Rock steady cruise to Wales, the ASDA at Aberdare turned out to have shut at 10pm (in spite of the International Mountain Leader's insistence it was 24hrs...), so we did a quick supermarket sweep around the Tesco's before it shut at Midnight. The industrial estate at Rhigos was the usual strange experience - nice to get to the WSG and turn on the bedroom radiator as it was getting rather chilly!
Up at 9AM - oh the pain! Still, we had to get the OFD keys by midday. Delicious fried breakfast, Larry arrived 10AM prompt and so we all bundled into the minibus and zoomed over to Pen-y-cae. Lots of cars at the SWCC, so we parked outside and changed on the grass in the warm October sun. Two groups were formed, and so we trampled up to top entrance... Planning to spice up the usual fresher trips, everyone was equipped with a sit-harness and a pair of cows-tails.
Of course, being so efficient we had forgotton something - leaving our big box full of guidebooks and laminated surveys of OFD in the hut...
In one word that will sum up the trip. Granted, if we go below the surface of 'Legendary' it looks a bit like this:
We flooded into the minibus and began our journey to Ogof Ffynnon Ddu (Or for those not fluent in Welsh - OFD!) Upon arriving I didn't know what to expect, being a total beginner of this recreational sport, so I followed the flow and began changing. After 5 minutes of putting on borrowed kit I felt like a caver! =] On entering the cave, it was utter darkness. Not the night-time sky darkness you've seen to but absolute absence of light. With our helmet lights on my eyes began to adjust and I saw the most spectacular view. Now I know what you're thinking. He's strange. When are rocks beautiful? Pictures can't even begin to capture the wonder. Moving on through the cave I began to realise just how vast OFD was! It did bring out the child in me, though, as Jana says: "A cave is an adult's playground". Crawling on the rocks, climbing up bits of colossal rock, sliding down muddy passages! Ah, the good old days. Clambering into an enormous chamber makes you realise how small you actually are. But the sights are worth it! Crystal-like structures forming round puddles, waterfalls, preserved specimens. On returning to the hut (Well they say a hut... I don't know many huts with showers and microwaves!) I took part in the cavers' substitute to drinking games. I won't spoil all the fun, you'll have to come along to find out ;)
Letting the air clear once the Traverse party had disappeared, we gently found our way down to Gnome Passage. Did the 'lights out - look how dark!' game while the bass echos of Martin disappeared down towards the chasm. Discussing the matter, we decided to head quickly down the Corkscrew rather than take Ed's shortcut - and attempt our Nave abseil.
Smooth, gentle, trip to Trident + Judge - probably the driest I've ever seen it down there. Came to the cross-roads with the swamp-creek water (not that I knew this then - no survey!) and followed the creek downstream along some really very pleasent watered rift (v. similar to the crab walk in Giants Hole, Derbyshire) finally reaching a pitch. However, with two rusty bolts, a descent that looked extremely wet for the first few metres and a drop that I'd estimate at 20 odd metres - it was an automatic decision that even if this was the way on, we wouldn't be going down there with the inexperienced!
So we trundled back to the cross-roads, went up high and walked along in a beautiful bit of phreas with some lovely little stal on the ceiling. Traversed across a bit of a pit down a hole on the right, and got to a pitch head. However, there were no beautiful P-bolts as promised by Martin (International Mountain Leader), rather a well worn thread with a red-disk label next to it, and an obvious larger thread to back-off on.
So I rigged our nice comforting 11mm while the new guys looked on and the lags explained what + why I was doing things, and I zipped down. Lovely bit of cave - beautiful white formation on the fall wall on the way down, you climb over some boulders beautifully glued together with calcite and then down a rather 'long legs recommended' freeclimb to reach the next pitch, for which there was a loop of rope + rusty maillon to rig off.
However, at the time, with no survey, and no P-bolts, I was only 90% certain this was correct. With one set of jammers between six, pull-through rigging and little experience of prussicing, we decided not to chance it and so proceeded with our backup plan of MayPole inlet. Journey across the bold step was fine (met a few NUCC at the big juncton), decided to rig a little pitch so everyone got an abseil in rather than the rather exposed chockstone + mini ledge on left method of climbing down the rift. There was a rather old in-situ loop around a chockstone at the 'back' of the boulder choke, which was supplemented by looped slings to climb back + an abseil rope.
Soon down in the stream - tied butterflies into a 10m length of 9mm for the actual descent into the streamway, was both more pleasant and quicker than the usual sling cacophony! Zoomed downstream in the low water levels to just where it gets deep before the escape to Cwm Ddu. Took a few photos on the way back, exited via the Corkscrew as time was tight. Popped to Arete chamber, and then handed it over to the freshers to navigate out. More tricky than you think it might be! No wonder so many people get lost in OFD - but we soon found ourselves on the hill in the beautiful evening sun, a speedy change and then the short drive back to the WSG.
We followed Martin International Mountain Leader "Raw-raw-raw" into OFD. I was kind of hoping for a relaxed "look after freshers" kind of trip, but our glorious leader had different plans and started zooming down the cave. Immediately I was personally slightly lost: suuuurely you don't need to go the the Big Cave near the Entrance to get to Chasm!? Oh - wait Martin is taking us this way to see how Jim and James deal with holes in the floor - God they don't dish those IML awards for nuffin!
We get to the corkscrew, then inexplicably Martin climbs over the muddy slope instead of down the hole: wtf? Next bit of the cave I am a bit confused about - a right turn somewhere? Then a long windy rift with more turnings that I have pubes (this passage looks completely wrong on the survey btw). and we get to a big T junction - right then left. Poached egg climb is easily negotiated, then climb up and down a huge pile of boulders kept together by the will of the welsh nation (actually mostly by mud). We get to the ladder pitches which are quickly and incompetentely wrigged (Ed: surely comptetently?). Actually most of the bad is due to me: should carry more slings and also ensure that ladders don't hang into quarter inch cracks. Soon after we reach the traverses. The first is rigged for psychological purposes, so is the second. At that point we are desensitised and can go "au naturel". The last traverse is a bit sketch and we protect it with the shoe lace wide dyneema rope i brought (cool!!!). The way out is uneventful, except for almost losing the ladder do to ultrawedging: the IML declares: "Raw raw raw" (translation: "it's not my ladder").
Say what you like about International Mountain Leaders, they can certainly cook! Carrot, Pumpkin and Corriander Soup for the appertiser (plus the inevitable Bierre D'or), followed by a delightful Chilli (home grown chilli peppers, natch) served with Basmati steamed to perfection and followed by the budget (but sitll juicy!) Tesco Value peach slices. The log fire soon warmed the whole hut up, the showers were enjoyed by the new cavers (all the old lags were too committed to Mud, Cooking, Drinking by the Fire to bother). Larry had his laptop stuffed with interesting caving films from around the world that were much commented upon, whereas James' laptop was applied to the new super-overkill music system at the WSG (100W discrete amp + stage speaker - is that even legal in a National Park?). The usual caving games warded off sleepy thoughts, though racked up more bruises than the caving ("This time I'm going to be able to traverse the table!")
Splitting up into smaller groups I jumped at the chance to go river caving in Little Neath. We went through an entrance down a river into an underground maze. It's amazing to see the sheer power of water after years of wearing away what was a solid piece of rock! Then we got to swim (They lend people wetsuits =] ) in the cave when it opened out. It was so peaceful, you just heard the running of water echoing off of the walls. We traversed every area of the river cave in just under 3 hours and came back out after much more climbing, crawling and sliding. This cave was even more spectacular with lots of small feats - Nature's miracles. On the minibus home I was glad of some rest after an intense weekend but as we drove out of Wales, there was a part of me that longed to go back.