I was told this was the hardest end to end cave in Britain. I scoffed at the ludicrous notion that a cave I hadn’t even heard about after 4 years in the sport could be the most challenging in these Brythonic Isles. I talked my way onto the trip the previous Saturday, talking to Tim Watts and Mike Leahy. They admired my enthusiasm and left early enough not to see me drunk like a skunk. They kept mentioning mud and told me I was better off using a fig 8 rather than a simple. I smiled and said ‘sounds great, no problem’ at which point Mike re-emphasized the mud. I should have got worried at this point, but my thought process was ‘I’ve been in Otter Hole, that was muddy but quite fun’, ‘Carlswalk is crap but not unpleasant’ and ‘the skanky bit in Nettle’s not too bad.’
Clearly I needed more experience.
The start time was moved from a pleasant 9:30 to an unpleasant 7:30. The reason for the deficit of enjoyment was mostly because I had the extra task of a 1 hour 15 minute drive to get to the Cilcain Bridge. The drive was uneventful, the sunrise along the A55 was obscured by ominous clouds. This did nothing to allay unease – I had been told the percolation time to the end was 14 hours (and it had rained overnight), but that the cave also had a tendency to flash flood. For extra reassurance I was informed that no-one knew of any dry safety zones.
For want of a better phrase I assumed this was their way of faecee-ing up to their fears or perhaps just trying to scare the effluent out of the new guy. Potty humour sounds so much better with a more sophisticated vocabulary. We parked up, kitted up, walked up – the road for a little way and then down a muddy bank and along a path. Suave being my middle name ensured that I was the only one to land on his arse. The entrance was covered by a branch of a tree, in such a way that it looked like it was trying to hug something. Manhole cover off, the black square beckoned and down the electron ladder we went.
I should at this point illuminate my companions as well as the cave. Mike is a thin man of average height with a dangerous gleam in his eye but a reassuring smile. Tim, a schoolchum of Robbie Shone (small world!), was a bearded beast who walked around with a quiet confidence. Tony, carries a perpetual grin bordering on the slightly maniacal. Vicky, a wearied woman worn down by incessant poo and penis jokes (I don’t think it helped having me on the trip…). Dylan, a tall and probably quite a hard caver and Tom, a spritely young chap who is chair of the DCC (it was interesting to see how our social circles overlapped.
So the trip began with a descent into the unknown. Apparently only 12 different people had ever been to the end of this cave, so the trip was already awesome. We began to walk/crawl along the first few passages. It was easy to appreciate the phreatic nature of the cave from the lovely smooth round ceilings. What was also interesting was that before the Milwr tunnel (see last week’s trip report) was built, the entrance was a resurgence and this was all active passageway which gives you the feel of a geological Bernard’s watch moment.
The mud begins as sand and was fairly pleasant. I was made as the newbie to climb up a wall as everyone else walked round. This was repeated when I followed two (Mike and ?) through a flat fissure as everyone else walked round. We got to the canals in no time and there were a fair few cold testicle noises which I too made when my turn came around. The dunk in the cold water was refreshing, the crawl/pseudo crawling get’s you hot enough for it to be pleasant. After the canals the mud took a turn for the worst.
I can’t really remember the order of the pitches but they were all straight forward (this is before the 1st sump/duck) and using a fig 8 for the first time was alright. Given how muddy the rope was already I was quite glad I was using one. I had no idea what condition the ropes were in because at this stage everything was brown. Really brown. Thick gloopy mud was everywhere. It made for nice crawling but ropework was a bit of a pitch, so to speak. The location of spits did leave me perplexed but these were largely the original exploration bolting sites (the spits weren’t 40 years old!) and my mind turned to how they could be improved. This is not to undermine the work of the ‘spitters’, I can quite understand how challenging working in that mud would be!
We got to the first sump at 11:30 and waited it to drain some more (it had been drained a bit on thursday) and waited 20 minutes. Then a pump was added to the siphon and some rattling round was done. We waited for a further 20 minutes. Then Tim said he reckoned it’d be another 20 minutes. After several 20 minutes’s later the sump turned into a nice duck. In that long period of time Dylan unsuccessfully tried to light tea lights, Tom got stuck in the mud, I got stuck in the mud and we all at various points were in the 4 man bothy. From sump 1 to sump 2, both of which are supplied by ‘natural seepage’ there is some of the most glorious muddy crawl I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy. In no time we were at and through the second sump, which was quite dry – it looks like a bit of a inconvenience when wetter and we dumped our bags there.
The ropework after the second sump was really simple, it just had a lot of mud… everywhere. At several points I couldn’t find my hand jammer because there was that much mud over it. It was also gritty mud and I was glad I was descending on a borrowed descender. How other people were coping with stops I do not know. Although having said that, Tony and Vicky did have issues with theirs on the very last pitch. We dropped the last pitch (eventually!) and saw no water spout. It was totally dry. So we ventured up the spout and down the other side. I made rather a hash of this and went head first but managed to unpin my head from the weight of my whole body by a bit of selective thrashing about. A boulder was moved to get into a lower chamber, and we all ventured forth into virgin passage.
This converted a truly magnificent trip into an (much overused term) Epic. In front there was a pile of boulders and below looked like there was a bedding plane/streamway that we couldn’t get to. To the left there was a small pot (1m) which had a wide top that led into a passage (drawings to follow). I climbed up (after Tim) and went up a slippery muddy slope to a boulder choke above us. Me and mike climbed into the boulder choke and had a look through where we could going passage above us. It was a tall rift and we were unable to see where it went. So damn excited. However the area is a SSSI so digs are a no go. There is a small cave – Murphy’s pot that they think comes into the system about 30m away from this point (1.2 miles into the cave). What a through trip that will be!
I’ll post a sketch of the new bit as I’d like to work out how the water spout works. Plus I’ll ask for a few photos/links to round out the above. Safe to say I immensely enjoyed it, 3rd best UK trip after Otter Hole and Titan/White River/Moosetrap/Peak.
The only other thing to mention and I’m going to gloss over it is that we got out at 2 am because people got tired and 6 people makes for a cumbersome trip. However one of my friends who I was supposed to be meeting for dinner got very worried and phoned a lot of you. I had explained that it could be into the wee small hours but obviously had not made it clear enough. Safe to say I was in a bit of trouble…