The Discovery of Poll Breugair - Applecross
Since the beginning of time (well, 1974), the Allt Breagaireachd has been the focus of caving in Applecross. There are other caves, but they tend to be short, linear passages rather than the more complex development seen in this area. Both Cave of the Liar, and the more recently discovered Cave of True Wonders, have a variety of passage types and comprise more than one rock type.
It was to Cave of the Liar than I was going on the first weekend of 2016. Gwenllian Tawy and I have been extending Nightmare Passage sporadically over the last couple of years, and we were on our way to visit it again. This time, I wanted to see the intake for the new hydro scheme; after that, we followed the valley down to reach the entrance. Just before reaching Cave of the Liar, I saw that the usual sink was dry, and stopped for a short look.
I'd not seen the sink dry before. I'd been shown it by David on my first visit, nearly ten years previously, but I'd never felt particularly inspired. Cold water disappearing through cobbles into probably a maze of tiny cracks was not my idea of enjoyable digging. But this day was different. Now it was dry, it was easy to pull a few rocks out and follow a solid wall downwards. After a couple of hours, we decided we were there for the day, and got down to about two metres below. I could see along the top of a rift that appeared to be heading west, towards Cave of the Liar - that was encouraging; perhaps it would give us a back way into the end of Nightmare Passage?
I didn't get back to the dig again in spring and summer. I'd almost forgotten it when I read Alex Latta's report of digging in a similar spot nine months later (having overlooked some activity by him in April). We conferred, and it turned out that he'd dug into the stream bed just a couple of metres from where I'd been exploring at the edge. Having been reminded thus, I arranged a couple of weekends in October to re-visit. The first of these was with new GSG member and novice digger, Saber King. We spent a pleasant afternoon in the hole, getting another metre down, and improving the stability of the boulders.
photo: Toby Speight
The next weekend, I was joined by another novice digger. This was Jessica Morin-Buote, a Canadian in Scotland for a four-month study visit. We continued where we'd left off, still aiming for the promising rift I'd seen. At one point I noticed Jess working an alcove on one side of the passage; I thought about telling her not to waste time on it, but I reasoned that it might become a useful place to stack deads, and anyway, she was having fun, and that's what we're here for really. I was ready for my turn at the front, but Jess called up that she could see a way on. "Go on, and have a look," I told her. Perhaps this could bypass the rubble-filled rift and pop out somewhere easier?
As Jessica's feet disappeared out of sight, I realised I ought to drop down and follow behind. She hadn't told me about the strong drought - that's really good news. I followed her along a body length of flat-out crawling, then we reached a small junction where the passage enlarged to hands-and-knees height.
To the left looked choked, so we turned rightwards, downhill. I knew we weren't heading towards Cave of the Liar, but there was nothing known on this side of the burn, so where could this passage be taking us?
I followed closely behind as we explored the passage, impatient to see around each bend, but also reluctant to reach the end. As it twisted deeper into the hillside, it became more rift-like, and some parts even warranted stooping rather than crawling. What a discovery! Here and there were even stalactites and some small flowstone deposits; even some false floor and crystal pools. We'd certainly have a good tale to tell - and the passage was still going!
As I was squeezing through a narrower, dog-leg section, I thought I heard something. Stop, I told Jess, and we listened. That definitely sounds like water ahead. We wriggled on, and within ten metres we reached a forest of stalactites above a wide stream passage. The stream seemed to be flowing from left to right, and I suggested we draw lots to explore the upstream and the downstream. That wasn't really necessary though, as this stream passage was big enough for us to walk side by side. Also, one of us would have been very disappointed, as the downstream direction almost immediately ended in a huge choke of rock and mud.
Turning our attentions upstream, we immediately found a cavern full of flowstone and some of the best crystal pools I've ever seen. There were large areas we just couldn't explore for fear of dirtying the pristine formations. We picked our way over boulders in the streamway side, and found ourselves walking along an easy square-section passage. Here and there were small windows into oxbows; we could see each other's lights shining to the back of them.
Toby Speight head first in the entrance to Poll Breugair photo: David
Morrison Jessica Morin-Buote in the entrance crawls during
wet conditions. photo: Toby Speight
Toby Speight head first in the entrance to
photo: David Morrison
Jessica Morin-Buote in the entrance crawls during wet conditions.
photo: Toby Speight
After a short stooping section, the landscape changed. A pile of big boulders blocked our way, the stream issuing noisily from its foot. I climbed up a bit, hoping to find a way over the blockage - then I got the surprise of my life! I'd popped out into a huge chamber, which I estimated was nearly ten metres across, and about the same in height. That's not somethig you expect to find in Applecross, and I just stood there admiring it while time seemed to stop. It was cut from innumerable beds of shale; none of the walls had any apparent structural value, but somehow stayed in position to support a huge domed ceiling. The boulder pile forming the floor told its own story, of course - all of that had come from "up there".
The other thing this chamber had was noise. Somewhere nearby must be a huge waterfall. We followed the sound, which took us under a giant bridge at the far end of the chamber, and into a parallel chamber where water was thundering down and sinking into a small pit at the bottom. Looking up from there, it looked infinitely tall, but we guessed that the top of this chamber was probably the same as the first one we'd found. There was no way to climb it though - the walls here were just the same as the ones in what we'd already dubbed Canada Cavern after Jess's nationality and its sheer size.
With no way to get up to the source of the waterfall, it was time to turn back. We made our way back, admiring the formations now seen from the other side, and exited the cave, gathering our tools at the entrance. I explained to Jess that we were now required to re-visit the next day with survey instruments and notebook, and document what we'd found. The clock was ticking as it was a big enough find to enter the J'Rat Award, but we had only until the end of the month to have it surveyed and submitted.
So we returned, and Jess got her first taste of surveying to go with her first taste of digging. We returned with an armful of data, and a mystery - where does the waterfall come from? We weren't to answer that on our next visit - a photography expedition on which we discover
what happens in wet weather. The entrance series becomes cold and uncomfortable, carrying several inches of water, and the stream rises around the choke, but the cave was certainly passable.
The question of the waterfall kept gnawing at me, and in November I brought the GSG maypole to see if we could reach it, along with Gwen, David Morrison and Ritchie Simpson. The maypole isn't long enough to reach the full height of Waterfall Chamber, so we tried getting up the Bridge with it. Gwen, being the smallest, was sent up first, and she demonstrated her climbing prowess admirably to continue
up the friable rock above the pole's limit. We were able to reach the roof of the chambers, and look across a tantalising gap of five or six metres to where the water comes in. At least we could see that a way exists, although I wasn't sure how we could reach it. We received a consolation prize that day, though, with the discovery of Upstairs - a group of connected chambers above the stream junction, with dry crystal pools and a stal portcullis enclosing an inaccessible "cage" that can also be seen from the choke.
Over the Christmas and New Year period several visits were made. David and Ritchie, along with Jane Stewart-Bollen, did some dye testing; the sink just above Alex's Waterfall Dig seems to come out at Skull Corner (named after a delicate hollow rock found there), but the water going into the dig is not the same water that appears in the entrance passage. Where it goes, and where the entrance stream comes from, are hydrological mysteries as yet unsolved. I spent an afternoon on my own at the entrance constructing a dry-stone rampart to keep the stream-bed out of the cave (and to provide footholds on the way down). I also started a more precise and complete survey using the club DistoX; this enabled me to measure the gap to the waterfall as six metres, with about the same length of passage visible beyond.
It was on one of these survey trips that I realised that at the top of the chambers was a small bed of solid rock, just a metre or so deep, that might enable us to bolt a traverse out to the waterfall. If that was possible, it would be much simpler and easier than the bridge that had been gestating in my imagination. I was planning to visit the Dales in February, so would acquire some bolts and hangers and bring them back to Applecross for the assault.
We've come a long way in the twelve months since Gwen and I started our tentative excavations - breakthroughs and frustrations, exhilaration and hard work, pleasure and pain. Will we be successful conquering the waterfall, or will we be thwarted? I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to wait for the next installment to find out.