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Last updated: Thursday, 22 December, 2016 15:05

Virgin in a Vice

By Andrew Walker

Cave date: 29 - 30 January 2004
Dweebs: Martin Beale, Royston Sellman, Fred & Mathias Willerup, Andrew Walker
Speleolabs: Andy Rumming, Tom Foord, Alan Brady


Two teams from 3 countries (UK, Denmark and France) converged on White Walls on the Friday night. As did a moist, warm weather front. The modest objectives of this 48 hour trip were: to bivie at HRC; test the Heyphones there; get to Dweebland; make a timed Heyphone radio contact with Team Speleolabs, (Andy Rumming, ;...) at the Severn Beach end of Aggy; run smoke, smell and draft tests; and attempt an OyDC-Aggy link-up based on these results and some strategic digging. Us, over-ambitious??

Dr’s Stone and Beale gripped extreme cave-librarianship by the horns, organising the complex logistics and kit – including obtaining, packing and hauling the Heyphone; caching 14 cans of lager at the end of the Entrance Series, then humping them to HRC; and liasing over timings with the Speleolab boys; (oh, and dragging 2 Dragon bags each to HRC and back.....). Dr Stone also provided pre-trip telephone counselling for Vertical Vice virgins. For I had not been in to OyDC before. Darkworld demons stalked in the shadows. My body was full of half-real aches and too-real pains. My mind yawed between ‘psyched’ and ‘psychotic’. In a last minute and subtle attempt to remove weak links in the team, they even ‘forgot’ an oversuit for me. Reprieve on the steps of the guillotine!! Alas, even as the initial euphoria swept over me, John Stevens from C.S.S. found a perfectly reasonable spare suit at White Walls, plunging me back in to a state of ominous brooding and self-doubt. 

Going In: Entrance Series to HRC

It is all a bit Alice in Wonderland at the entrance – a tiny badger-sized hole in a muddy puddle, at the base of a wet Welsh quarry face. It doesn’t look like the potential start ‘one of the three best caving trips in the world’ [1] . No cake with ‘Eat Me’ on it, alas. Just a stream. And a small hole. Altho’ lager with ‘Drink Me’ on it at the other end. The OyDC Entrance Series is a infamous, unforgetable 600 metre crawl in a wet, tight passage, punctuated by several crouched avens and tighter constrictions with names like The Vertical Vice, the Stal Squeeze, Calcite Squeeze and the S-Bend. Years of bruising and near-drowning on kayaking trips warned me that if its got a name, it will probably hurt. A psyched, yet paced, approach seems essential to ‘enjoy’ it without getting ‘emotionally de-stabilised’ early in the trip. Funky ‘body english’, some cunning bag juggling with legs and drag rope (‘The Sellman Twist’), and a head full of Primal Scream songs seemed to help. You have to read the vertical contours like a rock face, then relate them to your body and bag positions. So started 24 hours of interpersonal bonding with my bag. It would be a different story coming out - tired, wet and cold - and with over 30 mm of rainfall in the interim. Either way, as the Stone kindly explained before-hand, “you get wet going in, and you get wet going out”. 

Mathias led Fred and I in, and we re-congealed ‘on the other side’ an hour later in the OyDC Old Main Chamber. I celebrated by slipping off a muddy bolder, badly denting a crucial caving accessory - the right buttock. As probably many a choir boy has uttered before me, a throbbing arse served to remind me of the error in my ways, and the seriousness of any similar errors. With another 3km to go before HRC, an average speed of 10 metres a minute for the first hour was uninspiring (paricularly to an impatient speed freak running on only one arse cheek). However, Entrance Series to HRC is a wonderful caving experience; diverse, obtuse, surprising, always interesting, and full of contrasts (e.g. The Wriggle: ‘My body is too big to fit down there’; The Time Machine: ‘fuck my boots, where’s the ceiling??’). The sensuality of bigger spaces is compounded by the gyneacological beginnings. The inobvious starts to become ‘de rigeuer’. Just as the crawling becomes a chore, you are able to run; when you are bored with ambling down big tunnels, you get another crawl; when the novelty of walking wears off, you have to climb up The Pitches, traverse the hole, crawl a bit then down climb. When you get tired, pretty distractions appear.

And strange too, wriggling deeper in to the mountain’s ancient innards, but also moving forward through time from the 1960s, through the 1984 and 1985 breakthroughs, and down towards the 1990s exploration. I doff my battered duct-taped helmet to the first people who corkscrewed down the loose choke out of the old Main Chamber, and wriggled into their futures. I was glad I’d re-read the OyDC chapter in Darkworlds three times the day before, to apprecite how it must have felt 20 years ago: the cute Jigsaw Passage streamway, the Wriggle, 5 Ways, Valentines, Preliminary Passage. Tony White’s lead to High Places and descent to White Passage must have been super exciting, a climb akin to climbing a loose HVS on a wet night in Ladybower Quarry with seriously limited ambulance access. Mathias belayed Fred and I up the ladder pitch, and the bags were quickly hauled up together. In the navigational hands of Team Viking, we made good progress, pausing only occaisonally to allow the burly Danes to shout ‘Yoor!! [2] ’ loudly.

White Passage opens up in to The Time Machine, claimed to be the biggest undergound chamber in the UK. Its hard to believe that the only non-diving access to this huge space is via a badger-sized hole in a muddy quarry puddle. Reflectors lead through the huge piles of roof debris. Headtorches can, in places, just reach the ceiling and walls. Huge avens in the roof wink at much higher things. The Bonsai Streamway is frosted with crystal and some walls curtained with straws, and the famous rabbit-bearing minature Bonsai Tree. Fred, Mathias and I reached the palatial HRC, and had barely got a brew on when the Lager and Mobile Telecoms team arrived. The latter had set off an hour after us, dragging two bags each. The bastards had clearly been catching us up. It was gone 1.00 a.m.

Being There: HRC

Royston’s prolonged and physically unsettling (not to say unappetising) late night knob drying session was truncated by hiding his huge manhood behind a tiny balloon. I started hitting the whisky at about this time.

The cosy HRC is a palatial and important ‘Base camp’ for pushing the route out in the further reaches, and much effort has gone in to providing basic (and less essential) comforts. As with previous trips, Team Dweeb had gone in essentially independent, with sleeping bags, food, candles, spare clothes, glow in the dark halo’s etc. I found myself pondering the extent of periphereal clutter, which reminded me of a student flat in a third rate rented terraced house – stolen road signs, inflated balloons, sacks of spare footwear and clothes, vast amounts of mugs and plates, ......it’s almost too nice. I promised myself to sleep on a sharp stone to compensate.


I had a deep and perfect sleep in a beautiful sandy tunnel, undisturbed even by the nocturnal crisp packet rustlings of the neighbouring Vikings. Dr Beale had already been down to the stream going in to the Terminal sump, returning to report high water levels. As we took our respective turd tapering stance over the Bonsai turdway that is the HRC toilet, they had progessively less distance to fall in to the rising stream, tapered or otherwise. Vikings urinate in their boots in the night.

Royston and Martin set up the Heyphone. After 10 minutes on standby, Royston hit the airwaves at 9.00 a.m. for what may have been the first inside ‘outside broadcast’ from HRC. I’m a cynical techno-phobe, but suspect I was not the only HRC resident to be surprised when Andy Rumming's voice crackled loud and clear through the intervening 150 metres of rock and bog from the surface above. An earlier attempt from here last year had been unsuccesful. The latter part of the radio link is preserved on video. The Speleolabs team subsequently said Royston was difficult to hear, but we could easilly hear them at HRC. This may because they were on a bleak Llangattock hillside in a storm. Royston's request that they wait 10 minutes while we confered was met with an unforgettable “We suggest you abort the trip to the end, over...”

We had half suspected this, and a trip to the streamway leading downstream to the terminal sump confirmed that Ankle Grinder Passage would be impassable in either direction. The ‘streamway’ was a fast flowing brown river. The adjacent Grim Reaper sign with its warning to divers compounded morning high spirits. After some discussion about options and leisurely packing back at HRC, we were heading out.

Going Out: HRC to Exit Series

We stashed some lubrification and food at HRC. The twee Bonsai Streamway was in places several feet higher than the previous night, at one point requiring armpit deep wading. At least the Vikings got the piss washed out of their wellies. We had more time to appreciate the scenery going back. Mathias choreographed some photos on The Pitches and in the Time Machine. But you can’t relax going out. The Entrance Series hangs like an ominous cloud on the horizon. And no one wants to do the Exit Series with a broken rib. 

Martin’s rat had not been fed, so we dumped our bags at the junction with Misfit, and ferreted up this and turned left to a funky rift with ‘technical’ mud and some nice brown crystals on the wall. Martin and Royston climbed up the rift at the end to see if there was a way in to Jigsaw Passage at a higher level. Mathias’s boot soles dissappeared down the tight continuation of the Misfit rift, en route to the Aqueous Choke. Fred and I returned to the kit and after a brief wait headed on out up Jigsaw.

The entrance/exit series going out was tough. And I’d not even seen Helen Mirren’s tits. The passage has a surreal white phone cable running down it, with little junction boxes at irregular intervals, (numbered 1 to 8, heading in). These have been put there to torment tired people. Someone had extended the distances between the numbers during the night. The Entrance Series is worse as an Exit Series - a vocal ‘descent of man’. 

Avens 8 to 5: ‘Daren Crawling’ by The Clash (“I can’t think of a better way to spend the night, crawling around in a little yellow light, Daren crawling with boredom now, Daren crawling oh na na na na naaaa!”)

Avens 5 to 3: “Uuunnnnggggghhhhhh...!!!!! Uuunnnnggggghhhhhh...!!!!!”

Avens 3 to 0: Instrumental with Castanets (improvised with my teeth), backed with sinister phone pervert breathing (Denis Hopper in Blue Velvet in a gas mask, head between Isabelle Rossellini’s legs; or the backing wheezing on the appropriately titled ‘Heat Miser’ off Protection, by Massive Attack). The temptation was to lie still and ‘rest’. The reality was the clattering castanets of my teeth, and the likelihood of hypothermia in the stream-filled runnel. The S-Bends guaranteed both sides getting wet. As cold and fatigue gnawed away, my ‘funky body english’ was degenerating in to a thrutching session. Just as the end is nigh, it was necessary to take a final face full of water. 

I realised I was out when my headlong grovel was terminated by a smack on the head from the low enclosing wall just outside the badger hole entrance – it was still wet, dark and cold, (definitely still in Wales) but a pearl moon shone through ragged, fast moving storm clouds. I was out. A wild, rain filled wind blew me slithering down waterlogged hillsides towards the surreal space ship glow of Llangattock. I suspect it will not be for the last time.

The Road Ahead (or ‘Grovelling @ the Speed of Thought’)

Despite the dissappointment after so much hard work, planning and humping, this trip has some hopeful pointers for the future. Royston and Andy R. proved that Heyphones work in HRC (and can be used to clarify prevailing external conditions). There are some useful consumables left at HRC. The involvement of two motivated and strong teams is a great advantage if this collaboration continues. A camp at or beyond the REU may be necessary for an concerted effort at the coal/calcite face, with the related implications of getting water in and feaces out. Another issue is the clear shortage of beards in the team. A further problem is coordinating efforts in advance for a specific date, despite the vagaries of the weather. I have faced my virginal OyDC demons, and am conviced that this project is one of the last great adventures, comparable with a hard alpine-style first ascent in the Himalaya, with all the commitment, effort, risk and adventure this entails. The darkness will still beckon.

Andrew Walker, Grenoble, 1 February 2004

Interactive Map of Daren

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