Straws and Unicorns (Caving)
Friday 16th January 2015
Last weekend I went to the South Wales Cave Club (SWCC) and stayed at their very spacious yet cosy club house. The main purpose of this visit was to cave, for the third time for me, in the magnificent cave: OFD ll. I love this massive cave system, because it is so vast, there are literally dozens of potential trips, offering varying degrees of challenge, ranging from fairly novice caver to really epic trips. It is awe-inspiring in its scale, offers lots of challenges, some of which I can do, and it also harbours formations of outstanding beauty. Such as this, me (not the thing of beauty) in Straw Gallery:
This trip, which is also part of my training to cave for long enough to make it to and through Sump 1 in Swildons some time in 2015, was planned to last for up to 5 hours. In fact, we caved for 4.5 hours and this included some photo taking and a brief stop for a snack and water. Our target was Straw Gallery, which is very close to the part of OFD ll that will eventually take you on into OFD lll. We went in, as is conventional, at the main entrance, and then on to Big Chamber Near the Entrance (best cave name ever), through Gnome Passage (not real gnomes; let down), over The Mini-Traverses, down The Corkscrew* and into then straight across the streamway. Eventually we reached Timmo’s Table (snack time) and then on, via 4 really quite nice climbs up, and, via a very pleasant series of narrow tunnels and crawls, we reached the main challenge: The Poached Egg.
This is an awkward little climb, not that high really, but the way takes you round an inconvenient bulge of rock and mud, on which are some fairly well-worn stals, and where, once upon a time, there was a formation, small and round, hence its name of poached egg, which cavers used to loop an arm or hand round as they attempted to swing round the bulging overhang and make it across and up. One day, with a caver attached, it relinquished its grip on the rock and the mud and they both – caver and egg – fell down about 20 feet at that point. She was alright, but the egg was no more. Now, there is a short metal spike at the same point in the rock and mud to aid you; plus two bolts to which you can rig a rope or slings. We used slings. This means you can loop this sling, which is rigged across, around one arm; thus reassured, you tentatively reach for the only foot hold, which is not really big enough for two feet whatever Will may say, shuffle about a bit, get both feet safe, grab hold of the spike and launch onwards to the other side. You do it in two really bold steps, basically. This is me on the way in:
And this is Florence in a shot I took on the way back; I am standing at the very bottom, on the same side as where she will pop out of the climb:
I had heard of this Poached Egg, and it had the potential to make me have a ‘moment’ but in fact it was relatively easy and I really enjoyed it. Directly after this, you need to climb up again, but from a sort of small plateau of rock, up about 10 feet. I could see now way here, so I stood on Will. He did it by launching at it. I think he just overcomes some climbs by pretending they are not there. Then I think we got a bit lost, re-traced our steps, corrected the problem and were at once crawling into Straw Gallery.
It is a low, wide passage, well taped off, as the straws populate one side of the roof. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of straws, growing from fault lines. Some are very long, some appear white, others are amber. From many, helectites are growing, which are gravity-defying formations which sprout horizontally or even back upwards, from walls in caves, or from other formations, such as these straws. I have read the theories about how helectites are formed. It may be capillary forces, drawing water against gravity; or some suggest wind in caves, which does exist, may blow the calcite-bearing droplets one way and then another. The shapes they form are really incredible and until you see them, especially in areas where they are massed, it is very hard to imagine. And when you do see them, it is very hard to believe they are real.
Straws are, as the name suggests, hollow – in fact, they are hollow stalactites. If the end got blocked up it would just be a stalactite. I assume. They are incredibly delicate, and beneath the gallery, on the floor of the cave, and on the other side of the tape, lie hundreds more broken straws or parts of straws. These are casualties of nature, not of man. Seismic activity can break or dislodge delicate formations, or they may develop with a fault and then break off. They are just left, on the mud floor of this chamber, where they fall. I think (and here I am drawing on my incredible reserves of science theory, innit?) that sometimes, these straws may develop with tiny holes in the hollow structure, and water gets drawn up or sideways through these, depositing calcite into the weird shapes that some – but by no means all – of the straws exhibit, like mad crystal wigs. It’s that, or the unicorns which roam about in the caves when we leave, breathe special
unicorn air onto them to make the helectites. This theory has not been tested.
As water loaded with calcite drops to the ground, so stalagmites are formed, growing from the ground upwards, and in Straw Gallery, there are several of these, one notably bigger and much more vivid in its amber shade than the others. It’s odd. The straws are all so pale, often white and so slender. Then the stalagmites are so much bigger, and rather orange.
I lay on my back, on the outside (i.e. the side you are allowed to occupy) of the tape, and you can then gaze up at the straw-strewn ceiling and marvel at this utterly amazing sight. It was the ultimate in luxury – the luxury of time. Because we were taking some pictures, which really only involves me in being in one or two, or holding and pressing the flash. We were on our own, no-one was in a hurry. No-one was exhausted, cold or hungry. We knew all we had to do was cave back largely the same way we went in, and we had hours before our call-out time. So I lay here, on the floor of Straw Gallery, for about 20 minutes.
Finally we left this chamber and made our way back in 1.5 hours which is pretty fast caving for me. I was very keen to get out and have a wee, a cuppa and a shower, followed by hot food, a beer, some knitting, and a group crossword puzzle with some of the other hut-dwellers that night. I am very proud that we cracked the puzzle in under half an hour and I demonstrated to my fellow cavers that crosswording can be a team game. They retaliated with scrabble. I have never played scrabble, but last weekend I witnessed it three times. It just does not appeal to me. Silly tiles, weird numbering rules…and a lot of squabbling about if words that (in my opinion) were clearly made-up, are real. But then, I really hate all board games. In fact, the only group-games I do like are pictionary, which I have played twice, and Cards Against Humanity, which I played once, and it’s rude. But very funny.
I rate the trip to Straw Gallery as my personal best cave trip to date. This cave also involves a hefty walk of about half a mile directly up the steep hillside to where the entrance is located, and of course the walk back down, which is not easier because it hurts my shins. So, 4.5 hours of caving (with rests) plus the hiking. My acid test for endurance activities, mainly running and cycling, is: how much more could I do if I had to? I reckon, with another snack break, I could have caved on for at least another 1.5 hours, even allowing for climbing/moderate peril. This means I am ready to try Swildons again, and attempt to get to, and through, Sump 1, which will take me very briefly (for as long as it takes to get a photo) into Swildons 2. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted. It may not be soon, but I am feeling more confident.
*when I first went into OFD ll, and that is eighteen months ago now, I sat at the top of The Corkscrew and cried. I cried for five minutes, and I protested and begged for a further ten before being coaxed down and round it. Needless to say, this is simply exhausting for everyone. If I needed evidence that you CAN improve and see real progress, this is it, because this time, whilst I was still cautious, I unhesitatingly if slowly slid and climbed down this nasty little climb with no apprehension whatsoever. This lends some weight to a theory which experienced cavers have been telling me for some time, namely that caving whilst not sobbing, and
with one’s eyes open is rather easier.