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.


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