Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A solo Round Trip of Giant's Hole

Rigging the 45ft abseil on the last leg of the trip.

I'm struggling a bit to know what to say about this one. Just now it feels like an experience to rival anything I've done in solo climbing and mountaineering, but will that feeling linger?

Soloing this hadn't even crossed my mind until the last week, especially considering it would be the first time I'd done it. It was one of those "if only's" that came to me in day dreams. But a I had a magic moment in the last few days when I suddenly realised I was up to the task.

The "Round Trip" of Giant's Hole is one of Britain's great caving trips - a 2.6km Grade 3 expedition of great variety with classic situations throughout. A few days ago my appetite had been wetted, my first trip down the Crabwalk leaving me wanting more. How far could I go into Giant's Hole by myself?

Work was distracting. A printed-off route description and survey became dog-eared as I studied it inbetween serving the endless tide of customers in The Old Nag's Head. I remained cautious. All things were carefully considered, and the moment arrived when I could justify a solo attempt. A pit-in-stomach moment ensued. 

The awkward and beautiful Razor Edge Cascade.

Looking up from the magnificent passageway of The Crabwalk. Oxbows and natural arches stretching 50ft above.

Six distinct and varied crux sections have to be tackled to complete the trip. The abseil into Garland's Pot comes first, where the pitch has to be rigged for both descent and SRT ascent on the return. The Crabwalk follows. Some things are easier the second time you do them...not so with the Crabwalk. It feels like it will never end.

The second crux is The Vice. This is where Crabwalk narrows to a squeeze which proves difficult for all but the thin, but my build allowed this to be passed without difficulty.

Down-climbing a few stream cascades and some incredible passageway takes you to the next crux section. Two fixed-rope pitches must be climbed, first into Maggin's Rift and then en route in North-East Swallet. I was nervous about this. But again years of climbing proved invaluable and they were so much easier than I'd been prepared for.

A fixed rope free-climb in the impressive North-East Swallet.

Looking back at the fixed rope up into Maggin's Rift.

Beautiful flowstone cascade in Letter Box Passage.

Poached Edge Passage.

The Giant's Windpipe was undoubtably the psychological crux for me. I'm pretty good with tight crawling passages, but my comfort zone nearly abandoned me and buggered off back the way I'd come when I was half way through the Windpipe. Crawling through water with only inches of headspace above felt more serious than any other part of the trip, though it is undoubtably safer than many other sections. "Ducks" -  sections when your head gets wet, are always worse than they sound. You have to be there.

The entrance to the tight duck of Giant's Windpipe. Psychological crux of the trip for me.

I got cold after Giant's Windpipe. Plans to photograph the beautiful formations were put aside as keeping moving became a priority. This was the bit I was unsure about. How would it turn out? I broke out into the high roof of the Crabwalk, a long way above the passageway below. 

Ghost Rift.

Flowstone formations before The Giant's Windpipe.

The fifth crux was the one I was apprehensive about. A tight 50ft abseil down into the Crabwalk was needed to deliver me from the Upper Series to the Lower, and my way out. Crabwalk looked just as narrow and twisting from above as it does when you are in it. Cold and shivering, I rigged the pitch, locked off my descender, and before I knew it I splashed into the stream in the Crabwalk below. Thinking about it a few days before had been more frightening than actually doing it.

Formations before the abseil back into The Crabwalk.

Extensive flowstone cascade.

The sixth and final crux comes after returning up The Crabwalk upstream, the re-ascent up Garland's Pot. I reached my hanging rope with relief, the endless confines of The Crabwalk having started to get to me. Jumaring up the rope felt odd, surreal. I hauled up my drysack from below and started back along the Entrance Series.

It all sounds so mechanical and matter-of-fact. A solo Round Trip having never done it before? I didn't see that coming. I suspect this is one of those days which will take a while to sink in. What next? I don't know. Things are different now.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Giant's Hole

Ascending the Garland's Pot pitch in Giant's Hole, Castleton.

"An extended sick joke" - the phrase used in my caving guidebook to describe the 2000ft long Crabwalk, a cave passageway which couldn't be any more aptly named. " This..narrow passage twists and turns until one feels as if they have been in it forever". I could barely resist after descriptions like that.

Every day I pass Giant's Hole on my drive to work in Edale. Each time I've reached that point on the road for the past 2 months I've felt a pang of frustration. The vast majority of the cave lies beyond an obstacle that had previously been my end point, and to pass it safely I was going to need to put in the hours learning a few things.

Base Camp Chamber

Large flowstone cascade.

The high and impressive walls of Boss Aven.

Single Rope Technique (SRT) intimidated me at first, a system of ascent and descent requiring the use of gear I'd never used before. Talk of camming devices, mechanical descenders and chest harnesses put me off initially. But now after several weeks of learning,  SRT seems so much more straightforward and it has let me take some first steps into a wider world.

Looking back to my rope from the bottom of Garland's Pot.

Garland's Pot is the obstacle in question, a large 7m deep hole with a waterfall running over one side. The ability to pass this safely lets you access thousands of feet of classic passageway which make up the rest of Giant's Hole.

A sense of amusing irony didn't escape me by as I rigged the pitch down Garland's. Ropework, something I shunned almost entirely during my last 5 years of climbing in Scotland, seems to have brought me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in the past 2 months. I threaded and locked off my descender, swung out into space, and before I knew it I was stood at the bottom of the pot getting wet.

It was an exciting moment, entering The Crabwalk. Thousands of feet of classic cave passageways had now become available to me. But what would I make of Crabwalk itself?

Sideways walking and shuffling for 2000ft doesn't sound that tiring on paper, but the reality is a bit different. Those twists and turns just keep coming and the passage rarely exceeds 2ft in width, often forcing you to keep your back bent for long periods. The roof soars up above you until you can't see it any more, and you marvel at just long how the water has been carving out this high and narrow slot.

The Crabwalk. Tight, narrow and twisting for 2000ft.

Several hundred metres of Crabwalking delivered me at The Vice, the point at which the passage narrows to a squeeze and forces all but "the skinniest people" to crawl through in the stream below where it is wider. I'm pretty lean so I fitted through The Vice quickly, surprised at how straightforward I found it.

Abseiling down Garland's Pot.

I reached my planned end point for this trip, and reversed The Crabwalk back to Garland's Pot. Jumaring back up my fixed rope felt like a conclusion to the last few weeks of intensive learning. The warmth of the air hit me hard as I returned through the entrance series, I'd completely forgotten there was a heatwave going on outside.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

"Marooned" on the Isle of Handa

10:30pm on Handa, the sunset lights up the cliffs opposite The Great Stack.

"Whichever strange place you find yourself in, make that your home". I can't remember when and where I heard this, but it strikes me as appropriate on returning from a week on the remote island of Handa in the far NW of Scotland.

Life on Handa was basic. The tide was in charge of each day. Quiet often replaced the endless stuff which fills life to the brim back in the real world. Here reality was very different, yet for the week we were there Handa felt like home.

The view to The Old Man of Stoer

One of many common lizards on the island

The area of the island known as The Great Cliffs. A stupendous place.

I have been fortunate beyond measure to spend a lot of time on the Scottish islands, and there is something about them that gets under your skin. Maybe it is that for all the silence, there is so often drama on a huge scale happening close by. 

Handa is the best example of this that I know. The serene beauty and still turqoise waters of the East side of the island are replaced on the West by the incessant chaos and noise and smell of 100,000 seabirds occupying some magnificent sea cliffs. Tiny guillemot chicks leap from the cliffs as they fledge from their nests, often only to be torn apart by piratical Great Skuas when they reach the sea below. Viscious fights break out between neighbouring birds, the tight proximity between nests sometimes becoming too much. Squadrons of Arctic Terns surround and attack everything and anything that gets too close.

Atlantic Puffins


A tiny fraction of the 100,000 seabirds which occupy the island.

Every night we would return to the island bothy, occupied by only a handful of fellow Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers. It seemed like not a single evening passed without tales of something exciting having happened during the day. We slept when we were tired, it rarely getting quite dark enough to bother lighting the candles that lit the bothy. Some days we were out from 7am to 11:30pm and couldn't get enough of the island, the 8 hours work during the day always passing in a flash.

Our office for the week.

A quiet night in the bothy

Nicole and Tim (and BBC filmcrew) watching out from fledging guillemot chicks leaping from The Great Stack, one of the greatest spectacles I've ever seen.

One hot afternoon the landing beach resembled something straight out of the tropics, the water gorgeous turqoise and the clearest I've ever seen. A mighty Great Skua landed close by carrying a rabbit it had just killed. As it started to eat its prey a wave washed in and took its meal, leaving it stood empty handed on the beach. It waited. I slowly crept forward and kicked the dead rabbit out of the sea back towards the Skua, and it started to eat only 10ft from where I was stood. It paused between mouthfuls, stretched it's huge wings into the air and screamed down at the dead rabbit. Seeing such raw behaviour at so close a distance is a privelege I won't forget for a while.

A Great Skua.

A murky evening.

An intense sunset towards the end of the week.

On the boat back to the mainland at the end of the week, the skipper told us of a plane crash in the Ukraine and an unfolding crisis in Gaza. We'd been totally oblivious. I'd joked to Nicole a few days earlier that a war could have broken out and we'd have known nothing of it on Handa. Such isolation from the rest of the world, if only for a week, has made me think hard about a few things. "It is a somewhat happier world over there" said the skipper, gazing back towards the island as we landed on the mainland.


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.