With only eight people, packing for the trip took less time and effort as our kit got to travel inside the minibus with us. Ben forgot his sleeping bag again, thankfully before we set off this time. On the way some of us closely examined the caves on the menu, and with care I decided to prefer going down Maskhill Mine and up Oxlow Cavern, a cunning plan to avoid all the vertical ascents shown on the rigging guide.
Back to Derbyshire, then. Just two weeks before, Fiona and I had a chat at the NPC and decided we weren’t going to go - Derbyshire is muddy and awful. But then Tanguy emailed the club with the list of names of people going, and my name was on there, and so I went.
I had my research group’s Christmas lunch on the Friday, so by the time I turned up at stores I was very drunk. I had a nagging feeling that I had some duties, so I packed a bag of spare kit that on Saturday morning turned out to be almost entirely oval karabiners, and not the spare helmet that was the only thing we needed. I was sober by around 10pm, and had the beginnings of a hangover by midnight when we arrived at the TSG. Rhys’ driving certainly helped to wake me up - it turns out the red hazard light that warns of low temperatures is one of the only parts of the minibus that functions correctly, and we had a lovely skid across the road to prove it.
Although a sign said “Road closed, access only”, the slopes along Winnats Pass had cloaked themselves with snow to welcome us. A game of ice frisbee commenced above the cave entrance Rhys was rigging wearing a green helmet, before we followed down the mine one by one. The first half of the route was tight and muddy, with a lot of rebelays to test our SRT skills. With a camera dangling in a tackle sack beneath me, I often managed to tangle all the ropes I was attached to. The water bottle alarmingly tumbled out once as well down a tiny cascade, at which point I took my responsibility a lot more seriously. I successfully delivered the tackle sack, its content, and myself to above the waterfall chamber, where due to a shortage of rope we failed to exchange route with the other team. Sometimes things simply do not follow plans. Ascending the cave turned out to be fun and not tiring at all as I discovered a lot of footholds along the route. I was sent back up first and Rhys’ music and James’ singing were reassuring to hear from a safe distance. I headed off with Ben to the minibus and watched the derigging group’s failed attempt to ride tackle sacks down the slopes.
The sweet potatoes for supper were absolutely delicious.
Though I ate barely any breakfast I was looking forward to doing Oxlow as despite three prior Derbyshire trips I hadn’t been there before. It didn’t disappoint. Finding that it’s a flat walk to the entrance automatically turned it into one of my favourite caves before I’d even gone underground. It is also very pleasant, so that helps.
With some photos at the entrance and shouted directions to the Maskhill contingent who were wandering aimlessly across the fell, we got going. Jack was rigging, followed by Peter, with Dave and I supervising Barbora who hadn’t done SRT in a cave before. She didn’t need much help though.
The entrance pitch is engineered and leads into the short second pitch (5m if that). Down a slope and round a corner to the left, you briefly drop onto hands and knees to get into a small chamber. A backup rope leads to the next pitch which has an easy deviation and down another slope to the fourth pitch; the rope is a useful handline.
The fourth pitch features a vaguely trickier deviation but this just means it’s more fun to descend. We landed at the top of the 55m ‘slope’ which was the only feature any of us had heard about. All of the water that had unobtrusively accompanied me until this point suddenly fell on my head as I swung into the window. I was not the only one to later comment on this.
The slope certainly deserves a mention (and the rope). I haven’t encountered a feature like it before in a cave. At the head of the fifth pitch Jack did some nice rigging to avoid a shit deviation, and we all dropped down in quick succession. A final downward slope leads to a climb through a hole in the floor on the left. The passage opens out into the West Chamber, which is reasonably big by UK standards (to my eyes).
There was no sign of the Maskhill party and we left our fuck-up rope at the bottom of the fifth pitch. This bag also contained at least 20 unnecessary maillons plus assorted krabs we had brought along for the hell of it – we were looking forward to abandoning that to the others. We looked at the next pitch, which had quite a lot of water going down it (the water comes from Maskhill). So we were quite content not to have to go down there.
We settled down to wait for the rest of the gang “until we get unreasonably cold”. We could actually see their lights and hear James’ unique screeching for a long time but they had no idea we were there although Jack shouted at them repeatedly. About an hour passed before communication was possible. Our eagerness for a more challenging ascent was all for nothing; they had run out of rope. Classic.
Back up Oxlow we headed, Dave derigging, Jack hanging back to deal with a bag. Before Barbora and I could escape I was given the bag of fuck-up rope plus those darned maillons. Barbora led the way up the fifth pitch and slope. Here we ultimately bunched up behind another group of cavers, who had actually been ahead of us on the way down but did nothing of importance so weren’t worth mentioning until now. Barbora was happy to go up the fourth pitch (with the deviation) first so off she went. I waited at the bottom with my back to the waterfall but I still got wet.
The other group of cavers were bombing up and down the fourth pitch and yelling at each other with no apparent regard for our presence. With both groups using the same in-situ bit of tat as the deviation it was difficult to work out what was going on and where Barbora was. Eventually our rope went slack – rope free was called – and though I could now get a better look and shout directly at someone I still had no idea what they were doing so I set off up the pitch. Literally as soon as I had clipped the rope back into the deviation after passing it the guy below me immediately put his weight on their rope, trapping me at the deviation as our ropes were tangled. Fortunately this time yelling got me somewhere as I screamed at the bloke to get off his rope and hold on for a few moments. He did so and I managed to get away from the deviation before he started lurking just far enough underneath me to not get hit in the face with my tacklebag.
I apologised for being slow although 1) I wasn’t being that slow and 2) I feel he was being a bit overeager and let him overtake Barbora and I once we were off the pitch head. Barbora didn’t want to be in front any longer so I led the way out, which was quick and uneventful. I deviously left the unneeded maillons as well as the bag at the bottom of the second pitch. It was much colder out in the open air and by the time Peter had joined Barbora and I on the surface we were shivering.
Glad of the windbreak the van provided we changed and I uttered those immortal words I thought I never would: “I feel a bit sick” à la Kate. I huddled into my coat as an 80’s mixtape serenaded us and the bedraggled cavers who showed up to change one-by-one, two-by-two. A couple of hours later everyone had changed and gingerly I drove back to Winnats Pass and onwards to the TSG. Here my unease that I had become ill was confirmed as I barely ate anything and felt cold even in my 5 layers inside a sleeping bag while everyone else gradually took off more and more clothes.
We’d packed rope for an Oxlow-Maskhill exchange, with me leading Peter, Barbora, DKP and Fiona down Oxlow. I should’ve known things weren’t going to go well when Rhys confidently lead his team in precisely the wrong direction, before returning 15 minutes later. There was an outdoor instructor and his team ahead of us in Oxlow, which made rigging easy - I just copied what they did. The cave itself is quite impressive - a nice, slightly tight descent for an entrance pitch, followed by a brief walk to the second pitch that lead immediately to an impressive cavern. The rigging was a bit exposed here, and the deviation off a bit of old tat was quite tight. I dropped down and ended up hanging out in a waterfall whilst the group in front of us left the next rigging point. Thoroughly soakded I kicked into the window and began to rig the next section, a long slope, just too steep to traverse.
Mines are a bit different to caves - there are a lot more loose rocks. We entertained ourselves by thoughtlessly kicking these loose rocks onto the heads of those below, before finally getting a grip and treading a bit more carefully. The rigging down the slope went fast, but then we waited at the top of the final pitch whilst the instructor in front of us rerigged a crazy y-hang (bolts about 2 m apart with an insanely tight deviation only 10 cm below the knot) as a crazy tri-hang that I faithfully aped.
The main cavern is vast, and we explored it as we waited patiently for the other group. After a long time, we saw lights in the distance, but couldn’t get a response to our ‘Ey-Ohs’ or ‘Whoop whoops’. I made a pillow out of an SRT bag with a water bottle inside, and curled up for a nap. This was precisely as comfortable as it sounds, and I quickly got quite cold. Fortunately, at this point Rhys was close enough to yell a message to us:
We looked at each other. We’d been waiting an hour for them, but we’d always expected them to screw up. I took a deep breath and yelled back:
Apparently my biting wit was lost on Rhys as he only head “OK”. We shook our heads and headed out, taking our irritation out on each other with some carefully kicked stones. DKP received a particularly fine rock to his back, which made a pleasant thumping noise, though he stoically didn’t complain.
We found the other group (who had left thirty minutes before us) still dilly dallying about, apparently having decided to rerig and descend into the wet cavern. Apparently unable to communicate, this caused no end of confusion about whether we could go up or not, which resulted in Peter getting very wet standing in a waterfall. I might venture that a problem with guided groups is that the instructees feel that they have no agency or responsibility, and so didn’t feel obliged to communicate with us, waiting instead for the instructor to step in.
We managed to get Fiona, Barbora and Peter out ahead of the last two from the instruction group, and DKP and I followed them out with DKP derigging. They were quite slow (I believe the guy derigging was on his second SRT trip, and was clearly in the early stages of hypothermia) so we had plenty of time to pick up a host of advice, tricks and tips for the instructor at the back. On the surface, it was bloody cold, so I helpfully yelled down to DKP that I wasn’t going to wait, and ran back to the bus to keep my legs warm. We waited an hour or so for the Maskhill group, went back to the TSG and ate a hearty stew, over which I massively exaggerated our story about the instructed group to the point that even DKP thought I was coming on a bit strong. I cleverly got everyone to sign an indemnity form for Peak the next day, we proved useful in convincing them to get up.
Instead of Giant’s Hole, we walked to Peak Cavern due to the road condition at Winnats Pass. The huge cave entrance was situated below Peveril Castle, decorated with Christmas trees inside for tourists. We went through a gate to start a walk on muddy slippery ground to the streamway. The passages formed a large maze that we venture around, submerging ourselves in deep water here and there. Jack, Rhys and James enjoyed it so much they performed a little dance for us. Alex committed himself to squeezing through a very muddy tunnel, and was rewarded with the discovery of a climb down to a streamway. With excitement we persuaded the others to come through. Jack’s expression was priceless as we observed him at the end of crawl. We were very lucky to bump into Jarvist diving. Satisfied, we turned back, somehow losing Ben on way. When Jack returned from his search, he requested three volunteers to help carry a body, just for our stupefied looks. Ben came back to us safe and sound behind Rhys. Before we exit through the tourist area of the cave we were required to scrub our oversuits clean. Many took the opportunity to apply their brushes to Jack.
We were lured to a nearby fish and chips shop after packing up back in the cottage, before leaving Derbyshire with content.
So I didn’t go caving on Sunday and for once I had a reason that was deemed acceptable by everyone, rather than just those who also prefer not to cave on Sunday (Dave). The club is full of keen people at the moment so we are in the minority. What has happened to the ICCC I joined?!
The next day, Rhys woke up and croaked quietly that we didn’t have much time to get into Peak. I loudly woke everyone, and they responded by ignoring me. Downstairs, Cecilia was chopping mushrooms, and a full breakfast was ready by the time the last stragglers emerged (DKP and Fiona had decided against a Sunday trip).
Peak was really good fun. I had bad memories of waiting for an hour in the Trenches last time I was here, but this time we just explored, passing through three or four oxbows in and out of the streamway, letting the newer cavers lead us deeper in (and keeping an eye on the way back out!). We met Jarv and his cave diving buddy near the entrance, and then again in the streamway as we climbed down a ladder. Thinking that would be the last of them, we climbed through a horrifically muddy, thrutchy crawl (lead by Cecilia, the little sadist) and then down a rope into the streamway. A series of confusing side passages lead us to a sump, where I joked about Jarv emerging, neoprene rippling over his svelte...and here my fan fiction was cut off by Jarv emerging from the other direction, ready to dive the sump. Reality truly is stranger than fiction. After watching the divers disappear, and discussing the feasibility of free diving it, we returned the way we came, pausing only for a group grooming session with brushes to remove the excess mud before we exited through Peak cavern.
A truly glorious trip to Derbyshire, I’m sorry I ever doubted you!