Breakthrough in Fairy Holes (Weardale)


Here's the next update (part 1 of 2). I hope you'll forgive the length of it. It is an amalgamation of reports by Lee, Adele and myself. All underground photos by Lee.

On my previous outing with James I hadn’t really believed that we would be through the sump with such ease and not have such a strenuous time as Mark had endured. Getting through meant I could dispense with the idea of lumping the drill and lots of batteries to the rift. Everything else we have tried to push in Fairyholes has needed multiple trips, usually in the winter, which have proved to be hard yards: we explored high level passage and ended up freezing to death, and when we tried to push first inlet I nearly drowned after slipping while furiously wielding a mini pick before Lee pulled me back out. So it was actually a pleasant relief only having to visit the rift twice to make it big enough for a less strenuous traverse than Mark Sims had completed.

Lee has been my long suffering Fairyholes victim. On my previous trip with James when reaching the T junction passage looking at open cave beyond, it was Lee Smith, Chris Twigg , John Dale and Ian Cummins I thought of. James seemed to understand this and we turned around, deciding to leave it for the survey and to share the fun with people that have put up with my obsession. Friends I dragged up promising that the entrance pipe will be fine (the pipe is the main obstacle if the cave is wet). Usually, “It might be a tad wet but it will be certainly passable”, only to find it not fine. My suggestions of “well the flow will just fire us out” never did go down too well.


The entrance pipe when it’s “a tad wet”

Exiting the cave with James I felt relaxed for once about when I was going to be able to get back underground at fairies. Lee and Chris Twigg had already said they would return with me the day after next. After a quick chat with John Cameron he was hooked, and I suspected it would be fairly easy to get Mark Sims to come along - which it was. The team was set, and we met for a quick breakfast and to the quarry for 11.

Having caved with Adele for quite a few years now I've obviously been to Fairyholes more times than any other cave and have had some memorable trips there, trying to stop Adele sliding face first into a pool in first inlet but struggling to keep hold of her muddy legs, and shivering in the high level while Si and Di were surveying a new passage and only able to zap 2 metre legs due to Adele's fag smoke that we were convinced was being sucked down a hole into the streamway being only two of them. However, I have only been to the sump once before while on a YSS trip but knew I would be dragged there at some point to have a go at the sump, but bad weather always seemed to get in the way.

During the recent warm weather, I could see that Adele was formulating a plan so chose to make myself as busy as possible at work to avoid what was coming and thought, poor Mark when he fell into her clutches by having a holiday that needed to be taken. I was callout so got the good news as soon as they surfaced that Mark had made it past the sump and that it goes. The joy was soon followed by a sinking feeling as I knew what was coming next. Thankfully, Adele returned with James a few days later so at least I didn't have to carry tools, although there was a threat of having to take a drill and 5 batteries, but this was abandoned after the successful trip to widen the sump/rift.

After breakfast in Stanhope, we met Mark in the quarry and were soon heading through the entrance pipe and made the long trip to the sump. I had never seen the water so low and it was pleasantly warm, maybe this is going to be nicer than I thought.

We dumped food at the Choir so that we could have a picnic on the return trip to boost morale and energy. Mark took the surveying equipment as we all voted him the least likely to complain. Fairyholes after long trips digging can put ya on ya arse. I felt acutely aware that this was my third trip in 5 days, leading me to worry if a “putting me on my arse” incident was going to occur.

After our recent breakthrough I couldn’t wait to get back. I met the others in the quarry, eager to get underway. The now much more familiar stream was enjoyable again as it had been before, and it didn’t seem long until we reached the rift, which was now almost unrecognisable from when I’d arrived there previously. It still felt pretty snug, though! We opted not to start the survey in the slimy rift over deep water for fear of immediately losing the survey gear, so started in the chamber beyond. This was larger than I remembered - a pleasant surprise.

Maybe it was the message not getting to me about how to tackle the first tight bit of the rift, or perhaps the fact I have the flexibility of an ironing board, but I managed to get wedged and could not bend my back enough to get through. Should I go back and start again? Nah I'll get Chris to help me pull some more mud off the wall and I was soon through. After this the rest of the rift was plain sailing and I was soon through where Adele, JC, Chris, and Mark were getting the surveying kit together, and we headed into the new passage.

Arriving at the rift we were all through and I felt I needed to start making my excuses about how I’m terrible at surveying. To start, all went well: Chris Twigg was on disto duty, Mark on book, and John and I were ferreting around for stations.


Surveying begins

In the space of a few legs that should clearly have been within a few degrees of one another, we realised that Chris’s backup light was very magnetic as 90 degree bends were appearing on my phone! We reallocated the offending torch and got going properly, soon reaching the corner that marked the limit of my initial foray on breakthrough day.

I knew relatively little about the passage that followed other than it was mainly walking for a few hundred metres to a junction. As well as being sizeable most of the time, the passage was pleasantly varied, with enlargements at areas of breakdown, some narrower passage, and some particularly gloopy mud that made hanging around surveying a bit problematic. With 5 of us in the group, surveying felt very sociable, and meant that the cantankerous disto could be passed between us once peoples’ patience wore thin.


Some sizeable new passage

As I was elected trip iPhone photographer I stayed at the back while the survey team made surprisingly fast progress through the cave. Adele had told me how big it was once through the restriction but I didn't quite believe her - Adele is definitely a glass half full person when it comes to Fairy's but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Sorry for doubting you, I'll never do it again.

After around 150 metres of surveying, I got the shout that we were out of Tipex and could I go back to get some more. That was quick, I thought, I hope we have enough for the rest of the trip. Then I started to notice the stream looking rather Tipexy as it flowed past. I headed back for more and really got to see just how easy it was to move through this section of cave, a rare treat in Fairyholes. I spent the rest of the trip worrying that my lens had steamed up too much while taking several hundred action shots of Mark drawing in the passage details in pocket topo and trying to get the shape of the passage at each station.
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Part 2 of 2:

It was around this time Chris’s light failed. Chris had been talking about the disto behaving weirdly, which I had largely ignored, but it would seem he was speaking the truth. We are still unsure what the disto was doing but it seemed to have been in an odd mood occasionally firing a shot without me pressing the button. This led to some colourful language from me, and Mark was having to frantically delete the odd reading.


Light failure (left) and the surveying continues (right)

Ironically, I always find it hard to gauge distances while surveying. Being the limiting factor, I was just sketching as fast as I could at what I hoped was an acceptable level of detail and accuracy, but the passage just seemed to go on and on. The ever-present draught soon cooled us off, and before long talk focussed almost entirely on our temperatures, particularly in the relatively deep-water sections. At about the point that the shivering was making disto-use and sketching problematic, we reached the junction that marked the limit of Adele and James’s exploration. That seemed like a sensible place to end the survey, so after reading the stats (370 m of survey legs with a whopping 2.6 m of vertical range), we took a look along the left and right hand branches to see what followed.

Surveying terminated by the cold

Chris (no doubt hoping for some mine passage having spent so long in only natural cave!) went for the relatively unappealing right-hand branch, while I opted to follow John to the left, where most of the water and draught was emanating. After some more easy going passage we reached a narrowing that was weirdly reminiscent of the previous limit. At this point John suggested I head through first, and thankfully the walls narrowed to a slightly lesser extent than further downstream, meaning no widening was needed. Carefully ducking under a sizeable curtain, I emerged once again in walking height passage, looking at a very distinctive calcite slab that bridged the passage ahead of me.

After skirting round it, another 20 m or so led to a boulder and sediment slope where the water seemed to be lost and we were faced with a choke. We had a bit of a poke here, and it certainly holds good prospects, but given that time was ticking on and we had no idea where Lee & Chris had got to, we returned to the junction, thankfully now significantly warmer than when we’d left.

Adele, Mark and JC down the lovely roomy left-hand branch and Chris down the tighter and less enjoyable looking right-hand branch. Oh well, right-hand branch it is. After around 100 metres of crab walking the passage started to open up and became rather roomy, we soon came to a mud bank - should we head over or follow the stream? Stream it was. It had started to close down again and were now crawling convinced that it would come to an end any minute but after climbing over a boulder we came to a chamber. I won't go into the details now but man I wish I hadn't left my phone with the survey gear…

Back at the last survey station around 5 pm I knew this was going to take a while to exit. I tried to keep everyone’s spirits high on the way out offering advice - “well it’s gonna be easier if we keep coming frequently”, “it’s going to be tonnes easier once you learn the cave”. Mark had some family commitments so “ ran ahead”. We were all out of the cave around 9 pm and in the pub by 9.30. This was a superb day.

I didn't really process what we had found for a few days and now the bruises are turning yellow I am pretty chuffed with what we got done and I'm sure it's going to be on most cavers’ trip list.

It is very early days, and we will be back time and time again, but I'd like to say thanks to Adele for involving me and for her endless enthusiasm without which the sump would still be the end of the cave for who knows how long.


The results of our efforts


Staff member
How long does this make the cave? and what is the straight line distance from entrance to end. Sounds a bloody long way.
The joint write ups are brilliant, well done everyone.

Thanks for the full story last night, it was great to see all the videos and hear the tales first hand. Looks like lots more to come, we wait with baited breath, and no, I still really don't want to go for a look!!! :ROFLMAO: