A long time ago, in a pothole far away… was the last time Dave went caving. After a year of being branded an “Armchair Caver” he had had enough and decided that he wanted to be re-welcomed into our fold of weirdos and miscreants; as Inclusions Officer I aimed to facilitate this reprobate’s re-welcoming…
The planned trip was a JH to Peak through trip, there was originally a rather optimistic total of eight people planning on carrying out the trip but after two drop-outs (Helen wanted a lie-in for once in her life, and Sam apparently reset his alarm at some point in the night but couldn’t remember doing so, as a result he never woke up in time) we had a reasonably competent and manageable party of six. At 9am we drove up in Tom’s Land Rover with Tom, Rachael, Rostam and Molly – after quickly sorting out vehicle logistics with Dave (we would be going in at the top of the hill and reappearing at the bottom some time later) we arrived at Rowter Farm, paid our fees and headed up to the entrance in steadily strengthening sleet and blistering wind.
Tom rigged the 50m entrance shaft as a single-hang abseil to the bottom. Once he was down I followed with the next bag of rope, however I soon found that the weight of fifty metres of sodden, gritty rope takes quite a bit of persuasion to feed through a descender, especially with a braking krab on – the descent was painfully slow and jerky. Once at the bottom I called up for Rachael to follow and set off merrily into the Cartgate Level. I traversed the incredibly loose mine passage far easier than I did on my first venture into JH, though equally aware of the tonnes and tonnes of precariously chocked stones piled above my head for the entire duration of the stooping tunnel. I caught up to Tom as he was beginning to rig the Bitch Pitch, true to its name this particularly thin abseil proved challenging for Tom to rig as someone had taken out all of the in-situ tat used for deviations. This caused for some interesting obstacles as Tom used chained karabiners as deviations, dismissively explaining that he had brought far too many anyway and wanted to cut down on the weight of his SRT kit, which we would be dragging through the lengthy and awkward crawl in Colostomy.
At the bottom of Bitch Pitch I sat and chatted with Tom for a while before Rachael showed up with the final bag of rope. We took a quick look over the top of the Leviathan Shaft, considering the the large and incredibly drippy free-hanging descent before deciding against it and taking the much drier alternative route down to the bottom. Rachael hung back to wait for the others while Tom and I set off on our own with the remaining rope bags, planning to rig all the way to the bottom of the colossal shaft and then wait on the floor, watching the others descend.
Tom rigged the rest of the way swiftly, though I chose to rig the rather impressive final pitch which spits you out into a relatively small but nonetheless spectacular dome-shaped chamber at the bottom of Leviathan. However when I arrived at the top of the pitch I found some in-situ TSG rope so I resorted to just using that instead! I went down before Tom, descending the short-but-sweet abseil directly down the centre of the shaft as fast as I could. As I hopped off the rope at the bottom I got to see a marvellous spectacle as Tom followed, he zipped down the rope at phenomenal speed with his Scurion on full brightness – causing the mass of spray emanating from the wet rope to be illuminated against the pitch black backdrop. He came to a smooth stop and detached himself from the bottom of the rope, confessing that he wasn’t convinced that he was entirely in control of the descent for most of the way. I gave him a dismissive response; life is too short to be in full control at all times.
We removed our SRT kits, stuffed them into one of the empty rope bags and made ourselves comfortable on the damp floor amongst the scattered array of disused mine workings. We were expecting to wait a bit for the others to catch up so we turned off our lamps and laid down staring up at the gargantuan space of dark emptiness above. About a quarter of an hour into the wait my eyes seemed to get bored of staring into total blackness and began to show me a multitude of psychedelic swirling shapes and patterns, which briefly entertained me before making me question my sanity. Luckily it was not long afterwards that the Pink Floyd-esque light show was permeated by a blinking light far above; Rachael was atop the pitch.
A few minutes later she was down with us, and above us we could hear the unmistakable sound of a Rostam and Dave duet. As I remembered that Molly was between those two I felt a pang of pity for her – having to endure the relentlessness of a medley of Dave’s Christmas songs, performed simultaneously by the on-key baritone Rostam and the off-key soprano Dave is a fate for nobody save the victims of Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell. Rachael then told Tom and me that the others had been held up because Molly had caught her hair in her descender at the tightest point in Bitch Pitch and while she was all for cutting it right off, the noble Dave decided it would be far better if he climbed up beside her in the cramped shaft and sat her on his lap (à la Saint Nick), then carefully and methodically extracting her hair from the device. What a gent.
After a brief period listening to various Christmas songs being bellowed from above, we were all soon gathered together at the bottom, SRT kits all packed into two spare tackle sack and ready for the off. We filed off down the series of ladders that form a small shaft leading down to the streamway in Speedwell Cavern. No sooner than I had stepped of the final rung of the bottom ladder I heard a loud bang and a yell from Rostam, as I rushed away from the bottom of the climb I heard a series of further bangs and yells, it sounded like Rostam was falling down the ladders on top of Molly and Dave. I looked back at the climb and saw Molly pop out, followed closely by a final slam as one of the bags containing our SRT kits came crashing to the ground – instead of a nice soft Rostam plummeting down upon them Molly and Dave had instead been threatened by about 15kgs of falling metal, though luckily it had missed them both!
The stream was in full force, for the most part it was about knee deep and pushed us along like an eager guide, urging us further into the cave. About 100m from the bottom of JH we arrived at The Whirlpool, which was made just that little bit harder by the absence of the cables you used to be able to use to walk across the top of the water – instead there were just ropes above the water you had to shimmy across whilst waist deep in the chilled water of the swirling pool. The deepest part was still yet to come however, as just beyond The Whirlpool was a section of passage where the surging water was neck deep – on a normal person that is, for Hobbits and other such magical creatures like Tom and me it was deep enough that swimming was essential. In our multiple layers of thick suits we swam a rather inefficient form of breaststroke for the 15m stretch, by the end the water had well and truly seeped through to my skin – but this was still not the wettest part. Around the corner, close to the end of the Speedwell Cavern boat canal, is The Bung – a choke point where nearly all the water from Speedwell flows into Peak Cavern down a short waterfall – forcing you to climb a ladder inside the fall itself. The plan (conceived quickly by Dave) was to dam the flow with a tackle bag as each member of the group climbed down, periodically releasing the pressure in between descents. This worked well to a point – the point being when the incredible flow surged quickly over the top of the bag, which gives you about five seconds of relatively dry descent before the disorientating downpour hits you in the face. Whilst wet, I still found the climb fun and hopped off the bottom of the ladder thoroughly soaked and in high spirits – I was enjoying the trip so far and it was only half done, I just wished we were doing a longer trip.
Once we had all passed The Bung we continued on, splashing down the streamway past Block Hall and into the short by-pass route that leads to Egnaro Aven, I decided to roll along the flat out crawl on my side (a technique I have named “The Pilgrim’s Method” after its initial implementation by Tom in Pilgrim’s Way) – it proved both efficient and nauseating. I plopped out of the crawl into the streamway that runs parallel to the previous, submerging myself in the process. It wasn’t possible for me to get any wetter than my current level of complete saturation so lying in the gently flowing stream was more soothing than uncomfortable. Once the party was gathered once again we arranged ourselves in an appropriate order for the crawl down Colostomy and climbed the series of ladders up Egnaro Aven.
Following the recent wet weather Colostomy was particularly grim (not to understate the grimness of the initial traverse of Colostomy many years ago – which from descriptions I have read makes the namesake sound even more appropriate). We entertained ourselves along the muddy crawl with a complete rendition of “Hard Caver” sung amongst the group, keeping spirits high. Dave’s tackle sack was tenacious in its attempts to prevent him from making forward progress; every few metres it got caught on some jutting rock or tight squeeze – by the end of the monotonous trudge through the passage he must have called the bag every name under the sun.
We reached the end of Colostomy, which concludes with a very draughty and wet squeeze connecting through to The Trenches. To pass the time while waiting for Rostam to catch up with us at the far end of The Trenches Dave and Rachael carried out their traditional violent mud fight. Molly, Tom and I cowered in the crossfire as clump after clump of thick brown munition soared across us, peppering our already filthy oversuits, helmets and faces with flecks of fresh cave ooze. A truce was called soon after Rachael received a point-blank shot to the eye, not long before Rostam showed up. Tom set off down the ladder in Fawlty Tower, the rest of us followed suit into Treasury and then on into the passage leading out of Peak Cavern. Molly soon began to recall where we were and the group’s pace quickened as we reached the exit. After a thorough wash/swim in the flooded pool near the entrance we left the cave – stopping only briefly when Molly decided that she hadn’t had quite enough mud and fell over in the very last patch before we entered the show cave, ruining the careful work Dave had done in washing her suit just minutes earlier.
Overall it was definitely a very fun trip, though next time it would be improved immeasurably by taking a diversion to the White River Series as the JH to Peak trip by itself took far less time than I imagined.
We followed the trip up with a late pub lunch and an offroad detour in Tom’s Landy and Dave’s Jeep before heading back to Sheffield.
Trip date – 19/12/15