I had a peculiar feeling before this trip. I could not place it for the entire week. Friday came and a gradual realisation dawned on me. I did not want to go caving. Panicked by this most alien lack of desire I scoured the most relevant texts I had to hand. Casteret and Waltham, inspirational no doubt but the tales of adventure and karst only added to my confusion. Should the caving be this good, why was I so afflicted by the maladay of apathy? Then I hit upon the tome by Marbach and Tourte, the caving holy text, Alpine Caving Techniques. Of course my answer lay within:
Lack of interest in invitations to participate in a weekend trip may reveal an as-yet unrecognized illness or psychological problem, perhaps one which only your subconscious has so far detected. This latent dysfunction can only reduce your body's physical and mental capacity to function at an optimal level.
Without reading a paragraph further I resolved to tackle this latent dysfunction, hoping to restore myself a more optimal caving state. It was 4pm by this time and the club has been itching to leave without a latecomer for some time. I hastily threw my gear into a bag, including my "Chekhov's Gun" bag of caving comf that I had carefully washed.
Packing was swift at stores and as we had the superior Dubz Bruv we did not have to sit in the minibus for half an hour before leaving. We elected to take the M3 and then the A roads past stone henge rather than the M4 to spice things up a bit. It is a fine route, featuring a large Morrisons at Basingstoke.
We arrived at the Belfry shortly after 9pm. Exeter were already there, though from the disarray I do not think they had beaten us by much. We settled in and began a long night of debuachery with NUCC who were staying across the way in the SMCC.
Mendips was unexpectedly late this year - I'd been used to the usual early January experience, but this time, with two 2018 SRT trips under the belt, we drove to the Belfry with a large group. Our numbers swelled up with Tetley, Janet, Mark and Dave Kp all turning up at some point, with what I assume was the aim to touch base before Slovenia and get a peak at potential Slov newcomers.
Eastwater Cavern: David Wilson, Jeannie Michaels, Peter Fenton, Rhys Tyers
Part of my plan to lift my ennui was to avoid Swildon's. Whilst a fine cave I think Swildon's poisoning (no, not just Weil's disease) is something to be careful of. In the morning we gathered and our nominated Fascists, Jacob and Tanguy, drew up the joint ICCC/NUCC trips. Happily I got my wish, assigned a crack Eastwater team; Davie Dubz, Jeannie Michaels and NUCCer Peter Fenton. My plan was to try and go a little further than usual. I have always treated Eastwater as a Sunday cave but it seemed there was more to it than that. Specifically the 13 Pots round trip looked like an excellent introduction the the wider Eastwater world.
We got changed and ready in fafftacular style. When I went to get my furry, wetsocks, etc. from my bag I discovered that I had instead packed a carrier bag of pants and socks that I intended to throw away. Unfortunately that bag and the one with my caving comf were basically identical in size, weight, and feel and in my haste on Friday I had grabbed the wrong bag. I scrounged up some spares and then we spent an age looking for enough slings. I had begun extracting the cabling from the walls when we surfaced just enough for our trip. That combined with an NUCC ladder and willful ignorance completed our packing. The walk is quite short but we were accosted by a man driving out of the Belfry.
"Where are you going today?"
"Ah. Make sure you pay Mrs Something the access fee... or she'll shoot you."
Pay? For Eastwater? You can't, like, own a cave, man. Oh well. I ran back inside and gathered some random coins. After arriving at the filthy stream that runs into Easterwater I left the others to go and find the 'owner'. At Eastwater Farm I knocked on the door. A very friendly woman answered the door (without a gun and a suspect without the disposition to shoot people) and she told me about visiting her daughter in New Zealand for a while before I was allowed to pay the £4. Apparently she's milking a lot of cows.
Finally allowed in the cave I led our team into the familiar entrance. A tower of boulders and choss pissing water from every crack leads down. A rotten string marks the safe route through the choke. Down we go. Towards the end Jeannie asks in a worried tone if the entire trip will be following string through boulders. I assure it won't be and demonstrate by climbing down the last boulder into one of the many vadose trenches.
The trench leads downwards and it is really is not very far at all to the left turn into the Upper Traverse. We slide into it. It is a delightful feature. A smooth walled bedding plane, at a 45 degree angle. It gradually narrows at the top and bottom leaving a humanly passable route across the middle, into which you must wedge yourself for fear of entrapment in the narrowness below. There was some protest from my charges but I think they enjoyed it. I certainly enjoy the exit from the traverse. An upwardly angled smooth tube that deposits you in, surprise, surprise, a vadose trench.
We strike upwards. If horizontal the passage would be a low crawl but the angle is such that it is an upright clamber. We quickly reach the first of two small chambers. This may or may not be where Kentish's Cairn route leads off. Ducking under the far wall we find the second small chamber and the incredibly inviting smooth tube of the Baker's Chimney. We slip down this entertainingly tight climb and pop out at the top of the Canyon. Ooooh, a vadose trench in a bedding plane. Lovely. Mendip Underground suggests that it more pleasurable to slide down in the bedding plane than it is to walk in the trench and I think I agree.
We slip (a common verb for the deliciously smooth rock in Eastwater) down and find the tube leading off to the Crossroads. A hint that you are in the right place is the road sign placed here. A crawl to left brings us to the head of Dolphin Pot, and the furthest I had been in Eastwater. Davie and I spend a while rigging up a handline and a belay rope. There is a very sturdy thread here to belay from, though it requires two larksfooted slings and does not place the belayer in the best position.
Supposedly you can free climb Dolphin Pot but I was glad to have Davey belaying me and towards the bottom, where it widens out into a small chamber, I stopped trying to climb and allowed myself to be lowered. Jeannie and Peter both did a better job than me at climbing and joined me, with Davie abseiling down last. Two very short crawls lead quickly to the head of Dolphin Pitch. An awkward approach through some boulders leads to the wide chamber.
Davie and I once again spent a long time (probably longer than a ladder proficient team would) rigging up something we were happy with but in the end we ended up with the ladder y-hanged off a natural and a bolt (described as untrustworthy by MU) and the belay off a wedged boulder above the ladder. As I unfurled the ladder it did not seem to reach the bottom. Oh well, only one way to find out. As I reached the bottom I could see it was a bit over a meter short. I had Davey lower me the last metre and then tested to see if I could get back on. By leaping from a nearby boulder I found that I could mount the ladder. I beckoned everyone down, confident that the return was possible.
A short crawl and a moderately airy traverse over the 'eroded stalagmites' lead us to the head of Harris's passage. This descends in a series of somewhat intimidating climbs, though most turn out to be absolutely fine and are easier on the way up. Arriving at a gravel and boulder filled floor our handwritten notes warned us now to stop descending and traverse higher, over a boulder to the crawl that would lead us to the Bold Step. This we did, and I found myself on a small angled ledge above some rather deep drops.
The bold step in question is required to get to a ledge on the opposite wall from which you can continue the clamber down. I was wary of this and the group built up behind on the small ledge until Davey barged through and slipped straight across the step. He climbed down a bit and declared it to to be completely fine. I pluck up the courage to cross, performing a slow reach with my legs whilst sitting rather than a step, and find that Davey is very wrong and it is not fine. He still manages to convince me to start tying a handline for the next section. This handline turns out to be mostly useless but the free climb is not terribly hard. The consequences of falling are severe though, I suspect.
We end up at the top of the 13 Pots, with Peter and Jeannie left at the top of the Bold Step. We elect to turn around for fear that the return journey will be a little too perilious for first year cavers.
I enjoyed the way out the way out immensely. I think we only took a wrong turn once, at the top of Harris's passage where the vadose trench splits in two (not obvious on the way down). I erroneously picked the left and soon realised it was wrong. I correct my error by doing a horrific squeeze into the correct trench. I instructed Peter to just climb back down and go up the correct way but he didn't listen (I don't know if willfuly) and completed the squeeze with no complaints.
We had a brief Scooter sing a long. I thought about attempting the route back via Kentish Cairn but apparently it is quite tight and I wasn't confident that exit wasn't in an unstable boulder collapse so we tracked back the exact way we came in. At the top of the Baker's chimney Jeannie informed me it would take her 2 hours to cross the Upper Traverse again. Barely 20 minutes later we were on the surface, in daylight no less. A lovely five and half hours underground.
The evening was enjoyable and we stocked up on supplies on a now traditional trip to the Soyderrr Bahhhhrrn (Cider Barn), a sort of bar in a shed that does takeaway cider. We got to taste quite a few but I had tragically already bought a large quantity before I tasted my favourite. Note to me: next time get the rum infused cider.
Swildon's Hole: Jacob Puhalo-Smith, Lorna Watson, Natalie Whittingham, Ryan Boultbee, Tanguy Racine, Arun Paul, Georgia Kouti, Hayley Arthurs, Peter Ganson, Jennifer Ryder, Laura Harrison, Rita Borg, Tetley
Swildon's for me. But first, with 27 people underground it's time for a memory game: who went where?? I should really have written this down earlier.
|Swildon's||Tanguy, Jacob, Ryan, Natalie, Lorna|
|Swildon's||Tetley, Jennifer, Rita, two NUCC??|
|Swildon's||Peter and Arun, Hayley, Georgia|
|Eastwater||Rhys, David Wilson, Peter and Jeannie|
|GB||Dave Kp, Una, Diss, someone else I can't remember|
|Lionel's Hole, Goatchurch Cavern, Sludge Pit||Louise, Gosia, Polish caver, Bhavik, Bhavnisha|
Anyway. Swildon's for me, with the aim to complete the short round, despite the recent reports of the Mud Sump being fairly aqueous. Having never been through in high water conditions I was keen to have a look and if need be, to bail it.
Bailing is probably the next most selfless thing to do after digging.
We got in first without any problems - I do love the Wet Way. At least there is no pretence that you can stay dry in the cave, and it provides a refreshing sequence of cascades. It's also quick, and as today was no exception to the rule, you generally can hear a group of scouts or other wonderful people having fun on Jacob's Ladder. Therefore, Wet Way to overtake them to the ladder pitch is always nice.
Then, there's the now traditional chockstone handline on the old forty. At first I couldn't find the rope in our tacklesack, so we all downclimbed without (which was still good fun). Then I found it, so climbed back out to set it up for the next group. We went down the ladder, no problem - I SRT'ed down as always - and progressed to the double pots, there's always someone falling in to provide entertainment. More aqueous fun!
At this point, I'd talked about and described Tratman's Temple to Jacob, and keen to find out how accurate my descriptions were, let him lead from the front to find it himself. We overshot.
But then again, it's not at all obvious for first timers. We climb up the massive flowstone formation, pick our way above the stumps of stalaagmites and start the st Pauls series. Again, there's a sweet satisfaction at squeezing past the flowstone (insert croll screeching again rock soundbite here) and emerging like a beached whale on the other side. Being the first to step in the puddles was also decidedly pleasant.
But the company of Jacob, Natalie, Lorna and Ryan was really worth it and it was going to prove vital.
We finally made it to the Mud Sump passage, signs of obvious engineering cropping up, leading to a descending tunnel with ominously still, stifling air, and a very ful-looking puddle. I waded in, water reaching the event horizon quickly. I started a palpation of the wall with my hands, running my fingers down the rock toward the cleft where the way on was, but even reaching as low as I could without properly diving in, I met a solid resistance.
Disappointed, I turned around and voiced my findings. We all looked at the dam, then at the funnel and then ar the tube leading to the next, then at the upstream pool, and then, unconsciously started to work: I picked a bucket and finding a comfortable position started to bail the sump. Quickly, the dam filled up, so Jacob stood by the funnel, and guided water down the tube to fill the next one.
Quickly we found a working rythm and in about twenty minutes, we'd gained about 8 centimetres. On either side of the pool sediment banks appeared. We stopped for a bit of relief, and heard the trickle of water. The second upstream dam had overflowed and started to refill the sump.
We moved upstream and had a look at what awaited us: another dam, about 10cm higher in elevation than the last. It was easy to fill this one to the brim, but when that was done, we knew we had to move more water to get an airspace in the original duck. Just two metres of narrow rift upstream we saw that the slope of the passage inverted, dipping away from the sump: any water thrown over there simply exited the system.
So we spent more time transferring the water from the third upstream dam to the other passage making a chain to pass buckets because there wasn't a handy tube/funnel set-up.
We spent hours trying to lower the level of the sump, due to the inevitable necessity of moving the required volume of water four times over. I kept on going back to the end of the sump, trying to reach through the rock arch with my arm, but the rest was absolutely gorgeous teamwork and sheer determination [ed not really - maybe just stupidity, spare time and a lack of imagination]. We had crossed the Rubicon by then and spent too much time to just give up the glory of being the first team through in months; eventually we managed to get about 10cm airspace. Even then, it looked unpleasant to pass, but we'd just about reached turnaround time.
As we were gathering our kit, we heard some voices down the passage. Cavers! Would they arrive at the sump, throw a couple of buckets and claim victory over sump? We had to tell them what we'd done, spread the news that it was almost done and then... , perhaps then be the spark that lit the fire that overthrew the mud sump.
We chatted for a bit with the group of three (who for some reason were exploring muddy tubes in the st Paul series) bade them good luck at the sump and went our way back to the streamway and up the climbs to the entrance. By the time we crept above the Tratman Temple, the exertion from the previous hours got to us. Our arms, legs were leaden going up the sideways rift, up every little climb and squeeze separating us from the ladder.
Lorna had a very painful shoulder, and as we bumped with Peter/Arun's crew at the ladder, I gave my SRT gear to her so she wouldn't have to use her arm strength too much. This was a good decision and in no time, we were going up and out. We regrouped at the Water Chamber for some hot squash and chocolate, before finally going up the Short Dry Way and Jacobs Ladder.
The air was sharp and cold, with plenty of stars to see, but Jacob, who was wearing a wetsuit only sped ahead to get changed in the warmer SMCC. That left Ryan, Lorna Natalie and I to walk back at a relaxed pace, talking all the while about stars and other vague subjects. I started having a mild headache, which did not abate as I changed in the Belfry.
Glad to know that everyone else had made it back, and that dinner was cooked, I put on several layers in front of the wood stove, accepted a Jaffa Cake?? from Jennifer and sat in front of the stove, barely eating, letting heat wash over me. Seeing that my state did not improve, I just went up to bed, dimly aware that people were attempting the staircase bannister squeezes and snuggled inside my sleeping bag where I have a wonderful 12 hours sleep.
Manor Farm Swallet: David Wilson, Jennifer Ryder, Peter Ganson, Rhys Tyers
Sunday morning brought with it the usual head full of pig shit. Nothing that 6 cups of tea can't fix though. The previous evening Jennifer had identified a suspiciously nice sounding cave called Manor Farm Swallet and myself, Davie and Peter had signed up.
Saturday was grade 3 faff. I think Sunday was grade 4. But eventually we had a GB group and a Manor Farm group in the bus and we drove off. We got to Manor Farm and I wandered about in their garden until I found a door with some people. A man took some money off me and did not mention any antipodean children. Then I gave the GBers a lift down the road. There we met a group of Exeter cavers also doing GB. I waited for the GBers to change then drove their stuff back to the Manor Farm parking spot where my team left to start rigging. I changed and chased after them.
The entrance is just behind the farm garden, through an incredibly muddy field full of vicious dogs, inside a small walled off enclosure. We elected to SRT cos ladders are so 70s. Davie rigged again, with a belay off a scaff bar and a backup to a metal gate that I'm sure would hold if asked to. Down the dug out entrance shaft there is a downwards sloping crawl which pops out in a chamber. Shortly after the second pitch (apparently free climbable appears). Its quite a tight pitch, a bit worse than Bar maybe.
At the bottom the cave gets going. It is rather like a classic horizontal French cave in miniature with the hole thing basically being a well decorated ramp down to -100. There's lots of climbing around near the stream, pretty formations, a cool series of squeezes to bypass the one unfreeclimbable drop. It's a great cave. Until Sarum Inlet.
Here a literal stream of shit appears above you and coats all the walls. Unfortunately this is in a narrow rift so we got quite intimate with it. Somewhere shortly after there is a climb up and I think the cave gets nicer again (away from the shit) but we missed the climb and ended up in a tiny chamber full of shit and flies. There was one horrible crawl leading off. We each had a look and noped straight out, all except Davie who dived in with glee.
He was not a happy caver but he perserved eventually emerging I believe in a small chamber that died. In a desperate attempt to find a no shit crawl way bak he wedged himself in a tiny rift that was almost, but not quite, big enough to pass through and avoid the crawl. We did get to see his sad defeated face though. He returned, wretching, and we made a hasty exit from the shit room and gradually out of the cave.
We were approaching our meet up time with Arun so I zoomed out, stripped down to my furry and drove to GB whilst the others derigged. There I picked up Jeannie and Georgia and took them back to Manor House to change. My group did not turn up and eventually an Exeter car drove past and we were informed that Arun and Rita were out. I drove back to GB, picked them up, and drove back to Manor House just in time for my group. They all changed and we went back, all thoroughly satisfied with our trips.
Swildon's Hole: Bhavik Lodhia, Dave Kirkpatrick, Rebecca Diss, Tanguy Racine
Disclaimer: the following contains scenes of intense determination that casual readers may find distressing: visit dontdothetanguything.com for counselling.
Compared with the previous day, the mud sump was almost empty. I dived in on my back, followed by Bhavik, Diss and Dave Kp. Thanks to the Old Boys another 15 or so centimetres of air space had been added. It was lovely, and much to my delight, the rest of the cave had this pristine feel from months of absence of heavy caver traffic. Maybe it was just me.
There was some more bailing at the First Trouble - I took off my footloop/shockcord which kept getting in the way of the buckets and only realised a duck later - and for once, I left it as proper duck, rather than a damp crawl. It was fun navigating away from the pendants dipping in the water. With a sinking feeling however, we reached the phreatic tube duck, which was also very full-looking. A couple of minutes of bailing did nothing to improve it, so we left it at that and went back round. Six ducks for everyone (ten for me, when I realised the lack of footloop and before we decided to turn around).
I suppose there was a bit of Diss-appointment at not doing Sump I, but hey! that's a reason to go back to Swildons.