Ben Honan, Cecilia Kan, David Wilson, Fiona Hartley, Jennifer R, Laura Harrison, Rebecca Diss, Rhys Tyers, Úna Barker, Max Stunt, Zaeem Najeeb, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Ellie Pizey, Emanuel Tewolde, Linus Thümmel
I arrived at the campsite in Llangattock at about 4pm. It wasn't actively raining as I pitched up but the billowing clouds didn't fill me with enthusiasm for my intended walk up Sugar Loaf. By the time I was done buying food in Abergavenny, though, the evening had brightened up considerably. I drove to the Sugar Loaf car park above Llanwenarth, and soon remembered what actual exercise feels like. Definitely helped disperse the brain-fuzz of a long drive.
Hot water is life, and back at the campsite I made two cups of tea. Boiling water on the campstove of course took a lot longer than I'm used to. Nevertheless by 10pm I was lonely and ready to call it a night. Then a car crunched through the gate and rolled right up my tent, headlights illuminating my suspicious gaze. Giggling, I reunited with Rhys and Cecilia.
Other cavers swiftly converged over the next hour, culminating with Laura's arrival. The weirdness of seeing loads of other humans, who for so long had just been words and voices on the Internet, gave way to happiness. Outdoor merriment ensued until about midnight. The best part was Jennifer producing a knitted hat for me. Two hats = warmest head.
Cwm Dwr to OFD 1: David Wilson, Rebecca Diss, Ana Teck, Ellie Pizey
Thanks to Coronavirus, we were situated in a campsite in a land far far away from the SWCC. Nonetheless, I was keen to make the 1 hour drive from Crickhowell to the SWCC and finally make the connection between Cwm Dwr and OFD I. We were an incredibly crack team: Ana, Davey, Ellie and I. The drive went quickly (for me at least) and we were gifted with a grade -3 change in glorious sunshine. As we were dressing ourselves, a random guy drove up to us and gave us some very specific and easy to forget route finding advice. After talking to us he drove away. Did he come to the SWCC just to talk to us?
Some notes on route finding: Remember to turn right in the first chamber after the Cwm Dwr entrance climbs; it is down on the floor and following the water.
At the first junction after the one true crawl, there's a fun steep slide rock on the right hand side that goes into shallow water which is a fun thing to do with freshers (not the way on). The way on is climbing up just to the left of the slide if you are emerging from the slide, otherwise basically straight on.
The boulder choke entrance can be missed so look out for a slanted boulder (good for lounging on) below a low ceiling on the right hand side. There is another entrance that looks like the way just a bit further on but it is not.
In the boulder choke, follow polish and open-ish spaces, looking out for a scaff bar fairly early on. The general trajectory is to go downwards to the water and then back up. There will then be another scaff bar. If you don't see either of these something is wrong. There is a small chamber at some point in the choke and the way on isn’t super obvious, look for a climb up at the back of the chamber on the right that has a puddle in and involves an upwards squeezy thing. You have exited the choke when you reach a sort of sandy mud covered passage.
Pass several tubes on the left in big shacks, there will then be a V shaped junction with orange tape on the left. Take the right hand route. Meander round a bit following the obvious route (staying right). You will then get to a traverse which looks maybe a little dodge but is very fine and is the way on.
Eventually get to a big T junction and you should turn right. Follow the obvious route to the smithy which is a big chamber full of boulders. If you go up on the right and then look sort of to your left you will see a descending tube passage which is a much quicker and less scary route to the bottom of the boulders.
Follow the main obvious route until the big T junction with a maypole (big white pole). Here you turn left and things get sandy. Follow Nether Rawl passage until you reach Piccadilly which is a chamber with several routes on. At the end of the chamber go straight ahead (don't go down the left passage that starts to have lots of black rocks and looks to be getting streamy). Stay left and follow the main route, passing through three puddles. Some not particularly memorable passage occurs and you will then emerge at the divers pitch which has a big rope. We found a good way to do this was to each have a prussick knot (sling) to catch us if we fell (so reassuring). Cowstails were also needed as there is a knot in the rope with a loop to clip into. Climb up on the left side of the waterfall as this is where there are lots of holds. Just use the rock to climb, rope is not needed.
The way on is the slick tube on the right. Crawl to a roundabout (not actually obvious it is a roundabout in the cave but is on survey), go right, then first right. Then right again immediately. More crawl, if you turn right you see the divers pitch from the other side which is slightly terrifying.
Ana and I did not write more notes on the trip after this point and I have now got no memory of the rest of the route finding.
I was extremely elated when we found the boulder choke leading to the Boulder Chamber in OFD I (which I knew well). I only trusted we had made it for certain after jumping on the see saw rock. We then ate some chocolate and stomped our way through the streamway and to the surface, via Pluto’s Bath, into more fairly glorious weather.
Ellie and Davey went to Powell's cave on the way back to the car but Ana and I had been already and it cannot contribute to our cave count so we knew it was a pointless endeavour.
A great trip!
Aggy 1: Ben Honan, Cecilia Kan, Rhys Tyers, Zaeem Najeeb, Matti Mitropoulos
An uncomfortable roll mat forced me to wake early, so there was a good amount of sitting around before enough people were up to begin deciding which caves would be done. Cecilia made my morning easier by choosing me to join her in Aggy. I enjoyed the 23.6 minute scenic walk to the entrance, but Zaeem was convinced that hiking was overrated and that time spent walking should be minimised at all costs, so we agreed to disagree and his body was never found.
Once inside our group went ahead to set up a photo in the main chamber, hoping that the other team would catch up to us as the photo was ready to be taken so that the freshers could have a photo, but when they still hadn’t arrived after we had taken several photos we carried on through the cave. We had two photographers and six or so flashes so were preparing for dramatic shots of caverns, but Rhys and Ben found out that two many cooks spoil the broth, so after trying too cooperative photos, they agreed it was best if photographs are directed solo.
I was surprised at the diversity of passageways we went through – maybe I had just forgotten what caves looked like after many caveless months, but I enjoyed the mixture of wide streamways and low crawls and tight sections and long caverns. There weren’t many noteworthy formations around, although just as we turned around there was a sparkly orange thingy which Cecilia posed next to. I particularly enjoyed an extremely slippery section of streamway where our speed was halved to ensure we didn’t faceplant. Zaeem bet me that I would fall at least once, but aside from a few minor slips, my butt remained dry.
We were met with a backlog of humans slowly making their way through the boulder choke and were told that the other Imperial group were at the front, so we were suitably confused when we reached the cars again and found the other team absent. We presumed the ritual sacrifice of a fresher was just taking longer than normal, and that they hadn’t gotten lost on the straight path back to Whitewalls, so just left without them.
Aggy 2: Fiona Hartley, Jennifer R, Laura Harrison, Max Stunt, Emanuel Tewolde, Linus Thümmel
I had an atrocious night of sleep, so I was up making tea fairly early. Slowly everyone gathered around my tent and plans were formed: two groups in Aggy and one in OFD. Myself, Jennifer, Laura, and Max would take Linus and Emanuel for a bimble in Aggy. Please note it's been 7 years since I've been to Aggy (on the one occasion in the interim when I tried to visit with the NPC, someone had broken a key/knife blade inside the padlock, thanks). Also note that the other three leaders were also not very (or at all) familiar with Aggy, in particular with the entrance series. You may foresee what is to come.
A wanker BMW driver forced me to reverse a long way down the country lane to Whitewalls. Would you be surprised to hear he was much closer to a passing space than I was? No? No. In frustration I flung my car up the Llangattock hill at full speed and felt like a rally driver. My engine certainly growled a lot.
Little else of consequence occurred and we all arrived at the door to Aggy. After photos, Rhys and co went in. They soon disappeared ahead of us, knowing the way. We followed more sedately, briefly going straight on instead of following the stream to the left but correcting the mistake with relative ease when it all started to feel more committing than a novice route should. Still, it was foreshadowing: shortly afterwards, everything of consequence occurred, by which I mean we (I?) got lost in the entrance series.
Basically the description for the first boulder choke sort of sucks. Like, we got through the bit with the scaffold bar without much fuss but I then climbed immediately down into the stream (wrong) and slithered downstream (wrong) until I could stand up [instead of going around the corner on the same level as the scaffold bar]. It didn't seem all that polished, but it looked like people had been this way (they were also wrong). I then carried on following the water (wrong) to a dig (wrong), then reversed and followed a tight flat out slither along the stream (still wrong). Jennifer inserted herself into some horrible climb upwards (wrong). Generally we didn't find any ways on that looked suitable for beginners, which couldn't be right because hello it's Aggy. But I had no idea where I could have gone wrong (I mean, I really did commit to investigating every lead I could find in that area).
Anyway it transpires that I was in completely the wrong place. The way on is on the scaffold bar level through a very polished hole in the base of the left-hand wall. Eventually (like an hour later eek) some other cavers appeared and found us in the streamway. One then reassuringly made all the same directional mistakes as me. He was presumably bamboozled by us being in the wrong location in the first place. When he returned to his mates they said they thought he’d been having them on by deliberately going the wrong way.
We followed these other cavers to Baron's chamber. My skyhigh energy for crawling into everything utterly dissipated at this point despite consumption of chilli cheddar cheese. (The freshers barely ate any but Max did, good man.) In the end I had to force myself to do some starjumps to warm up. In hindsight this whole debacle is both fun and somewhat embarrassing. Undoubtedly it's the main thing I'll remember about this trip. Still, I do get a kick out of my unpredictable bouts of abrupt enthusiasm for pushing regrettable routes. (Maybe I just felt responsible because I was one of the leaders, which isn't my natural role at all.)
For some NUCC reason Laura had a pineapple. We took photos with it. Then we ambled to the Music Hall, which is the site of the most dedicated Rickrolling I've been subjected to, and visited the sandy cliffs beyond. On the way back up Main Passage Jennifer and I tried to sing the caving song we wrote last year (to the tune of Still Alive from Portal) with limited success. [Lyrics at the end.] I then bitched about bad faith takes on Disney Princess films and what other than the cisheteronormative patriarchy. This rant seemed to go down well with Laura and Jennifer.
We dipped into the stream and then headed out, making far fewer mistakes in the entrance series (not sarcastic). Ben's advice is correct: left left left on the way in, so right right right on the way out. Hopefully I'll be back sooner than 7 years from now and will actually remember the way.
Eggy bimble: Fiona Hartley, Jennifer R, Laura Harrison, Max Stunt, Emanuel Tewolde, Linus Thümmel
On the walk back we went into Eggy! It's always fun to quickly poke about in there and to keep raising your trip numbers. It counts because you're in the dark.
The sun was shining and chickens were scratching around outside Whitewalls on our return. For an afternoon I'd forgotten everything about real life, and all was well in the world.
Back at the campsite I drank two ciders that went straight to my head, so by the time we got to the pub I was highly unconcerned by lack of chips. The strength of my cheer was probably a lot for poor Ellie and Davey, sorry. Basically a night of blow chatting ensued (an ancient reference to Mallorca 2012), until I retired to bed at midnight. I regretted the lack of a hot water bottle (I had deployed one on Friday to offset cramps and provide heat), but down sleeping bags are excellent for warmth, as are hats.
Craig a Ffynnon: David Wilson, Laura Harrison, Max Stunt, Zaeem Najeeb, Matti Mitropoulos, Ellie Pizey, Linus Thümmel
The drive up to Craig was fraught with narrow roads and misleading junctions, but we eventually made it to the correct layby and got changed. A quick walk took us to the entrance, which was gated with a locking mechanism that only answered to Davey’s Magic Touch. Entering the cave at precisely 12 noon, we made our way through the entrance passages. We were worried that with such a large group progress would be annoyingly slow, but I found it quite pleasant, as it allowed me to take more time to look at the various formations, of which there were too many to appreciate.
We were all thoroughly impressed by the hall of the mountain king, and were even more impressed when Davey told us that we hadn’t even reached it yet – we were just in some prechamber. The mountain king sure did have good taste in décor though; his chandelier throne and calcite floors were worth the crawling and wading.
The way back was easier since we could slide through a lot of the trickier crawls. The squeezes were very smooth and the path often left us knee deep in mud, but there was an opportunity to clean off a little just before exiting. Davey and Laura decided that swimming through a narrow passage with just enough airspace to breathe right before exiting would be fun, and were surprisingly disappointed when no one followed them down.
Eggy photography: Ben Honan, Cecilia Kan, Jennifer R, Rhys Tyers
Cafe: Fiona, Ana, Diss, Una, Emanuel
I was woken by a lowing cow because it's the countryside. My general aversion to effort led to my joining Team Cafe (Bookish in Crickhowell). Diss and I bought the bookshop's two copies of the newly-published Aquanaut by Rick Stanton. Outside we ran into a tattooed bloke who apparently used to dive with Rick in the Ressel in the south of France back in the day. You'd think I'd have remembered to ask his name but I didn't. At the end of the day I got caught up in saying goodbye to literally everyone. I then felt like a twat so once again I aggressively flung my car up the hill to Whitewalls to return the keys.
This was a good weekend because finally it resembled normal caving trips, despite the camping. I give 10 out of 10 to both cats I met, and 11 out of 10 to Jennifer's skills in knitting hats.
Thanks to IC3, I've now been caving for ten years (minus a few months-long-breaks due to global pandemics and/or apathy). Who'd have thought?
ABOVE GROUND (to the tune of Still Alive from Portal)
This was a triumph
I’m making a note here: huge damn cave
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction
We cave up on Mig because we do
For the good of all the Slovs
Except the ones that don’t care
But there's no sense crying over every dead lead
You just keep on trying til you run out of cave
And the pushing gets done
And you survey it for fun
For the cavers who are above ground
I’m not even angry
I’m being so sincere right now
Even though your survey’s shit
And needs redoing
I tore it to pieces
And threw every piece into the fire
As they burned it hurt because
I now have to survey
Now these points of data make a beautiful line
We are out of expo
We have run out of time
So we leave the underground
Think of all the cave we found
For the cavers who are above ground
Go ahead and derig
I think I prefer to drink some tea
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you
THAT WAS A JOKE, HAHA, FAT CHANCE
Anyway this tea is great
It is so gritty and weak
Look at me still talking when there’s caving to do
When I look down there
It makes me glad I’ve a brew
There is still tea in my cup
And--oh god--the washing up
For the cavers who are above ground
And believe me I am above ground
I’m drawing surveys and I’m above ground
I feel fantastic and I’m above ground
While you’re caving I am above ground
And when you’re rescued I’ll be above ground