2nd July 2016 - Lauren
I have wanted to descend Titan ever since I heard about it, but as a newbie caver 6 years ago, I presumed this was going to be out of reach for a very long time, and wondered if I would ever be capable of such a caving trip. For those that don't know and are interested, a brief bit of background and history:
Titan is the deepest natural cavern that has been discovered so far in the UK, previously thought to be Gaping Gill. Titan forms part of the huge Peak Cavern cave system in Castleton, Derbyshire. Also known as the "Devil's Arse", the huge entrance (the UK's largest) known as the Vestibule, is also the entrance to the popular show cave. Also connected to the system is the Speedwell Mine; another public show mine which you can take a boat trip into (I still haven't done this!).
It's been known since the 1980s that there was 'something' beyond the Far Sump Extension connecting Speedwell to Peak Cavern. In 1992 extracts were published from a newly discovered manuscript, written by the 18th Century academic James Plumptre. He describes in fascinating detail his trip into Speedwell. But also large caverns and mine workings long thought to be in existence, but were supposed as blocked past the Boulder Piles. Cave divers had explored the far Sump extension, however the elusive dry route the miners must have used continued to elude modern explorers. After reading Plumptre's account, there was renewed interest in James Hall's Over Engine Mine Shaft found by the TSG in 1963; Plumptre describes what is now thought to be surely JH Mine: "There was another way out, by climbing one hundred and fifty yards farther to the top of the hill, but, as the way lay through another proprietor's mine, the miners never go by it, unless insisted upon by strangers..."
So Moose led a dedicated team of Derbyshire cave diggers to JH in search of "Caverns Measureless". They discovered and excavated the workshop area of the mine, finding many tools and relics left in situ. The team spent a further 3 years removing boulders the bottom of the huge Leviathan chamber, before achieving access to Speedwell in 1995. This area of cave was previously accessible only to cave divers from the Far Sump extension.
After years of grafting, Moose and his team finally found their way through a huge boulder choke near the piles, and discovered the gigantic cavern of Titan from below in January 1999. They then proceeded to climb it over 6 days. Following reaching the top and surveying, 4 years was then spent digging an access shaft down to the chamber from the surface. The existence of Titan was finally revealed to the wider caving community in November 2006. The entrance shaft is 46 metres deep, and Titan itself is split into a 62 metre pitch down to a landing point called the Event Horizon. Then a few metres down this ledge and onto a hanging re-belay point 58 metres from the bottom.
Fast forward to September 2013 and after a lot of SRT practice, I felt almost ready. We booked the trip for the first weekend in October, planning to do the James Hall over Engine Mine through trip- out of Peak Cavern on the Saturday. Then go down Titan and back up JH de-rigging along the way on Sunday. The JH trip went well, we completed the through trip and got out of Peak Cavern in 4 hours 45 minutes. Sat in a pub in Castleton afterwards though it dawned on me how much I was aching, and what a mission getting out of JH would be the next day. I realised this was beyond my limits at this time, and with difficulty pulled myself out of the Titan trip. This was upsetting for me, and I struggled with the decision I made for weeks afterwards. Next year though... next year I would do it.
The next year another trip into Titan was planned, which I unfortunately missed due to a family occasion. I was hoping for another trip last year which never materialised. Then late last year it was announced that there were some apparent problems in the entrance shaft, and the fibreglass rings needed replacing, so it had to be closed for repairs. Many thanks to the team who stabilised the shaft and installed new concrete rings. Finally it was announced in March this year that Titan was "back open for business". As soon as I heard this I wasted no time in asking our chairman Tom Howard to book the trip, and so we had a date - Saturday 2nd July. This came around very quickly, but I was more than ready for it this time... or so I thought.
On Friday Pete and Beth Knight of Peak Instruction asked if they could tag along on our trip, but only halfway... they didn't plan on 'bottoming' Titan with us. We were really happy that Pete brought his camera along, as none of us had one - taking pictures of this trip was the last thing on our minds. Titan is notoriously difficult to photograph, requires a lot of fire power to light even half the shaft up, and none of us fancied carrying any unnecessary kit this time. The whole of the UK has seen a lot of rain this last 6 weeks, and there was a worry that the bottom would be sumped with water, in which case the only option would be to climb back up and out of Titan. None of us much fancied that idea either, the trip was planned as a through trip out of Peak Cavern, but going back up was something we had to be prepared to do.
After a short while of wandering in the fields over Hurdlow, we found the completely innocuous looking lid to the entrance of Titan. Anton cracked on with rigging the 50 metre entrance shaft while we discussed what to do about the key. Seeing as Pete and Beth would be coming out, but we also needed access in case the bottom was flooded and we had to come back out. After this had been sorted, Anton and Olly descended the entrance shaft, with me following. By the time I got to the window into Titan, I found a nervous looking Anton, and Olly had rigged the first pitch. I asked Anton if he was ok and he sort of mumbled something like "just look at it". So I proceeded to clip into the line and peek out of the window for a look. Never before have the lines from my favourite poem had so much meaning:
"Into this wild Abyss, The womb of Nature, and Perhaps her Grave. Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, But all of these in their Pregnant causes mixed. Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight, unless the Almighty Maker them ordain. His Dark Materials to create more worlds, Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend, Stood on the brink of Hell and looked awhile, Pondering his voyage; For no Narrow Frith, He had to Cross."
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Titan is simply massive. 130 metres deep and unfathomably wide from the beam of my headlamp, I could just about make out the far wall in the distance, but when I looked down, my light was swallowed up by the black void below. Beth was the first to bravely abseil down to the Event Horizon, 62 metres below, followed by Tom to go ahead and rig the last 60 metre pitch. During all of this Anton was talking himself out of going any further. I could see why. We have all been down much deeper underground places- mainly mine shafts and the like, but nothing like this. The exposure is like being high up outside, but you're underground and it was somehow worse for once. I don't normally feel exposed on rope underground, you can't see much in the dark! We told Anton he was going next, not to think too much, just to do it, and to not look down, because he would be able to see Beth and Tom's lights down on the Event Horizon. He bravely heeded Andy Farrow's eloquent advice, "man the fuck up" and went for it.
Then it was my turn. I really enjoyed the first pitch, and specifically wore my glasses which I don't normally take caving. On the way down I marvelled at the beautiful formations, the echo of my exclamations of delight at what I was doing, but mainly the amazing size of the gigantic cavern. I struggled to get my head around placing myself in the context of this chamber, dangling inside it on a rope, I hope that makes any sense, it's difficult to describe. I enjoyed the pitch very much, although landing on the Event Horizon was quite weird. I bellowed up to Olly that the rope was free and watched Anton preparing himself to go "over the edge". Once again, my turn...
This is a very good example of why testing your descender with a cows tail still attached is a sensible practice, and one I have always followed on re-belays. As soon as I went to unlock my Stop I realised the problem, locked it again, attached my hand jammer to the top rope, and then had more than a slight panic when I realised all my weight was hanging on a stop rigged through one bobbin 60 metres high. After a shit shit shit shit shit shit, no no no, I stood up and managed to compose myself enough to stick my croll on, stick my short cowstail in the knot, sit back down on the croll, take a deep breath and sort the damn thing out. Then when I sat back down on the Stop it was loaded on the corner of my D-ring rather than the middle, so I had to then sort that out too. Shook me right up, wasn't shaking at the top, but by 'eck was I trembling after finally getting off at the bottom! At first I had no idea what had happened - never been in that situation before, never rigged my stop incorrectly before. It dawned on me that the weight of the wet rope pulling the stop downwards had pulled it away from the top pin, despite me knowing I had rigged it correctly. So when I closed the stop and locked it off, was clearly not paying enough attention to realise the rope was not fully underneath the pin. Anyway I didn't die, just gave Olly and Beth above me a bit of a scare!
At the bottom of Titan you get cold pretty quick, there is spray from the waterfall, and it's not a nice place to stand around for too long. I was glad of the extra base layer and balaclava I had stashed away in a dry bag. Once everyone was down we didn't waste any time in looking for the connection, silently praying that it wasn't sumped, and also that the "Cow Arse Worms" duck wasn't too full of the nasty wriggly things. After some questioning of our route finding, we were very pleasantly surprised to find our wishes had been granted, and we could get through. Although Cow Arse Worms duck was absolutely rank to crawl through and smelled foul, we were all happy to finally find our way into the Speedwell Streamway and have a good wash off. Seeing the old mining stemples on the way to the Streamway, and passing through Leviathan in JH, serves as a stark reminder that cavers were not the first to find Titan, and we are all indebted to their hard toil.
Despite me having been in Speedwell Streamway twice before, found it a bit disorientating wearing glasses, and kept tripping over the boulders. I'm also very grateful to Olly for the piggy back through the deeper bits! What I should have done was taken my glasses off at the bottom of Titan, ah well. I found colostomy crawl much easier than last time, mainly due to not dragging a bag behind me and instead wearing my little personal 5l bag clipped to my hip, and also probably due in some part to it seeming slightly bigger than when I last tackled it 3 years ago. Each caver that goes through must bring a certain amount of mud with them right? I think we were all happy to see the bath in Peak Cavern, signalling the time for well deserved beer and BBQ was nigh. The trip took around 5 hours to complete, for five of us (with 7 starting at the top), fairly good going. It's always fun to pass the tourists in the Devil's Arse, sopping wet and muddy, with no indication of the horrors endured to traverse underneath the hillside and emerge, triumphant into the sunlight of the Vestibule. They all stare at us, the look on their faces confirming the truth - they must be mad!
The Sunday de-rigging team of Tom (sleeping beauty), Olly & Cow (surface "support", and Andy Farrow (ROPE FREEE), encountered a few issues with the next team along who had rigged over us instead of choosing from the extra bolts. But it seems they would have had enough to worry about at the time with knot passes! Despite me offering to help de-rig on Sunday, I went to Bagshawe Cavern with some new club members instead, which I will tackle in a separate little write up at some point.
Many, many thanks to our Titan team - Tom Howard, Olly King, Anton Petho, Andrew Farrow, Pete Knight and Beth Knight.
Thanks to the Technical Speleological Group for their usual fantastic hospitality, their much improved Club Hut, and of course the BBQ on Saturday night. And Charlotte who came to get drunk with us!
Also thanks to Steven Mills, Robert Stevenson, Yvonne King and Callum Ewan for coming down Bagshawe Cavern on Sunday
Below 1: Diagram by Olly King Below 2: Rigging the Entrance shaft, photo by Pete Knight Below 3: Looking worried at the window, photo by Pete Knight Below 4: Looking down Titan, photo by Pete Knight
Below 1: Titan mural by SUSS in the TSG Below 2: Help De-rigging, photo by Olly King