Water Icicle Close Cavern - the North West Passage.
The last two months have been the first time in 5 years that I've not felt the need to be tight on the heels of the next adventure. My October solo trip into Ogof y Daren Cilau in Wales is the first thing I've ever done that has actually satisfied the itch for a substantial length of time. Indeed it left a lingering sense of contentment that has only started to wear off in the past couple of weeks.
Life at the moment is one of packing boxes, bus journeys, letting agents and chaos. My thoughts are of our imminent return to living the Highlands, winter routes, new possibilities and the start of a new chapter. My caving rope and SRT harness has been bundled up underneath the kitchen table since November, gathering dust instead of mud.
A week or so ago I realised that moving back to the Highlands could mean it could be months or even years until my next caving trip. I wanted a last fix to end to my time in the Peak District on a high.
The tiny farming village I've lived in for the past 10 months sits on top of an extensive network of mines and caves, some of which are classic descents and suitable for the wet winter months. Water Icicle Close Cavern is a system that has been the scene of extensive recent exploration , and I recognised it as an opportunity to visit some pristine and only recently discovered cave passageways.
Large and colourful cave formations.
I sat on the edge of the entrance shaft getting pummeled by the wind and rain. The nearby copse of trees roared with the noise of swaying branches, and it all felt very different to decending into Yorkshire potholes in the hot and dry summer of last year. I shined my torch on full beam down the shaft. The pitch was 110ft, and it started to look like a long way down.
Rigging the pitch head, I dealt with the niggling doubts that had popped up from nowhere. The wind and rain wouldn't follow me underground. I adjusted my bowline-on-a-bight for the second time, locked off my descender and swung into the black.
Looking down the 110ft pitch.
The temperature shot up and that familiar muddy aroma filled my lungs. I abseiled slowly, enjoying it. It felt like a long way, more than twice the length of any other underground pitch I've done.
Three passageways led off from the chamber at the bottom of the pitch. Large, semi-circular walking passages seemed to be the defining characteristic of the cave. I came across occasional impressive flowstone cascades and areas of stubby stalactites. There were some high avens and taller areas of chamber where high level passages look to lead off, and it was immediately obvious that there is a lot more cave there than has been yet discovered.
A very large flowstone cascade.
As I headed down the South Passage towards the most recently discovered passages (2012) I couldn't help wonder just how much cave is waiting there that has never been entered by humans. At floor level on the left in The Great Rift, I crawled through a muddy boulder choke and easy squeeze to enter the 2012 Extensions.
Volcanic Bug-Pusher was a memorable passageway, easily the most pristine I've seen in the Peak District. Extremely tiny but beautiful crystal formations covered patches of the floor, untouched sediment deposits all around. It is an amazing thing to think that countless miles of similar passageway remain undiscovered underneath the Dales.
Clipping my ascenders on the rope for the journey out, 110ft once again looked like a long way. Jumaring up a rope is a pretty tiring business sometimes. Half way up the rope, I briefly considered the absurdity of my position. Hanging on a 35 metre length of 10.5mm thick cord, in the dark, by myself. I looked at the devices with which I've become so familiar - my jumar, croll chest ascender, mechanical descender. To a climber who used to repeatedly say he'd never take up potholing, won't all this seem like a very surreal set of memories a month from now when I'm back in the Highlands?