Volume 47 Number 1 Article 2
Since moving to the Highlands, I've spent far fewer weekends in the Dales than previously, but that doesn't mean I've not been caving.
Although the caves of Wester Ross and Skye are nowhere near as impressive as those of Yorkshire, the much lower caving population means that new discoveries are generally less obscure and more accessible.
David and Ritchie are my local troglodytes, and recently David asked me to give him a hand excavating the collapsed entrance to Ivy Hole in the speleologically productive Coire Gaireallach woods, with a view to improving the existing Grade 1 survey and checking out the "too tight" continuation. When we arrived, it was obvious that the collapse wasn't quite as serious as I was expecting (thanks to David's earlier efforts), and within an hour we had a retaining wall with all of this rubble held behind it.
Caving could commence!
At the sink, the entrance is a drop of a metre or so, to reunite with the stream which has percolated through boulders. From here, it's a ten-metre crawl over cobbles to a pool, then a short duck to a point where the stream disappears down a narrow slot and around a corner out of sight. There's a whole confusion of passages branching off at this point - it seems that the stream has hit one of the many volcanic dykes that cross the woods and has tried many routes around it, leaving numerous gaps all too small for a caver. Slightly above and to the side of the stream was one such small way that appeared to connect with the continuation. A thrown pebble confirmed this, with a satisfying echoey splosh on the far side. But we'd need to return with enlargement tools.
The return journey began with the duck, which I didn't particularly fancy, so ten minutes' digging at its natural dam of stones and gravel lowered it to a much more pleasant wet crawl, and we were able to exit in relative comfort.
My second visit was also with David. This time we came armed with hammer and chisel to knock through the thin dyke and make further progress. At least, that was the plan. After two hours, all we had to show for our efforts was a blunt chisel and a hole I could get my shoulders through. Unwilling to accept defeat, we persisted in the bashing a bit more, then I succumbed to Digging Red Mist and forced my reluctant body through the hole, dropping into a tangled heap in the streamway below. Success!
After five minutes recovering, I bounded down the generally spacious passage for ten or twelve metres of easy caving along the stream. The passage appeared to end by sloping down into a rubble-filled floor, but when I squeezed into it, I found that the left wall was another dyke, about three inches wide, with a window into a parallel rift.
With some delicate contortions, I was able to twist enough to get my head in and see "going" passage beyond. But pushing was out of the question, given that I was effectively solo, out of earshot on the wrong side of the tight squeeze.
The true tightness of the squeeze became quickly apparent on the return. On the way in, careful positioning of my legs had allowed my pelvis to angle at its narrowest to get through; on the way back, however, the bend of the passage didn't leave enough room for the same manoeuvre. A feet-first exit by doing a handstand in the water and threading my feet up through the hole wasn't going to work either, so I made plans to receive a food drop every few days whilst trying to force an exit through the incredibly hard volcanic rock with a lump hammer and blunt chisel.
Half an hour of brutal thuggery and a total disregard for personal comfort did allow my eventual disincarceration, albeit with a good covering of bruises. We decided that a bit more widening would be required next time!
"Next time" turned out to be the following weekend. With Ritchie also available, we prepared by sharpening two chisels (on the theory that we could now attack it from both sides) and by fashioning a rudimentary capping set. Thus equipped, we set about removing a bulge that seemed to be the key to progress. I was able to pass through and start drilling from the other side; by the time I'd exhausted both batteries of the drill, I had a hole just deep enough to contain one cap. More in hope than expectation, we fired it anyway, but the results were pretty much what we expected - plenty of noise and very little else. So we went back to old-fashioned mechanical persuasion.
After a couple of hours of bashing, and both chisels now blunt, I decided that since the Chiselwrecker squeeze - as we'd now named it in honour of our destroyed tools - was big enough for me, it wasn't really my job to be widening it for the others (except perhaps to assure myself of rescue if necessary). Instead I headed downstream to excavate cobbles from the window I'd seen last time. A small retaining wall in the streamway gave somewhere to dump the spoil, and I made a start. Ten minutes later, David joined me; it seemed that the thought of missing out had spurred him on.
I soon discovered that one corner of the window was blocked by a wedged cobble, and a little bit of levering soon released it, making the window just the perfect size to wriggle through and drop down.
Three or four metres of easy passage under a huge chockstone led to a boulder blocking the way. A small gap to the right accepted thrown stones which rattled well before landing in a pool, so the hammer was brought out again. Unlike the Chiselwrecker, the dyke here put up no resistance, and I was soon able to push through, with encouragement shouted through the window from Ritchie, whose turn it was to visit.
"Chiseller's Revenge" seemed an apt name, and it led to a drop into a slightly hading rift where the stream rejoined and continued gently downwards for a further ten metres to a flat-out crawl in cobbled streamway, where I declined to push further (although persistence may well reward a determined masochist) and I returned to hear the other two looking at their watches. My hopes of getting the survey done this visit were dashed by family commitments, so another trip awaits - probably just as well, as I've since learnt that the intrusions tend to be iron-rich and therefore magnetic. Exploration continues, with optimism after two visits that have doubled or tripled the cave length, with another 40-50m still to go to the resurgence.