Volume 43 Number 2 Article 3
Little Neath River Cave
16 September 2006
I had planned a trip into Little Neath River Cave with Gareth Davies and Chris Payne, both fellow Welsh Section members and Will Swift, a potential WS member. Chris and Gareth have been caving and cave diving for yonks while Will is even more of a newcomer to caving and cave diving than I am (hard though this may be to believe). Chris and Gareth had what seemed to Will and me to be very demanding plans for the trip, to go through sumps 1 to 4 and have an explore in the New World Series on the far side. Will and I decided to opt for an easier goal of just going through sump 1 and helping Gareth and Chris to get their gear to sump 2, then make our own way out, in part on the basis that I had promised an afternoon novice trip into Top Entrance of OFD to a visiting American cave diver. On that basis Will and I planned to dive on a single 3ltr bottle through sump 1. As it turned out, the American visitor cancelled, Chris had an injury that stopped him coming out to play, so we decided that instead, Gareth and I would do the New World trip and Will would come with us to Sump 2. We got underground around 10 in the morning.
This was to be my first cave dive not in a drysuit, consequently without any form of buoyancy. I had a pair of 5 ltr bottles and all the weight I usually carry with my drysuit. Gareth, on the other hand, had a pair of 4s, carried only the weights he needed and unlike myself, doesn't need to lose 10kg of buoyant body weight. The difference in approaches quickly became apparent. As you approach Sump 1 there is a hands and knees crawl that becomes a full belly crawl. Crawling with full diving gear makes crawling without it seem luxury, particularly if you feel you are probably carrying more weight than you need to.
Once in the water it was a relief to feel the weight come off, good 'ole Archimedes! It felt really strange to me not to be able to control my buoyancy: in six years of diving this was my first dive ever without a buoyancy device. In a sump with a maximum depth of less than 3m this was not an issue, but it added to the task loading. Likewise, diving in a wetsuit (a 2.5mm neofleece with my caving oversuit on top) felt well strange. I still found that air got trapped in my neofleece and oversuit, so ended up dumping air much as you would in a drysuit. Fortunately the water was lovely, warm summer water. I'm not sure how tenable a winter dive would be in a 2.5mm.
Out of Sump 1 we left Bridge Cave and were in LNRC proper. Garth pointed out Sand Chamber, which has some nice flowstone, but we kept the pace up as Gareth and I have a fair amount of caving to do and a 6pm call-out. On the way to Sump 2, The Canal is a 100m long duck. The water level was low, which made the duck more comfortable, but this meant that the tacklesacks with our bottles were less buoyant, so were harder to pull.
A while after this, Gareth suggested we kit up as it was the last decent place to stand up before the sump. At this point Will left us and headed back out. Gareth and I started crawling, back in full diving gear bar our fins and mask. I optimistically assumed that we were metres away from the sump, but the cave just kept coming. At least the crawling was hands and knees. At a certain point, Gareth went under a low bit and I noticed that his technique involved throwing his fins forward, then belly crawling and repeating the procedure. I followed suit, finding that what Gareth was doing did work best. After a shortish distance (measured in metres) we got to Sump 2. This is a short sump of just 37m. Gareth offered me the option of going first to get the good vis. I let him go first so I could take my time getting ready and compose myself. Putting on fins and doing pre-dive checks in a space where I couldn't even sit up was new to me. Sump 2 is followed almost immediately by Sump 3 (I don't even think we took off our fins). Sump 3 being 57m is a little more intimidating. At the end of Sump 3 there is a little bit of dry caving to do, but it's all big passage that you can stand up in. As I got the end of Sump 4, I found Gareth patching a few metres of new line onto the old line where it had broken. LNRC is prone to flooding and keeping the line in good nick seems to be akin to painting the Brooklyn Bridge. Waiting in the sump while Gareth completed patching the line I started to get properly cold for the first time on the trip. I was diving with no gloves, and a balaclava, whereas Gareth was in a 4mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves. It's all a learning experience!
Once out of Sump 4 we were in the New World Series. Since I had not expected to make it this far I was thrilled to be there. Not, it has to be said, as thrilled as I was to ditch the diving gear and do some proper caving. Gareth had only been this far in the past, which heightened the sense of adventure. While I was delighted to keep up a good pace in order to warm up, I was concerned about my ability to sustain the pace on the way out, given that Gareth is a much more experienced caver, who, being based locally, gets to cave much more regularly than I and hence is much more "cave fit". I really enjoyed the cave at this point, particularly as I love streamway caves, where the water is still active in shaping the cave. We made it to Sump 5 and I could see Gareth wishing he had his dive gear with him.
On the way back we took a detour and had a look up Perspicuity Passage. This starts out as a lovely joint driven passage, the dark grey stone broken by a wide white line of marble for 40 or 50m, before the nature changes very suddenly before degrading to a grotty crawl. After less than an hour in the New World Series we made it back to Sump 4 and started to head out. Getting back in to Sump 2 (I think) there is a bit where you need to take the right angle or you get stuck. I foolishly thought that brute force and ignorance would get me through, but soon learnt the error of my ways. Gareth, who was just emerging from the previous sump was greeted by a pair of wellies trashing wildly, before I managed to free myself and take a more intelligent line.
From Sump 2 back out is a bit of a blur. I remember lots of crawling, I remember being thrilled to take my bottles off my harness and putting them in my tacklesack. Even when crawling, it was easier to move with the bottles in the bag than on my harness. At this point I was caving much slower than Gareth. Being fitter, knowing the cave and carrying less weight all counted in his favour, but he was very patient, waiting for me to catch up and giving me rests to catch my breath. Eventually we got to Sump 1 and Gareth went through first. The low bit at the far end was worse than I remembered it. At a certain point I thought I would try rolling, thinking it might be easier than belly crawling, but a caver with bottles slung on each side, doesn't really roll very well in a low bedding plane, no matter how rotund the caver may be. When I made it out into standing passage in Bridge Cave I found Gareth chatting to a caver who was taking a party of children out. He had been a Northern Section member and who had found the Jingle to Hurtle link with Scoff years ago. He very kindly offered to carry a bottle out for me for old times sake. I managed, with much huffing and puffing to drag myself and my remaining bottle out of the cave. The daylight of a beautiful September afternoon was welcome, though the air was slightly marred by the decaying remains of a dead sheep Gareth had pulled away from the cave entrance the day before when he was bringing his bottles into Bridge Cave in preparation.
I was well tired, but was pleased that I had pushed back some further boundaries to my caving and diving. My plan to return to LNRC is to go in with a pair of 3s which should require much less weight to be neutrally buoyant: dragging less weight through those crawls seems like a better plan.