Ten years in the dark

Chapter 6 of 13

Finding the way

Malcolm Reid in White Arch Series, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. Flash by Tarquin and Becky Wilton-Jones, camera by Becky Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin.

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.