Saturday, 22 March 2014

Stoke Lane Slocker - Die Another Day

Mark narrates the story with occasional interjections by Brendan and Jess.

Brendan had arranged for a leader for this trip, but he could not join us, explaining that “he didn’t want to catch any nasty diseases before his holiday, as his last trip in there had left him with a nasty ear infection”. Although anyone sensible would think that going into a cave with known prevalence of Weil’s disease would be enough to put anyone off, let alone the knowledge that the only way in to the main cave is to be fully submerged in filthy smelly water, we had received glowing reports from several cavers that the trip really was worthwhile, and the sump was nothing to worry about.

Brendan arrived at ours on time at 8am. While having a quick cuppa Brendan spotted Mark's camera by his computer and realised that he had left his camera at home so Mark packed his and we headed off to Stoke St Michael and the objective of the day Stoke Lane Slocker.

We arrived at around quarter to 11 and before kitting up decided to locate the cave first. We quickly found the a rather wet looking entrance and at this point Brendan admitted he was a little worried about the water levels as it had been raining the day before and heavy showers were forecast for later that afternoon.
The only photographs we had seen of the entrance online had shown it in dry conditions so we had no way of knowing if the levels were safe to enter. Fortunately we had just enough phone signal to look up the number for the Belfry and call for some local knowledge and were able to confirm that from our description we should be ok. Going through the entrance is a little like being flushed down a slippery latrine! Not far in I found I was having a struggle getting caught on the many tree branches that had washed in the entrance and a little gardening was required to continue, passing out the branches, unfortunately Brendan was sat just inside the entrance and had the full force of the water going down his neck during this task. We were soon sliding through the Muddy Oxbow and then washing off on aqueous Pebble Crawl before making our way through the Corkscrew and our first real obstacle the Nutmeg Grater. At this point Jess had a little trouble with the contortion, her hips wedging solid as she tried to bend her legs in a direction they just wouldn’t go. Brendan tried the alternative route over the top, but this proved even more tight and awkward to navigate. Having gone through first I suggested Jess try it facing the other way, but she said she was ‘not feeling it’ and wasn’t keen on going any further. As we were only 5 minutes from Sump 1, I suggested myself and Brendan take a quick look in anticipation of a return trip and then we planned to all head out together. Brendan slipped through to join me and we were soon at the rather intimidating squeeze/duck combination. I lay in the water ‘acclimatising’ as I tried to figure out how to get through. The only way was to remove your helmet, slide your body under the water and gently fit your neck through a narrow slot whilst turning your head to the side submerging one ear. At this point Brendan heard Jess calling and thought she may be in need of assistance. I assured him it was more likely that she was through and calling to ask if she should grab the camera box, which I’d left back at the contortion. After a moment we heard the clatter of the box a saw the glow of her light as Jess re-joined us. Jess later recalled that "Once they were gone I had another look at the squeeze and this time managed to work my way through. Flushed with success I grabbed the camera box and set off in pursuit. Mark greeted me with delight that we could continue the trip, Brendan didn’t look quite so pleased". My joy at having managed the duck and Jess overcoming her ‘moment’ was short lived as I rounded the corner to see the flotsam floating on top of the confined sump pool.

Brendan and Jess seemed to have little problem with the duck as they were soon at my side. Brendan and I had both researched the trip and we both knew that going in should be no problem as there would be plenty of airspace. None of us seemed eager to be first, but as the longer I leave something the less I like it, I volunteered. Handing Brendan my camera box I took a couple of deep breaths and descended. I was half way through when I felt my head yanked back and instantly realised the twin guide lines had tangled with the battery pack on the back of my helmet. I tugged forward but they were too tangled to break free. Controlling my rising panic I kicked back through trying to find the small slot I’d just dived. Brendan at this point, seeing a light shining in the water coming back through, assumed it was me waving my helmet to signal for the camera box, so he was trying to push it through as I was trying to return! Finally breaking the surface I explained what had happened so no one else would have the same issue and tidied the guide lines ready to have another go. This time I slipped through without issue to come through to what was meant to be a reasonable air space. My helmet hit the roof and I could feel my nose and mouth still under the water. Opening my eyes I could see air space in front of me and quickly made my way to it. Looking back at the sump there was less than 6 inches of airspace for the first ten feet but there was no way to communicate this to the others so all I could do was wait. Brendan was next and did exactly the same as me, hitting his head on the roof of the passage. I shouted to him that he was through and to come toward me. Finally Jess’s light emerged and again she was caught out by the limited airspace before I grabbed the collar of her suit and dragged her to us. I think all three of us took a final look at the sump, knowing that it is described as more awkward on the return, and wished this were a through trip.

CB Chamber - Stoke Lane Slocker
Jess in CB Chamber - Stoke Lane Slocker

The Traverse - Stoke Lane Slocker
Jess on The Traverse - Stoke Lane Slocker

Link Passage after the Traverse - Stoke Lane Slocker
Jess in the Link Passage after the Traverse - Stoke Lane Slocker

Enroute to The Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker
Brendan Enroute to The Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker

The King - Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker
Jess and The King - Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker

The King - Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker
Mark and The King - Throne Room - Stoke Lane Slocker

Bone Chamber - Stoke Lane Slocker
Jess in Bone Chamber - Stoke Lane Slocker

Glad to be through, and ignoring the fact that we would have to return, we made our way into the main part of the cave, which was indeed magnificent! Entering Main Chamber all thoughts of the sump were forgotten as the huge stalactites came in to view. Both Brendan and I were feeling hypothermic at this point and were having trouble stopping shivering, fortunately a quick look around the chamber and climb up to the traverse began to warm us up. Very pretty formations and a really nice little round trip with climbs up and down through various chambers followed. Jess recalls that Mark wanted to photograph everything he saw, but she was growing ever more conscious of the time ticking away. At one point as he moved his camera box, something fell out and fell down through boulders. “Oh no, my lens cap!” he said, and started hunting for it but it had fallen quite far. “Come on, leave it!” she advised, “We need to go”. However, we were all very glad that he persisted – as it turned out not to be the lens cap, but the one and only van key!

Returning to the sump I again elected to go first rather than stand around thinking about it and as I came up found that I needed to turn my helmet to the side to break the surface. Again there was no way to impart this tip to the others so all I could do was wait. I gave two good tugs on the guideline to let the others know I was safe. I felt the line go tight and waited for the next person. I thought I saw a light in the murk and then....nothing.
30 seconds went by and I began to feel a little sick at the thought of someone in trouble. Unknown to Mark, Brendan recalls that he had tried to dive through with a tackle bag and camera box. This was just not going to work and he backed out of the sump to try another strategy. Slings connected the bag and the camera box together and so he approached the sump again to pass the gear through. The bag was plunged down into the murky depths and the forced upwards in the hope Mark could grab it... Meanwhile at the other side Mark takes up the story as he grabbed the guideline, but it was still tight and then a red helmet slowly floated to the surface. With my heart in my throat I reached down to find it was actually our red hand line bag. My relief was short lived as it dawned on me that the last time I saw this it was attached to Jess’s belt. With everything I had I began pulling on the bag, trying to yank Jess through till finally the sling attached to the bag pulled through my camera box and I realised what was happening, - the others had decided to send these through ahead of them. Mark heaved the bag up with all his might, but the slings caught around Brendan neck and dragged him to the sump where he fought himself free and plunged the buoyant box down into the sump.
Next Brendan dove through, as I had done he began wedging his helmet the wrong way in the rift below the surface of the water and I had to reach down, turn and yank his head out of the water. Spluttering and blowing bubbles of joy he looked very shocked at the fact he was actually still alive. Moving out of the airspace to make way we awaited Jess. A couple of minutes went by and eventually there was six frantic tugs on the line. Another ten seconds and another six tugs. As Jess now recalls she had taken a deep breath and dived under the rock, pulling on the line, but the rock just seemed tight all around her, and so she backed back out. The trouble with backing out was that the airspace was so limited that she had to back up quite a few feet before she could breathe again. Another deep breath and another go, but the same story, just tight all around! She backed out again until she could breathe. One more go – She tried to pull herself right along the line, but felt herself wedging solid under water, so dropped the line, couldn’t find it again with her fingers, then panicked and pushed herself back out again. She was despairing of ever getting through the sump! The only way was to get Mark to come back and help her, so reluctantly she gave half a dozen tugs on the line. Someone tugged back, so again she tugged 6 times, hoping they’d realise she needed help. Brendan and I knew she was having trouble. We exchanged a look and I dove back through to see what I could do for Jess. Reaching her I found her a little distressed. She had tried to dive through three times and every time had found a tight spot that wouldn’t allow her through. I explained the technique and she had another go. Again she didn’t make it and came back again. This time I had seen her problem and one she stopped crying I explained that she needed to dive lower and use the line a guide rather than hauling on it. On her fifth attempt she was through but had overshot the airspace and was heading into a tight slot. Brendan plunged down into the murky sump and grabbed the collar of her oversuit, to pull her to a position where she could be guided to the air. Brendan's hands then firmly grabbed each side of her helmet and pulled her up through the rift into the airspace. Once clear I dove back through for the last time and we happily retraced our steps without issue to daylight. Although there was evidence of some showers we were grateful to find that the heavy rains had not materialised.

We drove back in the van, in which Jess had set the heating on Gas Mark 12, we did not complain as it took over an hour before we could feel our fingers again. Back at our house we did a little more research and checked pictures of the duck and sump as both had not been what we were expecting. It was only then that we found out that we had done the trip with 12 inches higher water levels than any photograph or trip report we could find on the net!

Present: Brendan Marris, Jess and Mark Burkey.

1 comment:

  1. In the 70's West London Caving Club had our hut nearby and this was our allocated rescue cave. I fondly recall the trips, the practice rescues and the 2 trips I made into the "west london extension". Alan Chambers I think discovered it, and allowing for memory distortion, the 2nd visit was myself & Bob Bell (who saved me from drowning in the extension) and myself Alan and 2 others of the 3rd trip to survey and chart it. We graded it FH&D. Honestly the real bugger was using goon suits and carbide lamps with unreliable ex mining lamps punching a dim glimmer for short periods. You save the electric light for the extension so as not to spoil the formations. And then do it all again in the Knatchbull (Dave was the landlord). Bob is alive and well in Penrith but many have passed on. I still cave in my head but the body alas is less able. We also worked on the Viaduct Sink (team known as Small Hole Investigation Team - never was abbreviated and in later years 4 of us - Geoff Donald, Bob Cottle, (Little) John Lane used to meet at GPD's and go to Opera. I named us FOWL (Friends Of West London) and I am the last survivor. Happy Days.