I spent Wednesday afternoon with the heating and dehumidifier on full whack, frantically drying my kit after the previous day’s trip down Peak Cavern. By the time Helen and Nat showed up it was mostly dry – but knew very little of just how wet this evening’s trip would make it. The fact that we couldn’t even find an appropriate place to park set a rather fitting precedent for this trip, but after driving up and down the Stoney Middleton road three times and performing some (quite frankly) dangerous manoeuvres we were parked up and getting changed.
I remembered the path up to the entrance from the Spider Survey I did with Will a year or so ago – though a year is a long time for the Triffidesque nature of the Stoney Middleton valley, the path was nearly unrecognisable with a dozen or so freshly fallen trees covered in ivy blocking the way. Several stumbles up the steep sides of the dale later we were at the entrance, I headed in first to rig the pitch. The short crawl to the pitch-head is grubby, smelly and filled with spiders, I passed this fleeting, yet grim passage and found the first bolt, rigged it and abseiled to the bottom of the shaft. Leo, Nat and Helen followed me down, Nat dropping far too many rocks on my (thankfully be-helmeted) head in the process. We removed our SRT kits, attached them to the bottom of the rope so we could haul them out at the end, and set off to the next chamber with vague and scrambled memories of the route description rattling around in our heads.
I passed through a breakdown chamber, descended a short climb, crawled under some extremely sketchy timbers (which were propping up the chamber floor above, upon which my caving compadres now stood). I paused when I encountered yet another climb – one which I didn’t remember from the description. Double-checking with Helen beforehand, I decided to descend the climb which, while technically easy, was about 10m high and so quite daunting. Approaching the bottom I heard streamway, which lifted my spirits; we were going the right way!
Despite its slightly unnerving height the climb was quite easy, I popped out of the bottom into the streamway – followed closely by the others. We assessed where we were: sat in a junction of the streamway, three paths upstream and one downstream. Though we knew ultimately that the way on was downstream the only downstream path ahead of us looked a bit too low and wet for our currently dry selves to consider entering at the present time and, besides, it looked like it ended quite soon. We tried the most pleasant-looking of the upstream paths first, but of course the most pleasant path closed down quickly! In the process of backing up out of this wet tunnel Nat opted for the “lie face down in the water and make Leo push you out” approach.
Once back at the junction we split into two and took the remaining upstream passages – which were flat-out and wet, but soon met up by a small aven which we crammed our four wet, cold bodies into for a brief respite from the chilled water. During the break we discussed some light topics, such as the fact that none of us really knew the way through the cave – despite all of us having read the description in the car. Still optimistic despite our lack of directional awareness, we sett off once again.
We hit another junction and chose the upstream route out of curiosity – I quite wanted to get to Lu Blu Sump which I knew for certain was upstream, however after reaching a dead end rift, and sending Leo up a particularly wet stream inlet, in which the water banked up over his head and body as he crawled flat-out in the bedding plane causing him to rapidly reverse out into the breathable airspace of our small chamber, we abandoned the search for Lu Blu and focused on finding the way out.
Following the water we headed up a dry side passage into a breakdown chamber we believed to be Nervous Breakdown (the way on). We checked every inch of the chamber for a way on but, alas, it was another dead end – we concluded that it definitely wasn’t Nervous Breakdown. Reversing back to the main streamway once again, we followed the water as far as feasibly possible. Leo and I crawled on our bellies down the stream and, upon the depressing realisation that the roof was simply getting lower and lower in a painfully slow fashion until it met with the water, we chose to back up. The problem with crawling backwards on your stomach through a low fast-flowing stream in a bedding plane is that your body dams the water behind you – so that not only are you crawling blindly backwards, but you also have to get through deeper water. On multiple occasions I found myself flailing my legs trying to navigate reversing round a corner with my face fully submerged by the pulse of water sent forward by the movement of my body. We eventually made it out of this particularly sporting bit and met up with Nat and Helen. The summation of our various soggy explorations was the conclusion that the only way on must be the initial downstream passage that I had so readily dismissed earlier. I went on ahead to see if I could find the correct route and, sure enough, the blank wall I had previously considered to be a termination of the passage turned out to be a huge boulder collapsed in the streamway – forming the beginning of Nervous Breakdown. I called to the others, confirming that this was the right way, and headed on, gratifyingly out of the water for a short while. I began to get cold so after waiting for Nat to clamber out of the water I got moving again, the next section was grimly wet, with over a foot of water and only half that in airspace above it. I saw an apparent ending that, once again, turned out to be a squeeze up over yet another boulder collapsed in the stream. This process of diving down into water, bobbing along crawling passage until you reach a point to pop up again continued for about a hundred metres before I reached a final chamber in which I found a tight-looking squeeze, with an arrow indicating the way on through it.
The others soon caught up and we sat chatting for a short while before catching a chill and deciding to move on. Leo had a vague memory of a port of the cave named “The Mouse Hole” – the squeeze beside us certainly seemed like the kind of thing you’d liken to a Mouse Hole. The squeeze isn’t too tight, though it is angled awkwardly , so the main obstacle is managing to work out the direction from which you approach it.
After this we were looking for a section of passage called “Route 66”, which Leo recalled as being described as a ‘wide, sandy crawl’. Unfortunately for us every single one of the sump bypasses in the next section of cave could be justly described as such, each subsequent one moreso than the previous, This lead to a hilarious length of time spent on confirming with each other that we were 100% sure we were in Route 66, only to correct ourselves ten minutes later with an even more certain confirmation. When we eventually made it into the true Route 66 there was a intensely palpable feeling of certainty; for those that have not yet done Streaks Pot (and I highly recommend it) Route 66 is THE quintessential ‘wide, sandy crawl’ and you will know when you are in it.
We sprint-crawled along the highway, the fresh smell of the outside air wafting over our nostrils as we went. Taking a right at a breakdown chamber I sped up, following my nose to locate the exit. I reach yet another junction and reclined to rest in the low passage, waiting for the others. As I relaxed I heard an all-too-familiar sound which transported me back to the summer days spent digging in Layby Shelter; the sound of a Limestone-laden HGV thundering past the entrance to a cave, up the Stoney Middleton road. The sound came from the right-hand fork of the junction so I followed it, calling back to the others to let them know the way on.
As if to bookend the trip, the crawl to the exit bore all the hallmarks of a Stoney Middleton entrance; akin to the way we had come in at the top there was foetid, dark grey mud imbued with the stench of decades of passing car fumes, hoards of spiders in the ceiling and a few skeletons of small mammals thrown in for good measure. I reached the end of the brief gravelly crawl, ascended a short climb up to the entrance and burst the corrugated metal lid off to inhale the cold night air of Stoney Middleton Dale; grimly organic with a hint of diesel.
The lid had slid down the steep sides of the valley, as I went down to the road to retrieve it the others emerged like Hobbits from the hillside. Nat and I agreed to walk back up the hill to retrieve the rope and our SRT kits while Leo and Helen went back to the car.
Nat, Helen and I really enjoyed the trip, but apparently Leo “wasn’t in the mood”.
- Trip Date 16-3-16