Sunday, 6 July 2014


Formations inside the astonishingly beautiful Illusion Pot.

"There's no way I'm going down there".
I nearly spoke the words out loud this morning, looking down at the descending squeeze in the Second Chamber of Lower Cales Dale Cave. Tight and intimidating, it turned me around in the direction of retreat. But I stopped before letting first impressions get the better of me, and remembered - moments like these are when the magic happen.

My 31 inch waist was certainly able to fit through that hole, why the immediate dismissal of giving it a try? Holes become tighter, slopes become steeper and everything is just more when you are going at things alone. Illusions of risk seem far more potent than when risk itself is actually present. 

Features with titles -  squeezes, pitches, ducks, abseils...these play on your mind and become more than they are. You can approach these with anticipation but they often pass smoothly, yet something you'd not given a second thought to proves to be a greater obstacle. Titles and numbers make it hard to be open minded.

Subterranean Kingsdale. Perfect banded curtain formations.

Huge blade and stal formation.

The Expressway. 200m long and like the main chamber of a cathedral.

A mesmerising straw stalactite ceiling.

On 7 occasions during 4 caving trips in the last fortnight, I have found myself tackling a crux section of cave with far more ease than I'd imagined. Unlikely looking tight squeezes have proved to demand thought and tactics, rather than brute force or the need to breathe in. "Ducking" though pools in narrow crawling passageways have been welcome cool-offs on hot days, rather than icy cold submergences which chill you to the bone.

The descending squeeze in Lower Cales Dale Cave. Actually fairly straightforward to get through, given some thought.

Handline pitch in order to see a very special and beautiful place.

An entertaining squeeze in Carlswark Cavern. A good round trip through the "duck" to Pearl Chamber, back through the Big Dig via a foray into the Dynamite Series.

Best formation I've seen yet.

Pristine coloured stalactites and stalagmites.

No, it was the simple possession of a piece of knowledge that was the only thing to turn me back from an objective in the past fortnight. The "sobering hydrology" of Sleets Gill Cave was foremost on my mind as I slowly made my way into its huge main passageway. Infamous amongst cavers, Sleets Gill can flood seemingly at random, sometimes 3 weeks after heavy rainfall. No pattern seems to exist. The advice is to not go near it if it has rained at all in the last two weeks, if it is raining, or if it is forecast to rain.

My day was chosen carefully, and two weeks had passed with barely a drop of rain to speak of. My descent into the cave was slow and considered, failing to see any signs of recent flood activity at the crucial points. I went back to look again for any changes at 10 minute intervals, and still nothing. The afternoon outside was hot and clear. The riverbeds in the Dales had looked parched or very low on the drive over.

Logically I knew that my trip to Sleets Gill was a well-timed one. And a visit to the main passageway was a privilege, as the tree-trunk sized calcite columns make it a truly magnificent place. Yet I couldn't concentrate. I felt rushed as I set up my camera for photography.

In the humbling main passageway of Sleets Gill Cave, Kilnsey. Tree sized columns and organ formations.

Though the sun shone hot outside and the rivers ran dry, my ears prickled at the sound of every drop of water from the ceiling. My footfalls echoing around the massive passage stopped me more than once, images appearing in my head of a torrent of water flooding the cave. I wanted to continue and see The Ramp, an apparently unique feature deeper in the cave which is spoke of in awe. But I simply couldn't justify it to myself. Whilst almost certainly safer than on some harder trips, the feeling of risk was far stronger. A struggle up though the very tight entrance saw me back in the heat and the haze of the surface.

The skills required for caving are often quite directly transferable from mountaineering. So it seems, are the mind games. You never know quite where they'll take you.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Skirwith and Great Douk Caves

 Climbing the 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith Cave

After emerging from the magnificent cave of Ibbeth Peril, I'd expected that the really memorable part of my day was now over. However Skirwith and Great Douk Caves both exceeded my expectations and I'll remember them well but for different reasons to the beauties of subteranean Dentdale.

I was surprised just how quickly you encounter the first beautiful formations inside Skirwith...if you can find the entrance, that is. A tiny grotto in the left wall looks like it has overflowed with flowstone "paint" and then dried, the excess running down to the passage floor. A few yards on and two beautiful calcite columns are met with some crystal clear gour pools close at hand too.

Ribbons and columns in Skirwith

The well known flowstone cascade.

The tall and impressive rift passage ends with a slightly hair-raising boulder collapse from above. It looks mighty unlikely, and the once easy way-on now involves an easy squeeze through the boulders. But it was clearly a regularly travelled squeeze, and my thoughts of ending my trip there were shelved.

A long and knee-deep pool caused me to traverse above with a foot on each side wall, trying to avoid getting a soaking with the knowledge that I still had another long cave to visit after this one. The roaring of water became loud, and I entered a chamber with a 15 ft waterfall thundering down into the pool beneath.

I didn't even consider tackling this, and at the time I had no idea I would in fact return to climb it later in the day and explore far more of the cave.

The beautiful 900m long stream passage of Great Douk. After some distance of this.... emerge into this. A stunning forested roof collapse in the Great Douk streamway. Several hundred metres of dark passage continues beyond me.

Great Douk Cave was next, and it was certainly the "magnificent romp" described by the guidebook. Almost 1000m of beautiful clean underground stream passage, with plenty of short cascades to climb and pools of crystal clear water to negotiate. The walls and floor are scalloped and cut so perfectly that the stream flows as effortlessly as it would in a water slide. It meanders for an impressive distance, and it was pure enjoyment the whole way. I knew this already, but it was here that I really learned that there are so many more beauties in a cave than just impressive formations.

The stunning river passageway of Great Douk.

Part of a large collection of bizarre formations, including extensive "cave popcorn".

On the return trip I found my thoughts wandering to that 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith. Why not give it a try? 

So an hour or so later I was stood underneath the waterfall again. I tried to look with eyes that saw past intimidating first impressions again, and soon saw a line of good handholds running up behind the cascade. No doubt the idea of climbing up head first into a waterfall was a little scary, but I felt compelled to try and confront this particular mental barrier.

And before I knew it I was up, and smiling at how straightforward it really was. Simply accepting I was going to have a full-on barage of water propelled onto my body was the key - once my head was around that it was just like climbing a wet rock pitch in wellies.

A long section of grovelling in a wet and low passage followed, as did something else which I found pretty surprising. You'll have to go and see for yourself, if you want to know what.

Going down the waterfall was less straightforward but it didn't take long. The hot sun on the surface felt like a gift, and I basked for a while reflecting on just how much I'd seen since I entered Ibbeth Peril at dawn.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ibbeth Peril

The beautiful Ibbeth Peril 1, Dentdale

The cave rumoured to be the lair of the mythical witch of Dentdale is  one of the most enchanting places I've ever been. That quiet and beautiful river couldron on the surface is nothing compared to what lies behind and beneath the waterfall.

Reassuring though the last week of dry weather was, I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous as I dug through a pile of flood debris to find the small entrance to the cave. The waterfall coming down beside me was only a trickle and the forecast was dry, but yet I still took one 
last glance into the sky to check for any clouds.

Flood debris stuck to the roof of the cave passage was a sobering sight indeed, the idea that the cave regularly fills with water to the roof a frightening one. But a hot and settled day was starting, and there was no need to let these thoughts become a worry.

The roof lowered to about 18 inches above the floor and I started the flat-out crawl. This proved to be by no means a sign of things to come.

Indeed a massive hall of a chamber lay ahead, a spectacular natural wonder. A large (perilous?) boulder field splits the chamber, with gaping "crevasses" everywhere waiting to swallow you up. I took my time, and my headtorch started to reveal the true nature of this cave.

A spellbinding and vast display of formations coats an entire wall and the ceiling of this chamber. How would I ever be able to do this justice with photographs? There were decorations in colours and hues I'd never expected to see, from dark red through to inky black. The tiny "antler" helictites were just as beautiful as the hulking giant of a cascade stalactite that forms the centre piece of the whole grotto.

Not that they even begin to do it justice, but I'll let the photos say the rest.

One of the pristine grottos.

Thousands of white stalactites

The Barn Owls.

Bacon formation.

Just one corner of the massive main chamber, far too large to photograph.

Some weird oily looking flowstone.

The Great Cascade in centre-frame.

Black and white stalactites

A fine array of formations overhanging a gour pool.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Into the upper chambers of Owl Hole

The spectacular entrance to "Cystal Pallas", Owl Hole.

Boredom can sometimes be the catalyst to start the most memorable adventures, and so it proved to be this week. 70 hours of work in 7 days had left me desperate to do something of substance to break the monotony.

Since my trips into the lower passages of Owl Hole in Dowel Dale a few weeks back, one particular idea has never been far from my thoughts. The pothole has a small entrance in one of its side walls, a number of metres above the floor. A 23ft aid climb up to this entrance is the key to accessing some fantastically well decorated chambers with reputedly some of the finest formations in the Peak District.

The 23ft pitch is the obvious pale streak on the left of the photo, leading to a small entrance.

My climbing rack is pretty limited from years of soloing, but one thing I do own a lot of is slings. The first time I visited the pot I saw five bolts at intervals up the 23ft pitch, and I soon realised that with care I should be able to climb it with a mix of stepping in/hauling on slings and using natural holds, and then abseil off the top bolt on return.

Monday evening, and I was stood at the bottom of the pitch. As is often the case, things looked a bit longer and steeper than I'd remembered in my mind's eye. I triple checked that I had everything I needed, and clipped my first long sling into the first bolt. The first half of the pitch went quickly, despite having to think a bit about how to use as few slings as possible.

It became a bit more complex at the small diagonal section in the middle, as it required a step across onto a sloping and wet ledge. Then the final haul into the cave passageway shut me down for a few minutes. I seemed to be there for quite a while, trying to work out how to get up just the last metre into the entrance. Then it clicked and it was all suddenly so simple, and I easily stepped up into the muddy passageway.

About to rig the rope for the abseil out.

I couldn't hardly contain my excitement as I rigged the pitch ready for the abseil for the return trip. Here I finally was.

A muddy passage led to a gate, and a climb up delivered me into a beautiful grotto ordained with formations of every kind. I sat and stared for a long while.

A beautiful banded curtain formation.

The first grotto.

Large stalagmite boss in the first grotto.

Pillar formation.

With the greatest of care I crawled through the taped passageway, the fragility of these beauties foremost on my mind in the cramped space. Looking back behind me revealed the grotto to be even more stunning than I first though, some stunning pure white stalagtites hanging down behind an undercut.  Hogmorton Aven let me stand up and stretch before I returned to look for my main objective.

A spectacular "hanging grotto".

Carrot formation.

Straws and blades.

A hole in the floor of the first grotto lets you slide down to a brilliant stalactite/stalagmite formation. This marks the start of a sloping "balcony" which overlooks the most incredible chamber.

The Crystal Pallas was absolutely amazing to look down into. Gigantic stalactites and curtain formations hung down in demented shapes from the ceiling, and a pure white gour pool reflected my headtorch back at me from below. Awe struck, I instantly vowed to return in the future with more gear to descend fully into the Crystal Pallas to see it more closely.

Straws in the entrance to the Pig's Trotters passageway.

Abseiling out in the dark.

Job done.

My abseil out was in the dark, my headtorch picking out thousands of insects crawling over the innards of the pothole. Stripping the pitch of my slings on my way down, I landed on two feet, coiled away my gear, and started dreaming of what's next.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Getting the rope out for Jugholes Cave

Beautiful formations in the Upper Series of Jugholes.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit intimidated by the idea of using a rope today. The last time I'd used a rope was over two years ago, abseiling down the side of the Un-named Pinnacle on Aonach Dubh to check out potential new routes.

Despite an intensive period of roped climbing in 2009, pretty much everything I've done since has been solo, my rope usually remaining undisturbed in my rucksack and mainly  there for forced retreats.

Today was the first time I've used a rope whilst soloing a cave. The fact that I felt ready to make this signficiant step-up in terms of difficulty felt like quite a big deal, as who knows what opportunities it could unlock in the future?

But first impressions looking down the 15ft shaft into Jugholes Upper Series this morning caused me to have doubts. The shaft was in a tight spot beyond a crawling sized hole, with a smooth mud slope leading down to it. I was going to need to crawl feet first through the hole to enter the shaft, and it felt like a pretty awkward place to carry out a bit of ropework I'd never done before.

Dropping a rope down the 15ft shaft the enter the Upper Series. 

I'm learning that first impressions are of limited value in general when it comes to caving, so I spent a few minutes trying to figure it out. Above and to the side of the hole was a chockstone, so I made a thread belay with a long sling and tied in the rope. After tying a number of Alpine butterfly loops to turn the rope into a handline, I dropped the rope down the shaft and started moving down.

Looking up from the bottom of the shaft.

Crawling down feet first and facing in, I lowered myself down the mud slope by putting most of my weight on the rope loops. Very quickly I was over the lip of the shaft and climbed down my handline, finding some good footholds to make things easier.

A piece of cake really, especially considering for a moment I'd thought my plan had been over-ambitious. It felt good too, really good.

Navigating by the sound of a stream, I found my way into the immense roof-collapse which leads to the Bee Hives Chamber. It felt like a bit of a maze to begin with, and only after the second of two crawling passages was I convinced I was heading the right way.

A fine grotto on the "Bee Hive" slopes.

Colourful veins running over the roof.

An odd layer of green clay covered the slopes to my left, the first of many points of interest in the cave. Then the "Bee Hives" themselves appeared, a giant slope of flowstone that is one of the most extensive in Britain. I must have spent at least two hours exploring the chamber.

Hundreds of curtain formations.

A row of proto stalagtites.

From the main streamway you could be completely oblivious to the large number of small but very fine speleotherms that decorate the walls and roof. Whilst photographing one particular grotto it must have taken me twenty minutes to fully notice all the formations, some very fine curtains appearing even at floor level.

Small but colourful ribbon formations.

Climbing back up my rope was a quick job, but the morning as a whole felt like another step towards a wider world. There's been a few like that lately!


Thursday, 29 May 2014

Elderbush Cave

Elderbush Cave is one of those ones that must be frustrating to adventurous walkers excited by coming across a large and impressive entrance, just to find it seemingly only going back a few metres. So many times as a hillwalker I've felt a pang of curiosity at coming across a cave, only to be disappointed by it not really going anywhere.

First impressions are deceptive in Elderbush Cave however.  Today an inconspicious tunnel in the shadows of this damp hole led me down to a bit of a milestone caving trip.

That tunnel didn't last long until I reached a sizeable chamber with some beautiful flowstone formations, and I was transported back to a childhood fascination by staring in awe at some well preserved fossils in the walls. But the chamber seemed to have come too quickly, I thought the cave was longer than this?

Some beautiful flowstone formations in the main chamber

An impressive fossil vein

Three high-level passages broke off from the chamber, all of which would involve some climbing to get in to. The first two seemed too tight. The third one looked more promising, but the climb looked awkward and coming back down it seemed like it could be quite touch and go.

I nearly just turned around, but I decided to try and "work" the problem. The issued seemed to be a lack of high handholds, which would make reversing the climb very difficult. A very sloping  left foothold seemed useless without a high handhold,  and I couldn't find much for my right foot. It didn't look promising. 

But I tried pushing against the left foothold and jamming my back up against the wall behind me, which allowed me to stay in a position of tension on the sloping hold. Now I could see a high ledge for my right foot, so I bridged across and searched for any handholds. I took my time, inching up and down making sure I didn't make a single move that I couldn't reverse.

Before long I'd got up the climb, and moved up and along the high passage to reach a tiny "balcony" overlooking a large chamber overhung by a flowstone pillar. From here however it was clear progress was impossible without a rope, so I slowly but surely reversed the passage and downclimbed back to the main chamber.

Pillars overlooking the final deep chamber.

An overhanging aid pitch to get down to the final chamber. One to go back for.

So why was Elderbush Cave a small milestone for me? It wasn't the first climb I've had to do in a cave. 

On the way back from the main chamber I found a very small gap in the floor leading to what looked like a grotto beyond. It was to be the first proper "squeeze" that I've done on a caving trip.

I didn't take this lightly. Whilst soloing a cave there are very few places and situations in which I'd be willing to commit to a real squeeze. But this was close to the entrance of a cave from which I knew for sure how to exit, and a passage wall directly opposite was going to be very useful for pushing against with my legs to help get me through.

The squeeze, with a glove for scale. Photo taken from an already low chamber.

The squeeze was perhaps 35cm wide. It took me a few tries to work out how to get through. Lesson 1 - keep your arms stretched out flat in front of you, don't bend them at all. I heaved against the wall behind me with my boots, and inch by inch I wriggled my way through the hole.

Although the grotto which I emerged into didn't yield much, I felt a satisfied at having tackled a significant mental barrier. I'm pretty sure only a few months ago I remember saying I'd never want to do a squeeze in a cave.