Muddy, snowy Derbyshire trips were not for the faint-hearted. Once again many people bailed out so we were left with ten when we set off from London. Rosanna and I discovered Salmon’s Cavern in the rigging guide, however as it turned out the next day Ben (Salmon) was not feeling well enough to cave. We built structures of jenga pieces before we went to bed.
The curse of Derbyshire struck down many brave cavers before they had even got on bus, leaving us with only ten heading north on the M1. Lacking most of our experienced cavers, we planned two easy trips - Rhys would rig JH with Dan, Will, Cecilia and Peter, and exit out of peak. I would take Celia, Rosanna, Pavel, ably supported by Dave KP down JH and bounce back out. Easy, right? I convinced myself we had the easier trip, with no nasty crawls or full submersion.
We were split into rigging team which would descend James Hall, then exit through Peak Cavern, while a second team would reach the bottom then ascend James Hall. I enjoyed a scene of spotless white at the back of the minibus with Will after pushing it on our way up Winnats Pass. Snowman and snowball appeared next to the cave entrance while Dave, Dan, and Rhys all took their turns to get the key to the already unlocked door. Carrying tackle sacks, we went down the initial 50m entrance pitch, then traversed above pitches filled with beautifully clear, scarily bottomless water. It was a wonder what separated out this water as we were heading deeper underground than the water surface. We also had to crawl under deads. Dan gave a description of deads illustrated with body language. They formed when miners dug out all these rocks which they did not know where to place, so they went, “let's stick them in the ceiling!" They were mostly supported by rusty bars, and crawling underneath them could be disconcerting. At the Workshop Rhys failed to make the correct decision of choosing the drier path down Leviathan, armed only with a half-dissolved rigging guide Peter had beautifully drawn on paper. We searched around the Workshop until Will braved the waterfall, and went straight down the pitch. A huge dam was built halfway through the course of the waterfall, where a huge green pipe collected all the water and channelled it into the streamway we were about to follow. Jack leading team two caught up with us at the bottom of James Hall, preserved the final sight of rigging team looking clean with his camera, and bid us farewell.
We went down poorly connected (or not at all) ladders to the stream way, where at one point the water was so deep we had to clip in to traverse lines, dipping our hips in water as we moved along. Awaiting us next was a ladder fully immersed in a very strong waterfall, to which I lost both my top gloves. Fortunately my right hand glove was washed into the stream, or the Colostomy Crawl would not have been grim but unbearable. During the forty minutes crawl I tasted the mud, felt the grits within with my left hand, waded through deep sucking mud, and announced I would never come to Derbyshire again.
Back at the hut, Ben and Peter chopped vegetables for supper while we got increasingly uneasy during the wait for the other team to return. Thirty minutes before call out time Jack texted, to our relief. Cooking instructions also came along, so Ben made himself even more useful. The table in the cosy common room in the hut looked like it was ready to fall apart any moment from the amount of table traverse we did for the rest of the day.
The cracks began to show when Dan bailed on the trip on Saturday morning, and we realised we’d forgotten all our tackle sacks and spare krabs. The TSG and MCG kindly stepped in and lent us tackle sacks - it’s great how generous the clubs are to students, even though they must think we’re complete idiots. I scavenged spare krabs from all the kit packed by people who bailed on the trip.
A blizzard swept over the hills making Winnat’s pass (always a joy to drive up) even more fun. Unbowed, we marched across the frozen field to the trap door in the ground. I think I managed to suppress a yelp of fear as I peered down the massive fifty metre entrance shaft, but my group probably weren’t fooled. My new descender has a ridiculous amount of friction still, so for the first 30 m I forced the rope up through the bobbins, desperately trying to descend at all. When I did get going, a ferocious hissing noise and clouds of steam convinced me to slow down a bit.
I’ve never been in a cave like JH, because it’s a mine. Huge holes in the floor filled with deep black water vie for attention with blocks of stone wedged haphazardly into the ceiling, looking like they’ll wall at the slightest touch. I waited for Pavel and Rosanna, and then pressed on into the cave, over some fun traverses and under some deeply dodgy blocks. Dan’s ghostly voice floated into my head and I remembered the correct sequence of binary choices to arrive at Bitch Pitch. This was made somewhat bitchier by some deeply entertaining rigging decisions, with missed rebelays and a pointless deviation that was just a crab on a P-bolt. We found the reason why at the bottom when the rope didn’t actually touch the ground.
Waiting in the Workshop, we had time to examine the old miner’s tool, rusted away to mere traces of red on the rock. We seemed to be there a very long time before Dave and Celia showed up, but I wanted to make sure we stayed together as a group. This may have been a mistake- it certainly slowed us down. The next pitch, Leviathan, was a truly nasty piece of work, with a ridiculous deviation just below the Y-hang that pulled the rope directly into a waterfall. After spluttering my way down, I cursed Rhys and checked the rigging guide, only to find he’d apparently done it correctly.
I caught sight of Peter, the last of the first group, going down the final rebelay, and after checking Pavel was behind me I hurried down to quickly say hello to Rhys and his group. The final pitch is quite interesting, with a big dam to hold back the water and lots of piping. They looked deeply unexcited at exiting through Peak, but headed off before the rest of my group arrived. At this point I was alone, and fully able to contemplate the massive task ahead of us, exiting up several long, wet pitches.
At the bottom we took some photos, and ate more Crunchies. I did the first stretch of rope quickly, but at the rebelay I realised there was going to be some massive rope rub. Using my legs out horizontally I managed to avoid most of it, but I did see the extra bolt meant to avoid this situation, just a few metres above the final rebelay, over the dam. At the top, I sent Pavel up first so I could check Rosanna made it safely up the tricky rope rub point. He went at quite some speed, and I mournfully looked up at the waterfall when his ‘Rope Free’ drifted down to me.
It was ghastly. I had a tackle sack with the rescue rope in it and all the spare maillons Rhys had brought down in some sadistic fit, but that was nothing compared to the constant barrage of water. I rope walked the first ten metres, became exhausted and then slowly hauled myself up the next thirty or so, soaking wet by the top. I found Pavel in the Workshop and convinced him to help me build a dam to divert the waterfall as Rosanna ascended. It went very well indeed, and I was quite pleased until I saw the water hadn’t actually stopped - we’d damned a small tributary with about 10% of the water in it, and the rest was still freely flowing, far out of reach of any dam we could build. Rosanna arrived and we waited for Dave and Celia again, which was definitely a mistake in retrospect, as it cost us a lot of time. Bitch Pitch was a pleasant change after Leviathan, but the exhaustion was beginning to show crossing the traverses in the horizontal passage, with a great deal of timidity and slowness. At the entrance pitch I again launched myself up, only be exhausted within a few minutes. The remainder of the climb was truly exhausting, and I rested on the scaffolding bars at the top just below the trap door for Pavel.
Outside the sky was dark. It was 9pm, freezing cold and blowing a blizzard. Pavel and I walked back to the minibus and I sat shivering and despondent, revving the engine to get the warm air going. I managed to get some texts out to Rhys and cos back at the TSG despite having no signal, saying we didn’t need our 10pm callout. Half an hour later, I went back across the frozen field to find Rosanna, as I was worried she’d get lost in the dark and wind. My fingers were horribly numb and I was shivering uncontrollably as we made our way back to the minibus. I sat almost catatonic, trying to force chocolate bars into my mouth for energy, and shivering uncontrollably. The more rational part of my mind went through the physiology and symptoms of hypothermia, and concluded I was in a very bad way. After another thirty minutes I went to find Dave and Celia, who had just made it to the surface and seemed bemused by my attempt to rescue them - I was shivering so badly and in such obviously terrible shape that I should never have left the minibus. It was over nine hours since we reached the cave entrance.
Back at the TSG, the others had prepared a huge and delicious stew, following my texted instructions of ‘all in pot’. I recovered enough to do a few table traverses, but every muscle ached in a deep, yawning way from the shivering.
Rhys, Jack took me along to derig James Hall. Only looking back after the trip did I realise how much tackle sack cursing I have done over that course. I was allocated my tackle sack at the top of Bitch Pitch. First I tried to conserve energy in my arms by carrying the sack of rope on my back, but before long found that bearing the weight full time was even more inefficient, not to mention the frequency with which the sack got caught in the bars above the crawls. However dragging it along the passage was not a smooth process either. Next I exchanged for a tackle sack which I believed was lighter, but the cord was so long the bag got stuck when I traversed above pitches. But even that or the ascent up the entrance pitch with added weight did not give me as much misery as the whipping snow on the surface. I hid behind what must have been Peter’s snowball before joining Jack behind a wall built for cavers’ defence against the wind. I utilised Rhys as a natural shelter as well while we trekked back to the minibus. The allure to grim Derbyshire caves was baffling yet existent, there is no denial it was a great trip.
So the next day the only logical thing to do was to return to JH to retrieve the ropes. Rhys, Cecilia and I formed a crack team, driving up Winnat’s pass in better weather and speedily making it to the entrance. Rhys told us he was going straight down without waiting for us, and I followed along, descending faster than I’d managed the previous day. I nimbly picked my way through the traverses, laughing at the deep waterfilled voids and almost caught up with Rhys halfway down Bitch Pitch. I descended the wet pitch of Leviathan to see if Rhys needed me to take a tackle sack up, but he realised it’d be quicker if he carried it. Total time to the bottom of this pitch: 20 minutes. I got another chance to do the long, wet climb out, though at least this time without a tackle sack. It wasn’t much more pleasant, but I did feel better for doing it. In the Workshop, we met Cecilia, who I sent right out up Bitch Pitch, planning to hand her a tackle sack at the top. Rhys passed of the lowest bag to me, which I handed to Cecilia after climbing Bitch Pitch. Cecilia gamely tried to do all the crawls with it on her back, but sadly didn’t quite make it. I heard her muttering dire threats to the tackle sack, which seemed to persuade it to cooperate. Back through to the entrance pitch and I decided to time myself up to see how I compared to Rhys. This time I used the nearby wall to lean against when rope walking, and made it up in seven minutes to Rhys’ four and a half - room for improvement, but a definite confidence booster after the previous day.
It was a tough weekend, and I should have realised how difficult it would be to take three SRT novices into a long vertical system with few rebelays. I don’t think we were ever in much danger - everyone had enough energy and strength to get out, but I should’ve kept us moving faster to stop so much hanging around. Two Derbyshire trips this year have really been enough for a while - see you next year!