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Last updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005 23:51

Substantial progress at the Oregano Trail

By Martin Beale Jan 14 - Jan 16 2005
Cavers: Martin, Gonzo, Charles Bailey, Henry Bennett, Adrian Fawcett, Andy Heath
Time: 49h45m
Digging time: 10 hours + 6 hours (more for others)
Trays removed: 150 (day1) / 100 (day2)
Progress: 10 - 15m
Prospects: excellent - we seem to be in new void

It is always with some trepidation that I lower my body into the icy cold puddle at the start of the OyDC entrance series. This is especially so on a long trip when I know I shall not see sunlight or the sky for two days. Such was my feeling one Friday night in January before a long digging trip with the Rock Steady Crew.

Adrian and Andy soon lost me in the entrance series. I had two bags (dragging the heavy bag filled with 1664, food and the camera; pushing the light bag with the sleeping bag). Two bags slowed me down, but a steady pace saw me through in 1h05m. It was a relief to be through: I felt like the weekend had really begun.

We caved quickly and proficiently to the Hard Rock Cafe stopping only at Higher Things to take photos of the mud village and to collect water from Crystal Inlet. In the lower reaches of Bonsai Streamway, we could finally smell the camp and then a candle lit in the passage showed us we were there. I crawled up into the HRC and met the Rock Steady Crew in style : underground. My first impressions were that these people were competent. Little did I know at that stage just what digging monsters they were (and what digging monsters we would all turn into).

Sitting down at the HRC I was plied with food and cocktails (and 1664) and was regaled with stories of digging towards the REU and then Dweebland. It got me so inspired for the weekend to come.

I was the first to wake on Saturday and soon we were all at the HRC having breakfast and preparing for the day ahead (I need to learn how to operate the stoves - I always think that above ground is the kind of place to learn these advanced arts).

Gonzo was the first one ready to set off and he went off alone to prepare the dig area. I followed and met him in the Oregano Trail 45 minutes later. Gonzo had prepared the cooker and had the tea on the go when I arrived. The place looked beautiful: candles flickered to warm the kettle and to provide light, surreal plops were heard as water dripped from the roof into the amazing drip holes in the Oregano Trail. The tension was palpable as we waited for the rest of the Rock Steady Crew.

They came, they unpacked, they dug. And when I say they dug, I mean they went for it.

I let the side down a bit to begin with by half filling trays. They ribbed me for being a soft Aggy digger. I wasn't having any of this and corrected my ways with trays overflowing with spoil.

Digging was not easy to start with on Saturday as there were some significant rocks and boulders that needed to be removed. I was not too happy with the state of the crowbars (spoilt by the luxury of the Grolsch gorilla bar) and initially left the hard digging to those who were clearly going to make better progress than me.

Spoil was coming back thick and fast and we had to make good use of any available stacking space we had. We had enough diggers to allow Henry some time off to construct a fantastic dry stone wall come spoil heap. Once we had filled Henry's dry stone wall spoil heap, we started stacking further down the passage always being careful to maintain the integrity of the prettiest parts of the passage.

We had one major lunch stop after about four hours although those who had just come back from the digface would be rewarded by a nice cup of tea from the ever-brewing kettle whenever they came out and a few moments to contemplate with an easier job such as constructing a dry stone wall. Spirits were always high, helped along by some excellent banter (Aggy diggers who can't take ribbing might like to dig elsewhere!).

For all of Saturday, we were digging uphill against sand and boulders into a passage with absolutely no airspace. Confidence in the cave divining properties of the Rock Steady Crew kept my spirits up in this seemingly futile escapade. As we were in a completely sand filled dig, there was the potential for bad air. This was combatted remarkably successfully by wafting the air with pieces of Karrimat. This technique worked an absolute beauty and we had no issues with air quality. We wafted in unison: in to feed oxygen to the digface, out to remove CO2: all controlled by a shout from the hauler at the corner of the dig (5m in).

Towards the end of the day, Henry seemed to be pretty well stopped at the digface by some large boulder. When I followed him to the face, I found a huge slab of rock with a crowbar sticking horizontally out of it. This required a lot of patience and yoor to liberate. After an epic battle, I finally succeeded by totally clearing the top of the slab of spoil, crowbarring for Britain and heaving on the slab. When it finally worked free, it was a great feeling. I got a sling around it as soon as possible and handed responsibility over to the draggers. This slab was so large that it had to be hammered down to size to get it out of the passage. Once this slab had been removed, the dig became the perfect uphill sand dig. The sand was totally beautiful: thin layers of multicoloured sand with the odd band of clay here and there. Sweeping the small crowbar across the digface would cause the sand to collapse down in front of you - totally ready to be loaded into the kibble tray when it appeared.

Gonzo and Adrian left at about 8pm while the rest of us continued digging. We left the digface in excellent condition: going uphill and not a boulder in sight. We had made probably 8m of progress on the first day and had removed maybe 150 trays of spoil.

The HRC was a fantastic place after such a good day's digging. We enjoyed eating, drinking cocktails (and 1664), talking about Daren and being together. It was a great evening. The cocktails were really special (especially when I didn't have a hand in them: there is clearly an art).

Sunday started out just like Saturday. This time I was the first to the dig and waited for the other guys to appear (Adrian went elsewhere, so it was just Charles, Gonzo, Henry, Andy and myself). Again we set up the kettle and the candles which gave the place a lovely homely (yet savage) air. Charles and I set to shuttling the spoilheap back towards 12 O'clock High by excavating yesterday's spoilheap using a second drag tray. The idea was that this would give the diggers more of a chance (by using close spoilheaps) once Charles and I had left early (which was the plan). As it happened, this approach worked an absolute beauty and really facilitated further digging operations.

Now that the dig was a pure uphill sand dig, the spoil came out thick and fast. I left the digface after a glorious metre of progress and when I came to inspect it again just two hours later, the dig had advanced by 3m or more. the amount of progress we were making was epic. The only problem we had was that this was a pure sand dig and there was no air space. Still, the wafting seemed to do the trick.

I ended up with an energetic session on the corner drag (dragging is always energetic when Charles is at the digface). Tray after tray came out. Then an excited cry came out: "two inches of airspace". A cheer went up. A couple of trays later and the cry was "four inches of airspace and a draught". Yoor! We were finally through to something. We had finally left the Oregano Trail.

Once airspace had been achieved, it would be fair to say that the pace did not slow. The view ahead and to the side [2] were too tantalising. Where were we? Was this a new passage going in the classic Llangatock direction of 330 degrees (were we heading for a major blank area on the survey?)? Were we intersecting New Boots and Panties and about to set off towards San Augustin Way and Against All Odds Chamber? There is only one way to find out!

I had to leave the team (with a heavy heart) at 5:30pm and set off on a very adventurous solo out of the cave. I heaved a sigh of relief when I had negotiated my way through the Peace Pipe. I contemplated the journey ahead at the HRC as I optimised my bags for 10 minutes before heading off out. I was totally careful all the way and just took a really steady approach. The climb down the ladders at Higher Things was somewhat trying as the cowstails kept getting twisted, but I hung on in there and sorted the problem (several times). The last obstacle to worry me was The Vice. By the time I reached The Vice, I could hear Charles some way behind me. I didn't want him to catch me at this stage (this would ruin the solo), but I didn't want to fluff The Vice either. I thought about whether to shuttle the bags through The Vice or use the tried and tested push / pull method. I opted for the devil I knew and the push / pull method worked. In another 5 minutes, I was crawling out of the entrance series puddle and was once more in the fresh air. What a sense of relief! What a sense of sadness too as this was essentially the end of a truly fantastic weekend: possibly the best caving weekend ever.

I can't wait to get back. The prospects in the Oregano Trail are excellent and the camp is great fun.

Martin Beale , Bristol, 20 January 2005

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