~~When you get to my age it is nice to have the reassurance of a handrail beside each short flight of steps underground and that is what we find as we enter Peak Cavern, the first few hundred metres being a show cave. After a couple of minutes we descend some crumbling steps that used to take visitors further than is now permitted. We pass a pool fed by water coming from Speedwell Cavern. Beside it hang assorted scrubbing brushes. We shall be needing those on our return.
We step across the subterranean River Styx – no need for a ferryman here – and enter a different world. After some wading and walking we reach the “Muddy Ducks”. A sequence of low arches makes us crouch in chilly water which, despite the name, turns out to be clear. In contrast, beyond the untainted waters of the Muddy Ducks we crawl along a narrow passage in deep, sloppy mud. At a restriction we lie on our slides, slither forward, and find a junction. We can see the bottom rungs of a ladder in the passage on the left but we go to the right to make our way through “Colostomy Crawl”.
When we reach Block Hall we are somewhere clean and spacious at last, with walls soaring up into the darkness. The description we have, led us here with a hardly a moment of uncertainty. The description we have of the White River Series – the goal of our journey – starts from a point high above us. Neither description says anything about the vertical bit in between, other than that there are several pitches with fixed ropes. The pitches are longer than we expected and they involve changing from rope to rope in mid-air at so-called ‘hanging belays’ and some tricky manoeuvres onto ropes going off at steep angles.
Maybe eighty metres up, we post ourselves into a sandy-floored passage and shuffle flat out until we enter the long, high, rift that is the White River Series. Pure white stalactites and flow-stone abound across the ceiling and down the walls. In places the stalactites are as transparent as icicles. Along the floor lies a motionless river of white flow-stone holding pools of clear water lined with crystalline calcite, glinting in the light from our hat lamps. We follow a narrow path on a dried mud bank so as not to sully the river. For a short stretch the formations end and we traverse over a deep, wide pit, our feet on a ledge on one side of the passage, our hands pressed to the wall on the opposite side. Then there are more formations and the White River becomes as glorious as before until we reach its end.
We follow a dusty side passage to the top of “The Ventilator” – the shaft we plan to descend instead of returning to Block Hall. There are no fixed ropes but we have brought ropes with us. At each pitch we thread a rope through a metal ring provided for the purpose, abseil down, and pull the rope down behind us. Setting up the ropes above the drops is not without thrills, and a sense of unease accompanies any “pull-through” until you find somewhere you recognise to prove you have not marooned yourself in the wrong shaft. At the bottom of the pitches a tube takes us to a couple of short ladders and we recognise the passage that we passed on the way to “Colostomy Crawl”.
A sideways squeeze and a prolonged squelch through wet mud bring us to another ladder. We descend and find ourselves on deep, dry sand like a beach above the high tide mark. I comment on how easily one can forget something one had seen so recently. We decide we have not forgotten it – we were never there. We go back up the ladder, see where we went wrong, and storm through the “Muddy Ducks”. We scrub each other’s backs at the pool fed from Speedwell Cavern until our oversuits are fit to go through the show cave.
Peak Cavern has already closed but we have a key to the gate. We walk through Castleton to the TSG club hut. On the way we are stopped by families wanting to know how they can get into caving. If you sometimes ask yourself the same thing, or if you are already a caver, all you have to do is fire off an email to the caving group contact via the GOC website.