather than adamantly refusing to ever go into a wet cave again, I now find myself sitting at home, researching other caves with similar features; eager to do it again.
The space in between the two ducks felt like a rift in space, and upon emerging from the second one, something felt different. We had crossed the Far Curtain. I thought this was an ample name for the boundary between the rest of the cave and the passage in front of us. Less commonly visited than the rest of Giant's, the rift ahead boasted sharp and jagged curves of unpolished rock. On these columns was a thick layer of mud, unmarked by human prints, which clung to the top of the rock either side of the rift like chocolate icing on a cake. The steep and slippery mud made traversing above the rift almost impossible, so we proceeded along the bottom. The rock here was different to any other rock I have seen caving in the UK so far - it resembled a similar texture to sandstone, with a deep orange-red hue.
We followed the stream until Alan stopped suddenly in front of me. Shining our torches into the water, we could all see a sudden drop ahead where the floor seemed to vanish and the colour of the water changed to a deep blue. Alan gingerly went forward and dipped his foot in as far as he could, confirming that the pool appeared to be bottomless. My first sight of this canyon is a vision imprinted in my mind. The light from our torches reflected off the dark blue water, resulting in ripples of light which danced across the red walls either side. Without knowing how deep the canal was and with the ceiling so high that I could not see the roof, the space above me seemed endless. There was nothing but me, my companions and this serene place we had found deep under the ground.
Tim attempted to traverse around the right-hand side of the canal but gave up, and ended up in the water. Alan followed soon after. I hesitated - although I'm a decent swimmer, I was aware that I was wearing three layers of clothing, wellies, a helmet, and a full SRT kit plus extra carabiners, and the idea of being pulled down into the inky depths did not appeal to me much. I looked around, but couldn't find anywhere safe to take off and leave my SRT kit without risking that too, being lost to St Valentine's Sump. By this point the other two had gone round the corner, and I could no longer see them or their lights. I stood there for a while, contemplating the safety of immersing myself in the water with all my gear, with the others far enough beyond the corner that they wouldn't know if I drowned- and it was as if the water beckoned me and forced me forwards. Before I knew it I was there with nothing below my feet and nothing above my head but darkness. And cold. And my hands and legs, furiously kicking against the deep water.
After splashing about for a bit we decided to head back the way we had come, given the fact that the way through the other end of the sump (above the Filthy Five) is blocked at the moment. It was on our way out of the sump that we found the most shocking feature of our trip - a live toad! Unfortunately we couldn't get any photos but you'll have to believe me when I say there really was a big, green, round fellow with black beady eyes ribbiting into the darkness of the East Canal. (My housemate, who is reading this report over my shoulder right now, appears to be absolutely convinced that there are giant worms which 'make' the caves by burrowing through the rock and this toad is probably what they eat when there aren't enough cavers to sustain them.)
It was on the ascent back up this rift that Alan noticed something a little disconcerting - there were lots of bubbles very high up the wall, indicating that the water had recently been much, much higher than the height of our heads. I asked Tim if he had checked the weather forecast, and he answered with a reassuring 'kind of'. I, too, had 'kind of' checked the forecast. We moved swiftly on; through the two ducks, and I thought that upon crossing the Far Curtain we'd be in safer territory. But upon searching the walls for the tell-tale bubbles, I realised that they were now gathered across the ceiling. A further note is that during my research of the limited information of the East Canal online after the trip, I found a post by someone on UKCaving noting a change in the water depth of 1.5m in 10minutes. We continued up the pitch-with-no-name, and along to Geology Pot.
It was here that I made a mistake. Having sped up the last pitch (no doubt fueled by the thought of the water suddenly rising) I decided that I was the superior prusiker of the group, and, seeing as it was my turn to carry the tackle sack again anyway, I would carry it up the pitch, despite it being almost half my weight. Full of litter, our daren drum, water bottles and a load of saturated rope, I clipped it to my D-ring and started ascending. Half a metre later, I was already regretting my decision - but I had already said I would carry it, and it wouldn't be fair to give it back now. I few prusiks onwards realised that the leg loops on my harness must have worked their way loose with all the twisting and swimming, because they were now loose enough for me to fit my entire arm through. But it was too late to do anything about it. Whilst watching the harness leg loops which had slipped all the way down my thighs and were now wrapped around my kneecaps, I noticed that my D-ring had also tipped upside down. In a very awkward position, I managed to keep prusiking, and grunting, and cursing myself for not checking my harness after swimming in the sump. I'm usually the one that does the most singing, but it was at this time that Tim decided to accompany my grunting by bursting out into a terribly tuned song, which was actually an incredibly helpful source of motivation. I got to the top, clipped my cow's tails into the traverse line, and lay down in a puddle. I could barely lift my arms with all the lactic acid build up. It was then that I realised, that sometime on the way up Geology Pot, my ego must have fallen out of the tackle sack. I decided to leave it at the bottom. If you ever do a litter pick at the bottom, I'd appreciate it if you could leave the shriveled onion that is my ego where it is, until the next flood comes to sweep it along to the bottom of St Valentine Sump. I led the way onwards, and up a roped climb, back along the traverse to the Eating House.
We continued up and along to the drainpipe, which was as enjoyable as ever, particularly so because I used a bit of discarded tubing I had extracted from the end of St Valentine's sump as a snorkel, and then to blow bubbles with. Instead of rigging the pull-through to the Crabwalk as I had done before, we took the high traverse above it. This was incredibly easy it the start, and I naively said so. Therefore I was surprised at the challenge on the way up to the eyehole whereby, above a rather significant drop, the footholds became incredibly scarce, and the elbows I wedged into the rock became my lifeline. I was very grateful here to have Tim's guidance pointing me to the next elbow-hole after each one, but thoroughly enjoyed the little adrenaline hit that accompanied this section. After crawling through the eyehole I found myself in a nice beehive-y chamber on the left, and along a beautiful wet crawl - because I was at the front now, the puddles were totally still and reflected the snow-white stals above them as if they were an oil painting. We dropped back into the crabwalk and went down the free-climb to the bottom - this, I found much much easier than I had anticipated, and very enjoyable. The footholds and handholds are great, and even for a shortish person like me, it is easy to lower yourself from one to the next.
We continued up Garland's Pot, and out into the night air - 11:08pm. I was exhausted, but also so psyched - what an absolutely incredible trip. The East Canal really does put the rest of Giant's to shame - and I will certainly be returning to visit my toad-friend again (in a few weeks actually, weather permitting). This time with an inflatable pink flamingo to ride through the sump.
(All photos taken by Tim)
My Favourite Cave
P8 – The Cave of Progress and Bessoden Dreams
Benedict Claxton Stevens - Nottingham Uni Caving Club (NUCC)
I have a weird fascination with P8. I’ve been back 3 times and still have not had enough or even close. It was my first SRT cave in anger, rather hungover and out of my depth at CHECC 2018, Sophie Draper, and a ragged bunch took me on an adventure. It was my 5th ever cave the time at which I truly fell in love with caving and like nothing I had ever seen and (Well except wretched rabbit in Ease Gill, but I was so mind bendingly shattered I didn’t register it at the time). Dropping down under the entrance waterfall, a most excellent wet entrance that felt like trial by fire enough, a few scrambles and the cave starts proper. Weaving down my first phreatic passage, I was in awe of the variation caves could take, staring up into the canyon above while fitting through perfectly human shaped valleys and sliding round corners feeling surprisingly agile for a worse for ware, 6’3 broad lad.
Zipping down idiots leap the journey below felt like it stretched out forever in trepidation. Then an eternity spent at the back of the line for the first pitch before then seeing it open up into what looked like a yawning abyss below. The abyss like nature I now realise being nearly entirely due to the shite lighting abilities of a Petzl Pixa 2, which I replaced the very next day from the ever-accommodating Tony Seddon. On consideration, shouting over the first pitch waterfall was not the finest place to remember how a descender worked but I made it, joined the first traverse, buggered it up royaly due to some Tarzan like rigging and had to ascend back up to finally reach my compatriots at the first ledge halfway down the main chamber. And there we stopped, turned round and returned leaving behind the inviting many passages beyond. The return felt a huge amount faster as is the way with caves except for a rather major blip due to my incapability of climbing idiots leap without many helping hands.
4 Months later I was back in the safe (?) hands of NUCCs beloved wild Welshman Jacob. We zoomed along running into another club, having a nice chat and getting into the main cave proper, now with a better illumination system what appeared to be yawning abysses now felt friendly and we continued exploring all the holes we could see, taking bold steps and peering past formations for ways on. We made it down to the main sump and had an adventure to Bens dig, disliked the bad air and made a quick retreat leaving with many more interesting leads left to follow and thoroughly enjoying the soaking on the way out. It was my first time visiting a cave twice and boy had things changed, the water level was lower, and I was surer footed and more confident (and less hungover). Seeing myself improve was a shock. Idiots leap I now managed while not deftly, on my second attempt, the skills of bridging, wedging and elbows now much more familiar.
My third trip to P8 was a big clusterNUCC of the best kind, 7 people split into two groups where I now got the opportunity to share with others who hadn’t been before, suddenly being the local expert and my first taste of leading was another big step up. Being somewhat responsible for finding the dam cave was a right laugh/dreadful experience searching every shakehole from the carpark to the horizon and spreading the team across the field until the exceedingly obvious one came in site. We ran a new club 80m all the way from pitch 1 to the bottom of pitch 2 in a hilarious breadcrumb trail down the canyon between and all was uneventful if navigationally challenged and filled with joyous times like swinging like a pendulum onto the rope on the way back up.
Over 3 trips, I had gone from novice green eared caver, to a slightly less incompetent soul to suddenly part leading a trip. P8s been with me my whole short caving career. And I’m excited to see more of it.
So far since lockdown I’ve planned no less than 4 trips back, all thwarted one way or another but I will be back. I whole heartily recommend P8. A cave more friendly I could not identify. A kids play park, assault course, museum and cathedral wrapped into one. And a Grand Day Out.
A very good spread of entries, and first prize goes to Wassil with his Daren Cilau entry. A huge goes out to all entrants and especially to our sponsor, Starless river, always a staunch friend to CHECC! Thank you!
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