Thursday, 11 September 2014

Magnetometer Pot

Beautiful formations one past the arduous crawls in Magnetomer Pot, Fountains Fell.

Onsight solo trips that have felt close to my psychological maximum have often provided some of the most profound experiences I've ever had, and so it was with my descent of Magnetomer Pot yesterday.

No single crux of the pothole taken in isolation was particularly difficult, but stacked one after another collectively they proved to be quite a test. Staying focused on each obstacle individually, whilst remaining mindful of having suitable reserves of strength for the return trip was an interesting balancing act.

Perhaps the enjoyable entrance shaft put me a little bit too at ease? Half way down I rigged a deviation on the pitch to allow a good free-hang to the floor, a straightforward bit of SRT, and I suppose I wasn't quite fired up for a struggle.

The entrance pitch.

But the first obstacles appeared almost immediately, a couple of squeezes that hinted at things to come. Another squeeze down a rift following a rope delivered me at the top of a 15ft climb down a chimney, and this caused my first moment of doubt. It was all pretty tight and confusing, and the structure of things beneath the chimney wasn't too clear. Ten minutes of straining my neck followed, testing various handholds and convincing myself I'd be able to climb back up this crux on the return.

Finally I committed, but from the bottom of the chimney it got even tighter. Two technical moves round an S-bend preceeded a body-sized tube, and the continuation was narrowing further and entering water. A word with myself was required to proceed.

By now I was left with no doubts about the nature of this pothole. The obstacles I'd come through were pushed to the back of my mind as I embarked upon a 620ft long crawl. Totally flat-out to begin with, the aptly named "Wet Crawl" did what it promised and very nearly turned me around. It was like the Giant's Windpipe but almost 4 times as long. The only relief it gave was that dragging myself along became marginally easier as I could very slightly float along at points.

Why did it seem so long? Again I had to have a quiet word with myself. Getting out of the water was a relief, but only rewarded with 300ft of crawling over painful cobbles.

The larger passageways have some pristine and sizeable stalactites. This one about 5ft long.

To say it was worth it for what came next would be an understatement - The River Styx is the most incredible passage. Waist deep wading through this creeping and slow river was amazing, the roof a beautiful pallet of colours ordained with occasional large formations. The size of everything increased with each step and the pothole seemed a different place.

Formations above The River Styx.

Near Holes Junction.

Easy Street was what I'd come to photograph. This is one of the most beautiful sections of cave I've seen to date, and everything shining the brighter when I thought of the contrast with the arduous passageways I'd come through to get there. But I couldn't linger too long. I was cold and had the return trip to cope with.

Reaching the relief and dryness of Easy Street. One pitch, 4 squeezes, a 15ft chimney and 620ft of crawling to get here.

Stunning gour pools in Easy Street.

The return along the crawls was quite painful with the absence of elbow pads, but everything felt easier on the way back until I got to the bottom of the 15ft chimney. Footholds were non-existent and upwards progress was a battle. I was back on the crux of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag, twisting myself into contortions and using a full-body jam to get to the top of the damn thing. Adrenaline got me there in the end. So long as nothing went wrong on the entrance pitch then I had it in the bag.

It wasn't until I was unclipping the pitch deviation that I realised...6 weeks ago I've never even heard of Magnetometer Pot.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Hagg Gill Pot

The 45ft entrance pitch to the superb Hagg Gill Pot

You go through an abrupt transition between worlds when you abseil into a pothole. Not only does the environment around you change instantly, but all the complications which fill the air on the surface become replaced with thoughts of technical and navigational logistics. 

The change was more apparent to me than ever before yesterday as I dropped down the 45ft entrance shaft into Hagg Gill Pot. The quiet calm of Langstrothdale was the scene of some of my happiest childhood memories, hunting for fossils in the river during the summer holidays. The world I was abseiling into is something I could barely have imagined as a kid, one of ropes and karabiners and jumars. I laughed at just how much more involved my means of having fun are now.

A few metres down the entrance shaft you have to squeeze through a constriction before the pitch opens out into a nice free-hang into a large chamber. I was a touch apprehensive about this, but after rigging the rope carefully to avoid abrasion points I set about tackling the obstacle. It gave me pause for thought, but in the end it involved less swearing than I'd be prepared for and I continued quickly to the bottom of the pitch.

The upstream passage became an instant mimic of The Crabwalk in Giant's Hole, but (thank god) not of such endless length. I knew to expect fine formations and some elaborate speleothems, but I was stunned speechless when this narrow passage opened out into a chamber containing a 40ft high stalactite column. I've not seen anything else to compare.

The very bottom of a 40ft high stalactite column.

The formations continued, sometimes forcing me to grovel in the stream below to avoid touching their pristine surfaces. A long section of narrow passageway was adorned by an incredible coating of helictites, each one of them very small but collectively a quite astonishing thing to see. My movements were slow and considered, terrified of brushing against them and ending their ancient growth.

Thousands of twisted and sharp helictites cover the walls of some of the upstream passages.

A fixed rope climb and more stream passageway took me into a huge, reactor-like chamber with multiple passages going off in different directions. I was in here for a while searching for the way on, eventually climbing up over some van-sized boulders to discover the correct continuation.

An upwards squeeze through a slot delivered me into a pool underneath a beautiful and tall waterfall, and above this some climbing brought me to my objective. The straw chamber was a hauntingly beautiful place, some of the pencil-width stalactites almost 9ft in length and hanging down over two seperate grottos on each side. Places like this blow my mind with their sheer weirdness and otherwordly quality.

The radiant beauty of the straw chamber hidden upstream.

Straw stalactites, many over body-height in length.

Going back past my rope coming down the entrance shaft, I spent an hour or so exploring the other streamway, and enjoying the multiple short climbs up waterfalls. I stopped and reflected on how all this was actually just indulging the child that remains in me, but brushed this away as I started the serious business of reascending my rope to the surface.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Bagshawe Cavern

 Abseiling "The Dungeon" in Bagshawe Cavern.

The glorious summer of endless sunny days couldn't last forever, although it had started to seem like it might. The long drought finally broke on Saturday, the rain falling with intent onto parched ground. I vividly recalled the end of summer 2006 in Suffolk, standing outside to enjoy the freshness and relief of the first rainfall after a 6 week heatwave. It was different as the downpours started on Saturday, instead I felt frustrated that summer couldn't just maintain its status quo for a good while longer.

As with everything else, the deeper I get into caving the more I realise there is to do. Each week my knowledge expands a bit more and my to-do list grows longer. And the bulk of that to-do list is made far more difficult when it's raining. If anything I'm even more impatient than I was a few years ago, and I seem to be constantly eager to be doing everything all the time. 

How wet would it be underground? Would three days of downpours have had that much effect on caves dry from two months of sun and warmth? My plan was set for an "all weather" cave system in Yorkshire, but then an email confirming permission to visit Bagshawe Cavern changed all that. I've wanted to do a trip down Bagshawe for a while - an access-controlled cave only a few miles from home. But how much water would I find down there?

Crossing "The Lake". This waist-deep section is a permanent wet feature.

Many years ago the dry upper-series of Bagshawe was run as a show-cave, and the trip to the "end" at the Hippodrome is very straightforward. It was the harder and more interesting Lower Series that I had my eyes on however. 

The crux of the trip is The Dungeon, a short SRT pitch to reach the start of the lower series. Part of me had been wondering if it might be too wet, so it was with a bit of surprise to find it totally dry when I peered down from above. So I abseiled down the pitch to see what lay beyond.

Some muddy crawling brought me to a beautiful chamber with some impressive flowstone cascades. Still no sign of any flowing water! I spent a while photographing the formations, aware that the next section was going to be cold and wet.

The beautiful chamber where Agony Crawl enters at roof level.

The Lake is waist-deep with a low roof. As I entered the water I started to have second thoughts, the passage looking much lower than I'd anticipated. But I pressed on and inhaled sharply as the cold water went up to my chest. It wasn't as bad as it looked, and all I could think was just how more uncomfortable the Giant's Windpipe had been a couple of weeks ago.

Flowstone array.

1000ft of varied passage followed, but still no sign of any flowing water! Clearly it will take more to reverse the effects of the long drought. I reached my objective, returned by the same route and jumared up my rope hanging down The Dungeon.

Extensive formations in the Lower Series.

What else will the summer allow me to do before it reaches its final fling?


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A solo Round Trip of Giant's Hole

Rigging the 45ft abseil on the last leg of the trip.

I'm struggling a bit to know what to say about this one. Just now it feels like an experience to rival anything I've done in solo climbing and mountaineering, but will that feeling linger?

Soloing this hadn't even crossed my mind until the last week, especially considering it would be the first time I'd done it. It was one of those "if only's" that came to me in day dreams. But a I had a magic moment in the last few days when I suddenly realised I was up to the task.

The "Round Trip" of Giant's Hole is one of Britain's great caving trips - a 2.6km Grade 3 expedition of great variety with classic situations throughout. A few days ago my appetite had been wetted, my first trip down the Crabwalk leaving me wanting more. How far could I go into Giant's Hole by myself?

Work was distracting. A printed-off route description and survey became dog-eared as I studied it inbetween serving the endless tide of customers in The Old Nag's Head. I remained cautious. All things were carefully considered, and the moment arrived when I could justify a solo attempt. A pit-in-stomach moment ensued. 

The awkward and beautiful Razor Edge Cascade.

Looking up from the magnificent passageway of The Crabwalk. Oxbows and natural arches stretching 50ft above.

Six distinct and varied crux sections have to be tackled to complete the trip. The abseil into Garland's Pot comes first, where the pitch has to be rigged for both descent and SRT ascent on the return. The Crabwalk follows. Some things are easier the second time you do them...not so with the Crabwalk. It feels like it will never end.

The second crux is The Vice. This is where Crabwalk narrows to a squeeze which proves difficult for all but the thin, but my build allowed this to be passed without difficulty.

Down-climbing a few stream cascades and some incredible passageway takes you to the next crux section. Two fixed-rope pitches must be climbed, first into Maggin's Rift and then en route in North-East Swallet. I was nervous about this. But again years of climbing proved invaluable and they were so much easier than I'd been prepared for.

A fixed rope free-climb in the impressive North-East Swallet.

Looking back at the fixed rope up into Maggin's Rift.

Beautiful flowstone cascade in Letter Box Passage.

Poached Edge Passage.

The Giant's Windpipe was undoubtably the psychological crux for me. I'm pretty good with tight crawling passages, but my comfort zone nearly abandoned me and buggered off back the way I'd come when I was half way through the Windpipe. Crawling through water with only inches of headspace above felt more serious than any other part of the trip, though it is undoubtably safer than many other sections. "Ducks" -  sections when your head gets wet, are always worse than they sound. You have to be there.

The entrance to the tight duck of Giant's Windpipe. Psychological crux of the trip for me.

I got cold after Giant's Windpipe. Plans to photograph the beautiful formations were put aside as keeping moving became a priority. This was the bit I was unsure about. How would it turn out? I broke out into the high roof of the Crabwalk, a long way above the passageway below. 

Ghost Rift.

Flowstone formations before The Giant's Windpipe.

The fifth crux was the one I was apprehensive about. A tight 50ft abseil down into the Crabwalk was needed to deliver me from the Upper Series to the Lower, and my way out. Crabwalk looked just as narrow and twisting from above as it does when you are in it. Cold and shivering, I rigged the pitch, locked off my descender, and before I knew it I splashed into the stream in the Crabwalk below. Thinking about it a few days before had been more frightening than actually doing it.

Formations before the abseil back into The Crabwalk.

Extensive flowstone cascade.

The sixth and final crux comes after returning up The Crabwalk upstream, the re-ascent up Garland's Pot. I reached my hanging rope with relief, the endless confines of The Crabwalk having started to get to me. Jumaring up the rope felt odd, surreal. I hauled up my drysack from below and started back along the Entrance Series.

It all sounds so mechanical and matter-of-fact. A solo Round Trip having never done it before? I didn't see that coming. I suspect this is one of those days which will take a while to sink in. What next? I don't know. Things are different now.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Giant's Hole

Ascending the Garland's Pot pitch in Giant's Hole, Castleton.

"An extended sick joke" - the phrase used in my caving guidebook to describe the 2000ft long Crabwalk, a cave passageway which couldn't be any more aptly named. " This..narrow passage twists and turns until one feels as if they have been in it forever". I could barely resist after descriptions like that.

Every day I pass Giant's Hole on my drive to work in Edale. Each time I've reached that point on the road for the past 2 months I've felt a pang of frustration. The vast majority of the cave lies beyond an obstacle that had previously been my end point, and to pass it safely I was going to need to put in the hours learning a few things.

Base Camp Chamber

Large flowstone cascade.

The high and impressive walls of Boss Aven.

Single Rope Technique (SRT) intimidated me at first, a system of ascent and descent requiring the use of gear I'd never used before. Talk of camming devices, mechanical descenders and chest harnesses put me off initially. But now after several weeks of learning,  SRT seems so much more straightforward and it has let me take some first steps into a wider world.

Looking back to my rope from the bottom of Garland's Pot.

Garland's Pot is the obstacle in question, a large 7m deep hole with a waterfall running over one side. The ability to pass this safely lets you access thousands of feet of classic passageway which make up the rest of Giant's Hole.

A sense of amusing irony didn't escape me by as I rigged the pitch down Garland's. Ropework, something I shunned almost entirely during my last 5 years of climbing in Scotland, seems to have brought me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in the past 2 months. I threaded and locked off my descender, swung out into space, and before I knew it I was stood at the bottom of the pot getting wet.

It was an exciting moment, entering The Crabwalk. Thousands of feet of classic cave passageways had now become available to me. But what would I make of Crabwalk itself?

Sideways walking and shuffling for 2000ft doesn't sound that tiring on paper, but the reality is a bit different. Those twists and turns just keep coming and the passage rarely exceeds 2ft in width, often forcing you to keep your back bent for long periods. The roof soars up above you until you can't see it any more, and you marvel at just long how the water has been carving out this high and narrow slot.

The Crabwalk. Tight, narrow and twisting for 2000ft.

Several hundred metres of Crabwalking delivered me at The Vice, the point at which the passage narrows to a squeeze and forces all but "the skinniest people" to crawl through in the stream below where it is wider. I'm pretty lean so I fitted through The Vice quickly, surprised at how straightforward I found it.

Abseiling down Garland's Pot.

I reached my planned end point for this trip, and reversed The Crabwalk back to Garland's Pot. Jumaring back up my fixed rope felt like a conclusion to the last few weeks of intensive learning. The warmth of the air hit me hard as I returned through the entrance series, I'd completely forgotten there was a heatwave going on outside.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

"Marooned" on the Isle of Handa

10:30pm on Handa, the sunset lights up the cliffs opposite The Great Stack.

"Whichever strange place you find yourself in, make that your home". I can't remember when and where I heard this, but it strikes me as appropriate on returning from a week on the remote island of Handa in the far NW of Scotland.

Life on Handa was basic. The tide was in charge of each day. Quiet often replaced the endless stuff which fills life to the brim back in the real world. Here reality was very different, yet for the week we were there Handa felt like home.

The view to The Old Man of Stoer

One of many common lizards on the island

The area of the island known as The Great Cliffs. A stupendous place.

I have been fortunate beyond measure to spend a lot of time on the Scottish islands, and there is something about them that gets under your skin. Maybe it is that for all the silence, there is so often drama on a huge scale happening close by. 

Handa is the best example of this that I know. The serene beauty and still turqoise waters of the East side of the island are replaced on the West by the incessant chaos and noise and smell of 100,000 seabirds occupying some magnificent sea cliffs. Tiny guillemot chicks leap from the cliffs as they fledge from their nests, often only to be torn apart by piratical Great Skuas when they reach the sea below. Viscious fights break out between neighbouring birds, the tight proximity between nests sometimes becoming too much. Squadrons of Arctic Terns surround and attack everything and anything that gets too close.

Atlantic Puffins


A tiny fraction of the 100,000 seabirds which occupy the island.

Every night we would return to the island bothy, occupied by only a handful of fellow Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers. It seemed like not a single evening passed without tales of something exciting having happened during the day. We slept when we were tired, it rarely getting quite dark enough to bother lighting the candles that lit the bothy. Some days we were out from 7am to 11:30pm and couldn't get enough of the island, the 8 hours work during the day always passing in a flash.

Our office for the week.

A quiet night in the bothy

Nicole and Tim (and BBC filmcrew) watching out from fledging guillemot chicks leaping from The Great Stack, one of the greatest spectacles I've ever seen.

One hot afternoon the landing beach resembled something straight out of the tropics, the water gorgeous turqoise and the clearest I've ever seen. A mighty Great Skua landed close by carrying a rabbit it had just killed. As it started to eat its prey a wave washed in and took its meal, leaving it stood empty handed on the beach. It waited. I slowly crept forward and kicked the dead rabbit out of the sea back towards the Skua, and it started to eat only 10ft from where I was stood. It paused between mouthfuls, stretched it's huge wings into the air and screamed down at the dead rabbit. Seeing such raw behaviour at so close a distance is a privelege I won't forget for a while.

A Great Skua.

A murky evening.

An intense sunset towards the end of the week.

On the boat back to the mainland at the end of the week, the skipper told us of a plane crash in the Ukraine and an unfolding crisis in Gaza. We'd been totally oblivious. I'd joked to Nicole a few days earlier that a war could have broken out and we'd have known nothing of it on Handa. Such isolation from the rest of the world, if only for a week, has made me think hard about a few things. "It is a somewhat happier world over there" said the skipper, gazing back towards the island as we landed on the mainland.