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Last updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004 12:51

Boulder Removal

By Martin Beale 14 August 2004 | Dig Face Photos
Time: 12h55m
Trays of spoil removed: 53
Team: John, Arthur, Alan, Simon (Devonian), Becky(Devonian), Martin
Progress: 2m in main passage
Digging time: 7h

The Severn Beach cave digging team congregated once more at Whitewalls on August 14 with the goal of getting beyond what seemed to be a blockage ahead. I was somewhat more circumspect in getting changed this time because to my shock, one of the DSS team was a lass (shock: I never knew that lasses were into digging too).

As per usual, once in the cave, John and Arthur flew off like they’d been caving for 30 years. As per usual, those using Speleo Technics headdarks had to sort out their illumination within 5 minutes of getting into the cave. We arrived at Severn Beach about 3 hours after getting into the cave. As per usual, Southern Stream Passage was the main obstacle to progress. The bit I found most tedious was carrying the new sump 4 dive line in. I tried to be extra careful with this given all the loving care that Duncan Price had clearly put into creating it. Maybe one day, this diveline will stretch all the way from Maytime to OyDC. We can but dream.

The Severn Beach picnic was somewhat interesting as the DSS massive seem to favour tea with their cave picnics which entails use of stoves etc. The brewing tea creates a lot of steam which gives the beach a nice sweaty atmosphere and you can while the time away pretending to yourself that you can see the steam drafting away out of the cave (there was little discernible draft in Severn Beach that day, although there was a howling gale through the entrance puddles to Aggy).

I was keen to get down to the digface and was given the green light to get on the case. I went down there with the three trays and set to work. As Tom had predicted at the end of the last trip, the rocks and boulders ahead were only lodged in a very loose matrix and spoil was soon churning out behind me. Alan was doing a fine job of filling trays: it was a non-stop job. I was taking a somewhat frantic and unstructured approach to digging which consisted of hoiking out the boulders and then trying to hoe the surrounding matrix back. The problem with this approach was that I always seemed to end up lying on a pile of freshly dug muddy spoil which would then coagulate back into hardpacked mud after I’d lain on it. The problem I was having was that the view ahead was just too promising: as I moved boulders out, I could see the airspace increasing back towards 8 inches and possibly higher. It is difficult to control your autodigging reflexes under such circumstances.

I could have dug for hours down there, but I felt it only fair to give Alan a go at the sharp end. He seemed as keen as me and between us, we dug about 25 full trays (and Arthur and the crew hauled out 25 full trays which must have been pretty painful). After our 25 trays, we went out for a break and a changeover of personnel.

After the changeover, I took Arthur’s position (the “long drag” from the digface to about 3 metres shy of the drop). This is a well knackering position. The trays started by coming thick and fast, but the pace seemed to slow somewhat after a couple of hours (I think that one of the boulders was proving particularly awkward). I went down to have a look and to see what issues John and Arthur were having. John told me how he had been battling with this boulder, but was having problems with the air down there. He told me how a couple of times, he had been pretty close to blowing chunks (thankfully he didn’t: digging through mud is bad enough, I don’t like the thought of having to dig through wretch). John and Arthur wanted out.

By this stage, we had got 44 trays shifted. The talk at The Beach was partially of the air quality and partially of our desire to clear out at least our self imposed quota of 50 trays. However, one of the most tantalising and interesting topics of conversation was John’s hypothesis that a side passage was developing on the left (yes, the left: the direction of Dweebland – our spiritual home).

Naturally, I was as keen as ever and volunteered myself to do battle with the digface once more. It must be said that the air wasn’t especially fresh down at the dig face, but I found that by controlling my activity and my breathing, I could keep in a good equilibrium state. It seemed to me like the issues were akin to those that are faced by alpine climbers above 3000m: you just need to adapt to the new circumstances. I was interested in digging out towards the side passage on the left. At this stage, it is difficult to tell whether this is indeed a side passage, it does however look promising. An arched ceiling certainly seems to go off left here. The arched ceiling has a slight crack in it which is presumably the weakness that the water was following hereabouts. What is unclear at this stage is whether there is an air gap going off left down here and that is what I was trying to ascertain. I think it is certainly well worth investigating this potential leftwards passage. If this comes to nothing, we will have at least left a widening in the passage which will be useful as a dragging station / marshalling yard in the future. Although I was digging leftwards, the most promising lead is straight on (in the direction of the Cathedral extension). John described what lay ahead as potentially an ancient stream passage on the right wall. There certainly seems to be a little trench on this right hand side. To my mind, this trench seems to be about a foot wide and a foot deep. This depth would clearly facilitate digging, but the existence of an ancient stream is possibly even more hopeful. Has this ancient stream done some of the digging work for us? Is there some passage with more headroom just ahead of us? There is only one way we can find out and that is to get down there again.

There seemed to be a general lack of yoor for continuing digging operations from the draggers (maybe you get more fired up after a session at the front). At the end, Alan came to meet me at the digface to take some photies. I requisitioned him on the way out to drag out two particularly offensive boulders. These were particularly big and proved quite an effort at the end of the day.

My view on the air at the end of the dig was that there was still definitely air coming through: there are occasional wafts of cold air that hit your face. This is obviously a good sign. I think that the issue we are coming across in the dig is that sometimes the rate of incoming fresh air is less than the rate at which air is being consumed (I think that the draft flux depends on which day you are down there). On the recent trips that we have been down there, the air seems sufficiently good to remove 50 trays of spoil which is close to the maximum that you would want to dig out in a day anyway.

I got involved with a caverace with John and Arthur on the way out. I held them back a bit by being in front along Priory Road, but made a bad mistake by letting them get ahead in SSP. I really struggled to keep up with them in SSP. Whenever I got close to catching them up, the bag would either wedge itself between boulders in the passage or the bag straps would catch on something. I would then end up almost out of sight of them again and have to really go for it to catch up with them again. This was all very demoralizing. My focus on lager back at Whitewalls allowed me to pull out all the stops and just hang on in there. I think we got out in 2h20m, but it felt like a gargantuan effort (neither John nor Arthur had broken sweat). I was well pleased to be sitting in Whitewalls with a Zywiec in my hands only a few minutes after midnight. The Devonians seemed to struggle somewhat more (they didn't have John and Arthur to set the pace for them and were not magnetically attracted to Whitewalls by lager). They arrived at about 12:30 at which time I had cracked out Zywiec2 and had read the Descent article about our digging efforts only a mere 27 times.

Note: the dig is now so long that we are operating at the limit of our available rope at the dig. We should try to requisition a 60 or 70m rope within the next couple of digs.

Andy Rummings, Exeter, 18 June 2004

How to operate the dig optimally...

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