It was with tired, alcohol clouded mines and the words “Cumberland & Wapping” still ringing in our ears that Helen, Jack, Natalie and I began to get changed outside of Winnats farm, alongside a mound of sugar beets that would’ve brought tears to even the stingiest of Tate & Lyle executives eyes. The plan was simply to get to the bottom of Winnats head, a gentle and forgiving Sunday trip on most weekends, but after enough rainfall to make peak cavern inaccessible, and with the bright Sunday morning getting greyer by the minute, the odds seemed to be against us. Furthermore, half of the rope we planned on using for the final 3 pitches was sodden and matted with mud from yesterday’s trip down Eldon, and the other half had been accidentally left on the floor of the TSG to gather dust, along with Nats gloves.
‘It’s probably fine without the rope’, said Jack, ‘I think the last few pitches are pre-rigged anyway.’ Whether this rumor was true, or just a fantasy conjured up by hangover and unwillingness to go back to the TSG I will never know, however the outcome was the same; we stuffed our SRT kits into 2 smaller tacklesacks, told Nat to grin and bear it and made our merry way down the hill towards the entrance to the cave. Jack took point, along with one of the tacklesacks, slipping gracefully into the entrance crawl and sprinting ahead of the rest of us towards main chamber, all the while complaining about how the entrance to the cave was “full of rocks.” I followed as quickly as I could, though I soon realised I was outclassed by both his pain tolerance and his eagerness to use his new Scurion on something larger than the crawl we were currently sitting in, I therefore elected to wait for Helen and Nat in the first antechamber as I caught my breath.
Meanwhile, back at the mouth of the cave, Helen was just turning on her Duo to begin the crawl. The light, however, was having none of that crap and therefore decided to sputter and die less than 2 meters into the cave. Not to be discouraged by her impertinent Duo, Helen ditched it at the mouth of the cave, electing to do the trip on a Pixa 3 instead.
We all met up in the main chamber, where Helen reminisced about the ill-fated trip she had been on down Winnats head previously, where Jacks advice of “don’t follow the ropes” was taken too literally, and the group never made it past that point, not wanting to disobey Jack. We promptly decided to follow the ropes down into the rest of the cave, and after dropping every tacklesack down every hole on the way to Fox Chamber, we made it to the hourglass squeeze. Nat’s eyes took on a glazed look as we descended through the squeeze, which I can only imagine being the product of flashbacks from the photography trip the previous Wednesday, during which she ended up getting badly bruised by many of the awkward squeezes and climbs out of the cave.
The trip down through Fox chamber was fairly uneventful. Bags and positions were swapped around and I ended up being at the front with the bag of rope which I proceeded to unceremoniously throw down every crack I could see, not wanting to spend more time than necessary in the squeezes, which were becoming wetter and wetter as we went further down. We all caught up again at the first sump, where memories of Sam’s naked body crawling out of the water like some twisted pirate-mermaid crossbreed hastened us further into the cave towards the sewer.
The sewer was as the sewer is; grim and tight and half full of water and grit. Other than the occasional muttered swear word there were few complaints when going through it. Everyone on the trip was well aware of what going through the sewer entailed, and it marked the point at which the trip turned from a drippy dry trip into a fully fledged state-of-the-art wet trip, it was with sodden clothes and grim determination that we got our SRT kits on on the other side and prepared for the first of the pitches which took us to the caves end.
At the top of the first pre-rigged pitch our hearts collectively sank. Not only was the first downward pitch not pre-rigged, but the pitch itself was a raging torrent of water, on which your only protection would be your oversuit and the few measly deviations which dotted the wall. The deviations proved to do very little to the pitch, other than making it very difficult to both rig and descend. After Jack had finished rigging and Helen and I had struggled past the first deviation and made it down, all parties were thoroughly soaked and cold, albeit thankful for the built-in hoods which AV oversuits have. (Un)fortunately this would mark the end of our trip, as after several minutes of trying in vain to pull herself far enough into the wall, Nat realised that she couldn’t make it past the deviation from hell, and we decided to call it and turn around.
Everyone at the bottom of the cave silently realised what derigging would entail, and what followed was a short but deadly conversation about who should derig, as the unlucky person would have to ascend back up the pitch without the luxury of the second deviation keeping them moderately dry. Ever the perfect white knight I told Helen that as she didn’t have a Pantin I would do the derigging, and with a tip of my fedora she began following Jack up the pitch.
Letting Helen go first was a decision I would soon come to regret.
Derigging the pitch was hell. After struggling to the top in the torrential downpour I was no longer only cold and tired but now I was also wetter than Alys after finding out that it was freshers week. With shaking hands I stuffed the rope back into the tacklesack and proceeded back towards the previous pitches which led down to the sewer.
At the sewer I ended up stuffing my SRT kit into the rope bag, turning an already heavy and awkward bag into an ungainly monstrosity. Once again we all caught up at the first sump, which was now a lot more drippy and unpleasant than it had been on the way in, as unbeknownst to us, it had been raining on the surface. Eager to get out of the cave, we began passing bags up through the various squeezes and rifts on the way back to Fox chamber, abandoning all hope of staying even slightly dry in the interests of speed. The rift right after the sump proved a difficult challenge, as by now it had become a mini-cascade of its own, and the limited footholds had become slippery and awkward. More than once I had to give Nat a shoulder to stand on, and more than once I had my neck crushed by her boot (entirely my fault).
From there the trip to Fox chamber was a quick one, and in an effort to make it even quicker I attempted a passable but small squeeze to get out on to the floor of the chamber. The squeeze proved tighter than I thought however, and despite making it through, it only served to add an extra minute or two to the trip, as well as covering my relatively clean oversuit in mud.
After making it to the top of Fox chamber, Jack decided that he had had enough of our inefficient bag carrying, and in a rare display of machismo took it upon himself to carry all three bags out to main chamber, throwing each one through every squeeze and up every climb one after the other, only stopping when Nat required some assistance in getting through the hourglass squeeze.
The final hurdle from main chamber; the entrance crawl, was slow but uneventful, and after a few minutes of straining and scrambling we managed to get all three tacklesacks and all four people back onto the surface after 4 hours underground. After spending a few minutes distracting the drivers on Winnats pass with mine and Jacks lights, we went and got changed before heading back to the TSG for some much needed tea and cake.
All in all a fairly enjoyable trip, although I have to agree with Jack when he calls it “The wettest dry trip I’ve ever done.”