A Song For Elizabeth


Natalie, Lydia, Josh and Alex

With autumn and winter already yielding a good number of caving trips, I decided to squeeze another one in between numerous Christmas dinners to make a quantitative assessment of podge growth. This clearly required a narrow SRT cave, for which return to the surface needed to be problematic or impossible if the scales tipped too far towards pie central. This and a lack of ropes lead to replacing the original Oxlow-Maskhill plan for an old favourite of mine: Nettle Pot. I’d failed to reach the bottom on an earlier trip thanks to short ropes, so this was to be the long-awaited rematch. If I remember correctly, both Natalie and Josh had done SRT underground before, whereas Lydia had only done horizontal caving with a few SRT sessions at the climbing wall.

With most people having gotten their kit together on previous days, all that was left on Saturday morning was for me to grab three keen cavers, get them to shove ropes into tackle sacks, and count carabiners. On the drive to Castleton it quickly transpired that Natalie had had a rather exuberant evening and was consequently feeling the effects; Josh and me got to enjoy the view of both Chatsworth Park and later someone’s driveway in Calver whilst Lydia was providing moral support for a Natalie haunted by the spirits of a party past. Soon after, we passed Giant’s Hole, paid the farmer and parked in the standard Oxlow-Maskhill-Nettle layby. Lack of change meant we only paid for three rather than four people, something the farmer quickly caught on to and had a chat to me about whilst the others were in various states of undress around me. Once that was solved we plodded on up the hill towards Nettle Pot.

Unlike the intrepid discoverers of 1930, we neither had to battle the eponymous nettles, nor employ explosives for progress. The very moderate challenge we did have to face, however, was the confines of The Narrows. Whilst descending the 50m or so to The Flats one might reflect on the character building work of removing bucket upon bucket of debris from this fissure, prying away at boulders with a crowbar in an environment only marginally more spacious than a wardrobe. A wardrobe that might lose its floor any minute. Rumour has it that one of the numerous detonators used in gaining access to lower spheres was lost in the rift, never to be found again. Whether it lies dormant in one of the many nooks and crannies silently eroding away or not we may never find out. We owe much to these original explorers, and on reaching the washed out lava bed of The Flats a quiet nod of respect might be in order. If nothing else, a journey of four years of toil has just been compressed into a few minutes of relatively comfortable descent.

The actual descent down is broken by various rebelays, so upon my frequent shout of “ROPE FREE!” I could hear the others making downwards progress, heralded by the odd profanity. At the bottom I busied myself rigging the traverse over to Elizabeth Shaft and the drop down to Grand Canyon; I didn’t have a great time in Beza and Crumble last time so I thought this might be a nicer option. And it certainly was! Once we were all at the bottom and me in the possession of the remaining rope, I located the hole leading to Elizabeth and accidentally dropped a little pebble down it. The resulting silence was promising. My previous experience with Crumble and Beza could be summarised as “descended a tight chimney under a meltwater shower, the rigging guide was wrong, ascended 60m up the same damp rift”. And oh boy is Elizabeth a different story! An initial small hole in a boulder field forming the floor of Grand Canyon lead to a magnificent 50m drop down the unexpected vastness of Elizabeth Shaft. The backdrop of deep silence was filled with the trickle of water, sluggishly filtering its way down from the surface. Angry, maybe, to have been brutally dropped into free fall, the water made a lovely sizzling sound on my descender. I was slightly torn between thoughts of a succulent steak and my Petzl Stop turning into a rope-cutting welding torch a solid 30m above a regrettably unyielding floor. So slow and steady was the name of the game, a message I tried to convey to the others as they were making their descent. Josh, being of a similarly solid build to myself, quickly encountered the same problem, only being a novice his descent wasn’t quite as smooth. Lydia and Natalie made it down without further ado, although I made a mental note to train the newbies in taking off their descenders quickly.

With everyone at the bottom, a quick poke around revealed that the remaining 12m had spits on them instead of P bolts. With no spits at hand, we had a look around the stream coming from Firbeck Hall and then started heading back up. The fortunate ones to wait the longest would be the first and last person up. The last one had to be me, so I sent Josh out first, whose short footloop did nothing to make upwards progress easy. He was followed by Natalie, still suffering from last night’s ordeal. For moral support, and possibly out of boredom, Lydia and I started serenading her. We started on the classic “I’m a survivor”, almost managing a full set of lyrics between us, followed by a bit of Simon and Garfunkel, ABBA, Queen and quite possibly others. We were saved from prosecution under the Geneva Convention only due our beautiful songs being confined to Elizabeth, in excess of 100m underground. I tried to provide a similar service to Lydia on her way up, alas my memory of lyrics is shaky at best, so I had another poke around the stream and climbed down the last pitch instead.

Eventually it was time for me to head up. At the top of Elizabeth I found a rather cold Natalie, and with time ticking away we abandoned plans of Stalactite Passage and started to make our way to the surface. I always thought the Narrows were not as bad on the way up as one might expect from the way down, this notwithstanding the crew didn’t find it too easy and Natalie got a little bit stuck. In the end everyone escaped the clutches of gravity, and I was derigging right behind Lydia. The surface greeted us like a dark fridge someone had, for some sadistic reason, converted into a shower. Although there couldn’t have been more than 15min between Natalie (first) and myself (last) passing the entrance lid, she was solidly on her way to hypothermia, and the others thought it was a bit nippy, too. With Natalie showing first signs of the “umbles” I gave her my hat and we started our way back to the car. On the way I had a quick peek down Oxlow to make sure the other group with Jacob was ok, which seemed to be the case. Once I was sure they all knew where we were I ran to the car, started the engine and wacked the heating on full. Once out of her oversuit, Natalie was wrapped in a blanket and put in the front seat whilst we were changing in the rain. I think it is safe to say we were all really keen to get back to the TSG for a very well deserved dinner and drinks! The former was provided by myself, and it wasn’t long before caving games were in full swing.

Well done to everyone! Natalie with a solid hangover, Lydia on her first SRT trip underground, and Josh sporting a ridiculously short footlop gave everyone a bit of a handicap in what is not, I would say, a novice cave per se.

By Alexander Ried, 10/12/16