Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Kingsdale Master Cave

Abseiling the pitch into the impressive Kingsdale Master Cave

My solo trip down Magnetometer Pot two weeks ago had been a testing experience. At times I'd been briefly convinced I'd bitten off more than I could chew, and it had taken a fair degree of control to stop doubt from dragging me straight back out the entrance shaft.

During my time as a climber in Scotland I had more experiences like that than I can name. After a year or so of soloing, I discovered the importance of taking a reflective step back after the days when I'd got scared. Why had I felt that way? Had I pushed it too far? Often the perspective gained from doing an easier trip would help clarify things.

My descent into The Kingsdale Master Cave was to do just that. A week on from Magnetometer, a high-quality but un-stressful caving day was needed.

A few months back I'd been left totally awe-struck by a descent into another Kingsdale pothole, the formations amongst the most beautiful natural wonders I'd ever seen (at the time). A trip into the Master Cave would feature almost nothing similar, instead it would be about seeing an absolutely immense subterranean river passage.

The pitch into the Master Cave. The water behind me disappears and doesn't appear again until 2000m downstream at Keld Head.

In the perfect streamway of the Master Cave. The roof a long way above my head.

Many cavers experience their first "duck" in the Valley Entrance to the master cave, a low passageway almost flooded to the roof. After a few of the other ducks I've done recently, this one wasn't anything more than interesting. Hundreds of metres of easy stooping passage, and suddenly I was at the top of a 7m SRT pitch.

Abseiling the pitch delivered me into the streamway of the Kingsdale Master Cave, and I was not disappointed. This is the largest subterranean river passage I've seen to date. I'm ashamed to admit how seldomly I stop to appreciate just how old these underground places are, but the sense of it down here was humbling. How long had it taken for such a huge trench to be cut by the water? 

Approaching the Master Junction.

Three hours later and I was in a similarly impressive but extremely different cave passage. Crackpot was wall-to-wall beautiful decorations, all leading nicely to the climax of the iconic column that defines the cave. For the passage to be so large and so obviously old, what must lie beyond the currently explored short length of cave?

Photos are more appropriate to do Crackpot justice

In the iconic Column Chamber in Crackpot, Swaledale.

"Dripping flowstone" formation in Crackpot.

An impressive array of decorations.

Blade and stalagmite.

Straw stalactites, flowstone, carrot formations.

Monday, 22 September 2014


 The first pitch of P8 (Jackpot), Castleton. An extremely fun solo descent of this Peak District classic.

The first time I ever climbed Tower Ridge, I remember thinking afterwards that it was so enjoyable it could almost have been "designed". A varied series of interesting obstacles have to be overcome in order to reach a memorable finale. I find that often the best routes follow this basic pattern, whether they be above or below ground.

P8 (Jackpot) is a Peak District classic, a multi-pitch SRT descent down a superb cascading streamway. Like Tower Ridge it is a popular trip for a reason. While most potholes have an amount of nasty grovelling in tight and squalid passages, P8 is pretty much uninterupted enjoyment. 

The surface streams sinks straight into the entrance of P8 so it always a wet cave, often extremely so. A solo first trip was going to need settled weather, and yet again my day off coincided with high pressure. I've been in the Peak District almost 6 months now, and I still can't get used to the lack of rain.

From the word go I was in a "Crabwalk" style passage, so remarkably similar to its namesake in Giant's Hole just a few hundred metres away across the valley. Idiot's Leap was the first obstacle, a 2.5m vertical climb down a cascade which was rigged with an in-situ rope. It looked a bit more tricky from above than I'd expected, but it was easy on the way down and on the return trip.

Mud Hall. Impressive, but nothing compared to the next chamber.

Very soon I turned a sharp bend and the stream plunged down through a "window" into a chamber - the First Pitch. This was a wet abseil down the waterfall, and 30m downstream from the base of the chamber I was quickly at the head of the Second Pitch. The chamber beneath this pitch was larger and some big flowstone cascades eluded to what lay beyond.

I had a lengthy explore down some of the many passages and routes that make up this part of the cave, before I emerged into the large and impressive Mud Hall. The scramble down from this brought me into a beautiful stream canyon, which I carefully traversed above by bridging on each wall about 4m above the water.

The streamway just before T'Owd Man's Rift.

T'Owd Man's Rift, the limit of the cave for non-divers, provides a magnificent finale. It reminded me of a subterranean Deep South Gully, a tilted cleft of giant proportions. The flowstone formations here are extremely fine, and my jaw dropped to see flood sediment on stalactites dozens of feet above the current level of the stream.

A huge flowstone cascade in T'Owd Man's Rift. 

Back along the traverses, through Mud Hall and the passageways, back up the two pitches and Idiot's Leap. And I had so much fun I came back and did it all again 3 days later.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Magnetometer Pot

Beautiful formations one past the arduous crawls in Magnetomer Pot, Fountains Fell.

Onsight solo trips that have felt close to my psychological maximum have often provided some of the most profound experiences I've ever had, and so it was with my descent of Magnetomer Pot yesterday.

No single crux of the pothole taken in isolation was particularly difficult, but stacked one after another collectively they proved to be quite a test. Staying focused on each obstacle individually, whilst remaining mindful of having suitable reserves of strength for the return trip was an interesting balancing act.

Perhaps the enjoyable entrance shaft put me a little bit too at ease? Half way down I rigged a deviation on the pitch to allow a good free-hang to the floor, a straightforward bit of SRT, and I suppose I wasn't quite fired up for a struggle.

The entrance pitch.

But the first obstacles appeared almost immediately, a couple of squeezes that hinted at things to come. Another squeeze down a rift following a rope delivered me at the top of a 15ft climb down a chimney, and this caused my first moment of doubt. It was all pretty tight and confusing, and the structure of things beneath the chimney wasn't too clear. Ten minutes of straining my neck followed, testing various handholds and convincing myself I'd be able to climb back up this crux on the return.

Finally I committed, but from the bottom of the chimney it got even tighter. Two technical moves round an S-bend preceeded a body-sized tube, and the continuation was narrowing further and entering water. A word with myself was required to proceed.

By now I was left with no doubts about the nature of this pothole. The obstacles I'd come through were pushed to the back of my mind as I embarked upon a 620ft long crawl. Totally flat-out to begin with, the aptly named "Wet Crawl" did what it promised and very nearly turned me around. It was like the Giant's Windpipe but almost 4 times as long. The only relief it gave was that dragging myself along became marginally easier as I could very slightly float along at points.

Why did it seem so long? Again I had to have a quiet word with myself. Getting out of the water was a relief, but only rewarded with 300ft of crawling over painful cobbles.

The larger passageways have some pristine and sizeable stalactites. This one about 5ft long.

To say it was worth it for what came next would be an understatement - The River Styx is the most incredible passage. Waist deep wading through this creeping and slow river was amazing, the roof a beautiful pallet of colours ordained with occasional large formations. The size of everything increased with each step and the pothole seemed a different place.

Formations above The River Styx.

Near Holes Junction.

Easy Street was what I'd come to photograph. This is one of the most beautiful sections of cave I've seen to date, and everything shining the brighter when I thought of the contrast with the arduous passageways I'd come through to get there. But I couldn't linger too long. I was cold and had the return trip to cope with.

Reaching the relief and dryness of Easy Street. One pitch, 4 squeezes, a 15ft chimney and 620ft of crawling to get here.

Stunning gour pools in Easy Street.

The return along the crawls was quite painful with the absence of elbow pads, but everything felt easier on the way back until I got to the bottom of the 15ft chimney. Footholds were non-existent and upwards progress was a battle. I was back on the crux of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag, twisting myself into contortions and using a full-body jam to get to the top of the damn thing. Adrenaline got me there in the end. So long as nothing went wrong on the entrance pitch then I had it in the bag.

It wasn't until I was unclipping the pitch deviation that I realised...6 weeks ago I've never even heard of Magnetometer Pot.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Hagg Gill Pot

The 45ft entrance pitch to the superb Hagg Gill Pot

You go through an abrupt transition between worlds when you abseil into a pothole. Not only does the environment around you change instantly, but all the complications which fill the air on the surface become replaced with thoughts of technical and navigational logistics. 

The change was more apparent to me than ever before yesterday as I dropped down the 45ft entrance shaft into Hagg Gill Pot. The quiet calm of Langstrothdale was the scene of some of my happiest childhood memories, hunting for fossils in the river during the summer holidays. The world I was abseiling into is something I could barely have imagined as a kid, one of ropes and karabiners and jumars. I laughed at just how much more involved my means of having fun are now.

A few metres down the entrance shaft you have to squeeze through a constriction before the pitch opens out into a nice free-hang into a large chamber. I was a touch apprehensive about this, but after rigging the rope carefully to avoid abrasion points I set about tackling the obstacle. It gave me pause for thought, but in the end it involved less swearing than I'd be prepared for and I continued quickly to the bottom of the pitch.

The upstream passage became an instant mimic of The Crabwalk in Giant's Hole, but (thank god) not of such endless length. I knew to expect fine formations and some elaborate speleothems, but I was stunned speechless when this narrow passage opened out into a chamber containing a 40ft high stalactite column. I've not seen anything else to compare.

The very bottom of a 40ft high stalactite column.

The formations continued, sometimes forcing me to grovel in the stream below to avoid touching their pristine surfaces. A long section of narrow passageway was adorned by an incredible coating of helictites, each one of them very small but collectively a quite astonishing thing to see. My movements were slow and considered, terrified of brushing against them and ending their ancient growth.

Thousands of twisted and sharp helictites cover the walls of some of the upstream passages.

A fixed rope climb and more stream passageway took me into a huge, reactor-like chamber with multiple passages going off in different directions. I was in here for a while searching for the way on, eventually climbing up over some van-sized boulders to discover the correct continuation.

An upwards squeeze through a slot delivered me into a pool underneath a beautiful and tall waterfall, and above this some climbing brought me to my objective. The straw chamber was a hauntingly beautiful place, some of the pencil-width stalactites almost 9ft in length and hanging down over two seperate grottos on each side. Places like this blow my mind with their sheer weirdness and otherwordly quality.

The radiant beauty of the straw chamber hidden upstream.

Straw stalactites, many over body-height in length.

Going back past my rope coming down the entrance shaft, I spent an hour or so exploring the other streamway, and enjoying the multiple short climbs up waterfalls. I stopped and reflected on how all this was actually just indulging the child that remains in me, but brushed this away as I started the serious business of reascending my rope to the surface.