Monday, 28 April 2014


After the crawl in "Orpheus", Dowel Dale 
There was only ever one way I was going to avoid a constant longing for the Highlands
once I moved to the Peak District, and that was by doing something different.

As much as I knew that solo rock-climbing on the gritstone edges would be a whole load of fun, I also was very aware that it would be just that - fun, and for me probably nothing more significant. My rock-climbing abilities as a soloist rarely take me above Severe 4a, and though I've certainly been tested by some of the gritstone routes I've done in the last 3 weeks, nothing approaches the mind-games and rewards of soloing big
mountain routes.

How could I stop myself constantly pining for soaring buttresses on Skye, the great ridges of the Ben or the wild climbs of Torridon? Staying entirely focused on climbing would probably lead to a lingering feeling of not being satisfied. What to do, to feel the same way that being alone in serious places in mountains makes me feel?

The irony of the answer is amusing - literally the opposite of climbing. Caving and pot-holing, something I'd written-off numerous times to friends as something I never wanted to get into. While the climbing in the Peak District doesn't even start to compare to that in the Highlands (controversial?), the  caving here is known across the world. It had been a long time since I tried out something new, but it soon dawned on me after I moved down what an amazing opportunity I have while I'm here.

I've descended a few caves here now, but "Orpheus" today was by far the best to date. A slippery descent into one of the biggest pot-holes in Derbyshire, wasn't quite as promising as I'd hoped. The five passages leading off from the base all looked far tighter or more frightening than I was really prepared to commit to. But first impressions are often not  the most useful, so I took my time and poked around a bit trying to keep an open mind.

Owl's Hole. 5 passages lead off from the bottom. 

A few minutes later, and I was crawling down Owl's Hole. This looked the least intimidating of the 5 passages, but I wasn't without doubts. A steep drop down led to a question mark of a tight section, but it only ended up being about 1 metre long, and the roof soon opened up a bit and I found a small chamber filled with all kinds of curiosities.  The roof was straight out of a xenomorph nest from the film "Aliens", but I soon started noticing other things. A few bits of old graffiti from the 1890's (miner's no doubt) and the remains of some ancient pots laid scattered about. How long had they been there? The continuations looked either flooded or too dangerous to be soloing, so I crawled back up to the surface.

In the main chamber in Owl's Hole.

Decorations in Chamber's Chamber.

A squeeze followed, a slightly contorted struggle past a bulge in the walls and I found myself emerging up through a hole in the cave roof. To my amazement I emerged upwards into the middle of a small pool surrounding me on all sides at head-level, bordered with stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone pavement and all kind of other natural decorations. Kemico Chamber was absolutely stunning, I'd no idea I would find anything like that in there.

Beautiful and fragile formations.

 Kemico Chamber inside "Orpheus".
 The bizarre eye-level pool in Kemico Chamber.
I reversed the squeeze and the 25t crawl, and when I eventually emerged into the sunshine I was totally caked in mud from head to foot. My back slightly ached and I felt grateful for fresh air. But I felt on fire, riding a high I'd not felt since my first big mountain solos. I'd spent the morning soloing a bunch of V.Diffs at Windgather, and none of it had come close to that descent down into Orpheus.

A few hours before, soloing at Windgather.

The first time I completed a really challenging hill-run I realised it's the odd excursion into my own mind that I'm after, and the means to that end go way beyond climbing solo. Some the hill-runs I've done have taken me to a whole different dimension to the one my comfort zone belongs in, as climbing sometimes has, and maybe caving will simply be another way of doing that.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A change of landscape for a while

 About to descend the chockstone pitch in Hob's House Cave, Peak District. I'll be based in the Peak District National Park until the end of the year.
A few weeks ago I watched a quite unbelievable display of the Nothern Lights from my home in the Cairngorms. Two hours of green and red shimmering curtains climaxed with a full-on "strobe light" show that was easily one of the most amazing things I'll ever see. As Nicole and I watched the Aurora from our front door, I couldn't help but give a thought to just how much of a wrench leaving the Highlands might be.

I'd known for months that we'd probably be leaving the Highlands for a while this Spring. My feelings about the whole idea have swung wildly from one place to another, from out-right terror at the whole idea to excitement at going somewhere new. The winter did its thing and I was fortunate enough to have 4 months to concentrate fully on climbing and fulfilling some long-held ambitions in the mountains.

Eventually my frenetic emotions about leaving started to settle, and a few things made me realise that being away from the Highlands for a while would be a good thing, and in all likelihood a healthy change. I've been climbing, walking, running, scrambling and exploring the Highlands without rest for 5 years now, often without thought for much else and at a pace I never thought I'd sustain for a fraction of that time.

It would have been awful to get to a point where I couldn't see the magic anymore. That was still a while in the future for certain, but for the first time recently I could actually see that happening some day. I'd shaped my life and circumstances in such a way that I've  been blessed to have done more in the Scottish mountains in the last 5 years than many would fit into a lifetime, but you can have too much of a good thing.

As I write this my hands are grazed and my fingertips a bit sore, there's some good bruises on my legs and my rucksack and climbing helmet are caked in dried mud. My first 30 gritstone route solos have proven a fascinating learning curve and I seem to be spending a lot of time crawling down caves getting a whole new kind of adrenaline fix. My newly bought guidebook to "Caves of the Peak District" is already becoming very familiar and I think I've found another outlet for my energy.

Who knows just how long we'll be here for? I've no illusions, I'm going to miss the Highlands in a very big way. Likely as not I'll always get pangs for those idyllic spring days climbing on Aonach Dubh before a shift in the Clachaig. But being unleashed on a totally new landscape like
this one can only be a good thing. My blog posts from now on will be fewer and further between, but check back on me from time to time, I'll still be around. And Snowdonia isn't very far away either....

Lathkill Dale, a mile from our new front door. A great place for running.
Entering the second chamber in Thirst House Cave, Deepdale. Caving is something I'll be doing much more of in the coming months.

V.Diffs at Castle Naze. My first 30 solos on gritstone have been a great learning curve.

Slanting Crack (Severe 4a), a fun solo with a quite physical crux.

Haddon Grove Dale Cave. I found this one by accident, the entrance very narrow and overgrown.

Flowstone formations in Thirst House Cave, Deepdale.
The impressive vertical slit of Hob's House Cave, Monsal Dale. Probably the most fun cave I've descended yet.

Deepdale, 5 minutes from our new home.