Two Dives at Wookey - Ben Wright
Recently I've been lucky enough to dive twice at Wookey Hole down in Somerset, so I thought I write a quick report. For those that don't know, Wookey Hole is the resurgence for many of the well know caves near Priddy on Mendip, for example Swildon Hole, Eastwater and St Cuthbert's. It consists of a number of dry chambers connected together via flooded passageways - the last of which is chamber 25 before the cave heads into the final very deep and serious terminal sump. There are blasted tunnels which link the first few chambers allowing the public (its a showcave) to get to chamber 9. This cave has been pushed on and off for the last 80 years and is arguably the birthplace of british (and worldwide?) cave diving - I truely iconic place! The final sump was pushed to -90m by Rick Standon and John Volanthen, through a number of low silty squeezes and dodgy bolder chokes and is currently the deepest sump in the UK and only beaten in the British Isles by Pollatoomary at -103m, a cave in Ireland pushed by the late Artur Kozlowski.
BenW, Jon Beal, Sarah Payne
Russ Brookes of the BPC had very kindly organised this trip for me as I was already down on Mendip for Stu's birthday. The plan was to get into the water at chamber 3, where apparently all first dives at Wookey Hole should take place, and head to Chamber 22, the furthest chamber you can reach without getting out of the water. Jon, being of the more 'techy' side of british cave diving, advised that wearing a drysuit was best as well as a pair of 7 litre bottles. Once we carried all the kit in through the collection of plastic dinasaurs (like Dan yr Ogof, but moreso!), we got changed and kitted up in front of a audience of tourists. Since I was more likely to stur up the vis (being definitely a caver rather than a slick cave seal like Jon and Sarah), I elected to dive last with Jon going first to show the way.
Once Jon and Sarah had dived I waved goodbye to the tourists and set off. The visability was amazing, around 15m, which compared to the standard 2-3m I'm used to was utterly breathtaking. The water was blue-tinted, with streams of light coming in from the lit chambers above. We swam straight to chamber 9, most of which is basically underwater caving, and jumped the line to the line going to chamber 20 without surfacing so we didn't wreck the vis by standing on the silt bank there. A little further is a line junction, left going to chamber 20 via the deep route and right via the shallow route. I pegged the line home (we place a clothes-peg on the line which we have just come from at a line junction so we know which one is home) and we took the deep route. This route quickly enters a large underwater chamber at the top and the line steaply decents to the bottom at around -22m. As the visibility was so good you could really get a sense of the scale of the place, it was huge. Once at the bottom you follow a 2m high bedding for around 20m untill you enter a rather lovely 45 degree phreatic tunnel which slowely ascends up to chamber 20. We didn't surface here, but instead kept on heading upstream towards chamber 22.
We passed the line junction back to chamber 9 via the shallow route, which we were to take on the way back, and dropped into another rather plesent chamber, the bottom of which was at around -18. At this point I had almost reached 3rds on my air supply, but since I was so close to the end and I was heading back out via the shallow route (so needed less air) and with the flow, I decided to continue a bit further to 22. Chamber 22 was reached very soon afterwards, just as I reached 3rds, after a dive of around 300m taking about 25 minutes. We dekitted and headed into the roof of chamber 22 to look down on the sump pool going through to 23, this involved scrambling up and down rocky slopes and well as crawling though some sandy beddings, all in a drysuit, so once we'd arrived I was rather warm! Once we'd climbed back down I decided to wander around to the 23 sump pool proper and go and climb down the ladders which Rob Parker and Bill Stone had installed in the 1980s when they were pushing the deep terminal sump using mixed gas - truely an awesome place in terms of cave diving history.
We then returned back to the downstream sump and kitted up ready for the dive out. Once ready we set off, going back the way we came, but turning left into the shallow route instead of using the deep route. This route starts off as a 1.5m high bedding at -5m with lots of obsticals to swim around to keep it interesting, then suddenly arrives at the top of a rather picturesque 15m pot. The swim down this is rather entertaining and involved me quickly adding air to my suit and Scoff Bag to keep my from plummeting and hitting the floor (you become less boyant the deeper you go so you need to compensate by adding more air). Once at the bottom you swim up a silty slope to arrive back at the line junction, with left being back to chamber 9 and right being the deep route. I removed my peg and we swam to 9 and again jumped the line to 3 so we didn't need to surface. It this point the vis was around 2-3m, so Sarah made sure I had the correct line before she headed on.
Me and Jon quickly surfaced in chamber 4 which was part of the old showcave, before heading through to 3 to the gawping tourists. On checking my gauges I found I had 110bar left in each (out of 270), which was absolutely plenty, so didn't feel to bad about pushing my margins right to 3rds on the way in! I was also pretty chuffed with my boyancy during the dive, definiltely not a slick underwater cave seal, maybe more of a drunk Manatee, but certianly not a bottom crawling crab! A truely amazing dive - I was definitely buzzing for a long time afterwards. I then headed back over to the Wessex to say hello to Les and Frank who were working on the sewerage system, then onto the UBSS hut in Burrington Combe for Stu's birthday.
BenW, Clive Westlake
For the dive on the 26th, I'd originally asked Clive if he was available for a dive, but he wasn't, so he suggested the 10th August instead. This fitted in quite well as it was the BEC summer BBQ that weekend, which lots of my southern friends were going to, so would make a good weekend. Unfortunely it meant I could not be at the TSG BBQ, but was worth it for another chance to dive at Wookey! It was also Clives 69th birthday, so would make a rather plesent celebration!
As Clive is more of a caver than a 'techy' diver, we decided to wear wetsuits and again 7 litre bottles. This meant we could properly get out of the water and have a good look around without getting to warm and risking damaging our drysuits. We decided we'd swim to 22 via the same route as I took last time, surface but not dekit, then back to 20 and get out of the water and have a good look around. The swim to 22 was as magnificent as last time, with around 15m visability, but my boyancy wasn't quite as good as I was in a wetsuit rather than a drysuit. Once back at 20, we dekitted and stashed our gear, which was rather interesting as the sump pool is out of depth, so you needed to remove your bottles while treading water!
Once we were out of the water we clambered down to Chamber 20 proper, which is largest chamber in the cave - pretty huge. Along one wall there is a very unusual rock formation - lots of weired ridges of rock which tower 10m above you and cover the entire wall. I'd seen plenty of photos of them, but was really good to see them in real life. We wandered to the end of the chamber and into the passage behond until it degenerated to hands and knees crawling, then returned. Kitting up was rather fun due to the out of depth water, which was made more interesting by huge amounts of air emerging from the first stage of one of my regulators. After quickly turning the bottle off to save air I removed the regulator from the bottle, dismantled the bit you screw in, reseated an O-ring which had become dislodged, and screwed it back in - all while in out of depth water, this thankfully fixed the problem. As I was in out of depth water, 200m away from home, I was certainly a little nervous doing it, but luckily JNC had persuaded me to have a go at servicing my own regs a year back, so I was perfectly used to dismantling and fixing them!
Once this was fixed I set off home via the shallow route, telling Clive I'd wait for him at the junction between the shallow and deep route to make sure Id got the right line home, but if the regulator failed mid sump I'd just swim on and surface in 9 and wait there. In the end the reg was fine and trip out was uneventful and plesent. We surfaced back at chamber 3, again to gawping tourists, dekitted and carried our kit out. Other than the regulator failure, a very good dive and a nice way to spend Clives birthday!