The characters and stories portrayed in this book are entirely real and authentic. Any similarities to any person, whether fictional or imagined are purely coincidental.
I began caving in 1991, and have been caving ever since. I would say that my life does not revolve around it, but that would be a lie. My wife and baby both accept that if there is a choice between a day on the sofa together or a scrabble around in the heart of the earth, the earth wins over.
When I mention to people that I am a caver, the responses are usually similar to each other:
Well, I did it once, then once again, then 300 times more.
I'm not claustrophobic. I know people that are. They go caving too. It is not as claustrophobic as most people assume. In Sarawak Chamber in Good Luck Cave, the walls of the chamber are 400 metres apart in one direction, 700 metres in the other and the roof is 100 metres above. One of the members of the first team ever to reach it suffered an acute attack of agoraphobia!
It is cold, so I wear warm clothes. I often end up sweating and welcome a cool breeze. It is wet. Sometimes. I try to avoid water. I am a human too. I don't like the water either, but sometimes the benefits outweigh the costs. It is muddy. But many women pay good money to have mud slapped on their faces. I choose caving and I have a shower afterwards. Sometimes it is small, but I don't like that, so I do caving where it isn't that small. I don't like contorting my body through small passages.
It can be dangerous. There are several things that can go wrong, I learned by my mistakes and through the mistakes of others what many of them were. There is no way of removing the dangers completely, just like there is no truly safe way to cross the road. What we can do is make it as safe as possible, to prepare for all of the foreseeable problems, never take undue risks and most important of all, learn how to help each other if there are any problems. At all times, I rely on my team mates to keep calm and to help me if I have an accident. I would do the same for them if the need arose.
Finally, yes, it is dark down there. That's why I have a light.
Get over your fears. Get in touch with nature - better than hugging a tree. See something more beautiful than you realise. Come and challenge yourself and feel the rewards. Come and join with us underground.
So it began as a family occasion. My brother, my eldest sister and myself all getting changed into grotts. First there's the first pair of trousers, then a T-shirt, then the next pair of trousers, then the sweater. Finally, something warm on top, a woolly jumper. I can assure all readers that a woolly jumper is not recommended caving gear. We had hired lights and helmets and apart from our boots, that was all we had in the way of 'proper' gear.
Along with my dad and uncle, we headed towards the entrance, the August wind feeling unusually warm. After a short trudge over the fields, we approached a ten foot tall turret, where a small stream sank at the base. I was quickly to learn that a small stream on the surface can seem many times larger underground. Looking down through the manhole in the bottom of the turret, the stream could be seen roaring across a flat floor and disappearing into an impossibly narrow crack. Being only eleven years old, I was somewhat dubious about the possibility of following the water as the crack looked much smaller than the space under my bed or the sofa, but after watching it being done by adults, I figured that a child could easily follow.
Just up ahead, a two metre drop became the first hurdle, with the water pouring over it. Crawling along the edge, a dry climb was reached, although this needed assistance for short legs. My dad and uncle helped each of us down in turn and we stood in the small chamber at the bottom, staring at each other, shivering slightly in the harsh cave air and trying to look around the next corner. None of us had yet learned how to use our lights. The lights move as you move your head, so in order to look around, you have to move your whole head, not just your eyes. The cave continued with similar small obstacles, a small waterfall here, a squeeze in the water there, and occasional walking. In my naivety, I did not notice any of the great stalactites, stalagmites or curtains, or maybe I dismissed them as being just normal.
The cave became more difficult, small but waist deep plunge pools were avoided by holding onto cracks in the walls with short fingers and slowly moving around the pools by grabbing onto the next crack. On a later trip here, I was to learn what happens when you try to climb too high above the water, as I earned myself a full dunking in a plunge pool.
At one point, looking up we could see 'The Forty', where ladders used to be used to climb down forty feet, about twelve metres. In more recent years, the ongoing process of erosion had opened up a new route leading directly to the bottom. This cave can change quite significantly due to erosion and during the 1990's, several new routes have been opened up by flooding. Only a short distance further on, we reached 'The Twenty', a twenty foot (six metre) ladder climb where no matter how the ladder was hung, it still landed under part of the waterfall. Now cold, we hurried to the next obstacle, Sump 1. At this point, the passage dipped through a short 'U tube' and filled with water. We were too new to the sport to attempt a dive through this sump. That would have to wait for another year.
Returning to the ladder, we were caught in a queue. This cave is very popular with caving novices and this drop provides a bottleneck that ensures wet cavers do not stay warm for long. Now shivering, we were each sent up the ladder, almost being pulled up by our safety rope. At the top, we hurried along to get warm again, the weight of the water having stretched our woollen jumpers to ankle length. The climbs all seemed harder on the return and traversing around the pools was almost impossible with the water weighing us down. Finally, after three surface hours - or 200 caving hours - we could smell the surface. A mixture of grass, flowers, trees and sheep droppings that seems to entice all cavers to speed up, the end of the cave is nigh. The light at the end of the tunnel grew stronger and stronger until finally, we were there. Sunshine. Cool August sunshine, but warmer than the water.
A sodden walk across the rolling hillsides brought us back to where we had started and we wearily changed back into our luxurious dry clothes. The first chalk mark was in my mental book; Swildon's Hole, Mendip Hills, August 1991.
I can quite understand why this experience would be enough to put most people off caving for life, being cold and wet is not most peoples' idea of fun but there were those things that invited me back; the challenge of the climbs, the bizarre sculpted shapes of the rock, the beauty and grace of the waterfalls but above all, the curiosity to find out what was around that next corner.
It took several months to persuade my dad to take us caving again. We had little in the way of equipment and any caving would require us to either cave dangerously or to buy proper gear. We elected for a half-half approach. My dad managed to buy several builders' helmets and with two handheld torches between us, we all set out to look at some smaller caves in the Clydach Gorge, a steep sided valley underneath where we lived. Several small caves exist in this valley, one of which - Ogof Clogwyn - is heavily overused by novices and I believe this is one of the caves we did in our early days of caving. This also is a wet cave, but with a major difference. At all times, you can avoid the water.
The cave begins with a five foot climb into the entrance. A later trip in here would see us lifting our pet Labrador into the entrance who then ran off into the distance and barked loudly without warning at a resting caver. I am unsure whether or not the fright stopped him ever visiting a cave again.
Our caving saw us attempting more and more difficult trips including a cave called Ogof Rhyd Sych in Ystradfellte in South Wales. This cave begins as a large passageway which suddenly lowers to a duck. This is not a severe duck, more of a crawl in water where you get a wet ear as you turn your head on its side. Further through, the cave becomes much lower and the only way to continue is to slowly squeeze your body through, whilst trying to find a part that is high enough for you to do so. It was in one of these low sections that my dad's light failed followed promptly by mine and we were forced to retreat as he could not see the way on well enough with his emergency backup mini Maglite.
Our equipment became more expensive also. I was now using a proper Oldham lamp. This is what I had used on my first caving trip and I remembered it as being bulky. Using it again, I confirmed that memory. The large battery pack fitted to a belt and a cable ran to a head mounted torch. The battery would catch on rocks repeatedly and became fairly annoying, but the light was so bright, it was worth the annoyance.
This particular battery was being borrowed from a friend of my dad's. This extremely tough caver had lost one of his arms in a motorbike accident several years before and continued to cave with only one arm, and a motionless prosthetic. A memorable trip with him was in Ogof Pen Eryr, another novice cave under the Llangatwg mountain in South Wales. Early on in the cave, the passage becomes body sized and twists upwards as in a corkscrew action. On the way in, there were no problems, but on the way out, the corkscrew is usually tackled feet first and the prosthetic arm was acting almost like an umbrella up a chimney, and would 'open' preventing any movement. The tight passage made it impossible to restrain the prosthetic arm with the other hand and the eventual solution was to remove the prosthetic arm. This was then carried out of the cave slung over my dad's shoulder. There were several jokes about whether to leave it sticking out from under a rock or even worse, the boot of the car!
I soon joined the Brynmawr Caving Club. This was a well recognised club based in the town of Brynmawr, at the top end of the Clydach Gorge. It was several years earlier that the club had finally managed to find a way into a miserable cave intersected by a mine adit drilled in the 19th century. The cave - Ogof Carno - is now over eight kilometres long but it does not give the caver an easy time. Large passages are short and connected by narrow, low, wet and uncomfortable passages. The adit has a stream entering at one point that makes a loud roaring sound, which had scared me on my first trip into the cave as I had heard stories from my dad about when he had been trapped in a flooding cave over twenty years previously, and he decided it would be humorous to make me think that this noise was the sound of the adit flooding. Repeat after me; honour thy father and thy mother, honour thy father and thy mother.
Being a member of a club gave me access to the Llangatwg master caves of Agen Allwedd, Ogof Daren Cilau and Craig A Ffynnon. Agen Allwedd is a large cave, once the longest known in Britain. It has very few stalactite deposits, and many of the unusual dried mud formations have been destroyed by vandals. The cave has been gated to prevent this happening, as well as to prevent inexperienced people from becoming lost in its 34 kilometres of passage. Ogof Daren Cilau is a cave that is almost connected to Agen Allwedd. Daren Cilau has several beautiful stal deposits, the largest passage in Britain and the hardest entrance series in Wales, if not all of Britain. Five hundred metres of tight and wet crawling must be passed to reach the 28 kilometres of main passages and as such, the cave needs no gate. I have to this day, only been in this cave once. Ogof Craig A Ffynnon is one of the most beautiful caves in Britain, with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, curtains, flowstone and gypsum decorating its 13 km of passages.
In 1993 I tried SRT for the first time, in Llanelly Quarry Pot above the Clydach Gorge. This cave is known for its incredibly tight entrance series. The entrance slopes into the cave and on the way out, climbing just 7 metres at an angle of about 45 degrees, there are no hand or footholds and it can take over half an hour. The abseil down the main 13 metre drop was easy. There is nothing technically difficult, except for trying to avoid the waterfall, and the walls do not get in the way at all. My dad and I used the same set of SRT gear, pulling it up on the rope after the other had used it. This trip was uneventful and there was no fear whatsoever. Well, I was 13. There is very little fear at that age. The return worked in reverse, prusiking up then lowering the gear for the other person. The entrance took the full 30 minutes, although on a later trip, because we were running very late, we have managed this in less than 10.
A later trip with the Brynmawr Caving Club saw us back in Llanelly Quarry Pot, and demonstrated one of the problems with the idea of sharing gear. Two other members were sharing gear between them. I had abseiled down using only a karabiner attached to a belt; a bit uncomfortable but it is only a short pitch. The gear was used by the first person and the second pulled it up on the end of the rope. The rope was then lowered again and while the second person put the gear on, a third began to descend on a figure of eight descender. They had no ascending gear, essential for getting yourself out of difficulties, and going back up the rope. At half way down, in the full force of a swollen waterfall, they realised a problem. The rope had not been lowered down properly and had stuck at the top. The rope went from the top where they had started, looped down to half way, and then back up to the top. They were stuck. My dad climbed up the wall until he was level with them and freed the rope. Lesson learned. Don't do it again. Get your own gear.
At about the same time, I made my attempt to be rescued by the local mountain rescue team. It was a trip to Ogof Ddwy Sir in Quimps Quarry on a nearby mountain. At that time, this was the only substantial cave known in the area, although a borehole sunk on the other side of the mountain, about 4 kilometres away had reached a cavity in the rock large enough to be a cave. I had hypothesised that these could be the same cave and was intending to find out. My dad and I followed the passage to its end and looked at the miserable sediment infill that had been washed in by a stream thousands of years before. On exiting the cave, we looked further up at some very short caves that were in the area and finding that they too filled in, I looked further down the quarry face.
The limestone in the area is in two main beds, with the Gilwern Oolite group lower down and the Dowlais limestone higher up. The two are separated by the Llanelly Shales, a 2 - 7 metre thick band of brittle compacted mud-rock. This had formed a sloping ledge in the quarry face and a few metres above it I could see what looked like an opening, hidden by a tree. Trees in limestone are always a good sign of cave. Trees like water and caves are made by, and often contain, water. So I headed carefully out along the ledge. About 5 m along, I could see into the opening and see that it closed down very quickly, so I headed back. Just two metres from the way off the ledge, I slipped on some slimy mud. I landed on the mud sitting down, but fell no further. Ten metres below me, my dad shouted to be more careful and watched as I shuffled my way sideways towards the way off. The final insult came as the 'rock' I had placed my left hand on crumbled, losing every bit of stability I had left.
I rolled onto my front as I felt the earth slipping beneath me, making futile attempts to grab onto the mud and succeeding only in stubbing my finger. The air blew gently past my ears and in the half a minute it took me to fall those ten metres, my life did not flash before my eyes. With them closed I imagined what death would feel like, if it would hurt and if I would know that I was dead. Maybe I might find out if there really was a god . . . My greatest concern was this; I hoped that my death would not be put down to a caving accident. People in their fear of the unknown already seem to think that despite its impressive safety record, caving is a dangerous sport. Fewer accidents than sailing, football and many other 'safe' sports. In reality, this was more of a mountain accident than a caving accident as I was outside. Either way, this was not a caving accident. It was me being an idiot.
I hit the ground with my legs straight, almost bolt upright. An impact like this would usually mean no less than broken legs or ankles, and maybe compaction fractures to the spine or skull. I was lucky. I was very lucky. The ground was sloping where I hit it. I bounced violently backwards onto a car sized boulder, rolling over several times. The helmet I was wearing was undamaged but the knicker-elastic that was holding it on tore across the underside of my chin. The helmet rolled to the ground, and I lay still on the rock.
My mind slowly cleared and I made my self assessment. I could feel no pain except in my finger where I had stubbed it. Had I broken my back? No, I could move my feet. My hip started to ache where it had hit the boulder. I was dead, I knew, but it hurt a little. So I checked my eyes; all I could see were clouds. Is this heaven? No, wait, I'm alive, I can still see the quarry face. My body moves when I tell it to. Everything works. My finger hurts but everything works. I got up. 'You lucky, lucky bastard!'. What made me feel most stupid - or was it relieved - of all was that I had been caving, reported to be so dangerous, yet the accident was on the surface.
Now there was fear. Too much fear. Still aged 13, I now found SRT almost impossible whenever I got anywhere above 10 metres. My dad ran over and after checking I was all right, we looked at my helmet. The Petzl Zoom light I had been using is made with a small battery pack strapped to the back of the helmet and a light unit strapped to the front. The light unit had been pushed to the back and the battery pack was where my head had been. Despite the helmet taking almost all of the impact of my fall, it was undamaged and I continued to use it for years afterwards, against the manufacturers recommendations.
On another occasion, I almost succeeded in having someone else rescued. This was Martyn Farr, one of the most respected and well known cavers in the world, and in many ways, my caving hero. I was on a sherpering trip into Carno, destination; Literal Zone, where Martyn was intending to dive some previously unentered sumps. The air tanks are heavy, the ladders and containers are awkward, the bags are very heavy and I talk too much! Apparently.
We had reached the Literal Zone and Martyn had started his dive. This area of the cave has received little attention due to its remoteness, so those of us who were not diving looked around for other possible passages that had not been entered. I was looking around in one passage where the floor was made of fairly large rocks and there were some small holes down into the main passage below. I stood on a rock that was not bedded very well, and it fell down the hole landing at the feet of Martyn, who had just emerged from the sump. Just a moment later . . .
Later in the same trip, I gave myself one of the biggest shocks in my caving career. I was entering Full Moon Crawl and I pushed a diving bottle in front of me. The passage is about 25 cm high and beautifully shaped to echo sound. The bottle rolled, catching the gas tap in the mud as it went. A plastic cap had been inserted into the valve to stop dirt getting into the valve. The pressure of the gas immediately built up and blew a neat round hole in the cap. The sound it made was unbelievable. I was deaf in one ear for the next few hours that it took to get out.
On a later trip in the Dynas Quartzite Mines, I was carrying diving bottles for a cave diver who was practising in some of the many flooded levels of the mine. After leaving the mine, we were crossing the fence that surrounds its many entrances. While passing a bottle, I caught the tap, this time with my hand, and the pressure blew the dust cap out with a loud bang. We searched the area for the cap but it was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it fell into the churning river in the gully nearby.
I was learning. I was learning from my mistakes which in caving is never a good thing. Learn from my mistakes. Don't do the same things. Ledges require safety ropes. People require warnings. Bottles require respect!
An important lesson is gained by experience. Predicting the strength of the rock. Most people learn this in safety, by far the best thing to do. My lesson was more abrupt, and I had not considered the safety aspect. We were on a trip in Pant Mawr Pot; several kilometres across the moor, a collapsed area of ground contains a short pitch into a large passage. We had followed this through a couple of choked sections and had been to see the beautiful stal formations in the side passage. We had even climbed high above the main route on ledges that had been used by countless cavers before us. Further downstream, we entered 'The Graveyard'. A short crawl entered a small chamber where several infilled passages led off. I spotted a passage at the top of a climb and attempted to reach it.
The rock looked fairly strong and several large ledges gave easy holds for my hands and feet. In between the beds of rock, there was a thinner, crumbly black rock, but the main layers were large enough to hold together. On the way up the easy climb, I ignored the metal anchor points that some cautious caver had put in before me, in order to make the climb safer for themself. I just thought they were over cautious. Three metres from the floor, I could see into the passage, and leaned over to look. I told my dad what I could see, as he was standing underneath me. He started to look at a side passage at the bottom and it was at that time that I realized how unsafe I was.
The head sized rock I was holding with my left hand snapped off where it was 'firmly' held. In order to stop it landing on my foot, I threw it back over my shoulder, shouting 'below!' to my dad. The rock landed well clear of him, as he had now disappeared into the other passage. Moments after the rock left my hand, I realized that now without a handhold, I was destined to follow the rock. 'Me!' I shouted as I fell backwards to the floor, landing like a wrestler with my arms apart. Take my advice, trust the caver who is over cautious, they know what they are doing, and if you fall, land like a wrestler.
I lay on the ground, remembering the fall down the quarry a few years earlier. My dad ran over, and asked if I was all right. I shouted for him not to touch me, in case he damaged anything. My voice worked, so that was all right. My fingers and toes worked also. Nothing seemed damaged. I cautiously got up, nursing my finger which had caught in a crack as I fell. I have never been so careless since. I have learned my lesson. I do not want to be the person that gave caving a bad name. I am taking a risk writing this here, and I worry that this might give some prejudiced non-caver the ammunition they are waiting for. This is not typical of cavers. This is my mistake. This is the last one.
Between the ages of 10 and 13, I was in boarding school in Ireland. While there, we spent several holidays in various Irish counties. The most memorable of these was a trip where my grandmother accompanied us. My immediate family was eight strong and with my grandmother, three dogs and a cat, that made 13 bodies in one Volkswagen campervan. Each morning and evening, my grandmother would insist on washing for half an hour and felt we all should do the same, even though there was only one wash bowl that we could have used, so only one person could wash at a time. We decided that as that would take 9 hours, we would prefer to smell. Her other unsociable habit was the need to urinate at five or six o'clock every morning, and the insistence on evicting everyone from the campervan to do so.
The journey had been with twice as much clothing and other bits and bobs as human and animal flesh. The second part of the holiday was to be devoted to caving in Co. Clare. On arriving at our destination, with those of us in the back buried under several tons of now dirty washing (you think I'm exaggerating . . .) my grandmother emerged from her relative state of luxury and opening the door to where the rest of us had been encased, proceeded to inform us that she could not believe how badly we had been treating her and that this was the most uncomfortable journey she had ever had as she had been forced to travel all of the way across Ireland with two dogs on her feet! Oh, how we envied her. The footwells in the campervan could easily accommodate two Labradors, one granny and several sheep if necessary.
We met a Co. Clare local, recommended by Martyn Farr. He kindly put us up in his 'barn' (translates to small house!) and we enjoyed the relative comfort of the barn, the campervan and a tent. Each of us actually had room to inhale. The first night we were there, we experienced some of Ireland's most common weather; rain. The tent proved it was not waterproof and my grandmother and sister woke in about 5 cm of water.
The caves in Co. Clare are designed for this and showed little flooding. My dad decided to take us into Polcragreach (pronounced by replacing the 'ch' with an 'r'). At his first attempt to descend the first pitch, he entered only an overgrown gully and he emerged a few metres away. A second attempt proved more successful and the correct entrance was located. The short climb was roped and each in turn, we descended into the hole. After following the passage about 100 metres, I became convinced that my dad did not know the way, and in fact had no idea where we were, and nobody had been here before, and the weight of all the rock above me had not been checked to see if it was safe and I insisted on being taken out. This is the only time I have ever felt claustrophobic underground.
My sister had a friend whom I had seen faint when a tent had collapsed on her but this was different. I simply did not trust it. I would later come to understand that the roof actually becomes safer as it gets thicker and in fact the most dangerous point is where the passage lies just below the surface. Who is to know how I would have felt if I had continued that little bit further and seen the Petrified Boot, where a boot has been coated with stal flow and has been permanently fixed to the rock.
Later in that same holiday I was taken into Polnagollum, the longest cave in Ireland. The passage meanders gently with ledges above the stream where my brother, sister and myself spent most of the trip, not wanting to get wet feet.
The final trip was to be the highlight. Pol An Ionain. This cave began as a crawl but eventually broke into a large chamber with a massive stalactite hanging from the roof. This 7 metre long wonder was the Soggy Dishcloth, and is the world's longest stalactite. It is held on by a section of calcite less that 30 cm by 30 cm but must weight over five tons. There have repeatedly been plans to open this as a show cave, although there seems little point as there is nothing else to see, just one stalactite, and also, blasting a tunnel into here is likely to cause the stalactite to break free and come crashing down to the ground. This itself is a great fear for most cavers, the accidental but preventable destruction of such a fine formation.
The way on from the chamber had been described as a 'rabbit hole, part way down the slope on the right hand side'. There was indeed a rabbit hole shaped passage, part way down the slope on the right hand side and into this, my dad proceeded, making several noises reflecting how tight the hole was. It was lucky this was the way on as there was no way he could get out of it backwards. Now in up to his buttocks, he realised the horrifying truth. All three passages he could see ended immediately, and there was no way he could turn around. After about a half an hour, he managed to get back out, having removed his very tight wetsuit top, helmet and battery whilst stuck in this tiny hole. It makes my claustrophobia seem almost pathetic.
The second fear I had to face was water, beginning with the duck. A duck would be a sump except that the roof sits slightly over the water level. These range from the 40 cm airspace of Ryans Duck in Llanelly Quarry Pot to the full blown 2 cm airspace ducks of the round trip in Swildon's Hole. I had chosen the latter.
The round trip begins as the trip to Sump 1, except that part way along, a climb in the roof passes through a sump called the mud sump. This periodically fills the passage for a long distance but on the occasion I was there, this was an easy duck with about 30 cm of airspace. No problem! The rest of the route takes the caver through four full ducks and finally, Sump 1.
The first duck can be made to give more airspace by siphoning out some of the water. This gives about 5 cm of airspace. After watching this being tackled by a 'pro', I removed my helmet, as the peak pushes your head under water, and slowly lowered myself into the water. Lying on my back, I gently pushed my way through, careful not to make any little waves that might wash up my nose and choke me. This can be fairly dangerous as the panic that ensues when this happens can cause yet more waves. The first duck was passed without any problem and at the second one, my brother demonstrated his superior skill by passing the duck with his helmet on. At the third duck, not to be outdone, I did the same. Big mistake.
Becoming too sure of myself, I rushed too quickly into the duck. Waves followed me in and at the same time, my helmet caught the roof, pushing my head under water. I attempted to recover it but the waves had temporarily sumped the passage. I was nearly two metres in, slowed down by the thick muddy water and unable to breathe. Apparently, it looked incredible from behind. I caved backwards faster than I have ever done before or since. A wave was scooped over my head the whole way and I emerged from the duck somewhat panicky, as you might expect. Had I not managed to get myself out, I know I could have relied upon my fellow cavers to drag me out by my feet or provide any other assistance I might need.
Unfortunately for me, there was nothing I could do but to go back and try again more carefully. Slowly. The two ducks finally passed, we eventually reached the other side of Sump 1. This was no obstacle. At least with a sump, you know what to expect. You take a deep breath, swim through and use a piece of rope as a guide. One thing I wasn't ready for was the fact that a helmet floats and so rubs along the roof of the passage for the whole length of the sump. On the other side we hurried out, having learned yet another lesson.
On a later trip, one of my younger sisters was on a trip to Sump 1 with myself and my brother and upon reaching it, we decided to go through. I had only decided at the last minute to go caving so I was wearing a pair of jeans and a cold shirt under an oversuit. Again, the sump was not an obstacle, but the clothes did make it seem very cold.
Water continues to be a fear. I find it very difficult to be out of my depth. I try not to lead through sections where I am unsure of the depth or where the water is cloudy. I have a constant fear that an undertow may drag me off into some unseen sump. It won't happen, but my brain can be irrational sometimes. Nonetheless, I have managed to pass Lake 3 in Dan-Yr-Ogof several times, where I know there are three hidden sumps, two with strong undertows, and the way to cross the lake is to pull yourself along a wall by your fingertips.
More worrying for me in Dan-Yr-Ogof is the Green Canal. This section of passage starts as 1.5 m deep but quickly drops to 10 m deep. The water is tinted green by algae and remains constantly at 8 degrees centigrade. The cold is so severe that the water lapping at your throat as you swim makes it ache and you shiver, even though you wear a wetsuit. I have never attempted this passage without a floatation aid; a life jacket or rubber ring.
In the Green Canal, a friend of mine once lost his boots as they fell off while he was swimming. One other member of the party was an open water diver and attempted to retrieve them but decided to surface after diving down five metres. The rest of the trip to the Far North Choke was completed without boots, about six hours caving. Ouch! We later sent him an officially headed letter as a joke, complaining that he had littered the cave with boots and small bits of wetsuit sock which could be followed to the Far North Choke. When we told the official responsible, she seemed disappointed that we had not asked her first, as she would have been happy to be in on the joke and send the letter with her actual signature on it.
Llygad Llwchwr is a river cave in South Wales. Small phreatic passages, now drained of their water, pass over short sections of large passage. The large passages connect to each other through sumps. Steve King and I had visited this short but popular cave and had decided to swim along the river in Chamber 2. This is the longest of the sections of large passage. A ladder climb landed us in an area of fast flowing shallow water, but to our left, we could see the black water swirling off into the distance, getting deeper as it went. At the end of the passage, I knew there was a route that could be climbed into, just before the sump that connected this chamber to Chamber 1.
Steve began to head off into the deep water, clinging to the slippery mud walls. I followed, but found it was almost impossible for me to hang on. The way forward was to let go of the wall and let the current take me to the next point where I could grab on again. This was not far, and Steve's long arms allowed him to reach it without much trouble. I could not bring myself to let go. In my mind, the sump ahead posed too much of a threat, even though I was fairly good at swimming. Each time I looked down the passage, the swirls looked like small whirlpools, threatening to drag me under and pin me to the floor of the sump. Ever patient, Steve swam back and, with me holding onto his shoulder, we swam across the passage with no trouble at all and made it to the climb up. Once in a passage where I felt more comfortable, I shot through the squeeze at the top, watching Steve struggle through with his size 40 chest.
A healthy fear is a good thing. It stops you taking risks. With me, it hinders my caving, but there is little I can do to convince myself that it is safe. I can associate with people whose irrational fear prevents them ever entering a cave. I know why they are scared. All cavers have irrational fears and a part of the caving experience is challenging yourself to overcome these fears.
Since my fall from the quarry, I have never quite managed to regain my nerve on big drops. I wonder sometimes whether it was just a part of growing up that caused me to be afraid and maybe I just blame the fall because it means I don't have to mention the word puberty. Never the less, I am afraid. All cavers know the stories of people who forget to check their gear properly, people whose gear falls apart as they are using it, people who abseil off the wrong ropes which are not long enough to reach the bottom, and people whose attachment points have rusted so badly that they give way. I have seen this happen in Hurnel Moss Pot in the Yorkshire Dales where we had not noticed that there was a replacement anchor. Thankfully, we had obeyed all of the safety precautions and there was no chance that anyone could be hurt. There is also the irrational fear that the rope will break. These ropes can hold over three tons but there is no amount of persuasion that can convince a mind that they are perfectly safe.
Accidents on ropes are extremely rare. A few simple habits can prevent all of them. The best habit is to check your gear first. Cavers like myself who, in their paranoia, check their gear at every turn are almost never the ones to have accidents. Gear sometimes does break through overuse. The best thing to do is to check it after every use and if in doubt, replace it. There are also the techniques that we are taught to replace gear whilst still hanging from the rope, should such a thing happen. Abseiling off short ropes can be avoided by tying knots in the ends of ropes. Knots will not pass through the descender. To avoid the problems of rusted hangpoints, two or more should be used at all times. If one fails, the other should hold. Ropes will not break if cared for properly, and all SRT rigs are done without the rope rubbing on the rock. The only other problem is falling rocks. Most often, these are thrown down holes by tourists, who want to see how deep the hole is. They tend not to stop and think about whether there may be a potholer below. I have once been hit by a falling rock, accidentally kicked down a mineshaft by another member of the caving team. This hurt, but by standing (or hanging) with the body held correctly minimised any damage. Of course, a better thing to do is to make sure that all members of the team treat loose rocks in mines with the respect they deserve.
My first attempt at SRT after my fall was in a cave in the Mendip Hills with a 20 metre drop, Hunter's Hole, conveniently located just behind the Hunters Lodge Inn. The cave starts with a short drop down a ladder, then a sloping rope drop and finally the main pitch. The word pitch originates from a hole that is so deep that when you shine your light down it, it still looks pitch black. This hole is not deep enough for that but the word is now commonly used for any drop that cannot be climbed without specialist equipment.
The descent of the hole was not a problem. I am fully technically proficient, and I was then also, so I passed each obstacle with no difficulty at all. The drops were easy if a little scary and once at the bottom, I continued to explore the cave. There are many cavers - more realistically; potholers - who live to explore caves that contain almost nothing except deep pitches. Potholing is not my sport. I sometimes descend potholes, but only in order to see the caves that lie at the bottom.
When it came to ascending the pitch, this is when my problems began. I was last up. In order to make ascending easier for my dad, who was going up before me, I had held onto the rope, keeping it tight. Part way up, he had accidentally knocked a deviation sling (a short piece of strong ribbon) and karabiner down the rope, onto my hand. This hurt but it was more the fact that it did not inspire confidence that was a problem. Deviations are put in to stop the rope rubbing on the rock. If this happens, the rock can sometimes cut through the rope. This worried me but, when it was my turn, I began to ascend, attempting to pretend to myself that the floor was only just below my feet and the roof was within my reach.
Eventually, I reached the rebelay point, where the rope is re-attached to the wall. As I approached this, I noticed the maillon was not hanging correctly. Maillons are oval shaped metal loops. They are very strong if held by one end of the oval, with the weight put on the other end. This was hanging from the side, and the weight put on the other side. This greatly reduces the strength, although it is still easily enough to hold me. The maillon had probably been dislodged as my dad passed it earlier.
The fear of this, coupled with the fear caused by the deviation landing on my hand caused me to freeze. I was not moving anywhere. After screaming at my dad to let him know what I thought of him I made him rig a second rope, which he then descended until he was beside me. Slowly, he talked me through all of the motions that I already knew how to do, until I finally got off at the top of the rope.
I swore never, never to do that again. Well, I have. Several times. I own my own set of SRT gear which I look after religiously. Over the next few years, I taught myself to ignore the fear, and continue with what I was doing. I have managed to descend and ascend a pitch almost 90 metres high, one of the highest in Britain. I did feel sorry for the sheep that had descended it slightly more quickly than I had. I learned what made me frightened and what could help. I don't think I will ever be as brave as some cavers. I will never truly enjoy being over these drops, but I can make myself pass them.
My fear is somewhat irrational. I will feel fine stepping over a big hole but ask me to hang over it and I will be scared. If I can touch one wall, I feel better, secure in the foolish hope that if something were to go wrong, I would be able to grab hold of the wall. A similar idea is that when I am about five metres from the top I am somehow in the safety zone, like if the worst were to happen, I would be able to prusik extra fast to the top and save myself. For a while, I liked to prusik in tandem, with someone prusiking up the rope behind me. This may put more weight on the rope, but at least there was someone there to reassure me.
What I will usually do is turn my light onto a really dim setting and there in my little glowing world, I can pretend I am five metres from the top, less than ten from the bottom. There, I am safe. Until someone shouts to me from the bottom and the echoes remind me how far down it really is. Singing or whistling can quite easily distract, while simultaneously irritating companions.
On yet another trip in Swildon's Hole, my dad and myself had been taking one of my youngest sisters for her first proper caving trip. Once at the junction of the many entrance routes, we came across another caving group who were heading into the cave. The group had one experienced leader and amongst the other two men and three women, there were a few with some experience. The first words said by the leader were humorous to say the least. 'Is that the way out?' pointing towards the way further in. 'Er . . No.'. Now looking puzzled 'Where is the way out?'. 'Behind you!'
After a short discussion, I offered to lead them out, leaving their leader to help my dad take my sister through the rest of the cave. Well, two of the women were quite inviting, especially for a 14 year old. So I wowed them with my caving knowledge and ability, successfully leading them through several passageways, up two climbs and out into the sunlight. Not difficult really, but it was good to be appreciated. It is unusual to get the opportunity to lead women through a cave. At a caving conference, a local was heard to question; 'What is it that you lot get up to down there that makes you all go bald and grow beards?'. This puts most women out of the question - not many of them go bald!!
My most memorable trip as a leader was to be with a party of South Bristol Speleological Society members and my dad in Agen Allwedd. We were heading about two hours into the cave, into Turkey Streamway. We had reached the 'Beehive' formation and were heading out when my borrowed Oldham lamp faded and died. I had leant rather heavily on it a few trips earlier and had cracked the case, so that it slowly leaked sulphuric acid. It had finally run out. Not to be discouraged, I headed out in front of the party, with no light. Steve King was unable to believe that I could possibly find the way and asked my dad to confirm that I was right. My dad, full of confidence - my dad will quite often deliberately follow someone who believes they are right and only once they have gone badly wrong, let them know - told him to follow me. This time, he knew I was right. I led ahead of the group, using flickers of their lights to guide myself through the stream passage.
Approaching the climb into keyhole passage, I switched on, then off, my light. This gave a frozen frame picture of where I had to climb. Lead acid batteries like the one I had will slowly store up charge when drained, and can give a few seconds of light if left off for long enough. The climb is in a few sections, each only a couple of metres high, however, a fall from the top can land the caver between five and ten metres further down. Upon reaching the top, I entered Keyhole Passage. This is a round passage, 4 metres in diameter. A deep rift breaks into the floor and zig-zags across the passage. This is passed by jumping across the rift and at one point, stepping onto two lumps of dried mud that are attached to the wall of the rift. The wall also has a small ledge made of compacted mud. The mud has a small trench worn in it where decades of passing cavers have dragged their fingers along it. The natural way of crossing this is to step onto the mud and hold onto the mud ledge, leaning into the wall. The problem here is that leaning into the wall makes the angle against the footholds too steep and that makes boots slip off the mud. The best way that I have found to cross here is to step on the mud and not to bother holding on, so that you actually lean away from the sloping wall, which is safer.
On reaching this point, Karen, a member of our team, said that she was frightened and wanted to cross the rift on a lifeline. We quickly set this up with people either side, away from the normal crossing point. She jumped over the rift, helped over with a sharp pull on the rope. Success. Easy. What none of us noticed was that her husband, Darren, also was scared, but did not want to slow us down by asking us to help him across as well. This was his mistake.
As he crossed the muddy steps, he hugged himself closer to the wall for security. With the angle against the mud increased, his first foot slipped off. Hugging himself closer in fear, his second foot also slipped off. Now with no footholds, he hung off the edge over a 10 metre drop. 'Oh, fuck shit!' were his memorable, calm words. We all turned to see one of his hands slipping off, then flailing in an attempt to regain a hold. I threw myself into the rift below him, jamming every body part I could against the sides so that if he did fall, my back could catch him. Above my head, two of the others got him back on the holds and helped him across.
After a Mars Bar to steady the nerves, we started off down the short boulder slope leading into the second boulder choke. I sent someone else through first and led from second place. I flicked on my light for a moment and then proceeded under the choke. This route is about 50 cm high, with water in the bottom 10 to 20, one solid wall and one very loose bouldery one. 20 metres further on, I felt the hole up and climbed through into a small patch of light again. Several further obstacles followed, and I switched on my light for only one, just before the entrance.
This was the first time I had caved with the SBSS and it was the beginning of a long friendship between myself and Steve King.
I was later to learn that people tend to trust you better if your light works, and I acquired some decent caving gear. I still used Oldham lamps but I didn't crack any more. I still noticed the problems with them. They frequently lost their charge. My dad and brother experimented with some FX nickel cadmium battery cells. These were even more unreliable, frequently burning out and becoming unusable.
In my caving career, I have led trips into some of the most important caves in the country, including one that will feature in the next chapter. One of the most difficult caves I have ever led trips into is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. This cave is easily one of the most complex in the country, with about 50 kilometres of passage compressed into an area of only 3 kilometres square. Passages criss-cross each other at various levels, and connections between them may occur at any of the crossings. Despite my - some would say impressive - memory for caves, I have never managed to get my head around this one. Leading trips in here requires a knowledge built up over several visits, extending knowledge slowly with each trip. I would be surprised if, even after twenty five trips here, I knew as much as ten kilometres of the cave.
People have learned to trust me as a leader. I used to spend hours each day memorizing cave maps or surveys. When I was caving in Ogof Daren Cilau, I could pretty much recite the description along with every twist and turn of the passage. This ability proved very useful. I can remember most of the routes I have taken through the 90 caves I have visited, and in most cases, I would be confident enough to lead cavers through those routes.
Leading cavers is about more than just knowing the cave. It is not about having a silly little piece of paper that some organisation has given you after a weekend course, saying that you know how to lead. A proficient leader will have learned through years of experience. A proficient leader should be able to read his team mates, and be able to predict when each of them might need help or guidance. They should be able to keep their cool in tough situations, and come prepared to deal with them, and know how to deal with them.
I feel it is essential that a cave leader should have a basic knowledge of first aid, and although I don't think that each leader should be trained in psychology, they should know how to reassure an injured team mate should the need arise. The leader has a responsibility; the other cavers in the team rely on them to get it right. However, the leader is not the only member of the team, and the other members should be able to help each other also. Most emergency situations underground will usually require a certain degree of self help. Thankfully, these situation are extremely rare. In the part of South Wales covered by the Gwent Cave Rescue Team, covering over 150 kilometres of very popular caves under six major mountains, more than one rescue a year is unusual and there were no rescues during one three year period.
Without any of my own transport, except a push bike, I was beginning to find it difficult to get to go caving anywhere without my dad being there. Leading trips proved to be the solution. I knew the caves and people wanted to visit them. One trip I led was into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, leading a small group of cavers. I was given a lift for the fifty miles there by one of those rare female cavers. See, I told you this leading thing was good! We went into the Top Entrance, which leads directly into a large passage.
Several junctions of large passage later, we came to the contorted route downwards through the Chasm boulder pile, finally entering the Salubrious Streamway. There is only one obstacle here, a waterfall where narrow ledges on the walls gently slope down to the base. A few tape slings - just like the deviation sling - later, and we reached the trident. This triple stalactite is the longest stalactite on mainland Britain. The longest of the three has had the end snapped off it more than once by extremely careless cavers. The tip of the trident is nearly two metres off the floor so breaking it must have been a very unusual 'accident'. The broken ends have been re-attached with superglue!
Beyond the trident lay The Judge, a massive stalagmite, seated on the floor of a beautiful round pitch. With my usual caving partners, I would have been happy to continue along the long traverses to O.F.D. III, but the ledges that must be used are quite narrow, and a leader has to know the limits of the team, so we settled for a trip to the Top Waterfall, having fun using the rope swing to cross the deep pool in the river.
One of the more unusual trips to lead lies, not in a cave, but in a climbing centre. The fake cave has been made up from stone blocks and there are four routes from one end to the other, where gaps have been left between the blocks. The recommendation is to use a helmet and light but for fun, as long as no-one is looking, the cave can be followed in the dark by carefully feeling for the walls with your hands. The uniniated can have some safe enjoyment trying this and I have led some young initiates through here. Ok, so it's not real caving, but it is alright for a bit of fun.
On a more serious note, I have led several novices into caves, giving them their first insights into the world below their feet. Leading novices is the most difficult type of caving. You have little knowledge of the novices' capabilities and you have to ensure at all times that if they attempt a move and fail, that you are there to catch them. Even a small fall can be enough to put novices off caving for life. Most novices require careful guidance. This, I feel is where most outdoor adventure centres fail. I have seen many adventure centre trips where two or three 'qualified' instructors lead twenty or so novices. How can they ensure each novice gets the attention they require like this?
When leading novices, our typical approach is to have the same number of experienced cavers as novices, plus one extra experienced caver. This way we can alternate, one experienced caver, then one novice. No novice has ever had even a small accident under my care. Oh! Except my wife. My dad was supposed to be guiding her down a watershoot but instead was chatting to another caver that we had met underground. With the noise from the watershoot, I was unable to shout loudly enough to get his attention to tell him to look after her, and I was lifelining so could not move. Without guidance, she slipped over backwards into the water. We got her out immediately but this was a careless mistake on the part of my dad, and one that got her cold, putting her off continuing with the rest of the trip. I don't think that my dad had quite understood that he was meant to be looking after her. Maybe he was getting senile in his 'old' age!! Sorry dad ...
This is the dream of every cave digger, to find a cave so big that even using the most modern and sophisticated techniques, it would be impossible to measure it. Of course, this could never happen, as even the largest known cavern in the world - Sarawak Chamber - has been measured. Still, cavers live to dream. In reality, most new cave exploration in Britain is in small passages, and often in very short sections. It has to be said though, there is very little that can compare with the knowledge that you are the first person to ever see this piece of cave. An ancient stream flowed through this passage, maybe a hundred thousand years ago, creating these beautiful sculpted shapes in preparation for this one moment. For you. Never before has a light shone on that rock, and the sound of your footsteps is the first human sound that has ever broken the silence of these majestic caverns.
I had always dreaded the thought of finding new passages, there are usually so many junctions, you never know which ones are the important ones, and you never know if you have just walked past the important passage and dismissed it as being not worthwhile. My uncle had been one of the first explorers of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. That would have been a nightmare. Thousands of junctions. You would be almost certain to miss the important passage and then you would have to go back again and again until you had explored every bit just to make sure you didn't miss the important bits. I had really missed the point. All the things I didn't like the thought of were the very things that make it so exciting and worthwhile.
Cave digging usually falls into two categories. The most easy is where silt has been washed into the passage and filled it to the roof, or sometimes leaving a small gap. Digging here would simply mean removal of the silt. The second, and often more difficult form of digging is through chokes. These occur where the roof of the passage has collapsed over thousands of years, and the rubble that has fallen has blocked the passage. Digging through chokes often requires tunnelling through gaps between the rocks and boulders, sometimes using scaffolding to hold the rocks up and stop them from falling further. Even now, new chokes are forming and occasionally chokes slip and re-block the passage.
In my first few years of caving, I was lucky enough to meet Bill Gascoigne, geologist, hydrologist, and a very patient cave digger. It was mostly through Bill's ten years of hard work that Ogof Carno had finally been found. Carno Adit itself is a masterpiece of engineering; a tunnel was driven for over 3 kilometres into the Llangynidr mountain, in attempt to tap into a large water source. The project was finally abandoned when the shale band that the end of the tunnel ran through became too unstable to maintain. This was a major oversight on the part of the geologist involved, and near the end of the tunnel, he had the engineers make futile attempts to dig around it.
The first two kilometres of the adit are perfectly straight, at which point the tunnel turns sharply to the left and then runs in a straight line to its end. Standing at this corner, daylight can be seen as a speck in the distance, where it streams through the entrance. For the first kilometre, the two metre high and over one metre wide tunnel is lined with bricks to prevent the walls from collapsing. Several times throughout the rest of its length, the tunnel breaks into both open and silt filled passages. Some of these were originally covered in cement to prevent water leaking into them. Many of the silt filled passages were dug out by Bill, but these invariably led nowhere.
One passage that did finally 'go' was later to become known as Suicide. The dig here began where bricks had been used to line what would normally have been an un-bricked section. Suspicious, Bill dug out the filler rubble that lay between the bricks and the solid wall. A large, rubble filled shaft was entered beside the main tunnel, where the tunnel diggers had dug down to find out if they would intersect the local water table. About ten metres down they had intersected a cave passage, but had continued downwards, stopping several metres below. Taking many years, Bill removed all of the rubble in the shaft, finally reaching the bottom. The cave passage may be as much as 100 metres long in one direction, but boulders had fallen in the other, blocking the way on. This boulder choke was very loose, and just 'tickling' the boulders with a crowbar would cause boulders to fall in an unseen chamber beyond for several seconds.
In order to remove the boulders, Bill resorted to using explosives. Several cavers used to be licensed to use a low power explosive known to cavers as bang, sticks or chemical persuasion. More recently, Hilti-Caps have become popular. These are similar to blanks - a charge without a bullet - used in handguns. These are drilled into the rock and set off, cracking the rock where they were. With Bill's approach, the charge was placed in the choke and, while standing out of the way, Bill set it off. He could not have foreseen what happened. The choke shot passed him, emptying the chamber where it had been and filled the bottom of the shaft, up to the level of the passage. Suicide was abandoned as it had become too dangerous.
Later, Bill managed to find a hole in the floor of an aven (a pitch going upwards) that the tunnel had intersected and, over several trips, chemically persuaded a narrow passage to enlarge, allowing access to the main Ogof Carno.
It was with Bill that we started digging in Carno Adit. Our first dig was in an area like that where he had found Suicide. Spurious was dug over a couple of trips, but it seemed that this bricked section had no real reason for being there. Maybe the engineers were worried about the stability of the adit. Our second attempt also looked futile; exactly on the corner in the adit, a silt filled alcove could be seen in the roof. We leant some railway sleepers against the wall and used them as a step ladder, allowing us to scrape the silt out of the alcove. The alcove became bigger than we had expected, and soon, the pile of silt we were making was making it easier to reach the alcove. The problem was that the roof of the alcove was getting further and further up. Just over a metre up, the roof became solid except at one end of the alcove, where a circular hole appeared to rise vertically. This, we quickly realised, was an aven.
This dig, named Beyond Spurious, became the target of many digging trips. In the space of about half a year, about twenty trips removed several tons of silt. The aven levelled off about three metres up, and a silt filled passage headed back along the adit. Slightly offset, the aven continued through a small hole. The hole was forcibly enlarged with a crowbar to enter the continuation. Excavation here showed the crawling sized passage we were in headed in both directions. Digging back along the adit, this eventually joined the lower passage, which had been dug separately. Continuing past the connection, a few metres further on, we gave up. Metal bars pushed into the mud ahead passed over a metre without breaking into open space. We knew that in order to find open passage, we would have to go upwards, above the level of the silt.
Digging in the other direction led to what we really did not want to find. The passage closed completely, rounding off without even a narrow crack left behind. Attempting to explain how the passage formed, we hit on the idea that maybe the water had welled up through the floor. We had found solid walls and roof but had not found a solid floor. Scraping all of the mud out that we could, we noticed a low passage hidden under the left wall. Several trips later, this had been passed into a human sized passage, without a solid roof, and we began to dig upwards. This was very tiring on the arms so we developed an 'interesting' digging technique. Using a normal garden spade, we lay on our backs, pushing the spade into the mud with our feet. The problem came when the lump of mud detached itself, falling in the most painful place possible. After several trips, Cabbage Balls At The Foot Of An Aven was abandoned, as it had risen to about two metres high and the metal bars still did not break surface after a further metre.
So we moved to another project. Bill had been walking along a new forestry track above the Nant Maelor valley, a tributary of the Afon Lwyd, south of Blaenavon. In a small cliff, he noticed two cave entrances, one fairly large and one very small. The small entrance gave about two metres of passage before becoming far too tight, but the other entrance was the start of a relatively large circular passage, about five metres long and one metre in diameter, becoming about two metres in diameter in the middle. At the end, mud filled the passage and was clearly a run-in directly from the surface. Not much cave but it had some promise.
The problem was that the mud run-in would prevent any progress in that direction. In the floor, Bill noticed two holes, covered by large rocks. The rocks in the second hole looked more difficult to remove but the hole was larger than the other. After attempting to remove the rocks, we could see passages leading off from the bottom. The problem we had was that one of the rocks was too firmly wedged in the hole. Now, I would probably crack the rock with Hilti-Caps, but they were not available at that time. With permission from the local authorities, Bill set up two sticks to blast the rock into little pieces. The detonator was set and the wires trailed outside where we all stood clear of the entrance, bracing ourselves for the small shock waves that the blast would produce.
'Ready? ... Three, two, one, firing!'. Nothing happened. I will now take this moment to describe the area. Below us, trees covered much of the view, but on the opposite side of the Maelor valley, we could see the mountains continuing. To our left, we could see across the Lwyd valley to the mountains that lined its other side. Below, the Nant Maelor flowed into a small, unused reservoir, where locals were swimming, frequent playful screaming breaking the silence of the forest. A better battery now on the wire, we tried again. 'Ready? ... Three, two, one, firing!'.
I have heard bang explosions underground before. Normally, the length of passage dulls the sound and all you hear is a dull thud, accompanied by a small but sudden shake of the rock. This was different. This was like firing a large cannon. The shape and short length of the passage helped to amplify the sound, sending it roaring across the hillsides. A few seconds later, we heard it echo back from across the Maelor valley. Whoops of amazement were emitted by all cavers present, and a silence from the reservoir below. There was no more playful screaming. Almost twenty seconds later, a roar echoed back from the mountains on the other side of the Lwyd valley, rolling like a thunder clap.
The rock was almost completely intact, most of the blast wasted on the sound and a small amount of mud that we had not realised was there. Resorting to older techniques, we wrestled with the boulder, trying various methods of attaching slings to it and hauling it from all directions. Eventually, the rock was removed and the hole was opened, where it dropped into a small junction. Heading under the passage in the direction of the other entrance was a descending rift which was deemed too tight - by Phil Jane - while one on the other direction was deemed far too tight by all present. A third passage was large enough to follow and turned right, paralleling the second passage. This quickly became choked with rocks. Ogof Pen Maelor was giving away secrets but only slowly.
With all of us now lying in The Rat Run, the third passage, Bill began to dig upwards into a small enlargement. Once through he started muttering something about a chamber, ten people, and biggest yet. None of us believed him, having sat in such small passages for such a long time. Finally convinced, we all entered the chamber, which was as big as Bill had suggested. To the left, a rift passage - tall and narrow - leaning sideways, led for about five metres, where several branches all became too tight. To the right, three passages down a small drop all ended quickly. Later, my dad and brother found a small passage ahead-left, which ended after a few metres.
After several futile attempts to expand the cave, I gave up digging here, leaving just my brother and dad to dig in there. Many trips later, my brother entered the first of the original passages. Phil, it seems, had a larger body than the rest of us and had not realised the potential of the passage, or how easy it would be to enter it. At the bottom of the slope was a chamber almost as big as the other. Four passages led off, each choking fairly quickly. One of these had a vocal connection with the other entrance. The rocks and walls of part of the chamber were covered with botryoids, tiny toadstool like stal formations, each a drip of calcite, held on by a hair-thin calcite crystal. Crystal Mushroom was never extended.
Another passage was found in the first chamber, opposite the way in. This led into a rock filled chamber, which was emptied by poking the boulders with a pole and ducking out of the way as they fell. My dad and brother developed a 'buddy-buddy' system where each would help the other by pulling them out of the way when they twitched. Not exactly safe, but it worked without any injuries at all. The rocks they cleared were stacked in the first chamber, burying the hole into the short passage.
When I was asked back to help survey the cave, at the end of the leaning rift, I poked my head up through a hole in the roof and found about three metres of extremely low passage that we had all somehow managed to miss, Squashed Banana. I could feel a slight draught here. Caves respond to changes in barometric pressure outside, 'breathing' in or out to equalise the pressure. For this reason, a draught will usually mean that there is more passage ahead, large enough for the 'breathing' to be noticeable. In this case, it meant that if I were to dig ahead, I would create another entrance.
Back at the first junction we had found, I decided to also look at the second passage. Now more confident in my own caving, I pushed through into a wider section where I could easily turn around in. Ahead a passage sloped up and filled with mud. To the left, a too tight hole entered The Rat Run. All leads now pushed, I turned around to leave this passage. Somehow, the tight section seemed to have shrunk, and I required the assistance of all present to lever me out through the squeeze. Well, at least I never had to go in there again. And I had found about eight metres of passage, taking the cave to just over 80 metres long.
Just a few months before this, my dad and I had been invited by some members of Morgannwg Caving Club to dig in a small cave that they had been digging for three years. The first reports were that the cave had been found by Cwmbran Caving Club and ignored and that Brynmawr Caving Club had dug it to about five metres in length. The extensions since then were significant. We slid down a very steep hillside to the entrance trying not to loose control. On a later date, a caver was to break their ankle doing just that and a new, safe path was created. Beyond the Brynmawr Caving Club limit, Morgannwg had dug down through a choke, following a draught. The choke had been shored well with scaffolding and at the bottom, a crawl entered a bedding - a wide, low passage. At the end, an upper passage led into a second choke, while a lower passage contained a stream that also entered the choke. A hole down between a solid wall and large rocks entered a chamber, although the hole down poured water all over any passing caver.
The chamber was low and my dad and I started digging to the left. To the right, a drop down entered a passage that could be followed back under the climb for a short distance. In the other direction, the choke was impassable, but in the floor, a scaffolded shaft dropped almost eight metres and was the most promising. The water fell down this and there were signs that the bottom was the way on. A good draught could be felt, but the bottom was loose and needed to be left to settle before digging there could continue. Needless to say, we did not proceed far.
Just a few weeks later we heard the reports. The shaft had been passed less than half a metre from its previous limit. The cave had gone, and it had gone big. The story of Ogof Draenen is one of the greatest fables in the history of South Wales' caving. This cave surpassed all expectations, and confirmed the beliefs of hundreds of cavers that there was a master cave draining the mountains of The Blorenge, Gilwern Hill, and the pass of Pwll Du. Within a month, there was one metre of cave for every caver in Britain, over 20'000, and the cave was still going.
This was the mystery cave that I had been searching for on that trip into Ogof Ddwy Sir. It passes fully from the north end of Gilwern Hill to beneath Blaenavon, five kilometres away. One tantalising prospect is still the borehole. Passages have been found on three sides of the borehole, but as yet, the passage it intersected has not been entered. My first trip into here was shortly after the breakthrough, although even by then, the cave was nearly twenty kilometres in length.
Phil Jane led myself, my brother and my dad along the bypass that had been found to the Darling Rifts, an awkward traverse that had already claimed the ribs of two tired cavers. Spare Rib was easy. Eventually, we reached a rope climb down. On a later trip here, my dad and I watched a female caver having problems on this climb, not really having had enough experience to be in this very awkward cave. My dad asked her if she was climbing up or falling down and with an irate look, she proceeded to try just that. Her feet apart, she hung upside down with one foot on each wall and her hands on the rope. 'Oh Fleep' she said calmly. Her two companions, realising that they should not have brought her into the cave quickly helped her up and left.
Beyond the rope climb lay Cairn Junction. This was the first major passage in the cave. To the right, Beyond A Choke led off but we headed left. We passed under the Big Bang Pitch, the original way in via the Darling Rifts, and headed up the choke leading into Upstream Passage. The choke here had been passed only a few times and we were to quickly learn that less cavers means less stability. Walking up the choke, I dislodged a large boulder which spun on its small pivot. I managed to hold it for long enough to shout a warning to my dad who jumped out of the way before the boulder tumbled down the steep boulder slope to where he had been. Another lesson learned, we all proceeded more carefully.
This very large passage eventually fills up with stal and we took the smaller inlet. This ended after a short distance where the stream emerged from the left. The stream passage could have been regained by climbing a simple and short climb above the stream into a walking sized passage, but due to the number of large passages still left to be explored, it was to be years before this too-small-to-be-significant passage was to be properly explored to enter the many kilometres that make up Waterfall Series.
We turned back and headed downstream. This trip taught me just how well I couldn't cave. It was like learning to walk all over again. I learned a great deal from Draenen. It certainly improved my balancing skills. The large boulders that littered the floor were awkward enough on their own; many of these boulders had never been stood on before and were still in need of passing cavers helping them to settle. The boulders also had a thin coating of mud making sure we all slipped and slid all over the place. By the time we reached Tea Junction, all of our legs were aching slightly. We were learning how to firmly place our feet on the narrow edges of boulders without falling off while simultaneously being prepared for them to move or to be too slippery to get a firm foothold.
We headed up the large, draughting White Arch Passage. We were walking like monkeys, dragging our hands, trying to use them for balance. Eventually we reached the large Lamb And Fox Chamber, amazed by the enormous boulders stacked up providing a ramp for us to walk up. They did not look at all safe but none have ever been known to move.
Finally, a comfortable passage. Indiana Highway starts easy, but the trench soon develops in the floor and the traverse continues, with fairly easy ledges on both sides. At the end of the passage, a hole suddenly appears in the floor, dropping over twenty metres. Beyond, some climbs up entered Megadrive. I remembered this passage as being very easy with a sand floor. This is not the case. It has a very bouldery floor, but it was easier than the others, as the boulders did not move when you stood on them and the mud coating them was more sticky than slimy. The passage swung left into the nunnery.
For the purposes of conservation, routes through the cave are marked with brightly coloured tapes. Cavers should not cross them in order to protect the delicate stal, mud and gypsum deposits on the floor. In this section of passages, these tapes had not been laid so we laid them there ourselves, before taking a crawl through Perseverance.
We turned around at the Balcony Pitch, looking into the Arms Park chamber. Back at Tea Junction, we had a quick look at the Giles' Shirt formation in Gilwern Passage, before heading out of the cave. The trip lasted over nine hours. Without Phil, we would be able to complete this in less than two. I will not complain. At the time, that was the correct speed. In an unfamiliar cave it is always better to be safe than sorry.
I had acquired the grade 2-3 survey (fairly low quality) of the cave along with which came a one page description. I was not impressed as it offered very little guidance through complicated sections and having remembered most of the details of the trip we had done, I wrote my own, taking three pages. Over the next few years, this cave quickly became my favorite, you might almost say that I developed a love affair with it, and I have continued to maintain the description. It is now over 25 pages long, covering over sixty five kilometres of passage. I have probably visited between fifty and sixty kilometres of the total length of passage. Those that I have not visited, I get from friends who visit the cave, from maps that the original explorers produce, or best of all, from the original explorers themselves.
Several groups became involved in the exploration of the cave, the most important being Morgannwg Caving Club themselves, followed closely by Oxford University Caving Club. Other groups involved are Grwp Ogoffedd Garimpeiros, Wessex Caving Group, Brynmawr Caving Club and finally the Chelsea Spelaeological Society, who have generally made finds while surveying the cave to high quality.
The finds made by Brynmawr Caving Club were generally by me, my dad, my brother and those cavers that we were with, as well as about two kilometres of passage found by Charles Bailey whilst on a trip with some Oxford cavers in a new find of theirs.
Our first few finds were very short. We had not yet learned how to read Draenen, and could not predict where hidden cave might lie. A recent find had been made at the end of Elliptic Passage; Lucky Thirteen series contained two large passages, with several smaller ones. At the end of one of the large passages, an extension had been made by Tim Guilford, which contained an unusual 'Snowball' made of compacted gypsum crystals, about 15 cm across. Gypsum decorated many of the passages in Draenen but this was unheard of. Gypsum crystals normally cover the passage walls, like they had been squirted from the rock. This in fact is not far from the way that they are created.
Tim was a cave genius, and seemed to be able to predict exactly where cave passage would be found from patterns in the crystals, tiny shapes in the walls or roof, or geological projection. His team also found Going Somewhere, a passage that headed back towards the other of the large passages. These were connected through the Midwinter Chambers where vast quantities of gypsum crystals adorned the walls and ceilings, and great 'snowdrifts' of fallen crystals covered the floor. The midwinter chambers connected to each other through eight small chokes. With our discoveries in this area, we were to grow to dread these chambers, where we grew to counting each choke just so we could see the number decreasing, nearly there ...
At the junction between Going Somewhere and Midwinter Chambers, we headed the other way. The passage ended suddenly with a small side passage to the left. Under the wall ahead, someone had dug into a continuation of the passage, where, on the right, I dug over some silt to enter just a few metres of passage. Whoopee. The main passage entered a chamber with a dig ahead and a small passage to the right. The small passage entered a larger one and we followed this. My brother cleared some rocks and entered a few more metres of virgin passage. This closed down, as mine had earlier. The main passage reached a step up and became crawling sized. Up ahead, this suddenly stopped. My brother, learning a bit, noticed a tiny arch in the left wall, just a few centimetres high, rising out of the stone and silt floor.
Digging for a few minutes, this became a higher arch. We left this for a few weeks but eventually returned to finish what we had started, determined that we had felt a small draught in the passage. There was actually no draught. There could not have been, but the belief gave us hope. We reached the previous chamber and set up our army issue hexamine cooker. A small fuel block was placed on a metal stand and the saucepan was placed on top. We later stopped using these cookers as we found the fumes can poison the bats which lived in the cave. On this occasion my dad lit the block and started cooking some packet food. Army recruits are taught to break the blocks in half. We were soon to find out why. Just as the food finished cooking, water which had seeped into the hexamine block boiled, rapidly expanding.
The hexamine block exploded, showering drops of burning fuel block across the chamber, with all of us cowering behind imaginary rock projections. Even though we had not found the passage we were digging in, we named it Hexamine Highway in honor, a privilege normally retained for the original discoverer. A couple of trips worth of digging later and the arch became a hole about a metre deep. In order to clear the silt from the descending hole, my brother was digging with a foldable spade, my dad was scooping it into a plastic water container with the side cut off, and then I was pulling the 'drag tray' along the passage with and old SRT rope. I would then empty the container at the bottom of the step up. I was finding my side of the job boring but better than either of the other jobs, so while they set about filling the container, I was falling asleep at my post. Most times, my dad would have to shout to wake me up.
Still, the arrangement worked. My dad asked my brother's feet (that was all we could see) how long it would be before we would be through, expecting an answer of a further trip or so. 'Two minutes' came the answer. Two minutes? The excitement built up. We had expected a long trip. We had brought sleeping bags and plenty of food and we were planning on camping at the start of Lucky Thirteen series where a small stream provided us with water.
Once through, my brother turned around removed more silt to allow the larger two of us through. Once through, I stood in the chamber, impatiently looking at the way on. In the floor, a block of compressed gypsum lay in a square shape much larger than the Snowball. The Hexamine Block. Believing my dad to be through, I selfishly took the lead. Really, I should have left this to my brother as it was his hard work that got us through, but the adrenaline was flowing. A rock hung off the floor and, with a crowbar, I knocked it out of the way so that it would not fall onto anyone's foot. Around the corner, I came across a much more impressive rock formation. A stack of rock had peeled off the wall, and toppled over to hit the other wall. This 'Leaning Tower Of Pisa' was impressive, over a metre tall, but was in the way. I turned to the other two, and realizing they were not behind me as I had thought, I went back to them.
Together, with me quite rightly having been told not to rush on ahead, we then headed back and I showed them the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. Instead of knocking it down, my dad suggested clearing some rubble from under it, which I did. This was then passed by sliding carefully under the tower. Ahead, we reached a junction. To the right, my brother and I squeezed over a boulder obstacle, reaching a dead-end. Ahead, the rift got narrower until it was too tight. Under the left wall, a wide passage choked, but a tube ahead in the left wall entered a large passage, the continuation of the one that choked. This reached a wall that blocked the passage. It was solid, and looked like a master dry stone wall maker had built it, about two metres thick. In a crack down one side, my brother believed he could see the way on and, taking a crowbar, set about ripping the solid rock apart. My dad and I sat down, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
A few moments later, and my brother disappeared down a small crack. A few metres below, he squeezed along, then upwards into the continuation. I followed while he demolished the wall where it met the other side of the passage. A large hole soon opened up, and my dad crawled through. The passage continued to Wall's Too Good To Be True, where gypsum crystals decorated a wall, as a passage led off to the left. We left the passage for another day and carefully passed the wall. Ahead, the passage broke into a large rift with crumbly mud on the floor. The passage remained unnamed for a while, referred to as the Long Straight, and we passed another side passage to the left.
Ahead, the large passage became narrower but taller before rising a ramp of sand and closing to only a few centimetres of height above the sand. In the floor just before this, our very own gypsum snowdrift, and small drips of stal. My dad estimated 500 metres. Heading back to the previous side passage, we gave the lead to dad, who had not yet been the first down any passage. 20 metres ahead, we came to almost complete infill. Over the top, we could get a glimpse of a black void beyond, and my dad got a rush of digging fever. A rock was stuck in the silt, making it difficult to remove. He described the rock as looking like a top-hat. What he actually meant was the conical hats used in South-East Asia. So the passage became Tophat Passage.
Whilst attempting to remove the rock, my dad's somewhat energetic noises were a source of some amusement, and the squeeze became Tophat Turn-on. Once through, the passage quickly met a crossrift. To the left closed down and to the right, there was only an eye-hole a few centimetres across. My brother, putting on his thinking cap, stated that there was no way that all the water it took to make this passage could possibly flow through that tiny hole. Remembering Beyond Spurious, he dug in the floor, under the eye-hole. This technique was later to win my dad and me over twenty metres of passage in a different area of the cave. My brother soon opened up an arch and was through. A chamber followed with a draughting but too tight rift. Ahead, the passage meandered and choked. Digging here would probably only connect to other known cave so we did not. I estimated that now we had 500 metres.
Surveying out, we calculated just over 200. Oh well. After just three hours sleep, we were back. I cannot remember why, but my dad did not join me and my brother as we explored the other passage from Wall's Too Good To Be True. The passage was later named Wormhole Series after my brother, and an unusual worm-pile like fossil in the roof of one of the wriggles.
This was as large as Tophat Passage but, after passing a few oxbows, the roof lowered and left only a small gap above the sloping floor. My brother, being smaller than me, slithered down the slope, calling for me to follow as it was larger than it looked. He was right. It opened up again quickly, where a rift to the right closed down. A further similar wriggle followed. This was lower than before so, calling my brother a worm, I told him to go through. Again, this opened into a wide bedding and a chamber.
A narrow passage to the left closed down, but to the right, a gap alongside a fallen block reached a small passage with some holes in the floor. My brother dropped down the first hole into an oubliette, but with a way on. This passed under the other holes and then a ramp led up to an arch which he dug open, ending where I had waited at the top. In the roof, I noticed a Gyracanthus fossil. These had been noticed in many parts of the cave, but to my knowledge, this is the furthest south that any has been seen.
The passage below the ramp continued, becoming taller. On the wall, selenite flowers glistened. These look like a 5 cm disc of clear plastic that has been wrinkled and then stuck to the wall. Ahead, over rocks to the right, we could see a chamber, but the way through was too low. Fortunately, although the way on lowered, it entered the chamber. Up to the right was a dead-end aven, and ahead, two passages oxbowed through another chamber, with an oxbow above. To the left, a short passage ended where it filled with silt but on the walls were some unusual fossils, looking like honeycombs. We named the passage Beekeeper's passage.
When we got out of the cave, my brother and I drew a sketch survey of Wormhole Series. At a later date, we went back to map the entire Hexamine Highways properly, as the original survey had been done with a compass that could only measure accurately to five degrees, and good quality surveys are always measured to one or half of a degree. We mapped everything from Wall's Too Good To Be True onwards. As for the rest, we still used the original survey we had done, which ran all the way back to the first crawl on the way in from Going Somewhere, as we had got the official data from there on. The sketch map of Wormhole Series was so close to the actual map that it was almost difficult to believe. I guess we just had good memories.
On later trips, we worked most of the leads left in the series, frequently camping on trips that lasted over thirty hours. During this time, we learned a great deal about Draenen, about those little signs that show that there is a hidden passage waiting to be found. We were learning Tim's art. The most useful sign was where the rock floor dipped down slightly, especially if there was a slight sprinkling of gypsum crystals on the floor there. Almost without fail, this showed that a passage lay underneath, hidden by the rocks on the floor. The original one gave the best results though, Peter dug under an arch at the end of Beekeeper's Passage to enter Satan's Knockout. This name was thought of because we had to miss the It's A Knockout parade that we were supposed to be attending with the Air Training Corps. This was mapped by estimating lengths and guessing the change in bearing. We have never mapped this properly.
Proudly we released the story of the find to the Descent caving magazine. Proudly we admired the feature article. But there, in the normal columns, the report that Tim had had another success. Following his nose and some gypsum, he found Sleepcrawler series. Over a kilometre of passage far larger than anything we had found. Upstaged. Disappointed that we had not seen that dig first.
Further digging took place at the end of the Long Straight. The top portion of the silt was removed and several metres of progress was made. We adopted the same approach as with the original dig. Now some distance away, I heard the other two laughing. At one point, I heard them comment that a kangadile was up ahead. A kangadile is what my youngest sister called a dinosaur. I dismissed that as a private joke and lay down to sleep again. My brother started to get worried about how much he and our dad were laughing, and asked for the candle and lighter, which I sent through in the drag tray. The lighter would not light, so both of them started to head out. Part way out, it lit, so my brother took the lighted candle back to the dig where it promptly went out. Now realising the desperately low amount of oxygen at the dig face, they both hurried out. It is fortunate that my brother recognised the signs of anoxia. The passage was renamed to Death By Kangadile. The complete lack of airflow suggests that there is nothing worth digging for here.
We were about ready to give up on Hexamine Highways and were actually on our way out when my dad decided to look at a passage we had never tried to push. At the last junction before the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, he turned left into the rift that became too tight. Now with a better knowledge of Draenen, he dug out the floor, opening a tight crawl under the wall ahead. The floor appeared to be dropping and he wanted to check for any sign of a draught but a banging noise was irritating him. Thinking it was me, he told me to stop banging whatever it was. 'I am not banging anything'. At that moment, he realised it was his heart, pumping extra hard from the rush of digging fever. Heartbeat was named even before we got into it.
The floor suddenly dropped away and a low rift could be followed. It got larger and came to a junction. To the left, a rift got very tight, heading towards Death By Kangadile. To the right, the passage lowered and almost filled with silt. This time, however, there was a noticeable draught. Peter and I started a preliminary survey that we would do properly later. We had a proper compass and clinometer this time, but no tape measure. That was back at the camp. We had a piece of string that we measured by estimating that two metres is one arm span plus a bit. We paid out what we thought was ten metres and began surveying. When we got to the camp, we could measure the string and adjust all measurements as a factor of that. As it turned out, it was actually 9.4 metres. The survey completed, Peter poked his nose into the low passage and after digging for a bit said that he thought he could see a junction up ahead, but it was too small and he was feeling unwell and would go back to the camp alone.
My dad spent only a few moments pushing through the squeeze to something we never expected to see. The junction was with a passage larger than Death By Kangadile, and it was going in both directions. I took the lead to the right, Upbeat, as I knew this passage would be short, because it just headed back to known passage. A squeeze around a boulder was passed to a section with gypsum over both walls. We sacrificed one wall to save the other and reached a chamber. To the right a short passage closed down. This I was expecting. To the left a gypsum snowdrift was avoided by taking an oxbow. Now what I was not expecting, the passage continued, over rocks covered in gypsum crystals.
The passage size decreased to crawling but just did not stop. Passing several side passages, we eventually reached a choke. At last. We surveyed out using the piece of string and compass. Back at the junction with heartbeat, dad led through Downbeat. This direction was better than the other and entered a chamber after nearly fifty metres. A side passage to the right had a small tube that we left for later. To the left a large passage was filled with mud. Directly opposite, a rift had several rock bridges across it. We both hoped that there would be a bypass so we would never have to destroy them. Thankfully, there was a bypass, a passage just to the right regained the rift, just the other side of all the bridges. Draebridge Rift has never been entered.
Ahead the passage choked but a quick dig brought us into Trunk Passage - a name used to describe major passages. My dad had thought this was what he could see, but it turned out to be a few metres wide and less than one metre high, with the roof covered with remnants of tiny old passages; anastomosies.
Ahead, a squeeze led to a too tight rift so we turned around. Now, at last, we had over 500 metres. When I reached the junction with Heartbeat, I stood on a boulder that bridged the passage. I had done this on the way in, but I had obviously not gained enough respect for virgin cave. The boulder spun and dropped me. It weighed more than two of us could lift, and I have never managed to move it, except just slightly with the use of a crowbar. As I fell, the boulder pinned me facing along the rift, wedging my right leg against the left wall. I could not push the boulder away as it was trapped against the other wall.
Apparently I screamed a lot here; I do not remember at all. What I do remember was seeing my leg bend sideways far more than it is designed to do. I remember dreading the thought that if it broke, the rescue would take days to get me out. I also remember one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. My dad grabbed the boulder, lifted it up and threw it down the passage. One large bruise and a lot more respect later, I limped back to the camp. Thankfully, this sort of idiotic mistake almost never happens in normal caving, as the caves will have had the chance to settle.
Back at the camp, my brother was feeling too unwell to be interested in our find. We headed out, never getting around to completing the survey properly.
We were back very soon to look at the many passages we had left. Over a couple of trips, along with some Brynmawr Caving Club members and Steve, we explored several short side passages including two found under dips in the floor, one containing fossils that looked like housemartins' nests. An aven series was found, paralleling Downbeat and offering a small draughting dig that we have never pushed. At the end of downbeat, a chink in a wall signified a way on which entered two chambers. In the second of these an arch, just above the mud on the floor, was opened as a large channel in the floor. A rock shaped like the number 4 was found in the channel so the passage was called Channel 4. It led to a dig that was going nowhere fast; Channel 5.
The tube at the chamber was pushed. This Toothpaste Tube ended in a turning space. On a few trips where we camped in the chamber, Squat Martian, a small passage near the end of Downbeat, was pushed until it got ridiculous. The Bed at the camp - Camp Coffee - was made by leveling the mud from the large mud-filled passage. We also connected the end of Upbeat with the place where our survey connected with the main Midwinter Chambers survey, giving an error of about one metre. This itself was impressive considering that the loop is about 200 metres long and half of the survey had been done with a piece of string, and the other with a poor quality compass.
Again, we released the story to Descent. This time, the article was not a feature, just a standard report with two photos and the survey. This time, the feature was Tim's. His Sleepcrawler Series had broken into the largest passage in the cave, the second largest passage in Britain; War Of The Worlds (South), and the largest chamber in the cave, The Reactor, which contained unusual green stal on one wall. Upstaged again! Two issues later, there was even more to disappoint us. Dollimore Series was found. This awesome set of passages looped around the end of our series. Had we continued digging Channel 5 for over 100 metres, we would have broken into it. Dollimore series contained equally large passages; MS&D, and an even bigger chamber; Hall Of The One. Many of Britain's finest helictite formations are to be found in these last two series.
We must also remember that below and to the other side of our series was Big Country, one of the largest passages in the cave and easily the largest choke, nearly 40 metres wide. We had found the only set of small passages in an area dominated by large passages, stunning formations and huge streams. Our series had ended so close to the borehole that it seems certain that it would be found, if the draughting dig in the aven series could be passed. All told, we had found about one kilometre of passage and whilst I feel honored that Draenen would allow me to play such a part in its exploration, I always feel a little cheated.
It was in Dollimore Series that Charles Bailey had found two kilometres of Luck Of The Draw. Thankfully, he left the last few hundred metres to the Oxford cavers to explore, allowing them to feel proud to have explored the most Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western points of the cave. An impressive effort. Charles led us into his find to help push a dig. My brother dug for just a moment and got through, turning around to enlarge the hole for the rest of us. Once through, we looked at the many silted passages off the chamber. Thick, damp mud was everywhere. Thousands of years ago, some very muddy floodwater had ponded here, draining very slowly through the mud. One of the side passages went, but only succeeded in regaining the main passage.
My dad and I, having seen the start of the passage, decided to go and see the end. The first part is easy, but soon after passing some truly impressive helictite formations, the passage lowered to a crawl. This got progressively lower for nearly 700 metres then suddenly opened up. A few corners ahead, two chambers spelled the end of the passage. If we could continue any further, we would break surface in North East Blaenavon. I would never attempt to do this. The remoteness is one of the things that protects the formations. If an entrance were to be created anywhere near here, they would almost certainly be destroyed, as very inexperienced cavers would be able to reach them.
Starting back, we looked along a side passage. This turned a sharp corner and closed down. Looking down, I spotted an eyehole at floor level. The cogwheels began to turn and I dug beneath it. An arch opened up, entering a crawling sized passage leading off. We followed this for nearly twenty metres to where it closed down. Ahead, I could see into a low passage behind some rocks. I removed them and then stuck my head in the hole. It was low, but there was a faint draught. The roof was loose and would flake off when touched. This, accompanied by the knowledge that there was 700 metres of crawling just to get into the main part of Dollimore Series made us give up. We have never been back to that dig.
Draenen continued to give us small finds. In The Score, a series of passages that brought the length of the cave over the twenty kilometre mark, we dug a small roof passage, successfully popping through a gravel bed. Unfortunately, the passage closed completely two metres beyond.
In Dogleg Complex in Dollimore Series, we pushed a low passage which enlarged and then choked. A flat out crawl at its start was dug into open passage. A few metres of low crawl opened up with a side passage on the left. This passage became too small early on and does not have much prospect. Continuing ahead, a further two squeezes brought us to the bottom of an ascending rift. This was blocked with boulders. Once cleared, we ascended the rift, noting a couple of side passages. Ahead, we entered a chamber, beautifully adorned with some of the most intricate helictite formations. I instantly recognized it. This was the chamber found by Tim Guilford that we had spent hours photographing, not long before. 85 metres of passage had succeeded in closing a small loop.
In Underworld, we dropped the pitch into Under Underworld, for the purposes of writing the description. A small passage near an outflow looked too small to be entered. Maybe that is what had put other explorers off, or maybe flooding had removed all traces of anyone having been there. Each in turn, we lay on one side and squirmed along a ridiculously muddy passage, almost like sledging without a sledge, if you catch my snowdrift. 25 metres of this tiny passage later and we were all standing in an aven. Ten metres above, a passage looked big enough to enter but we had no climbing equipment. One of the insane members of our team continued along the tiny passage for another 25 metres to where it became too small, meaning they had to do all of that squirming in reverse. Not easy, I can assure you. We never did climb the aven.
In Agent Blorenge II, we followed the stream down to its sump. This large passage shrinks very suddenly at this point, becoming crawling sized. On the right, my brother noticed a muddy rift that had not been entered. I guessed that flooding had smoothed the mud over, but I was to be proved wrong. On the floor of this short rift, a bat skeleton lay complete, untouched by floodwater since the bat had died, obviously many years ago.
Now I come to my most treasured find. My dad and I were on a trip into the Wyvern Extensions found by the Wessex Caving Group, most of whom I now know as friends. The intention was to find Anthodite Chamber found by Tim Guilford (again) and Yanto's Grotto. Anthodite Chamber is dominated by a three metre high stalagmite boss, the largest in the cave. Yanto's Grotto contains some very unusual blue stal. It was in this chamber that we noticed the passage heading off to one side, following the fault that seems to have created the blue stal on the wall of the chamber.
The passage had clearly been entered before and stopped where intricate stal filled most of a side tube, and the way on closed completely. My dad, having more faith in his cautiousness than I did in mine, slithered through the hole beside the intricate stal, with me moving his clothes out of the way of them as he went. On the other side was virgin passage, leading to a climb up into a rift. At the top, one direction closed down and the other dropped into a small chamber. He returned to the intricate stal and I noticed that I could hear him at the dead end. I noticed a tiny hole in the wall. The cogwheels began to turn again and I pushed the wall. It disintegrated, giving me a way into the passage without damaging the stal.
Once through, I got to the rift he had climbed up. I was amazed by the sight that greeted me. In the dead-end direction along the rift a deep blue triple stalactite nearly half a metre long hung from the wall. A small stalagmite sat beneath it. 'Why didn't you tell me about this stalactite?' I asked. 'What stalactite?'. This was unbelievable; in his eagerness to see what the passage did, he completely missed this wonder of nature. The small chamber having closed down, we left, naming the stalactite Coldfinger, the longest blue stalactite in the cave and in fact, the longest I have ever seen.
Draenen was getting a bit much, and I needed something else. We had only made two finds outside of Draenen and Ogof Pen Maelor. One was a small stream sink above Llanelly Quarry Pot. Just downstream, I noticed a hole under a large poised boulder. Sliding carefully underneath, I climbed down just over two metres to the floor. There was no way on except a very narrow shattered rift. We decided to divert the stream into the small pot while it was flooding, in order to clear out the rocks. What it did instead was to collapse the sediment bank into the cave, along with several large boulders which we were unable to remove.
Our other small find was in Ogof Carno. Early on in the cave, a stream disappears into a too tight rift and it is unknown where it joins the main flow. Several parts of the cave beyond there can flood so that would suggest that the stream follows a similar route to the main cave. However, it is a long way from where it sinks to the nearest stream. Whilst attempting to follow all of the rifts leading off between Dune Chamber and Silo Pitch, we noticed a small arch above the gravel. This was quickly cleared to give ten metres of small passage. Not much, but of more importance was the hole in the floor. Three metres down it widened then became impossibly tight. Rocks dropped the rest of the way suggested a narrow section for a few metres then a drop clear of the walls for several metres more. They landed in water with an echoing splash. We had probably found the stream, but as none of us had an explosives license, we have had to leave it.
Now, it was my fear of heights that was beginning to get in the way of cave exploration. Several expeditions were on offer. My brother had tagged onto trips to Slovenia and Austria, and my dad to Austria and Spain. All of these required the negotiation of big pitches. In Slovenia, pitches dropped onto ice plugs, where the way on is to chip holes in the ice or tunnel through meltwater drainage routes, often with large drops beneath them. This was not my idea of fun.
A recent expedition to China revealed some of the largest chambers in the world. The problem with it for me is that the expedition also required members to descend into a 260 metre pitch and a 613 metre deep doline. Even the bravest of cavers wince slightly at these heights. At the moment, I am looking towards an expedition in Belize. I have always wanted to visit a jungle, and there, the caves are found in jungles. The other thing to look forward to is the possibility of big cave. Belize chamber is one of the largest in the world and many caves have passages larger than the largest British passage.
Heading west from Ogof Carno, several dye traces indicated the large resurgence in the valley three kilometres over was supplied by caves over a six kilometre stretch. Just beyond the end of Carno lay the 500 metre long Chartists Cave, made famous by some outlaws who had lived there during a rebellion. The resurgence was just over three kilometres to the south. Chartists was dug by the Brynmawr Caving Club for a while, but it appeared to be a complex of large passages formed on the contact between the limestone and the millstone grit cap rock. There were no passages found that gave any real promise.
Just under two kilometres to the south west was the valley, while just over three to the south west was Ogof Ap Robert. This cave was just over a kilometre long, resurging in the same place as Chartists Cave. Nearly two kilometres to the west was the two kilometre long Ogof Tarddiad Rhymney which resurged in the next valley over. These last two caves were found by the same group that had found Ogof Craig A Ffynnon.
In between Ogof Ap Robert and Chartists Cave there was huge potential for long cave, but as yet, none had been found.
My dad and I were invited by some other members of the Brynmawr Caving Club to dig in Crescent Cave. A large stream sank in a shakehole on the Trefil Las moor, 200 metres south of Chartists Cave. Nearby a smaller stream fell down a two metre cliff and disappeared into a cave entrance. Just inside was a chamber and the stream sank in the floor. That was it. Against the only solid wall of the chamber was a dig. This looked to me like someone was just pulling rocks out of a boulder pile without following anything solid. It headed under the wall, which from the underside looks more like a large boulder held in by mud. They had dug a few metres down, propping boulders up with scaffolding as they went. We left without the dig looking much different.
Over their successive trips, a 'solid' roof was gained and dug under, where rocks were cleared to reveal a chamber. Well, not really a chamber, but bigger than the squeeze that preceded it. On the other side of the chamber, a slope down was excavated. This finally reached the limestone and a drop was excavated, shored up with large heating system pipes. At the bottom, rocks were pulled out revealing a clean drop in a large rift. The First Pitch landed in a passage heading in both directions. Back under the way in, the passage split and both branches became far too tight, with small streams emerging. Maybe these were from Chartists Cave.
In the other direction, the main stream fell from rocks wedged in the roof, sinking into the floor and the passage ahead choked. At head height, a route was excavated but had little promise. This choke was loose, lying directly below the entrance, and rocks would move and fall when touched. The solution was to undercut the choke and shore it up with scaffolding. They followed the left wall which swung right then left through the Z-Bend and suddenly emerged in the floor at the start of a very tall rift.
Above, the choke was reached again, but in the other direction, an aven had several high level passages and there was a pit in the floor ahead. Over the pit, a further aven had passages connecting back to the high level passages in the last one and one heading the other way. A crawl at the bottom was pushed until it became too narrow and filled with thick mud. Climbing and bolting would later show that the passage at the top ended at a choke after about 15 metres, where a small inlet came from the main sink on the surface.
At the pit in the floor, a hole about two metres up dropped two metres immediately into a continuation. Directly ahead choked with wet boulders while to the left, rocks would fall quite a long way down a narrow rift. To the right, they excavated a hole which dropped down to the head of a very tight pitch. This Second Pitch was to prove awkward whether freeclimbed, laddered or roped. At the bottom, several avens rose quite high above but the floor was choked solid. A hole was excavated, supported by scaffolding leading to a slope to the head of another pitch. At the foot, rocks were removed to give access directly onto the Fourth Pitch.
I am unsure what was explored on that first trip down the forth pitch, or even if there was one before the trip I was on. The whole club was invited to look at the new discoveries, and 50 cavers descended on the poor cave. Below the pitch, a slope down reached a rift and a funnel of rocks in the floor. This dropped down to the stream, which flowed in through a blind aven to the right, accessed by lying in the stream. Ahead, the stream flowed out along a very low passage. As I had a wetsuit on, I was fed into this hole which I wriggled along until it got too tight. Ahead looked like it got slightly larger. This was the first part of the Lower Streamways.
We headed back to the rift before the funnel, and we followed this past some delicate rock bridges to enter a larger passage. This never got named but was referred to as the Main Level. Those of us who were there were told that everyone else was going to the right and so not to create a bottleneck, myself and one other team member headed to the left. Disturbances in the sand and gravel clearly showed that this passage had been visited before. We crawled over rocks and popped out in a very large chamber, noting a continuation of our crawl ahead.
To our left, a huge bank of rocks and black sand rose into a large passage while over our heads, a large round passage turned a corner. We climbed the slope where it had been climbed before. Ahead, we followed the low, wide passage around the edge of a long choke to where it moved away from the choke and became too narrow to follow. Digging here would require a lot of work but would probably be worth it.
We turned back and following scuff marks, headed into the round passage. This passed great sand banks and entered a chamber. Ahead, a rift disappeared into the distance and to the right, another could be seen to be only a few metres long. A single red helictite crossed this narrow rift and I cautiously climbed over it and proved that the passage did not go anywhere. We put some tape across the passage by the helictite to stop cavers damaging it unnecessarily.
The other rift was inviting. Careful to ensure that we did not steel any virgin passage, we looked for scuff marks on the rock. Clearly, a caver had been into this passage before, so we stood where they had and climbed into the passage. To the right, a passage dropped into the other rift. We continued ahead, looking at a crawl on the left that went back to the chamber. Beyond this, there were a few boulder obstacles and I believe it was here that the original explorers had stopped. Not thinking to check, we continued, not expecting them to have stopped. Ahead, a beautiful set of stalactites and stalagmites spread out blocking the path. I passed this with an elaborate 'stand here and jump there like that'. Beyond, the passage continued and the floor suddenly dropped several metres into a chamber below.
I could see no sign of any ladder and was excited at the prospect of coming back here to drop this pitch with the rest of the team. At that moment another club member appeared at the bottom and, irritated, informed me that the whole club were supposed to find all of the new passage together. I had no idea that I was the first person to stand there. Apologetic, we returned to the passage with the delicate bridges and headed the other way, having taped off the passage at the formation to prevent people unnecessarily passing it and damaging it.
In the main level, the passage meandered gently before passing an alcove on the right and a hole up on the left. Just beyond, water flowed in and back out again, making a lot of noise. Small avens were noted and then the passage choked. Holes up entered the chamber that I had seen from above. Now at the bottom, I could see several more passages. Back over the way in were three passages. The one to the left was an aven that I would later find would lead to a ledge connected to the rift that I had found above. The middle passage was short, but contained some poor quality cave pearls. To the right was a small passage that wound its way back to the hole up in the main level, opposite the alcove. I was later to find a low bedding in the floor of this passage that connected back to the avens I had noted in the roof.
Directly above the way into the chamber was the rift I had found. Directly opposite this was another rift, while in the roof high above was an aven. Ahead was a passage that seemed to be the way on, while in the floor ahead, a hole dropped to a dead-end chamber. We followed the way on, emerging in another chamber filled with about thirty cavers. After being told not to steel any more passages - I didn't mean to, honest - we looked around. This was a complete waste. Thirty cavers in a small cave, all holding each other up. It was an honorable idea to have everybody take part in the original exploration, but it would be better to just scatter cavers throughout the cave and have them all search for passages instead of hanging around waiting for each other and getting cold.
In the floor was a large boulder covered in gypsum crystals, above was a climb, and across the other side was another climb. No-one seemed foolish or balanced enough to climb above so I volunteered. A ladder had been placed but the next move required leaning around a corner. I leant backwards, pretending that my holds were fine, with my arms and legs in unusual angles. I placed a new anchor and attached a ladder. Pulling myself up, I looked around. The chamber was small, with several red mini-stalagmites on the floor. Above, a rift soared up to what looked like high level passage. Ahead, a passage to the left was the high level passage I had seen in the chamber before. The next person to climb the ladder was one of the people who had dug into the cave. Not looking at his feet, he had trodden on two of the stalagmites before I realized and shouted for him to stop.
It was an uncautious attitude like this that caused the helictite in the rift we had taped before to be destroyed. Did they think I had taped the passage for fun? Did they think that there was actually some passage beyond and that I simply taped it off to be spiteful? I will never know, but my only assumption can be that my experience in finding new cave had taught me how to be more cautious. I taped the formations.
It was at about this time that we heard some potentially bad news. Someone had not been careful enough while passing the Z-Bend and had collapsed it on themselves, only just managing to wriggle free. We were unconcerned as with the manpower available, this could easily be cleared. This was done quickly, probably even before we got the message that it had collapsed. The choke was later re-shored with scaffolding to prevent this ever happening again.
The other climb was quickly ascended and we all walked down a short section of passage adorned with several red and white stalactites. At the end were two avens. The second would require bolts, but the first looked possible. A couple of us headed up this aven. There were some good holds, but all were slippery, making the climb 'interesting'. At the top, a rift ahead closed down, but one to our left was open, if a little difficult. This quickly dropped to the head of the other aven. So it would not need bolting after all. A rope was hung and the others climbed up. Together we explored a short section of passage which meandered to a little grotto, with a ridiculously tight passage in the floor.
That was where we left it, except for the continuation of the flat out crawl we had noticed near the start of the trip. I was determined that this should be followed and ended up climbing a series of small avens with a short passage at the top. Back in the pub afterwards, I drew a sketch map of the cave which was gratefully received, helping to relieve the tension caused by the finds I had unwittingly made. Then came the thing that I wanted to hear. 'We need someone to do the survey'. I had coordinated some of the surveying of Hexamine Highways, and knew what I was doing. Phil Jane had already surveyed to the first pitch but, although I knew from a survey that he had produced of Ogof Pen Maelor that he could produce good surveys, I believed that I could produce one better and faster.
I volunteered and we began the survey. Someone had pushed the ridiculously tight passage in the floor near the end to connect with the soaring rift seen earlier. On the first surveying trip, we surveyed everything from the start of the Main Level to complete this new loop. Unfortunately, when we plotted the survey, we noticed that the error was quite bad, and my dad and I, realising that my brother had unwittingly affected readings with his light, redid them all. We had almost completed the survey when someone broke into new passage.
The passage that I would not fit down in the Lower Streamways had been pushed through twenty metres of far tighter passage into an aven. An inlet entered and a passage back over the way in reached an aven; the Fifth Pitch. A passage at the top was connected with the alcove in the Main Level, carrying the stream from the inlet near there. This was good for me, as there was no way I could fit in through the other route. Further extensions were made into a continuation at the bottom, where a drop down entered a fine tall rift that suddenly closed down.
The constraints of university and lack of transport would make it almost two years before I got back to complete the survey of the cave. In two trips, we surveyed the streamways and a new level, found in the other direction along the soaring rift. This was unexpected. I had always thought that there would be a passage there but not like it was. Quickly it split into a tight rift and small crawl. The crawl was well decorated and quickly developed a deep trench in the floor. At the start of the trench, a hole down dropped twenty metres into the chamber that joined so many of the other levels. Ahead, the routes joined again and we were faced with another junction.
I followed the rift ahead over a blind pitch down which water flowed. Following the water upstream, I came to a chamber with the way on too tight. It may be possible to squeeze along up in the roof but I did not attempt this. Heading the other way from the junction, a slope up entered a chamber with several passages leading off. Back over the way in, we entered a short virgin passage. Ahead, a passage went to a wide choke. Up above, several rifts looked too tight but an aven up to the left looked big enough.
My brother, finally persuaded back through the loose looking entrance, climbed the slippery aven and rigged a rope for us to follow. We dug through a choke at the top, entering a passage that closed down in a very wet choke. It looked loose so we left it, having almost managed to connect to the passage at the top of the aven before the second pitch. In the floor, a drop down had an extremely tight passage that my brother followed emerging in the passage with the wide choke.
Despite the finds in Carno Adit, this was probably the best find that the Brynmawr Caving Club had ever made. At only 675 metres long, the cave would not make it onto the list of longest British caves, but with a respectable depth of 81 metres, gained in five pitches, this rare Welsh pothole would find a place in the deepest British caves list.
The three page survey that I conducted and drew up and four page description that I produced of this very complex little cave appeared in the 1999 - 2000 edition of the Brynmawr Caving Club Journal. This journal also pays further tribute to the Coldfinger stalactite that we found in Ogof Draenen, proudly displaying a picture of it on the cover.
In the summer of 2000, my long term girlfriend and I finally got married. I had not been accepted to continue at university for the next two years on a masters degree course, and instead I had to accept the bachelors course and remain for only another year. At the time I was gutted, but I quickly learned what a bonus this was. During my final year, I was noticing more and more how little the lecturers actually wanted to teach, and how much of the lecturing was done simply because they had to. Passing my degree was becoming increasingly harder to do. I was caving less and less, in the hopes that I might use the time to study. Instead, I spent more of it with my wife, and she fell pregnant with our first child in the spring of 2001.
My wife's pregnancy caused me to spend even more time away from caving, perpetually worried that she would go into labour while I was underground and she would be unable to contact me. I did no caving for a year, and it is only now that I am getting back to it again. What I did do was to produce a database of the longest and deepest caves in Britain and produce a couple of other caving websites. In case any of you are wondering, I got a 2:2 BEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. I could have done better, but I was losing interest.
While I was finishing my degree, my dad and brother were making significant finds back in Ogof Draenen. In south east Draenen, passages run approximately parallel to each other, some with water seen for a few moments, but none could be followed far. These passages include Gone In The Years, Gone With The Wind and the main passages of Wyvern Hall. At a lower level, small inlets are seen in Squirrel Rifts. The inlets must be fed by the intermittent streams seen in the Gone With The Wind and Gone In The Years, with the water crossing between them at a lower level. So far, only one such passage had been found in The Land Down Under in the Wyvern Hall extensions. These extensions themselves are quite clearly just a system of soak-aways and do not contain any major passages, except Wyvern Hall itself.
The streams in The Land Down Under were by no means big enough to account for the amount of water seen in Gone With The Wind. A junction of oxbows in the Wyvern Hall Extensions known as Isotonic Wierdways has a side passage that almost meets up with this stream, but it contains no water. At this same junction is the Digeredon't pitch down into The Land Down Under.
Before the streams were met in The Land Down Under, my dad noticed a small arch in the wall. We were all getting good at this arch spotting technique. My dad had been leading Tim Barter and his partner Pauline on a tourist trip. Pauline is the famous Pauline Rigby who, as the girlfriend of Tim Guilford, had been the first into Going Somewhere and a number of other finds.
Clearing a few rocks, Tim entered a crawling sized passage. This passed a beautiful stal column; Ice Cold In Alex, and a set of stalagmites and the passage enlarged. At a junction, they climbed up to the right to enter a large passage. Footprints showed that they were back in the main route of the Wyvern Hall extensions. How many times had cavers walked over this hole and ignored it. I remember myself looking down it and thinking 'Ooh! That looks deep, I'd better not fall down that!'. This passage had been open all the time.
Back in the new passage, they tried the other direction. Selenite flowers glistened all over the walls and junction after junction was met with short passages. At a main one, ahead led along a narrow rift covered in selenite, before becoming too tight, with a tantalising view into open passage. To the right, a mud floored oxbow has never been entered. Ahead, more selenite covered passages passed over what looked like a tiny stream and the too tight rift entered from the left before reaching a low choke. The new series was named Republican Plot due to events in the United States Of America.
Digging at the choke quickly produced a tight vertical squeeze against a solid wall. My brother's head again popped out into virgin passage. To the left, it widened before closing but some avens were noted above. Ahead, a small passage turned left, scooting a choke before branching into two narrowing rifts that became too tight. To the right the passage lowered over sand before turning left and enlarging again. The floor dropped down to a stream flowing out to the left but was too narrow to reach.
Ahead upstream, they traversed along a very awkward rift which eventually gained a solid floor. Up ahead choked below Isotonic Wierdways. Side passages to the right were all small and short while climbs up in two places entered a chamber with no other ways on. Finally, they had found the drainage stream that we had all been looking for. They left, naming the new extensions Presidential Mayhem after the confusion in Florida over the election votes.
On the way out, they climbed the aven near the start of Presidential Mayhem. Several metres up, the top was obtained with passages heading in both directions. Back over Presidential Mayhem had clearly been explored but was not followed. In the other direction, a traverse was reached over a deep hole, dropping presumably near to the end of Presidential Mayhem. Further on, after an awkward wriggle, this entered a chamber. Directly opposite was a way into the main route of Wyvern Hall, and a passage to the left turned a few corners and did the same. In the floor to the right, a tiny rift dropped to a passage that led all the way back to The Land Down Under, very close to the arch that my dad had found. This set of passages had been found and surveyed by the Chelsea Spelaeological Society, but they had ignored the holes in the floor. Again, the new passages had been open all of the time, just no-one had bothered to look.
The next trip brought with it the most impressive find any of us had made so far. My dad and two other cavers headed to the end of Presidential Mayhem through what was now the only route in, as they had blocked off the original route to protect Ice Cold In Alex. In the floor to the left, a sandy crawl reached a draughting choke and a large passage heading into the distance. This was as big as the largest passage we had ever found in Hexamine Highways. In the floor, a stream entered. The largest so far. This flowed off down the passage and they followed it, passing three more side passages to the right. Ahead, the passage got smaller and the stream flowed off to the left. A short traverse led to a crawl through old stal to the hardest traverse yet.
None of the traverses were high, they just funneled down very slowly and had very few holds. A crawl bypassed where the stream took a lower route. In the lower route, an inlet entered with the water from the first traverse in Presidential Mayhem. The traverse ended and the passage got larger, passing some passages to the left at a corner. Ahead, several oxbows were passed and the passage entered the largest chamber yet. Across the chamber, the outflow was too tight.
I joined them on a trip to survey their finds. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. This was far better than anything I had found before, with the possible exception of the Coldfinger. They had already mapped the first part of Republican Plot that they had found and we continued from there. Surveying traverses was harder than it seems. You have to keep your hands free for the surveying gear, or in my case, the notebook and pencil. Jamming yourself in with your legs can make them ache.
When we reached the final chamber, they told me about a passage that they had explored in the roof, which had passed two chambers before becoming too tight. We did not survey this, but I pushed the stream outlet. This was very tight and after two metres turned a sharp corner and became far too small. Later, a bypass to this tight section was to be found, but the continuation again became impassable.
A passage above the stream inlet was followed around a couple of corners to a dead-end grotto. The passage ahead where the stream turned left into the difficult traverse closed down, with an aven containing a short passage. To the right, the passages had been followed by a midget. The first passage, hidden above a natural rock bridge, got very small and went for thirty metres. The second split into several rifts, one of which connected with the first passage, and the other to the third passage. The third passage also got very small and had a passage crossing over through an extremely tight squeeze into the first passage. We ignored all of these passages and just surveyed the main route.
When we plotted up the survey, we could see that it completely crossed a blank area, almost connecting to squirrel rifts and almost certainly solving all of the puzzles of the drainage in the area. The new finds were named Gore Blimey.
Just before Isotonic Wierdways, a side passage dropped into a blind chamber, now known as The Garden. It was named this by my dad and brother as they dug like gardeners to find an easy route down into the sandy tube in Gore Blimey. Whilst in this 'dead-end' chamber, my brother thought he could hear a roaring sound. Telling my dad to shut up, he listened carefully and located the sound as coming through a very narrow rift at one end of the chamber. He squeezed through. An upper level climbed above but he continued towards the roaring sound. He was greeted with an awesome sight. Below, he could see a spray lashed floor and high above, an inlet came crashing down a fine fluted shaft. Fluted shafts are rare enough in Draenen, but this was majestic. The floor was 13 metres below, and the inlet at the top was over 25 metres above, making this nearly twice the size of anything else found in Draenen.
My dad was too big to fit along the narrow rift and just had to hear the story. The looming problems of foot and mouth disease were slowing progress but a sandy crawl was pushed in Gore Blimey to where the floor suddenly dropped. A tight rift ahead looped around to enter the inlet in the main part of Gore Blimey. To the right, the passage entered a muddy area with several very short side passages. One of the side passages enlarged and a stream flowed into it, then out through a passage that became too tight. This is almost certainly the stream that becomes the inlet in Gore Blimey.
Ahead was the source of the water; Awe Chasm, the pitch my brother had seen. The base was over four metres by eight metres across and the pitch looked exactly like the pitches found in the limestones of the Yorkshire Dales; very unusual for Draenen. Ahead, a rock slope rose to a passage that could not be followed far and a large undercut on the right was similar. On the left, a passage headed off at stooping height with a beautiful, pristine mud floor. This was to become known as Blessed Pork Scratchings. Stal decorated many sections before the passage lowered. A side passage filled with silt and the passage ahead choked in a way that suggested there may be a passage above the choke. On the floor lay a partial bat skeleton and the bones of many bats could be seen in small undercuts. The passage was carefully taped to prevent damage to the mud and stal.
Above the rift my brother had first entered, another rift could be seen. The upper route in the original rift was climbed and a route was bolted from there into the upper rift. The process was slow, and at one point, a large boulder was accidentally detached from the wall and sent hurtling down the shaft, very nearly causing serious injury to a caver below. Once reached, the slope of the rift proved awkward and my brother began the slippery ascent to a choke. Never being one to give up, he pushed some boulders aside and slid through into a chamber. Small stal formations lay dotted everywhere.
My brother had rigged the twenty metre pitch to the floor and my dad had followed. Three other passages led off from the chamber. To the left my brother followed an exceedingly tight rift that emerged in the other wall of Awe Chasm. He tried climbing down a little but realizing it was to difficult, he climbed back up again. A passage to the right in the chamber dropped as a narrow pitch nearly ten meters to the floor of the main route of the Wyvern Hall extensions, close to The Garden.
Diagonally across the chamber a passage was entered by stepping around some badly placed formations. Mother Nature had obviously not learned as well as we had where the best place was to put them. The passage had some loose stones on the floor accompanied by some holes which dropped about five meters. This was very similar to the place in the Literal Zone where I had dropped the rock near Martyn Farr's feet many years before. Thankfully no-one was standing below here as they cautiously crossed the holes and continued along the passage.
Ahead they reached a very loose slope of boulders which was threatening to collapse but in fact did not move as they descended to a choice of two further bolder slopes. These reunited in a passage that headed to the left. This eventually became excessively narrow but my brother squeezed on to reach a small chamber and oxbow with several silted side passages.
Back at the holes down my brother stabilized the rocks, creating a single hole, and climbed down. Almost immediately he recognized this as Isotonic Wierdways. Once again they had found passage that had been sitting open for nearly five years! Once again the Chelsea Spelaeological Society had surveyed the passages beneath but had ignored the hole into the open passage. At the bottom of the second bolder slope a side passage was pushed to the right, through some rocks to emerge in the main chamber of Isotonic Wierdways. A small sprinkling of bat guano fell into the hole as they realized they where now behind a tape that was meant to be protecting the guano.
Now with about one and a half kilometres of passage, they had almost run out of easy leads, but the prospect of a connection with Fault Rifts was enticing. The route in through the Wyvern Hall extensions is not the easiest in the world. The survey showed that the end of Blessed Pork Scratchings was directly beneath it. My dad, my brother, Peter Morphy and I all set out once the foot and mouth restrictions had been lifted, to dig the choke. We started digging using the 'buddy-buddy' technique that my dad and brother had developed so many years before. Rocks were being removed very quickly and I built up two dry stone walls in the low passage to contain them behind. The dig became known as The Rockery, along a similar line to The Garden.
We started some cooking. Fortunately the draught was being blown in by the waterfall in Awe Chasm so the fumes did not disturb a bat who was sleeping further up the passage. Unfortunately, the draught was so strong that Peter Morphy and I were both getting too cold and we left to warm up with some caving. We went all of the way out of Republican Plot through the climb at the end of Presidential Mayhem. We then spent what felt like as much as half of an hour with me trying to remember the way out. Oh, the shame! I wrote the description, and I could not remember the way out. Having found it, I kicked myself for being so stupid and we met my dad and brother at The Garden and headed out of the cave. They had not managed to pass the choke.
Stopping to drink at 'The Drinking Pool' in Fault Chambers, I was suffering from lack of energy because of my being out of practice. 'Food, food, blood sugar low, need food'. I ate like someone who was starving, holding to food up to my mouth and stuffing it in as soon as I had finished with the last mouthful, almost as if I was worried that if I did not eat fast enough, someone would take it away from me.
On the way out, the water level in the cave had fallen since we went in as on the way in, some normally ankle deep sections of streamway were waist deep and flowing gently, but on the way out they had almost returned to normal. The water in the entrance, however, was higher than it had been on the way in, suggesting a recent rainfall. This does not create any danger, but it can be unpleasant. When we got to the hole up between the solid wall and large rocks, I told Peter to leave the bag he was carrying at the bottom, and I would pass it up to him. Once he was up, I had to stand in the rift facing the stream, with large amounts of water pouring down my oversuit. I passed him the bag and he started out, inadvertently diverting all of the water directly into my face. Gasping for breath, I scrambled up the hole, happy to be leaving the cave.
Caves are beautiful places. Not in a sheltered river with trees and birds tweeting sort of beautiful. More a stark, yet graceful beauty. From the curved arches of a low crawl to the towering halls, magnificent stal formations and thundering waterfalls, each a creation of nature, and a priceless work of art.
For years, I had admired photographs of caves. In many ways, they seemed to give a view that I could never see, almost making the caves seem more alive and more beautiful. Photographers almost seemed to have the power to direct the cave to look how they wanted, making even the tightest and most uncomfortable passages seem like a treasure, and the smallest stalactites seem like the greatest ever found.
We began to try taking some photographs underground, beginning with a trip to Llanelly Quarry Pot. The tight entrance and short pitch had been followed through a dig into a streamway. We followed this upstream to where the passage became decorated with many different beautiful stals. We took photographs of all that we could see, even at one point daring to take a photograph of the passage.
At the time, we flicked through the photographs and, even though we were disappointed by the number of prints that were out of focus, we were quite pleased with the results. I now keep these photographs tucked away in a book that I almost never look at. We had misunderstood what made cave photography such an art form.
Almost all of the photographs were taken with the electronic flashgun mounted on the camera, with the shutter pressed and then released. This is similar to what a reporter would do, taking a photograph of a celebrity. Often the photos would not have enough light or would lack any definition. On the surface, life appears in a multitude of colours and shades and we are so used to these that when we look at a two dimensional image, it almost seems to jump out of the page, making it look three dimensional. In caves, there is usually a smaller range of colours, and everything seems to be of a shade in between dark brown and light brown. The occasional white or red is provided by the stal, but often this is stained slightly brown also.
With so many similar colours, our photos all appeared to be flat, two dimensional and lifeless. Cave photography requires strategic positioning of the flash gun in order to create shadows, often the only factor giving the impression of a third dimension. We experimented with this on a trip into Agen Allwedd with disastrous results. Five of us trudged into the cave. My dad led my brother my sister, her boyfriend and me into Turkey Streamway, to photograph the formations around The Beehive. This was my sister's boyfriend's first caving trip and he took to it like a duck to a mud puddle. He was training to be in the SAS and exercised regularly, so he had no trouble with the work involved and instead, he sweated profusely in his many layers of boiler suits. Well, if anyone needed a drink ...
The photo that really sticks in my mind was of the four of us youngsters standing in a row along the top of a large amount of flowstone. Wherever the flash was placed, it created unusual shadows and the eventual picture had the flashgun placed lower than the camera. The effect this produced on the photo was not at all what we had intended. The shadows on our faces made us all look like we were telling ghost stories on Halloween and behind us, great shadows like death in his cloak projected against the walls. To top it off, there was one very odd looking face, sweat dripping off it, with an inane grin caught in a frozen laugh. '... And for this portfolio, not even a grade F is low enough!'
The fact that this photo was also out of focus was just another way in which we had failed. To this day, we have never managed to solve that problem. Several photographs from each film will always be out of focus. The reason for that is the lack of light. There is never enough light to see properly through the viewfinder, making the camera difficult to focus. Also, there is a light to focus relationship with all SLR cameras; with more light, you can make the aperture smaller. When the aperture is smaller, the picture will be focussed for a greater distance around the actual focal length. This is all based in the laws of physics somewhere but that was something I forgot after A-levels and do not intend to revise it here.
Steve King almost never has this problem. He always has, and I believe always will use an automatic camera with a built in flash. This makes life easier for him and he does often end up with good pictures, but it does mean that he is restricted to taking close-up pictures with lots of variation in colour.
Our lack of light also caused other problems, the photos were often very dark, and if brightened during development, they invariably became 'washed out' and looked almost like they were in a slight fog. Simply through lack of practice, and through trial and improvement, we still make many mistakes like this today and in most cases, we are lucky to get one good photograph for every three we take.
We tried taking some pictures of White Arch Series in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. A remarkable selection of stalagmites there are known as the Minicolumns, after some larger ones known as the Columns, elsewhere in the cave. The Minicolumns are not huge or tremendously impressive but I have just remarked on them so they are remarkable! It was near here that my dad was descending a pitch and had swung into a short length of virgin passage, unentered because no-one had noticed the open hole. I have no memory of what happened to these pictures. We obviously were not that impressed. I was later to take some photographs there with my wife, producing one of the best pictures I think I have ever taken, in that case of a passage, not the Minicolumns.
We attempted to solve the problems caused by 'washing out' by taking black and white photographs. We all had experience with developing these ourselves so if the shop did a bad job of them, we could redo them. We visited Another World. Jupiter I believe. No, no. We visited Another World, a well decorated area of Galeria Garimpeiros in Ogof Draenen, and took two films worth of photographs. When we looked at the final prints, we could immediately see that they were all perfect in terms of contrast. The shop had done a good job. Unfortunately, we had not. Black rings showed up where a mixture of a bad camera and bad flash had interfered with each other.
Using better equipment, and colour film, we headed into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu to photograph the columns. We experimented with a new technique of leaving the shutter open, and firing the flashgun by hand before closing the shutter. This was much better than before as it allowed us to fire it again if there had not been enough light the first time. We produced two films worth of good photographs. Well, not that good, because we had still not worked out what angles the camera and flash should be at.
We also experimented with the same technique in Gilwern Passage, Draenen, attempting to photograph a long, straight section. The shutter was left open and my dad walked off down the passage, firing the flashgun as he went. Quickly we hit on the problem with this; he had lit up rocks with one flash behind where he had been when he fired the flash a different time. What was left was a half see-through body with rocks showing through it. Yes, it was funny to have ghosts on the picture, but it was not very good photography. This picture had been inspired by one that Clive Westlake, an expert with black and white cave photography, had taken. He had done the same but had left bigger gaps between flash shots. Clive also had more people to help and more flashguns, so each person could have their own.
We had once managed to take a good set of pictures in one of the major South Wales caves. Large passages and close-ups of some intricate formations. Our only problem had been the lack of a wide angle lens; we had had to photograph the large passage in two sections.
One very important factor in cave photography is the absolute lack of light underground. On the surface, no matter how dark it may seem, there is always some light. If a camera shutter is left open enough, it will eventually let in enough light to fog the film. Underground, this would not happen. Underground, cavers create the light, they have absolute control. The problem is learning how to control. Some very effective techniques involve the use of silhouettes, shining a light on the far side of the caver, lighting up what is behind them.
This technique was used with spectacular results in a picture taken by Jerry Wooldridge of Sarawak Chamber. Two photographs were taken, each with four ultra-powerful flashguns. The models holding the flashguns stood facing away from the camera, lighting up the boulders in front of them and the roof far above. Each appeared as a silhouette, black against the brightly lit boulders. Because of the size of the chamber, the models were positioned from up to half a kilometre away with radio control. In the final picture, the two photographs were superimposed on top of each other to give the appearance of eight models standing around the inside of the chamber.
One further way to create a silhouette is to have a third person, who will aim the flashgun directly at the model, towards the camera. With this technique, the walls are beautifully outlined, and the steam emanating from the caver is lit up as an aura. This can be a stunning effect, especially for rounded passages.
We decided to test this out in Dan-Yr-Ogof, one of the best decorated caves in Britain. We were trying to get serious. For the most part, we succeeded, although several of the pictures left a lot to be desired. We were learning, and in many cases, we were learning well. We took some pictures of the Monk, a bright red stalagmite, about half a metre high. I fired the flashgun directly into the Monk, with the flashgun just a few millimetres away. Immediately afterwards, with our lights off, we noticed one of the more unusual features of stal. Tiny amounts of radioactivity causes the stal to glow bright green for several seconds after a bright light has been shone on it.
We took pictures from Straw Chamber through to Cloud Chamber. The Cloud Chamber pictures were taken using several backlighting techniques, but most seemed to be missing something. The photography took several hours, with some of the pictures taking ten or twenty minutes to set up. Standing around in wet clothes with the air around us at eight degrees centigrade made us get very cold. One of the problems encountered in cave photography is finding willing victims who will wait for the half an hour that some of the photographs require to set up and take.
It was at about this time that we found Hexamine Highways and we set off to photograph this. We acquired a smaller flashgun and we used these together, allowing us to light up longer sections of passage. A few of these pictures were good, but most were still missing that little spark. In order to allow both flashguns to fire without the model moving in between, both flashguns had to be fired at the same time. This was achieved by attaching a 'firefly' to the remote flashgun. This would cause the flashgun to fire when it saw the other flashgun fire. These were surprisingly effective and would not trigger if a caving light was shone directly on it and the light flicked on and off. Some people have even used them outside in the daylight! We had originally used these in Llanelly Quarry Pot but had stopped using them for a while in between.
With the next set of extensions in the same series, we were back, still using the same technique. We did many pictures with the first silhouetting technique I described, as this was quick and easy to set up. Several of these photos required better focusing than we were managing. Being almost unable to focus without a lot of cavers all shining their lights together on key rocks, we were resorting to estimating the distance and turning the focus dial until it read that distance. Our estimates were frequently not quite right.
Some new finds in Upstream Passage had finally broken from Waterfall Series into the blank side of Gilwern Passage. We headed into these, amazed by the beauty of the passage shape. A smooth floor was a welcome relief and the passage was wide enough to walk several cavers side by side. We restrained, not wanting to unnecessarily damage the sediment deposits. We attempted to take some photographs with the main flash aiming towards a model, and the second flash aiming away from them, further down the passage. The remote flash trigger failed repeatedly and we gave up. I set up a picture where I would aim the flash towards the camera from behind a rock projection. This worked very well, lighting up large ripple marks worn into the rock in the roof of the passage.
We headed into Sixth Heaven Chamber, where the roof glistened with anthodites and aragonite needles. We made a mess of photographing them. The bright crystals reflected so much light that every photograph ended up blinded. We tried to take some photos of the chamber itself. These were good but I noticed a problem. We had failed to remove a tackle bag from some of the floor that was shown in the photo. I later edited that out with a computer. No, I did not stick a computer in the photo!
We headed into Padlock Passage. We set up our first shot on a tripod, propped up with thin slithers of rock to stop it tumbling down the rocky slope. My dad had prepared the cable release so that he could hold the shutter open without shaking the camera. The problem was that my wife - or girlfriend as she was then - and I had used it so that she could try some cave photography for her media studies Btec, taking photographs in White Arch, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. We had accidentally left the cable release behind. Not to be outdone, we set about trying to manufacture one. We used a key from a sardine can. I have no idea why we would have that with us but we did. We also found another piece of metal from somewhere and, using an elastic band between them, we made hooks with the pieces of metal. These sprung together. One end was tucked under the camera and then, with lights off, the other end was clipped onto the shutter button, pressing the shutter down.
'Open'. My dad stumbled in the dark to where we had decided he would stand. Together we counted; 'three, two, one, fire'. Back he stumbled. 'Close'. Lights back on, we continued down the passage. Our second set-up was much nicer. A large section of passage with a pit in the floor funneling down to end nine metres below. We started in a similar way except that my dad stood behind the camera so only I was in the picture. I directed the shot. 'Open now ... three, two, one.' We fired the flashguns together. 'Covered?'. My dad placed a lens cap in the way of the lens without touching it in the dark. I turned my light onto a dull beam and covering most of it with my hand, I headed around the corner. Now out of sight, I switched my light off. 'Open again'. I fired the flashgun towards the roof in the direction of the camera, lighting up the sculpted rock shape. To this day, that photo still impresses me.
Even now, our technique remains very similar to what we did in that photograph. We use a proper cable release, but we frequently sneak around in the dark so that we can have flashguns in more places than should be possible. We desperately try not to produce ghosts though.
I was learning some very important lessons about photography. I was nothing like as good as Clive Westlake, but I knew how to direct a picture. I learned what would be the best positions for the flashguns and models, where the camera would stand and just what should appear in the picture.
We went on a lightweight trip to North Wales, to visit some of the very few big caves that are found there. Access to the longest and largest, Ogof Llyn Parc, was not available so we headed for a smaller cave called Ogof Hesp Alyn. Drilling of a complex mine system nearby had resulted in the draining of this naturally flooded cave. I had seen many pictures of this cave and it looked fairly large, with a beautifully round pitch and a few difficult traverses. These pictures did not give any idea of what the cave was like. The first part of the cave was small and very muddy, smelling of rotting vegetation. Lots of irritating slippery crawls followed accompanied by occasional large sections with annoying, slippery boulders. The pitch was not very impressive. It just looked awkward and not very rounded at all. The photographs I had seen were an artwork, clearly not representing the cave, but more what the photographer wanted to see.
On the same trip to North Wales, we decided to look at the mine that had drained Ogof Hesp Alyn; Sea Level Tunnel and the Halkyn Mine complex. Large shafts dropped up to two hundred metres to the bottom level, the Sea Level Tunnel. We descended a one hundred metre deep one on ladders and scaffold that had been set up down the entire depth of the shaft. Part way down, we took a side passage and looked at the old ammunition stores and now dangerous shoring that was no longer supporting the roof. We climbed down into solid rock where small passages ended at balconies overlooking immense mined caverns. Some of these easily matched the size of the largest natural passages and chambers in the country. We had only brought one large flash gun with us, and this was pitiful in the size of passage available, so we resorted to taking pictures of the mining implements left behind. Many of these had been lovingly restored.
At one point, we passed a side passage over ten metres high and wide. It was square cut and I could not resist the temptation. I told my dad to prepare the camera while everyone carried on past us. I ran into the passage holding the flash. 'Ready? Open, fire, close. Let's go!'. No planning and no time gave us one of the best pictures I feel that we have ever taken, although the camera could have been aimed better.
Further through the mine, a railway line passes over a two metre deep stretch of brown water. The sleepers between the rails had rotted and the way along was to balance along the submerged rails, feeling where they were with your feet. Well, my dad failed, missing his footing and plunging into the water between the rails. He did this again on the way out, almost completely covering his head. On both occasions, he got his priorities straight and sacrificed his warmth and dryness to save the camera, holding it above his head. Who said caving is fun, eh?
Further through the mine, we headed up a side passage where the crystal clear stream flowing beside the path was tinted blue with copper derivatives. Long streamers of an unusual stringy mould grew from the wood at the edge of the stream channel, some over fifty metres in length. At one point, fronds of this mould swirled into the stream, with giant black laceworks tipped with white. The opportunity was too good to miss so I crouched beside the stream to give scale to the picture and with a camera mounted flash, my dad took the picture. I had chosen, on this trip, to wear a bright green oversuit and I believe it was that that made this picture one of the best we have ever taken. Rusty rails run along the edge of a turquoise stream, with black and white mould fronds, and a caver in green with a dark blue helmet. The variations in colour produced a very good effect. Normally, when taking a caving picture, models in South Wales wear blue, black and red oversuits, but the material picks up mud so they inevitably appear brown, just like the rock.
All this talk about models may induce images of half naked women in swimming costumes but caving models are more often not so striking. Modeling in itself is an art, and one I think I am learning quite well, despite my early attempts in Llanelly Quarry Pot and several other caves. I had tried some modeling techniques in Ogof Tarddiad Rhymney, trying to work out how to stand or pose in pictures. We had taken what I considered to be a good set of photographs, but I will never know. None of those pictures came out well at all, although the pictures we had taken of the stal were all good enough. We had had problems with the camera.
Further trips to The Land Down Under in Ogof Draenen improved my directing techniques as I told my dad the set-up for a photo - without a camera on hand - and when he took the photo later, it won the British Cave Research Association's annual competition for best colour print. I am unsure if he remembered what I had said, or decided on his own to do the same thing, but either way I feel I had contributed, probably just because I want some of the glory.
The finds in Dollimore Series, Draenen, had presented us with an opportunity. Tim Guilford had discovered a small chamber in Dogleg Complex containing about as many helictites as in all the other caves in the area put together. Small stalactites lined the many fractures in the roof but were almost invisible as they had sprouted a mass of intricate branches. Dominating the chamber were a series of stalagmite columns that had grown underneath some of these, stopping as they made contact with them, making columns one and a half metres tall. We were later to rediscover this chamber from the other side.
Three of us headed for the chamber, lugging heavy bags of camera equipment. My dad had always been the person who held the camera, so was usually the one who got the credit, something which I still feel should be changed. In a film, the director is given the credit, not the cameraman. I was the person who held the flash and modeled, as well as setting up many, but by no means all, of the photographs. Also with us was Mick, a Brynmawr Caving Club member. On reaching the chamber over four hours later, we looked at the delicate floor. We agreed that our boots would cause too much damage so we took them off. Under normal conditions, cavers do not enter the chamber, and instead stop at the point of entry and look from there.
The purpose of taking these pictures was mainly for conservation. Cavers already knew the chamber existed, and if we made pictures of the stal freely available, they would not be tempted to enter to see the stal from a different angle, as they could do that by using the pictures. The pictures can be viewed on the internet at no charge.
One of the pictures here was easily the best that I have ever set up. Facing the columns, the main flashgun was placed to the right of the camera, pointing at them. This would create shadows helping to give depth to the picture. The problem with shadows is that they can be so black as to be overpowering. To counteract this, I placed a weaker flashgun to the left of the camera, which would shine on the shadows, and help to brighten them just a little, softening their harsh edges and putting the viewers' concentration back on the stal. It was absolutely perfect, and really showed the beauty of the chamber. This double flash technique had been used to great effect in many of the close-up photos and nearly all three films worth of pictures came out immaculately. It was difficult deciding which ones should not be included as they all looked so good.
Three hours later, we finally put our boots back on our cold, sore feet, and headed to another chamber in the same area. Here, different types of stal prevailed. Hundreds of helictites grew directly out of the wall, each like tiny arms nearly 30 cm long. At the ends of each, they branched into tiny fingers, or sometimes hundreds of anthodites. This chamber required similar caution to the last one but the helictites were not so vulnerable. These pictures would serve to allow cavers to see the helictites, even if they were not up to the long caving trips required to reach them.
Whilst surveying, the Chelsea Spelaeological Society had noticed the way into virgin passage in Luck Of The Draw. It was another of those little arches, this time poking out just over some mud. This new find was named Cantankerous Surveyors' Series and was reported to contain a stal formation so beautiful, it had been given a name; The Geryon.
My dad and I headed in there with our camera equipment. We had prepared two flashguns; our main flash which had the intelligence to check if it had released the correct amount of light and stopped when it had, and our little backup flash. We had been using these same flashes since we started with underground photography and they were showing signs of wear. The smaller flash always required the battery clip to be left half open for it to charge up, but the larger flash was fairly reliable. It required lots of batteries though as it was quite powerful, and drained four of them fairly quickly. The smaller flash required two but was always a bit slow at charging. We prepared a multi-pack of batteries, easily more than we would need. Because we did not trust it, we did not put any batteries in the main flash, but we put two in the weaker flash. We also had a new cable release preparing for its first use.
We reached the Geryon after about four hours. This was like a cross between the two types of helictite formations seen in Dogleg. Three short, fat stalactites hung in a row, the one in the middle about half the size of the other two. Maybe they were its parents ... Each stalactite had grown hundreds of arms which splayed about in all directions with 'hands' on the ends, with the arms that met those from another stalactite joining into one. This was a truly remarkable find and I could quite see why it had warranted a name of its own. We began to unpack the camera gear, cracking jokes about the aliens that had landed on the ceiling and settled down to hibernate there. A little family of three. Should we sneak around so as not to wake them?
My dad got out the main flashgun and asked me to pass the batteries that were in the Daren Drum container that I had. 'They're not in here, they must be in yours'. But they were not in either. This was a serious blow. Without our main flash, we would have to rely on the low power flash and hope we could calculate everything ourselves. With the low amount of light the flash produced, the iris would have to be large so we would have problems focussing. Then my dad hit on an idea. His emergency backup mini Maglite contained two batteries. Now we had four, we could put them into the main flash, and hope the emergency backup light would not be needed.
He set up the tripod and held the flash in his hand. The camera shutter was to be opened with the cable release so he screwed that into the shutter mechanism and I prepared for the photo. I stood on a tiny ledge sticking out from the wall, holding on to one slightly higher up. With our lights off, I remembered posing like this for Steve in Pant Mawr Pot, where in the final pictures, I had an odd look on my face and it looked almost like I was relieving myself against the wall. I made my face look normal. If I can look normal, that is.
'Ready? Open ..' The shutter clicked open and immediately closed. We put our lights back on so that my dad could switch the camera to the brief setting which would hold the shutter open as long as the button was pressed, as we assumed this is why the shutter had closed so quickly. The camera was already set on brief. Confused, we looked at the cable release. On its first use, the sheath had torn. Irritated with the manufacturer, and knowing that they would never replace it as we had used it underground and they would use anything as an excuse not to spend money, we attempted to fix it with a key ring. It was a strange setup, but it should work.
Back in position, we tried again. Again the shutter just clicked open and closed. The key ring idea had not worked. Annoyed but determined, the flash was placed on top of the camera for a final attempt. A handheld shot. I stood on my ledge again, lights switched off and highly conscious of the fact that one of the arms of The Geryon lay just a few centimetres from the end of my nose. 'Ready? Now.' Nothing happened. What on earth could have gone wrong now? The shutter had jammed firmly in place. Had it not been for the fact that I had seen Clive Westlake's picture of The Geryon, I would have believed that it was the unseen powers of the alien creatures themselves. Back on the surface, the shutter worked as normal, but needed servicing.
My dad later returned to photograph a nearby area of the cave, War Of The Worlds, where the helictite displays are not quite so impressive, but safer to photograph. Fifty of these pictures we had taken are currently on display on the internet, along with the full description of the cave. We have never tried to photograph The Geryon again. We just cannot afford it.
A few years later, my dad had been teaching some young club initiates to cave. One of these, Huw, was fairly good and together, we all headed to Ogof Pasg in South Wales, with the intention of doing a through trip to Ogof Foel Fawr and taking some pictures on the way. Ogof Pasg was surprisingly large for such a short cave, and we quickly used up a whole reel of film, taking pictures of the unusual passage shapes and the stal formations. This was the chance for me to pass on the art that I had learned; how to be a poser. Now with long hair, a beard and moustache, I did not look anything like the person who had featured in the pictures before, and it was time to train a fresh, young face.
It is only when you do this that you learn just what it is you do when you model for photographs. For front-lit shots, the facial expression is very important. Looking unimpressed will not make anyone want to look at the picture. Smiling ridiculously will also make the picture look a bit like a joke. The best way I found was to try a little role-play. Not in the dominatrix sense, although that would make the picture quite captivating.
While standing there, I told my understudy to imagine that he had found the passage. It is along the same line as a stone-age man who has just managed to light his fire. Proudly he stands beside it with his spear pointed upwards. When approached by another stone-age man, he stands up straighter, looks at the other and says 'Oom fire.' It was this stance that I was after. If a caver could imagine themselves standing in a passage, proudly showing it to the other cavers, then they will have the 'right' look. They will have a slight smile of satisfaction, and that is what I am looking for.
I had been doing this for years and for most pictures, I think this is the most successful way to model. If a rock is available, it may be a good idea to place one foot on it. This, I had seen used in old pictures of English gentry wearing a hunting outfit. We also tried a simple back lit shot where the expression is again important. This time, it worked best if the model appeared to be looking at something, without sticking their head too far forward. It was an interesting experience trying to coordinate someone with very little experience in cave photography. It helps you to realize what you had been doing yourself.
We had just set up a picture of a caver actually caving - something very unusual in the pictures I had coordinated - when the shutter jammed. This was a pity, as I would have enjoyed taking some pictures of me caving in water. We had one of my dad crawling in a low passage, someone walking in a large passage but none in water. Water presents its own problems; the model gets very cold and the water reflects large amounts of light back at the camera. The first picture would have been me in a duck. Well, more like a sump that according to the local expert would be no more than a 'puddle'. Hmmm. It would have probably been taken as my head resurfaced and I gasped for air with water pouring off me. Imagine it if you will, because we never got to take the photo.
The second picture would have been in the next section of passage where a section of thigh deep water would have made an excellent picture. I had planned to drop down on my knees and lower myself until my head and arms were out of the water then have someone fire a flashgun towards the camera from behind me. It might be cheating, but it would look good. Instead, we had to give up and headed out towards the Ogof Foel Fawr entrance. We followed a low crawl until we reached a chamber and the crawl ahead was taped off, showing the way on was into the chamber. In the floor of this, there was a hole down but this sumped. We knew this had to be the way on as there had been nothing about a side passage. We stuck our feet into the water and waved them around to see if there was an airspace. There was not so we turned around and went back out the way we came. The actual way out was through the taped off crawl. We were left to wonder why it was taped off when it was the way out.
Attempting to do some harder caving trips since the birth of my daughter, I joined my dad, Huw and his mate Adam on a trip into Draenen, to retake the pictures of Galeria Garimpeiros that we had taken before, this time in colour. Firstly, we headed for Old Illtydian's Chamber to try taking some pictures of a large chamber, something we had not attempted before. On a world scale, this is not a big chamber. In fact, there are several passages in Draenen that are larger, but it was good practice. Planning the set-up took us nearly half an hour. The main picture was to be of the whole chamber, which is both tall and steep. I stood one of our victims, sorry, models at the top of a large boulder slope and another to the right of the chamber where there was a slightly flat area. I perched on top of two large boulders in the centre of the chamber.
This brings me to the next great pose for caves. In large passage or chambers, the person in the centre of the shot stands with their legs apart and fires the flash in front of them, away from the camera. If they look up slightly, this makes a great silhouette. This was how I stood. I had one boulder under each foot. Both boulders had sharp edges on the top of them and it was incredibly hard work trying to balance there, especially in the dark. In front of me and behind me, it was about a metre and a half to the 'floor'.
'Ok guys, lights out. Ready? ... Open ... fire Huw'. The top end of the chamber lit up. 'Fire Adam', and so did the side. Now in the dark, I stumbled across to Adam and collected the main flashgun. Stumbling back with a tiny glow from my light, I only just stopped before falling off a drop. This was not fun. Now balanced again, I fired the flashgun. We attempted this several times with various set-ups. Sometimes I fired twice, having to wait in between for the flash to charge up without moving at all. Very difficult when you are perched on a boulder. I believe the best picture came from one where I started with a flashgun, and Huw and I both fired at about the same time. Following this, I stumbled over and handed the flash to Adam and got myself well out of the picture before he set it off.
We spent about an hour to an hour and a half in total there and my dad and I were acutely aware that our two models were getting cold and bored so we headed off to our main target. Another World was easy; we took pictures of almost every stal formation, all of which worked very well. These were simple camera mounted flash shots and required no work at all. We also photographed a beautifully round phreatic tube, about two metres in diameter. We produced two totally different pictures of the passage using both of the silhouetting techniques I described previously. Each one printed perfectly. Our final crowning glory was a picture taken in the Hearts Of Olden Glory streamway, where a section of passage echoes for several seconds with even the slightest noise.
The passage is shaped like an ice-cream cone with one scoop of ice-cream and the bottom of the cone cut off. I stood Adam in here facing the camera and then crouched down behind him. Aiming the flash towards him, I fired it, lighting up the passage shape, as well as the mist around him. The effect it produced was absolutely perfect. I did make two mistakes though; I could see myself in the photo behind him, although a quick computer edit removed that. I had also not realized just how much light would reach the front of him. I had told him to stand with his feet slightly apart and his fingers only just inter-linked at about waist height. These both worked, but he had left his gloves on, making his hands look enormous. Most men might appreciate this but it did not work in the picture. Again, the computer came to the rescue.
On the way out, we reached the waterfall that Chris Howes had taken a picture of for his book Images Below. I decided to go one wetter - not better - and stood directly under the waterfall. That is very cold. The flashgun was set off behind me, blasting light through the huge amounts of spray. It was an excellent setup and it looked fantastic, except for one problem. Have you noticed how there is always one problem? And if there is not one there are two? This problem was due to the lens that we were using. It was too wide an angle and the important part of the picture was very small in the print. For the same reason , there was not enough light, so the picture became washed out. Trusting in my computer editing abilities, I resurrected the photograph, and it now stands testament to the lengths that I will go to in order to get a good picture.
While I was learning to get my nerve back over heights, I had the fortune to go caving in Diccan Pot with Fred Weeks. Fred is a Yorkshire potholer and is extremely tough. He has since been on the expeditions with my brother to Slovenia, as well as expeditions with Steve King. Fred had been a caving companion of my dad and uncle more than twenty years before. He is a key member of the (Northern) Cave Rescue Organisation and at one point, he had rescued a woman from the very cave I was visiting, when she nearly drowned in a flood. I had and still have complete faith in Fred.
We entered the cave through its normal entrance and reached the head of the first pitch. Below me, the floor was thirty eight metres away and I was scared. Fred calmly talked me through everything, and I can tell you that he has an extremely comforting way to talk to someone who was scared. I reached the bottom feeling better about it and continued down the next pitch. The third pitch was the same height as the first but the rebelay half way down was very exposed and I was amazed by the strength in Fred's arms as he traversed across the wall using only his fingertips to attach the rope. Again he talked me past the knot.
It was in a situation like this that Fred had hidden in the shadows, high above the floor, watching my dad trying to pass a rebelay. As my dad slowly worked through the procedure for passing the knot in the rope, Fred had waited until my dad had got to a safe point and then boomed out 'Am watchin' ye!' from his hiding place. A strange man, but with a good sense of humor.
Once at the bottom of the cave, we looked at the short section of passage at the bottom. I freeclimbed up the four metre waterfall to the base of Alum Pot and saw a karabiner - a metal link used to connect ropes to rocks and cavers - neatly placed on a ledge at the bottom. At least, I hope it was neatly placed there. Alum Pot is a sixty metre pitch and if it had fallen and managed to bounce up there, it would be damaged beyond safety. No-one claimed the karabiner so I continued to use it, having tested its strength to prove it was safe. I still use that karabiner today.
On the way back out, I felt scared again, but safer than normal, knowing that Fred would shout at me if I made any mistakes. I would not make any mistakes, but it was nice to know that if I did, someone would stop me before I endangered myself.
On a lovely sunny day, those of us without a tan had decided to cool off in Little Neath River Cave, known in Welsh as Ogof Nedd Fechan. This cave was originally found in a shakehole, near a dry section of the Little Neath river in South Wales. A small passage led through a choke and eventually broke into a very large passage, which sumped after a short distance. Divers passed the sump to gain access to a large stream cave now over eight kilometres long. One side passage had been dug in a small passage, half full of water, back to where the water sank at the edge of the river, creating the 'dry' entrance.
I have heard a story about an adventure group who were in the original entrance, known as Bridge Cave and one of the novices convinced another that he could swim safely through the sump as it was 'only short'. Diving in before anyone could stop him, he surfaced eighteen metres later in total darkness, in the main cave. I can assure you that eighteen metres is a very long way to dive in a cave without air tanks. Even cavers who are experienced in 'free-diving' sumps rarely dive further than ten metres. The novice was eventually shown out the dry way several hours later. Quite how true this story is, I do not know.
We headed in through the dry entrance. I say dry, but in fact, this entrance will completely soak anyone who uses it. If the water level is high, cavers can get washed through the tiny passageway. We went in under very low water conditions, and at the end, those of us who were small enough bypassed a duck by squeezing above it. With the water being directly from a river, several species of river dwelling creatures are found throughout the cave, mostly unpleasant ones that you most certainly would not want to get in your mouth. However, there is some life in this cave that most cavers feel privileged to encounter.
One section of the cave is known as The Canal, where to roof is less than half a metre above the water, and the water is just under arm length deep. We reached this section and continued to follow the river through it. The way we moved in here was to lie down in the water, trailing our feet behind us and 'walking' ourselves along the bottom with our hands. Around our hands, we could see white shapes moving near them. Stopping to look, we realized these were blind cave fish. Having no natural predators, these fish have no fear of humans, and quite happily play around them.
These fish are related to species found on the surface, except that through evolution, these cave fish had lost the ability to see, as it is totally unnecessary underground in the dark. They still had sockets for eyes, but unlike normal fish that have no eyelids, these had skin completely covering the sockets. They are also white, instead of the usual speckled brown, as camouflage has no use in the dark. To see the fish swim with such accuracy using only their sense of smell was quite an experience.
With bats, echoes are used to produce a stereoscopic picture of the cave around them, and to a small extent we can do this, being able to distinguish between the echoes of a large chamber, a small passage and mud or sand. In fact, cavers develop what is known as their sixth sense where they will suddenly have the urge to duck for no reason. When they check why, it invariably turns out that they were about the hit their head on the roof. We assume that this reaction is triggered by the echoes of the sounds of them moving. With the fish, this is something different. They can detect when they approach a target because its smell increases. I am left to wonder about how they can tell when they approach a rock.
Unfortunately, both times I have visited this cave, because they were such hot days, the water was warm enough to steam up the entire cave, and it was like walking through mist. I did not get the chance to appreciate the passages. Still, this is the compromise, go in during the summer when you cannot see, but there is not much water in the entrance passage or go in during the winter when there is a lot more water but you can see. I choose to keep warm, because it is never nice feeling cold. I believe it was because of this that my wife's experience on the watershoot put her almost completely off caving.
On my parent's honeymoon, they had been to Scotland to go caving. At that time, my mother showed an active interest in the sport. They had visited what was, at the time, the longest cave in Scotland; Cnoc Nan Uamh, a cave with a large river shooting down a waterslide into a sump. They also took a more leisurely visit to Smoo cave, a sea cave with one of the largest cave entrances in Britain.
When my wife and I went on honeymoon, we went to Devon. There are very few major caves in Devon but even if there were, we were not there to go caving. Having said that, I did notice the Dart River Cave when we went on the Dart River cruise, and we did finish off the holiday with a walk around the third longest cave in Devon; Kent's Cavern. This is an archeological showcave and was actually quite interesting, but we were restricted to following the path and being very unimpressed with the amount of plant growth in the cave supported by the permanent lighting.
Much more interesting and a lot more fun was the trip to Poole's Cavern in Derbyshire. I was at the Hidden Earth caving conference in October 2001. This is the major caving conference held every year so that expeditions can publicize their findings or seek sponsors, and new technology can be revealed. In 2001, the major finds had been the chambers and pitches in China that I mentioned in the chapter 'Finding the way'. Each person who had a valid conference pass could get go on an unguided tour of Poole's Cavern for a greatly reduced price, so my brother and I took up the offer. It was only a short showcave, nothing like as long as the Dan-Yr-Ogof showcave tour, but was in exceptionally good condition. The stall still glistened and was as white as it had been before the cave was converted into a showcave in 1854.
A large river flowed through the cave, emerging from under a boulder pile at the end of the single main passage. On reaching the end, we saw a tour guide taking some tourists through the cave and we waited to hear the end of her talk. By the time she had finished there were at least seven cavers listening. She stopped to have a few words about caving and then, after explaining that we would not be covered by the showcave's insurance if we did so, she said we could continue past the end of the showcave. All being cavers, we accepted and stepped through the gate.
We walked up the steep boulder pile at the top of which there were two ways on. I climbed a ladder to the right but that was hopeless as there was only a complete choke. My brother and I walked across a muddy stal bank, with me stepping in a puddle and soaking my foot. Why would I have done that you ask; well, I couldn't see it as I had no light. In fact, between the seven of us we had only one proper caving light, one dull light that allowed you to see about two to three metres in front of you and one light which allowed you to see about 20 cm. Almost completely blind and totally helmetless, we crawled into the choke, staining our clothes with mud. All in good fun. Apparently there was a loop in the choke. I think I did most of it but in the dark I wasn't quite sure. We spent long enough in there. We headed into a side passage which I followed to its miserable end, making sure that I stepped over the holes in the floor that dropped almost ten metres to the showcave below.
Starting back towards the entrance, we noticed a well decorated side passage, hidden from view of the normal tourist route. My brother and I and I think, two Devon cavers headed into this passage until the floor got too well decorated and we stopped. Turning around we noticed some very unusual mud deposits on a rock, looking like leopard print. Just before we were about to leave the passage, we saw a large tourist party entering the cave and we attempted to hide, so that they would have time to pass. We may have had permission to be there, but it is not a good idea for the tourists to see you outside of the path or they will want to try it too. When they reached where we were they stopped. And they stayed there. Eventually giving up, we climbed out of the passage beside them, nodded in thanks to the tour guide - a different one this time - and walked past the tourists trying to look official.
This is not the only time I have had to contend with tourists. Several times I have visited Dan-Yr-Ogof, I have walked past tourists who have been enjoying the showcave. As cavers, we are respectfully asked to pass them with as little interference as possible. This does not mean the tourists will pass you in the same way. Often, they would stop you and ask questions or wave at the 'heroes' as you walk past.
One trip in here was with my dad and one other caver on a day after light rainfall. Dan-Yr-Ogof can flood so we knew we had to be careful. We went through the tourist section, reaching the fence which bars the way into the river passages. Stepping over this, we descended the steps to what had once been a continuation of the tourist route. The passage is stooping height, and a concrete path with barriers on each side can be followed over a pool in a very slowly flowing streamway. The pool is known as Lake 1 and flows just over the path. At least, it is normally a slowly flowing stream. That day is was washing over the path much deeper than normal. If it reached the barriers, the level of water in the cave is too high and the trip would have to be abandoned.
The water levels were low enough to allow us to continue to the final barrier of the old showcave, an area now covered in sand from years of floods. We stepped over the barrier and looked at Lake 2. This is normally a stagnant pool and is separated from Lake 3 by a sand bar. In between the lakes, there was no sand bar, and the water was about half a metre deep and covered in thick scum, a yellow foam commonly seen in caves after flooding. I do not like water.
Together, we walked into Lake 3 hugging the wall. Normally, we would progress along here by half floating and half standing on very small ledges, while pulling ourselves along with tiny projections in the wall. This time there were no projections. The water had covered them. I tried feeling for them under water, successfully at first. Soon the arch of the roof meant that in order to reach then, I would have to completely immerse myself. This, I was not prepared to do. The only sensible way to continue would be to swim along the passage against the flow, trying to use the tiny ripples in the roof as handholds. I opted for backing out and I was led back to the start of the lake.
The other two continued through a section where the roof almost met the water and while passing it, one of them had lost their hold, being swept slowly back along the passage towards the sump. They regained the wall and tried again, successfully that time. While waiting for them, I headed back to the tourist section where I was greeted by several tourists listening to the roaring noise made by the waterfalls beyond Lake 3. They asked me questions about the water levels, the noise, the small hole in my wetsuit and several other things like was I scared, were the others going to get into trouble and what was the meaning of life. I answered their questions to the best of my abilities and then headed out of the cave, conscious that a caver in a wet wetsuit will not stay warm for long unless they keep moving.
Many caves have problems with high water. Some caves cope better with it than others. Many caves can fill completely to the roof and even big passages in some caves can experience a large rise in water level because the passages downstream cannot cope with the quantity of water. In Draenen, the Big Country streamway ponds up with vast lakes in high water conditions, despite the passages being nearly twenty metres wide. In Agen Allwedd, the passages in Maytime have been known to experience a five metre deep flood with very fast flowing water, despite the generous passage size.
We were in Draenen while the water levels were high enough to create the lakes in Big Country. We were leading a caver from the Forest Of Dean down the main 'Beyond A Choke' streamway, giving him his first insight into this major cave. Yes, I did notice that it was a long way to lead him; all the way from the Forest Of Dean to the Beyond A Choke streamway, ha ha. The stream was flowing quickly but was no problem. In fact it was more fun than I have ever remembered it, with the water tugging at our feet and pushing us through narrow sections. It was when we turned round that we realized the actual power of the water.
Protective padding on our knees was pulled around behind our knees and some of it was being almost ripped off. We battled upstream, enjoying the challenge but acutely aware that each foot must be placed firmly on the floor, or we risked being swept downstream. This was all in a day's work for the Forest Of Dean caver. He was enjoying every minute. One of our cavers was not so sure though. He missed his footing and was sent rolling down the streamway, unable to get his head above water before being rolled over again.
He was fortunate that one of the other cavers there was quick enough to catch him as he was rolling past and pick him out of the water. We all learned a lesson and took things more cautiously. A little further up the passage, he again decided he was bored with this walking lark and decided again to test out the roller coaster in the water. Again, he rolled several times before being picked out of the water. This cave was proving that it was no puppy. Despite his caving experience, we kept more of an eye out for him for the rest of the journey out.
This was not the first time I have seen Draenen in flood. I have already described how I have seen the waist deep water in White Arch where it is normally ankle deep. What came as more of a shock was the water in Out Of The Blue in Dollimore Series. We had been in Dogleg Complex and had passed Out Of The Blue on the way in. It was not abnormal, with the water levels between ankle and knee deep. Light rain was falling on the surface, but it had been dry recently. By the time we left the series, not more than a few hours later, the water level in the streamway had risen to chest deep. As you might expect, I have put warnings about all of these behaviors in the description of the cave.
This is not always the case. We had followed the guide book description for a cave in East Kingsdale, Yorkshire, known as Heron Pot. It was a fairly pleasant cave that began as a typical Yorkshire rift cave, meandering gently. We found the top entrance but did not look at the lower entrance as we could see where it was, and that was enough. The book did say that the exit could sump in wet weather but there had been no rain for a few weeks and there was not going to be any that day.
We followed the passage to a pitch which we rigged as a pullthrough, knowing there was an exit at the bottom. We also rigged the second pitch which followed shortly. Taking some time out, we looked in a decorated side passage. Finally ready to finish the trip, we headed towards the exit. The book had described this as a damp crawl to daylight. Well, there was a damp crawl. Then, there was a sump. We looked at each other in dread, knowing that, as we had pulled through, we could not get back up the pitches. My brother and dad were contemplating climbing them, but although one of them would be passable by climbing, the other most certainly was not.
Our other option was to wait for a rescue. It would take hours before the rescue was even initiated, and a few more before we would get out. There was no way we could dive the sump as there was a tight section part way through. Looking closely, my brother noticed a narrow cleft in the roof had an airspace through the sump. He decided to try and pass it, sticking his nose into the cleft like a snorkel. As it happened, it opened up almost immediately and there was a useable airspace just beyond, which did emerge into daylight.
Being a kind spirited person, my brother dug out the gravel that had been holding the water back to allow the water to drain. He had already sopped up a large amount of it with his clothing. My dad went through next, getting a wet face as he crawled through. By the time I got there, they had both soaked up enough water and drained enough more for me to get through with no problems at all. Had we known in advance, we would have cleared the entrance completely first.
Water can present a hazard underground, not just from the dangers of flooding, but more commonly from the cold. Most cavers choose to wear wetsuits in cold water as the wetsuit uses the water to create insulation, a system that works very effectively but only if the caver does not stay still for too long. We were heading for a trip into Maytime, Agen Allwedd to see the large passages that were on view there. I have been into the cave several times before and was quite aware of what to expect. The walking sized entrance series, the easy walking main passage then a few long crawls to Maytime.
I knew that Maytime contained several sections of deep water, so I decided to wear my wetsuit, as I had no intention of freezing myself in the cold river that runs through the cave. No-one else was worried so they all wore a fleece undersuit and a water resistant oversuit.
We headed into the cave with me walking like an elasticated penguin and the others walking in a way reminiscent of humans. A wetsuit is always more tiring to wear as it is a form of rubber and so resists all movements, attempting to spring back into its natural shape. Still, I was tough enough and had enough stamina so that was by no means a problem. I would just get a better workout.
We soon reached the first of the crawls. I was overheating slightly in my dry wetsuit and was sweating. At this point, I am sure that many cavers would cringe, as they know what is going to happen. I did not. Southern Stream Passage was lower than I had expected and after about one kilometre, I was feeling uncomfortable. My wetsuit war rubbing my groin and making the skin very sore. We continued through the long sandy crawls of Resurrection Series and finally reached the crawl into Maytime. We were all very surprised by the sight that greeted us. A few stalactites covered with stunning displays of helictites, very similar to some seen in the White Company stal formation in Ogof Daren Cilau. This was very unusual for Agen Allwedd as it is almost devoid of stal formations throughout its length and these were exceptionally beautiful.
Now very sore, I was eager to get into the water and sooth the wetsuit rash I had developed. Sending someone in first - yes, I don't like water that much - I quickly followed. Nice and cold. Very pleasant. Following the stream down a few cascades, we saw some more unusual formations. High in the roof, a collection of very thick 'straw' stal formations hung on a slant instead of directly downwards. We soon reached the sump where we turned around to head out. I was enjoying being in the water but I knew the worst was to come.
Now quite wet, my wetsuit would rub far more than it had on the way in, unless I could continually immerse myself in water. Sadly, Southern Stream contains only a trickle of water, and I had to suffer. By the time we got to the end of the Main Passage, I was almost in tears with pain and ran down to the streamway to soak. When we finally reached the car, I took off the wetsuit to asses the damage. My groin looked red and was missing a lot of skin. I walked with my legs apart for a few days, whimpering with every movement. To this day, several years later, I still have scars from that.
It did not put me off that cave through, although I have never worn a wetsuit in there since. I did have another few memorable trips into the cave, one of which is worth a definite mention. It was in the depth of winter, and snow was covering the mountain side. We walked along the derelict tram road to the entrance, admiring the view of the white snow against the black of the quarry face that had originally cut into the cave. Within the first hundred metres of the cave there are two puddles in the floor, where the roof is so low that the only way through is to lie in the puddles.
With the cold outside, these puddles were made with meltwater from the snow and the draught blowing into the cave was providing a healthy wind chill factor, dropping body temperatures rapidly. I have been into Draenen when the draught was cold enough to form icicles in the entrance but this draught felt far colder. We hurried through the cave trying to get warm. We could not move too fast though as there is a large bat colony that hibernates in the cave and many of them choose to sleep just where you would want to put your hands.
Once into the Main Passage, we hurried along and managed to regain a normal body temperature, taking a lot of time looking around. It was when we started back out that things started to get too much. The draught in the entrance series was bitterly cold, this time blowing into our faces and quickly lowering the temperature of the water soaked up by our undersuits. We were warm enough from the caving though and the cold did not present too much of a problem. This was all to change when we reached the puddles near the entrance. On the way in, some of us had the strength to push ourselves off the floor, managing to keep dry to a some extent. On the way out, cavers are too tired for this to be possible.
Tired from the caving, we all lay in the water and wriggled through. Now the draught was becoming a problem. The water was at about 0°C and was excruciatingly cold. The draught could have blown it into icicles on our oversuits if we stopped moving. Outside, we shivered our way back to the car, me suffering more than most. The walk around the mountain is a couple of miles long and we could not hurry, as the slope below us was very steep and a slip here could land you a hundred metres below. One caver who had done this was lucky enough to be stopped by a rock pile about twenty metres down. Some of us did slip over on the way back, but we all arrived back at the cars one piece.
By that time our hands were freezing. I had to have my dad help me by rubbing my hands and breathing on them to warm them back up. It was not very successful. The only movement I could manage was to move the tips of my fingers by about half of a centimetre. That was all I could do in the cold. The pain in my hands as they warmed up felt like fire. It was as if I had put them into a fire and was slowly roasting them. This certainly gives you a lot of respect for people like Eskimos who live in these conditions their whole lives.
Had I been warmer, I might have attempted the Eglwys Faen challenge. Eglwys Faen is a small cave about one kilometre long on the path to Agen Allwedd. It was obviously once a part of the great Llangatwg Master System comprising Agen Allwedd, Ogof Daren Cilau and Ogof Craig A Ffynnon, which are now separated by chokes. It has seven entrances for normal cavers and a couple more for very small cavers. The main entrance lies up a slope at the Agen Allwedd end of the cave, and the Waterfall Entrance lies up a slope at the other. The challenge begins after a trip into Agen Alwedd.
Walking up the steep slope, the timer starts at the main entrance. Tired from the trip to Agen Allwedd and the walk up the slope, the caver must descend into the cave so overused by novices. The entrance opens out directly into a fragment of huge passage, probably related to the Main Passage in Agen Allwedd. Blinded from the light outside and the sudden blackness of the large passageway, the caver stumbles into a passage on the left. This narrows down and the caver regains their vision. Ahead, the passage twists, turns and climbs, passing under a skylight entrance. The way on shrinks down to a crawl and soon, a climb down leads to two flat out crawls. Taking either, a larger passage is reached and followed to the left. A short crawl emerges under the waterfall where a climb ends on the top of the slope down to the path again. It is here that the timer stops. My dad and uncle used to do this twenty years ago, and I intend to carry on the tradition, bringing their time of four minutes down to two and three quarters for a distance of 150 metres. In case you were wondering, that is an average speed of 3 kilometres per hour or 2 miles per hour.
The cold can play quite a big part in caving, and despite what many people think, it is the cold that is the biggest threat underground. A caver with an injury is more likely to die of hypothermia than blood loss. The cave air - in Britain at least - is harsh and unrelenting, usually staying constant, somewhere below 10°C. On the surface, the temperature may vary quite significantly, but the air in the cave still maintains its temperature, unless a draught drags air in from the surface.
We were in Yorkshire for a caving weekend and for one of the trips, we were to visit Hagg Gill Pot, a recent discovery just over one kilometre long. It had been a cold night and the dales were covered in a blanket of snow. The sun was out though and the snow was beginning to melt. As is customary in Yorkshire, cavers park on the road nearest to the cave and change into caving gear outside their cars. The nearest road to this cave lay in a shallow valley that funneled an icy wind along its length.
We got out of our car and the Yorkshire cavers who were leading us into the cave got out of theirs. The next step was to get undressed and change into caving gear. In this cold? There was not even a wall to shelter behind. The Yorkshire cavers got out their caving gear and got undressed, leisurely changing into their gear. They breed 'em 'ard up 'ere!
We got changed, more used to doing so in the comfort of the house and then driving to the cave already in our fleece undersuits. With every breath of the wind, we cringed and cowered behind the boot of the car. They definitely breed 'em 'ard up 'ere!
The entrance pitch was rigged and we descended into the relative warmth of the cave. We followed the stream at the bottom upstream, passing several beautifully decorated sections of passage. Later we headed downstream, taking the inlet before the sump, where there were more stal formations, but not so intricate. On many occasions we were lying in the stream, composed of meltwater from the snow on the surface. I can only assume that the water had been underground long enough to have reached the normal cave temperature, because the effects of the water were nothing like as severe as from the water in Agen Allwedd.
In most Yorkshire potholes, water is all a part of the sport. I have been to many very wet Yorkshire potholes, where abseils beside huge waterfalls dominate the experience. Yorkshire potholers tend not to spend much of their time in contact with the rock and instead can usually be found dangling from their bits of string - sorry, rope - high above the floor. Where I do most of my caving, in South Wales, we hardly have any potholes to dangle around in. Yorkshire potholers wear different clothing; their oversuits are more water resistant but will suffer more from abrasion.
Some of the most popular potholes I have been in are a part of the West Kingsdale Master System, which actually drains both East and West Kingsdale. These potholes are usually rigged as pullthroughs and have several short pitches uniting in a central cave system. It is at the parking places for these potholes that my next short story begins. Picture it if you will.
It is a sunny day. The birds fly past, each one staring at the usual arrivals. One arrival, a beast with four round feet, stops and gives birth to three little beasts, each with two legs, and a couple of other appendages. One such little beast bears a striking resemblance to myself, one to my dad and one to my brother. We are preparing to go caving in Swinsto Hole. My brother and I take off our outer garments, wait until there is no traffic, and quickly replace our normal underwear with that intended for caving. Then, it is our dad's turn. He also removes outer garments and waits for a break in the traffic.
Seizing the moment, he drops his underwear and places it on top of his outer garments in a neat little pile. At that moment, a convention of vintage car enthusiasts, each one over sixty years old - that's the enthusiasts, not the cars - appears as if by magic. Small faces peer out of the windows in horror at the sight that greets them. Aged women cling to their men desperately hoping that they can do something to block out the vision. Back to hell demon! Yes, my dad has inadvertently exposed himself in front of a whole troop of elderly men and women.
In fact he has done this several times by several Yorkshire caves; he has an ability to pick the one moment when it sounds and looks like there is no-one approaching but in actual fact there is a small army of elderly people out for their respective drives in the countryside. The most memorable occasion was after a caving trip. We were getting changed out of our wet caving gear, the sensible ones of us having wrapped towels around ourselves like sarongs. My dad again waited until there was no possibility that anyone could be passing, again picking exactly the wrong moment. Realizing the impending incident, he ran for cover behind the car. Safe at last. Except that my brother's fiancée was sitting in the car at the time and most certainly did not appreciate the intrusion. Again he tried to duck for cover, away from the car, instead showing himself off to the car he had tried to avoid. What a guy!
In South Wales, there are relatively few caves where that could happen as there are almost no caves situated that close to the roads. One exception is Ogof Nant Rhin, whose entrance is situated just below a lay-by on the major A road that runs along the Clydach Gorge. The entrance was excavated from under a pile of spoil tipped down the embankment when the route for the road was cut. It contains three squeezes in the entrance passage, the third of which is nearly half full of water.
I am fairly small, despite appearances. I can fit through an 18 cm (7¼ inch) gap, unless I am using a rack descender in Simpson's Pot, but that is another story. Ogof Nant Rhin did not present a problem at all. I cannot remember exactly who was on the trip here, except that my brother's fiancée was there and I do not think there was anyone else. We had gone in through the entrance, her having no problems at all, being far smaller than me. The cave was quite interesting, with several stal decorations and a small streamway. At the end of the cave, both branches rose to either chokes or narrow rifts.
It was a short trip as the cave is only 350 metres long. We headed out along the walking sized passage. The roof began to lower signifying that the entrance passage was just up ahead. My brother's fiancée went through first, and once through, stood at the entrance to wait for me. I reached the last of the three squeezes, which to me is not really a squeeze, just a small passage. I got half way along the passage and then found I could move no further. My head was at the entrance but I could not move to get the rest of my through it.
I tried to move backwards to un-stick myself from whatever I was stuck on. My boot jammed into a narrow cleft in the floor, the perfect size for my boot. I was using a belt mounted battery, with the cable from that taking the electricity to the light unit on my helmet. As is quite common with this arrangement, the cable had got caught on a rock projection, preventing me from moving further along the passage. The usual response is to flick the cable off the projection either by turning the head quickly or pulling it using the hands. I could not do either in this passage. I had to give up and ask my brother's fiancée to unhook it by reaching around me. My boot was left behind, stuck in the floor so I turned around to pick it up.
This is not the only time I have had to give up. On a trip with my wife and brother into Agen Allwedd, we got to Southern Stream Passage and I decided to go into Sandstone Passage as I had not been there before. Leaving the others behind, I sped along the passage, through the U-bend squeeze half way along. I had told them I would not be long so I turned around before reaching the end.
When I reached the squeeze, I started through and then realized I had lain down on the wrong side as I could not get my foot onto any holds to push myself up the slope. I tried to roll over but the shape of the passage was preventing that, so I tried reversing to roll over. I could not reverse because of the position I was in. After five minutes, I stopped wriggling and lay there. Had I started on my other side, I would have been through in a few seconds. Now I was stuck.
I knew my brother would follow soon if I did not turn up so I began to shout for help, hoping that he would hear me and come to help. There would be no chance of him hearing and all I succeeded in doing was making myself feel stupid. Now determined, I wriggled for a few more minutes, finally managing to get a foot hold and push myself through. Once out of the passage, they both said I was late and they were cold now and I was inconsiderate. I explained what happened and my brother informed me that he would have left it another few minutes before looking for me. I would have been there for over quarter of an hour before he reached me. I do this for fun!
In the three hundred or so caving trips I have been on, there are very few that I did not enjoy. The only ones I remember that I did not were where I did not appreciate the big drops I was hanging over and one where I just felt depressed and wanted to leave. But with all of these, I never leave the cave thinking 'I never want to go caving again' instead I feel proud of myself. It was a challenge to get over what I was scared of and I met that challenge. It was unpleasant, but I did it. It was hard, but so am I!
This year, I will be challenging myself. I have got myself a place on a trip to the Gouffre Berger in the French Vercors. The trip is done over ten days, slowly rigging and derigging the many pitches that lead down through some huge passageways to a depth of over one kilometre. This was the first cave ever to be explored to a depth below the entrance greater than one kilometre and held the world record for the deepest cave in the world for several years. Currently, the record is held by Voronja (Krubera) Cave in Gorgia, Asia, at a depth of 1710 metres, although this seems certain to change, probably even before this book goes to print.
I have several reasons for wanting to visit the Berger. The only foreign caving I have done is in Ireland, and that is not exactly foreign. I love big passages and the Grande Eboulis is over one hundred metres high and wide, far larger than anything in Britain. The deepest cave I have ever been in is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, the deepest in Britain, but that is only about 300 metres deep, and even then, you can go in at the top or bottom, so it never really feels that deep. I need a challenge and descending the many pitches to such a great depth sounds like a challenge to me. I don't particularly like crawling and the Berger hardly requires any. I don't like enormous pitches and that is where some of the challenge comes in. The pitches in the Berger are up to 45 metres deep. Not the biggest in the world, but big enough to scare me.
The Berger is a classic, and it is serious. The problem for me now is to learn how to prusik over 700 metres in one day. Some people may even be prusiking 6000 metres in ten days. Yes, this one is definitely going to hurt, but I already know that it will be worth it. With caving, it always is.
Main text written between 21/2/2002 and 1/3/2002 by Mark "Tarquin" Wilton-Jones. Published online on 9/7/2002. Published in paper form by Tony Oldham 3/2003. © 2002 Mark "Tarquin" Wilton-Jones.
With Welsh, the following letters and letter combinations are pronounced as follows:
|Letter(s)||How to produce the sound||Symbol used to represent this sound|
|ch||A short sound like clearing your throat, produced at the back of the mouth||C|
|dd||Say 'th' as in the word 'this'||ð|
|f||As for the letter 'v'||none required|
|ff||As for the letter 'f'||none required|
|ll||Fill your mouth with your tongue, then blow down the side of it||ɬ|
|r||As for the letter 'r', but produced at the very front of the mouth||none required|
|si||If followed by a vowel (aeiouwy) then as for 'sh' else as for 'si' (there are some exceptions)||none required|
|th||Say 'th' as in the word 'thing'||none required|
|u||Half way between the 'i' in 'pig' and the 'ee' in 'feet'||none required|
|w||As 'oo' in the word 'pool'||none required|
|wy||As 'oy' in the word 'boy'||none required|
|y||If in the last syllable of a word or the only syllable of a word that does not begin with a 'y' then as for the letter 'i' else as for the letter 'u'. If a word is made of more than word (eg. Brynmawr which is Bryn Mawr), each component word must be considered separately||none required|
|Agen Allwedd||Aggen Aɬweð|
|Clydach Gorge||Clud AC Gorge|
|Cnoc Nan Uamh||Crock Nan Warve|
|Dan-Yr-Ogof||Dan Er Ogov|
|Eglwys Faen||Egg Loyce Vine|
|Garimpeiros||Garim Pay Ross|
|Grwp Ogoffedd||Group Ogof Eð|
|Llangatwg||ɬan Gatwg or ɬan Gattock|
|Llygad Llwchwr||ɬug Ad ɬwCwr|
|Ogof Carno||Ogov Car No|
|Ogof Clogwyn||Ogov Clogoin or Ogof Clogwin|
|Ogof Daren Cilau||Ogov Darren Keel Eye|
|Ogof Draenen||Ogov Dry Nen|
|Ogof Ffynnon Ddu||Ogov Fun On ðee|
|Ogof Foel Fawr||Ogov Voil Vawr|
|Ogof Hesp Alyn||Ogov Hesp Allin|
|Ogof Llyn Parc||Ogov ɬin Park|
|Ogof Nant Rhin||Ogov Nant Rinn|
|Ogof Nedd Fechan||Ogov Neð VeCan|
|Ogof Pasg||Ogov Pasg|
|Ogof Pen Eryr||Ogov Pen Erreer|
|Ogof Pen Maelor||Ogov Pen My Lore|
|Ogof Rhyd Sych||Ogov Rid SiC|
|Ogof Tarddiad Rhymney||Ogov Tar ðee Ad Rumney|
|Pol An Ionain||Poll An Yo Nen|
|Polcragreach||Poll Crag Rear|
|Polnagollum||Poll Na Gollem|
|Wyvern||Strictly; Wuvvern, but more usually; Why Vern|