A Dream of Wet Pitches

Gaping Gill via Dihedral and Bar Pot

On this excellent weekend Jacob and I joined SUSS at the BPC, in my case as part of a “Five weekends of caving in a row” program. The day promised to be a massive clusterf*ck, with a grand total of 17 people going down Gaping Gill via various exchange routes. What could possibly go wrong. To alleviate jams, a total of 5 entrances were to be rigged: Disappointment, Stream, Bar, Flood, and Dihedral. The latter was my idea and aim, particularly as I would only be going down it and back up Bar. That part of the plan worked, although not much else did.

Having parked the cars up at Clapham, faff ensued, albeit in normal club trip dosage. Given the long walk I opted for my usual approach of undersuit only, mainly due to some internal wiring problem with the heating always whacked on full. That or I was a blast furnace in a past life. Once our caravan had reached the stile over the wall, we split up into individual groups, I was to rig Dihedral with Rachel and Corin (both SUSS). The rigging guide caused a small amount of confusion, placing Jib Tunnel ca 25m from the main shaft. In actual fact it can’t be more than 5m, and is the very obvious tunnel behind a large boulder, not the unattractive opening I now believe to be Rat Hole.

At the end of Jib Tunnel begins Dihedral, there is enough metal here to securely tether a Boing 747, which those with previous experience will find particularly reassuring. 30m of free fall may kill you just as dead as 100m, but I presume the former leaves a more humanoid shape for the coffin. As it was my first time on Dihedral and indeed Gaping Gill as a whole, I was only aware of the amount of air (and water) under my feet in an academic sense.

Whilst Rachel and Corin were patiently waiting at the top, I started to make my way down a deceivingly protective shaft. The only concession to standard caving conditions was a seemingly harmless amount of water, joyfully leaping into darkness with me. We were about to get to know each other quite well. A short distance below the Y hang there is an easily spotted deviation; according to others, if not my rigging guide, there should be more to follow before reaching the famed ledge. What I actually found was water, quite a bit of it. As my environment was starting to become increasingly aquatic, I briefly wondered whether or not I should put on my hood, rather like a deer wonders whether the rapidly approaching set of lights merit getting out of the way. I didn’t. At this point I fail to find a good comparison to my situation, normally I’d jokingly compare it to a much more miserable situation to exaggerate for effect. I don’t think I can come up with a more miserable scenario.

If you want to put yourself into my boots, as it were, you’ll have to hurry, they were filling with water at an alarming rate and considering a career in parachute-free basejumping. At least the water wasn’t too cold, on account of wearing my wellies under my oversuit it warmed up on the journey down my neck, over my back and front, final stretch down my legs, to finally arrive at the impasse of my gumboots. At this point I must have been very close to that ledge, but as it turns out a 500lm light is of limited use when reflected and refracted into your face and everywhere else, helpfully illuminating more rapidly moving droplets. I was really starting to feel the weight of the world… pulling me down? That would be the tacklesack with its regrettable absence of drainage holes.

To sum up: I was starting to carry the weight of a second person underneath me, my wellies were planning their escape, and I couldn’t see anything non-fluid around me. The thought of doing a changeover and ascending ca 50m up a waterfall did not seem particularly enticing, so I emptied he tacklesack of water and made for the bottom. Which I was quite certain the rope would reach, the real question was whether or not I’d encounter something other than air and water on the way. Fortunately I didn’t.

I had little concept of how fast I was going, the only reference was provided by the water drumming on my helmet and the rest of me; sometimes harder (presumably on an upward bounce), sometimes more gently (on the down side of a bounce). Finally I hit a very rocky bottom, and desperately scrambled away from the source of my discomfort.

The GG Main Chamber is a truly bizarre place, certainly on first acquaintance. Windy, wet, and, in what won’t make any sense at all, so big it is swallowed in its own vastness. Owing to the omnipresence of spray, a strong light is only of limited use; the noise and apparent uniformity of the floor conspire against your first attempts at orientating yourself.

So into this boundless cavity above me I shouted “ROPE FREE” at the top of my voice. I suppose I bellowed upwards for the ears of Rachel and Corin, but to be perfectly honest I wasn’t sure if the world above me still existed. It felt like I had been propelled onto an alien world by means of a wet wormhole. I felt cold, small, insignificant, very wet, and did I mention cold? The novelty of shouting wore off quickly, so I decided to have a wander around the chamber instead. Very much in the sense of its German cognate wandern, that is to hike. This gave me ample of time to ponder on the origin of a floor composed entirely of rocks in all sizes and shapes, their original position, and how part of that transition might not be conducive to homeostasis were you to get involved in their precipitous journey.

After having explored various passages, Corin and Rachel made their way down. Unsurprisingly, it had been entirely impossible for them to hear me, and Rachel had mistaken the reflection of sunlight from the bottom for a stationary headtorch. For some inexplicable reason they were both dripping wet and a bit cold, so we made for Mud Hall. We had planned an exchange with one of the other groups, but I considered ascending a 100m waterfall to be unadvisable at best. So just before we left Main Chamber, I tied off the rope as high as I could, assuming that would prevent an accidental ascent in our absence.

Mud Hall was absolutely incredible, no two ways about it. An exposed traverse leads along its southern slopes, giving you a feeling of mountaineering underground. It is vast, and, importantly, not filled with spray and the noise of a waterfall. Somehow we managed to miss the famed mud sculptures, although we didn’t actually look for them. Eventually we thought it time to find the others, and duly ran into one of the two other groups on the way down into Main Chamber. Disappointment Pot had been too wet, so everyone had gone down Bar, Wade and Stream. Strangely no one volunteered for going up Dihedral, so I decided to derig from the top. Corin decided to wait for the others and go out with them, whilst Rachel and me would go ahead to derig. With an uncharacteristic presence of mind, I took the big tackle sack with me rather than leaving it tied to the rope. As Rachel had completed the way back to Bar on more than one occasion, I left her to lead the way. Unfortunately, at one particular intersection her memory proved slightly hazy, and whilst I enjoyed crawling down an increasingly constricted puddle, she robbed me of this simple pleasure and we turned around. Here we ran into Nat, so the three of us continued to South East Pot. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly slow crawler, but I’ve got nothing on Nat, who disappeared down the tunnel like a rat up a drainpipe. When we parted ways at South East I assumed she would beat us to the surface, certainly down to the cars as we had to de-rig. I couldn’t be more wrong, but would like to refer to Jacks and Nats trip reports respectively for the reasons behind this (links below). Suffice it to say that they had a whale of a time, I’m not sure how it compares to my earlier experience on the misery scale, but it was certainly a lot more drawn out.

I was the first to start my uneventful journey out of Bar, stroll back to Jib Tunnel once back at the surface and descend again to recover my sling and crab from the deviation. Somehow unwilling to have a second look for that balcony, I derigged the Y hang but left an extended pulley in place so Rachel and I would have an easier time of hauling up the rope. The bleeding thing was regrettably heavy, and there was rather a lot of it, too, so the traxion came in rather handy. We made quick work of it and set off back to Clapham, unexpectedly not running into anyone on the way.

As we got back to the cars, we were surprised to find no one but the Stream crew. My memory is a bit hazy on who got in what car exactly, the bottom line being that Rachel very kindly offered to wait for others, whilst I hauled my and other selfish bums back to the Dump. After sorting kit out I promptly began to have a few beers, which meant by the time it became evident that the remaining people might need rescuing (or at least food and a hot drink), I was definitely not legal to drive. Whilst not done on purpose, I would recommend this as a method for avoiding being reunited with your very wet caving kit for an hour’s starlit walk up to GG.

I’d like to claim dinner was a communal effort, but it was mainly thanks to Sioned. Soon those lucky enough to be at the hut tucked in to toad in the hole and began the long wait. Eventually, some time after midnight, the remainder of SUSS made it to the hut, some of them slightly worse for wear. Classic club trip!

Jack's report

Nat's report

By Alex Ried, 18/02/17