Sunday 22 February 2015

Withyhill & Fernhill Caves

For our second day we were left with just Chloe, Jess and Myself.

Todays adventures would be in Withyhill cave and then a quick romp in to Fernhill.

We met for a very civilised 10am start with Martin, our trip leader for the day, at the quarry car park. The heavens opened as we changed and we were all glad to get out of the cold and wet and in to one of the prettiest caves in the quarry.
We took in Broken Curtain Chamber, Pearl Chamber, Elephant Trunk Chamber, Helictite Corner and Column Chamber via a mixture of walking, aqueous crawling before reaching the squeeze up in to green lake chamber. There had been some doubt as to if I'd manage to get through this awkward squeeze, but after a lot of pushing and wriggling I was finally in and I must say the view was well worth the effort! Fortunately getting out was actually easier than getting in and the rest of the trip was spent clicking away with the camera as we made our exit.

Fernhill was a short ladder climb to a single chamber which has some of the most stunning curtains I have ever seen. I was fortunate to be offered a chance of photographing these before we headed back out to more cold wet weather.

A great end to a fun weekend.

Chloe in Broken Curtain Chamber

Jess near Barabobath's Bath

Chloe in Green Lake Chamber

Martin at the Fernhill Curtains

Present: Chloe Burney, Jess Burkey & Mark Burkey

Saturday 21 February 2015

The sweet smell of success in Manor Farm Swallet

February's club weekend was very well supported as always, with 15 members going underground in the Mendips on the Saturday. A 'Priddy Good Breakfast' had been planned but with so many of us turning up unannounced, service was slow and we had hardly finished breakfast by lunchtime. We then split into 3 groups, one to go into Shatter Cave with a leader, one to go into GB, and one more group, including myself.

Carl had requested a 'wet, tight, awkward' trip to break in his mysterious Plus One, and Brendan wanted to find Nhasa Gallery in Manor Farm Swallet, so with Mike Bonner and Mark B...U...R...Gess completing the group, we set off to have fun in the streamway that runs under the cow pastures of Manor Farm.

As not all the team were yet SRT competent, we took ladders for the entrance pitch. Carl popped down first, followed by his mate Dan, who coped with the ladder very well, as did Mike and Mark. September Rift soon followed. This is pretty much free climbable, but Carl rigged a ladder and handline for extra security and everyone was soon down.

Mike in September Rift

The descent along the streamway down rifts, crawls and climbs was enjoyable, with one highlight being the crawl through a cascade. Towards the end of the passage we started looking for the way on to Nhasa Gallery, which turned out to be an obvious climb up on the left. How we had missed it on previous trips was hard to tell. After an initial chamber, the route on regained the water, leading along to a section of foul smelling sludge where crawling was called for. Carl at first refused point blank to go through the sludge, but the rest of us were undeterred and pushed on through, stirring up the slurry nicely. There was only a very short amount of passage after that, and the air quality was not good, but it seemed only polite to wait for Carl to give up and crawl through the sludge before telling him it was a dead end.

Carl enjoying the water

We did manage to wash some of the visible mud off in the cascading water on the way back out, but the smell of cow s**t somehow didn't leave us, and it was a rather fragrant  group that arrived back at the foot of September Rift. Brendan and I had been looking forward to seeing the others struggle on this tight, awkward rift, but disappointingly everyone seemed to take it in their stride, and the same went for the ladder pitch, though that was a little more tiring.

The boys admiring the curtain formation

With such a swift exit, we were changed and ready to go before 5pm, which is when we made a horrible discovery - not only had I left the tea and coffee stuff in the van with Mark; I'd left the caving cakes there too!

Dan looking disappointingly unbroken by the trip

 Present: Jess Burkey, Brendan Marris, Mike Bonner, Mark Burgess, Carl Knott, Dan 'the mysterious Plus One'

Shattered in the Mendips

Chloe had taken a look through the new Mendip Underground publication at the beginning of the year and requested a couple of trips in to the Fairy Quarry caves.
 After drawing names from a hat for the places we wound up with Mel, Loz, Keith, Myself and Chloe for the first Fairy Quarry Cave of the weekend: Shatter Cave.
 After waving off the others we had a couple of hours to kill as we were not going in until 2pm, so Keith, Chloe and myself headed in to Stoke St.Micheal where we settled in to a local pub for a couple of cups of coffee.
 We met with 'Kermit', our leader for the day, at the quarry car park at 2pm and then had to await the late Loz Appleby to arrive.
We had decided to give the girls until 2.30pm and they arrived with just a couple of minutes to spare!

All changed we headed off in to shatter cave with Kermit taking the lead. The caving itself was straight forward and we were soon ooohing and arrring at the decorated chambers as we made our way in through Diesel, Canopy and Tor chambers which had a distinctly continental feel to the formations. We then made our way through Pisa Passage with its odd shaped Stalagmite formation and finally to the stunning Pillar chamber.
On our return Keith took some video whilst I clicked away with the camera, and after just 4 hours we were making our way back to the cars.
 After a quick change we said our good byes to Kermit and headed off to Priddy to meet up with the others at the Queen Victoria for good food and company.

Chloe in Pillar Chamber

Loz in Pisa Passage

Mel in The Ring Road before Pillar Chamber

Present: Loz Appleby, Keith Edwards, Mel Bell, Mark Burkey and Chloe Burney.

Sunday 15 February 2015

A gentle Sunday stroll around the mini - columns in OFD

Having promised the Southampton students that we would take them into Dan Yr Ogof
on the Sunday, we got up to find them still in various states of collapse after the effort of the previous day's through trip, with no desire to go caving at all. Some of the provisionals also decided not to cave, which left Brendan, Mark and myself without a group to lead.
We decided on a short refresher trip around the mini-columns and bedding planes, mainly for my benefit as I couldn't remember how everything fitted together, but also as an opportunity for Mark and Brendan to play with their cameras and test out different lighting effects etc. without having to carry them far. From the perspective of the model, it was wonderful not to be cold and wet for a change!
We explored just about every nook and cranny in the Bedding Planes, with Mark managing to insert himself into some very tight and gnarly spots while Brendan and I had more sense than to accept his invitations to follow.
Before we knew it, it was gone 4pm and time to head back out for tea and cake.

The Bedding Chambers

Chamber near Speedy Caver

The Mini Columns

?!?!?!?! Brendan and his massive Stalagmite ?!?!?!?

Present: Jess Burkey,  Mark Burkey, Brendan Marris,

Saturday 14 February 2015

Swept off my feet on Valentine's Day

As members of not just Dudley CC but also SWCC, Brendan, Mark and myself had been asked to help out on one of their 'Provisionals' weekends.
Mark was unsure whether I'd be keen on spending Valentine's Day caving with unknown newbies, particularly as Brendan had already asked him out for a meal on Valentine's evening, but as we spent last year's Valentine's camped in a popular dogging spot near Abergavenny (accidentally!!) I figured this year's could only be an improvement.
Claire Vivian of SWCC had done a tremendous amount of preparation for the weekend and groups were soon organised to go underground. We were asked to take two groups from Southampton Uni - not strictly novices but inexperienced cavers who wanted to go further afield in the cave systems. I envisaged a romp around Top Entrance route-finding and was looking forward to the day.
One of the groups wanted to go and find cave entrances in the more general area, such as Clydach Gorge, so that they could plan future trips, and it made sense that Brendan should show them where to look. The other group wanted to do something more demanding - a through trip from OFD1 to Top Entrance. Much as I tried to persuade them that the Marble Showers Traverses were the best way to do the through trip, they were determined to experience the delights of the streamway, and it was with a heavy heart that I waved Brendan off in his nice, warm car, and plodded down the hill to get wet.
The water was well over the step when we got to OFD1, but not at a dangerous level so off we set. All went well for the first section and we quickly passed Lowe's climb and went through the boulder choke. OFD 1 1/2 through to the junction with Cwm Dwr posed no problems and we were even shown a new way to enter the Letterbox feet first, which works really well.

"I think it's this way"
Once through the Confluence the streamway became really hard work. As I find the streamway hard at the best of times, I went first. The water was flowing so strongly that we had to fight our way up each cascade and find new ways to climb up the mini waterfalls. Then we arrived at the first pot. Whereas in the past I have happily skimmed across the surface of each pot and wriggled up the other side, now I was faced with a whirlpool. Following the swirl of the water it was easy to be swept around to the other side of the pot, but dragging yourself back out of the water against the flow was really strenuous, with the water trying to peel your fingers off the smooth rock. The last pot was the worst. I launched myself at the far edge but could not get a grip, and the water swept me straight round the pot back to where I started. Again I dived across and again the water pulled my desperate fingers off the rock. This time I was going under as I came back around the pot and two students pulled me out. One of them had a go at getting across the pot but ended up back at the start like me, and then finally the other managed to get across and pull himself out. I passed him a sling and he aided the rest of us across and out of the water. When it came to the last one in the group, he had no strength left to pull himself out, and Mark had to dive into the pot and push him out, dolphin-style. The water was also extremely cold, and by the time we reached the Oxbow and came out of the water our teeth were chattering.

Fighting against the flow in the streamway
The students started emptying their wellies and Mark looked at them, "You do know we have to get back into the steamway, don't you?" he asked. I think I heard whimpering; it could have been me.
Back in the streamway, we eventually reached the climb up towards Maypole Inlet. There was a fair amount of water coming down, and one of the students looked up at it.
"Just what I wanted after all that" he said "was to have to climb up a f***ing waterfall!"
The climb up Maypole Inlet itself proved a challenge for the weary group but soon we were all up into dry passage at last. Taking a short detour to take in the Trident, Judge and Swamp Creek on the way out, I elected to take the sandy crawls to the Corkscrew, in an effort to warm up, and took two of the group with me, while Mark continued up Salubrious with the rest.
Once out of the cave we were thanked profusely by the students, who then had their dinner and went straight to bed, broken! Brendan had not long been back after a leisurely potter around the countryside, so he graciously allowed me to accompany him and Mark for a curry to round off the day. Definitely a better Valentine's than last year!

Present: Jessica Burkey, Mark Burkey, Southampton University Caving Club


Sunday 8 February 2015

Dudleys Elite Face Off On The Uk's Most Extreme Caves........The Burrington Coombe Triple

Having been inspired by Chris Binding's epic documentary charting the bottoming of one of Britain's most extreme caving undertakings... Goatchurch Cavern, a team of 6 were selected from Dudley's elite to take on not only this monster of a system, but to try and do the impossible triple of Burrington Coombe.
Things almost immediately took a turn for the worse when a last minute change of base camp sent us to Banwell where our provisions were unfortunately not quite what we hoped. This would cost some of our team dearly later in the expedition as energy reserves began to exhaust.
Regardless we were in good spirits as we made the walk up to the Goatchurch System. For anyone who has been to see the uninviting entrance you will know that just getting to this point is something of an achievement in itself. We followed a marked path through the forest crossing rivers and finally arrived at the breathtaking splendour of the vast abyss that is Goatchurch's main entrance.
We were immediately impressed by the enormity of system and a disquiet descended on the group as we each took stock and walked away from the natural sunlight.
A team of scientists were doing a bat survey in the entrance chamber and we used their pre-rigged lines to descend deeper in to the heart of the cave. A few of us found ourselves in 'The Maze' and somehow managed, more by luck than judgement to find our way back out to Keith and Brendan's voices. A line was rigged for the Coal Shute. Many would use full SRT kits for this mammoth pitch, but with our years of training we each managed to free climb this obstacle with just the aid of a hand line. Everything had gone well up to this point. On a previous attempt a member had broken an ankle trying to do a controlled free fall across the top of 'The Coffin Lid' .....a glass smooth slab pitched at a 30 degree angle and known to allow an uncontrolled slide of up to 60mph if not performed correctly. With huge relief each member of the team performed our practiced braking manoeuvre to perfection and we lost none at this point.
 We had done our research and knew we would next be confronted by 'The Drainpipe'.......At almost 2km this tight and arduous crawl is notorious for ending many a cavers career and it was with a mixture of excitement and dread that we searched for the way in to it. Keith and Mel first found Hellish tight. Each of them tried to get through here, but both were doomed to failure. The guide books describe this as only possible by anorexic dwarfs. Keith in a valiant effort broke a rib trying to push this extreme caving squeeze and Mel was almost lost for good before being assisted out.
We finally found our way in to 'The Drainpipe' and after over an hour of contortions and suit shredding body sized tube we emerged in to a huge chamber. This is where lesser cavers would camp, resting before attempting either the gruelling exit or pushing the final limits of 'Dexion Extensions', but not us: we were on a mission.
With a mixture of injuries and our energy levels dropping we fought our way back through the various obstacles in reverse. Each impossibly seeming harder and taking longer to negotiate than on the way in until finally when we thought all hope must be lost we glimpsed a shaft of daylight in front of us and spirits soared as we realised we had done it. We had faced Goatchurch and won!

It was on this cloud-like high that we continued on to our next objective....Sidcot Swallet.
Whilst Sidcot does not have the epic proportions of Goatchurch it is nevertheless regarded as one of the true adventures of the Mendips, with less people having visited the fearsome Ducks at the bottom of the system than have visited the surface of the moon and more perishing trying to succeed.

We were all on the verge of exhaustion as we dropped through the entrance series to our first real challenge.....'The Tie Press' .....Chloe was leading at this point and faltered looking in to the darkness. She asked for a second opinion as it looked to be a contortion that just would not be possible for a normal human being. After checking our surveys and route descriptions we unfortunately found that this was indeed the feared way on. We were unsure that Keith would make it with a cracked rib. We all knew the stories of the ill-fated Harlem Cave Trotters who had the leader of their party break his back pushing to get through. Fortunately we are of smaller stature and larger egos and after many grunts and groans the entire team emerged with minimal bruising. As we walked from this I believe each of us shuddered knowing that we would have to return through.
All was soon forgotten as we reached the head of 'The Lobster Pot' This is a deceiving obstacle and the original explorers are now known to have perished after dropping down this innocuous looking hole only to find out that is is near impossible to get back out. Fortunately we had brought a hand line to assist in this and with confidence each of us dropped through.
Brendan stayed as top man Armstrong and Aldrin before him Brendan had walked where only a handful had been before and knew we may need assistance from the top.
We finally reached the stuff of nightmares, the feared Sidcot Ducks. We paused only for a quick photograph to prove we had made it before heading back.
Keith with the agility of a gazelle actually managed to escape the climb unassisted. Mel, Chloe and Jess were next with just a little help from below.
I positioned myself to climb just as a flood pulse washed over the head of the pitch from a stagnant puddle above, almost sweeping me away. At first I thought I heard laughter, but on reflection realise this was probably a nervous vocal fear release from the others fearing for my safety.
I managed to get my head and arms out of the climb and could get no further. I tried this way and that using the last of my reserves and was about to fall back through to certain doom when my team each grabbed a handful of suit and hoisted me like an enormous turnip.
For what seemed like an eternity we lay panting on the floor. Finally we realised that time was ticking away and if we didn't begin moving toward the entrance we maybe never would.
I'm not sure of how we got back out, it is all a bit of a blur. I recall Brendan struggling at 'The Tie Press' and being called back as I overshot the entrance climb moving deeper in to unexplored cave. All I know is that my eyes welled with tears as I climbed out in to fresh air and walked down the mountain track. Life seemed somehow sweeter to me after almost losing it in the bowels of the Mendips.
The triple of course can not be a triple without the last third of our adventure.... Aveline's Hole.
Many walk past this gargantuan cavern never realising that aside from The Time Machine in Daren Cilau, this is the largest natural chamber in the British isles. Whilst easy walking passage the chamber continues for what seems forever before reaching a wall of steel bars and locks. It is said that this is the location of Britain's top secret gold reserves, but this could just be rumour as none have ever entered and returned to tell the tale.

Brendan enters Goatchurch Main Chamber

Keith fights through The Drain Pipe

Mel watches in awe as Keith drops down The Lobster Pot

Chloe faces the Fearsome Ducks

Mark 'The Enormous Turnip' Burkey in The Lobster Pot

Jess and Chloe Enter Aveline's Hole

Present: Keith Edwards, Brendan Marris, Jess Burkey, Chloe Burney, Mel Bell & Mark Burkey