Far Sump Extensions - Phil Wolstenholme

Saturday, 11 June, 2016

Present: Andy Farrow, Wayne Sheldon, Phil Wolstenholme

Another survey trip was planned by Wayne to update another bit of the Peak-Speedwell system - this time the bulk of the top passages in Far Sump Extension. To save time and energy we'd arranged to go in via Speedwell - I'd never been past the top of Calcite Aven before and Andy hadn't been to much of this part of the system either, so it was a good opportunity to do some useful work and see some new cave. Edd had meant to be coming along too but pulled out mysteriously. No details needed on the trip in, which was routine, and pleasantly the water in the Far Canal was quite low and not too cold, so we made good progress to the Far Sump connection in Leviathan, and the dreaded 'cow arse worms pool', which I wasn't looking forward to. Strangely, the worms weren't visible, but the water in the pool was also murky, so maybe someone had been through recently - levels were quite low too.

Whatever, it didn't take long wriggling through before the stink started - like a farm pond mixed with dirty drains with a hint of oil - lovely. Holding our breath, we swam in liquid sludge for a few metres and then the long crawl to the next foul duck just before Stemple Highway - which smelled no better. Once in the relative comfort of Stemple Highway we took stock and realised the best way to get clean was to get up Calcite Aven as quickly as possible. I took that a little too literally in my new comfier, superior harness, and pretty much ran up the rope after Wayne, giving him a bit of a surprise at the second rebelay, as I wasn't meant to be there yet. However, by the time he'd reached the top rebelay it was obvious something was wrong with the rigging up there and from his echoey shouts down to us it became obvious there was some damage somewhere.

He came down and I went up to have a look, and sure enough, the rope on the top, tight traverse had no sheath at all for about 30cm where it had plainly rubbed away on the sharp nose of rock. The inner cores looked mostly intact, but as they were flapping about loosely, it was hardly confidence-building. No idea who has done this (or rather, not reported it for others' safety which is more pertinent), but either way, it was a bigger risk than either of us were prepared to take. The lower, loose traverse was so low that climbing back up would have been risky and hard work, and it was rigged too tight for a rope-transfer onto a chest ascender. Andy was happy to take our word for it and abseiled back down from the ledge, followed by us, with me marvelling and wondering about all the other, smaller avens leading off into invisible areas above. I assume all this has been done before, of course...

Once back down on safe ground, we decided on a plan B. Wayne had been asked to survey Muddy Aven by Rob Eavis, which is more or less opposite the Calcite Aven access passage, and so he began free-climbing with the Disto, shooting legs and splays as he went, whilst Andy and I had a sit-down. After ten minutes Wayne shouted down that he could do with some backup, as he was getting quite high (not that sort of high, but I was good enough for both of us). So I climbed up after him, and quite an enjoyable zig-zag climb it was, augmented by several small steel steps that are very helpful, if extremely sharp and rather nasty if missed! However, the aven lives up to its name, as it is indeed very muddy. At about 20m it levels out, and I could see Wayne's feet above me as he crawled into a dig at the end - presumably Henry's. I could feel a strong draught where I was, so something's still going up there. However, not for us. We climbed back down and Wayne said that he'd spend ten minutes sorting out all the data, so I took Andy downstream to look at Stemple Highway and show him AI Passage and the Titan connection so he knows where he'll pop out when he finally drops it all. The blind aven just below Coral Aven was also looked at, but I managed to swing my wet, gritty footloop into my eye at this point, requiring a 5 min eyebath in the Coral Aven shower - as painful as it was restorative.

We met Wayne back at the junction and I decided I was going to have a look at Salmon's Cavern, which requires a 9m rope-climb up to a col and then a very muddy 'handline' down the other side for 6m. As I was the only one still wearing a harness or interested (Wayne's already done it), I was on my own. The handline down was a nightmare as it's incredibly muddy and slippery, and is double-roped with knots every 50cm, so you have to step in each loop, with both cowstails gradually allowing you to 'aid climb' down - sort of. It was a complete joke and utterly exhausting, dangerous and pretty futile when a 6m single rope would do the job far better and be safe too. I nearly fell nastily twice, prompting Wayne in some audio confusion to set off back for the rope we'd brought with us, still at Muddy Aven. I finally dropped into Salmon's Cavern and was able to marvel at the sheer size of it - massive diameter and a huge roof soaring off, with a rope hanging down from the 'Unnamed Aven', and the old rope from Stemple Aven now cut off with a sign on it saying 'Do Not Use' - as it was 3m off the floor that would be difficult. The old stemples that JNC pulled down are all piled up on the floor. I finally saw the base of Ride of the Valkyries at least - one day I'll drop it! I also had a quick look at the ascending crawl to the final sump, but couldn't be arsed with any more thrutching given the journey out.

I managed to get back up the handline easier than I got down it, just as Wayne returned with the rope I no longer needed. He could have thrown the existing ascent rope over the col, but he didn't think about that. Either way, it would be better if re-rigged. After that we were getting cold and had to make the boats out, so we set off back, again dreading the filthy horrors, but we got through quickly and soon were back in the Speedwell streamway, where we immediately washed off as much of the liquid evil as I could, though I still went down the Bung ladder to be sure.

A good trip, but disappointing we didn't see all the big stuff - hopefully we can get the top rope re-rigged ASAP.