Depth through thought

OUCC News 22nd November 2006

Volume 16, Number 13

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Editor: Peter Devlin:

Note from the editor

During the week emails whispered promises of good anecdotal content re the Derbyshire weekend. JC wrote: "Others may have their own tale to tell, however, 3 went down Titan and 3 and a half came up Titan including Harvey twice and me half-way". I wondered how we gained the half caver: in the club's search to entice new cavers to the club were we resorting to surgery? How did Harvey manage to go up Titan twice, more to the point why? One reply stated that "I'm sure that there won't be a need for a longer account of this bit of the trip ". This served only to whet my appetite. Many thanks to Harvey for his write-up. I was sorry I missed Titan, but am glad the weekend went well .... Think I might organise another Titan/JH permit for later in the year.

Do keep the material for DTT coming in.

Here are the trips for the remainder of Michaelmas Term '06.

Week 8, 1-3 Dec, Wales staying at SWCC, permits: Craig A Ffynnon Sunday, coordinator: TBD
22 Dec - 1 Jan 07, Dales staying at BPF, permits: Deaths Head/Big Meanie, Penyghent

Splash of the Titans

Harvey Smith.

(Derbyshire, Club weekend 17-19th Nov 2006)  I couldn't get access to that BBC Titan video lots of people have been e-mailing me about. Fortunately our trusty Meets Sec. gained us access to the cave instead, so I unplugged myself from the computer ... and had a terrific weekend.

Friday evening, Oxford bods bearing caving gear found Jonathan Cooper, who'd gathered info on caves Titan and 'JH', installed in Castleton pub close to TSG accommodation. Sat a.m., interrupting an attempt to diffuse a smoke alarm, Tony Seddon gave up ringing the door-bell which had actually been making the noise, and gained entry by hammering on a window instead. Thus with two knowledgeable guides, the ingredients for Titan-JH exchange trips were in place.

We had the full works. Whilst Tony led Rich Siddans and Anita Milicic down Titan, JC lead John Pybus and myself into JH - James Hall's ancient lead mine, complete with artifacts, and spooky tunnels. Once at the bottom (pitches carefully rigged by John with no excess rope hanging lower than Anita's chest ascender) we popped down into the Speedwell stream-way - up-stream and then down part of the way towards Peak Cavern - the streamway was used as an easier exit route for ore. Then some 'proper', horizontal, muddy type caving took us towards .... the splash of the Titan Aven. It's quite big. 60m up to a ledge. 80m to exit near the top. With only the one rebelay, it's definitely worth going up and down a couple of times if given the opportunity. Then, a 40m pitch to the surface, and 15 mins later you can be back at the TSG!!

Sunday Geoff O'Dell took John and I down Giant's Hole for a splendid romp around meandering passages with a lively stream, and friendly climbs. I enjoyed the regional difference in cave character.

Difficult to imagine how my first Derbyshire caving experience could have been more comprehensive. If you've never been, then you should most definitely sign up for the next trip.

Lakes of the Damned

Rob Garrett

The first phase of the Tian Xing expedition was drawing to a close and I was already in Chongqing on my way home when my telephone started ringing. It was Duncan giving me a report of their last caving trip. Based at an underground camp they had finally managed to find a connection from Lan Mu Shu cave to Qikeng Dong the resulting system being 19km long and 983m deep. Now they just had time to squeeze in one last camp with the intention of pushing on into the depths of Qikeng Dong in search of an even more elusive link to Dong Ba which should yield a system 1003m deep... This potential connection, itself a partially explored well-hypothesized sump bypass, although tantalisingly close had been considered lost due to a recently constructed dam which had raised water levels enough to sump the connecting

(sump-bypass) passage. However, we were currently in the midst of the biggest drought for 30 years and the door of opportunity had just swung open. The crux of the matter was that they wanted to send the strongest team possible and manpower was a bit short on the ground. "Any chance you could postpone your flight and come back for a few days?" A tricky question and one with epic written all over it. One made trickier by the fact it was nominally a wetsuit trip and I didn't have a wetsuit - only shorts, t-shirt and a pair of farmer's plimsolls. "I'll see you tomorrow" I said.

The next morning I got a bus back from Chongqing to Tian Xing. As we left the city it started to rain and soon there were muddy orange rivers cascading onto the road at every opportunity. The road was flooding and the 50 year drought seemed to be well and truly ending. My thoughts were as gloomy as the weather as I tried to look for a bright side. Fortunately as we entered the karst landscape signalling that we were close to Tian Xing the surface run-off greatly diminished and things didn't look so wet.

Finally, I arrived at Tian Xing late afternoon to be greated by Duncan. A three person team had already gone down to camp to explore some other leads and be in place ready to start the derig. It would be just the two of us on the big push but on the bright side Erin had offered me use of her sleeveless, short-legged wetsuit which miraculously fitted. A quick bite to eat and we were off into the cave each carrying a bag of rigging gear. Things went well and 3 hours later we rolled into camp at -650m.

After a good night's sleep (we ignored two alarms in the morning) we finally set off for a crack of noon start. This was my first trip into the Qikeng streamway which is really sporting caving. I tried not to imagine what the weather on the surface might be doing and was relieved to find that the streamway seemed unaffected by the previous days rain. To save weight we weren't rigging any of the easy climbs in the streamway although remains of float cord from 3 years ago were still visible. Nevertheless we still had two heavy bags full of rigging gear and we were wearing SRT kits. To aid buoyancy each bag also had a dry bag inside but these had to be fully deflated to fit them in. Now I'm no physicist but I seem to recall Archimedes saying that heavy tacklebags full of water don't float, or something like that anyway. As we reached the main streamway Duncan, who is a physicist, entered the water first, "Eureka!" Thinking the water must be cold I followed him to find that in fact the tacklebags did float! Surprisingly, so did the SRT kit clad cavers.

With nothing more to stop us it was on to the Dragon's Mouth - a 50m abseil into a large windlashed lake next to a huge waterfall. More awesome streamway, The River of the Dead, is followed by a traverse up into big horizontal development. Finally we were getting close to the proposed connecting passage. Three years ago there had been two small wades followed later by a long swimming duck. This was the place most likely to have been sumped by the dam although the water had obviously been much higher since then. The first two pools were as remembered but then we encountered a canal which wasn't supposed to be there, the water still being about 10m higher than previously. A long swim punctuated by sharp underground daggers of rock soon confirmed the passage was sumped. There was, however, a draught disappearing into a double decker passage overhead which had previously been inaccessible. With the raised water, however, it looked much less intimidating and a hideous muddy climb on razor sharp friable rock was soon accomplished. Easy-going then got us to a flooded shaft previously visited from the far side when seeking the original sump bypass. It was my turn to take the lead and we rigged a handline down a 10m ramp into a black waterfilled abyss. As I reached the tricky lower section a foothold broke and I fell into space hanging from my cow's tail. No time to worry as I was now in a position to leave the rope and go swimming. Although I now knew that I floated despite my SRT kit I was still a little nervous swimming above such a deep dark hole in search of the unknown. I was soon across, however, and free soloing up a sneaky chimney to regain the previously explored known passage. Duncan followed and we were soon approaching the limit of exploration in Qikeng. According to the survey we had to bolt across another shaft, walk 20m, and then we should be standing above a pitch down into Dongba.

So much for the theory. This shaft was also flooded but not so much that we could swim. Instead we managed a muddy traverse along a sloping ledge and were soon into virgin passage. 20m later there was the pitch down and 20 minutes later we were standing at the bottom... still in virgin passage. Walking around a small lake we followed a large passage for another 60m or so to yet another lake. Certain that, allowing for survey loop closure between the two caves, we must now be within touching distance Duncan set off first across this new lake only to find that after 40m it sumped. The draught had gone and so had our chance of a connection. "Damn, damn, dam!"

But, never say die; so we started to check for other possibilities. At the top of a mud ramp an overhanging climb duly led to what looked a likely continuation. As I was contemplating the climb (it probably needs two awkward bolts) "BRROOOOM!" a loud and distant boom came storming down the passage behind us like Harry Potter playing Quidditch. It sounded like a jet plane going supersonic or perhaps some not so distant thunder but since neither of these are very common 750m underground I tried to pretend that I'd imagined it. A few seconds later a second boom - an echo of my imagination?! Probably not. The echo hung in the air like one of Duncan's chilli-con-TVP induced farts. "Erm, did you hear that?" "Yes" "Hmm, I was afraid of that". Actually, I was a bit afraid. I don't suppose many people are familiar with the sound of a giant flood pulse sumping a passage behind them but at the time I tried to imagine that it wouldn't sound anything like that...

'The Way On' was hanging over me like a hungry mouth fanged with stalactites but when caves speak to you it's usually wise to listen. "Oh goodness, is that the time? We should probably be heading back shouldn't we?" "Hmm, yes. Shall we survey what we've found?" "Well, normally I'd say yes but since we haven't really found very much we can probably leave it, just this once..." "After you then. " And with that we made a swift exit, or at least a swift return to camp in time for bed. To our relief the water levels were unchanged and no explanation for the noises was found. All that remained was an air of mystery, an elusive connection and a rather slow exit and derig.

What did the blind cave fish say when it swam into the wall? Dam!

Silica Mine, Wales

Peter Devlin,

(19 Nov. 06) Last weekend saw me helping Martyn Farr out with one of his Cavern courses (the first in the series he offers). I am close to completing my instructor training with him at this level, so we split the 4 students into two teams and Martyn and I dived with one team each.

Having instructed on three other courses I'm now starting to be a little less freaked out with the responsibility of instructing, consequently abit more attuned to assessing and dealing with problems. For instance, when the lead diver on our first exercise picked up the reel that the other team had carefully attached to the main line, carefully detached it from the main line then went to start our dive, I halted the dive, surfaced and explained the impact this would have on the other team returning in a black-out with no line to bring them back to surface.

When I was our turn to do the blacked out drill, my two guys had their kit configured such that there was nothing I could see to indicate where they were. Usually I can see pressure gauges or computers that glow in the dark enough to indicate that they are still on the line and haven't gone and got lost. This evokes fears of the "I've just lost my students" variety: cave diving in the dark causes all kinds of fears to surface, some rational, some irrational. I am always relieved to see the vague glow of the light at dive base as you approach the exit: a silhouette of a diver tells you they haven't vanished into the dark abyss, not to mention stopping you bumping into them and getting a fin in the face.

When I first dived at Silica Mine, a few years ago, the carry nearly killed me. Now I find the carry easy, compared to Bull Pot of the Witches, but I suppose it is all relative. Hey ho .....