Disclaimer: I’m fairly sure on a lot of the location names, but I’m operating from memory and this survey, I may be off on some.
Olly, Robbie, Ben and I reached Rowter Farm at about 3:30pm and changed in the luxury of an empty barn. Upon reachingn the entrance, it was clear our rigging planning (2 ropes rigged from the top and the rebelay respectively) was flawed. Olly went too far past the rebelay then reascended to reassess and then rerig the rebelay while replying to our reminders of ‘knot the bottom of the rope’. The solution was a knot pass – everyone’s favourite bit of SRT. We were all gathered at the bottom of the entrance pitch at 5pm, with a callout of 12pm – 7 hours should be enough, or so we thought.
The first sections of the cave are fun, there’s some handlines and Bad Badger Squeeze, followed by some nice SRT. I was often spread between two walls of the cave trying to balance and tie a hard lock. Once we reached the bottom the Ice Cream Trail was within sight. This was as far as I had reached on previous trips, and I was intrigued by stories of the upwards pitches and the notorious pendulum pitch… we took a short rest and set off in to the creamy passageway.
The first squeeze in the Trail was probably the hardest of the lot for me – a sort of keyhole passage that dropped straight into a short climb. I watched Olly go through the bottom but made the mistake of thinking over the top was a better idea. Eventually I struggled through and watched Robbie and Ben pop out of the hole before continuing past a pristine calcite flow that extended upwards for a few metres – The Frozen Pass. Conservation tape was in the most awkward place possible, and I had to make a step across a gap while balancing on a toe and not using my hand for balance on the wall.
There was one particularly odd part later in the Trail with an upwards crawl that led right into another drop. As I was crawling upwards I was surprised to look up and find Olly’s face right ahead of me and upside down. It turned out these shenanigans had a reason though; the drop is tall enough to require a handline and is awkward enough to make feet-first a necessity, so the strategy was off-piste. The top of the drop was too narrow to turn around in, so I backed up a bit, then grabbed onto the rope and swung my legs in front of me. I had to wiggle around but eventually I was well positioned and slid feet first up the slope to the squeeze. Then it was just another small gap to blindly fall through and pray for footholds.
The final annoying part of the Ice Cream Trail was the ladder – there was a handline leading through yet another sideways squeeze into an electron ladder. Some of you may be familiar with the story of this ladder; I’m not sure of the full story but from a few different trip reports it looks like SUSS broke the top rung then a TSG trip just flipped the whole thing so it is now a bit safer. On the way down it wasn’t that bad, the ladder was followed by another, more open, handline; this ladder and handline make up the Wizard’s Sleeve. The Trail was a good challenge, but thoughts of a return trip were festering in the backs of our minds as we approached Hourglass Aven and the Crystal Orechasm.
The pitch head into the pendulum was a bit annoying, just slightly squeezy. With gravity on my side it was easy to clip onto the pitch head then just force myself through the slit. I popped out and was ready to cross the loop. It is a very strange pitch; the rope goes downwards then loops across and upwards to a rebelay. It is about 10m across, and I only managed the changeover because I could stand up on a small ledge and take the slack out of the descender. Again, I had slight doubts about the return trip but put the thoughts to one side.
The journey up the aven was long but simple and fun, there’s an abundance of deviations and the entire thing is rigged for your pleasure. Once reaching the last few scree slope pitches, most of my energy actually went towards dodging rocks and stopping them dislodging then crushing Ben and Robbie below me.
The last pitches led to an area of very creamy rocks – Ben was in his element – that could be climbed to the final pitch while dodging conservation tape. Sunrise, the very top of the cave, was satisfying to reach, but the feeling was slightly marred by knowing how far the return trip was. I believe it was Mr Hall who put it so eloquently, ‘If there’s an injury here you’re pretty much a write off’. Speaking of which…
I was on my way out, bringing up the rear, when I accidentally nudged quite a large white rock from within The Party Sausage, and my shout of ‘below!’ was one of true terror – this was no irritating pebble, it was a rescue-inducing goliath. Luckily it landed on Ben’s foot just a couple of metres down the slope; he spent a couple of minutes finding somewhere to nestle the boulder and we were on our way. It does not surprise me that Ben’s cream trumped that of the calcite rock.
Below!Conor, 20/02/19, in a panic
Due to having no ledges available, the pendulum pitch was more difficult on the way out, I descended to near the bottom of the loop then attached the hand jammer to the upwards rope. I don’t know what my thought process here was, but I then descended as far as I could and ended up hanging from my safety, unable to reach the handjammer. In hindsight I now think I may have been able to somehow use a pantin but my chosen rescue method was to swing to the wall and just climb up it. I was a bit nervous, but I could hear the other three eating Mars Bars less than ten metres away, so I steeled myself and started the climb.
The first handhold came off in my hand – good start, falling backwards into the 30m Orechasm was interesting – but my second try was better; I got a metre or two upwards then leaned backwards to grab the handjammer and undo it. As soon as I was successful I was enjoying it, a whoop of victory was needed. The pitch head was even harder, but after some coaching from Olly I dragged myself through the hole and back towards the Ice Cream Trail. After lying facedown in a puddle for a rest, we set off home. The Trail is only 60m long but in total must have taken two and a half hours of this trip. It’s lucky we had a Cream Ambassador.
The trail was easier on the way backwards because I took the SRT kit off, and the upwards feet-first crawl from before turned into a face first slide. Fun stuff! The worst part was probably the last squeeze (first in the Trail) because the rope upwards was too far away from the squeeze itself. After some contortions and bruised hips, I was out! We were finally past the worst of it, and all we had left was the 140m of SRT… Although since exped my aversion to prussiking has been replaced by squeezing, so it wasn’t that bad until the cramping; after getting off the first pitch, I realised that my arms cramped into place if I bent them. I stretched them out and tried to prussik with straight arms: not ideal, but I’d made it this far. I maintained the pace and when I eventually reached the entrance gate a small scream was required to summon the required energy. I was out!
I walked to the car but couldn’t decipher Olly’s key instructions, so waited for him and cancelled the callout at ten to midnight, a close call but a good trip!