Sat / Sun 5th & 6th October 2013 - Oliver King
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Suspense above a dark abyss
I have wanted to descend Titan for as long as I first heard about Britain's deepest natural shaft. So naturally, when Tom and Ed invited me on a trip organised for an online mining community I heartily accepted.
This was to turn out to be an epic weekend. Tom had planned a trip to rig JH for the Saturday. It would be on the Sunday that we would rig Titan, then come out of and de-rig JH. This would have been quite a trip, as it would mean de-rigging JH on the way out after a 6 hour stint, and then walking back to Titan to descend the entrance pitch and pull the 140m of rope back up and haul this another 50m to surface...
As time went on, more and more people couldn't make it for whatever reason, so in the end there was a team of 4 of us, that being Tom, Lauren, Damian and myself.
So the weekend started with a very sleepless Friday night. A mixture of nerves and excitement meant my mind was far too active for a mundane task such as sleeping. I think I last looked at the alarm clock at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, and the next hour and a half of sleep would have to do; not a great start!
The plan was to meet at Castleton's TSG hut Saturday morning at 8 a.m., but due to various factors this did not quite work out, and as usual we found ourselves eating bacon butties miles away from where we should have been and at a time we should have been making our way underground!
We arrived at Rowter farm at about 11.00a.m. We were blessed with a stunning autumn day with a nice warm sun beating down over the rolling hills above Castleton. Nothing is better than this sort of weather before and after a hard trip, and this day, it really set a good mood!
After sorting the ropes, getting into our gear and picking the key up from the farm, we made our way over the many mottled remains of the old man lead workings of New Rake to the lid of James Hall over Engine shaft.
Tom Rigged the entrance pitch, this being an original haulage shaft driven down into the vein by the miners; and so the trip began.
For whatever reason I am unable to fathom, I volunteered to carry the rope bag that would get us down the last three pitches. This was a decision I would very quickly regret, as it weighed a fair bit and was pretty awkward to drag along the narrow passages, especially when there was no room to sling over your shoulder, and that was before the rope managed to soak up whatever water it could find along the way!
The way down the first pitch was accomplished with haste and left me enough time to look around. It is an interesting shaft, a short section contained ginging until the stable limestone secured a nicely driven rectangular shaft. Toward the end, the shaft opens out into the worked veins, where the keen eye might see the first remnants of miners gone by in the way of climbing 'stemples', that being bits of timber that bridged the gap of the vein here and there.. At the base of this shaft led into the main haulage level, known as the cart-gate.
We meandered, stooped and crawled along this 200+ meter 'passage', which whilst low in places was just about comfortably wide. The vein clearly continued down much further where we were walking, as there were various openings in the false floor, filled with very cold, deep water that needed some careful traversing! We continued onward until we finally found our first internal pitch, aptly named Bitch Pitch. Bitch? Because it is fairly tight and requires a couple of re-belays and deviations down this 50m vein. Bitch incidentally, does not adequately explain waiting at this pitch when you are carrying one rope bag full of rope and another kit bag slung over your spare shoulder, and after only an hours sleep the previous night! Thoughts of actually completing Titan the following day were quickly slipping at this point in time, but this was something to worry about another day, and for now, determination would keep me marching on, if only at a slower pace than the others...
By the time I had reached Bitch Pitch, Tom had rigged and already started working on the first re-belay. This part of the cart-gate comes to an end and is where we start heading down the still narrow vein.
Tom called up after the first re-belay had been set, and as he worked somewhere out of sight below, with only the occasionally reflection of his torch light giving any clue as to his proximity. Lauren then started on her way down, followed by Damian, then myself.
This part of the trip was a relief for me, as I was able to hook the bags to my harness, transferring the weight to my belt hooks. This left my upper body free to concentrate on manoeuvres. It was a well earned rest from the horizontal drudgery and allowed me to recuperate some of that expended energy on the way down!
At the bottom of Bitch Pitch, we hit the workshop. This area considerably opens out and is where mined rock meets the naturally carved underworld leading to the back end of Speedwell.. In case you had missed so previously, it is at this point you notice obvious evidence of miners gone by, in the shape of various mining tools and other artefacts such as an old wagon. This congers up images of the old Man 200 years previous, protected only by his leather cap, tallow candle for light, simple studded boots and wooden stemples for ladders, and their daily commute to the bottom dark wet ends of the earth... and we weren't even there yet!
With no time to rest, we continued on to the next pitch through a small crawling height passage - this was the first pitch of Leviathan, which meant we weren't too far from the bottom now!
The top of Leviathan was quite large, but with not a great deal of room for many to gather safely. I clipped in to the main anchor point and then proceeded to approach the edge using my stop. There was an interesting fixed deviation that had to be clipped into, in order to maintain distance from the edge of the chamber. It was then a case of dropping down the 40 odd meter shaft and starting the rigging on the next pitch, which involved a small traverse and a drop of about 10 meters. My bag was getting lighter now!
All the while Damian was doing a great job of recording our progress on camera!
Finally, we got to the last pitch which would drop us 45 meters into the workshop and see us into the back end of Speedwell's main river system. This was my favourite descent, as I had previously seen the large miners stemples disappear into the roof space on my first trip here a couple of years ago to the bottom of Leviathan, but had never come from JH itself. Again this chamber is quite a large natural chamber and would have been quite wet at one point, but some previous diggers had installed a pipe to control and divert water into the speedwell system, I am guessing, to allow the connection with Speedwell and Titan!
At this point we hung around for a while to take in all we had done so far, and then promptly made for The Boulder-piles. This section is in itself quite fun, basically a vertical boulder choke that had been painstakingly cleared by diggers 15 years earlier. This you have to descend on fixed iron ladders. What makes it different however is the fact the ladders are placed only where it was possible to fix them, located on every which side of the choke and with fairly large gaps between some sections. Longer legs certainly help out here!
We dropped into the speedwell stream way. This stream way is really quite interesting, as it is mostly phreatic but also in places has vandose modification, which makes for some impressive passageways! The water was generally quite low, with boulders, both large and small strewn around. Before heading east toward Peak, we had one place we just had to check out first.
Heading west up the stream way a few hundred or so yards, we climbed up into a small passageway known on the survey as Cliff passage, to reveal what can only be described as the most significant piece of mining heritage in Derbyshire... It is not often you come across 200 hundred year old graffiti that survives so well intact, and I am sure the old man, who originally inscribed a picture of a Gin bottle filling a tall goblet shaped glass, along with his initials, verse and date 'JLB A health to all miner's and mentainers[sic] of mines 1781' didn't expect modern adventurers to be admiring his work so long after; but indeed here we were doing just that. Again, there was little the old man had not previously seen down these dark depths, that only modern adventurers have been able to recently appreciate so easily once again!
It was about this time we decided we should make a move. We really intended to be out of Peak Cavern in time before they locked the gates, although our call out was substantially later at about 7pm. Still, we were aware time was marching on, so back we headed to where we came out of JH, and then off to our next challenge!
We passed the whirlpool, our first deep encounter with water. I decided to wade it whilst the others sensibly walked the traverse. It was inevitable that we would all get wet though, and sure enough not much further, we were all releasing shrieks as we submerged ourselves into the ice cold water of the speedwell stream way! It was quite a relief when we soon found our way to the 'Bung'. This would be our way on.
Ahead of us, a clue that we were getting close to the Speedwell Show cave was marked by the first of two locked gates, this would ordinarily lead to the show cave proper, but no access is allowed except under exceptional circumstances.
The bung is basically a huge dam holding back the natural course of water, in order to originally provide the miners with an underground canal in the speedwell mine. It is responsible for maintaining a constant maximum water level in the above system. Quite a lot of water can rush down the ladder here but today it was fairly tame.
A quick peek at Block hall (a different route we will take on a future trip!) and a crawl along 'short by-pass' and we came across 3 other intrepid explorers! Yes, there were more lifeforms underground with us that day and we weren't the last men out.
They were actually taking a Fresher from Uni on a mammoth first trip to the Bung, and his face really said it all... Pale, Cold, frightened, fresh new patches of stress-related acne, I am sure wondering what he had agreed to before going on this mad mission! We all had a quick chat then went our separate ways. We now found ourselves in Rift Cavern, about to tackle the bit Lauren in particular had been looking forward to for a long time, and that I had been dreading in equal measures!
Before we continued however, we all sat down at Egnaro Aven (I believe it is neva orange for those who are wondering ;-)) and had a bite to eat in order to gain some more energy, before climbing the ladders to our next challenge - Colostomy Crawl..
Well this really is what it says on the tin.. If there was ever a valid reason to practice crawling through the bowls of a giant I doubt there would be any more suitable training ground! This passage meanders and twists for what feels like a kilometer (probably a couple hundred meters at most!), a fair bit of which you spend flat on your chest or side, and at best you might get to speed along on all fours! The passage is also coated in thick clay, which if wet can really assist at times, but more often than not only hinders progress due to the sticky nature of the orangey brown stuff..
As I still had a bag, I decided to set the pace through the crawl and led the way up the ladder. No way was I being left behind! Lauren followed, and then Tom and finally Damian brought up the rear.
There was quite a draft at the entrance to the crawl, and there is a unique feeling when entering this passage, a sort of dread, just as you prepare to almost dive in to the maze of tight muddy and wet twists, wondering if it will ever end or not...
I am still not certain if Lauren or Damian came away from this experience in a positive light, neither said a great deal about it, neither have they said much since. At the time, I think we were all looking forward to the warmth of the local pub and a well earned pint!
So after negotiating the Colostomy, and then the trenches, and finally dropping faulty towers into treasury we were finally on our way home!
We were now headed down the Peak stream way towards the cavern entrance. We still had a few ducks which meant we had to fully submerge ourselves in that cold water once again, but upon reaching the Buxton Baths it was time to scrub down to make us look shiny and respectable for the public, and make our way out of the Devil's Arse show cave. It was now about 5.30, and the last trip had just finished for the day. We could smell the fresh air and could see the sky was still blue beyond the cavern entrance. A quick photo opportunity at the gates, we signed ourselves out and we could all start to think about the days accomplishment, and actually how quickly we had managed to achieve the trip too!
There was one more problem, it would seem we had all left our dry clothes in the car at Rowter farm, and our only option was to pile in Damian's car, wet kit 'n all, and drive back up. Myself and Tom squashed into the boot like freshly caught sardines; Lauren taking the comfy option in the front of the car and so Damian drove us back to Rowter. Much fun was had pulling faces and waving to bemused drivers and ramblers as we made our way back up Winnat's pass, at least a few found this particularly funny!
That night, dry and warm, we decided to head over to the Peaks Inn and get some food and a well earned pint. It was at this stage that Lauren made a very difficult decision and decided the next days trip into Titan would be too much, so she called for a lift home. It was a very difficult decision to make for her as she had looked forward to Titan for a long time, but it is a decision she should be praised for under the circumstances. I wasn't entirely sure I would be doing the trip myself yet, as my knees looked rather bruised and I was worried this would be rather painful the next day!
Back to the TSG, myself and Tom stayed up until there seemed to be few others around, and so decided to call it a night. Up to the visitors room and find a gap in the communal bunk, where we could squeeze in and get ourselves some well earned rest.
Titan amongst Avens
Well this is what the weekend was all about, it is the very thing that I had spent a a good month looking forward to, and then only to find I could not get a wink of sleep only one night previously. There was no turning back now.
After a good nights sleep in the TSG, I made my way to the kitchen where Tom was cooking breakfast. Paul had also turned up by now too. So far then, I figured there would be three of us, one more would be required if we were to split and de-rig JH that day, either way we were doing what we had come to achieve!
The search for extra help was getting a little desperate as time marched on, but then help came by way of a chap called Jack from the Sheffield University Speleological Society. He had never done JH nor Titan so was eager to abandon his arranged trip to Giants Hole and follow us – all was good!
We finally decided to make our way up to Hitch & Hike to collect the key, then on to Rowter farm in Paul's motor.
So the plan – in order to get everything de-rigged that day, we would split into two groups. Tom and Jack would move through to JH and de-rig, whilst myself and Paul would re-ascend Titan and de-rig as we go... At least that was the idea!
The lid of Titan is quite literately across the field from JH at the top of Hurdlow, but still we parked as close as we could, as the 240m of rope we would be using was not exactly light! Every bit of energy saved would be a bonus right now!
The mood was pretty good amongst us all. After a trek up the fairly small hill, we came across the lid. Tear shaped and hinged at the point, the lid slid aside like the brass cover over an old door lock, which revealed a very sturdily built concrete lined shaft, about 2 meters to a second locked lid.
The first shaft was rigged by Tom, and we then descended the 47 meters of man mined shaft to the bottom. This was an amazing engineering effort that had been completely mined in 2004 to allow access to the top of Titan. I believe it took about 4 years of hard work, it looked like it should have taken a lot more!
At this point I think it would be a good idea to put into perspective how far we would be descending from the surface to the bottom of Titan, and doing so with just 3 lengths of rope. So let's just imagine a tall structure, say the Blackpool Tower. If all three ropes were stood end to end representing the lengths of the pitches; at approximately a third of the way down the first rope, you would be passing the top of the Towers flag pole – This is a hell of a hole!
We bottomed the first pitch to find ourselves in a small passage, round the corner of which I new the great abyss beckoned. So I moved along, a huge amount of rope in hand, The realisation was starting to kick in now...
After moving round the corner, I could see the end of our passage, it was obviously the end, but what it ended into I could not see, as on the other side of this sudden boundary lay nothing but blackness. Only the constant sound of water echoing in a large chasm gave any clue as to what lay ahead...
I clipped into the traverse and carefully moved to the edge of the first pitch.... Wow! My lamp just about caught the other side of the chamber, and looking down I could just about see the Event Horizon way below, revealing a pitch black hole that would lead beyond this, the mid point, to the bottom of Titan. It somehow seemed quite surreal and so far away; and yet only a few minutes of descent on a single rope.
Back to our tower analogy, we were currently stood at about the height of the towers glass floored 'walk of faith', and this was a trick I would shortly require in order to progress much further!
I had volunteered to rig the next two pitches. I kind of saw it as a good challenge, but I would want to be sure that Tom was happy with my work before anyone descended.
When I actually saw the first pitch however, I was all of a sudden not so sure! Looking above the drop, there was a small overhang with two bolts; with no ledge to stand on below the bolts, and an 8ft reach up - this would take a nerve the like of which I have not had to call upon before. To add to this, being petrified of heights in general, only the perpetual darkness around me maintained the required level of pretence that allowed me to get on with the job in hand.
The only way, clip the rope into the first traverse, then make my way to the bolts with only a small foot loop to boost myself up to the Y hang. It was absolutely necessary to prepare the rope before hand so that I was able to clip it directly into the hangers without further need to adjust, as there was nothing to hold onto, and the least I could think about that which lay between me and the bottom of the chamber, the more quickly I would be able to complete the task!
After a nod from Tom, I was the first to descend. It was a pleasant descent, with calcite pretties above and around the pitch head, and a passage, although out of reach on this trip, but showing clear signs of an active dig by others. The trip down was otherwise fairly ordinary, but for the sheer open space around me which made for an extraordinary experience!
I finally reached the Even Horizon, a small rocky outcrop like the edge of a small island dropping off to a lagoon in the middle of nowhere. A traverse disappeared off round the cavern side in to the distance.
I immediately started to sort the rope out for the next pitch whilst Tom was next to make his way down.
After attaching the next length of rope to the upper hanger, it was time to descend to what I thought would be the easiest bit to rig, not that it was technically simpler, but the fact it was half the height of when I was at the top, and thus should not be as much a head wrecker right? How wrong could I be?
I clipped onto the top rope, and slowly made my way over the edge to the next set of hangers. However, I was not sure where they actually were, and when I finally did see them, they were approaching rather quickly and it was clear I would struggle to stop in time. Just as I predicted, with 60m of rope above and now being stationary relative to the rope, I watched helplessly as the hangers shot past my field of view as I continued to descend like what felt an eternity... This was purely in the stretch of the rope, and sure enough, before I had time to worry about having to re-ascend, the hangers were once again approaching at a fair pace as the rope reigned in what was owed back to it.. I quickly clipped my cows tail in, and this was now one less thing to worry about.
It was at this point, legs dangling, no passage to escape to and with the sound of thundering water, that all of a sudden I felt very exposed, very isolated and for the first time, felt a tangible fear running through my veins, I froze.
It would take a little time to compose myself at this point, and this included taking a deep breath and closing my eyes. I cannot describe the sensation, I felt a little dizzy, and just wanted to be on firm ground again. However, I got a hold of thoughts and concentrated on the job in hand.
The next issue was that we had already thrown the next rope over the side. 58 meters of 11mm static rope is heavy, and so rigging like this would prove rather difficult! I managed to clip the rope in to my crab on my harness, which gave me a large enough loop of rope to enable me to rig the re-belay. I changed over, called for Tom to retrieve the top rope, made a deep sigh and finally I was making my way down to the base of the cavern.
We all eventually reached the bottom, and I was finally able to take things in.
The chamber was slightly bigger at the bottom than I had expected, and was quite wet with a suspended mist from the spray of the waterfall. No obvious exit as we were basically stood on a huge pile of boulders that had fallen down long ago.
Due to the length of time taken, and our usual late start, it was decided we should all make our way out the way we had come in. The ropes in JH could wait for another day, it would have added a considerable amount of time to the trip and it was already approaching 3pm in the afternoon, it would at least be 6pm before we would make our way out and our call out was for 8pm!
Tom made quick progress, and so before I knew it I was next to go.
I was rather eager to start making my way up, as I was starting to chill and the idea of having to ascend 157 meters back up a rope was leaving me with only thoughts of dread!
This would, unexpectedly be the worst part of the trip so far for me.
At about 30 meters up, looking up and seeing a rope disappear into a sort of grey darkness along with spray descending from the waterfall, looking down and seeing a tiny pin-prick of a light from a fellow caver below, and with that and a moving wall, some 7 meters or so in front of me in near constant yo-yo-like motion from the bounce of the rope, the level of vertigo that hit me reached new limits. At times I simply could do nothing more than to close my eyes and continue ascending, oblivious to all but noise and the feeling of my stomach turning as I hit the troughs and peaks as the rope bounced up and down. As if this was not bad enough, I would start to feel tired as I raced up the rope in an attempt to get the whole experience over and done with!
It was not long until things started easing, as the bounce got less and less I could get into a nice rhythm, and once again start to enjoy the experience.. Before I knew it, I could see the ledge above and this would be the mark of a well earned rest!
Jack was next, and he disconnected the Y hang so that we would be able to pull the rope up behind us.
Paul was already on his way up the next pitch at this point, and Tom followed. There was a fair amount of rope to bag up and sort out here, so I volunteered to stay till last. Before this however, while Jack waited for a free rope, I decided to follow the traverse around the cavern and so keep myself warm and occupied for the time being. I also stopped to get a drink from the canyon-like river that had originally carved out this chamber! That was worth a view in itself...
Jack started making his way up, and while he did this I tidied up and ensured things would be as easy and hassle free as possible when it came to hauling the rope back up.
My wait seemed to last an eternity, the rope now lay fairly still, with only the odd clue, in the way of a twitch or a whip of the rope, that someone might still be ascending.
It is a very quiet and surreal experience sitting there on your own, with only your own company and a myriad of noises that occasionally play tricks on an overly-alert mind. It only gets exponentially worse when you shout up and there is no answer, no sign of light, nothing – You start to question how you got here and what you were doing alone!
It was a further 5 minutes (but felt like 20) before I heard "rope free", and with that signal I spared no time in hopping on the rope and making my way up. This time I handled things much better and actually enjoyed the ascent, with only tiredness demanding a break from ascent from time to time.
At the top, Tom and Jack were waiting. With little time to rest, we clipped a shunt and pulley on to the Y-hang and started hauling the 160m of rope back up the main pitch. This was quickly achieved and we could then move to the last 47 meter pitch, where we would get our first taste of daylight in six hours once again.
We finally gathered for a well earned pint in the Cheshire Cheese, before I headed home to an eagerly awaiting and rather weekend-long nervous Cath and kids.
We had done it, Titan ticked off my list and tamed! I felt quite a sense of achievement as I had not expected to climb out the way I came in that day, and neither had I originally wanted to until I could increase my stamina. However, I am so glad that I did!