Volume 40 Number 2 Article 5
Tea Ladies on Tour - Extreme tea-making
They say that the devil makes work for idle hands, but having been off work for nearly a year with a slipped disc and hence very little caving and farm animalling going on, my hands have remained well, idle and resistant to the devil until now. However, by now I feel enough goading with his toasting fork to tell you the girly version of the exploration of Extreme Ways at the end of Gour Hall about a year ago.
As both a member of RRCPC and the NCC I feel as if I've a foot in either camp or some may say in either mouth, so any resemblance to person or persons in either club is, in fact, a resemblance. It was last June when Angela Hare and I were asked along by Pete O'Neill on his and Snablett's digging trip at the end of Gour Hall. I was tempted into this despite my back already being bad at that time because unlike Pete's usual digs, it was in a place which was accessible to cavers of normal human proportions and at the end of an easy cave. I'm glad I did because now my back's worse (through other causes, not these trips I may add) and I wouldn't be able to still do this. For me it was one of the high spots in my caving career because I haven't been into much new passage in the UK.
Thus we were innocently lured into becoming the trip's tea ladies, in other words, carrying the necessary flasks of coffee to the diggers whilst they carried in minor odds and ends such as drills, capping gear and Pete's newly encased battery which looks like a petrol can but is obviously filled with some gravity-dense material from one of the outer planets. He did on one trip suggest that I should carry this, but on nearly dislocating my arm by picking it up on the farm track I sharply declined. Apparently it is state of the art and, like new caving lights of the LED persuasion a caver can starve to death underground before the electricity runs out. Oh for those old excuses of light failure for leaving chilly and distressing digs and those friendly carbide-fettling breaks, which used to give you chance to catch your breath in the past.
Pete and Snablett soon settled in to their efficient capping routine at the bottom of Gour Hall just to the right of the old dig in the floor, but in a good spot where the flow stone from the back wall seems to meet the roof, and where there was an encouraging draught. Angela meanwhile amused herself by trying to excavate her own tunnel in the right hand wall of the chamber going in whilst I amused myself by watching other people work, eating chocolate and drinking coffee. After about five hours, us girlies got bored with continual cries from the lads of "only one more and we're through" and "this battery is going to run out any second", and so gathering up all their unwanted rammel, we carried on out slowly whilst leaving the diggers to it. They did actually get through that day, and on the next trip, along with Ange but not me, pushed on through a very muddy flat out crawl into a chamber.
I was invited back in my capacity as tea lady on the following trip for which Pete recommended that we took a set of SRT gear as there were avens to be climbed. This time the party consisted of me and Ange (the WRVS), Pete O, Martin Holroyd and Snablett. Ange persuaded me that I'd fit through the new squeeze easily and it wasn't too bad actually, although I don't think Alf Latham would agree. The next section was about three body-lengths flat out in mud over gours just to get you nice and cold before a lot of hanging about. But then the passage rises into a fairly impressive rift about twenty metres long and ten high. I apologise to the surveyors at this point if my guesstimates are wrong but if you want something accurate, dear reader, you'll have to look at the survey. On the right about half way along there was a small aven, whilst on the left, opposite, there was another disgusting crawl through to some climbs to the foot of another aven. Pete climbed up the aven in the chamber whilst Ange life-lined, and Snablett and Martin bolted up the other one. I acted as general gofer. Pete's climb didn't go but by this time Snablett and Martin were at the top of their aven and sounding hopeful. So the rest of us congregated at the bottom of this aven but with only one SRT kit between us. Ange was chosen to go up first and then to slide the kit back down the rope. Unfortunately the top was covered in slimy calcite making it almost impossible to get past the top rebelay let alone slide the gear back down. By now, much to Pete's frustration we could hear the voices of Martin and Snablett echoing off into the distance. The dialogue became more and more urgent as Pete encouraged Ange to try to pass back the SRT kit and wisps of steam started coming out of his ears. Finally, he started to thread his stop onto the bottom of the rope with, I assume, the intention of somehow laying back and winching himself up the pitch. Mercifully, at the point we heard echoey voices coming back and the message was passed down that the pitch didn't go anywhere.
Leaving the others to sort out the mayhem at the pitch head, Pete whisked his stop off the rope's end and said that he and I should go off and start to dig the draughting rift at the far end of the main chamber of the find. So we went and Pete started capping whilst I started the theatre-nurse routine of passing bits back and forth. Not "forceps, scalpel", but "drill please, now capping bars, lumphammer", etc. At the reappearance of Ange, we two again left the lads to it whilst taking out superfluous kit. Angela's tackle bag was so heavy, I don't know how she managed it. But anyway, it slowed her down to my speed, which was very slow.
By now Pete had a name for the extensions "Extreme Ways", named after some of the crash, bang wallop music that he seems to enjoy. But he and Ange were going to Ireland the following week and had to leave exploration in the capable hands of Howard Limbert and Snablett. The latter duo capped out the terminal rift and went on through some convoluted passage to a not-quite free-climbable pitch of about eight metres. Snablett climbed down as far as he dared and thought he could see a proper passage going off from the foot.
The next weekend saw a serious gathering of the RRCPC and NCC with a cast which comprised Pete and Ange, Tim and Jane Allen, Lugger, Howard, Snablett, Hugh St. Lawrence, Paz, Martin Holroyd and myself. Obviously with the awkward nature of the cave, it was pointless to all go in at once so we had a staggered, (or was it staggering?) start. With such a large staff, I was glad not to be invited to carry anything at all, what a relief! I went in with Howard, Martin, Tim and Jane. Thanks to their joint efforts I was extruded upwards through the tight, awkward rift at the end of the first chamber of the extensions. This debouched onto the top of a steep "staircase" downwards for about six metres to the top of a blind three-metre pit. A step across this pit led to a corresponding ascending staircase and a body-sized tube. This brought you out headfirst onto the pitch that Snablett's team had found. By some manoeuvring it was not too hard to wriggle out of the tube and balance on some rock pillars at the head of the pitch, which by now had been rigged. There was some impatient prowling and foot-stamping going on at the bottom of the pitch when I arrived, by those already there and eager to set off into the unknown. Paz was the last man down and as his foot touched the floor, to eager Murray Walker-style cries of "Go, go, go!" we all set off down the new passage. Starting off as a stooping passage named "one for the ladies" on account of its solitary stal at the pitch foot, the passage roof soon rose to a thin, high rift which continued as an easy walk for about fifty metres on a muddy and sometimes watery floor to another pitch.
Our only ladder was back on the previous pitch, so an agile climber was sent back to get it. It was then securely belayed behind a very thin flake with a crowbar wedged in to stop it slipping and everyone was life-lined down a six metre pitch into the newly-discovered "Hall of the Eleven", so-called because there were eleven of us on the trip. The pitch had a beautiful run in of pure sparkly- white calcite next to it at the bottom and the chamber itself was large and roomy. However, in true law of sod style, just when we thought the cave as up and running, it closed in again. The way on was up a tight, slippery ascending rift, which I left to better men and women than me to ascend. I didn't have long to wait though. The return of the others brought the bad news that a hideously slippery traverse over a fifty-foot drop led to a very unstable chamber dubbed "Danger of Death Chamber", (electricians doing the naming).
At this point the Lugger had to go out under danger of death from Wendy if he was late. He was followed more slowly by us girlies and Tim who was going to climb the first pitch and put the ladder down for us, and Paz who was then going to take the ladder back for the others who were surveying and finishing off to re-rig the Hall of the Eleven. Now you remember the solitary stal at the bottom of the pitch? Lugger as you may know is not the most long-legged of men and the pitch although free-climbable for the very agile, bells out at the bottom. So I am afraid that the stal was made into a Lugger scaling pole, possibly calling for a rename of the passage as One for the Vertically Challenged. Anyway, who am I to talk? I found the pitch a complete sod even with the ladder, as there is a bendy constriction in the middle which is really hard to get round.
There have been several times in my caving career when I have come near to a nasty death; one when I set fire to myself at a deviation on a twenty metre pitch which I won't go into now, but two which have involved getting stuck headfirst over drops which probably wouldn't kill you immediately. However, falling down them would probably be enough to kill you slowly and painfully before being rescued. The next bit of the cave was one of those times. Having got to the top of the pitch I was quite tired and went into the body-sized tube headfirst. I knew it would have been better to come out of the other end feet first but didn't have the courage or energy to do the necessary gymnastics at the top of the pitch to get me in feet first. So I got to the far end, which pops out over the steep staircase with the three-metre pit at the bottom. Here I thought that if I were to lean out as far as possible and brace my arm on the roof, I'd be able to swing my legs through. So I did, but my legs wouldn't swing through. So now I was stuck over this staircase with all my bodyweight on my extended left arm unable to push back or go on. The right side was too slippery for me to get a purchase with my right arm so I was gong to fall down the stairs and the pit when my strength gave out. Ange and Jane were waiting for me at the other side of the pit. I called to them to see if Jane, who was nearest could come back and let me use her as a support to get out of my predicament. She bravely came back, risking me knocking her flying if I did fall, and I slithered gratefully down her onto the staircase below. If she hadn't done this, I'd have been splattered at the bottom of the pit.
The rest of the trip out was uneventful if knackering. I gather Paz had problems with the same bit as me although not to the same extent. Some of the others have been back in since, but think that digging Danger of Death Chamber is only for the terminally insane. Extreme Ways has added over three hundred metres to the length of Easegill, which is not to be sneezed at, especially by a tea-lady who had thought she had gone into retirement.