Dave Kirkpatrick, David Wilson, James Wilson, Rebecca Diss, Rhys Tyers, Úna Barker, Zaeem Najeeb, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Alan Deacon, Ellie Pizey, Minghan Xiao, Chris Hayes, Tairan Wang, Mia Jones, Wojtek Sowinski, Scarlett Sprague
Due to the horrific lack of minibuses at Imperial, I was gifted a car full of humans from London. The drive from Norwich to Peterborough went shockingly smoothly despite rush hour, I certainly do not miss the London traffic. I rocked up to Asda which was our meeting place and made a dash for the toilets as I was rather desperate for a wee. Unfortunately all of them were out of order so I distracted myself by doing the club shopping. There was some significant train drama so the London humans arrived over an hour later than me. By this time I was very unhappy about the lack of toilets so left the trolley with them and ran outside in search of a Wetherspoons. Just outside Asda I noticed a relatively empty shisha bar, so asked them if i could use their facilities. Success. This did mean that the rest of the group also went there to pee, but shockingly nobody was forced to buy any beverages. We then had the fun task of trying to fit all the humans, kit and shopping into the vehicle. Somehow we managed it but passengers were required to hug eggs for the remainder of the journey. Parking in Castleton was only mildly hellish and we arrived at the exact same time as Dave, who collected some people from Manchester. We were greeted by Matti falling dramatically out of the car.
We then made the treacherous crossing from the pavement to the TSG without any vehicle-related injury and an evening of mild socialisation ensued before a very warm sleep in the alpine bunks.
The week for me began a few days earlier than departure with plans to kit pack early. Sadly, this went awry thanks to TFL and the ever-unreliable district line preventing me from reaching stores at a reasonable time. Kit packing had to be moved to the day of departure which ended up being advantageous as it allowed us time to get some drinks before setting off for Derbyshire. The journey was split into groups, some took the coach and others took the train, I was one of the lucky ones to be allocated a spot in the Dub’s car. Overall, a rather uneventful journey except for an eerily quiet Morrisons and a sad, cold katsu spring roll.
James Hall: Dave Kirkpatrick, Ana Teck, Ellie Pizey, Tairan Wang
P8: James Wilson, Rhys Tyers, Wojtek Sowinski, Scarlett Sprague
Eldon Hole: David Wilson, Zaeem Najeeb, Matti Mitropoulos, Mia Jones
The first cave (Eldon Hole) was a lovely chasm that we trekked to, passing a few kids peering strangely at us from a barn, several grazing sheep and two ominous skeletons. Accepting these occurrences as perfectly normal, we approached the gated hole and came upon some hikers telling us in a cheery manner that we were bloody mad for doing this. Still we were not deterred, only more determined to have Imperial return to the cave after 8 long years, and carefully approached the steaks on the north side, paying much attention to the only two rules of caving (which were shared with me later that evening as fun post climb wisdom) to « not fall in the hole » and to « not fall in the hole ».
Matti and Davie descended first. During the wait, Zaeem covered all last minute advice and kit checks since I had, to my knowledge, never entered a proper cave before. Then it was my turn. At the edge of the hole I suddenly realized that this was quite different to tree training as I was walking backwards into a 55 meter hole not descending a three meter high branch in Princes Gardens. Nonetheless, the pretty rocks and grass and leaves and worms seen on the way down were all worth the initial feeling of dread.
Although the cave description boasted of much decomposed biomass and many dead creatures, the latter were not discovered in its depths. Instead, many frogs, of the live variety, were found, of which Matti rescued seven (though ultimately only six hopped out of the bag...). However, the frogs did not seem in the least grateful to have been elevated to greener pastures although they presumably were not aware their mode of rescue used an ascending technique graciously named after them.
Throughout the week prior to the trip I had become extremely excited about Eldon Hole. First hearing about its existence from Diss, then reading through the online description from the Derbyshire caving website, then talking to some NUCC humans over email about it, then reading some very old (18th century!) stories about it, it became more and more shrouded in mystery.
The club hadn’t been there since 2013 – why?
The description describes the bottom of the entrance shaft as ‘not desperately pleasant’ – does this mean a thin layer of mud or wading through a foot of rotting leaves?
The rigging topo make it look like a fairly straightforward descent and pull-up rope, but NUCC commented that we ‘will have very tired freshers after this one’ – what makes this cave so tiring?
In the first proper account of anyone entering into it mentions that supposedly someone had entered into it many years earlier, lowered in by eight men holding a rope, come out speechless, and then died shortly afterwards. Then they lowered a cat in, which came out dead. What the fuck?
I heard from Davey that they recently found human remains about 2000 years old down there in an active dig.
Also one of the people involved with the first descent was called Dr Maty which is just nice. The drive up was slightly longer than a typical Derbyshire cave, about 20 minutes. We drove up Eldon Lane and parked just before the final gate as the description instructed, changed swiftly and walked the 10 minutes up hill.
I began rigging the South gully, chosen because of the nice progression from a comfortable walking descent to traversing to standing rebelays to hanging rebelay, training Mia, our fresher. We didn’t really want to ask her to jump straight into a 55m open shaft after only being to 2 tree training sessions, as the East and West walls seemed to be. She handled the short descents well, only getting slightly caught on the hanging rebelay.
The bottom was slightly disappointing – just a scree slope with a ladder leading down on the East side. Far from ‘not desperately pleasant’, it was quite cool to look up and see the sunlight poke through the trees and overhangs.
The ladder leads into the main chamber, an impressive 40m cavern with a nice archway and a wall covered in a cascade of flowstone. But our goal was to reach Millers chamber and Damocles rift, where the real pretties were. Unfortunately the pulley system used to get the rope through the bolt at the top was… unoptimised. It was a 2mm or so string strung through three maillons in a triangle; two at the bottom, one on top. We did our best to knot the rope to the string but it kept getting caught at the top. After half an hour or so we managed to use the slight increase in diameter from the shrink wrap at the end of the rope as a shoulder, and pulled the rope all the way through. Then using a krab to attach the two ends together, we pulled the krab and knot up until it caught on the maillon at the top, similar to getting the rope over the tree branch at tree training. Davey went up the rope first, but as he cleared an overhang he said ‘somethings wrong’, and suddenly dropped about 3m in a shower of small rocks. Everyone froze for a few seconds, then Davey confirmed he was uninjured and safe. He later described what had happened – the string had looped itself around the rope several times and so the krab wasn’t quite at the maillon yet. When he cleared the overhang and lost the extra force provided by the rope rub, his weight caused the string to undo itself from the rope, and the krab suddenly jumped up the rope, causing him to drop. At the time communication was difficult so I couldn’t tell if he decided it was too unsafe to use or he had been sufficiently freaked to not want to continue, but either way the decision was made to turn around. He fiddled with the knot for a bit and came down. We had a cheeky peek into a dig that was quite cool but ended abruptly, and left.
Back at the TSG we were met with many calamitous stories – somehow every trip that day seemed to involve something going wrong – missing kit, stuck freshers, difficulties communicating across pitches, etc. We also discussed our trip with others – someone suggested we tie both of the ends of the rope to the lower maillon and don’t use the krab pull-up method. That way we can be sure the knots and connections to maillons are safe before ascending, and there’s less chance of slack rope getting caught somewhere unseen. I’ll definitely be trying this if I return here.
Oxlow Cavern: Rebecca Diss, Úna Barker, Alan Deacon, Minghan Xiao, Chris Hayes
We were a fairly large group of people, so we spent a fair while trying to work out if we had enough rope to split into 4 groups. Some impressive calculations occurred and we had pretty much the exact ropes for trips to: Oxlow, JH, P8 and Eldons. I was quite keen to do Oxlow so i was sent there with Una, Alan, Chris and Ming. There was actually not that much faff before we packed rope and hopped into the car. I was not certain where to park or how to get to the cave but the Peak District Caving website and the printed Oxlow description were sufficient. We stopped in a very slanted layby just past Oxlow House Farm. We changed swiftly because it was cold as balls and Una and I walked back to the farm to pay our dues. The farmer was very nice and said that some cavers actually park by the house so maybe this is better for the future (although the cave location description makes sense leaving from the layby so maybe unnecessarily complicating things). He also mentioned that another group of cavers were in Oxlow so we were prepared for a little traffic.
The walk to Oxlow was easy and Chris spotted the concrete entrance fairly quickly (maybe 10-15 mins from the car). There was discussion about Una rigging but she was unsure once we got there so it was I that roped us. Rigging Oxlow is very pleasant generally, although there is quite a lot of loose stuff, despite assurances from some TSG members that Oxlow is the least loose of many options which makes me question Derbyshire as a caving location.
The going was naturally slow with 3 novices in our midst and I waited frequently to make sure people weren’t having trouble.
Just as I was finished rigging the Y-hang of the third pitch, we heard the other group coming up from below. They were very wet. There was a bit of faff and I said they could come up first because it was likely our descending would be a lot slower than their ascending, plus I needed to obtain the second rope bag if we were to continue further than this pitch. They took quite a while to ascend which was unfortunate. Eventually I went down and confirmed the rope would reach the next bolt. However, by this point there were two problems: 1 - the “in situ” rope we were told to use on the next section was excessively frayed (all the way into the fig 8) & 2 - it was getting quite late so there may not have been time for much more caving. The bottom of the pitch was a sort of big ledge with a chamber on the right and the way on underneath where we’d descended from to the left. In the middle was a small waterfall which made waiting around a bit dampening. Over to the right was dryer though so I waited here for the others to descend.
Chris appeared without any trouble and we both waited in the dry. Quite some time later, several rocks fell down, one of them hitting me on the arm. It must have hit the wall first because it wasn't particularly painful. I made some angry yelps at those above us. Chris and I were slightly terrified so decided to move to the other side of the water and clip into the bolt above the next pitch. It was slightly drippy here but protected from rocks. Ming eventually appeared at the bottom of the pitch but it was really quite late by this point and I knew Chris and the others were likely very cold. I sent Chris back up the rope, followed by Ming. The pitch has a deviation to keep you out of the water and prevent rope rub which nobody seemed to struggle with on the way down. However, on the return, Ming was unable to pass the deviation. This lead to me being very damp and in hindsight slightly hypothermic. Una helped from the top but there was no success. Things were made more infuriating by me forgetting to take my glasses off before caving which meant I couldn't see anything when near the water. In the end we decided there was only one option left so Una passed Ming her knife to cut the deviation. This was the first time something like this happened when I was the biggest leader and it felt extreme. I was a bit on edge so made a point to tell Ming not to cut the rope several times. I’ve seen Sanctum too many times. He cut the deviation fine and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
I was quite concerned that we would miss our callout because we had been underground far longer than we had left until callout. We made the slow ascent to the surface and decided to monitor our progress and send out a speed team ahead if needed. We were surprisingly out of the cave much much quicker than the descent so missing callout was not a worry after all. It was cold af on the surface, however, so we made a mad dash to the vehicle and only half changed before racing back to castleton for a hot shower.
I have been reminded how impossible it is to judge the speed of novices, and how challenging it is to envision which bits of cave will cause problems.
Back at the hut we slowly warmed up and consumed curry followed by many caving games. The TSG table is very wide.
Those who know me know that car sickness is touch and go but luckily after a long sleep and a nice breakfast, I was raring to go. It had been some time since my last SRT trip, so I spent the morning doing strange air movements with my hands with the intention of rigging my imaginary descender. When it was time to set off, the group split into four teams, each with a different cave in mind. It was settled that the first group would tackle JH, the second Oxlow and then Eldon and Giants respectively. There were a good number of freshers on this trip eager to try SRT for the first time and get a feel for caving equipment after experiencing tree training, so it made sense for there to be so many different trips. It also served to provide a selection of different things to suit a variety of abilities and temperaments. Being of a temperament that likes to avoid water if they can help it, I opted for the aptly described ‘dry, doable and not rocky Oxlow’ It later transpired that while friendly and doable and dry were fair estimations, ‘not rocky’ wasn’t, as Diss’ elbow can attest to.
The trip to Oxlow took place in Diss’ car. Our group consisted of me, Diss, Una, Ming, and Chris. I was struck on the way to the cave by how pretty Castleton is (they were already beginning to prep for Christmas and the lights on a very frosty day made for nice viewing) On arrival at the side of the road, we began to change into our gear and assemble kits. This was the only unpleasant part of the trip for me. Changing on a cold day is a grim feat but done it must be. While changing both Diss and Una made their way to the nearby Oxlow farm to pay a £2 goodwill fee. This reminded me that since the pandemic began, I seldom ever have coins on me anymore and should rectify this for caving trips. We made our way towards the cave, thankfully it was a short walk, and the descent could begin.
I was pleased to note that caving techniques (re-belay, deviations and the more basic just rigging descender/two points of contact) were becoming like muscle memory to me. This was the first trip where I didn’t have think through each step before doing it, it flowed.
In all I enjoyed Oxlow, mostly for the confidence it gave me in realising that the skills needed for SRT do become ingrained after a time and even if there has been gaps between trips. We met a group of cavers coming back up as we headed in which kept us there for longer than we may have liked. That, the loose rock, and eventual coldness caused by waiting to move through the human traffic jam were the only parts of the trip that felt taxing. It also had become very cold, and we were all extremely eager to drink tea by the end. Overall, would recommend.
Beware of rocks that fall. Oxlow has them.
“Many more worses”
Oxlow - a nice, fairly straightforward beginners’ SRT trip for our two freshers: Ming and Chris The Younger. Both had been to a freshers’ trip in Wales previously but this was to be their first vertical descent. The poor fuckers.
Diss parked in a very thin layby on a road popular with reckless country drivers. We bravely changed in the bracing wind, stopping to exclaim “fucking hell” or similar whenever a car passed close and fast enough to rock Diss’s car and our nerves. Diss and I went to greet the farmer and pay the politeness fee/ whatever it’s called, surprised to find ourselves still 3D at the other end despite the efforts of passing cars. The farmer was friendly and mentioned another group who’d gone in around 10am.
Grateful to get away from the road, we found the entrance without much effort - over the fence, follow the wall to the style, left and up across that field to a pretty unmissable concrete square in the ground. Diss rigged, and I decided to bring up the rear to provide newbie support (and chat shit with Alan). I waited for Ming and Chris The Younger to navigate their first rebelay, occasionally yelling pointless encouragement from above. While Ming cautiously descended the first pitch, I drifted off into whatever vacant headspace I usually inhabit, and missed his eventual call of “rope free”. Eventually I came back to reality and yelled “IS THE ROPE FREE” down the pitch increasingly aggressively until I was sure they’d all gone ahead, then grumblingly donned the remaining tacklesack and followed. We descended the first pitch slowly but without issue. I put in a deviation on the second pitch as Diss had spotted a probable rub point. Then everything went to shit when we encountered the 10am group on their return journey.
I mentioned that I’d “just put in a DEVIATION” loudly to the first of their group after seeing they hadn’t put one in, and he replied “oh what” but didn’t seem too fussed about its non-existence and ascended his own rope anyway. The second looked like she’d just crawled out of the mouth of hell and once she’d gathered the strength stumbled after this guy yelling, asking what was going on. The third was less distressed, and we chatted about our respective trips and clubs. They were from Cambridge but not CUCC, staying in a youth hostel somewhere. Like many established cavers, he initially thought I was a fresher. It’s probably the eyeliner which leads to this assumption; it might make more sense to them if they knew I’d slept in it. From what I could see, the top of the first pitch was a total faff with members of the other group trying to get past Diss. This took an insane amount of time, long enough for me to annoy the freshers by repeatedly asking how cold/hungry/happy they were. There was some confusion with rope which I understood poorly as this information had to be relayed via the two freshers for me to hear. Eventually the rope issue turned out to be a non-issue and the third pitch was rigged. We were now short enough on time that we decided not to go any further after this third pitch.
Chris The Younger descended first, followed by Ming, with me close behind him to give instructions if needed. The top of this pitch was quite loose, and just under a ledge was a sizeable rock which I didn’t see to warn Ming about placing his foot on - perhaps it was invisible to him too from where he was - and he kicked it down on Diss. I saw it just as it rolled off the edge and shouted ROCK ROCK ROCK. Silence. Crash. Swearing. A genuinely upset Diss letting us know THAT WAS ACTUALLY QUITE BAD. An approximate translation from the original British: “that could have fucking killed me you careless fucking gobshites, jesus christ, jesus christ, never do that again”. Apologetic Ming, apologetic me for not being able to see through rock. It was ascertained no one was hurt, everything was now fine, and Ming decided to still go down.
Understandably a little shaken, Ming then got mildly hung up at the rebelay from the traverse onto the last pitch but got out of it with some guidance. Anxious about the time, I decided to stay at the top and chat shit with Alan/ look on at how Ming would manage the deviation. He was fine with it on the way down, and Chris The Younger quickly reappeared at the top of the pitch. Chris The Younger had clearly taken to SRT without problems, so I sent them both on ahead to keep warm while I waited for Ming. Meanwhile Diss was partially in a waterfall and growing exasperated with life, the universe and everything having nearly been skulled by a rock.
Ming got stuck on the deviation on the way up. Really, really stuck; trembling like a leaf trying to pull himself into it stuck. Every suggestion wildly unhelpful stuck. Incapable of pushing off the other wall for some reason stuck - though as a fellow short person I can relate to this sometimes not being an option. Get it through your heads, you vertically blessed lanky shitheads, for some of us that wall is VERY FAR AWAY. Diss and I shouted to Ming and to each other over the waterfall, getting colder and more worried about missing our call-out by the minute. Many advanced techniques were tried to no avail. We narrowed things down to two options: I could rig a second rope and descended it to get Ming off the deviation, or I could slide my knife down to him to cut the sling. Diss had a better view and gauged the deviation wasn’t essential on the way up, so we decided on option 2. I slid my knife down to him on a maillon (my spare krabs had been dispersed for deviations) and fretted. A very cold Diss shrieked from the bottom “THE SLING, THE BLUE THING, PLEASE CUT THE BLUE THING NOT THE ROPE - I NEED THAT”. I echoed similar from above, but in a less verging-on-hypothermic-and-done-with-it-all manner. Ming was reasonably offended by this lack of faith, and responded something like “Yes I know” and definitively cut the sling (the blue thing. Not the rope. The blue one.)
I cheered. We’d been down there for 2 hours, which Diss had spent partially in a waterfall.
We began our ascent, and Ming awkwardly handed me the sad beheaded deviation on the handline climb to the second pitch.
Diss and I agreed the other deviation should stay in, so I demonstrated several different ways for Ming to do it which didn’t require arm strength. He was apprehensive but managed it okay, with Diss and I observing anxiously from both sides. Mercifully, the way out was much faster - and a good thing, or we would have missed our call-out.
At the top of the second pitch, we were reunited with a cold Alan and Chris. Confident they didn’t need help, I sent them both ahead followed by Ming, so they could keep warm and I could keep close to provide more support to Ming. It also kept me closer to Diss to judge how hypothermic she was; she was fine to derig but intensely giddy and eager to leave. There were only a few more worses to come.
Ming got stuck again on the last pitch, though less seriously. I couldn’t see him and he couldn’t articulate what had gone wrong, but judging from how the rope in front of me was slowly disappearing I’d guess he had put his hand jammer on the wrong side of the rebelay and was taking it with him. I yelled instructions after him for how to rectify this; he largely ignored me and figured it out himself.
Diss and I continued as fast as possible. Ming got into some kind of trouble again at the top of the pitch, but was successfully talked through it by Alan and Chris The Younger. In the interests of all parties keeping warm, Diss handed me the car key and I headed out. Chris and Ming were insistent on not splitting up the party, so Alan and I headed on to unlock the car and start defrosting ourselves. A fine idea, however we both have a shit sense of direction, so everyone ended up back at the car at the same time. I still have a very clear mental image of Diss in the front seat trembling furiously as she tried to eat a festive fancy, scattering sprinkles everywhere. But it was over. The end of the worses for most of us.
For me, injury was added to insult as I carried kit from the car to the hut. I tripped over my own boots and fell down heavily in front of about 12 strangers and their dogs, ripping my favourite jeans and my favourite knee. Fuck you, Oxlow.
Giants Hole: David Wilson, James Wilson, Zaeem Najeeb, Ellie Pizey, Mia Jones, Scarlett Sprague
The following morning, being honorably reassigned to the bacon frying task (having assisted Scarlett with this the previous day), I was brutally critiqued for my method of using the big pot and dumping all the bacon in it to prepare a uniquely scrambled version. The stuck bits and continuously darkening bottom of the pot were not in fact seen by the others as « extra bits of flavor » and an illuminating example of culinary genius, as had of course been the intention all along, but were instead the object of much scrutiny. However, having become much tougher after my first day in a cave, I was not offended and hold no grudges.
On our way out of the second cave (Giant’s Hole) on Sunday (the supposed more relaxing trip which turned out to be quite a strenuous crab walking and duck crawling adventure (although Ellie and I later triggered a heated discussion between Ana and Diss in the car who stated that since we were able to crawl face forward through the duck it could not have in fact been a duck, we both unanimously and secretly decided that it was in fact a duck, if only to keep hold of our bragging rights that we had successfully crawled through a duck), at the waterfall we had just ascended, we had the pleasure of encountering four wanderers who enquired whether it was possible to free climb the pitch. Disappointed by Ellie’s answer, they dispersed but were kind enough to leave us a trail of artistically placed half drained beer cans so we should not be confused by which way was out.
The 97% frozen and 100% drenched remnants of our bodies were then packed up to the hut and later made their way back to sunny London.
Eldon Hole: Rebecca Diss, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Chris Hayes, Wojtek Sowinski
I offered to go back to Eldon to become more familiar with the other routes – either East or West wall. We found enough people interested to do an exchange trip, both routes new to me. Rope packing was easy: Chris and I pack 65m; Ana, Diss and Wojtek pack 80m.
We met a man sitting in a car this time as we got to the top of Eldon Lane. I wasn’t sure if he was the farmer but it became swiftly obvious – of course he’s the fucking farmer. He rolled his window down and I asked if he minded if we visited Eldon hole (he didn’t) and where he wanted us to park (just before the first gate, as written in the description).
Doing the exchange across the cavern turned it into a very social trip; People waiting at rebelays could chat to each other across the gap, and the other team’s members were often much closer to novices on rebelays than people on the same team so could help them out. Further down the shaft the ropes are practically next to each other so giving help is even easier. Hangs are quite long, the rebelays and y-hangs were almost all free hanging, and leaning over the edge put you right over the full shaft so it may be a bit intimidating as a very first trip, but enjoyable as a second or third.
This morning I was very torn between caving and a chilled trip to Alpkit. I was swayed to the caving side by the fact that I would be required to drive humans anyway. Matti was very enthusiastic about Eldons after his trip the day before and we planned to rig two routes down and exchange.
Eldons is about a 15 minute drive from the TSG and you’re supposed to park by a farm behind a tractor (according to who I assume was the farmer, not sure if Withnail agrees). There is a steep hill and I attempted to park up it but the car refused so we parked next to the tractor instead.
The weather was sunny but very cold so I donned my fashionable red cuffs for added insulation. The walk is quick and Eldons is situated in a miniature Alum-esque bundle of trees. Ana and Matti rigged and I floated around taking pictures with a disposable camera and losing feeling in my extremities. The two routes were on opposite sides of the hole but when hanging you are probably only a few metres away so it's a very social place. We all made it down swiftly and poked around in the chamber below, which is shockingly big and attractive. There is a classic Derbyshire style scaffolding + ladder dig which gets you from the bottom of the ropes to said chamber and it involves some wood covered in very attractive (what I assume was) white fungal mycelia.
I took a few pictures of people on the way up and derigged one of the routes.
This trip was incredibly chilled and went perfectly which was exactly what I needed after yesterday's antics.