A Traverse of the Brenta Dolomites

A Traverse of the Brenta Dolomites
I seem to have the same love-hate relationship with via ferratas as I do with caving. As I’m clinging to a frayed metal cable half way up a cliff, legs shaking on a rusty stemple, it’s not unusual for me to swear that this will be my last via ferrata and that when I get to the top, I will pack it all in and take up a hobby that involves sitting down. Yet later, when I’ve stopped hyperventilating, the vomitous terror of a kilometre of space beneath my feet seems to slip from my mind. I think to myself, “it can’t really have been all that bad, can it?”
That’s why Stuart was able to persuade me, along with Kathryn and Adrian, to join him on a 4-day hut-to-hut via ferrata trip in the Brenta Dolomites.

A first view of the Brenta Dolomites and Cima Tosa.
We had a couple of days in the vicinity of Madonna di Campiglio prior to starting our route proper. However, drizzle and clag prevented us from getting any view of the mountains. With the forecast not much better for the coming days, we began our ascent from Vallesinella (at 1500m) expecting the morning sun not to last.
The route began with a stiff 900m ascent, past the Rifugios Casinei and al Brentei. Impossible limestone pillars towered up to 3000m altitude from the scree slopes above us, Cima Tosa, the highest point in the Brenta Dolomites, among them. Now above the cloud line, the via ferrata itself traversed out across the cliffs of the Ponte di Campiglio on a series of reasonably comfortable ledges, apart from one un-cabled section in a crawling sized notch. Occasionally the clouds would swirl away, affording us brief glimpses of vertical drops and wooded valleys, far below. Eventually an awkward climb down some iron staples and an upwards ladder led to another set of ledges, where we met another British pair, and an Italian with his young son, all of whom (except for the son) were quite happily sauntering along with no gear.
“We didn’t realise it would be like this,” said one of the Brits, before continuing up the staples, completely unperturbed.
Looking down onto ledges.
The ledges ended at a house-sized boulder field (the boulders, not the field), and as we lost some altitude, we emerged from the clouds to a view of Rifugio Tuckett, our stop for the first night.
The altitude (and perhaps several beers) were enough to ensure a disturbed night’s sleep, but nevertheless at 7:30am the following day we were trudging up towards the vedretta (small glacier) below the pass of Bocca del Tuckett. At the pass, we began the Via delle Bochette, the backbone of the Dolomitic via ferrata route. More altitude was gained via a series of crags, sometimes with a wire or a ladder, never with both, and often with neither. Thankfully the cloud went a long way towards hiding the true scale of the exposure, as we began another long traverse of a system of ledges. We were soon overtaken by a friendly Italian, happily spurning any protection, and commenting that we must be loving the British weather. We pointed out that it wasn’t raining, a comment we would later rue.

Climbing the Vedretta.

Three hours later, a series of ladders led us down to a lunch spot near a tiny 10m wide pass, separating two of the great limestone pillars. A bit of scrambling over rubble, and another snow slope in the Bocca dei Armi led us to the start of the next long section of the Via delle Bochette. This was similar in character to the morning: height gain via a series of ladders; a long traverse on ledges; then dropping down via a series of scrambles, ladders and wires.

Unfortunately, the minute we stepped onto the first set of ladders, the mist turned to rain. I rapidly discovered that via ferratas in the rain are quite slippery, with my boots providing next to no traction on the metalwork or the limestone slabs. On more than one occasion my feet vanished from under me and I slithered down the slabs until my cowstails caught me.

Via ferrata in the rain.

The ledges proved especially damp. Water run-off from the non-vegetated dolomitic pillars above us was near instant. And the only place for the sheets of water to go was straight onto the ledges, and directly in our path. Thank god we’d thought to pack our stuff into drybags!

Finally, 10 hours after setting off from Rifugio Tuckett (and 10 minutes before the rain stopped) we caught our first glimpse of Rifugio Tosa, only a few minutes away. It is little exaggeration to say that we arrived no drier than if we had swum there. On seeing Stuart, the hut warden said, “you might like to know that we have a drying room downstairs.” Never has a throwaway phrase been so welcome (although “here is your hot chocolate”, “here is your beer” and “here is your beer again” were also pretty good).

Day three greeted us with clear skies. The true majesty of the Dolomites was revealed: huge views of wooded valleys kilometres below, and limestone pillars soaring above into eddying clouds. But as we walked along the Sentiero Brentari, above a rubble moonscape, something was preying heavily on my mind…

The view from partway up Cima Tosa.

I seem to have the same love-hate relationship with climbing as I do with via ferratas and caving. Stuart had expressed an interest in a 2 hour detour to the summit of Cima Tosa, involving a couple of short pitches. And it was almost inevitable that I was going to force myself to join him.

In truth the rock climbing was probably no harder than Diff in standard. But when there is that much space around, it messes badly with my head. So as Stuart began shinning up the climb, I hurriedly passed him our paltry Decathlon 8mm ‘walking rope’ so I could at least pretend to be protected.

Looking down the gully on Cima Tosa.

For several metres above the climb, things appeared to be just has difficult and exposed, but eventually we found ourselves scrambling more easily up a huge rocky bowl, following a line of cairns. An hour later we were stood at the 3173m snowy summit of Cima Tosa. A gully to one side afforded a view of Rifugio al Brentei, a kilometre below. To the north, the Marmolada range was visible.

Returning towards where Kathryn and Adrian were waiting, we slowly grew accustomed to the terrain and exposure, and made rapid progress down to the top of the pitches. We encountered an Italian guide with clients at this point. Once Stuart belayed me down, the guide apparently commented on our rope, and the two of them converged towards conversing in German, being the only common language. Nonetheless, it was never clear whether the guide was impressed by our lightweight approach to the climb, or thought we were utter numpties!

The next stretch of via ferrata led along another series of mid-cliff ledges to a suite of ladders down onto the icy Vedretta d’Ambies. After slithering past a couple of small crevasses, a fair chunk of height was lost, only to be gained again with a sweaty walk above the Rifugio Agostini.

Ladder climbing in the cloud.

With clouds billowing in once more, we began our final via ferrata of the day: 13 ladders leading almost straight up 200m to a tiny brèche. From here we were afforded a fine view through thin clouds to the Rifugio Dodici Apostoli, our stop for the night, far below. Rain began to set in as we raced across snow slopes and screes and down the bouldery valley, but we arrived somewhat drier than the previous day.

After another fitful night’s sleep, during which it became clear that the toilet smelt considerably nicer than our 4 unwashed-person dorm, we set off on our final day above a fine temperature inversion. 300m of climbing up moraine led to the Vedretta dei Camosci. The ice was as hard as rock and very steep so crampons were needed here. Now a mere 1200m of descent lay between us and the car at Vallesinella: down the great hanging valley holding the glacier, round the base of Cima Tosa to Rifugio al Brentei, and past Rifugio Casinei, where a celebratory rifugio lunch was taken.

Vedretta dei Camosci.

A minor hiccup was encountered back at the car, where a parking ticket was found on the windscreen. Tragically however, the date had washed off, and none of us could remember when we had arrived. But it was certainly within the last 24 hours anyway…

I can’t recommend via ferrata in the Brenta Dolomites highly enough. Distinctive, out-of-this-world landscapes, fun ferratas and fine rifugios. What a trip!

The Grind Traverse

The Grind Traverse

14th February

After several trips that probably weren’t worthy of being blogged about, I had a feeling this one might be different. Tom and Emma had dreamed up a particularly perverted itinerary for Tom’s romantic birthday caving trip: a combination of the Grind Circle, with a long Ease Gill Caverns through trip. The classic ‘Greater Ease Gill Traverse’ goes from Top Sink to Pippikin Pot. It’s possible to do a longer trip by exiting out of Bye George Pot instead, one particularly notable obstacle being a squeeze known as The Backbreaker. Today’s plan was Top Sink – Bye George, via the Grind. What better way to spend Valentine’s Day?
I don’t know what the collective noun for a group of cavers is, but let’s say that a gaggle of potholers (9 in total) approached Top Sink at 11am, stripped off oversuits in unison and added to to the water levels in the cave. The first part of the trip went well. Easy and familiar caving, and enough people acquainted with the route, meant that, despite the group size, the landmarks came thick and fast: Holbeck Junction, Stop Pot, the high level series. It would have been perfect were it not for the constant anxiety gnawing at the back of my mind of the difficulties yet to come. We were a sweaty, sticky mess as we abseiled down the 88ft pitch to the start of the day’s real objectives.

Throughout the Wormway, an angel on one shoulder was constantly whispering to me about how close to Link Pot we were. I could be at the surface in another 5 easy minutes, rather 5 hours if I ignored the turn off to the Grind! A demon on the other shoulder castigated me for such weak thoughts (well it might just have been one of the other cavers actually) and I found myself in the middle of the group as we sidled, then crawled and finally squirmed awkwardly flat out for half an hour or so through the Grind. As I lay sprawled in front of a puddle, my face resting in the gravel, whilst Holly in front of me negotiated Pickle Corner, I had the usual existential crisis which occurs on trips of this nature and resolved never to go caving again.
Little by little, we contorted ourselves through Pickle Passage’s delightful S-bends, emerging from the roof tube in Easy Street, near the bottom of the Serendipity pitches, which were quite damp today. As if a switch had been flicked, most of us started to feel really cold. My balaclava, which until now had been used to mop my brow, stayed firmly on my head for the rest of the trip.

Unable to keep warm, and now quite tired, the lure of nearby Link Pot was very strong again. Tom had other designs however, and before we had time to organise a mutiny, he had dashed off ahead to leave the Serendipity ropes at the bottom of the entrance pitch and led us into the Wet Wallows and away from temptation. Strangely, I hadn’t banked on the wet bits in the Wet Wallows being wet. But it was one ear, one eye and half a mouth in the water for a metre or more (and a very soggy balaclava as a result). Drenched, cold, miserable; I felt very sorry for myself. If I could just get through this little flat-out bit, I could then turn right and make a hasty exit out of Mistral Hole before anybody noticed…

But then I’d have to go back and do Bye George Pot another day. Bugger. So I decided to carry on.

In normal circumstances, the Lower Cigalère Streamway would be a brilliant bit of caving. Some fun cascade climbs, a clean washed streamway with potholes and ‘nice shapes’. Then a narrow, deep canal which, if you have the energy, can be bridged on some outward sloping ledges underwater to keep you quite dry. If you don’t have the energy then it’s several minutes of chest deep wading to reach the bottom of the impressive Grand Cascade Pitch. Guess how much energy I had.

I got quite worried when I found I barely had enough dexterity to put my SRT kit on and wondered if the sensible option would be to throw a tantrum and get somebody to escort me back out of Mistral. But clinging onto Emma’s promise that ‘Bye George definitely isn’t as bad as the Grind’, I decided I should see if the prussic would warm me up. We would be heading out in three groups of three and on the pitch I prepared my speech to Holly and Noel at the top of the pitch, “I’m scared, tired, miserable, and probably hypothermic; you’re going to have to help me out of the cave”. Instead all I managed was a pathetic whimper that, “I think I might need some moral support on the way out”. Holly assured me she felt similarly, which was somewhat gratifying.

To my great relief morale picked up now. In our group of three we kept a steady pace with enough squirming and sidling in the narrow passage to warm us up a bit. The early difficulties were not as horrific as I’d built them up to be – a couple of short, damp squeezes involving grovelling at floor level. And so we arrived at the Backbreaker.

The Backbreaker is a sharp 90 degree bend negotiated on your side at floor level. The problem is, if you face inwards, then (unless you are short; some people managed) your legs don’t bend the right way and can’t follow you round. The answer is to face outwards, hence the name. Others tell horror stories about needing to remove wellies and scrape heels from scallop to scallop…

Noel got through without difficulty, but Holly’s first attempt went wrong and the resulting noises certainly made me nervous. In the end, with my helmet and bag passed through ahead of me, and Noel’s guidance, I managed to pop through first time and felt a great clichéd weight lifting from my shoulders.

The surface was tantalisingly close now, just a little more thrutching, an easy squeeze and a short pitch and we were there! Clambering out of the Bye George entrance tube, the lights from Leck Fell House were only a few hundred metres away and it became apparent how much distance we’d covered.

We staggered back to Bull Pot Farm via Link Pot to pick up the gear left earlier, and warmed our swollen knees and stiff backs in front of the fire. A great trip in great company. God alone knows how Tom, Becka, Emma and co. managed to stay so chirpy and fresh for the whole trip, despite carrying some tackle out of Bye George – but thanks for all the pre-rigging and tackle carrying!

I expect I’ll go caving again at some point.

T/U 9 hrs

An Icelandic Adventure

An Icelandic Adventure
Having run out of frozen meals, Kathryn and I decided to go to Iceland. Our main objective was the Laugavegur trail, which runs from the hot springs of Landmannalaugar to the glacial valley of Þórsmörk, with an optional extra day or two over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar. The route would take us past the  Eyjafjallajökull glacier, the scene of the 2010 eruption which disrupted flights across Europe. When it comes to words I am physically unable to pronounce, Icelandic is rivalled only by Welsh. Try saying Eyjafjallajökull three times backwards as fast as you can…
The geothermal pool at Landmannalaugar

Around Landmannalaugar

Our Nordic Odyssey began with a one night stay in Reykjavik. I was probably more excited than I needed to be about the slight sulphurous smell in the showers (the hot water is pumped straight out of the ground) – it was a sign of smells to come.

The following morning we took the coach to Landmannalaugar. The combination of a 4wd bus, unpaved roads, river crossings and views of the volcano Hekla kept our spirits high, despite the drizzle that had been persistently falling since our arrival.

River crossing at Landmannalaugar

We planned to spend the afternoon exploring the environs of Landmannalaugar before starting our trek the following morning. The best way of exploring the area is to lie in the natural geothermal pool for a couple of hours, relax, and occasionally swivel your head from side to side to take in a slightly different view. The thermal pool is created by almost boiling water from a hot spring meeting colder water. By moving relative to the hot inlet, and raising or lowering your body (there is quite a big vertical temperature gradient) fine temperature control can be achieved, with anything from “this bath is getting a little cool and we’re out of hot water” to “ow, ow ow, I put my foot in the bath before I’d added any cold water” possible. The cold (perhaps 8°C) air temperature only served to enrich the experience!

To be fair, we also went for a stroll to a nearby water-filled volcanic crater. In fact it turned into a 10 mile march as we forgot that our map had a 1:100 000 scale.


Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Álftavatn

After a night disrupted by an astonishing display of snoring, our first, and longest, day took us 24km over a 1000m pass (where the Hrafntinnusker hut is found) and down to the hut at Álftavatn. An hour in, the drizzle started, and as we gained height it turned to sleet and then snow. Other than removing the view, it didn’t detract from the day too much though – we were far too excited by the lava fields, fumaroles, sulphurous pools and bubbling hot springs to care. The landscape was vastly different to anytihng we had seen; mulitcoloured mountains and tephra/pumice everywhere. The highlight was probably heating up a boil-in-the-bag corned beef hash in a bubbling pool. The lowlight was our rye bread, carefully selected because we reckoned it would last us 5 days without going stale or mouldy. It doesn’t go mouldy because it is so unpleasant that even fungi can’t stomach it.
By the time we had descended to the level of Álftavatn, we were below the clouds once more, and arrived at the hut reasonably dry, after negotiating a river crossing via a dubiously balanced plank.

The view from the hut at Álftavatn

Day 2: Álftavatn to Emstrur

A much shorter day today, with spice added by two river crossings. The black ash of the lower hills was covered in vivid green moss, a huge contrast in atmosphere from yesterday. The rivers were about knee deep and negotiated hand in hand, wearing sandals, with rucksack straps undone. The water fell very firmly into the “so cold it hurts” category. After the river crossings, we traversed a vast desert-like plain of black ash, later christened ‘Mordor’ by fellow travellers in the hut at Emstrur.
As we arrived on the slopes above the hut, we caught our first glimpse of the vast Mýrdalsjökull ice cap (under which lies the volcano Katla), which would be a constant presence on our left for the next three days. We had arrived at the hut quite early, so had time for an afternoon walk to look down into the vertiginous Markarfljótsgljúfur canyon (doesn’t that name just roll off your tongue).


Day 3: Emstrur to Þórsmörk

A day of nearly constant drizzle and and icy wind, with a particularly “fun” river crossing, which required de-trousering. By late afternoon, it had cleared up and the wide Þórsmörk valley was pleasantly lit up by the evening sun. Many of the people who had been in the same huts as us got the bus back the Reykjavik, their treks being over, but we still had two more days left.


Day 4: Þórsmörk to Fimmvörðuháls

This was the day when we most wanted good weather, and the Icelandic weather gods obliged. Beneath a sunny sky we traversed several kilometers across the Þórsmörk valley and began ascending the lushly vegetated slopes below the Fimmvörðuháls pass. As we gained height, the views became increasingly staggering. Behind us, and beyond the birch forests in Þórsmörk, we could see the black sand desert, vivid mossy green hills and the multicoloured volcanic mountains above Landmannalaugar, 50km to the north. The Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull ice caps extended to either side ahead of us. We approached the pass via a high level ice-rink-flat plain, where the top of a mountain appeared to have been cleanly chopped off, presumably by a glacier or an angry Nordic god with a scythe. On the far side of a ravine, another similar plain, extending to the Mýrdalsjökull, bore a river of melt-water down to a huge waterfall. And next to the waterfall lay what appeared to be a frozen “lava fall”, with lava from the 2010 eruption still steaming.

We continued to climb, and soon entered the clouds once more. Our route now took us straight across the 2010 lava fields. At one point we noticed that the cold wind had suddenly warmed up, and the fog was actually steam. Plunging our hands into the volcanic ash for more than a couple of seconds was unbearably hot. This is from an eruption 3 years ago!

The view north east, climbing the Fimmvörðuháls pass

The Fimmvörðuháls hut was perched at the very top of the pass. The blustery wind toyed with us as it revealed tantalising views one moment, only to obscure them with cloud the next. This was possibly the best day’s walking we had ever done.


Day 5: Fimmvörðuháls to Skógar

What a contrast to yesterday. The 50km visibility was more like 50m for the entire day. We expected to drop out of the clag as we descended to Skógar, but it was with us all the way and we got a thorough drenching! Nevertheless, there were some spectacular sights to see, as the route followed the Skógá river down a sequence of increasingly impressive waterfalls, culminating in the 70m Skógafoss. We had a few hours to spare in Skógar itself before our bus back to Reykjavik. We used the time constructively by sitting in a café, eating burgers and cake and feeling thoroughly chuffed with ourselves.


Random thoughts if you’re planning on doing the trek

  • We spent 3 days walking from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk and 2 from Þórsmörk to Skógar. It would be entirely reasonable, if you are fit, to get to Þórsmörk in 2 days and then Skógar in a further day (although bus times would mean an early start in Þórsmörk or a night spent in Skógar).
  • Did I mention that the weather can be somewhat less than clement? The quality of the walk is so high that it doesn’t really detract from the experience (other than spoiling the view a bit) but be prepared – we even had lunch in our bothy bag at one point!
  • We booked huts in April, by which time some were already full. The camping spots looked really good though, with the exception of Hrafntinnusker, where it was very rocky.
  • Finally, definitely definitely do the trip, it’s amazing. Even if the weather is as shocking as it was for us!
We had a couple of days based in Reykjavik after our trek. The first day was spent doing a ‘Golden Circle’  coach trip, to see the mighty waterfall Gullfoss and the Strokkur geyser at Geysir. Our final day was spent in Hveragerði, where the river Varmá is warmed by some very impressive hot springs. After initially scolding the soles of our feet, we found a lovely spot to lie in the shallow stream for an hour or so.
A muddy hot spring near Hveragerði

In summary, go to Iceland.

    Caving in a Washing Machine

    Caving in a Washing Machine

    15/06/13 An aborted trip down Roaring Hole

    Wookey, Kathryn and I, joined by Jeremy and Chris, were following a team of Durham cavers into Roaring Hole, a cave notable for its damp boulder chokes. The plan was for us to loiter in Inglesport for an hour or so then head down the cave in Chapel-le-Dale and derig their ropes. We executed the first part of the plan exceptionally well.
    As we walked towards the cave we met a gaggle of familiar but cleaner than usual-looking, yellow-suited cavers coming the other way. Durham had aborted below the second choke because it was too wet. After a couple of days of unsettled weather it seemed we had made a poor choice of cave.

    Nevertheless, we grabbed their rope and went to look for ourselves. Jeremy and Chris turned round soon after the entrance climb, but the three of use pressed on through the dryish first choke to the first pitch, down which a waterfall was thundering. It turned out that the way on was down a hole in the floor virtually under the waterfall.

    Now, I’ve been through plenty of boulder chokes in my time, and, when they are stable, I have even learnt to enjoy slithering through the small holes and trying to work out the way on in the 3D maze. However, having a torrent of water crashing onto your head, in your face and through your suit at the same time was a very new and somewhat unnerving experience. Luckily the route was fairly obvious, being where the water was flowing. But it was all but impossible to see where we were going. The tacklesack got abandoned part way through the choke, and the three of us emerged at the bottom very wet and somewhat more understanding of why the rigging team had turned round here.

    With the possibility of rain later, we didn’t want to loiter below the choke too long, so elected to leave the tacklesack and see how far we could quickly get before turning round. After a crawling sized streamway, we arrived at another boulder choke. Well, I think so, but it was hard to tell what it was as another swollen waterfall was tumbling straight into it. I followed Wookey in, and it was immediately apparent that this choke was even worse.

    Several squirming metres down, I  looked up, receiving a face full of water, and came to the conclusion that going back up wasn’t going to be all that trivial. At that point one of two things happened; I’m genuinely unsure which:

    (a) I had a wibble and wussed out of going any further.
    (b) I made a rational decision that continuing might be foolhardy and turned round.

    Either way, a couple of minutes later Kathryn and I found ourselves above the choke waiting for Wookey. Then we waited some more. And some more. The water had been so loud that Wookey probably hadn’t heard me shouting so we assumed he would either wait for a bit and come back or decide to quickly have a look further on in the cave whilst he was there. I went back to my previous point in the choke but there was still no sign of him.

    We were now seriously entertaining the possibility in our heads that Wookey might be lost somewhere in the choke or unable to return due to the water. To our great relief, as we were discussing what to do about this predicament, a lamp shone through the waterfall and a dishevelled Wookey appeared. As we had hoped, he had just gone for a look around below the choke (apparently we had turned round a metre or so before it ended).

    Chilled to the bone, we made our way back up to the first of the wet chokes, and got another thorough drenching as we clambered up through it, rescuing the tacklesack on the way. We emerged to hordes of Three Peaks walkers making their way up Ingleborough. I spent most of the following evening trying to get warm again.

    Time Underground: only 2hrs, but try standing under a cold power shower for a while and tell me it doesn’t feel like a lot longer!

    War of the Worlds, Ogof Draenen

    War of the Worlds, Ogof Draenen


    Nial and Emma in War of the Worlds
    With the prospect of a long trip to Draenen at the weekend, I had spent some time on Friday printing out various bits of description and surveys to several potential locations in the cave. I had then cleverly forgotten to pack them before driving down to South Wales.
    Emma, Nial and I settled on a trip to War of the Worlds, a huge passage in the south of the cave, with some formations nearby. Armed with one paragraph of useful text, a photo of the survey and a vague recollection that I’d read that “it’s somewhere a bit beyond Snowball Passage”, we reluctantly left behind a rare sunny day above Abergavenny and squirmed our way through the somewhat miserable entrance series. A little while later we stripped off the tops of our oversuits at the first water stop (in Lamb and Fox Chamber) and made our sweaty way through the maze of dry tunnels to Snowball Passage.

    Remind you of anything…?

    I had assumed that it would only be a few minutes of caving from here to War of the Worlds, but it turned into a bit of a slog. We managed to find the route round a boulder choke choke into The Black Run, and soon after found the squirm down into Lost in Space. A combination of stooping and crawling, Lost in Space wasn’t as big as the name suggests, but eventually we emerged into a huge chamber with impressive flowstone walls, the Reactor.

    After a few minutes of boulder hopping around The Reactor we located the passage on towards War of the Worlds (it was in roughly the spot where I’d first looked, at which point I’d confidently declared, ‘It’s definitely not this way.’). Soon afterwards, we reached the T junction with the north and south branches of War of the Worlds. We wandered down both branches, the southern passage being particularly huge. I say ‘wandered’, but really I mean ‘teetered from wobbly boulder to wobbly boulder’. I’d read that somewhere round here were formations, but I couldn’t remember where, and began to feel guilty about forgetting the description as we looked in several side passages to no avail. Finally, just as we were resigned to failure, we found our target, Sendero Luminoso, and spent some time admiring and photographing the urchins and helictites, including the most rudely shaped stalagmite I have ever seen. 

    With only a few wrong turns, we managed to undo our inward route pretty efficiently. My legs, which had been gently poaching in my plastic oversuit for much of the day, felt like they were done; and my knee, injured after falling off my bike the previous week, was complaining about the crawls. I think Nial mistook my whimpers for a little girl. Emma, meanwhile, was singing about how much she loved caving.
    After 8 hours underground, a celebratory pint was quaffed at the Lamb and Fox in the evening sun. The following day, stiff shoulders and aching legs were refreshed by a swim in the river at Crickhowell, and then made to ache again by the walk back up the hill to Whitewalls. I made my way home to find the surveys and descriptions sitting on the printer.


    Urchins closeup
    Urchins with Nial for Scale



    A Rare Weekend on Mendip

    A Rare Weekend on Mendip
    Crystals in Neverland, Upper Flood Swallet
    It had been been four years since I last went caving in the Mendips, and now I’m wondering why I left it so long! That trip in 2009 included a visit to recent discoveries in Upper Flood Swallet. However, the prettiest section, Neverland, was closed off as it was deemed too fragile to cope with any caver traffic. Since then, a bypass has been dug, which enables access to Neverland with less risk to the formations. When Alex and Jess sorted out a trip there, with Mike the Animal leading, in return for us doing a bit of digging, I jumped at the chance to join them.

    Upper Flood Swallet

    A poor photo of the Pork Pies

    A warm and sunny morning left us wondering why we were going underground in such rare nice weather. We soon remembered why, as we stooped and crawled past straws, curtains and calcite bosses – and this was still just the entrance series. The Lavatory Pan was a one-wet-ear duck last time we were here, but has now been dug out to more pleasant proportions.

    Soon we arrived at the boulder choke, in which I became temporarily misplaced on my last visit. Somehow, I seemed to end up at the front of the group both on the way in and on the way out. Luckily the slightly more polished boulders and the odd cry of “when you get to the acrow prop turn right” from Mike at the back saw me through safely.
    Eventually, we arrived at the newly dug connection into Neverland, where we had to remove our oversuits and wellies, and wash our socks. It was soon clear why: rounding a corner, the passage floor was covered entirely in a pristine white calcite flow, over which we had to gingerly pad to reach more insane formations beyond. At the end of the passage, we crawled one at a time into a little alcove to see the Pork Pies, a set of impossibly formed white calcite cylinders.
    Having admired Neverland’s unique formations, we headed back into muddier places and spent an hour or so digging before heading out to the surface bang on our call out time.
    TU: 7 hours
    We called this “The Boob”
    Jess behind a curtain

    Swildons Hole – Short Round Trip

    On Sunday Alex and I did the Short Round Trip in Swildons – an absolute classic that I’ve been meaning to do for years. I was somewhat apprehensive about the numerous ducks, about which I’d heard various horror stories in the past. Nevertheless, Alex was adamant that we’d be better off without wetsuits and that there would be probably no need to bail the ducks. This made me nervous!
    We hot-footed it down the streamway and the ladder, and Alex located the climb up to Tratman’s Temple – new territory for me. Various pleasant, dry passages followed, with a greasy chimney climb being the main obstacle of note. Eventually, we arrived at the top of Blue Pencil Passage – a long downward squirm which leads into the streamway between sumps 3 and 4; a very wothwhile side trip. The passage emerges two or three of metres up the wall of the streamway, with a fixed chain aiding the climb. However, I made the mistake of emerging head first, which, for future reference, makes the climb utterly desperate (climbing upside down is rubbish). Nevertheless, the streamway is absoutely execellent and warrants a visit.
    Back en route, we managed to arrive at the ducks nice and warmed up. Truth be told, they were really not that bad at all. Alex was right about the wetsuits – we were never submerged for long and I had a rash vest on anyway. There was enough airspace to keep helmets on. But the biggest revelation for me was the neoprene hood which completely removed the nasty headache inducing cold and made me feel invincible!
    A fun slide down into the Swildons Two Streamway soon followed, and, after a quick visit to Sump Two, we popped through Sump One and splashed speedily out after a fantastic trip.
    TU: 3.5 hours

    The Tales of an Incompetent Cross Country Skier in Norway

    The Tales of an Incompetent Cross Country Skier in Norway
    Our home for the week
    Until last week Kathryn and I had never been skiing. So when the opportunity to go to Anthony and Julia’s hut in Norway arose, we embraced it with the kind of wanton enthusiasm typical of people who have absolutely no idea what they are letting themselves in for. Afterall, if couldn’t be that different from sledging, right?

    So it was that we found ourselves in a quaint wooden hut in the Hallingdal region, one week in late March. It was -25oC outside, and the snow was a metre deep. But huddled round the stove, by candlelight, we were very cosy indeed.

    By the next morning, the sun had warmed the mountains up to a relatively balmy -8oC and our skiing apprenticeship was about to begin.

    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 1: Waxing is a vital pre-ski ritual.

    Not your legs. It gets rubbed on the skis to control traction with the snow. Arguing about wax choices appears to be the Norwegian equivalent of pontificating about this afternoon’s football matches.  Depending on the air temperature you might want the green wax, the red, the violet, or various combinations of each, but not too much. You need to consider the snow and the expected weather conditions…unless the wind is from the east and it’s a full moon on the third Wednesday of the month … or something like that… Got that…?

    Waxing complete, we set off beneath azure skies through gorgeous snow-clad rolling mountain scenery. It was not long (a matter of seconds in fact) before I learnt my second lesson.

    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 2: Falling over is an effective way of stopping.

    Emma demonstrates how to go downhill correctly
    It is also a good way of steering, getting in and out of your skis and, occasionally, staying still.
    As the day progressed I became slightly less wobbly.  Skiing downhill with any semblance of control remained problematic, however.
    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 3: Tandem skiing does not work.

    I was effortlessly sliding down a gentle incline, the occasional awkward and unbalanced lurch betraying my inexperience. I was suddenly torn out of my reverie by a cry from behind me, “Faster Edvin, faster!” Kathryn was hurtling down the hill out of control, ski poles flailing. I tried to pole away but my high-speed wife charged into me, and somehow remained clinging there, on top of my skis. A bend in the track hove into view. We remembered Lesson 2. Shortly afterwards we were digging ourselves out of a copious snowdrift next to the track, giggling at our haplessness as some bemused lycra-clad pros glided elegantly past.
    Swings buried in the deep snow

    The week progressed in a haze of fine skiing and merriment (due in no small part to Anthony’s rather fine homebrew). My snowploughs started to improve. But they didn’t always work…
    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 4: Collisions are also a good way of stopping.

    Julia had stopped at the bottom of a hill. I attempted to snowplough gracefully down to join her, before realising that I wasn’t actually going to stop at all. “Nooooo”, I screamed as I inched inexorably towards her. Time stood still (I really was going that slowly). My skis nudged into her legs which disappeared from beneath her. I found myself obeying Lesson 2 once more and a second later Julia landed on top of me, to the amusement of some passing Norwegians. I keep repeating this over and over in my mind in slow motion, before realising that’s the actual speed at which it all happened!

    A couple of miscellaneous lessons from the week are now worth mentioning.
    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 5: The car journey may be as exciting as the skiing itself.
    I should have twigged this earlier in the week when the hire car I was driving first skidded around the snowy hairpins into the mountains. My passengers’ pale faces and white knuckles bore witness to their silent terror! Luckily winter tyres and traction control are remarkably effective.
    Cross Country Skiing Lesson 6: For the full skiing experience, a snow bath is essential.
    The warped surface of a frozen lake
    My holidays often seem to involve long periods of time without washing. I decided to remedy this one afternoon by stripping off my fetid thermals and plunging headlong into a snowdrift (this time deliberately). I’m not sure I got very clean, but the coarse snow crystals certainly had a painful exfoliating effect on my skin!
    Our final day of skiing was perhaps the most interesting of all. Our route took us across a frozen lake. Rather than remaining flat, the ice had buckled and warped under pressure, creating a weird volcano effect, with craters and deep cracks everywhere. Observing the local skiers as they deftly wove their way round these obstacles, I came to the conclusion that my technical skiing ability was roughly on a par with that of a Norwegian 4 year-old. I’ll just have to go back again and get better!

    The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

    The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

    After a Christmas full of excess, I’d built up a considerable paunch that needed removing. Well, that’s a bit of an exagerration, but nevertheless it seemed like a good time of the year for a long trip to Daren Cilau with Emma and Tom. We were heading to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe – a campsite towards the further reaches of the cave (although this was only a day trip). Our plan was to take photos of the ‘Blue Greenies’, a set of formations which, I’d been led to believe, were not white.

    Actually, this photo is the Restaurant at the End of the
    Universe, not the Hard Rock Cafe.
    We left behind a cold, damp morning at around 11am and crawled into Daren’s cold, damp entrance series. Forty-odd minutes of squalour later, we were through. Familiar landmarks came thick and fast now, as we made good progress through the cave; Jigsaw Passage, the Big Chamber, the ladder and then boulder hopping in the Time Machine and Bonsai Streamway. After three hours or so underground we had now made it to the Hard Rock Cafe – the first campsite in the cave. I tucked into my carefully protected quiche and scotch eggs, and Emma and Tom started on the mounds of flapjack they’d brought with them.

    Rock Steady Cruise was next: a series of pleasant sandy passages, separated by short crawls which filled my wellies with sand (I need bigger calf muscles, or slimmer wellies…). This was now pretty much the furthest I’d been in the cave before. Our next obstacle was Acupuncture Passage, a series of flat out crawls over a sand floor full of stones and sharp bits, hence the name. For the most part this was just plain tedious – the crawls were far too long. However, at the end it was also a little scary as a small bit of wall/ceiling had crumbled away partially blocking the passage (it looked stable now though). When it’s a flat out crawl beforehand, a collapse is really not useful!


    Somewhere near the Restaurant at the End of the Universe
    We were relieved to emerge from Acupuncture Passage into an area big enough to stand in. A distant rumbling could now be heard emanating from a hole on the left. This hole was the climb down into a streamway – Ankle Grinder Bypass (I’m still perplexed as to what exactly it was bypassing – a sump somewhere I think). Ankle Grinder is a really nice looking passage. The problem is that the floor is full of watery potholes and ledges, waiting to catch the unwary, and in places the ceiling is a bit lower than you would like. It goes on in this manner for a long time. At the end of the passage was a short section of wading. In wetter weather this can become a proper duck or a sump, but today it was only thigh deep.

    Emma admires some more formations
    We clambered out of the stream into a slightly higher level. After climbing a short fixed ladder, we emerged into a sandy chamber full of camping mats and stoves: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe – hurray! The joyous moment was only tempered slightly by the discovery that my lunchbox was breached and my remaining quiche was now wet and gritty. Life can be tough sometimes.
    It had taken us 4.5 hours to reach the Restaurant. We now spent the best part of two hours exploring some of the chambers nearby and photographing the formations. The Blue Greenies were suitably blue and green (stained by copper apparently) – we were impressed.
    We retraced our steps towards the entrance. I felt fairly fresh at first, yet slowly but surely my body started to break as we neared home. Ankle Grinder finished off my neck muscles and Acupuncture Passage did a fine job on my knees, wrists and arms. We stopped briefly at the Hard Rock Cafe for more food (and so that I could wash the sand from Rock Steady Cruise out of my wellies and wet socks). By the time we reached the entrance crawl, it was a real struggle to hold myself up in a crawling position. I was glad of the canal sections, as I could flop into the water and let it take some of my weight. As I progressed, the water became icy cold, but that was a good sign – the entrance was close. We finally emerged to a clear, frosty night, with a little snow on the ground, 11 hours after we had left the surface. Fantastic trip!

    Car Pot

    Car Pot

    6th October 2012I’d been wanting to visit Car Pot for ages. Below the various awkward pitches and squeezes it’s apparently really pretty. So Kathryn and I jumped at the opportunity to join Emma and Tom on a trip there.A pre-trip Inglesport visit left m…

    Le Caving

    Le Caving
    Kathryn and I spent the first week of August in the Ecrins in the French Alps (via ferrata-ing and attempting some big mountains) before joining the Red Rose trip to the Vercors for some caving and canyoning.

    Naturally I was hoping to post lost of photos of the amazing Vercors caves that we visited. Unfortunately on our second via ferrata my camera detached itself from my harness and went bouncing off into oblivion, never to be seen again. We returned the following day with a proper rope, intending to abseil off and hopefully find it clinging to an unlikely ledge. But one look at where it had fallen convinced us to give it up as a lost cause. RIP Canon Ixus 80IS, we had some good times together.

    Here are some dodgy photos of some alpine scenery taken from my phone instead:


    The Col du Sélé


    The Glacier de la Girose

    On to some caves now.

    Grotte de Bournillon
    5th August. 3 hrs T/U with Dalek, Tony, Djuke, Adam and Stuart.

    Dominated by its somewhat ridiculous 100m tall entrance, the Grotte de Bournillon basically consists of a huge passage storming off into the hillside, which soon reduces to a mere ten or so metres high and wide. Mark took some nice photos of it a couple of years back. I couldn’t take any photos of it myself…I no longer have a camera… It was very dry in the cave today, so Stuart, Adam and I refreshed ourselves with a swim in a pool in the entrance. We discovered that the small branch floating on the surface was actually a dead squirrel.

    Trou Qui Souffle
    7th August. 4 hrs T/U with Kathryn.

    Kathryn was keen to get back underground after a couple of days being unwell, so with others doing a via ferrata, the two of us settled on a trip to the Saints de Glace entrance to the Trou Qui Souffle system. The Trou Qui Souffle entrance itself is a hole next to the road (literally – you could rig off you car) which pumps out cold air on a hot summer’s day. Our similarly breezy entrance was a few hundred metres away from this one and, after a couple of pitches, the trip was dominated by a tall rift in very light coloured limestone, interspersed with small chambers and more pitches. The rift gained depth very quickly. Eventually we reached the Toboggan – a 100m greasy slide down which eventually reaches another pitch. This dropped us right into the huge Salle Hydrokarst, now with a much darker kind of limestone (something to do with geology apparently…). At the bottom of the chamber a large passage (with 2m wide scallops in the roof suggesting a sobering amount of water once flowed this way) headed off, eventually reaching a sump at -267m, our limit for the day. We’d rigged all the pitches, but in fact I think the in situ ropes, which we had assumed must belong to another party in the cave, are probably there all the time.
    Résau Christian Gathier
    8th August. 6.5 hrs T/U with Kathryn, Mark, Tony and Djuke.
    A fine and varied cave, starting with a couple of fairly awkward tight pitches which were far easier to get down than they were to get back up! Again, everything except for the entrance pitch turned out to be rigged. Below the entrance pitches the passage contains insane amounts of fairly muddy calcite, some of it very pretty, some of it, frankly, just in the way! A couple of larger passages (the Métros) lead to more calcite passage and then a pitch down into a lovely streamway, the Rivière de Bournette; all blue water, white limestone and stalagmites. After a climb upwards through boulders, out of the streamway, we then reached the Salle des Ténèbres which made yesterday’s Salle Hydrokarst look like a small attic room. More clambering over boulders led to the Salle de la Cascade where the Montué stream passage appears with a possible throughtrip for another year. We turned around here, with a brief stop for Mark to take some photos of the Rivière de Bournette. I would have taken some photos myself but I couldn’t as I don’t have a camera…
    Grotte de Gournier
    9th August. 6.5 hrs T/U with Kathryn, Dalek, Stuart and Djuke and Steve and Adam near the entrance.
    The Grotte de Gournier is brilliant. Everybody should go here. Even if you’re not a caver. It’s really very fun. See Marks photos from a couple of years ago for a taster. Did I mention that I dropped my camera off a cliff?
    The cave starts with a 40m long entrance lake; deep and blue. Tourists look on as you dinghy (or swim if you have a wetsuit) across to the climb and traverse at the far end. This leads to a couple of kilometres of huge fossil passage, adorned with mammoth stalagmites, gour pools and more. We were now looking for the climbs down into the famous Gournier river. There was a certain amount of confusion/lack of communication in finding the right hole, which resulted in Stuart vanishing for half an hour, but eventually the five of us were gathered in the stream. We now worked our way upstream, traversing vivid blue deep pools and climbing cascades with fixed metal staples or traverse lines in place. I was the only one in a proper wetsuit, and had great fun splashing into all of the pools, not caring how wet I got, as the others attempted teetering traverses round the sides to avoid getting cold and wet! After several hundred metres, we reached the 12m cascade and belayed each other up the side of it, using the fixed metal staples that have been put there. An airy traverse and more stomping upstream brought us to the Salle Chevalier and our turn-around point for the day.
    We headed back downstream, jumping into pools or traversing round them according to the amount of neoprene we were wearing. After stomping through the stunning dry fossil passages, we met Steve and Adam who were messing around with the dinghy at the entrance lake. A brilliant trip – I intend to go back and make it further upstream one day!
    Our final day in the Vercors was spent doing two canyons: the Furon and the lower part of the Ecouges. It’s basically like wet caving without a roof on.

    A Rematch with Fault Aven

    A Rematch with Fault Aven
    21st and 22nd July at SWCC
    Saturday: Ogof Fynnon Ddu 1 to Cwm Dwr via Fault Aven
    A couple of years back I went to try and have a look at the Pom Pom, a formation in Fault Aven, high above the OFD streamway. We saw some pretty cool stuff that day, but had not quite gotten to the Pom Pom so I vowed to return one day for a second attempt, this time with a camera.


    Calcite flow on a false floor

    Matt, Jess, Nial, Kathryn and I set off from the OFD 1 entrance and were soon splashing up the streamway. Previous trips to OFD1 had always required a leader, so we’d never had to navigate ourselves; this time however, we were on our own. Nevertheless, through a combination of following the polish, using a description and a couple of minor wrong turns, we squirmed our way through the boulder choke, the Connection, and the Letterbox (I used up all my mail-based puns last time, but we got through in a jiffy). After a damp climb down from the top of the Diver’s Pitch we were into Cwm Dwr.

    We walked through Cwm Dwr’s large sandy passages, and back to the streamnway, where, soon enough, I recognised the scaffold bar which helps you up the first awkward climb towards Fault Aven. The pitch up followed, and I managed to pull the rope up on the in situ cord and through the hangers at the top without too much difficulty. Kathryn belayed me and I climbed up, winning lots of “man points” in the process, but using up pretty much a whole weekend’s worth of nerve at the same time. I rigged an extra hand line and belayed the others up.
    The Pom Pom

    Now in the Fault Aven Series proper, we first found the impressive calcite flow over a false floor that I’d seen last time. Soon afterwards we found the traverses towards Pom Pom Passage. Finding the lack of floor somewhat perturbing, I held back for a while (man points lost again), and Jess (immune to passages with no floor), Matt and Nial went first. I soon followed and it turns out that actually the traverses are not too horrendous at all and the floor isn’t that far away. The trickiest bit is a very wide “back and legs” sytle stretch to avoid muddying some of the stunning calcite floor.
    The Pom Pom itselft was amazing: a straw down into a lovely crystal pool, at the end of which (underwater) a cricket ball-sized crystal has grown. I’ve certainly never seen anything like that before. In fact I wouldn’t have been surprised to find some hens teeth scattered around the passage nearby. Traversing over the floor we found the crystal pool I’d seen last time (about 10 metres away – we were so close!) and headed round to the top of the awkward climbs which lead back down to where Kathryn was waiting, so she could come and have a look.
    After somehow mandhandling each other back down the climbs, we abseiled back down the pitch on Italian hitches and headed back out of Cwm Dwr via a couple of great side passages: Hoel Eira with it’s huge moonmilk flow and another very nice sandy passage with a small stream in the Piccadily area. Great trip!
    Crystal Pool

    More photos here.
    Time underground: 8 hrs

    Sunday: Pant Mawr Pot
    Pant Mawr has an impressive daylight entrance shaft, marred only by a foul smelling dead sheep which seems to have landed precisly where the abseil drops you (I guess that’s no coincidence…). After a quick look upstream (with some impressive phreatic shelving), Nial, Kathryn, Aiora, Olaf, Siobhan and I spent an hour or so working our way through the impressively large downstream passage as far as the sump, which is surprisingly small. We had a look at the climb up to one of the pretty higher level grottoes but it looked a bit desperate so warrants a return trip with some slings/rope/bravery.
    Back at the entrance pitch, Nial prussiked up and chucked our ladders down. It turns out two ladders strung together are the correct length for the pitch to within a few inches – the last rung just swings gracefully through the sheep’s innards on the floor…

    Olaf’s photos here.

    Time underground: 2.5 hrs