TRIP REPORT: “EXTREME CAVEOLOGY”
Saturday 21st August 04. Cavers: Andy Sparrow, Andy Hebden, Andy Pollard, Sharon Doran, Glynn Rowland, Melanie Lloyd, Neil Rigiani, Chris Binding.
“Can I bring my girlfriend along, she's done some caving already and might want to join the club?”. “Of course. No problem”. Andy Pollard and Sharon would make the group up to 8 - the phone call a couple of nights previously was relayed to us by Andy Sparrow.
Unfortunately Ken Passant had rung to say he couldn't come due to other commitments and Chris Castle was also unable to make the trip. But we still had a good turn out.
As had become usual - in fact, almost a mini-tradition - we met at the Lillypool Cafeteria for a leisurely breakfast and to plan our route; an uneventful drive in brilliant sunshine brought us to Chepstow where we met up with Andy P and Sharon who then followed us as we got lost in the Forest of Dean; after a quick “directions” stop we found the layby next to the field where the cave was located (the middle of nowhere, apparently - GPS would be useful for other groups planning to visit this gem of a cave).
Sorting out the kit and getting fitted up with the SRT tackle took a moment or two and we set off. It was only six days since the execrable Channel 4 TV programme “Extreme Archaeology” featured some ponced up lightweights noncing around in the same cave so we had a mission…
In the programme it had taken the four “Extreme Archaeologists who specialise in getting to places other scientists cannot reach” three and a half hours to get to Cross Stream Junction (involving a “squeeze of five inches”!). The gloves were off…
L to R: Andy P, Mel, Andy S, Andy H, Neil, Sharon & Glynn at the entrance to Slaughter Stream Cave.
The descent into the cave involves four fixed ladders followed by a short rift crawl to the top of another fixed ladder (35 foot) to the bottom of Mouse Aven from where a scaffolded dig/crawl leads to the short pitch which was rigged so that everyone could either be lowered or abseil. This is Balcony Chamber and a 40 foot pitch leads to a climb down followed by a pebbly crawl. Before attempting the crawl we all dump our harnesses since we don't need them again until we return. That's the hard work over and done with (well, mostly)….
The crawl was much longer than I remembered but very pleasant nonetheless.
Glynn in the crawl which led to Cross Stream Junction. Andy Hebden in the approach to the first roped pitch (nice clean oversuit… that won't last!).
Prior to the trip to this cave, Chris Castle had sent out an email reminding anyone who had watched the Channel 4 programme that it was misleading and over-egged the difficulties ahead; we were approaching the “five inch wide squeeze” and it wasn't anything like the hype - no surprise there - you just avoid the narrow bit and follow the large bit… simple when you know how.
Cross Stream Junction: Brainy Sharon avoids the five inch squeeze by climbing over the top (like any non-stupid person would, Channel 4 executives please note!).
Once we regrouped we checked our watches; it had taken the “Extreme Archaeologists” three and a half hours to reach Cross Stream Junction; our group of eight cavers had achieved the same feat in thirty five minutes. Unlike the EAs, we had more than thirty minutes left before we had to turn round and exit. We had plenty of time to explore this long and interesting cave. They'd had enough time to talk tripe to camera, find an old pebble and a discarded pantyliner before whingeing their way out again.
The plan was to maybe do the “round trip” and perhaps have a little look-see at some other bits but first of all we needed to head upstream “in a well decorated section of streamway” (according to my “Caves of the Forest of Dean” guide: didn't see what they were on about, though!). We turn right and follow a narrow crawl for a fair way until we pop out into Zurree Aven - an impressive 50 foot high chamber with a stream cascading down the back wall… up which we have to climb; the climbing is a piece of cake. In fact I'd go so far as to say, “What climb? - Oh!, you mean the slopes”.
Mel and the others approaching the top of the “climb” up the side of Zurree Aven.
Thankfully the water cascade was not a torrent to battle against! Two major accidents have occurred here in the past, apparently. One involved the loss of a brain and the other involved someone wetting their knickers. We were OK since we had plenty of brains and loads of spare knickers. But would we need them?…..
We then go through a short(ish) crawl to the right and find ourselves in the graveyard - so-called due to the bones strewn around. Having now climbed up and away from the streamway the going became extremely hot work and many of us began to glisten with moistness; others just started to sweat like pigs. I am of the pig-variety.
Skull: it was obvious we were in the “Graveyard” judging by all the bones around the place….
We followed a taped path to the left of the bones in the graveyard and the chamber opened up sufficiently for everyone to regroup and have a much needed breather and to take off our helmets and cool down a bit. This is a hot cave once you get into the dry sections. My pig sweat coursed like a tributary of the Ganges.
Neil Rigiani has a moment of joy while … Andy Sparrow consults the instructions…
some of the “fabulous” stalactites found in the area known as the Gnome Garden.
From here Mel led us past the Gnome Garden (another taped off area but this is because of the phantasmagorical stalagmites which look precisely like gnomes if you've taken enough mind-altering substances, so the story goes) while Andy interrogates her about limestone geology, formations and the magic word, “Dip”.
We shortly find ourselves in the Chunnel - a tunnel which is also a chamber. Hence “Chunnel”. A genius must surely have thought of this!
The Chunnel increases in size until it becomes some 35ft wide x 25ft high. A group decision was made - mostly by Andy Sparrow. Not mostly. Entirely.
It was this…. should we (a) go and do the shortest trip possible, i.e the round trip or (b) go and visit the old dog's grave a long, long way away in a different universe? The obvious answer was (a) but we ended up being convinced that (b) would be better. Andy kindly put the gun away after we had agreed with him.
So, (b) it was….2b or not 2b, that was a stupid question.
To get to the old dead dog we needed to continue to the bitter end of the Chunnel (a long way) and then begin a nice sequence of crawls called “The Three Deserts” separated by boulder breakdown. There is twelve hundred feet of crawling here. Thankfully Neil very kindly offered to drag my bag after a while (what a nice chap!). To get a breather I decided it would be wise to hold things up a bit by the simple expedient of taking a photograph. Here's Neil…..
Neil crawling along behind me about half way through the 1,0 foot long Three Deserts…. Neil drags his bag under his right arm and my bag under his left. In the background is a caver. In the foreground is sand. Up above is the roof. In between is the gap.
Bliss! We reach the end of the Three Deserts (knowing, all along, that we've got to crawl back this way sometime later on!) and find respite at the Vittals Stop - a large(er) chamber which is also a major junction with Flow Choke Passage and Dog's Grave Passage. We turn left from here and follow a rocky passageway for about five hundred feet until we meet a choke - some of the going involves hands and knees crawling and a couple of flat out crawls over smooth rocks; we pass the choke to the right and Dog's Grave Passage continues until we see signs saying “Beware of the Dog” and others next to taped off sections of smooth sand where it is possible to see the footprints of the doomed animal still imprinted.
Eventually we find the poor mutt - the skeleton is surrounded by a bizarre array of objects; a plastic water bowl, silver chain, rubber toy etc.. The grave itself is dry stone walled for protection with some clear polythene sheeting to keep the dust off the bones which are so old they have crystallised after collapsing; the best guess is that the animal found a way into the cave which has long since collapsed and it wandered around in the dark until it succombed to dehydration; the bones are believed to date back into the tens of thousands of years! They certainly look exceedingly old.
One extremely old, and dead, dog. The bones have quite distinctly crumbled into dust. In the lower left foreground you can see a gloved hand for scale.
The covering was gently put back into place and we turned back to regain the Vittals Stop area where a welcome break for lunch/drink was had (note: next time we visit this cave we need to bring at least a litre of water per person … the going is very hot and sweaty and we needed more to drink than was available) - P.S. Thanks to Neil for sharing out his water. Hero! We had now been underground for two hours. The Extreme Archaeologists had barely got halfway into the entrance series of this cave in the same time!
Suitably prepared, we begin the return journey crawling back along the Three Deserts and have another break. Photograph below shows some rather weary cavers having a nice lie down after their efforts….
Tired expert crawlers after completing the Three Deserts for the second time. 2,400ft of crawling gets you hot and bothered.
Left to right: Kneeling - Andy Pollard. Lying in background - Andy Hebden. Lying in foreground - Neil Rigiani. Laying back on right - Sharon Doran.
Once we regained the Chunnel it was a simple walk (with some awkward stooping in places) 0 feet along until we met the bouldery tube leading us into Coal Seam Passage (only discovered in 1991). Coal Seam Passage would once have been a superb section of cave passage, sadly now dry; originally it would have been a lovely river passage containing whirlpools, slides and damp scalloped walls meandering its 1,300 foot way down towards the modern day stream passage. Sadly for us it was yet more dry and hot passage but the shapes and the way the light created shadows on the walls meant it was another change of character. This cave has what is known as “a changing array of passage morphology”. When we reached the junction between Coal Seam Passage and Dry Slade we have another break to cool off.
Sharon, Andy P and Andy H (foreground) rest up half way along the dry Coal Seam Passage.
Having regrouped we then continue (right) along Dry Slade until we meet the main streamway which comes in from the left (from sump 2); the water here is cloudy, scummy and not for drinking! - it's polluted by raw sewerage. We have a short traverse and then can climb down into the stream; the limestone here is extremely sharp and caution is required; it's even possible to cut your wellington boots on the edges!
Glynn traversing over the stream just down from sump 2 and at the beginning of the sharp stuff! Right: Andy Pollard in the scummy sh*tty streamway.
Again we have another change to the passage shape, as well as the water, for we are heading down into an ever-deepening gorge which soars up over fifty feet high; the sharp limestone has been etched into amazing shapes and hence the name of this section of cave - Sculpture Trail. This is much cooler but requires more concentration. After following this passage for a fair distance we realise that it does not tally with our recollection of the route from a previous visit and turn about and head back upstream to regain the junction with Coal Seam Passage; “arduous” was an over-used word on this trip.
Ignoring the left turn back up into Coal Seam Passage, we head straight on into Dry Slade through large walking sized passages turning left and right and right and left with some stooping; we pass a dry fossil sump on the way back to the Main Stream. Andy S had carried on with Andy P and Sharon towards the entrance while Mel had a flat battery changed; Neil, Andy H and Glynn had continued exploring the downstream route past sump 2 so we were now effectively split into three groups. Probably not very wise.
Battery changed, Mel and I continue along Dry Slade until we meet the gurgling stream and … the smell hits us; not very wholesome. We gingerly edge our way upstream trying to avoid getting poohy-water inside our wellingtons but it wasn't possible and the inevitable happened; our progress was slow but steady and we carried on with a couple of diversions (checking the way) until we reached Cross Stream Junction.
Mel dips her toes in and checks the water for floaters. You wouldn't want to swim in this bit of cave stream, boyo! You can tell by the tide mark on the oversuit just how deep you need to wade in this filthy cloaca of stinking mire and excreta. Repulsive? Yep!
We find the way into Cross Stream Junction passage and no sooner said than done than Glynn, Andy H and Neil catch up with us. We crawl back along the pebbly tube and open out into the lower section of Balcony Chamber where Andy P and Sharon are donning their harnesses while Andy S rigs up the ladders for the 40ft ascent up the pitch. I SRT up the parallel pitch and meet Sharon at the top and then I continue with SRT up the shorter pitch and hang the third ladder from the P-hanger so that Andy P and Sharon can climb up while I lifetline them - they continue out of the cave while I await the others; my battery finally runs out and I find myself clipped in and hanging safely in my harness in the dark while trying to lifetline Andy Hebden followed by Mel up this awkward overhanging climb and narrow rift. All gets sorted in the end and I follow Mel & Andy into the next chamber by now having swapped over to my Tikka backup. A simple climb up the five fixed ladders brings us out to daylight; Andy S, Glynn and Neil bring up the rear. Another breather, this time outdoors.
Time spent underground: 4hrs 50mins - near as dammit, 5 hrs. Andy P & Sharon had already gone back to their car and changed by the time the rest of us lumbered our way back up the steep field for an overdue bit of refreshment. What a fine trip.
Extreme Archaeology? - Extreme Hyperbole, more like!
Slaughter Stream Cave (AKA Wet Sink). NGR: SO 5815 1372. Vertical Range: 330 feet. Length: 14,000m+ Should be renamed “Hot and Sweaty Cave, not suited to TV ponces who talk b*ll*cks”.