When somebody invites you out on a Sunday trip, you are to assume that it is to be a nice comfortable trip to ease you out of the other end of an otherwise jam-packed weekend; even if it is Tom Smith who invites you on the trip, and even if he invites you on it only seconds before he leaves the pub.
Alas – the jam of my weekend was mainly packed into that one trip with very little else on, save for a small family visit. Originally Gamble was to be joining us down Winnats Head on that balmy Spring morning but sadly the job of Web-Sec has duties that transcend the importance of a good solid trip on a sunny day in the Peaks.
Before I went into the cave I read a bit about Winnats Head, one guide book said “Warning: the boulder choke below the main chamber is very dangerous and rescue from beyond this point would be almost impossible” which was great, because the main chamber is relatively close to the surface – meaning that most of the trip takes place below this choke. I also found out that this cave is a Grade 5, but I’m open-minded so I went for it nonetheless.
I packed my bag early Sunday morning and marched the daunting uphill path to the SUSS hut, surely a feat in itself. I was glad of the rest when I arrived! Tom and I alone drove out to Winnats Pass, a drive that was glorious in every way – the sun was beating its carcinogenic rays down upon the Peaks with every ounce of energy it could muster, we were half wishing we weren’t going down a dingy cave when we arrived at the farm! We prepped ourselves, packed our kits and ropes into tackle bags and trotted off to the entrance.
The cave started off quite shallow, Tom was ahead (way ahead, in a way only Tom seems to make possible) but like the good leader he is he waited up for me while I wriggled through the graveled crawl. I slid through the next choke, which was very smooth and flat, and down into the first large chamber. We took a while peering around the various boulders and passages adamantly attempting to discover the most appropriate method of traversing the various boulder chokes in order to gain passage into the next chamber. Eventually Tom discovered some grotty rope leading down a small hole which he sped off into as I sluggishly followed him like a reluctant terrier.
Through the next series of twists and turns in the boulders piled up at the bottom of the chamber there were various telltale signs of ongoing boulder movement and activity. A myriad of old ropes indicating paths through holes nobody could get through, and some crushed between places that used to have useful paths obviously appeared to show that these stones were shifting relatively often. Occasionally you would step over what seemed to be a stationary chunk of cave only to give way to a low rumble as it shifted several inches to the side before coming to a temporary rest further down in its home. This, the first of two series of convoluted chokes and scrambles, was not overtly taxing – and after the final choke there was a bold slide down a wet rock and a short drop into Fox chamber.
Fox chamber is a lot like Will Whalley; it’s got it all going on at the top but you’re in for a horrible and disgusting shock if you dare look at the bottom – by which I mean it has gorgeous features on the roof and a huge ceiling you could gaze up at for hours but the ground is a claggy, slippy and horribly brown mess, it wants seeing to with a power washer. We made the hazardous descent to the bottom of the chamber and in no time we found the muddy hole in which we had to slide ourselves. Tom did a quick recce up ahead where the path inexplicably took a fork, when one way popped back out into Fox Chamber he dashed back and down the other way. “Oh, yeah, this is the nasty choke” I heard him say up ahead. This was the second time he had said this on the trip so I thought nothing of it. However as I took a single solitary look down the ‘nasty choke’ I knew I was not in for a fun time on the way out. It was a thin drop of about 4 or 5m down and the width was less than a foot, there was a precarious and worn-down plank at the top, presumably to hold onto while you lowered yourself into the oblivion. I gracefully dropped into the tight choke and braced my feet against the passage wall, then without hesitation I let myself drop – expecting a harsh fall – however what in fact happened was my chest got lodged in the choke requiring me to breathe out before continuing to fall to the bottom haphazardly. Tom saw me down safely and sped off to the next awkward bit which was just around the corner.
The next passage wasn’t particularly tight but it was very awkward – I passed the bags down to Tom first and headed legs first into the hole. The maneuver involved turning yourself round and bracing your feet on the roof before dropping down carefully to avoid falling down the short climb into the Sump Chamber. The sump in Winnats Head is beautiful, really clear and deep, and it takes up half of the relatively large chamber itself. We were not going to be diving the sump unfortunately. Our path headed left, down a route Tom described as “quite a wet crawl”, and yes – he was correct. The first part of the crawl was remarkably easy and tight. But the second part consisted of a 1.5m long choke that was a 1ft x 1ft square with a few inches of grotty cave water in the bottom. As I pushed my bag ahead through the gap I resigned myself to lying flat down in the muddy water on the floor before slowly inching myself through. The scariest part was when I got a good foothold, allowing me to give a good push which pressed my back to the roof and forced my face under the water for several seconds, it took me a moment to orientate myself in order to raise my head before I coughed out the sand and grasped with my hand for the end of the choke, gave my bag a quick poke, and gritting my teeth (with grit in my teeth) I hauled myself out the other side and waited for Tom.
The next room had the first pitch, I clambered into my SRT kit and followed Tom up it, very slowly. I made it to the top and to my immense joy he told me I could have left the bag I was carrying at the bottom of the pitch. I followed him to the next pitch, which was a quick waterfall descent, I didn’t get too wet – which is always a plus. Tom had already rigged the next pitch when I arrived, I descended that one too, it ended right in a nice water spout which dribbled all down my oversuit causing quite a few shivers down my spine. It was a short clamber down to the bottom of the cave which was a pool that I assumed sumped somewhere much nicer than here.
I traversed back up to the bottom of the pitch (Tom, of course, was already at the top) and with all the energy I could muster I climbed back to the top, and wandered off to re-adjust my frankly appalingly-fitted harness. Tom zipped up the next pitch and I followed at what I would deem to be a ‘leisurely’ pace, one of the deviations was particularly tricky and it did not help that it was situated right in a waterfall that was flowing quite strongly. I managed to get out of the fall and hoisted myself atop the pitch – then scuttled on to the next pitch while Tom de-rigged. We made it down to the bottom of the final pitch and took of our kits before packing them away and heading out.
The very wet choke was none too inviting but as luck would have it I was able to pass through it with relative ease and only minimal facial submersion this time. I made the short climb back up to the first awkward choke, Tom didn’t take too long on it and I didn’t find the climb up it too taxing either – once I had put my foot on the ceiling to push myself up it was a small matter of pushing the dirt with my hands to scrabble my way out of the top. The next choke, however, was a nightmare. Tom took a short while to ascend it and I handed the tackle bags up to him, now it was my turn.
I ducked under the shallow roof and stood up in the thin space that formed the climb. The first metre of the vertical choke was completely smooth along the walls meaning you couldn’t put your feet anywhere to help, it was all in your arms. I spent a few minutes mainly looking around to find a comfortable place for my head allowing me to actually turn it so I could see what I was doing. Then I checked to make sure there were definitely no footholds – which there weren’t. My next move was to find something to hold on to in order to pull myself up but nothing I could grab allowed me to pull my whole weight through the tightest point. I was starting to get uneasy because the more failed attempts I made the more exhausted I became and that was making it harder for me to climb. I managed to jam my foot by bracing it against both sides of the choke and pushing up, hoping it wouldn’t slip. This raised me about half a metre higher but now my entire weight was on that foot which was on the brink of slipping. I managed to take the weight off my foot by breathing in, which forced my chest against the passage wall and jammed me in place. It was this that gave me the idea of how I was able to climb to the top; I filled my lungs, placed my palms on the wall behind me and breathed out while pushing with my hands, this inched me further up and before my hands could slip I inhaled massively again to hold myself in place. I repeated this action until the passage was too wide for my chest to push up against, but at this point there was a half-decent foothold I managed to get my heel onto and push myself up high enough to reach the rickety length of wood propping open the choke at the top, my heel slipped and all my hard work almost came undone had I not grasped the wood immediately and forced my knees up against the cave wall in front of me. With a final strenuous exertion I pulled myself out of the choke and caught up to Tom who was a few metres ahead waiting. I apologised for the length of my ascent, and we set off once again on our way out.
We clambered through the boulders and up into Fox Chamber, traipsing through the mud we made our way up to the far end where a bold ascent and traverse posed no obstacle for our determined states of mind, we climbed it no problem and soon were contorting ourselves through the various chokes and climbs of the stacked-up boulders that formed the floor of the first chamber. On the way out, the shape of the boulder passages looks very different and it seemed like a much shorter journey this time, maybe I was so used to it by know that I just instinctively knew the best way to go. Tom and I had non-verbally arranged a system of traversing the various squeezes by him going through first, leaving the bags, and me passing them through to him to carry to the next choke while I navigated my own way through, about seven repeats of this procedure and before I knew it I had reached the tattered rope indicating the final scramble up and out into the first chamber.
Tom was already in the opening of the crawl out of the chamber when I emerged so I tried to catch up but my exhaustion was getting the better of me. I flung my tackle-bag roughly into the crawl and pushed it ahead of me while sluggishly crawling along behind it. The crawls and squeezes were taking me about five times longer than they had taken me on the way in. I made it through the smooth, flat squeeze by simply flailing around and worming my way through. The final crawl to the exit, which seemed easy on the way in, was made harder by the incline it was on. It was a flat out crawl for about 20m on a rocky floor, I pushed my bag just ahead of me but even at the fastest pace I could manage it still took me a good 15-20 minutes. I was going mere inches at a time and even shorter distances round the corners. It was not a very pleasant exit to say the least.
When I finally emerged from the crawl and out into the sunlight I was greeted by the only the best sight one can see on a glorious sunny afternoon in the Peak District after spending the day in a tight Grade 5 cave; Tom getting undressed. He spotted me, grabbed his gear and lead the way back to the car.
Very good, very strenuous trip. Probably simultaneously the hardest and the best cave trip I have been on so far.
Trip date: 30-4-14