Chelsea Spelæological Society Newsletter 50(6), June 2008, p84-87.
Readers may remember the write up of a trip into Wigmore Swallet in February this year (CSS NL 50(3) 46-47) ... well, I can now reveal that my cunning plan worked and I was invited on a proper diving trip to the end of the cave by Chris Jewell. I'd like to think that he was impressed by my caving prowess and good humour but I think that he and Stu Gardiner just wanted me along to be able laugh at some old duffer. In any case, the trip was set for May 10th and the diving team was to be Chris, Stu and me.
Now Chris already had his cylinders down the cave and as it is practically on my doorstep I though it would be polite to do likewise. Having spoken to Pete Bolt (who'd been to the end in the '90's) he recommended a pair of 4 litre cylinders. Good - I've got three of these in my shed but only one works - bad. So, the two dodgy tanks were combined in a cut and shut operation whereby the good cylinder valve from the really very rusty cylinder was transferred to the better looking cylinder with the broken valve. I utilised my employer's workshop for this and plenty of PTFE tape. Even so, my first attempt at sealing the valve leaked but the second attempt appeared to hold up to being pressurised with helium (which was later released into bin liners which floated away over Pen Hill). The cylinders were cached in the cave on April 17th with the assistance of John Volanthen. It was a very slick operation and we were in and out in under 2 hours (I'd expected it to take much longer). John had to drive home in his undersuit as he'd fallen into some cow slurry while looking for the entrance before I arrived. His trainers and jeans were not a pretty sight!
In the run up to the big day a flurry of emails were sent round making the final arrangements. It was rapidly becoming apparent that we were short of willing helpers to get gear into the cave for the dive. Eventually a begging notice was put on the UK caving forum but that failed to elicit a practical response. It looked like we'd have to carry everything ourselves.
Arriving at the Belfry for 9 am, I learned that Stu Gardiner was not diving as he had to see his solicitors in the afternoon about the sale of his house locally. Stu was coming to the dive base to help with the gear. Two joint CSS/BEC members were staying at the hut but neither of them was willing to assist. By 10 am we were underground. My burden had been increased by a 3 litre cylinder of Chris's that he'd slipped into my tacklesack. All went well until we reached the tight rift leading out onto Black Pudding Pot. I was in the lead and clipped onto the traverse line running through the rift when my cowstail became stuck and I could go no further. After a bit of thrashing around, I managed to remove my cowstail and fall out of the rift onto the top of the ladder unprotected.
The next problem arose at the bottom of Yeo Pot, the dive base where one of my regulators was making a jolly good impression of a machine gun. "Game over" I thought and we'd have to abort the trip. I'd just relayed my fears to the others when the errant device started to only deliver air on demand rather than all the time. I'd lost quite a bit of gas but was confident that I'd have enough especially as the other cylinder (the good one) had more than the advertised working pressure of air in it. Fully ready, with a tacklesack of gear each to carry, we set off into Sump 1 a couple of hours after leaving the surface. I went first so that I could at least see where I was going. We weren't wearing fins but sufficiently weighted to be able to crawl along the floor of the sumps.
Sump 1 is fairly roomy like the approach to it and is 22 m long. Just after it surfaces there is a dry inlet on the left which (from looking at the survey) appears to have been explored for 20 m or so. 18 m further on Sump 2 is met, a bit tighter but only 5 m long to an airbell and Sump 3 (6m) to 25 m of streamway with a little cascade part way to Sump 4. This surfaces in Wigmore 5 which is 10 m of tight rifty passage that continues like this underwater into Sump 5. In order to get into this sump the diver has to slide feet first and sideways along the rift. Steady backwards progress (with much shuffling of gear around so as not to get caught) eventually gets into a widening of the passage where it is possible to turn around and proceed nose first. The passage beyond this is a lowish waterlogged tube which lives up to its name: "Cat Crawl". Sump 6 is only 2 m long followed by 10 m of duck which are lined but as the water was low didn't require too much immersion. Wigmore 10 then develops into a pleasant streamway with a couple of cascades to a large deep pool - Sump 7. This is the big one and is supposed to be 8 m deep. A pot is descended and then the floor rises up over a silt bank where an ascending line heads off to Young Bloods' Inlet found by Chris last year. The floor then dips away again and the passage becomes lower and more rectangular with growths of stuff covering the line and hanging from the walls. I didn't investigate too closely but I believe that the slime might be animal waste. After what seems like an age the sump surfaces after 60-odd metres in an airbell followed by Sump 8 (5 m) and a bigger airbell to Sump 9. This is about 10 m long and surfaces in the active streamway of Wigmore 10 - the end of the cave.
Arriving first, I located a good spot to remove my gear near to the sump. It is always a good idea to be first through a sump as not only do you get the best visibility underwater but you also get the best place to leave your cylinders and stuff on the other side which can also make it a lot easier to put it all back on again when you leave (hence you get to be first back out ... ). While waiting for Chris to turn up I noticed that there was a large aven right above the end of the sump. Although some spare diving line had been dumped up on a ledge about head-height, the nature of the rock (which looked quite friable) didn't give me the impression that it had been climbed. Getting onto the ledge was not straight forward and had to be done by chimneying up the walls a little way back and then crawling along a slippery shelf. I managed to grab the spare line and looped an end over my wrist to tow it up with me thinking that it might be useful to get back down again. A back and foot ascent of the aven got me to another ledge with a large block above me. This was passed by a very exposed move, all the time thinking that a fall here would not be nice. Several holds came away and fell towards Chris who had arrived and was taking his gear off. Once above the large block, the passage levelled off and a small trickle of water ran down between mud banks coming from a little aven to one side of the passage.
During the climb, I'd managed to smear mud over my face, close to my right eye, so I used the water to carefully rinse it away while Chris climbed up to join me. Offering the lead to him, Chris sent me on ahead down the ongoing stooping sized passage which I thought looked like it would close down. We hadn't gone more than a few paces when I realised that I could hear a large streamway ahead. It had to be coming from upstream of Sump 7 and sounded even more impressive when I pulled back my wetsuit hood to listen. Suddenly we rounded a corner and I looked out into a black hole with a rope hanging down it. On closer inspection there was a hanger in the wall at the end of the passage. Chris was able to confirm that we were overlooking Aven 2 in Young Bloods' Inlet which Chris has climbed on his last trip. He'd put a bolt in the wall at the end of the passage but had not swung into it. This was a very exciting find - not only had we shortened the amount of diving required to get to Wigmore 10 (cutting out 80-odd metres of sump and requiring less air to get there) but - given that Young Bloods' Inlet had been found to lie beneath several promising surface depressions - maybe there could be a dry way all the way to the end of the cave. We resolved to visit Young Bloods' Inlet so that a rope could be rigged into the bypass.
Back at the downstream end of Sump 9, Chris was left to rig a more secure rope up the climb as we had brought a drill and bolting kit along. I used the dive line I'd towed up to steady myself but still had to jump down the final section to the streamway. I tied on a bag of gear for Chris to pull up and set off downstream to explore. A couple of avens were passed until a prominent left hand bend in the passage indicated a possible inlet up a muddy climb. Sure enough, up a mud slope a steeply sloping rift went off to the south-east. It didn't look like this had been tackled before but there appeared to be a strong chance that I could end up falling down into a tight bit of the rift and not be able to get back. I returned upstream to our gear (Chris was still bolting the climb) to collect a length of spare dive line to use to rescue myself and also took a Mars bar which I left at the junction to show Chris where I was.
A rock was collected from the streamway and used as a chockstone around which the line was belayed. I'd just done this when Chris turned up. Deliberately sliding down to the base of the rift I explored it for a few metres to a blockage so I struggled back up the rift to a higher level where it was possible to go on. I didn't fancy this and passed the lead to Chris after traversing back to the start of the rift. Chris gamefully went on to look at 30-40 m of uninspiring passage which closed down. We later learned that this was marked on the survey and had been visited by the original explorers. The lack of marks on the muddy walls suggests that the streamway must flood to a considerable depth.
Continuing downstream via a couple of cascades, the passage was pleasant going to the top of a short climb where a line and ladder were suspended. While Chris was rigging the rope down a short drop I climbed up into an aven but found bootmarks there. No go. Down a 3 m climb (aided by the rope) the stream disappeared through boulders as we dropped down a hole nearby to the top of Slime Rift. Chris rigged the ladder amid a maelstrom of water which practically turned into a car wash at the bottom (at least it washed the mud off from the side passage we'd been up previously). This was followed by a boulder choke which we picked out way though before reaching a second wall of boulders - "Goodbye Bob Davies" - a little way beyond. This is the terminus of exploration and we climbed up a slippery mud slope where both of us tried digging away the mud with our only tool - a short crowbar. Despite being not a very satisfactory digging implement, we cleared away some mud below a large block but it was apparent that we'd need to go chemical to be able to get past this into a promising looking open space beyond.
Heading back upstream, I climbed up for 3 m above the streamway just below the ladder - above me I could see another 5 m of enterable passage. This was probably associated with the boulder chaos above Slime Rift. Once up the ladder, the deluge had washed us clean again. We had something to eat back at the sump - actually it was half of our food supply consisting of two Mars bars between us as Chris hadn't brought any food (nor did he have a watch). I selflessly shared my food with him. Back on with the diving gear and I got to dive out to Young Bloods' Inlet first.
Halfway through Sump 7, I realised that I was making easier progress than usual and that the tacklesack that I had clipped to my harness on starting out was no longer there. I turned around and met Chris coming upstream near to the downstream end of the sump. He turned around too and we had a conference in the airbell of Wigmore 8. Fortunately, Chris had the bag with the drill and climbing gear. Unfortunately I'd lost the bag with the other Mars bar. While Chris went upstream I dived back through Sump 8 and found the bag about halfway through Sump 9 by touch.