Autumn sea kayaking off Skye

The Black Cuillin is the heart of Skye, but it is surrounded by fabulous paddling – here heading to Elgol

Andy, Mary and Sarah Waddington, with Ann Jones and Kim Ball, spent up to five days sea kayaking off the coast of Skye in September. A week and less out, the forecast looked bleak and we were fully expecting to be doing training exercises cowering in sheltered spots with easy road escapes. In fact, the weather forecast improved, and the actual conditions were pretty consistently better than forecast. From practising contact tow rescues in the tide race under the Skye Bridge we progressed to a trip round the Strathaird peninsula, visiting a big sea cave with better formations than we normally see on Caving Section trips, then more underground exploration under Wiay in Loch Bracadale. Dodging the crowds of seals in the sun was the issue in Loch Dunvegan, and we finished the trip with more caves and tide races, going east to west round Skye’s most northerly headland, Rubha Hunish. Did I mention that the place is positively infested with Sea Eagles ? We saw seven, and that’s assuming every one we saw within a few minutes was the same one that had gone out of sight earlier… There were definitely three at once at one stage. Overall a very fine place for a week of day tripping.


Staying at the Skye Boat Centre at Strollamus (a few miles beyond Broadford as you come form the mainland), we started out fairly local with a bit of navigation in sheltered water with tide movement – under the Skye bridge (which runs up to 3 knots at springs, which this was, although we were after the peak flow). The interesting feature of the tide here is that it runs at very different times depending on how close to springs, and can change by large margins with low pressure, heavy rain, or S/SW winds. We found it running pretty much to the schedule given by the Pilot which is as we’d expected given the calm weather. We soon found that we could use eddies behind the bridge pillars to get upstream, and ferry across to the mainland side. As the slight breeze was with the tide, everything was fairly calm and we played at various techniques for breaking in and out before the flow started to drop off. Various low-lying islands towards Plockton then provided a visually confusing environment to navigate, but we soon established the speed at which the group were paddling and used this to keep track of where we were, so arrived at the Black Islands pretty much where we expected to find them. Unfortunately, the sandy lunch beach was still below the waves, so we found a more shingly beach right below the railway on the mainland. On the return, we had a bit more breeze, but still found time to look about and spot various starfish and crabs below the water.

We met quite a stiff headwind as we headed back to the bridge, and as this was now opposing the tide heading into Loch Alsh, there were waves to surf. The tide was running maybe two knots under the bridge, so this seemed like an interesting place to practice some rescue techniques. We were soon paddling into the middle of the channel, catching a wave and then throwing away the paddle to await assistance. Three of us all got a go at being paddle-retriever, rescuer, and rescued, using a contact tow technique which is very quick to set up and works very well for the short distance out of the tide race.

Ann Towing Mary towards the mainland shore

One thing that became apparent is that a rescuer in a long boat towing someone in a short boat has an easier job than vice versa, as less of the victim’s bow is in the way of the rescuer paddling. With boats of the same length, you need to be careful not to get the pointy end bumping in to your paddling arm or shoulder – not a problem as the breeze dropped off again, but more of an issue if the water was rougher.

With one hand on the deck line and one on the stern, the victim keeps the bow as close to the rescuer’s cockpit as possible.


Sarah has not done that much sea kayaking, so we were avoiding getting committed to any long distances – today we put in on the east side of the Strathaird peninsula to paddle round to Elgol on the west. On the way, we knew that there was a spectacular cave, but there are few landmarks and although buildings are marked on the map, these are hidden from below the cliffs, so we had to keep very careful track of where we were to be able to find it. I decided that as conditions were very benign, I would start out using a Greenland paddle. I’d struggled previously to get the angle of entry right and found the paddle would flutter under power, which is very disconcerting. However, Kim knew exactly how to grip the paddle to get the angle right without needing to watch it every stroke, and this proved to be the key to the paddle feeling quite natural and fairly efficient within just a few minutes. I was back to my usual rock-hopping within a short distance, though this did prove that the GP is perhaps not quite as robust as fibreglass – this would be why Inuits tipped the blades with bone to resist the rocks !

Paddling SSW from Kilmarie

The weather was glorious for September, and the low cliffs of eroded sandstone (with occasional dykes and sills) were continuously interesting in the sunshine, as well as providing boulders to paddle round and behind.

Mary rock-hopping
Mary rock-hopping along the Starthaird coast

We found just enough landmarks to keep ourselves pinpointed, and found a very deep geo at just the right place. We landed here, and followed it 100m inland to where, hidden behind fern-draped man-made walls, the cave headed off left under the hillside. This would be quite a difficult place to reach from above since sheer walls guard all sides.

Inside, the cave was high enough that those without helmets were at no risk of hitting the roof, and to my surprise we quickly came to a great ramp of flowstone with microgours. This was a steep climb to quite a height, and very well decorated towards the top, where the roof was still very high, and water dripping from that height had created cave pearls in the gour pools.

Spar Cave

A further climb went down to a deep clear pool, and more passage lay tantalisingly on the far side, receding beyond the range of even my photon cannon, which was, however, providing plenty of light for shooting UHD video. Having no rope for assistance, and mindful of the potential for embarrassment if unable to climb back up, we left the further reaches for a future visit. The climb down to return to the boats also looked more intimidating from the top, but, whilst flowstone can be slippery, microgours are actually pretty grippy, and much as for the improbable friction on Skye’s gabbro mountains, walking down was possible pretty much without needing handholds. Perhaps we should have gone for the continuing passage…

Climbing down the gours in Spar Cave
Climbing back down – this is a video frame, not a flash photo !

Back at the boats, sitting in the shade of the geo seemed a tad chilly on such a sunny day, so we headed a bit further to round the tip of the peninsula and find a warmer spot for lunch. Then round the island of Eilean na h-Airde it was just a short way to the slipway at Elgol where, by now, the tourist crowds had mostly dispersed, so we could get the cars down to the boats with relative ease.


A somewhat longer drive took us to Loch Bracadale and Harlosh, where we put in for what would prove to be the dullest weather of the week, with a bit of drizzle at times, but very little wind. We headed out SSW, soon crossing to Harlosh Island, where we hugged the SE coast, finding various caves on the way. The plan was now to cross to Wiay, but visibility wasn’t brilliant, so we carefully established the direction we needed to head, in case we should lose sight of the destination. We wanted a specific spot, to land for lunch, but aimed some way to the left, so if we hit the coast in a fog, we’d know to turn right to find our beach. As it worked out, the shower cleared away and visibility ahead got better rather than worse, and we were soon enough eating sandwiches on damp rocks at the back of Camas na Cille. From here, fortified, we set off anti-clockwise round the island, heading for the SW tip in a low swell. This can be quite an exposed bit of coast in typical southwesterlies, but today conditions proved almost ideal for poking into geos and caves. We explored both ends of what proved to be the same rift, which, in a few thousand years perhaps, will split off a new island at Rubha Garbh (rough headland). Further east the map had promising words like “Geodha nan Faochag” and “Natural Arch”. I soon found that in the narrow recesses of a long cave, the swell rose up to form breaking waves, and was glad to have entered into the dark zone backwards, so I could see these coming…

More caves and geos were scattered along the south and east coasts, though we were distracted from these by the sight of sea eagles soaring above the cliffs, coming and going from sight. Tearing our eyes back to the paddling in hand, we found a particularly fine arch soon before we started our crossing back north.

We next headed to the southern tip of Tarner Island, as this offered a break in the crossing back towards Harlosh, and a bit of rock hopping up its west coast. We landed again on Harlosh Island for a quick snack before retracing our route up the coast back to Harlosh and the cars at Camas Ban.


Sarah now left us to do some photography and to have a day to recover before heading for the Wet West Paddlefest where she would meet Michael, Peely and a cast of thousands… We, meanwhile headed back on the same road as yesterday, but a bit further, to Loch Dunvegan. Far fewer cliffs and caves today, but this was made up for by the huge numbers of seals, all of whom were quite used to people in the vicinity as a tourist boat was bringing visitors past at regular intervals. We headed SW, away from our eventual destination of Stein, to cruise round in the sun, watching the wildlife. When we eventually crossed to the east, looking for a lunch stop, I found that breakfast had run out and had to stop and wrestle with the day hatch to gain chocolate. I struggled a bit to catch up and after lunch I elected to dawdle round the south end of Iosaigh looking for the abandoned village and doing some fishing whilst the others padded round the north end and back down to meet me. By this point I had recovered my energy and we set off briskly to cross past Sgeir nam Biast (I was still towing my trolling line behind). About halfway across it became apparent that I had caught something, as my line went taut and the stern of the boat swung rapidly left. Whatever it was, it had a lot more pulling power than the Pollack we’d caught in Lofoten and I was looking forward to an impressive supper when the line went suddenly slack. Pulling it in, it became clear that my sea monster had the better of my monofilament, and had made off with my spinner, so that was the end of fishing for the day.


As there is now an embedded video, I’ve moved this last paddle to its own post.

Lost Johns’ Dome – Centipede exchange to Long Pool

This was an ex-Cambridge Speleologists trip, which turned out to be rather splendid, if not the most efficient. Eight people were present in Bernie’s by 9.30 am, and underground by 11.30. (Mark Dougherty had “been to a wine tasting” on Friday night and didn’t make it until c 8pm in the Marton). Despite much persuasion from Andy, trying to get someone else to go down Old Roof Traverse with him, and connect into Dome via Zig-zag passage, there were no takers. Given the amount of water and the general level of competence (some of us really hadn’t done much caving for a while), this was probably just as well.

The Dome party (Andy, Nick Thorne, Tony Rooke, Adam Cooper) were entertained by the rigging antics of Nick and Andy. Nick found a super backup belay for number 1 hole, to which the rope was duly tied. Andy clipped the bolt and pulled the rest of the rope out of the sack to find it a little short – in fact it didn’t reach the floor of the passage at the top of the pitch ! Swift rerigging from the single bolt followed. At the next pitch, Andy thrutched down way below the takeoff looking for the classic thread belay (which is actually on Hammer Pot in Centipede route), whilst Nick found the correct belays, but couldn’t remember any of the right knots. By this time, Adam (who had actually read the rigging guide) had caught up, and took over for the next pitch.

Another short rope on Dome junction saw us into Centipede, which had now been rigged by the other party (Tanya Savage, Dave Fearon, Becka Lawson and Sam). We soon arrived at the top of Battleaxe to the thunderous roar of the swollen stream. This was where we realised that we should have given the other party an hour’s start, as rigging the traverse took ages. Finally down, we found an exciting traverse line to the last pitch, and off we shot to the master cave. Both ways were explored in various combinations, but as the cold meltwater reached MSBL, no-one went beyond the Long Pool.

The parties swapped routes, and Adam drew the short draw in derigging the big pitch (Tony set off first, whilst both Nick and Andy claimed not to be able to remember how to derig such things without falling to their deaths). Once up this, things went smoothly enough, except that Andy forgot about the first small pitch in Centipede and had removed his gear at the top of Hammer Pot. Drat ! Owing to falling off the one tiny chockstone climb in the entrance passage, Andy got overtaken, to end up as first in and last out in 6¼ hours. The Centipede to Dome party had emerged some time earlier.

Brinco Camp 3

After the Infiernillo camp and our abortive Yerbabuena exploration, there was a rapid personnel change – Duwain and Del left and Louise Hose had arrived with Jim Pisarowicz from elsewhere in Mexico. Shortly later, Don and Sheri left, and Jerry, feeling ill, went with them, numbers being made up by the arrival of Patty Mothes and Roy Jameson.

The next major project was to be Camp 3 – another major camp, this time a new camp to be set for the first time in the upper cave, about 350m below the Cueva del Brinco entrance and around two miles inside the cave. As the entrance series of the upper cave is much smaller than Infiernillo, but also wet, we had to arrange for gear packs to split into smaller units and be completely waterproof. As this was a new camp, it was thought best to have a supply run to set camp up, followed by a lighter trip to move in any gear which didn’t make it first time. We spent a lot of time preparing for the first trip, finally getting underground at 2 pm on Monday 6th April. It is the norm here to spend a long time eating before a long trip and to set off fairly late – there isn’t the usual Yorkshire problem of getting out in time for the pub!

The Cueva del Brinco camp III team about to go underground for a week. Left to right:
Andy, Louise Hose, Terri Treacy, Peter Sprouse, Roy Jameson, Patty Mothes.
Photo: Jim Pisarowicz.

Despite its proximity to the fieldhouse, this was the first time I had been into Brinco, but with the heavy gear, we were all moving slowly, so I had a reasonable chance to look around. The first part (the Historic Section) is roomy and dry with many dead formations. We descended a fair way, mostly in steep passage but with a few climbs, until we reached the Dressing Room, where we changed into wetsuits and left dry caving clothes for the exit. This is where the fun starts with a wet thrutch, The Chute, followed by a narrow fissure, The Crack of Doom – to get through these we had to temporarily break our big cave packs down into individual stuff sacks (each waterproofed with several bin bags inside).

This was quite time consuming, but once through, progress in the Lunar Way was faster, though strenuous, until another delay at Mud Ball Crawl. Beyond the crawl, the passage opened out into Rio Verde. This starts out as an old phreatic tube with gour pools on the floor, mostly walking with occasional stooping.

After a while, the gradient increases, and there is a small flow, developing into a steeply descending streamway with steep gours and deep green pools.

Rio Verde leads pleasantly to Flowstone Falls, a 20m freeclimb which we, however, rigged with a line to facilitate descent with heavy packs. The falls drop straight into a swimming canal and further cascade before a series of squeezes obstructed the way. Another steep climb led to the beginning of The Canal – a low airspace wade for some way in muddy water. This ended in a climb up and over a barrier and through a lake to the Speedway Bypass – a somewhat awkward passage breaking out dramatically at the World Beyond.

The World Beyond is a major trunk passage carrying the largest stream in the system directly away from the resurgence for almost two miles. The going varies from deep swims of up to 100m to a meandering stream among gravel banks to climbs over large scale collapse. This ends abruptly where the stream, augmented by a major inlet of unknown source (possibly Valkyrie River), cuts down to the right to form the Angel’s Staircase (another steeply descending stream passage with gours), eventually sumping at -600m. The main way on to Infiernillo and Camp 3 is to the left starting a series of steep climbs over rotting flowstone and a major change of direction at a pitch. Shortly below this was the site of Camp 3 – a roomy chamber with a coarse gravel floor and a couple of deep pools. Here we dumped the gear and had a rest before setting out for the surface.

The trip back out, while not particularly fast, was a good deal easier without too much gear, and we arrived fairly fresh at the Dressing Room, and dry gear. It was only a short run to the surface where we emerged to pleasant sunny daylight at 8.30 am – it had taken us 18.5 hours to set Camp 3.

Needless to say, this was followed by three days of rest before we set off for the real camp. Carrying only sleeping bags and light gear, we moved much faster – the whole party knew the way this time which also helped, so we got back to the camp in just over six hours.

Day one of Camp three (camp days were on average 28 hours, so we went quite a long way ‘out of synch’ with the surface) we set out in a “boys party” of Peter, Roy and myself to investigate southbound leads nearer to Infiernillo, while the “girls party” of Terri, Louise and Patty went surveying in Gypsum Passage – the southernmost part of the system. It turned out that the passages we surveyed had been explored by the team who first found the connection from the Infiernillo side, but which were generally rather unpleasant with muddy chalkification of the walls. Saturnalia did not lead anywhere of great note, and we returned to camp to find that the girls had reached a solid aragonite blockage in a very pretty passage with no draught.

Day two saw the girls surveying a large passage leading from beyond Saturnalia, but which soon broke up into small pointless tubes, while we headed nearer to Infiernillo to investigate a side passage heading north parallel with the main route. Ganymede passage proved to be a major trunk passage but ended in small tubes which descended abruptly over rotting travertine to a lower series which we did not investigate.

Instead, we traversed over lakes in the main route to Infiernillo to find another large passage parallel with the main line, which had also been found from the Infiernillo end. This was easy surveying until the tape got clogged with mud. Day three saw me back in this passage, this time with Louise and Terri, and we reached a complex junction area from where our route turned out to be a dead end.

Returning to the junction, we followed footprints into a large maze area, Medusa’s Maze, which descended down the dip of a major joint to an area with attractive formations.

On day four, both parties worked in and around Medusa’s Maze, and we extended the area downwards until stopped by a large phreatic lift, The Wall, going steeply up which proved rather loose at the top. Below this, however, we found yet another downward lead into smaller passages but with a strong draught. This area, Yawndwanaland, continually stepped north, then down dip, then south along the strike, then down dip, then north along the strike and so on, moving very slowly west on balance until at the end of the day we reached a steep climb down. Louise went to investigate, and found that it dropped into a major north-south passage which must by now be both deeper and further west than the main route to Infiernillo.

As this passage seemed to promise the major breakthrough needed to extend the system at depth under the ridge to the south, where sinks lie up to 1600m above the Infiernillo sumps, both parties were fielded into it the next day. We elected to survey north while Peter, Roy and Patty went south. Our lead, Death Coral Rift, headed dead straight in a high rift floored with death coral, a sort of muddy calcite encrustation that seems to grow in passage annually flooded with turbid saturated water which drains slowly. We shot leg after leg, mainly easy and long, until we came to a shattered chamber. Climbs led to more bouldery passage, still heading north, but eventually we reached a conclusive, though draughting, choke, apparently close to the Netherhall. From here we headed back the 800m we had surveyed to see how the others had got on. After stopping for a few photos, we met the other group just beyond the entry point in enlarging passage.

They had surveyed over 1200m in generally large draughting passage heading south all the way. This passage was now nearly as far south as the southernmost point of the system. We returned to camp elated after fourteen and a half hours, and discussed stretching food supplies to allow one survey team to carry on south. When Peter, Terri and Louise set off next “morning” however, they quickly returned, having found the system was in flood. This meant that the World Beyond would be difficult, but more important, the Canal might be sumped.

Roy, Patty and I set off for the surface immediately, while the others packed up their camp gear. As we ascended the pitch, we could hear the roar of the World Beyond stream. Fortunately, the passage is large, and the stream was by no means impassable, so we quickly hurried on. When we reached the passage just before The Canal, we were relieved to be free of the roar of the stream but worried to find that the draught appeared to be absent. I lowered myself gingerly into The Canal and swum to the lowest point where I found that though the water was higher, there was still a draught howling through the small airspace. At some risk to lights, we all got through, thinking that our troubles were now over – but the sight that greeted us at the end of The Canal soon changed all that. The Rio Verde stream had risen from a tiny trickle to a sizeable torrent crashing down the climbs, making these very sporting, and causing havoc with the lights in the squeezes. When we reached the Flowstone Falls, it became apparent that it couldn’t be climbed, even with my Oldham lamp, so we were very glad of the rope we had rigged, though somewhat worried about possible abrasion in the water. I prusikked first, and re-rigged the rope to move the fairly minor abrasion clear, then illuminated the pitch while the others climbed. The rest of the Rio Verde was equally sporting and it was a relief to reach dry passage at Mud Ball Crawl. A brief panic hit us as we heard a loud roar from the Crack of Doom, but the torrent here proved to be mainly illusory. We didn’t bother to change into dry gear as we slogged slowly out of the Historic section to be met by Jim Pisarowicz just inside the entrance as we emerged just before midday after ten hours caving.

We crashed out quickly in case we had to go back in to take a food stash for the others as we were sure that The Canal would soon sump behind us, but in fact the others came out about three hours after us, having dumped some gear at the World Beyond. We learned from Jim that almost four inches of rain had fallen in the previous three days, as the start of the wet season was approaching.

Whilst waiting to see what the weather would do (it improved) and waiting for water levels to drop safely, we had a day in another local cave, Cueva del Borrego. This was a Swiss-cheese-like maze where a large and well-decorated chamber (The Totem Room) diffused into passages leading off and reconnecting in all directions. Apparently no previous survey trip had managed more than four or five survey legs before people had wandered off trying to identify a “main way on” with little success. Our ploy was to treat the cave as a large chamber with bedrock columns which we needed to survey both sides of. The actual survey legs took little time to record, but the sketching was a lot more time-consuming. I recall the survey adding a few hundred metres to the “length” of the cave, but the term is a bit meaningless in an environment like this.

Terry, Peter and myself retrieved the dumped gear from the Lost World and derigged the rope on a trip on April 28th. This took nine hours underground, mainly because Terri was taking photos which we hadn’t had time or energy to take on the main rigging-in trip or the week-long trip itself. This would be the last trip to any depth on the expedition as everyone else had, by this time, left the area and we were just mopping up before returning to Texas.

La Yerbabuena

Wednesday 1st April
Set out with Jerry about midday to walk to La Yerbabuena, a village about 7 km away (straight line). We had minimal bivvi gear and food for 3 days, plus a rope to drop a cliff of ~100′. The weather was fairly cloudy and much of the walking on wooded hillsides, so we made reasonable time on the 10 km walk. Above one particularly steep grade we came to a place where the road ran along a ledge blasted out of the solid rock for a couple of hundred metres. The view here was excellent, though hazy, and we could see the 400m cliffs of the cañon we were aiming to enter- a couple of notches could be seen in the wall, one of which we would use. To the right – ahead of us on the road – was the cleared area of La Yerbabuena. It took a while to reach the settlement where we had a refresco and got water before heading up through the village to find a camping spot. We slept under a tent flysheet under some trees – which would have been fine except for the rain which fell in the evening. We kept dry from the rain but got pretty damp from the condensation in our bivvi bags.

We cooked on petrol stoves, but were using our carbide lights to see. A whole series of insects (mostly moths) found the carbide flame fascinating. Each one would flutter about and crawl up the lamp, testing the bright light with an antenna which instantly sizzled off. Far from putting them off, this seemed to merit closer investigation, and by the end of the evening the lamps were surrounded by piles of self-immolated bugs.

Thursday 2nd April
Woke up fairly early and made breakfast after which all our actions were closely watched by four Mexican kids and a dog. Spent a while drying gear before packing up and moving down to the village where we left most of our gear in a house with the family of one of the kids.

After getting water, we went up the hill to the cañon rim, where the view was spectacular and a descent route looked unlikely. Jerry soon found a route down – very steep and loose – about 70% of the trees were firmly anchored but almost none of the rocks, so our descent was accompanied by much crashing of loose debris. After a long descent, we noticed that rocks now crashed for a short way, then went silent for a few seconds before a single, loud, crash reached us. We expected to find a vertical drop of ~30m which had stopped the previous party, so we found a “good” belay and rigged the rope, but it was soon apparent that a drop with a 4-5 second fall time was more than 30m and our rope was far too short. Once over the lip and able to look down, we saw that the rope went just beyond a ledge from where rocks fell free, taking ~4.2 seconds before we heard the splash. Say 80m or ~250 ft to the water. We had rigged directly above the resurgence which seemed to have ~1½ cusec flowing, but the cliff was undercut below us so we couldn’t see the nature of the rising. The changeover from abseil to prussik just below the ledge was rather exposed (very similar to the top of Malham Cove but more spectacular – 300m cliffs to the left and jungle all around). After I had ascended, Jerry went down for a look, whilst I clipped myself securely to our main belay. Suddenly, on the other side of the gully, a random tree keeled over and a sizable log slid off over the edge of the drop. There was nothing I could do to stop this – it was well out of my reach – I just shouted “Below!” and hoped it wasn’t too close to Jerry. Fortunately, although close and giving him a nasty fright – it did miss and didn’t damage the rope.

Back on the slope above the drop, we retreated fairly easily (although a bright green snake just above head level in the trees was an unwelcome bit of the scenery). We spotted an impenetrable fissure draughting fiercely outward on the way up. Further up, a cave entrance was visible part way up the cliff and reaching it looked fairly easy, but the climb got harder and more unnerving as we got further up, so we gave up. Near the top we found a very short cave with no air, so Jerry sketched it and tagged it before we retreated to La Yerbabuena.

After picking up our gear we descended to the water trough to get water and then went in seach of a rock shelter cave since it looked like rain again. Jerry soon found the Yerbabuena Hilton – a long rock shelter with room for half a dozen – we made ourselves at home, cooked a meal and lit a fire – I fell asleep early and it didn’t rain.

Friday 3rd April
Hot – the theme for the day. Went to get water at the village and then set out to walk back to Conrado Castillo. This went fairly well at first, with odd stops for rests and taking photographs, but soon got hotter and hotter as the day was sunny and fairly clear. Being more uphill on the way back, the way got weary and we decided to go via the road rather than the trail, preferring ½km extra to a 200m ascent. Just off a hairpin on the road Jerry and I went to look at a cliff which falls free for ~400 ft with an excellent view both towards La Yerbabuena and the coastal plain. The cliffs to our right were probably ~800 ft – pretty impressive. The final 2½ km on the road were pretty hot and tiring and it was a relief to get back to the field house after six hours on the road. Discovered that the other party had got back the previous evening – one pit ran out of rope but the mine didn’t really go. Patty Mothes and Roy Jameson had arrived in our absence, but Duwain and Del had taken off and gone home, so we were still ten.

I had a number of fairly successful slides from this trip, but made the mistake of posting three boxes of photos home from Texas. They made it to the UK, but HM Customs and Excise opened my parcel and didn’t trouble to seal it back up again with any care. Whilst the bigger items arrived home (including my written journal of the trip), the boxes of slides didn’t, and by the time it occurred to me that loose boxes of Kodak slides probably got sent to Kodak UK for tracing, it was too late, as Kodak only keep them for three months (about the time it took me to return to the UK and discover their absence). Jerry wasn’t carrying a camera, and none of the others photographers on the expedition came on this trip, so no photos now exist.

Camp 1, Cueva de Infiernillo

After a couple of days rest, we planned a week long trip to camp 1 in Infiernillo to explore leads in the lower part of the system. Since the cave entrance is halfway up a large cliff at the head of a canyon about an hour and a half from the nearest road access, and major leads are up to 5 km inside the cave, camping is almost obligatory.

We took the trucks down a rough 4-wheel track to where it fizzled out in the middle of the forest. A long trek down into the canyon following an ill-defined trail led to the base of the cliff. Peter Sprouse climbed up and rigged a rope for hauling. It was during the hauling that Peter’s pack broke loose and crashed down into a boulder wiping out one set of surveying gear and all our water purifier. Once we were all assembled in the 20m high entrance, it was getting quite late, but it was only a half hour trek in huge passage to camp 1 in a side passage above a large static sump.

The first day from camp 1 established a general pattern as we headed into the cave and soon split into three surveying groups working in different areas. After the split, I went with Jerry Atkinson, Del Holman and Duwain Whitis into a complex area near the Confusion Tubes on a photographic and surveying trip. The American style of exploring new caves is the only one possible in an area with so much open and going, so we started surveying into virgin passage, eventually extending this area down to the first running water found, at Gnome Springs.

Confusion Tubes area. Photo: Terri Treacy
Terri Treacy in the Confusion Tubes. Photo attributed to Terri Treacy.

The second day out, Jerry, Randy, Don and myself went into Moria, the westernmost area of the lower cave, discovered the previous year, which was near base level, and had a powerful draughting choke heading out towards the “Great Western System”. Jerry placed a substantial charge in the choke, but failed to clear it. The fumes soon cleared in the draught and we spent two hours digging but without success.

On the next day a “Glub Glub” trip was planned into Isopod River in which a small stream had developed into a canal downstream. This necessitated heading along the route toward the top of the system, climbing up into the Confusion Tubes. From here we trogged along for half a mile in huge passages to a boulder area which got quite thrutchy. Duwain and I opened up a route to a deep blue canal (near the Hitherhall) which we decided to survey. This soon proved abortive in one direction due to low airspace, and the other way eventually led back to known passage, so we tried a dry route which turned out to be an alternative route through the Breakdown Maze back toward Infiernillo. Having spent several hours on this investigation, we decided that we no longer had time to visit Isopod River and so thrashed back to Camp 1 at high speed.

On day four, Jerry and I planned to return to the Gnome Springs area with Don and Sheri, but when we got to Misty Borehole, we decided to look briefly at an unpushed climb at the end of this tube. Don tried out a few moves and suddenly shot up the wall, into a hole and out at roof level, much to our surprise. He then traversed over the top and into going passage and vanished for some time, only to return with news of a major borehole. We hurriedly rigged a handline and ascended to start surveying. The rift above soon turned into a tube and then developed into something unusual for the cave – a classic keyhole passage some 2-5m deep below a 2m tube. There were lots of side leads, but the main way carried all the air and we emerged into a sizeable tube. Unfortunately this didn’t continue too far before a large flowstone blockage, but a side passage led to a an area with cave ice pools and bacon rind stal. from where a beautiful flat flowstone floored tube ascended steeply to a series of climbs. Here we met a small stream depositing calcite which we thought could well feed Gnome Springs, but the water sank into a tiny vertical tube and our route was up the small waterfall into another tube almost blocked by flowstone. The water came from a small passage but the way continued to a deep rift in the floor which we traversed, past a pom-pom stalactite, to a climb down into an increasingly complex and muddy area. Here we ran out of time and after a short run ahead we headed back to Camp 1, pausing only to name the area Ithilien. Back at Camp 1 we found that the “40 kilometre” party had taken place on the assumption that we had bagged enough booty, but that we had been so long that everyone else had now crashed out.

Owing to lack of motivation, and one illness, day 5 was declared the last day of the camp, so we decided to get as far into the cave as possible in two groups – one finally getting into Isopod River and one to take photographs in the Netherhall, a very large chamber about four kilometres into the system. Beyond the Breakdown Maze, the South Trunk continued very large again to the turn off to the lower Isopod River where the wet team were getting changed. We left them and headed into the Monkey Walk, an awkward stretch of passage with low roof and bouldery floor, leading eventually to the Isopod River, a large passage with a small stream meandering between gravel banks, and containing colonies of troglobytic isopods like little piles of white rice in the stream, which gave the passage its name. By traversing the few pools which blocked the passage, we were able to reach the site of Camp 2 on a shingle bank in dry gear, and from here we started to climb up immediately to reach the Netherhall, which contains a 150m high boulder pile – like climbing Great Gable at night.

After about half an hour of upward slogging on scree, we reached the summit and spread out to get an idea of scale before spending the next five hours taking photos. This involved firing off over 60 large flashbulbs for two exposures, each with three cameras set up and the second involving various minions from the Isopod River team. Unfortunately, these photographs later proved to be useless (M3B flashbulbs simply aren’t big enough) and by the time we had made our way back to Camp 1 we had been caving for eleven hours.

The next day, everyone had entrance fever to a greater or lesser extent, but by the time we had taken in the shock of all those COLOURS on the eyes and abseiled out into the heat and the flies, it was mid afternoon. The slog up to the trucks seemed much longer on the way back, and it was dark by the time we reached Conrado Castillo.

Going to Mexico

The 7th International Speleological Congress was held on my doorstep – in Sheffield, in 1977. It was attended by lots of eminent cave researchers from all over the world, but also by a lot of ordinary British cavers with an interest in cave science or photography or surveying (or, indeed, beer). Nick Thorne and I had had a great week at the Congress and had made a definite on-the-spot decision that we would be going to the 8th ISC, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1981.

This seemed like a long way to go for just a week long conference, however much fun, and I’d always fancied some New World Caving – Mexico seemed to be the scene of major new exploration and looked like a very attractive destination for an aspiring expedition caver. One minor problem was that Mexico had a wet season starting about May, putting an end to caving trips, whilst the Congress wasn’t until July. That meant that there weren’t any Mexico trips tied in with the Congress, and it would mean a long time away from home.

Undeterred by this, I had written to the Association for Mexican Cave Studies looking for a trip, and had asked for some long unpaid leave from work. I got a very encouraging reply from Peter Sprouse suggesting that I would be welcome to join the Proyecto Espeleologica Purificación for most of March and April, and a flat refusal from the UKAEA on the unpaid leave. So I handed in three months notice and started sorting out US visa and Mexican tourist card, paying the fees for the Congress and a pre-congress caving camp in Alabama.

There was a level of panic as departure date approached and my passport hadn’t come back from the US embassy, resulting in a personal visit, and then a trip to get it from where it had been posted to, arriving the day after I had left. The Mexican tourist card was a lot less hassle.

Departing from Heathrow on March 11th in typical British rain and low cloud I expected sunny Texas to be a pleasant improvement, but arriving in Houston in the middle of the night (six hours late owing to a fault in the wing of the Pan-Am plane at Heathrow), I had to wait some time until I could get a Greyhound bus to Austin and found the weather was just the same – a poor start soon to be improved upon as frantic last minute food and gear buying took place in increasingly hot conditions. After five days of this, based at AMCS ‘headquarters’ as a guest of Peter Sprouse and Terri Treacy, we hit the road to Mexico. The sheer length of the drive across Texas started to bring home the scale of this continent. We reached Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, the next day and from there we headed towards the mountains and the Rio Purificación at Barretal. After a last swim in the river we set off up the long dirt track into the hills, starting out flat and straight, past large cacti in the fields, but becoming abruptly steeper as the Sierra Madre Oriental reared up ahead. The track soon became a four wheel drive test piece like the Alum Pot track laid over Hardknott. This lasts for a good fifteen miles passing over the Paso del Muerte, an entertaining bit of road eight feet wide cut into a cliff face rising several hundred feet on the right, and adding an air of seriousness to the almost sheer half mile drop into thick forest on the left. Rounding a tight bend, a vista opened up on the right, of the Cañon Infiernillo, in the steep headwall of which is the massive entrance of Cueva Infiernillo, the bottom entrance to la Sistema Purificación. As darkness descended, we arrived at Conrado Castillo, a tiny forestry hamlet, which was to be our base for the next seven weeks.

A bit of agriculture supplements forestry as a way of life in ejido Conrado Castillo. Photo: Andy.

The first day was spent organising gear, and in finding our way round the immediate area. The next couple of days saw us in small groups checking out some smaller caves and learning how the AMCS did surveying and rigging. The latter proved interesting. Having identified a potential natural belay, the approach was to hit it with a hammer and see how much of it fell off (quite a lot). If what remained was deemed to be enough, the belay was used (I couldn’t help thinking that the rock was now smaller and far more cracked than when we’d arrived…). Three hours were spent in Pozo de Maguey Verde one day and another couple of hours in Sima Doble the next.

Our first trip into the Sistema Purificación itself, was via the Entrada de los Franceses, an entrance direct into the highest part of the system, Valhalla. This is a complex fossil phreatic maze in somewhat crumbly rock. The first part of the cave is generally dry and we caved in jeans and shirt sleeves down a series of low passages and then many climbs, always leading down over solution-etched rock in wierd forms. One or two parts of this area are quite narrow, and as we were carrying quite a bit of gear, our progress was not too fast in the warm cave (generally about 15°C in the upper part of the system). A change of character in the cave to darker, firmer limestone somewhat reminiscent of OFD was closely followed by the sound of running water and we soon emerged at roof level above a five metre climb into Valkyrie River, a recently discovered stream passage whose source and destination are unknown.

We unpacked gear and got changed into wetsuits in the roof passage and then climbed down into the stream. Upstream through beautiful blue dolly tubs, a series of shallow lakes led to a wide sump pool held back by extensive gravel banks. Here Randy Rumer donned a mask and tried free diving with an electric lamp. The roof levelled out at about -2m in very clear water but Randy needed a large rock in his wetsuit to get enough weight to go further. A small bell about 2m in had no air and as the sump could be seen to go many metres in crystal visibility he retreated. Don Coons dived a couple of times finding nothing new, but the visibility started to deteriorate, so we decided to head downstream to survey in going leads.

Downstream from our entry point, deep canals in blue water with calcite encrustations made pleasant going to a sump with a bypass. From here we split into two parties to survey cave which soon degenerated into muddy grovels which closed down or sumped. Nonetheless, there were some good formations, and pools with cave pearls. We reached the surface after 13 hrs underground.

Sunday 22nd was spent in R&R, and a visit to some shorter local caves, Cueva Desmontes and Cueva Tecolote, with some surveying.

Unfortunately, there are none of my own photos from the first part of the trip, as I made the error of posting my slides home from Texas. UK Customs and Excise opened the parcel, but failed to seal it up again, losing all three films. Kodak slides lost in the post go back to Kodak in the hope that people can reclaim them, but by the time I was home and knew they’d been lost, the three month period during which Kodak hang onto them had expired.

Grotte du Père Nöel

With Doug Florence, Dave Eyre, Stuart Coote plus Belgians from C.Y.R.E.S.

A long weekend trip to Belgium, via the Felixstowe Zeebrugge ferry, and staying at the Centre YMCA de Réchereche et Exlorations Spéléologique, a remarkably well-equipped caving hut. The club here has close connections with the management of the Han sur Lesse show cave, so we had managed to arrange a caving trip into the Père Nöel cave which lies behind this large resurgence (rather than the standard showcave trip which is all rather tame and involves a large boat load of oohing and aahing tourists). We were supposed to be underground by 9 am, but in practice this meant leaving the cottage at 9:30 to drive up to the Nature Reserve behind the Han sur Lesse show cave. Through the rather serious chain link and barbed wire fence, we soon reached the entrance in the wall of a large rift in the ground. The cave is mainly easy boulder-hopping, but the formations are very impressive. Nearly all are pure white and some are very large indeed.

From the entrance, we descended steeply through a couple of digs and some small steep chambers on the dip, finally to emerge into a large sloping bouldery chamber, La Salle Bivouac, where the first of the good formations appeared. As we moved across the chamber, a large mass of curtains became visible hanging from the slanting roof on our left, and large stalagmite bosses towered over the boulders on the right. We were already impressed, but much bigger formations were soon to be seen as we arrived in La Salle Blanche. From the top of the boulder slope in this chamber, we looked across many large white stalagmite bosses and other massive formations which I couldn’t photograph owing to inadequate flash power. We left Salle Blanche by passing under a huge calcite bridge formed by the collapse of boulders from under a large stalagmite flow and topped by a colossal multi-tiered boss looming up into the roof somewhere.

A short section of muddy walking followed, then a short thrutch up into another large chamber with formations. Scrambling over boulders brought us to the top of a mudbank in Salle du Cobra, named after a remarkable stalagmite which was tall and thin but with a wide flattish top like a Cobra’s head. From here we scrambled down and up to a small passage up on the left, which turned out to be a bedding with rows of formations aligned along joints in the roof. This soon led out onto the Balcony, a spatially interesting ledge up to 20m above the floor of the chamber, La Salle du Balcon, with the usual huge towering stalagmites in it. This chamber, and the ledge, ended at a large stalagmite barrier over which we climbed to reach further chambers and lesser passages, eventually descending to a muddy place which was supposed to be a siphon but looked more like a silt choke.

On the way back we had various stops for photographs, unhurried by the very patient Belgian cavers. We also investigated a small side grotto with some very good “streaky bacon” curtains not far from the entrance. Time Underground: three hours.

Bottoming Eislufthöhle

First discovered in 1977, and explored on ladders to a depth of 150m that year, Eislufthöhle was my first piece of serious expedition cave exploration (see this write up). We’d returned in 1978, now competent in SRT, and pushed on to about 330m, including a very roomy 48m pitch which we named “Hall of the Greene King” (for which various club members, not including myself, who was elsewhere, got free tee-shirts on a later brewery visit).

Hall of the Greene King
Ben with the Greene King Pennant in Hall of the Greene King

Below this, the cave seemed to lose its way a bit, with two small pitches going different ways to reach a thrutchy, and very muddy, traversing rift above a streamway we didn’t even consider trying to reach. Unfortunately, after a long overnight trip, a road accident cut the number of cavers and left the remaining ones to derig and retreat. In 1979, we were back, with a comparatively small number of cavers to see how deep we could get. Camping at the col on the way to or from the cave was our approach to avoid the risks of driving down the hairpin road after a long trip.

17m pitch below Hall of the Greene King The new 17m pitch found early on in expo 1979

The initial vertical entrance series, known as Plugged Shaft, contained lots of snow and ice, which accumulated in different places each year, so the rigging needed a day or two of rebolting before we could start to get back to any great depth. Once this section was passed, progress to -260m was quite quick. On our first pushing trip, Tony Malcolm, Ben van Millingen and myself chose to try to bypass a pitch here, and found a nicer route with 17m and 9m pitches dropping to the final canyon, Fiesta Run. This awkward, incredibly muddy traversing section with various off-vertical drops was every bit as unpleasant as we remembered it being.

The Gents’ pitch, 9m pitch used in 1979The Gents' pitch, 9m

Nick Thorne and Julian Griffiths reached the end of this just beyond last year’s limit. The cave opened up, but the stream now made the obvious way on look uninvitingly wet, so Julian found a traverse leading on, to a dry 15m pitch. From here a side passage starting with a 5m climb down into a steeply descending meander seemed to offer a dry bypass. This was quite awkward passage, and led to a 25m pitch with some very sharp rock. Below this, an increasingly narrow rift was becoming unreasonably tight when it suddenly popped out in to the side of a pitch. This looked to be about 15m (to a probable depth of c400m). However, there was no sound to suggest that the pitch would regain the stream. He retreated, but did not derig the 25m pitch. Discussion in the Bar Fischer decided that this was not an attractive way on, but the rigged pitch ensured that I would revisit this passage on the next trip to reclaim the rope. I also went on to peer out at the unexplored pitch but agreed that this was a project for “the next generation”. Julian and I were the only people ever to visit this bit of the cave. Indeed, as far as we know, nobody has been back to this depth in the cave since 1979, so maybe we are skipping a generation.

On this next trip, starting from Julian’s 15m pitch, Ben and I worked our way forward to a 28m pitch which dropped into a huge cross-rift, and regained the stream, as expected. Compared with the confines above this was positively agoraphobia-inducing. The rock, however, was much cleaner than in the Fiesta Run (which gave us a clue about the effects of spray when it rained on the surface – there really was quite of lot of that on this trip already). A further pitch led on, looking at least as big as the one we had rigged. The next trip, Nick and Julian again, got down this, 33m. To gain further progress, the pair climbed up and traversed forward, to reach a pitch which they descended for 42m on rope. From the end of the rope, they could see that the pitch was bottoming out, with a big ledge below, but a six metre free-climb (in cold spray from the wet pitch) was needed to reach this, making for an awkward rope get-on on the way back out. The ledge looked out over yet another pitch, this time of 25m, meeting the water part way down – a very wet and cold location. Beyond, a further pitch was longer than the available rope. This series of linked pitches made up a vertical of about 120m in essentially the same shaft which we called “Madlmeier Schacht” after the owner of the campsite in Altaussee who had been our extremely helpful and friendly host for the first four expeditions.

Madlmeier Schacht, wet 25m pitch The bottom of the wet 25m pitch in Madlmeier Schacht

At this point, nearing 500m depth, the weather chose to make life miserable. One trip was aborted owing to the amount of water underground, and we had to wait four days before there was a reasonable prospect of making progress. By this time, the end of the expedition was looming, and we had a lot of gear in the cave and not a lot of people willing or able to go that deep to get it out. We were at the limit of our logistics for the small team, and really had no backup when we fielded a five-man team into the cave for a final push.

The 13th August saw Nick, Ben and Simon Farrow heading in to push on, while Julian and I followed behind, taking photos. We didn’t have the time or manpower to survey properly, but pitch lengths were measured and some sketching done. The undescended pitch was rigged with a longer rope, and the floor attained. Immediately there was a change of character in the cave. The water sank in rubble, and the large passage led to a boulder climb and short pitch where the dark, soft mud had an obvious message. A further climb down boulders led to a large, cold, deep-looking sump. The nature of the walls suggested that any search for a bypass would be futile, and we really didn’t have the margin of safety needed to make any further effort on this trip. We regarded it as critical to derig the cave at least back to where we could avoid the water if the weather turned wet again (as we had every reason to believe it might).

Photographs were taken in some haste (the place was rapidly becoming quite steamy as there was no draught) and we headed out, derigging and hauling all the kit as we went. In the event, we got all the gear back to -210m (the top of the 48m Hall of the Greene King pitch) and left it there, finally exitting after 16 hours. The remaining derigging was accomplished fairly easily, as other expedition members were also up for a trip to that depth, and the weather remained benign for the last couple of days. All eight of us carried huge loads off the plateau and down to the road.

The Final sump, only visited by five people, ever.Deep, cold, rift sump at -506m

Throughout the exploration, ropes became muddied by gritty clay from the Fiesta Run being transferred via people’s oversuits. Descenders wore rapidly, ascenders clogged up and failed to grip and several of the team experienced significant slippage, dropping them down the ropes. Toothbrushes were carried to clean increasingly polished/worn ascender teeth at the start of each pitch, every opportunity was taken to try to wash mud off kit when water was available, but overall, nothing seemed to make much difference. There were some quite scary moments, and we would recommend anyone choosing to push on in this system to have at least one rope-walker type of ascender which grips by pressure, rather than just by teeth on a sprung-cam. Prusik loops would probably be worth considering as a final fallback, certainly for the upper ascender. We had one rather small diameter rope with a kevlar core and a tight sheath which seemed particularly prone to this, and as kevlar-cored rope has very low stretch and little ability to take a dynamic load (as when the ascender finally snatches a grip) this was particularly frightening at a depth of 400m with very little backup in a cave at 2 or 3 degrees. We feel in retrospect that the group was probably operating with quite inadequate margins for safety – everyone who knew the cave was on that final trip and only one of those left above had been even part way down the system.

Drawing up the sketches, with measured rope lengths, we came to the gratuitously precise estimate of 506.2m for the depth of the cave.

Postscript (writing in 2016): Although no-one has been back anywhere near the bottom, Olly Betts with others have been in the cave and found considerable ramifications off side leads that we ignored in the nineteen seventies (including the “Brave New World” series starting quite near the surface). Surveys they have done of parts of our route suggest that our rather crude and hurried survey methods were not that far out, which is encouraging. We feel that our depth estimate is not unreasonable, but it is frustrating that we have no real idea of the direction the cave takes in its lower reaches. No-one seems keen to visit the deeper parts of the cave, the upper parts of which are now within 200m of linking to the vast Schwarzmooskogel system which CUCC have been exploring since the early nineteen eighties. It remains unconnected at the moment, though, and as such I’m pleased to have been the one who found, and one of the ones who bottomed, CUCC’s second deepest cave.

My first exploratory caving expedition – Austria 1977

It had begun to seem that we would be unable to get any transport to Austria when Dave Harrison offered us a lift. Plans were quickly made and equipment bought, then Dave just as suddenly had to drop out. Given the impetus to go we hurriedly made our own arrangements to go out by train to Salzburg. We finally got the tickets on Saturday August 6th, to travel on Moday August 8th.

Simon Farrow and I managed to send food and some gear with various other members. We met Nick Thorne at Victoria station and then took the train to Dover, to catch the ferry to Ostend. By train again from Ostend through Brussels, Aachen, Cologne, Bonn, up the Rhine valley, Bavaria and Munich and then, as we approached the border with Austria, mountains appeared. Five minutes beyond the border we were in Salzburg.

Nick had enough German to get us onto a bus to Bad Ischl. From here a train took us round the edge of Halstatter See and some very spectacular views of the Trippenstein and Dachstein. The train carried on up the valley of the Traun and into Bad Aussee. One last bus took us up to Altaussee where we were quickly pointed at the campsite. It was immediately obvious we were in the right place because of the large squalid camp, with 6 kayaks and an English car. We were greeted by Dave Fox and Vic Brown who informed us that everyone else had gone up to the plateau to camp.

We unloaded, unpacked and settled in. The camp was next to the lake, on the far side of which towered the massive Trisselwand, an enormous clean limestone face 600m high.

Almost immediately after we had set camp and cooked a meal, it started to rain, a serious change from the glorious sunshine on our arrival. This soon developed into the most spectacular and noisy thunderstorm I have ever seen, and continued for some considerable time. We retired to our pits to catch up on sleep lost on the train. After a while a vehicle arrived, and Reckert’s voice drifted across the campsite. His tent wasn’t waterproof and was last seen with an inch of water on its tray groundsheet!

After some time the rain eased off and we all headed for Fischers bar, the normal sequence of events for all subsequent evenings. Next day the weather was still poor and more of the expedition returned leaving only Mike and Julia on the plateau. Getting more and more bored, I eventually decided to borrow a kayak and ended up paddling 7 miles on the lake.

Next day was better and we set off up to the plateau. We discovered that the way up the mountain was by toll road, and that the toll would be about £3 a time for the average vehicle we were taking up. Luckily we had had a free passage negotiated on our behalf by Karl, our Austrian contact. On about the seventh hairpin, we noticed that the altitude was 1348m, putting us higher than Britain.

From the car park at the top we walked for about 20 minutes, mainly fairly level, until we arrived at the campsite where Mike Perryman and Julia Kostelnyk were. From here, we walked for another 20 minutes or so to a col from where the plateau was visible. An enormous area of sparsely vegetated karren stretching for about three miles into the distance greeted us. A small area just in front of us had been looked at last year, while Nick Reckert, Steve Perry and Julian Griffiths were working over to the left and Team Leach with Mike and Vic and Dave were working to the right. We struck off into the centre.

CUCC’s first top camp – At Bräuning Alm, halfway up to the plateau

Very shortly we found an east west rift with water sinking nearby. The shaft seemed to be about 20m deep so we decided to start exploring. The prospecting technique we had been advised to use was one person exploring, one supporting, and the other prospecting for more holes. Simon had elected to be Surface Martyr, so I prepared to descend while Nick rigged the pitch.

The ladder went down for about 15m to a sloping boulder floor where I untied. I descended the boulders and climbed down a hole. A small sharp crawl led off. I followed the crawl for about 3m and then met water. This came down as a heavy drip from the roof and disappeared into a narrow slot in the floor. There was no way on. I retreated to the pitch and reascended, noting where a window from the hole next door to the west came in. The total depth was about 20m, and we decided it was worth numbering. We started our sequence with number 100. I photographed the entrance, and wrote down the details of the hole.

Simon had been looking for the sound of water nearby and had been frightened by a snake, so had moved to a more open area with various holes. He had already found one deep hole with a long stone-rattle, but this had a number, B11. We later found that this descended 55m to a choke. Somewhat further on, we found a colossal hole with a huge snow plug, and a possible hole going down at the far end. We knew we were in an area which had been looked at, so we decided to ask about it before investigating any further.

Shortly later, we found a large hole with a snow plug and a passage leading off. This came to a pitch head, and we were looking for belays when we eventually spotted the number – B9 in an obvious place, but almost invisible after a year. On later occasions we found that the number can only be seen on dry rock and vanishes under the mottling of lichen when it is wet. Further on still we passed B8, so we decided to head directly away from the col until we found something new.

After some time, we climbed down a small fault scarp onto a dipping area of rock and I found a small rifty entrance a few feet long with an obvious climb down inside. I descended this and found two ways on. To the left was a short pitch, while to the right was a short crawl leading to another entrance in the face of a small scarp. Nick kitted up and while he did so, I traversed over the pitch to a smaller climb down with a tiny tube leading back to the base of the pitch. I retreated and put a ladder on the pitch. Descending this led over a gravel floor and over an awkward rock into a tube. This led on for some way to the top of a climb down into what promised to be a larger passage but turned out to be a similar tube with a floor slot. This slot closed down and I was forced to crawl at roof level in the tube. This continued with occasional steep sections, descending for some way until finally, the floor slot became apparent again and turned left sharply. At this point there was a window on my right which led out via a 2m climb down onto boulders at the base of a large aven. There were holes in the boulder floor and a descent at the far side would have been perhaps 5m onto what appeared to be more boulders. I retreated and Nick went down for a look. I don’t think he went as far as I did, but we both agreed that if we did find anything down there, carrying tackle would be a severe problem, so we decided to leave it. We labelled the original entrance 101, and the second entrance 101A. About 50m away, Simon had found another shaft which descended for some way, by the sound of stones, so we laddered it and I set off once again to explore. This time it was a smallish joint-orientated shaft which descended almost exactly 20m to a solid choke with a small amount of snow. We labelled it 102.

Prospecting was now going more slowly and we all joined forces to investigate various nearby holes until Nick and Simon decided on a rifty semi-horizontal entrance not far from 102. We had, however, run out of time, so we dumped most of the gear and headed back for the col. On the way we passed various holes which we thought held considerable promise and we congratulated ourselves on finding a better area.

Next day we attempted to walk directly to our area, but were soon frustrated by a large area of spruce. Nick and Simon attempted to bypass it on the left while I went off to the right. It was some considerable time before we remet, and we were still separated by a large patch of dense bush. Between us lay a large horizontal cave entrance which Nick and Simon investigated as a horizontal tube which bifurcated and then choked.

By taking bearings on the local mountains, we deduced that we were a long way from where we should be, and in precisely the opposite direction from what we expected. We set off, still separated by a band of bush, until we were nearer the place where we ought to be. We then split up again to try to find the OAV pole which had seemed an obvious landmark when we were at our entrances. Eventually I spotted it and was soon at the entrance to 101. It took Nick and Simon about half an hour to arrive despite their being only about 100m away. We had lunch.

Nick and Simon rigged their hole – 103 – and both descended in what proved to be a narrow rift with ledges. Simon had to go half way down to line Nick to the bottom. It choked.

We were fast coming to the conclusion that this area was not too good so we set off to the right (as seen from the col) to look at some of the holes we had seen the day before. We failed to find any. The scar we were walking along seemed to be a fault and obviously quite a bit of water sank there, but everything looked very choked. Eventually we emerged at the top of a slope down to an area which looked very heavily jointed and which had numerous large holes in it. As we might have expected, everything seemed choked.

Since the area was fairly clear of bush, we decided to dump our gear here and prospect the surrounding area which looked as though it could hold something and was also likely to be fairly easy to find since some large erratics formed an unusual landmark… we had learnt that landmarks needed to be visible from afar !

We split up and started wandering across the karren finding various open holes which obviously choked and several horizontal entrances which had to be looked at more closely. Nick and Simon found most of these but they all choked.

Eventually we ended up a long way from where we had started and Nick and Simon called me over to them as Simon had found a long narrow rift entrance with no loose scree near it which looked promising. Nick and Simon fetched tackle (some of it) and Nick and I started to rig it while Simon meanwhile found more holes.

Though awkward to rig, Nick was soon descending only to find it getting too tight with a way down visible. Since the depth was only about 10m, we did not number the hole. Time was running out so further investigation was delayed for a while…

Back on the karren again the next day, we had less trouble in finding our holes, though at some stage in the proceedings I got thoroughly lost retrieving gear from the heavily jointed area where it had been left. We turned our attention now to Höhle 104 which Simon had found. There was nothing resembling a belay for this, but a very large erratic perched about 10′ from the lip provided a secure point to which we attached a bolt. While this was being done, I was prospecting for the tackle left a long way away. I got very lost again and almost ended up back at 101 before realising. When I got back with the gear, I found that Nick had found another hole, down which stones rumbled for a long time; things were looking up !

Simon was fed down 104 and descended for some time, freeing ladder on his way. He was instructed to count the rungs on the way up and by this means we found that the hole was 32m deep, our deepest so far, but as usual it choked.

We began to suspect that 105 would choke the same way, so while it was being rigged by Simon and Nick, I started prospecting again. The only thing I found was a small horizontal entrance in a scar, but on entering this I was amazed to find I was in a large black space. Walking in carefully I seemed to be in a large flat-roofed chamber about 2-3m high and 10m wide. At the far side was a very exciting black space leading on. To my left, daylight came in through a small hole in the roof. After a few seconds, my eyes started to adjust to the light and I saw to my great disappointment that the far end of the chamber ended in a solid wall. The floor was solid boulders and scree with no obvious place to look for a way on. I climbed out of the hole in the roof and returned to the others to find that they too had visited it.

105 was being rigged from a ledge about 6m down where Simon had climbed on a handline. A lot of ladder was being put down, but time seemed to be running out again. It was fully rigged but not descended before we returned to the café.

My diary for the next day read ‘Fed/Festered/Farted’, and this sums up our rest day except to mention that I kayaked round the lake, then across the lake, and then part way across the lake, about seven or eight miles altogether.

Monday the 15th saw us back on the plateau to investigate a small draughting hole which I had found on our way back last time, but first there was the small matter of 200′ of ladder down 105…

From the first ledge, the place looked very loose, but after a final bit of gardening, I started to descend in what proved to be a fine shaft in clean white limestone. The ladder was caught on a couple of ledges, and the shaft sidestepped onto a parallel joint about halfway down. The whole place was very roomy and clean, but landed on a damp, level and very finally choked floor at a depth of 41m. The view up the shaft to the daylight at the top was superb. I coiled the remaining ladder and set off back up, tying back onto the lifeline (which was too short) about 5m up from the floor.

Since the rock was rather knobbly and there were several ledges, I pulled the ladder up at each one and coiled it. This meant that derigging was pretty efficient and we quickly moved over to the draughting hole.

Simon at the 106 entrance, early in our exploration

The entrance which was next to a patch of Bunde (as we had now learned to call the dwarf pine scrub) was vertical for about 6m to what sounded like a snow ledge. It was pretty narrow with some snow in it, so I descended on a handline. This proved rather sporting since the snow was only a centimetre or so deep over hard ice, so I slid down rather rapidly.

At the bottom of this first section was the expected snow ledge, and leading off were two passages. The way on, though, was neither of these, but a steep ice slope in a narrow rift from which came the enticing draught. I again descended rather less than elegantly, but a good deal more carefully, to find a small chamber with a window at the far end from which roared a powerful gale. I looked out of this and to my delight saw a pitch of about 6m onto another snow platform. I returned with some difficulty to the first snow ledge and then investigated one of the side passages which carried some of the draught and emerged at the base of a nearby doline. This was to become the normal entrance to the cave.

Elated by the find, we had lunch and set off to rig the cave safely, by putting a ladder on the ice slope above the pitch. There were few belays to be found, but once rigged it was a good deal safer. There were even fewer belays for the pitch, and eventually we rigged it from the handline and a dubious flake. We put 20m of ladder down and I descended.

The window led onto a pleasant pitch of 6m free onto the centre of a large snow plug down the sides of which were two holes. I fed the ladder down the larger and descended. This proved rather awkward, against crystalline snow and round a spiral which made communications difficult. I dropped down onto a further snow platform just before the end of the ladder. Off the edge of the snow, the pitch continued round a corner to the left. I looked down this and could discern more snow about 20m down with more black space beyond. I retreated rapidly.

The excitement at this stage was intense, but we could obviously not proceed further without better belays, so a temporary exit was made. Nick went down and put in a bolt at the top of the ice slope, and for the next attempt, the bottom of the first ladder was used as a belay. We still needed more bolts however, so further progress was postponed.

On the surface, Nick and Julian wandered by, having given their area up as being generally loose and choked. We next saw them in the campsite where they said that they had found a draughting hole about 100m beyond ours, but it was too small to enter. In typical Northern Branch dedicated fashion, they proposed to apply mechanical persuasion with a lumphammer to the entrance. Team fat geriatric jeered at the idea, but the results certainly justified the means.

Next day we were back at 106 and a bolt was put in at the head of the pitch, and Nick descended, with 60m of ladder on the pitch. Lifelining at the pitch head proved to be the most desperate part of the exercise, with a very powerful wind (enough to blow a carbide out) coming up the pitch at freezing temperature.

About 12m below the snow platform, the pitch continued as a steep snow slope into which steps could be kicked. This went down for 9m to a rock lip below which the ladder was somewhat awkward to climb as it had got caught below and was in tension. A further twelve metres down, the ladder went down a ‘rift’ with one wall of snow and one of rock. This choked off about four metres down and Nick had to climb back out. The rift proved to be a sort of mini-bergschrund, and he was able to climb over a snow pile and descend the far side for 8m to a large ledge below which the ladder had been catching while he was climbing the last section. Below the ledge the pitch still continued, turning left again. Dropping rocks, Nick estimated the depth to be about 20m onto yet more snow, but throwing rocks further out indicated a floor of considerable extent. We had no more tackle to continue, and it was becoming obvious that we needed to get more people further down. This would entail the placing of several bolts and rigging for abseil/self-line.

Next day we showed our entrance to Nick and Julian again, and they showed us theirs, so we could act as mutual call-outs. I descended to put a second bolt at the head of the pitch, Simon put a bolt at the -18m snow platform, but this went wrong. I then placed a bolt on the rock bridge. For most of this time, Nick was at the bottom where he had taken an extra 20m of ladder. Simon exitted and I descended to the bottom (Yesterdays’s Terminus) where Nick and I put another bolt in, not realising that it was now very late. When we eventually exitted, the ladder proved very knackering to climb as it kept getting caught. We emerged into an incredible hailstorm (at least, Nick did – five minutes later or less, when I arrived, it had all finished) and rushed down to the car park as quickly as possible, noting the 6″ banks of hailstones on the way. After this epic we decided to have a gonk-day.

Nick, Julian and Steve had by now extended their hole (97) to about -75m, including one very tight bit called the Nun’s C**t on account of its needing banging.

Our gonk-day unfortunately turned into two gonk-days on account of some nasty low cloud and rain. We were fairly pissed off with the shaft (Plugged Shaft) which was proving so awkward to rig, but by next day we were keen to get to the next pitch down (Saved Shaft).

Ladder on the final section of Plugged Shaft at -85m

We found that the abseil/self-line technique was proving very effective as we all descended to Yesterday’s Terminus in about ten minutes at most. Nick abseiled down the next pitch which proved to be about 14m onto a snow slope descending a few metres further into a big circular chamber whose roof soared out of sight even to Nick’s electric. The floor was composed of large angular limestone blocks and one of these provided us with a belay for the next pitch which was a rift to one side of the chamber which appeared to be about 15m to a rock floor. Nick and Simon rigged the pitch while I took piccies, and then they both descended. From the top of the pitch they didn’t sound happy: they had descended 16m into a small chamber, the far side of which was composed of huge limestone blocks, from beneath which the draught emerged. There was no way to climb over and boulder chokes are not the nicest things to meet when in such an isolated spot.

I descended to see the choke, and soon discovered that climbing over was a poor idea since the large blocks all supported piles of loose grubble which fell off when used as handholds. I then turned my attention to the small hole through which most of the draught appeared to come. This was directly under a very large block, and had a floor of more loose grubble. I pushed lots of grubble through the hole to make it larger and more stable, and then crawled into it on a lifeline. I discovered that the choke ended immediately and led out into a rifty passage with a choked floor of jammed rocks and muck. Kicking various amounts of grubble out of the way I was able to descend onto this floor, remaining jammed in the rift in case it wasn’t stable. I started to clear some of the muck from the choke to make it easier, and dropped a rock down a hole in the floor. To my surprise there was silence. I was reaching for another lump when there was a loud crash with lots of echo. More rocks followed with the same effect. I traversed forward to a place where the floor seemed to end and dropped rocks down here. We estimated a pitch of at least 30m in a very roomy shaft, and from the lack of bouncing it seemed to be free-hanging. The floor obviously needed gardening a lot before we went down the pitch, and anyway the top looked rather tight. Nick had a look and then we made our way out.

The next day – Sunday 21st – we rapidly reached the head of the new pitch, and I went as far forward as possible, again on a line, and started to remove the floor of the rift. This proved fairly easy as it was not very thick and after about half an hour or so, I had shifted most of it. A bolt was put in at the far end of the pitch and a traverse line rigged to it, the ladder belayed and Simon tied on to lifeline me. The pitch head needed a bit more gardening as I descended, and proved very awkward being so narrow, but the shaft below widened immediately, and was not free-hanging at all. In fact I was climbing a very easy pitch against the wall, which started at this side of the pitch, explaining why it had sounded free hanging from the other end of the traverse. The shaft was oval in shape and quite large. I descended 32m, passing only one small ledge, and then the lifeline became tangled at the top. This was very frustrating since I was only about 1m above a large ledge and had just come under a heavy drip. Once I got a bit of slack, I crossed the ledge and the pitch continued round to the left, though it sounded very broken. We had no tackle to investigate this with, so reluctantly I reascended, finding Simon with the lifeline in a huge tangle hanging down the pitch in my way. When it was eventually sorted out Simon left and I derigged. When only about 15m of ladder remained in the hole, a large chunk of the pitch-head decided to go in for free-fall caving. A sudden jerk on the ladder at the same time as the crash from below indicated that we had smashed a ladder and indeed it proved that one of the exCS ladders had a wire smashed three-quarters through. It was retired from service.

Considering the size of the hole and the power of the draught we were following, it seemed a little odd that I could not detect it so I looked round a bit. The rift continued beyond me, but since the pitch below didn’t, something odd was obviously going on. Simon came back across the traverse to help with the tackle so I got him to line me while I investigated the rift. There were a few loose rocks, so I climbed up and found a hole over a chockstone which led out onto a traverse about ten feet up in the rift. I found a place to descend and this quickly led to an enlargement and then a pitch head. The draught came through the hole, so the way on was open again. This meant that we would not be derigging, so we ferried the tackle forward and Nick came through. We were now running out of carbide, and as my light was about to go out, it seemed reasonable not to refill it until necessary. Accordingly, I waited in the Boulder Chamber with no light while Nick descended the pitch. It was 18m to a large ledge and Nick estimated another 20m to the bottom, so we had to retreat to get another lifeline.

We were now getting left behind as the Team Enthusiast hole ‘Schneewindschacht’ had reached over 200m and was still going, while our deepest point was about 145m. We realised that we would not be able to get much further unless we found some gently descending passage with lots of short climbs, but next day saw us with another lifeline obtained from Höhle 82 – Team Geriatric’s 220m find.

We were intrigued, particularly on this trip, to note that the draught was becoming very variable and even reversed for a couple of minutes at one stage. Back at the new pitch, Nick descended to the large ledge and then continued down what proved to be only 14m to a passage leading gently downwards !

This vadose passage led to a large chamber and numerous possible leads, but unfortunately had a heavy drip which made exploration by one person on carbide very risky. Nick returned and reported what he had found, and we then had an argument on the safety of two people going down at once. Nick reckoned he could return the lifeline to the ledge but no further, but as there was room on the ledge for two people, we decided it would be safe to go down as a pair. Simon and I descended and made our way forward to the chamber, where the following leads were noted –

  1. Large holes in the floor dropped about 10m to what appeared to be a passage continuing below carrying the stream from the huge aven above.
  2. A large rift on the far side of the chamber appeared to continue the line of the passage by which we had entered.
  3. Nick had found a small lead which came to an abrupt halt at a large circular shaft in the floor, at the far side of which the passage continued.

While not at all certain, it appeared that the draught came out of the holes in the floor and went up the passage we had come down, and also up the passage on the far side. With all these leads, there must be something there, though a somewhat better equipped party with at least some electric light will be essential next year.

A photo was taken for posterity and we retreated, performing a grade three survey on the way out. The final series was not named. We derigged as far as Yesterday’s Terminus, where we belayed all the tackle in a huge pile and exitted.

There was a huge amount of rain during the night, but somehow I was persuaded to go on a two-man trip with Nick Reckert down Schneewindschacht to derig the bottom half after it had ended too tight at a CUCC record -265m.

On entering the shake where the entrance lay, it was noticeable that a lot of water was around. Ignoring this, we descended the entrance which is quite thrutchy and leads out onto an easy free-climb and thence to the ‘Baptistry’-like tight bit. A lot of water fell down this at the start but was soon lost in the narrow slot below. The head of the first pitch was festooned with SRT gear, and Nick and I descended the first three pitches in rapid succession. The takeoffs were interesting….

The first pitch was an easy takeoff once out of the crawl, the second was rigged from below a small stream gully and involved traversing on a rather small ledge whilst clipped into the bolt, while the third involved chimneying out above the pitch to reach a bolt which looked as if it had been placed by a spider, but which was fairly easy to clip into the pitch itself. Below this came an awkward step over a Puits en Baionette which led to a sizeable ledge which was the first point out of the substantial waterfall (Slit Pot sized) which accompanied the first three pitches of 55m total. Here Nick decided that the pot was rather too wet for a complete descent, especially for a comparative novice in SRT such as myself. Accordingly we retreated, leaving a rather massive task for Nick, Julian and Steve the next day.

Next day was the last day, so all derigging had to be completed, and everyone went up to the plateau to help carry gear back down. Team enthusiast had made a very early start, and I was jacking since all my gear was wet. Accordingly, Rod Leach went down 106 to assist. I remained on the surface with Jont and we investigated another draughting hole nearby, but this came to a pitch with ice very quickly so we left it for next year, pausing only to number it 99. To our surprise, when we went over to look at 97, we found a Perry emerging, after only six hours underground. Shortly later we were pulling 300m of rope out of the hole, all uncoiled to get it through the Nun’s C**t. Nick emerged to find that he was trapped in his harness by the well known properties of Clog krabs and we all had a good laugh before Steve managed to free him. Upon wandering back to 106, we found the first of the team emerging from 106a with the first of the gear, and learned that a new extension had been made behind the rock bridge in Plugged Shaft. Dropping onto the snow behind the bridge led to a descent into a passage which soon ran out over another shaft – no draught. This is yet another lead to be investigated next year… five in all.

The assembled multitude now returned to the col via 82, where yet more tackle was picked up and I got given a saturated Marlow rope which weighed more than what I was already carrying. The walk back with all the gear was somewhat epic.

Packing and camp-derigging was next, and then paying for the campsite, which, though at a reduced rate, was still somewhat expensive. Next day – Thursday, we set off with our huge loads of rucksacks plus a large kitbag and caught the bus to Bad Aussee, train to Bad Ischl, bus to Salzburg (the buses are marked ‘standing room 37’ and this seems to be what was being attempted most of the way – we were never told whose turn it was to breathe.) and then a long wait in Salzburg during which time I took the opportunity to go and wander round the old part of the city and take photographs while the others festered eating butties and beer.

The train journey was less comfortable than on the way out, but we still got back home OK. Simon and I got the train to Preston and then got taken home by car, having got back home about twice as quickly as the other members of the expedition and about twice as expensively!

Ogof Agen Allwedd to third boulder choke

We’d arranged to drive to South Wales pretty much the instant I could get out of my Physics practical exam in the Cavendish Lab (West Cambridge). This was the last exam any of us had this academic year and I finished ahead of the official end time, so we were speeding west by shortly after five, non-drivers already swigging celebratory canned beer in the back.

After fruitlessly searching for a campsite shortly before Abergavenny, we eventually arrived at Crickhowell at about ten. After the pub we moved onto a campsite which we left the next day since it was 50p a night (exorbitant in 1977). We were the only people at Whitewalls on the Friday morning after the van had graunched its way up the steepest hill of its life. Since no-one except Piete had been in Aggie before, and him ten years ago, we decided that a trip down to the main streamway to be sure of our navigation for the next day was in order.

Ogof Agen Allwedd to third choke and back
Andy, Doug, Simon, John, Mike, Piete

We took the van as far along the track as possible for any vehicle and partially changed in the sun before walking to the entrance in swimming trunks and wellies. We opened the Ogof Gam entrance and changed in the draught. Piete and I were in claggies while the others were in wetsuits. We signed into the book and set off. Keeping left everywhere proved to be fairly simple and we soon arrived at an area of boulders which we assumed was the first boulder pile. Accordingly, we climbed over until we arrived at a much more massive collapse. Here we treated them as boulder choke one and this led to a confused group of cavers emerging from the far side to find the real boulder choke one. This was in fact more recognisable from the CRG description than I expected and I was able to find a route through the famous “advance only one yard” section to the streamway. The CRG route is not the same as at present from the streamway to Main Passage where we succeeded by following plentiful thrutch marks and polished boulders. We all emerged from the choke into Main Passage very hot, but pleased with our progress.

After a brief gonk, we strode off down the massive tunnel until we were able to hear running water down a hole in the floor. Nearby was a larger way down under the right wall with a ‘Keep Aggie Tidy’ sign above it. After a piccy of Main Passage, we descended this to a streamway. This led quickly to a junction with Meander Passage, but we continued downstream to discover what ‘bouldery’ really means.

Much hopping over boulders led us to an area of more significant collapse, through which we were fairly easily able to find a way, with only one error just before we reached the ‘second boulder choke – unstable’ sign. We cautiously followed the wire through this 50′ section and up into the large muddy tube of Keyhole Passage. Here there is a rescue dump and we had a gonk while we looked around. I took a photo and then we proceeded along, avoiding the deep trench in the floor, using a couple of fixed traverse wires until we arrived at a very muddy fixed rope down a hole in the boulders. I was last down this and various persons had different degrees of difficulty – I found the rope useless and the rock reasonable, Simon and John found they could get a good grip on the rope, but the rock was too greasy. Needless to say, we all got down by different techniques and soon regained the stream, no less boulder-strewn than before.

Fairly rapid progress led past some very large fallen blocks and a flowstone inlet to an enlargement at North West Junction, where the Turkey Series stream comes in from the right. We put up a small cairn here since the main streamway was the less obvious upstream way on, and we were unfamiliar with the place. Downstream was less bouldery, in that you could climb over most obstructions and rarely had to thrutch under or past them. The streamway continued tall, but not too wide, for a long way, but was certainly not the magnificent streamway I had expected to find.

After a while, the roof started to lower and ahead was a sight much like a sump, but, in fact, the roof dips lower and the water deepens, while the passage steps sideways and the roof rises again, though over quite a deep canal. We knew that we could not be far from the third choke, so those in wetsuits went ahead while Piete and I waited for them.

The others all reached BC3 and Doug and Mike went through to BC4, passing an unexpected intermediate boulder pile which they reported to be very loose on the way. Simon and John remained behind at BC3 when they saw the old guide wire disappearing into impenetrable boulders.

After what seemed a long wait, they returned and we set off back upstream pausing only for a Mars bar and a piccy, and to empty gravel out of wellies.

The journey up to NW Junction seemed shorter than on the way in, but luckily the cairn stopped us from missing it. The first section of the Main Stream upstream of here seemed to be uncomfortably low after the larger combined streamway, but the passage is higher further up, and we were soon scrambling over yet more boulders.

We soon came to a section where the boulders were threatening to force us to crawl in the stream when someone thought to look up and saw the rope hanging down. We climbed up the boulders and then up the hole, where the handlines were again of varying amounts of use to various people. The two ammo cans were passed carefully up and we were soon making easy progress along the floor of Keyhole Passage. We had another brief rest at the food dump before starting down into the second choke, again being fairly careful. I was ahead in the section after the ‘unstable’ bit and managed to miss the crushed ammo can which Simon and John spotted in the supposedly stable section.

Once back into the streamway, progress was faster, though still hampered by millions of boulders all over the place. There is no navigation to worry about here as the only junction I actually saw was the one with Meander Passage and this is immediately before the way back up to Main Passage. We emerged from here feeling quite pleased with our navigation and set off for BC1. We failed to find the mud ‘statue’ of GNH in Main Passage and almost failed to find the way back into the first choke. Once Simon and Piete had located the way down, however, we made good progress back down to the stream and then back into the boulders. I was almost last and was the first to spot the error when the leaders had failed to ‘advance only one yard’ and were heading for the tributary stream. I went up the hole and quickly out of the choke after calling the others back, and from here navigation was easy, just a case of keeping right all the way. This first taste of the entrance series made it seem fairly tiring, hopping over large boulders and traversing, but we were to know it better later.

We signed out after a reasonable 5½ hour trip in which navigation proved to be far less of a problem than expected, and felt confident that we could find our way round the Grand Circle tomorrow. We spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing on the edge of the escarpment before returning to move to a cheaper campsite.