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

Boulder Poppin'

By Martin Beale 10 July 2004 | Dig Face Photos
Time: 13h34m
Team: PeteM, Tom Foord, Martin, John Stevens, Mike Read
Progress: 1.5m
Digging time: 7h

In order to get an early entry into Aggy on Saturday morning, Tom, Pete and I stayed at Whitewalls the night before. When we got to WW, John was missing. We went down to Crickhowell to find him. John was in The Bear with Arthur propping up the bar. We had a pint with them and then extricated him, leaving Arthur there to finish the business.

Well, we had planned to get an early start in Aggy, but the best laid plans of mice and men... It seemed to take a while to get going as some of us had mild hangovers to deal with, then there was the issue of cooking and eating a large fried breakfast, faffing with kit etc. On the subject of faffing with kit, Tom, Pete and I walked all the way to Aggy and it was only at the very entrance to the cave that Tom decided that he didn't like the colour of his new caving suit (or some other excuse) and decided to run back to WW to get it changed!

It was thus just Pete and I who got into the cave at 10am. It was a good job that we managed an early start because for some reason, the whole business of getting to Priory Road took an inordinate amount of time (maybe the fried breakfast had slowed me down). The main point of excitement for me on the way in was the climb into The Cathedral. The passage to The Cathedral starts as a little vertical tube with a string coming down it. I squirmed up this (eschewing the string of course), then climbed a narrow slope into what can only fairly be described as a cave cathedral. The Cathedral is huge: it is amazing that there is such a large passage beyond such a little tube. I was also surprised about how far the Cathedral went in a horizontal direction: I was wondering whether it went almost as far as Severn Beach (the survey definitely shows otherwise). After a couple of low sandy sections, I unwillingly decided to call it a day, but I was extremely tempted to carry on to the bitter end.

I thought that Pete had lost the plot as I climbed down the tube from The Cathedral as I could hear him talking. I assumed that he was keeping himself company, but in fact he was there with Tom. Tom had soloed in. An hour on his own in Southern Stream Passage must have been pretty mind numbing (not to say scary).

We got to Severn Beach at about 13:20 - it had been a leisurely trip in. I really couldn't wait to see the dig and rushed straight down there. I was quite surprised that Team Speleolabs had claimed to have made 1.5m of progress: they seemed to have gone much further than that. There is now quite a considerable amount of squirming (spacious squiming!) required to get to the dig face. The end of the dig was quite small and there were a few little boulders lying around (though obviously nothing that would stop us).

After some sandwiches, Pete headed in there to have a go at the dig face. Tom dragged from a way up the passage and I had the job at the back which entailed pulling the tray along the passage, up the drop, back to the spoil heap and then managing the spoil heap. This was all pretty hard work. Things obviously operate more slowly with 3 people, but the interesting thing is that things do still work. Pete got 8 trays of spoil dug in about an hour and removed some of the boulders too. John and Mike were watching me giving the last two trays what for (they got in about 2:30pm and ate sandwiches while I battled with boulders and suffered with spoil trays).

The dig operated better with 5 people, though several times, we seemed to have problems with the lengths of rope. The dig is so long that it is difficult to decide whether it is better to have one long knotted rope or two shorter independent ropes. One of the problems is that it is fairly impossible to optimise the system as digging is under way: you can't really juggle the two tasks of manhandling trays and fiddling with ropes at the same time. Mike got 12 trays out under this regime while John had time at Severn Beach to build himself a dry stone wall (do not let Dave Grosvenor anywhere near this wall: he has already destroyed one dig on Mendip due to clumsiness with dry stone walls!). The dry stone wall now allows us to make more use of the spoil heap space (the spoil is certainly beginning to fill Severn Beach).

Mike told us what was going on at the dig face over some sandwiches. I think he described the view ahead as "depressing". I now kind of know what he means as there is a lot of spoil ahead, but there is still a draught down there and the digging is still pretty easy. I think that once we get past the current little blockage, things will be looking more promising again (we do generally seem to be getting to increasing airspace as we progress along the dig).

We re-arranged the rope system when John got to the dig face. This took an inordinate amount of time and made the dragging team look unfairly incompetent - we were actually just trying to find the optimal system. Once we had reached a point of optimality, things started working pretty smoothly, all the more so when Mike moved to a forward position next to John. When things were working really well. Mike and John were at the dig face, I was about 15m back dragging spoil and changing the ropes that the drag trays were attached to, Pete was at the top of the drop and Tom was dealing with the spoil heap. Things looked like they were going to slow down at one stage when John had to exit to get the drill for some unconventional operations. However, we quickly got 6 trayloads out with only Mike digging and the hauling system as before. This suggests that the dig can be operated with 4 people if necessary (though things are speeded up when there are more people down there).

There was a revered silence as John crawled down the passage with his drill and specialist equipment. It was obvious that the atmosphere was going to get pretty explosive. The pulse raced as we heard the whirr of the drill. Silence descended on the dig for a minute or two, then there was a light hammering sound followed by a definite "pop" (not bang). Soon a tray was being dragged back with a large half boulder in it. Apparently, this was a boulder that John had dug out and was then just left lying in the passage until John gave it its last rites. This should have been the hard part done, but the dragging team made a huge meal out of the half boulder we had been dealt. Getting the boulder up the drop was a real stopper until we realised that we would have to lift it out with the aid of the rope and a slip knot. This is *the* technique for these babies (though I have designed an optimised system that I hope that Speleolabs will be able to manufacture). John and Mike got some rest while we faffed around with the boulder and then sorted the rope system out again.

The previous pace of digging resumed for another hour or so. I was particularly inspired by one tray of mud that passed under my nose: some of the mud was glistening with water. Given that there is no water at all in Priory Road, if this water is caused by a drip somewhere, then it is a significant discovery.

John popped another boulder (over two attempts) before we finished for the day. This particular boulder was one that we had left in the side of the passage. It was attrited because it would later impede spoil removal.

After John's last pop, we ate some sandwiches at Severn Beach. I assumed that this was just a rest, but it was clear that everyone had had enough (apart from me!!). John and Mike reckoned that the sir down there wasn't very good. After a last look at the end, I had to agree that the air could have been better. The caps used for popping boulders do let off fumes and when there is poor circulation, these fumes can become a bit overpowering. The dodgy air Grolsch was almost certainly due to a change in draught direction in the cave (the draught changed from "out" to "in"): at some stage, the air must have been stagnant.

I was well impressed by the length of the passage when I went down for a look right at the end: it seems to be really quite long now. It has to be said that the end of the dig does not look as outrageously promising as it did, but there is still airspace, there is still a fine solid roof and the digging is still easy (Tom was able to pull rocks out of the digface quite easily). The most interesting thing at the moment is that the dig appears to becoming wetter. At one point we noticed a tiny little outlet on the right wall that had a flat muddy floored base and the mud had a crack in it. We are not sure whether this is historic mud or newly washed mud. We are hopeful that this water means something significant (is the water coming down the fault??). It would be interesting to be down in this area on a really wet day to see whether there is any water coming down.

The way out was totally interminable. I thought it would never end. I have never felt as close to giving up in SSP as I did on Saturday. I was almost a broken man. I was extremely relieved to get back to the surface... eventually (it took us about 3 hours to get out).

So, we made 1.5m of progress and have left the dig wider and deeper. We are now smack against the previous visual endpoint. We've got an interesting bit of digging ahead of us: is there water coming in from somewhere? When we clear this next blockage, are we going to get into even wider airspace?

Martin Beale, Bristol, 23 August 2004

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