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.


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