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.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Skirwith and Great Douk Caves

 Climbing the 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith Cave

After emerging from the magnificent cave of Ibbeth Peril, I'd expected that the really memorable part of my day was now over. However Skirwith and Great Douk Caves both exceeded my expectations and I'll remember them well but for different reasons to the beauties of subteranean Dentdale.

I was surprised just how quickly you encounter the first beautiful formations inside Skirwith...if you can find the entrance, that is. A tiny grotto in the left wall looks like it has overflowed with flowstone "paint" and then dried, the excess running down to the passage floor. A few yards on and two beautiful calcite columns are met with some crystal clear gour pools close at hand too.

Ribbons and columns in Skirwith

The well known flowstone cascade.

The tall and impressive rift passage ends with a slightly hair-raising boulder collapse from above. It looks mighty unlikely, and the once easy way-on now involves an easy squeeze through the boulders. But it was clearly a regularly travelled squeeze, and my thoughts of ending my trip there were shelved.

A long and knee-deep pool caused me to traverse above with a foot on each side wall, trying to avoid getting a soaking with the knowledge that I still had another long cave to visit after this one. The roaring of water became loud, and I entered a chamber with a 15 ft waterfall thundering down into the pool beneath.

I didn't even consider tackling this, and at the time I had no idea I would in fact return to climb it later in the day and explore far more of the cave.

The beautiful 900m long stream passage of Great Douk. After some distance of this.... emerge into this. A stunning forested roof collapse in the Great Douk streamway. Several hundred metres of dark passage continues beyond me.

Great Douk Cave was next, and it was certainly the "magnificent romp" described by the guidebook. Almost 1000m of beautiful clean underground stream passage, with plenty of short cascades to climb and pools of crystal clear water to negotiate. The walls and floor are scalloped and cut so perfectly that the stream flows as effortlessly as it would in a water slide. It meanders for an impressive distance, and it was pure enjoyment the whole way. I knew this already, but it was here that I really learned that there are so many more beauties in a cave than just impressive formations.

The stunning river passageway of Great Douk.

Part of a large collection of bizarre formations, including extensive "cave popcorn".

On the return trip I found my thoughts wandering to that 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith. Why not give it a try? 

So an hour or so later I was stood underneath the waterfall again. I tried to look with eyes that saw past intimidating first impressions again, and soon saw a line of good handholds running up behind the cascade. No doubt the idea of climbing up head first into a waterfall was a little scary, but I felt compelled to try and confront this particular mental barrier.

And before I knew it I was up, and smiling at how straightforward it really was. Simply accepting I was going to have a full-on barage of water propelled onto my body was the key - once my head was around that it was just like climbing a wet rock pitch in wellies.

A long section of grovelling in a wet and low passage followed, as did something else which I found pretty surprising. You'll have to go and see for yourself, if you want to know what.

Going down the waterfall was less straightforward but it didn't take long. The hot sun on the surface felt like a gift, and I basked for a while reflecting on just how much I'd seen since I entered Ibbeth Peril at dawn.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ibbeth Peril

The beautiful Ibbeth Peril 1, Dentdale

The cave rumoured to be the lair of the mythical witch of Dentdale is  one of the most enchanting places I've ever been. That quiet and beautiful river couldron on the surface is nothing compared to what lies behind and beneath the waterfall.

Reassuring though the last week of dry weather was, I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous as I dug through a pile of flood debris to find the small entrance to the cave. The waterfall coming down beside me was only a trickle and the forecast was dry, but yet I still took one 
last glance into the sky to check for any clouds.

Flood debris stuck to the roof of the cave passage was a sobering sight indeed, the idea that the cave regularly fills with water to the roof a frightening one. But a hot and settled day was starting, and there was no need to let these thoughts become a worry.

The roof lowered to about 18 inches above the floor and I started the flat-out crawl. This proved to be by no means a sign of things to come.

Indeed a massive hall of a chamber lay ahead, a spectacular natural wonder. A large (perilous?) boulder field splits the chamber, with gaping "crevasses" everywhere waiting to swallow you up. I took my time, and my headtorch started to reveal the true nature of this cave.

A spellbinding and vast display of formations coats an entire wall and the ceiling of this chamber. How would I ever be able to do this justice with photographs? There were decorations in colours and hues I'd never expected to see, from dark red through to inky black. The tiny "antler" helictites were just as beautiful as the hulking giant of a cascade stalactite that forms the centre piece of the whole grotto.

Not that they even begin to do it justice, but I'll let the photos say the rest.

One of the pristine grottos.

Thousands of white stalactites

The Barn Owls.

Bacon formation.

Just one corner of the massive main chamber, far too large to photograph.

Some weird oily looking flowstone.

The Great Cascade in centre-frame.

Black and white stalactites

A fine array of formations overhanging a gour pool.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Into the upper chambers of Owl Hole

The spectacular entrance to "Cystal Pallas", Owl Hole.

Boredom can sometimes be the catalyst to start the most memorable adventures, and so it proved to be this week. 70 hours of work in 7 days had left me desperate to do something of substance to break the monotony.

Since my trips into the lower passages of Owl Hole in Dowel Dale a few weeks back, one particular idea has never been far from my thoughts. The pothole has a small entrance in one of its side walls, a number of metres above the floor. A 23ft aid climb up to this entrance is the key to accessing some fantastically well decorated chambers with reputedly some of the finest formations in the Peak District.

The 23ft pitch is the obvious pale streak on the left of the photo, leading to a small entrance.

My climbing rack is pretty limited from years of soloing, but one thing I do own a lot of is slings. The first time I visited the pot I saw five bolts at intervals up the 23ft pitch, and I soon realised that with care I should be able to climb it with a mix of stepping in/hauling on slings and using natural holds, and then abseil off the top bolt on return.

Monday evening, and I was stood at the bottom of the pitch. As is often the case, things looked a bit longer and steeper than I'd remembered in my mind's eye. I triple checked that I had everything I needed, and clipped my first long sling into the first bolt. The first half of the pitch went quickly, despite having to think a bit about how to use as few slings as possible.

It became a bit more complex at the small diagonal section in the middle, as it required a step across onto a sloping and wet ledge. Then the final haul into the cave passageway shut me down for a few minutes. I seemed to be there for quite a while, trying to work out how to get up just the last metre into the entrance. Then it clicked and it was all suddenly so simple, and I easily stepped up into the muddy passageway.

About to rig the rope for the abseil out.

I couldn't hardly contain my excitement as I rigged the pitch ready for the abseil for the return trip. Here I finally was.

A muddy passage led to a gate, and a climb up delivered me into a beautiful grotto ordained with formations of every kind. I sat and stared for a long while.

A beautiful banded curtain formation.

The first grotto.

Large stalagmite boss in the first grotto.

Pillar formation.

With the greatest of care I crawled through the taped passageway, the fragility of these beauties foremost on my mind in the cramped space. Looking back behind me revealed the grotto to be even more stunning than I first though, some stunning pure white stalagtites hanging down behind an undercut.  Hogmorton Aven let me stand up and stretch before I returned to look for my main objective.

A spectacular "hanging grotto".

Carrot formation.

Straws and blades.

A hole in the floor of the first grotto lets you slide down to a brilliant stalactite/stalagmite formation. This marks the start of a sloping "balcony" which overlooks the most incredible chamber.

The Crystal Pallas was absolutely amazing to look down into. Gigantic stalactites and curtain formations hung down in demented shapes from the ceiling, and a pure white gour pool reflected my headtorch back at me from below. Awe struck, I instantly vowed to return in the future with more gear to descend fully into the Crystal Pallas to see it more closely.

Straws in the entrance to the Pig's Trotters passageway.

Abseiling out in the dark.

Job done.

My abseil out was in the dark, my headtorch picking out thousands of insects crawling over the innards of the pothole. Stripping the pitch of my slings on my way down, I landed on two feet, coiled away my gear, and started dreaming of what's next.