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

Ich Bin Ein Dweeblander


Ogof y Daren Cilau
Date February 7/8/9 2003 Speleologists : Martin Beale (independent caver), Royston Sellman (CSS aspirant)
Style Cavecamping Grade : 5+
Cave time 43h50m : 3h45 to HRC; 10h30 HRC to Spaderunner and back; 4h45 HRC to daylight
Approach time 10m+5m
Quality ***

By Martin Beale, 1 September 2003

Report with photos available on vHut

On the fourth push, the cave finally lets us into its very depths. Four trips preceded this last major push to the end of OyDC :

And there we were, one cold February evening after work looking down at the entrance puddle with trepidation. This was the culmination of all those previous trips : all that knowledge that had been gained incrementally over those months and years. Although we were both concerned at the thought of close to 48 hours underground, we were both determined to see this one through. I lay down in that entrance puddle and crawled and crawled and crawled.

An hour and 20 minutes later, I finally emerged out of the entrance series. Dragging two bags had taken it out of me somewhat, but I was pleased that we had everything with us for 2 days of self sufficient caving underground. I felt the magnitude of the task that was before us as we hauled the bags up to Higher Things : three small capsules that would sustain body and soul for the weekend.

We felt like we were still in the entrance series as we walked down the vast Time Machine and through the Bonsai Streamway. The Bonsai Tree seemed like a familiar sight as we marched resolutely to the camp. A little climb up and we were there. The camp was obviously deserted, but it looked inviting and beautiful in all its tranquillity. Having made our beds, we sat down on the karrimats and drank some of the beer we had carried in; the candles provided a warm light as we contemplated the huge task ahead of us in the "dawn".

Dawn broke as dark as dusk had fallen the night before. I had a very reasonable night's sleep, considering the remoteness of our camp. Maybe it was dreams of Dweebland, maybe it was the chill in the air, but it was a restless night's sleep nonetheless.

We lit the candles in the camp and tried to eat as much as possible before the coming storm. A single drum was carefully packed : to fail due to inadequate kit would be inexcusable at this stage. We had a load of chocolate bars (mainly Double Deckers in their solid form) and a Platypus bag for water after the REU. I repeated over and over that we needed to bring the survey, remembering how invaluable it was when Tim and I had got lost in Matchu Pitchu last time. Just before setting off, Royston suggested we take his Petzl Tikka headtorch given that I was caving with speleotechnics lighting (not known for its reliability).

Once moving, we warmed up and were soon burrowing our way through sand crawls, squeezing our way between the stony floor and the ceiling less than a foot above. Sweat dripped down my face, stinging my eyes with the exertion of the fight to The Micron. 45 minutes after leaving the HRC, we were finally at The Micron. The water level was thankfully low which meant that we were guaranteed safe passage up Ankle Grinder Bypass. We moved steadily in our attempt to conserve energy.

Morale reached a low point as we emerged from Ankle Grinder Bypass since Royston's headlight was dimming rapidly. To be fair to the headlight, it did very well to provide light for the six hours that it had done (since our entrance to the cave) given the length of time that Roystone had been charging it. It became overly clear to me that experimental lighting arrangements are not de rigeur on a committing trip such as this one. I was fully prepared to return to the HRC for Royston's spare set of batteries, but I would have been pretty unhappy about this as it would have almost certainly have jeopardised our chances of reaching the end of the cave. The best solution we came up with was for Royston to try to conserve what light he had left and to then use the spare light : his Tikka. This meant that our spare lighting was now my spare FXion battery : my speleotechnics light would need to display uncharacteristic reliability to see us through.

We filled up with water at the ladder into REU. Tim's log was resolutely sticking to the cave wall, just where he had left it 2 months ago (this gives some indication that Ankle Grinder Bypass is probably not actually that flood prone). In REU, we had a ferret around for some spare batteries, but could only find mouldy old clothes and explosives packed in drums (which came as something of a surprise).

We raced along the passages towards Big Chamber, barely stopping to admire the amazing Cordillera Blanca formation (so beautiful that the cave explorers haven't blown it up with a view to accessing the gaping passage behind). A crawl through the eyehole and a committing little traverse saw us at the top of the ladder down into Big Chamber. This ladder is a true caving ladder. It is in pretty good condition, but the length of the drop and the situation make for an apprehensive descent. Royston descended first : down into what seems like a new world - this is the area of the great extensions.

After a crawl, we were soon walking in large passages once more, directly towards Agen Allwedd. There were a couple of crawls that required care. It is obvious that almost no-one ventures this far into the cave. As a result, the walls and ceilings do not inspire the same confidence as the well worn passages closer to the entrance. Combined with the knowledge that an accident here would have very serious consequences, we passed the crawls with the utmost care.

Tim and I had had a few heartstopping moments on our previous trip when we got lost in the Matchu Pitchu area. We seemed to be in a sand crawl for way too long and turned back. Somewhere on the way back, we became disorientated and entered passage that we had not seen before. On that occasion, my Suunto Vector (watch / compass) and the survey saved us as we were able to work out our location. I think we followed exactly the same course this time, but I was able to work out what had happened given my prior knowledge. As Roystone sat down to eat some chocolate, I went for an explore down a passage to test my theory about our location. At the end of my exploratory crawl, I entered a big passage with a shapely cairn in it and an arrow drawn in the sandy floor : these were the markers that Tim and I had left two months before. I knew exactly where we were, how to get home and that no-one ever goes down this bit of the cave.

After a short rest, we carried on to the junction with Star Bar Chamber. We consulted the survey before taking our first steps into what was for us unexplored passage : an old water worn walking passage meandering into the depths of the mountain...

The water worn passage didn't last very long. We walked along a beautiful passage until the roof lowered and we had to commit ourselves to some long and low sand crawls that eventually took us to The Warren. The Warren was a little oasis of a place : the speleothems reminded us of the way home, we felt we were no longer in the desert of the extensions. You can even dream while lying in the Warren that if you tried really hard, you could lie under one of the 'thems and if you waited long enough, you could rehydrate there (maybe these were just hallucinations : we were literally miles from the bottles in Preliminary Passage.)

At some stage beyond the Warren, we entered once more into large passages (Friday the Thirteenth). Avens measureless to man reached skywards. Royston even reckoned that the avens would reach the surface. I was somewhat more sceptical, but they were a marvelous sight nonetheless. It was almost possible to discern high level passages coming off the tops of the avens, but it would be a brave speleologist that ventured this far underground with a bolting kit and etriers.

In the extensions, you seem to be walking in large passages that inexorably lower until you are crawling through tight holes once more. Maybe the size of Friday 13th means that the ensuing crawl has to be burlier than all the other crawls combined for there was an extremenly burly bit of caving that allowed us into Payoff Passage.

The roof lowered until we were crawling with our backs pressed to the ceiling. The passage dived into a sand crawl under some obstacle. I approached this the usual way, with my back on the floor. Half way through this sand crawl, there is a little rib of rock that projects across the ceiling. This rib stops progress almost altogether. I could only move by small sideways shuffles. Inch by inch, I squirmed deeper into the squeeze until I was finally through. An even burlier section awaited however....

After the ribbed squeeze you start to climb a choke (it feels reasonably stable) and enter an obvious small draughting hole on the left that leads into Payoff Passage itself. As you have to change from a climbing position to a crawling position, it is natural to start this crawl on your front. This strategy went quite nastily wrong towards the end where the passage narrows, rises and curves to the right. There is no way to move onto your back and you feel stuck. Cruelly, there is a water drop from the roof at this one point in the extensions. It is however quite useless for refreshment in this nasty little restricted slot. The drop only serves to remind you of how far from the pleasures of home you really are.

The guidebook (the accurate Marshall guide : I dread to think what what the SWales cave guide would conjure for a description in these depths) states there is good sized passage hereabout : Still Warthogs After All These Years. This description seemed well spurious to us as we crawled in the sand and around blocks. Things only eased once we descended a slope and saw the bang line leading toward DADES choke.

The passage towards DADES choke looks thoroughly massive, but ends all too soon at the choke itself (a shame for those of us who consider the greatest prize in British caving to be the connection from OyDC to Aggy). The continuation leads off to the left near here. We passed the slope down into Dweebland, but continued on towards Spaderunner: the place we felt was the true end of the cave.

Spaderunner starts off somewhat bouldery with a particularly exciting section where the roof seems to be formed by a somewhat unstable blouder : despite extreme care, there was a nasty momment as I realised that my dragbag was caught on what seemed to be the boulder holding up the roof. This was the one panicky moment of the trip - to be caught so far inside the cave does not bear thinking about.

At last we saw the Spaderunner bang line. It seemed like we were a long, long way from the entrance. At the end, Spaderunner seems to narrow to a tight rift that burrows down into the ground. There are various small tubes continuing here, but this really does seem like a venue for the inveterate sand swimmer (of which we are not),

There was a definite sense of elation (and trepidation) as we sat down by the bang line for a Double Decker and some water. Royston's face was covered with sweat and lines : I had never seen him look this old (he is nearly 50 but looked at least 51). The main thought at the back of my mind was the hope that we would have the energy to make it back. It had taken us about 5h30m to reach this point.

We seemed to be travelling more quickly on the way out, probably because we didn't have to continually stop to check the way we were going. The small draughting hole near Payoff Passage was tackled on my back this time (an easier, but more worrying alternative : if you have a speleotechnics light, you can be assured that your light will fall off your helmet at the most inopportunemoments). The principle worry is that the ceiling is apparently made from the choke itself. You can descend the rest of the choke feet first and turn around just before the nasty ribbed squeeze.

The Warren was an oasis once more, preceding as it does some arduous sand swims. The last sand swim on the way out (before the Starbar Chamber) is a particularly fine example of its genre. The difficulty here lies in the fact the swim is low, wide and meanders. As you lie on your back, you have to use some sort of sixth sense to divine the way forward : there are few other pointers to salvation hereabouts.

We were very pleased to back into the walking passages around Matchu Pitchu. There was a great sense of expectation as we saw the ladder looming out of the darkness in Big Chamber. We each summoned all our strength as we scaled the ladder. The biggest issue here is probably for the belayer as you fight to pull the mud-caked rope through the belay device. The climber feels somewhat panicky as your strength ebbs, the belayer fights the rope and you want the rope taken in NOW! A certain will to see the HRC and daylight once more keep you going.

We stopped at the REU for a last drink and eat before the final push back to HRC. Although this was a truly palatial spot compared to where we had been, I was very, very glad that we would not be camping here : it seemed like a cold and inhospitable spot compared to the luxuries of the HRC (nothing like my romantic memories of it).

Ankle Grinder passed in a dream. We climbed the Micron and I swear I was almost looking forward to Acupuncture Passage : not for the physical pleasure of crawling through it, but for the joy of being through it. We felt we were racing through, but in reality our pace left something to be desired. It felt like we were nearly there at Brazil. The flowers S-bend was the only tricky obstacle before the HRC. We dived through some sand sumps and walked along beautiful sandy passges. Finally some boulders appeared and then a sleeping bag : we were back. The elation and relief was immense. We had been to the end of the cave and it felt now as though we were back in the entrance series once more. The trip from HRC to Spaderunner and back had taken us 10h44m in total (a long time for Royston to be doing this on a Petzl Tikka!).

Although our hearts and minds were set on lager, our bodies needed the cleansing waters of the Bonsai Streamway. Minutes cleaning seemed to drag like hours until we could bear it no more and rushed back into the HRC and raided our 1664 store. It seemed almost incredible that we were sitting once more in the HRC after so many hours of fear and grime (though beauty too) in that far away desert. It seemed more incredible that only the two of us were there.

It was way after midnight before we finally rolled into our sleeping bags : tired, but happy speleologists.

Dawn was pitch black as ever. The pressure was off now. We ate breakfast by the fading light of our last few candles and filled in the HRC log book. One of the hardest things at the HRC is to change from your clean and dry camp clothes into your clammy and sandy caving gear : oddly enough, this always seems to be the last act before leaving the camp.

We exited the cave at a leisurely pace. It was important to conserve energy at this stage. Things felt easy to start with : a stroll up the Bonsai Streamway and a little rest in the Time Machine. It is only after the ladder pitches, as you start crawling through EglwysPassage that the feeling of trepidation mounts at the looming prospect of the entrance series.

42 hours after our entrance to the cave, we arrived at Big Chamber (which for us is usually less than an hour from the entrance) and signed out. Jigsaw Passage was possibly our last easy-going section before we did battle with the entrance series.

We had time to contemplate the rigours of the entrance series as we ate chocolate and drank by the most remote ADSL socket in the world. At this stage in a trip, we are usually racing out in order to make it back to the pub, but this time we had been in the cave for 42 hours, were tired and had several dragbags with us. I was dreading the first obstacle : the crystal squeezes, but I knew that if I could pass them, I would get out OK. A calm approach saw me through to the little chamber beyond and a steady approach would finally see me out.

Passing The Vice, we could tell that we were going home. The first wafts of fresh air were a great sensation as we approached the entrance itself. We picked up our entrance drum and crawled on; daylight appeared above the wet entrance puddle. A final squeeze and we appeared into bright sunshine and a glorious freezing February day, the Black Mountains rolling gracefully to our north.

We were tired and elated, but each of us could now proudly state that "Ich Bin Ein Dweeblander!".

Martin Beale, Bristol

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