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.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Etches Cave

 Fine formations in the stunning Etches Cave, Dowel Dale

A feathery watchman greeted me outside Dowel Cave, a tawny owl in a tree looking totally unfazed by me breaking the quiet of a warm morning. It turned its head a few times in that odd way that only an owl can, but stayed put and watched me pass.

Something clicked inside me during my crawl into Owl pot-hole last week. I'd felt that spark of excitement unique to glimpsing new horizons, a feeling I'd not had so strongly since my first winter climb. I'd descended quite a lot of caves before Owl Hole, but it was a significant step up in terms of difficulty and it felt distinctly like the start of something.

I've found it hard to stop thinking about my next trip underground over the last few days. Where to go? The beautiful and quiet Dowel Dale is just the kind of place I love, packed with opportunities but deserted compared to the busier and popular areas on the Peak District. I stumbled upon the mention of Etches Cave in the guidebook and didn't give it much thought to begin with, but it proved to be a memorable undertaking.

Dowel Dale

How easy would it be to pass yards by the entrance of that cave and never notice it? Someone has done a good job keeping it quiet, often a promising sign.

A short climb down and then a large walk-in entrance, a very different experience to crawling into Orpheus. I wondered for a moment if this cave would provide an adventure or if it would be just one to look at instead. But then the passage narrowed and the fun began. Calcite and flowstone decorations started to appear and hinted to great things ahead.

I hesitated when I came across a sudden increase in difficulty. The passageway forced me into a flat crawl, and I could see a descent down a smooth slab was required to progress. Some contortions followed to turn myself around so I could descend the slab feet first and facing the rock, and I inched my way down making sure I would be able to re-ascend.

The slab is the key to accessing a beautiful grotto and I was very glad I'd not let my hesitation get the better of me. More grottos followed, connected by muddy crawls, and each one was more impressive than the last. A tall column and a hanging "curtain" marked the start of a lengthy section of low passage with a slightly intimidating start.



As I'd emerged into this grotto I felt a brief but distinct feeling of disorientation as I went from crawling to standing up. I'd been standing less than 3 seconds before I had to question which crawl I'd come from. Thankfully this only lasted a short moment, but it gave me pause for thought and I scratched a large arrow in the mud to mark the way my return should follow.

The last grotto I emerged into was the most impressive, with a huge stalactite hanging down over everything and a high roof and galleries stretching above. The cave just seemed to keep on coming so I continued, until I reached a point which I couldn't justify continuing past alone and looked to be the end of the impressive section.

The crawl back to the surface felt easier than it had on the way down, and the slab didn't give me any cause for hesitation to ascend. I appeared into the warmth of the sunshine and the strong scent of damp nettles and grass, and buzzed with that feeling of excitement again. A run round Lathkill Dale an hour later didn't dull any of that buzz, and I'm eyeing up the pages of my guidebook again already.