Gay Outdoor Club
The activity club for gay men and women and their friends

Trip Reports 2013

Caving in South Wales in June
 
GOC Caving Group did two caving trips in one day on 8th June – one lasting about eight hours and the other about six.  The Group has a deserved reputation in the caving world for taking on hard challenges, as well as easy trips but, all right, I admit it – the first sentence is misleading.  The event that weekend was a joint one between GOC Caving Group and York Caving Club, based at the White Walls caving hut near Abergavenny.  With the two groups, we had enough people to split into two parties and one did the Grand Circle trip in Agen Allwedd while the other went to look in Ogof Draenen.
The Grand Circle in “Aggy” is a “must do” for caving enthusiasts.  Soon after getting underground you set off down a very long streamway that is never difficult but very definitely never easy either.  Progress involves scrambling over and under boulders, climbing down the occasional waterfall, sploshing through water in some short sections, traversing up in the air in others, and it goes on for a long time.  Eventually you follow a slightly confusing route along different passages, still with opportunities for sky diving here and there, until you reach a major underground stream.  You set off up this, wading in the water, relieved at last to be able to walk rather than clamber, but your relief is not well-founded.  The stony bed of the stream is extraordinarily slippery and I would challenge anyone to complete the journey to the next obstacle without falling over a few times.
The said next obstacle looks most distressing if being up to your neck, or beyond, in very cold water does not appeal.  It is a wide, deep pool with, on its far side, a waterfall over an alarming overhang that is going to have to be climbed.  Within the pool, however, lies a happy surprise.  For those in the know, if you walk beside the wall to your left you discover a hidden ledge a few feet below the surface of the water, and there are handholds in abundance on the wall.  When you have shuffled along almost to the waterfall you discover a neat set of holds that you can climb beside the fall.  Beyond there, progress gets easier as the streambed is less slippery and the only snag is a short, narrow section where you really do have to swim unless you are very good at traversing on smooth walls.  There are still more passages to follow, and one or two slightly alarming climbs, before you find you are back close to the cave entrance.
The Grand Circle is the biggest of three round trips you can do in Agen Allwedd and, quite apart from the fun of every part of the journey, it is satisfying to know you have found the way – even if, as on this occasion, there were some erroneous excursions and backtracking on the way round that I avoided mentioning until now.  If you pop out of the entrance gate into the wide world within eight hours of when you first entered it, your performance has not been amiss.  Our team passed the test.
Not that I was there, actually.  The forgoing description is based on what was reported to me that evening, together with my experience of doing the same trip with a GOC group a few months ago. I was with party number two in Ogof Draenen, which was not discovered until 1994 in a mountain that was believed to contain none, and is now Britain’s second most extensive cave.  Our aim was a modest one, in such a vast network of passages – to find our way to the curiously-named “Hearts of Olden Glory” and a bit beyond.
The first few minutes in Ogof Draenen have their damp moments.  Very soon after getting underground we crawled more-or-less flat out in a passage carrying a small stream.  When the stream disappeared down a wide crack that we needed to descend, all appeared at first to be well, as the crack is wide enough to squeeze down beside the water rather than in it.  Regrettably, once you are into the crack you discover that the way on leads from the other side of the waterfall.  Your only option is to crawl through it.
Before long, though, we were in high, roomy passages.  There was no need for lengthy crawling for the rest of the trip but an occasional boulder choke had to be crawled through.  The most wearing thing was clambering over and around long stretches of slippery boulders.  Gilwern Passage was on our route.  It is half a mile in length and probably split roughly evenly into bouldery sections and stretches of easier walking.  It is followed by a tight squeeze into another passage where, for a long section, we waded and slithered along a mud-and-water-filled channel in the mud floor, to avoid damaging precious formations.  But, of course, that was a reason to be there – to see the formations.  They do not compare in quantity to what you might see in a French show cave, but some of the ones that are there are splendid.  As remarkable as the visual attractions of the cave were the auditory ones towards the far end of our trip, where something about the shape of the passage or the smoothness of its walls makes it generate long and loud echoes.  Well, you know what happens when people find echoes.  We made hooting noises, clapped our hands, and ventured briefly into song.

Then we calmed down and scrambled, shuffled, and grovelled our way back to the surface.

Caving during the AOG in Giant’s Hole, near Buxton
 
Half a dozen sporting gentlemen donned fleece rompers, pvc suits, and wellies during the AOG in Buxton for their first experience of a very special kind of fun.  Regular members of the GOC Caving Group took them to Giant’s Hole, a popular cave for novice trips.  Getting changed and walking to the cave was the most draining part of the day – not because of the fear of the unknown, which doubtless hung over the novices, but because it was so overwhelming to be wrapped up in cosy caving gear under a burning sun.
The first few minutes underground were straightforward and gave the newcomers time to cool down both literally and metaphorically.  A winding passage led to the head of a waterfall into a wide, vertical shaft about five metres deep.  Descent was on a wire ladder away from the water.  We thought it best not to mention in advance that climbing down one of these pesky ladders is a lot harder than climbing up.  However, the novices (protected, of course, with a safety line) excelled and all sallied down like old timers.
The ensuing tall, narrow, passage, the “Crab Walk”, is so named because shuffling sideways is the only way to progress.  A stream flows in it but it was not deep enough to come over the tops of wellies unless you stepped carelessly into one of the deeper pools that there are instead of stepping over it.  Our novices probably thought our prior warnings about getting wet were just to wind them up.  The first to find things otherwise was the biggest member of the party.  The narrowest point along the Crab Walk is called “The Vice” and it slows down even thin cavers.  Slightly larger cavers have to make an awkward upward shuffle into a marginally wider place, but if you do not fit there, the only option is uncomfortable.  The passage is widest at the bottom and so you lie on your side in the stream and drag yourself through a bit at a time.  The water is not deep, but our man got thoroughly soaked (and is to be congratulated for battling through).  That gave the rest of the cavers a good laugh but things changed when, soon after, we first slid down an awkward water-chute and then climbed down a short fixed ladder, right in a waterfall.
Stompy passages and a couple of mildy-worrying climbs aided by fixed, knotted ropes led us eventually to the “Giant’s Windpipe”.  The regular cavers knew what they were in for, and it was their turn to go quiet.  The novices sensed the unease – probably because Matt told them how awful it was going to be.  The Giant’s Windpipe is too low even to crouch in.  You have to crawl, which would be all right expect that there are several inches of very muddy water in the passage.  Lest you should otherwise get through partially dry and partially clean, for a metre or so the roof comes down so close to the water that you have to turn your head sideways, with one ear (and, of course, most of your body) immersed.
That got us properly wet for the final part of the journey – some more stomping and clambering until we were back in the Crab Walk but right up near the roof.  This gave the novices their first opportunity to try traversing – proceeding with hands and feet on ledges on each side of the rift, straddling an alarming drop into darkness (or, if you are daft enough to look down, a drop to the stream we had earlier shuffled along in, far below).  They approached this challenge with varied emotions – some of them seemingly unperturbed, others more wary – but they all conquered their fears.  A lifeline-protected climb down got us back to the bottom of the Crab Walk.

Thence it was but a short shuffle to the ladder climb and the passage back to daylight.  On stripping off to get changed, the  novices discovered the one last thing that every experienced caver knows.  Wrapped up in fleeces and waterproof overalls you may be, but the muddy water leaves nowhere untouched.  White underpants are never the same again after a caving trip.

 
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