Volume 44 Number 1 Article 1
My First Dig
Part 1 : May/November 2006
One Saturday evening in front of the fire at Bull Pot Farm I found myself discussing a dive planned in Joint Hole the next day. Andy Hall suggested that I should be doing something more useful and when I asked him what that might be he suggested a re-survey of the Bull Pot of the Witches to Lancaster Hole (Wilf Taylor's Passage) sump, to contribute to the Easegill re-survey. Clive Westlake had done the through trip in 1984 (2) and when I emailed Clive for advice he was able to provide me with notes from his 1984 logbook.
Beardy (Paul Swire) and Toby Speight had promised to carry for me on May 6 and since there was rain forecast we got underground early. I had decided to dive in my dry suit which triggered comments about 'luxury diving' and my gear came to five tacklesacks. Toby brought his camera gear along so we had six bags. My inexperience at packing for a trip such as this meant that my harness (with 4kg weights) was in a bag with one of my bottles. Early on this bag was dubbed 'The Beast'. Through some arcane anomalies of the space-time continuum the mass of the bag grew steadily throughout the trip.
As most of the pitches are short we mostly just passed bags down from one to the other, only one pitch requiring a hauling line. Most of the time the passage was such that we were able to manage with two bags each. For some of the crawls we were only able to take one bag at a time and had to go back for the rest. Dragging my bottles and gear through gloopy mud made me realise that I needed to pack my gear better to make it all more cave proof.
It took us about 1 ½ hours to get to the sump and I for one was glad to get there. Beardy had expressed an interest in the climb out of the airbell (about 20m into the sump) as there is hope of a possible connection with an on-going Red Rose digs, so the plan was to check out the climb, then head for the restriction about 40m in, relining as I went. Being spoilt by the easy entrances I have previously dived I managed to reduce the viz in the sump to nil when getting in and almost immediately managed to lose the existing line. Returning on my new line to pick up the old line I made another start. This time I found myself 5m in going through a slightly restricted passage in nil viz and immediately became concerned about the risk of entanglement. I decided that I would be safer trusting the old line and doing the relining at a later date when I knew the cave better, so I came out again and ditched the reel.
This time I got through to the junction to the airbell and had a look at the climb, which looked a little awkward, being about a metre above the water with no footholds. As I came back to the airbell junction I realised that in my excitement I had neglected to mark the home side of the junction with a peg, so somewhat unsettled by this cardinal error I decided to come back out to confirm the right way while I still had loads of air. The silt cloud I found on the way back was probably confirmation enough, but I decided to go back to the surface to be sure. Having seen me back at the sump for the third time in as many minutes Beardy and Toby were probably wondering what sort of an incompetent they had been lugging bottles for.
On my way back in I pegged the junction and soon came to the restricted passage. This had a pebble and mud bottom so I felt confident I could make progress in clearing it, digging with my hands. This was the first time I had done any digging (above or underwater) and while I am used to visibility in UK sumps this felt substantially more committing than anything I had done to date. The knowledge that I would have to give an account to my sherpas spurred me on. I dug for a few minutes then checked to see that I was able to back out to passage where there was at least enough viz to check my gauges before returning. I settled into a routine of digging for what seemed like five minutes (but may have been as little as two or three) then coming back out to check my gauges. Although the passage was tight I did not commit myself as fully as I would have to a squeeze above water, prudence dictating a less than 100% engagement. Having made 2 or 3m progress I felt I was very close to getting through. When I reached thirds I decided to call it a day, although strictly speaking most of my air had been used digging as I have not yet figured out how to account for thirds when digging.
I was relieved to be heading back at that point, but wondered whether a final push might have seen me through. Still I was glad I hadn't bottled it completely and felt I had achieved enough for the dive. Given that the sump is static, my hope was that the dig would stay clear and I would get through on the next trip.
As I swam back I noticed I was quite cold and was glad I had chosen to dive in my dry suit. When I got back to dive base the photo shoot started. Given that Toby had lugged my gear down I was hardly in a position to refuse to pose, but thankfully he only kept me standing in the sump for a few minutes. Dekitting we got talking about the history of divers in Red Rose which provided some colourful anecdotes that were discussed later that day at the drinks following the CDG's 60th AGM in the Helwith Bridge.
The haul out was hard work and although I had tried to redistribute the gear more equally there was still one bag that seemed to weigh more than all the rest. The consensus was "less bags, more cavers". On the way out I made a pig's ear of one particular climb, which occasioned Beardy and Toby to give me the "we've been climbing for years, look how easy we make it look" spiel. Beardy went back down to show me how I should have done it, but I decided to leave that exercise for another day.
A return to the sump was planned for mid June. Beardy had very wisely made plans to be out of the country, whereas in a moment of insanity Sam Lieberman had offered to help with the carry and Toby had likewise signed up. Ray Duffy turned up on the morning, bursting with enthusiasm for the trip. This time we left the camera gear behind on the basis that one photo of a diver emerging from the sump was sufficient. Having left a reel at the sump last time and packed my dive gear marginally better we were down to 4 cavers and 4 tacklebags, so we made it to the sump in 1 ¼ hours.
I made it to the restriction within a minute or so and started digging, this time with a trowel. I quickly decided that two handed digging would be more efficient so returned to go back for a piece of tat with two krabs attached so I could clip into the line allowing two hands free. John Cordingley (3) had suggested this as a good way of keeping track of the primary dive line when replacing old line. On my return I dug with much gusto, until I noticed that the line had got caught in the digging and what had been a taut line now had a fair amount of slack. I had a weak moment, fearing I had broken the line, but a gentle tug of the line established that the line was intact, so I decided to dig with a bit more caution. This time I put a peg on the line to mark the furthest progress.
Having discussed turning pressures when digging on the CDG notice I was going to dig till I had breathed my bottles down further than the last dive, but when I was 20 bar short of my turning pressure I decided that I was getting quite cold and had had enough. It was disappointing to have not made it through the restriction, but I had made a further metre or two progress and half an hours digging in a tight restriction in nil vis was enough for me.
When I got out I relished the piping hot coffee Ray had brought along. The way out was definitely easier with one bag each. On the way out Sam, Toby and I took a detour to visit The Far Gallery, where there are some spectacular mud formations. Toby and I decided that the piece of grey tape protecting them was inadequate and since it was a Red Rose conservation weekend decided to return the next day to put proper tape protecting them and photograph them for posterity.
The next day Toby and I went back to the mud formations. The trip is almost the identical trip as the one to the sump but with only one bag between us we had an easy trip and were back out in 2 hours with a ½ spent on photography, thus highlighting the relative difficulty of portering dive gear to a sump (and this sump isn't even a difficult one to get to). Many thanks to Beardy, Ray and Sam for the carry to the sump and particular thanks to Toby for carrying twice. If a diving trip takes twice as long as a photo trip and is twice as hard, then I owe Toby a mounting number of photo trips. Thanks also to Andy Hall for the suggestion for the dive.
My third trip to the sump in August involved a new team. In an attempt to create a larger resource pool of sherpas I had lined up Pete Eastoe, Philipp Jokisch and Matt Smith. I had offered Philipp Jokisch some SRT training in exchange for the carry. Matt is a caver and open water diver and aspirant cave diver. Pete Eastoe simply needed a catalyst to get him underground. The week before had been wet everywhere, but getting time off to go diving is a sufficiently delicate negotiation with my wife that swapping dates just on account of the weather doesn't occur to me. When we got to the Farm the sound of running water highlighted the possible concern over water levels. After the statutory faff involving a visit to Inglesport, we got kitted up and got underground. In Inglesport, discussing water levels with the locals it was agreed that there was really only one way of finding out what levels were like, that being to give it a go. On the first trip, when Beardy had been worried about water levels there had been a meagre dribble coming down the open shaft of Bull Pot of the Witches: this time a respectable torrent was coming down.
As we got further into the cave, the sound of rushing water made me wonder if I was going to get to dive. This was also my first trip where I was in charge: caving with the likes of Beardy and Sam I had been happy to leave any assessment of conditions to them. This made me a little more cautious than I would otherwise have been. When we got down to the bottom level of the cave (The Canal), the water level in the low wet crawl was higher than I had seen it before and while the water had been static on my previous trips this time there was a significant current. I told the others to stop moving the tacklesacks down while I had a look ahead and assessed the situation. On balance I felt it was OK to proceed, but thought I should give the others a chance to make up their own minds, as there was some chance of The Canal sumping, leaving us stranded on the wrong side. Philipp and Pete were up for continuing, as I was, but Matt very emphatically wanted to turn and start heading out. At this point, continuing with the dive was not an option as Matt wasn't comfortable making his own way out of the cave. I brought him back to the climb out of The Canal and told him the rest of us would join him after we had visited the sump and the mud formations in The Far Gallery. When we got to the sump, water levels were unaffected, so while Philipp took a few photos, Pete tried to catch a frog we found in the sump. The frog managed to elude Pete: I think he must have had prior experience of travelling in the inside pocket of a caver's oversuit.
Having stopped off at the mud formations, we got back to Matt, who was starting to get hypothermic. Not, it has to be said, sufficiently hypothermic that having prevented the dive he had moved any of the tacklesacks other than the one he considered himself responsible for. Sympathy levels for his state were not running at an all time high.
It had been frustrating not to do the dive, particularly as I had hoped that this would be the trip that would get me through the restriction, not to mention that we had done more than ¾ of the work to get to the sump. However, it had been a good learning experience for me in terms of assessing conditions, not to mention in learning when to keep my mouth shut. I believe if I had kept my concerns to myself I would have done the dive and we would all have got out of the cave just fine. Next time I have similar concerns I will keep them to myself until we are sitting in front of the fire at the Farm.
A return to the sump was planned for October 14 relying on stalwarts rather than neophytes. Beardy, Pete Eastoe, Ray came along, but the star attraction was Andy Hall: the man with the bright idea! We made it down to the sump in record time, just 1 hour. Clearly practice does make perfect. Having an extra sherpa we planned to remove the bottles Ray had found tucked away at the sump. Before taking the bottles out I let most of the air out to reduce the risk of life and limb: sherpas are sufficiently hard to come by, so are not to be squandered. I was relieved when the bottles were emptied without mishap.
Once kitted up I headed into the sump. The vis was worse than normal, less than ½ a metre, but I got to my dig in a minute or so. As I started to dig I was overcome with a loss of enthusiasm. This really is a grotty little dig. The line being laid on the right, I have to dig with my left hand which is not my strong arm, thus tires quicker. Had I not got a team of sherpas waiting to give account to I think I would have packed in and got out at that point. On a positive note, I had brought a dry diving undersuit with me this time in place of the wet caving undersuit, so cold was not a problem. Additionally I now have my own compressor so my bottles had a good 40 or 50 more bar of pressure in them. These two factors meant that I was able to dig for about 40 minutes this time. I managed to progress further, keeping track of the furthest penetration with a peg left on the line. I also dug a bit more the bit that I had already been through making it less tight. Sadly I didn't make it through the restriction, and as ever, was tempted to push a bit harder and just force my way through, but it's a grotty little place to get truly stuck so prudence prevailed. All my horsing about in the restriction has pulled the line around, so while it was nice and taut when I started, there is now just enough slack to be a potential hazard. A couple of times I got the line caught up around my right tank valve. Both times I was able to reverse out to where there was a bit more wiggle room where I managed to untangle myself. I was mindful of David Brock's recent CDG Newsletter article pointing out that line issues was a major factor in cave diving fatalities.
The trip out wasn't quite as efficient as the trip in, but at least we left the sump in a tidier state. The next trip was likely to be a foray from the Wilf Taylor Passage end, partly so I could dig with my stronger arm, partly for variety.
The Saturday of Bonfire weekend saw a trip down the Lancs route. A phenomenally strong team turned out with Beardy, Toby, Ray, Sam (Lieberman), Andy Hall, Martin Green, Helen Blyth in attendance. Helen was underground gear supervisor, although she did carry a bag to the entrance. Sam Allshorn (?) likewise carried a bag. On the way Toby took photos of tacklesacks: they are so much more photogenic underground ;-). As it had been hoped that carry to the sump is much easier and more pleasant. The diving on this side is likewise nicer. Kitting up, Toby took some photos.
Ten minutes into the dive the constriction was reached and the reel with the marked line was left. Reaching into the constriction the peg left on the line at the furthest point from the other direction was found. Ten more minutes were spent digging the WTP end of the restriction at which point my air levels were such that I did not want to commit to going through the constriction. Additionally I was starting to get cold, being in a 5mm wetsuit. On the way back a side passage on the right hand wall was found at the 30m mark, but I did not have a spare reel to explore it. A return is planned over New Year, possibly with a view to completing the survey.
.. more to follow in the next episode. Many thanks to all the sherpas.
1) The first two trips of this project were published in Speleology (August 06) and are included here with Erin Lynch's permission.
2) CDG Newsletter 74 p 11.
3) CDG Newsletter 159.
Preparation, Bull Pot of the Witches, by Toby Speight
"Sump Thing", Bull Pot of the Witches, by Toby Speight
Far Gallery, Bull Pot of the Witches, by Toby Speight
Sump, Lancaster Hole, by Toby Speight