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Glencoe mountaineer





Updated: 2017-12-02T14:30:26.973-08:00

 



The last 9 months

2015-10-21T11:02:03.087-07:00

A lot has changed since my last blog post in February, but a lot of my time is still being spent up in the mountains and exploring Scotland's wild places.To say that I've been busy since I last posted on here wouldn't even begin to cover it, but now that I've got a chance I thought I'd post some photos to show what has changed and what hasn't. Back in February I made the difficult decision to take a few months off climbing so that I could focus entirely on photography and setting up my new website www.jamesroddie.com . I currently sell articles and images but it's my ambition to go fully 'pro' at some point in the future, so this year has all been about working as hard as possible towards this goal.Although climbing has taken a back seat I've still been up in the mountains a great deal, probably almost every week of the year so far. I've spent hundreds of hours photographing mountain wildlife in the past few months and a lot of my time is being spent up high in the Cairngorms and Monadhliath. My other main project this summer has been photographing Scotland's caves, which has taken me into some surprising and truly impressive subterranean places.Some things never change however, and like every year I am itching for the Scottish winter season to begin. Although climbing won't be my main focus I will be back out soloing again as usual, searching for those incredible moments in wild and unfrequented corries. An article of mine on this very subject was just published in this month's edition of Mountain Pro Magazine, so have a wee look here if you are after some inspiration for some out-of-the-way routes to climb.I'll leave you with a few photos of what I've been up to recently. A lot more of my photography can be found atwww.jamesroddie.comhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/133716901@N08/Alpine conditions in Glencoe back in the Spring. The winter never seemed to end and I had some stunning days on the hill during April.Photographing mountain hares has been one of my biggest projects of the year.A lot of my time is being spent up on the Cairngorm plateau at the moment. Here the snows of Garbh Choire Mor can be seen from Ben Macdui.October snow-tunnels in the Cairngorms. The amount of snow remaining in the hills from last winter is impressive and I've spent some time documenting it. See here.Subterranean Assynt. My Caves of Scotland project started this summer and will last the next couple of years.Looking down into the Loch Avon Basin from the Feith Buidhe snow-fields this month. A ptarmigan in Autumn plumage in the Cairngorms.Unbroken sunshine in Inverpollaidh in the Spring.Liathach from Sgorr Ruadh. Hopefully I'll be spending more time in the NW Highlands this coming winter.In Cnoc nan Uahm, one of the Assynt Caves.A cloud inversion over Rothiemurchus Forest, seen through a long lens from the walk-in to the Northern Corries.A trip to Mull in September included photographing MacKinnon's Cave.[...]



North Buttress, Glas Tholl

2015-02-16T10:33:18.430-08:00

The view to the An Teallach ridge from Glas Tholl.Days on An Teallach always seem to deliver. Of everything that I love about climbing in the NW Highlands, I think it is the solitude amongst incredible scenery that attracts me the most. Despite being a recluse by nature, I do actually really like the atmosphere on Ben Nevis or in Coire an-t Sneachda during the busy season. When the climbing conditions are good there is a great sense of excitement in the air, and I always see lots of friends and familiar faces. The Ben has been in amazing condition for weeks, and if I'd gone there yesterday I'd have had a long list of classics in great nick to choose from.But I wanted a day in the North West. Despite two attempts, I'd not actually managed to climb anything yet in my new nearest mountain area. And to date my experience has been that is doesn't really matter what you climb in the North West, just being there is something to be treasured.Glas Tholl.The beautiful North-West. Liathach from Loch Clair on Saturday. After very nearly being somewhere else I ended up walking up towards Glas Tholl on An Teallach. Nearly all the routes here are strong lines, and the corrie is a wild and very beautiful place. I simply headed towards the part of the crag that looked the most wintery, and ended up on the line of North Buttress (II).It had been almost 2 years since I'd climbed such iron hard neve. I managed to find snow-ice on a lot of the routes I climbed last winter but most of it was a bit soft, but this stuff wasn't taking any prisoners. A fortnight of gentle freeze-thaw cycles had put the snow in bomb proof condition.North Buttress takes a line central in the photo, finishing up the narrow gully left of the rounded central buttress.Despite there being no difficulties, just sustained steep snow, it was definitely a place for concentration. The last time I'd climbed in this corrie it had been quite warm and I'd kicked steps easily in the snow up another route without any feeling of exposure.Calm conditions in the corrie, brutal winds on the ridge.I could hear the wind howling over the ridge above me. As I topped out I knew I was in for a bit of battle, and five minutes later I was fully knocked off my feet by the wind and the air was blown out of my lungs. Something hit me in the eye and blinded me for a few seconds, and I spent a minute or so behind a rock working out the safest way off the mountain.In the next half an hour I struggled against some of the strongest gusts of winds I've ever experienced in the hills. Descending down verglassed slabby rocks wasn't optimal given the situation, but at least it reminded me to give all the points on my crampons a sharpen when I got home.Out of harms way, I walked down through the quiet corrie and a golden eagle made a quick fly over Bidean a'Glas Thuill. I hadn't seen another soul all day, on a half term holiday sunday.James[...]



Raeburn's Gully, Lochnagar

2015-02-10T04:25:53.255-08:00

 A beautiful day on the classic Raeburn's Gully (II***), LochnagarA few years ago Alex and I had a memorable mid-May ascent of Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis. It felt strange to be walking up towards a winter route whilst being followed up the path by the scent of flowers and fresh summer grass. The first midgies were making themselves known and the rock-climbing season was well underway in the glens.It was one of my first gully routes and I think I'll always remember the feeling of coming up underneath the cornice, still massive despite it being the summer.  How easily would we be able to by-pass it? Conditions were perfect from a few cold nights and the gully was full of iron hard neve, but we topped out into warm sunshine with views of heat-haze shimmering over Lochaber.I found my thoughts drifting to that day a few times yesterday morning. High pressure has arrived but so have warmer temperatures, and it felt every bit like a Spring dawn as I walked up towards Lochnagar. The first rays of sunshine felt like a warmth breath on my face, and Alpenglow spread over the legendary North-East corrie.The superb North-East Corrie.Central Buttress round to the Parallel Gullies.But to my satisfaction the view that greeted me was a far more wintery one than I'd feared, the lochan still frozen solid and the cliffs still overwhelmingly snow-bound. I entered the corrie with an open mind, but hopeful the classic Raeburn's Gully would be in condition. It was one of the only 3 star grade II gullies left in Scotland that I'd never climbed.A very fore-shortened view of the gully. The top half of the route is almost all out of view.The easy lower slopes.You are left guessing until the moment you are stood at the base of the route as it is hidden for the whole approach. It looked good. And based on the conditions over the last few weeks I was fairly confident the cornice wouldn't extend all the way round the top of the gully.The route was banked out on steep snow apart from a single ice pitch. Although the snow was still freezing it wasn't the best consolidated, and I wasn't sure if I'd find hollow cruddy ice on the crux. A large snow mushroom/umbrella overhung the right hand side of the pitch so I knew I'd have to climb carefully avoid it.The ice pitch, steeper than it looks. A nice snow-mushroom to avoid too.Thankfully the ice pitch was in great condition with sticky ice and first-time placements. The snow mushroom forced me out on a bit of a tilt and overall the pitch felt more like low end grade III. It brought a grin to my face.The gully above is a magnificent place hemmed in by amazing snow and rock architecture. And above a huge cornice overhung the route, a snowy monster waiting to drop once the thaw has Lochnagar in its grip. I could see that I'd be able to avoid it by a steep climb up left to exit the gully, but it was still an intimidating moment. I thought of that summer day on the Ben years ago and my first encounter with a cornice. I've soloed dozens of grade II gullies since then, but they can still be lonely places to be.Afternoon sun hits the cornices above Raeburn's Gully. Glad I climbed the route early in the morning.Stuic ButtressCornices above the Black Spout. The Left Branch is climbable just now, the right branch is heavily corniced.The Cairngorms seem to have resisted the affects of the inversion a bit better than the West. Hopefully cold temperatures will arrive again soon.James[...]



Alpine conditions on Bidean

2015-02-08T10:09:44.389-08:00

 Winter perfection on Bidean nam Bian on FridayFriday was an amazing day to be out climbing or hillwalking in Glencoe. No matter how many blue-sky winter days I see from the summit of Bidean, they are always immense. Plans A and B didn't work out so I found myself climbing vaguely the line of North Route (II) on Diamond Buttress. I wasn't really fussed what route I climbed as I knew the views would be the highlight, and I wasn't wrong.The sunrise had lit up the Aonach Eagach with firery splendour and a cloud inversion was spread over Lochaber in the distance. The sky above was clear blue and the silence was unbroken save for the noise of other climbers across the corrie.It had been almost 2 years since I'd last sat on the summit of Bidean. How could it have been that long? It felt like no time at all since I used to live in the glen and Bidean would be my most frequent haunt. First light hits the Aonach EagachA huge build up of snow in Bidean's NE corrie.The North ridge of BideanBidean nam BianStob Coire Sgreamhach from Bidean's summit.Diamond and Church Door ButtressesLost Valley ButtressJames[...]



Taxus

2015-02-05T04:18:45.241-08:00

A beautiful day in the Southern HighlandsYesterday was the second time I've soloed Taxus (III***) on Beinn an Dothaidh, and if anything it was even more enjoyable this time around.Grateful to find a track of footsteps to follow into the corrie, I was slightly discourage to somehow lose sight of it half way there and to find the approach up beneath West Gully was through deep soft snow. I knew Taxus had been climbed a few days before, but you'd never have known anyone else had been up that slope leading to it. Was I going to find Taxus full of snow shifted about by the wind?First light on the Grey CorriesTaxus is the steep gully just left of centre, leading up to the highest point in the photo.I remained slightly doubtful until I sank my axes into the first ice pitch and found it in good shape. There was one large-ish hole in the ice but it made no difference really, and there was a good move to get over a bulge on the left of the hole.A totally silent morning in the corrie.Nearly at the base of the route. Pretty much the whole first half of the route was on generally great neve with occasionally crusty patches, and it was a pleasure to be moving fast on ice again. The ice step in the middle of the route was quite a lot steeper than the last time I did the route and a bit thinner too, but I was soon over it and into the upper basin.The easy upper basin of Taxus.I love this part of Taxus, where the confined snow basin opens up onto a narrow ridge and the final steep slopes lead to the top, with Rannoch Moor spreading out around you.I'd been climbing in a deserted corrie and didn't see a single other person all day. It looks to be turning into a great season.Conditions on the mixed routes looked excellent too.James[...]



Back to the Scottish winter

2015-02-02T08:55:24.840-08:00

 Back to the beauty and the cold of Scottish winter climbing. A climber amongst mad ice scenery on The Croc, Beinn Udlaidh yesterday.After weeks of moving-house related muddle and chaos, my yearning to make a return to the Scottish winter had reached boiling point. I felt bitter envy as a stable high pressure arrived the week we were moving, only for it to end the day I became free to climb.I now live on The Black Isle north of Inverness with Nicole. The North-West Highlands, by far my favourite place to climb anywhere, is now my nearest mountain area and I can be in Torridon in an hour from home.A visit to Liathach's corries a few days ago ended up being a false start, and January ended without me having climbed a single winter route. My last 5 winters have been periods of obsessive winter soloing, so to say this felt like an unusual situation would be an understatement.Dawn light over the Southern Highlands. I've missed this!Yesterday was the window of opportunity. It was the usual game after a big dump of snow - where could I go that wasn't going to be an endless wade through powder, or involve nearly dying on the roads driving there? As much as I was craving the wilds of Torridon, Skye or An Teallach, heading South instead would mean the best weather.Glencoe on the drive back home.Bidean nam Bian glowed at me through the dark as I drove through Glencoe, and even by the light of the moon I could see the huge amounts of fresh snow lying on the mountains. A 3am wake up alarm, a few close calls with red deer on Rannoch Moor, some skidding on the icy road down Glen Orchy...it felt like I'd never been away.I was first into the corrie as planned. West Gully (III*) was a good memory from the 12/13 winter, when I soloed it in amazing condition before an 11am shift in the Clachaig. The crux was much thinner yesterday and more steep. There was water running behind the ice but swinging axes again felt amazing. The top half of the gully was banked out on snow, nothing like the fat blue ice which had been there two years ago, and very soon I was at the top admiring first light turning the hills pink.West Gully (III*)As I descended the top half of Central Gully (II) the corrie filled up with people all at once. I hate soloing with lots of other climbers around, so I happily spent the next hour on photography instead. Being back amongst it all was just the best feeling.The first other climbers begin arriving.A busy day on the ice.I won't be able to climb anywhere near as often as I used to when I lived in Glencoe and the Cairngorms, but surely that just means I'll await the next time even more eagerly? The NW Highlands are waiting!James[...]



One last caving trip

2015-01-12T12:30:31.210-08:00

Water Icicle Close Cavern - the North West Passage.The last two months have been the first time in 5 years that I've not felt the need to be tight on the heels of the next adventure. My October solo trip into Ogof y Daren Cilau in Wales is the first thing I've ever done that has actually satisfied the itch for a substantial length of time. Indeed it left a lingering sense of contentment that has only started to wear off in the past couple of weeks.Life at the moment is one of packing boxes, bus journeys, letting agents and chaos. My thoughts are of our imminent return to living the Highlands, winter routes, new possibilities and the start of a new chapter. My caving rope and SRT harness has been bundled up underneath the kitchen table since November, gathering dust instead of mud.A week or so ago I realised that moving back to the Highlands could mean it could be months or even years until my next caving trip. I wanted a last fix to end to my time in the Peak District on a high.The tiny farming village I've lived in for the past 10 months sits on top of an extensive network of mines and caves, some of which are classic descents and suitable for the wet winter months. Water Icicle Close Cavern is a system that has been the scene of extensive recent exploration , and I recognised it as an opportunity to visit some pristine and only recently discovered cave passageways.Large and colourful cave formations.I sat on the edge of the entrance shaft getting pummeled by the wind and rain. The nearby copse of trees roared with the noise of swaying branches, and it all felt very different to decending into Yorkshire potholes in the hot and dry summer of last year. I shined my torch on full beam down the shaft. The pitch was 110ft, and it started to look like a long way down.Rigging the pitch head, I dealt with the niggling doubts that had popped up from nowhere. The wind and rain wouldn't follow me underground. I adjusted my bowline-on-a-bight for the second time, locked off my descender and swung into the black.Looking down the 110ft pitch.The temperature shot up and that familiar muddy aroma filled my lungs. I abseiled slowly, enjoying it. It felt like a long way, more than twice the length of any other underground pitch I've done.Three passageways led off from the chamber at the bottom of the pitch. Large, semi-circular walking passages seemed to be the defining characteristic of the cave. I came across occasional impressive flowstone cascades and areas of stubby stalactites. There were some high avens and taller areas of chamber where high level passages look to lead off, and it was immediately obvious that there is a lot more cave there than has been yet discovered.A very large flowstone cascade.As I headed down the South Passage towards the most recently discovered passages (2012) I couldn't help wonder just how much cave is waiting there that has never been entered by humans. At floor level on the left in The Great Rift, I crawled through a muddy boulder choke and easy squeeze to enter the 2012 Extensions.Volcanic Bug-Pusher was a memorable passageway, easily the most pristine I've seen in the Peak District. Extremely tiny but beautiful crystal formations covered patches of the floor, untouched sediment deposits all around. It is an amazing thing to think that countless miles of similar passageway remain undiscovered underneath the Dales.Clipping my ascenders on the rope for the journey out, 110ft once again looked like a long way. Jumaring up a rope is a pretty tiring business sometimes. Half way up the rope, I briefly considered the absurdity of my position. Hanging on a 35 metre length of 10.5mm thick cord, in the dark, by myself. I looked at the devices with which I've become so familiar - my jumar, croll chest ascender, mechanical descender. To a climber who used to repeatedly say he'd never take up potholing, won't all this seem like a very surreal set of mem[...]



Highlights of 2014 in photos

2015-01-01T12:58:44.667-08:00

One of my best days of 2014 - a solo of Central Trinity gully followed by the Traverse of Liathach in perfect conditions.Climbers gearing up on Lochnagar. Central Buttress (II**) was an enjoyable mountaineering route. A trip to Arctic Norway, as far as the Russian border at Kirkenes.Sgorr Ruadh after soloing the classic Post Box Gully (II***).  A lot of my winter season was spent in Torridon. Ling, Lawson and Glovers Route (II***), Deep South Gully (I****), White's Gully (II*), Fuselage Gully (II*), the Traverse of Liathach (II****) and Central Trinity (II*) were all wonderful days.The Cairngorms, my home for the 2013/14 winter season. I climbed quite a few routes and spent a lot of my time exploring the the Caledonian pine forests. "The Great Display" - the Aurora of 27th February 2014. I was very lucky to catch one of the best displays of the Lights for many years, from my own front door in Grantown-on-Spey. The sublime Traverse of An Teallach (II****). I finally got round to doing this in March, along with 4 other winter climbs in its corries.The Isle of Handa, Sutherland. Nicole and I spent a week here as volunteers working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. This part of the NW coast of Scotland is insanely beautiful.Puffins on Handa.In the spring we moved to the Peak District in England. I enjoyed soloing easy routes on the gritstone edges, but wanted something a bit more adventurous.So I became fully engrossed in caving and potholing instead. This is deep in Magnetometer Pot, Yorkshire, an extremely wet pothole but with some beautiful formations.I taught myself the skills required for Single Rope Technique so that I could solo caves with vertical pitches. This is me ascending the 15m entrance pitch of Hagg Gill Pot, Yorkshire.A solo trip into Ogof Daren Cilau, South Wales. 17 miles long, the hardest entrance crawl in the UK, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. A solo trip is a bit of a journey into madness.The stunningly beautiful Illusion Pot, Yorkshire.Volcano walking on the island of La Palma, Spain.Inside the Caldera de Taburiente, La Palma.The year ended with heavy snowfall over the Peak District and several days of hard frost. A fitting end to a wonderful year.A very Happy New Year to all our readers, have fun and stay safe in the mountains in 2015.James[...]



Moving back to the Highlands

2014-12-18T06:16:42.583-08:00



So a much anticipated phonecall came last week, and the outcome is that we will be moving back to the Highlands in a few weeks time. 

When Nicole and I left the Cairngorms to live in the Peak District in April, I feared somehow we'd never get the opportunity to move back up North. As it happens our time here has turned out to be short but sweet, and an overwhelmingly positive thing. There is so much in the Highlands I will look at with a new appreciation, and with a perspective I'd started to lose.

Seven months in the Peak District has been a great experience and I feel like I've done it properly - going caving, living on a farm and working at The Old Nag's Head. Solo caving and potholing has taken me places in body and mind I'd never imagined existed, and I'm eager to sample some of the wild caving opportunities in the Highlands.

However I can't wait to get back to the mountains and to climbing. I failed to be inspired by climbing on the Peak gritstone edges and I discovered caving instead, but I'm itching to get back on the big mountain routes in the middle of nowhere. I should be back in the Highlands by the end of January, so I'll still catch a good chunk of the winter season. See you up there!

James



Ogof y Daren Cilau - caving in South Wales

2014-10-31T10:03:50.751-07:00

 Epocalypse Way, Ogof y Daren Cilau.At over 28,000m long (17 miles), Ogof y Daren Cilau is one of the greatest cave systems in Britain. It features arguably the most difficult entrance crawl in the UK, and the passages beyond are amongst the most remote and awe-inspiring places in the country.The Restaurant at the End of the Universe actually exists - it is one of two subterranean camps in a cave so big that multi-day trips are required to reach its furthest extremities. A mild obsession with the idea of a solo trip into this cave has defined the last month for me, the idea of being able to experience such a place too much to resist.The 517m long entrance crawl has been described as "like doing 1000 push-ups on one arm whilst inching forward in freezing cold water". Considerable stamina was going to be required as was a fairly stoic mental attitude, as you have to endure this crawl a second time in order to exit the cave. At least four squeezes have to be passed in both directions in order to get through. Lots of upper body training and lots of caving over the summer was hopefully going to pay off."The Silver Goddess". An iconic formation and one of the thousands of crystal formations found throughout the cave.I slid into the entrance of the flat-out crawl in the perfect mood - totally free of fear, expectation or pressure and aware that my existence for the next while would be crawling. After 80m I entered The Vice, a squeeze considerably more physical than it's namesake in Giant's Hole but not as tight as I was prepared for. First obstacle down.Relentless crawling on my right side for the next hour took me round endless tight bends and over boulders, the passage almost never wide enough to let me crawl with both arms on my front. Long sections of rifts required a tiring half-crawl, half-crouch approach. I hummed music in my head and just crawled and crawled. Occasional spots that let me stand up never lasted long, but progress felt less strenuous than I'd been expecting. Was the fearsome reputation of this entrance crawl justified?The final squeeze in the most difficult entrance crawl in the UKAfter a long while I reached the bit that I thought might shut me down -  The Calcite Squeezes. I'd entered the cave with the strict principle that if I had doubts about these squeezes when I saw them I'd turn around without attempting them. The first hole looked intimidating on first sight, but I was definitely lean enough to fit through. The second and third were tighter and I had to carefully plan my moves before I entered them. Yet more sideways shuffling then a final squeeze which I had to take my helmet off in order to fit through, and I popped out of the crawl.The contrast with what I emerged into could not have been greater. The entrance crawl might be tight and constricted, but the miles of passages beyond are huge, humbling places containing some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the country. Everything suddenly seemed so big. Was I meant to still feel quite fresh after the labours of the crawl? Excitedly I started down Jigsaw Passage, the knowledge that many miles of massive passageways lay beyond.On the survey, Big Chamber Nowhere Near the Entrance actually does look pretty close to the entrance. So it felt to take quite a while to get there, a tight down-climb and another squeeze the only obstacles interrupting a long stretch of walking passage. I signed into the logbook in the Big Chamber and took note that I was the only person inside Britain's 5th longest cave. Turning right here would have taken me into The Time Machine, the largest known passageway in the UK, and the way on to Hard Rock Cafe and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Chambers and passages named on the theme of space and time covered the survey. The feeling of scale there and the[...]



The day I didn't solo S.C Gully

2015-11-16T01:20:24.667-08:00

The one and only Stob Coire nan Lochain, Glencoe. S.C Gully is the steep central gully.The first of two reflective pieces on my experiences of Scottish winter climbing whilst living and working at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe between 2009 and 2013.It is near impossible to describe what it is like to spend a winter climbing season living in Glencoe. During the 4 winters I spent living at the Clachaig, my every day realities were so far removed from what can be called normal that looking back on it now is a slightly dreamlike experience. If I wasn't actually out climbing, normality would be watching avalanches from my bedroom window, checking the weather forecast ten times-a-day, strolling five minutes from the door to look at frozen waterfalls or calling out mountain rescue for yet another overdue team on the Aonach Eagach.All my winters spent in Glencoe were unforgettable but the 2012/13 season was the big one. Good conditions could be found somewhere almost continuously between November and May, and high pressure and cold air arrived in February not to leave for weeks. The time was right to aim high and try to achieve some long held ambitions.Of all Glencoe's winter climbs, to me SC Gully in Coire nan Lochain is the most beautiful. Arguably the finest line in the Glen, it had me hooked the first time I read W.H Murray's account in his timeless masterpiece. It had also gained quite a mean reputation at the Clachaig during my time there after two colleagues bailed off it on two seperate occasions. One amusing incident in particular springs to mind from the 2009/10 season. A group of climbers who used to frequent the Clachaig had got roaringly drunk in the Boots Bar on a saturday night, woken up profoundly hungover and proceeded to take repeated falls off the crux of SC Gully onto a dodgy peg. They staggered into the bar later that day to be greeted by my brother Alex who was still working there at the time. "What can I get for you?" asked Alex. "Got any valium?", they replied.February 2013, GlencoeA year of focused hillrunning in the glen had brought my fitness to a totally new level. I could happily do a swift ascent of Ben Nevis and the CMD Arete, run the Aonach Eagach immediately afterwards, and wake up the next morning fresh as a daisy. I could summit the Buachaille in 50 minutes via a climbing route, and comfortably run up Munros in a 3 hour break in an 11 hour shift. Running up Glencoe's steepest corries became an almost daily occurance, and with time I felt like I could float uphill with an ease that at times almost frightened me.I was on the form of my life that winter, on-sight soloing Grade III's all over the place, often on no sleep or after yet another wild party in the Clachaig staff bothy. Everything felt so smooth, and I felt able to move through the mountains almost effortlessly. Ice climbing conditions were amazing and everyone seemed to be having their best ever season. I was going to near ridiculous lengths to climb the routes I wanted, on occasions driving 200 mile round trips to go climbing before a 3pm shift in the pub. The time arrived when I realised I was going to attempt to solo SC Gully.A normal day for February 2013.The idea, once seeded, grew to have deep significance for me. I weighted the idea with a label - my abilities would be measured by whether or not I could solo that route. Would climbing SC Gully, solo and on-sight, somehow put me more at peace? Would it quench that irrepressible thirst I had to be climbing everything all the time? Would it prove me to be who I wanted to be? I believed that it would. It would be the big one to top off everything else.27th February 2013Another freezing dawn, another cloudless sky, and another time trudging up that bloody path into Coire nan Lochain. It could have been one of dozens o[...]



The Kingsdale Master Cave

2014-09-25T11:15:04.252-07:00

Abseiling the pitch into the impressive Kingsdale Master CaveMy solo trip down Magnetometer Pot two weeks ago had been a testing experience. At times I'd been briefly convinced I'd bitten off more than I could chew, and it had taken a fair degree of control to stop doubt from dragging me straight back out the entrance shaft.During my time as a climber in Scotland I had more experiences like that than I can name. After a year or so of soloing, I discovered the importance of taking a reflective step back after the days when I'd got scared. Why had I felt that way? Had I pushed it too far? Often the perspective gained from doing an easier trip would help clarify things.My descent into The Kingsdale Master Cave was to do just that. A week on from Magnetometer, a high-quality but un-stressful caving day was needed.A few months back I'd been left totally awe-struck by a descent into another Kingsdale pothole, the formations amongst the most beautiful natural wonders I'd ever seen (at the time). A trip into the Master Cave would feature almost nothing similar, instead it would be about seeing an absolutely immense subterranean river passage.The pitch into the Master Cave. The water behind me disappears and doesn't appear again until 2000m downstream at Keld Head.In the perfect streamway of the Master Cave. The roof a long way above my head.Many cavers experience their first "duck" in the Valley Entrance to the master cave, a low passageway almost flooded to the roof. After a few of the other ducks I've done recently, this one wasn't anything more than interesting. Hundreds of metres of easy stooping passage, and suddenly I was at the top of a 7m SRT pitch.Abseiling the pitch delivered me into the streamway of the Kingsdale Master Cave, and I was not disappointed. This is the largest subterranean river passage I've seen to date. I'm ashamed to admit how seldomly I stop to appreciate just how old these underground places are, but the sense of it down here was humbling. How long had it taken for such a huge trench to be cut by the water? Approaching the Master Junction.Three hours later and I was in a similarly impressive but extremely different cave passage. Crackpot was wall-to-wall beautiful decorations, all leading nicely to the climax of the iconic column that defines the cave. For the passage to be so large and so obviously old, what must lie beyond the currently explored short length of cave?Photos are more appropriate to do Crackpot justiceIn the iconic Column Chamber in Crackpot, Swaledale. "Dripping flowstone" formation in Crackpot.An impressive array of decorations.Blade and stalagmite.Straw stalactites, flowstone, carrot formations.James[...]



Jackpot

2014-09-22T08:38:56.599-07:00

 The first pitch of P8 (Jackpot), Castleton. An extremely fun solo descent of this Peak District classic.The first time I ever climbed Tower Ridge, I remember thinking afterwards that it was so enjoyable it could almost have been "designed". A varied series of interesting obstacles have to be overcome in order to reach a memorable finale. I find that often the best routes follow this basic pattern, whether they be above or below ground.P8 (Jackpot) is a Peak District classic, a multi-pitch SRT descent down a superb cascading streamway. Like Tower Ridge it is a popular trip for a reason. While most potholes have an amount of nasty grovelling in tight and squalid passages, P8 is pretty much uninterupted enjoyment. The surface streams sinks straight into the entrance of P8 so it always a wet cave, often extremely so. A solo first trip was going to need settled weather, and yet again my day off coincided with high pressure. I've been in the Peak District almost 6 months now, and I still can't get used to the lack of rain.From the word go I was in a "Crabwalk" style passage, so remarkably similar to its namesake in Giant's Hole just a few hundred metres away across the valley. Idiot's Leap was the first obstacle, a 2.5m vertical climb down a cascade which was rigged with an in-situ rope. It looked a bit more tricky from above than I'd expected, but it was easy on the way down and on the return trip.Mud Hall. Impressive, but nothing compared to the next chamber.Very soon I turned a sharp bend and the stream plunged down through a "window" into a chamber - the First Pitch. This was a wet abseil down the waterfall, and 30m downstream from the base of the chamber I was quickly at the head of the Second Pitch. The chamber beneath this pitch was larger and some big flowstone cascades eluded to what lay beyond.I had a lengthy explore down some of the many passages and routes that make up this part of the cave, before I emerged into the large and impressive Mud Hall. The scramble down from this brought me into a beautiful stream canyon, which I carefully traversed above by bridging on each wall about 4m above the water.The streamway just before T'Owd Man's Rift.T'Owd Man's Rift, the limit of the cave for non-divers, provides a magnificent finale. It reminded me of a subterranean Deep South Gully, a tilted cleft of giant proportions. The flowstone formations here are extremely fine, and my jaw dropped to see flood sediment on stalactites dozens of feet above the current level of the stream.A huge flowstone cascade in T'Owd Man's Rift. Back along the traverses, through Mud Hall and the passageways, back up the two pitches and Idiot's Leap. And I had so much fun I came back and did it all again 3 days later.James[...]



Magnetometer Pot

2014-09-11T08:59:49.903-07:00

Beautiful formations one past the arduous crawls in Magnetomer Pot, Fountains Fell.Onsight solo trips that have felt close to my psychological maximum have often provided some of the most profound experiences I've ever had, and so it was with my descent of Magnetomer Pot yesterday.No single crux of the pothole taken in isolation was particularly difficult, but stacked one after another collectively they proved to be quite a test. Staying focused on each obstacle individually, whilst remaining mindful of having suitable reserves of strength for the return trip was an interesting balancing act.Perhaps the enjoyable entrance shaft put me a little bit too at ease? Half way down I rigged a deviation on the pitch to allow a good free-hang to the floor, a straightforward bit of SRT, and I suppose I wasn't quite fired up for a struggle.The entrance pitch.But the first obstacles appeared almost immediately, a couple of squeezes that hinted at things to come. Another squeeze down a rift following a rope delivered me at the top of a 15ft climb down a chimney, and this caused my first moment of doubt. It was all pretty tight and confusing, and the structure of things beneath the chimney wasn't too clear. Ten minutes of straining my neck followed, testing various handholds and convincing myself I'd be able to climb back up this crux on the return.Finally I committed, but from the bottom of the chimney it got even tighter. Two technical moves round an S-bend preceeded a body-sized tube, and the continuation was narrowing further and entering water. A word with myself was required to proceed.By now I was left with no doubts about the nature of this pothole. The obstacles I'd come through were pushed to the back of my mind as I embarked upon a 620ft long crawl. Totally flat-out to begin with, the aptly named "Wet Crawl" did what it promised and very nearly turned me around. It was like the Giant's Windpipe but almost 4 times as long. The only relief it gave was that dragging myself along became marginally easier as I could very slightly float along at points.Why did it seem so long? Again I had to have a quiet word with myself. Getting out of the water was a relief, but only rewarded with 300ft of crawling over painful cobbles.The larger passageways have some pristine and sizeable stalactites. This one about 5ft long.To say it was worth it for what came next would be an understatement - The River Styx is the most incredible passage. Waist deep wading through this creeping and slow river was amazing, the roof a beautiful pallet of colours ordained with occasional large formations. The size of everything increased with each step and the pothole seemed a different place.Formations above The River Styx.Near Holes Junction. Easy Street was what I'd come to photograph. This is one of the most beautiful sections of cave I've seen to date, and everything shining the brighter when I thought of the contrast with the arduous passageways I'd come through to get there. But I couldn't linger too long. I was cold and had the return trip to cope with.Reaching the relief and dryness of Easy Street. One pitch, 4 squeezes, a 15ft chimney and 620ft of crawling to get here.Stunning gour pools in Easy Street. The return along the crawls was quite painful with the absence of elbow pads, but everything felt easier on the way back until I got to the bottom of the 15ft chimney. Footholds were non-existent and upwards progress was a battle. I was back on the crux of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag, twisting myself into contortions and using a full-body jam to get to the top of the damn thing. Adrenaline got me there in the end. So long as nothing went wrong on the entrance pitch then I had it in the bag.It wasn[...]



Hagg Gill Pot

2014-09-04T07:38:14.403-07:00

The 45ft entrance pitch to the superb Hagg Gill PotYou go through an abrupt transition between worlds when you abseil into a pothole. Not only does the environment around you change instantly, but all the complications which fill the air on the surface become replaced with thoughts of technical and navigational logistics. The change was more apparent to me than ever before yesterday as I dropped down the 45ft entrance shaft into Hagg Gill Pot. The quiet calm of Langstrothdale was the scene of some of my happiest childhood memories, hunting for fossils in the river during the summer holidays. The world I was abseiling into is something I could barely have imagined as a kid, one of ropes and karabiners and jumars. I laughed at just how much more involved my means of having fun are now.A few metres down the entrance shaft you have to squeeze through a constriction before the pitch opens out into a nice free-hang into a large chamber. I was a touch apprehensive about this, but after rigging the rope carefully to avoid abrasion points I set about tackling the obstacle. It gave me pause for thought, but in the end it involved less swearing than I'd be prepared for and I continued quickly to the bottom of the pitch.The upstream passage became an instant mimic of The Crabwalk in Giant's Hole, but (thank god) not of such endless length. I knew to expect fine formations and some elaborate speleothems, but I was stunned speechless when this narrow passage opened out into a chamber containing a 40ft high stalactite column. I've not seen anything else to compare.The very bottom of a 40ft high stalactite column.The formations continued, sometimes forcing me to grovel in the stream below to avoid touching their pristine surfaces. A long section of narrow passageway was adorned by an incredible coating of helictites, each one of them very small but collectively a quite astonishing thing to see. My movements were slow and considered, terrified of brushing against them and ending their ancient growth.Thousands of twisted and sharp helictites cover the walls of some of the upstream passages.A fixed rope climb and more stream passageway took me into a huge, reactor-like chamber with multiple passages going off in different directions. I was in here for a while searching for the way on, eventually climbing up over some van-sized boulders to discover the correct continuation.An upwards squeeze through a slot delivered me into a pool underneath a beautiful and tall waterfall, and above this some climbing brought me to my objective. The straw chamber was a hauntingly beautiful place, some of the pencil-width stalactites almost 9ft in length and hanging down over two seperate grottos on each side. Places like this blow my mind with their sheer weirdness and otherwordly quality.The radiant beauty of the straw chamber hidden upstream.Straw stalactites, many over body-height in length.Going back past my rope coming down the entrance shaft, I spent an hour or so exploring the other streamway, and enjoying the multiple short climbs up waterfalls. I stopped and reflected on how all this was actually just indulging the child that remains in me, but brushed this away as I started the serious business of reascending my rope to the surface.James[...]



Bagshawe Cavern

2014-08-14T09:08:45.513-07:00

 Abseiling "The Dungeon" in Bagshawe Cavern.The glorious summer of endless sunny days couldn't last forever, although it had started to seem like it might. The long drought finally broke on Saturday, the rain falling with intent onto parched ground. I vividly recalled the end of summer 2006 in Suffolk, standing outside to enjoy the freshness and relief of the first rainfall after a 6 week heatwave. It was different as the downpours started on Saturday, instead I felt frustrated that summer couldn't just maintain its status quo for a good while longer.As with everything else, the deeper I get into caving the more I realise there is to do. Each week my knowledge expands a bit more and my to-do list grows longer. And the bulk of that to-do list is made far more difficult when it's raining. If anything I'm even more impatient than I was a few years ago, and I seem to be constantly eager to be doing everything all the time. How wet would it be underground? Would three days of downpours have had that much effect on caves dry from two months of sun and warmth? My plan was set for an "all weather" cave system in Yorkshire, but then an email confirming permission to visit Bagshawe Cavern changed all that. I've wanted to do a trip down Bagshawe for a while - an access-controlled cave only a few miles from home. But how much water would I find down there?Crossing "The Lake". This waist-deep section is a permanent wet feature.Many years ago the dry upper-series of Bagshawe was run as a show-cave, and the trip to the "end" at the Hippodrome is very straightforward. It was the harder and more interesting Lower Series that I had my eyes on however. The crux of the trip is The Dungeon, a short SRT pitch to reach the start of the lower series. Part of me had been wondering if it might be too wet, so it was with a bit of surprise to find it totally dry when I peered down from above. So I abseiled down the pitch to see what lay beyond.Some muddy crawling brought me to a beautiful chamber with some impressive flowstone cascades. Still no sign of any flowing water! I spent a while photographing the formations, aware that the next section was going to be cold and wet.The beautiful chamber where Agony Crawl enters at roof level.The Lake is waist-deep with a low roof. As I entered the water I started to have second thoughts, the passage looking much lower than I'd anticipated. But I pressed on and inhaled sharply as the cold water went up to my chest. It wasn't as bad as it looked, and all I could think was just how more uncomfortable the Giant's Windpipe had been a couple of weeks ago.Flowstone array.1000ft of varied passage followed, but still no sign of any flowing water! Clearly it will take more to reverse the effects of the long drought. I reached my objective, returned by the same route and jumared up my rope hanging down The Dungeon.Extensive formations in the Lower Series.What else will the summer allow me to do before it reaches its final fling?James[...]



A solo Round Trip of Giant's Hole

2014-07-30T12:47:45.699-07:00

Rigging the 45ft abseil on the last leg of the trip.I'm struggling a bit to know what to say about this one. Just now it feels like an experience to rival anything I've done in solo climbing and mountaineering, but will that feeling linger?Soloing this hadn't even crossed my mind until the last week, especially considering it would be the first time I'd done it. It was one of those "if only's" that came to me in day dreams. But a I had a magic moment in the last few days when I suddenly realised I was up to the task.The "Round Trip" of Giant's Hole is one of Britain's great caving trips - a 2.6km Grade 3 expedition of great variety with classic situations throughout. A few days ago my appetite had been wetted, my first trip down the Crabwalk leaving me wanting more. How far could I go into Giant's Hole by myself?Work was distracting. A printed-off route description and survey became dog-eared as I studied it inbetween serving the endless tide of customers in The Old Nag's Head. I remained cautious. All things were carefully considered, and the moment arrived when I could justify a solo attempt. A pit-in-stomach moment ensued. The awkward and beautiful Razor Edge Cascade.Looking up from the magnificent passageway of The Crabwalk. Oxbows and natural arches stretching 50ft above.Six distinct and varied crux sections have to be tackled to complete the trip. The abseil into Garland's Pot comes first, where the pitch has to be rigged for both descent and SRT ascent on the return. The Crabwalk follows. Some things are easier the second time you do them...not so with the Crabwalk. It feels like it will never end.The second crux is The Vice. This is where Crabwalk narrows to a squeeze which proves difficult for all but the thin, but my build allowed this to be passed without difficulty.Down-climbing a few stream cascades and some incredible passageway takes you to the next crux section. Two fixed-rope pitches must be climbed, first into Maggin's Rift and then en route in North-East Swallet. I was nervous about this. But again years of climbing proved invaluable and they were so much easier than I'd been prepared for.A fixed rope free-climb in the impressive North-East Swallet.Looking back at the fixed rope up into Maggin's Rift.Beautiful flowstone cascade in Letter Box Passage.Poached Edge Passage.The Giant's Windpipe was undoubtably the psychological crux for me. I'm pretty good with tight crawling passages, but my comfort zone nearly abandoned me and buggered off back the way I'd come when I was half way through the Windpipe. Crawling through water with only inches of headspace above felt more serious than any other part of the trip, though it is undoubtably safer than many other sections. "Ducks" -  sections when your head gets wet, are always worse than they sound. You have to be there.The entrance to the tight duck of Giant's Windpipe. Psychological crux of the trip for me.I got cold after Giant's Windpipe. Plans to photograph the beautiful formations were put aside as keeping moving became a priority. This was the bit I was unsure about. How would it turn out? I broke out into the high roof of the Crabwalk, a long way above the passageway below. Ghost Rift.Flowstone formations before The Giant's Windpipe.The fifth crux was the one I was apprehensive about. A tight 50ft abseil down into the Crabwalk was needed to deliver me from the Upper Series to the Lower, and my way out. Crabwalk looked just as narrow and twisting from above as it does when you are in it. Cold and shivering, I rigged the pitch, locked off my descender, and before I knew it I splashed into the stream in the Crab[...]



Giant's Hole

2014-07-25T04:16:38.535-07:00

Ascending the Garland's Pot pitch in Giant's Hole, Castleton."An extended sick joke" - the phrase used in my caving guidebook to describe the 2000ft long Crabwalk, a cave passageway which couldn't be any more aptly named. " This..narrow passage twists and turns until one feels as if they have been in it forever". I could barely resist after descriptions like that.Every day I pass Giant's Hole on my drive to work in Edale. Each time I've reached that point on the road for the past 2 months I've felt a pang of frustration. The vast majority of the cave lies beyond an obstacle that had previously been my end point, and to pass it safely I was going to need to put in the hours learning a few things.Base Camp ChamberLarge flowstone cascade.The high and impressive walls of Boss Aven.Single Rope Technique (SRT) intimidated me at first, a system of ascent and descent requiring the use of gear I'd never used before. Talk of camming devices, mechanical descenders and chest harnesses put me off initially. But now after several weeks of learning,  SRT seems so much more straightforward and it has let me take some first steps into a wider world. Looking back to my rope from the bottom of Garland's Pot. Garland's Pot is the obstacle in question, a large 7m deep hole with a waterfall running over one side. The ability to pass this safely lets you access thousands of feet of classic passageway which make up the rest of Giant's Hole.A sense of amusing irony didn't escape me by as I rigged the pitch down Garland's. Ropework, something I shunned almost entirely during my last 5 years of climbing in Scotland, seems to have brought me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in the past 2 months. I threaded and locked off my descender, swung out into space, and before I knew it I was stood at the bottom of the pot getting wet.It was an exciting moment, entering The Crabwalk. Thousands of feet of classic cave passageways had now become available to me. But what would I make of Crabwalk itself?Sideways walking and shuffling for 2000ft doesn't sound that tiring on paper, but the reality is a bit different. Those twists and turns just keep coming and the passage rarely exceeds 2ft in width, often forcing you to keep your back bent for long periods. The roof soars up above you until you can't see it any more, and you marvel at just long how the water has been carving out this high and narrow slot.The Crabwalk. Tight, narrow and twisting for 2000ft.Several hundred metres of Crabwalking delivered me at The Vice, the point at which the passage narrows to a squeeze and forces all but "the skinniest people" to crawl through in the stream below where it is wider. I'm pretty lean so I fitted through The Vice quickly, surprised at how straightforward I found it.Abseiling down Garland's Pot.I reached my planned end point for this trip, and reversed The Crabwalk back to Garland's Pot. Jumaring back up my fixed rope felt like a conclusion to the last few weeks of intensive learning. The warmth of the air hit me hard as I returned through the entrance series, I'd completely forgotten there was a heatwave going on outside.James[...]



"Marooned" on the Isle of Handa

2014-07-24T04:43:43.620-07:00

10:30pm on Handa, the sunset lights up the cliffs opposite The Great Stack."Whichever strange place you find yourself in, make that your home". I can't remember when and where I heard this, but it strikes me as appropriate on returning from a week on the remote island of Handa in the far NW of Scotland.Life on Handa was basic. The tide was in charge of each day. Quiet often replaced the endless stuff which fills life to the brim back in the real world. Here reality was very different, yet for the week we were there Handa felt like home.The view to The Old Man of StoerOne of many common lizards on the islandThe area of the island known as The Great Cliffs. A stupendous place.I have been fortunate beyond measure to spend a lot of time on the Scottish islands, and there is something about them that gets under your skin. Maybe it is that for all the silence, there is so often drama on a huge scale happening close by. Handa is the best example of this that I know. The serene beauty and still turqoise waters of the East side of the island are replaced on the West by the incessant chaos and noise and smell of 100,000 seabirds occupying some magnificent sea cliffs. Tiny guillemot chicks leap from the cliffs as they fledge from their nests, often only to be torn apart by piratical Great Skuas when they reach the sea below. Viscious fights break out between neighbouring birds, the tight proximity between nests sometimes becoming too much. Squadrons of Arctic Terns surround and attack everything and anything that gets too close.Atlantic PuffinsRazorbillA tiny fraction of the 100,000 seabirds which occupy the island.Every night we would return to the island bothy, occupied by only a handful of fellow Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers. It seemed like not a single evening passed without tales of something exciting having happened during the day. We slept when we were tired, it rarely getting quite dark enough to bother lighting the candles that lit the bothy. Some days we were out from 7am to 11:30pm and couldn't get enough of the island, the 8 hours work during the day always passing in a flash.Our office for the week.A quiet night in the bothyNicole and Tim (and BBC filmcrew) watching out from fledging guillemot chicks leaping from The Great Stack, one of the greatest spectacles I've ever seen.One hot afternoon the landing beach resembled something straight out of the tropics, the water gorgeous turqoise and the clearest I've ever seen. A mighty Great Skua landed close by carrying a rabbit it had just killed. As it started to eat its prey a wave washed in and took its meal, leaving it stood empty handed on the beach. It waited. I slowly crept forward and kicked the dead rabbit out of the sea back towards the Skua, and it started to eat only 10ft from where I was stood. It paused between mouthfuls, stretched it's huge wings into the air and screamed down at the dead rabbit. Seeing such raw behaviour at so close a distance is a privelege I won't forget for a while.A Great Skua.A murky evening.An intense sunset towards the end of the week.On the boat back to the mainland at the end of the week, the skipper told us of a plane crash in the Ukraine and an unfolding crisis in Gaza. We'd been totally oblivious. I'd joked to Nicole a few days earlier that a war could have broken out and we'd have known nothing of it on Handa. Such isolation from the rest of the world, if only for a week, has made me think hard about a few things. "It is a somewhat happier world over there" said the skipper, gazing back towards the island as we landed on the mainland.Jam[...]



Illusions

2014-07-06T06:22:13.103-07:00

 Formations inside the astonishingly beautiful Illusion Pot."There's no way I'm going down there".I nearly spoke the words out loud this morning, looking down at the descending squeeze in the Second Chamber of Lower Cales Dale Cave. Tight and intimidating, it turned me around in the direction of retreat. But I stopped before letting first impressions get the better of me, and remembered - moments like these are when the magic happen.My 31 inch waist was certainly able to fit through that hole, why the immediate dismissal of giving it a try? Holes become tighter, slopes become steeper and everything is just more when you are going at things alone. Illusions of risk seem far more potent than when risk itself is actually present. Features with titles -  squeezes, pitches, ducks, abseils...these play on your mind and become more than they are. You can approach these with anticipation but they often pass smoothly, yet something you'd not given a second thought to proves to be a greater obstacle. Titles and numbers make it hard to be open minded.Subterranean Kingsdale. Perfect banded curtain formations.Huge blade and stal formation.The Expressway. 200m long and like the main chamber of a cathedral. A mesmerising straw stalactite ceiling.On 7 occasions during 4 caving trips in the last fortnight, I have found myself tackling a crux section of cave with far more ease than I'd imagined. Unlikely looking tight squeezes have proved to demand thought and tactics, rather than brute force or the need to breathe in. "Ducking" though pools in narrow crawling passageways have been welcome cool-offs on hot days, rather than icy cold submergences which chill you to the bone.The descending squeeze in Lower Cales Dale Cave. Actually fairly straightforward to get through, given some thought.Handline pitch in order to see a very special and beautiful place.An entertaining squeeze in Carlswark Cavern. A good round trip through the "duck" to Pearl Chamber, back through the Big Dig via a foray into the Dynamite Series.Best formation I've seen yet.Pristine coloured stalactites and stalagmites.No, it was the simple possession of a piece of knowledge that was the only thing to turn me back from an objective in the past fortnight. The "sobering hydrology" of Sleets Gill Cave was foremost on my mind as I slowly made my way into its huge main passageway. Infamous amongst cavers, Sleets Gill can flood seemingly at random, sometimes 3 weeks after heavy rainfall. No pattern seems to exist. The advice is to not go near it if it has rained at all in the last two weeks, if it is raining, or if it is forecast to rain.My day was chosen carefully, and two weeks had passed with barely a drop of rain to speak of. My descent into the cave was slow and considered, failing to see any signs of recent flood activity at the crucial points. I went back to look again for any changes at 10 minute intervals, and still nothing. The afternoon outside was hot and clear. The riverbeds in the Dales had looked parched or very low on the drive over.Logically I knew that my trip to Sleets Gill was a well-timed one. And a visit to the main passageway was a privilege, as the tree-trunk sized calcite columns make it a truly magnificent place. Yet I couldn't concentrate. I felt rushed as I set up my camera for photography. In the humbling main passageway of Sleets Gill Cave, Kilnsey. Tree sized columns and organ formations.Though the sun shone hot outside and the rivers ran dry, my ears prickled at the sound of every drop of water from the ceiling. My footfall[...]



Skirwith and Great Douk Caves

2014-06-20T05:55:38.668-07:00

 Climbing the 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith CaveAfter emerging from the magnificent cave of Ibbeth Peril, I'd expected that the really memorable part of my day was now over. However Skirwith and Great Douk Caves both exceeded my expectations and I'll remember them well but for different reasons to the beauties of subteranean Dentdale.I was surprised just how quickly you encounter the first beautiful formations inside Skirwith...if you can find the entrance, that is. A tiny grotto in the left wall looks like it has overflowed with flowstone "paint" and then dried, the excess running down to the passage floor. A few yards on and two beautiful calcite columns are met with some crystal clear gour pools close at hand too.Ribbons and columns in SkirwithThe well known flowstone cascade.The tall and impressive rift passage ends with a slightly hair-raising boulder collapse from above. It looks mighty unlikely, and the once easy way-on now involves an easy squeeze through the boulders. But it was clearly a regularly travelled squeeze, and my thoughts of ending my trip there were shelved.A long and knee-deep pool caused me to traverse above with a foot on each side wall, trying to avoid getting a soaking with the knowledge that I still had another long cave to visit after this one. The roaring of water became loud, and I entered a chamber with a 15 ft waterfall thundering down into the pool beneath.I didn't even consider tackling this, and at the time I had no idea I would in fact return to climb it later in the day and explore far more of the cave.The beautiful 900m long stream passage of Great Douk. After some distance of this.......you emerge into this. A stunning forested roof collapse in the Great Douk streamway. Several hundred metres of dark passage continues beyond me.Great Douk Cave was next, and it was certainly the "magnificent romp" described by the guidebook. Almost 1000m of beautiful clean underground stream passage, with plenty of short cascades to climb and pools of crystal clear water to negotiate. The walls and floor are scalloped and cut so perfectly that the stream flows as effortlessly as it would in a water slide. It meanders for an impressive distance, and it was pure enjoyment the whole way. I knew this already, but it was here that I really learned that there are so many more beauties in a cave than just impressive formations.The stunning river passageway of Great Douk.Part of a large collection of bizarre formations, including extensive "cave popcorn".On the return trip I found my thoughts wandering to that 15ft waterfall pitch in Skirwith. Why not give it a try? So an hour or so later I was stood underneath the waterfall again. I tried to look with eyes that saw past intimidating first impressions again, and soon saw a line of good handholds running up behind the cascade. No doubt the idea of climbing up head first into a waterfall was a little scary, but I felt compelled to try and confront this particular mental barrier.And before I knew it I was up, and smiling at how straightforward it really was. Simply accepting I was going to have a full-on barage of water propelled onto my body was the key - once my head was around that it was just like climbing a wet rock pitch in wellies.A long section of grovelling in a wet and low passage followed, as did something else which I found pretty surprising. You'll have to go and see for yourself, if you want to know what.Going down the waterfall was less straightforward but it didn't take long. The hot sun on the s[...]



Ibbeth Peril

2014-06-19T07:11:10.023-07:00

The beautiful Ibbeth Peril 1, DentdaleThe cave rumoured to be the lair of the mythical witch of Dentdale is  one of the most enchanting places I've ever been. That quiet and beautiful river couldron on the surface is nothing compared to what lies behind and beneath the waterfall.Reassuring though the last week of dry weather was, I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous as I dug through a pile of flood debris to find the small entrance to the cave. The waterfall coming down beside me was only a trickle and the forecast was dry, but yet I still took one last glance into the sky to check for any clouds.Flood debris stuck to the roof of the cave passage was a sobering sight indeed, the idea that the cave regularly fills with water to the roof a frightening one. But a hot and settled day was starting, and there was no need to let these thoughts become a worry.The roof lowered to about 18 inches above the floor and I started the flat-out crawl. This proved to be by no means a sign of things to come.Indeed a massive hall of a chamber lay ahead, a spectacular natural wonder. A large (perilous?) boulder field splits the chamber, with gaping "crevasses" everywhere waiting to swallow you up. I took my time, and my headtorch started to reveal the true nature of this cave.A spellbinding and vast display of formations coats an entire wall and the ceiling of this chamber. How would I ever be able to do this justice with photographs? There were decorations in colours and hues I'd never expected to see, from dark red through to inky black. The tiny "antler" helictites were just as beautiful as the hulking giant of a cascade stalactite that forms the centre piece of the whole grotto.Not that they even begin to do it justice, but I'll let the photos say the rest.One of the pristine grottos.Thousands of white stalactitesThe Barn Owls.Bacon formation.Just one corner of the massive main chamber, far too large to photograph.Some weird oily looking flowstone.The Great Cascade in centre-frame.Black and white stalactitesA fine array of formations overhanging a gour pool.James[...]



Into the upper chambers of Owl Hole

2014-06-13T05:26:38.189-07:00

The spectacular entrance to "Cystal Pallas", Owl Hole.Boredom can sometimes be the catalyst to start the most memorable adventures, and so it proved to be this week. 70 hours of work in 7 days had left me desperate to do something of substance to break the monotony.Since my trips into the lower passages of Owl Hole in Dowel Dale a few weeks back, one particular idea has never been far from my thoughts. The pothole has a small entrance in one of its side walls, a number of metres above the floor. A 23ft aid climb up to this entrance is the key to accessing some fantastically well decorated chambers with reputedly some of the finest formations in the Peak District.The 23ft pitch is the obvious pale streak on the left of the photo, leading to a small entrance.My climbing rack is pretty limited from years of soloing, but one thing I do own a lot of is slings. The first time I visited the pot I saw five bolts at intervals up the 23ft pitch, and I soon realised that with care I should be able to climb it with a mix of stepping in/hauling on slings and using natural holds, and then abseil off the top bolt on return.Monday evening, and I was stood at the bottom of the pitch. As is often the case, things looked a bit longer and steeper than I'd remembered in my mind's eye. I triple checked that I had everything I needed, and clipped my first long sling into the first bolt. The first half of the pitch went quickly, despite having to think a bit about how to use as few slings as possible.It became a bit more complex at the small diagonal section in the middle, as it required a step across onto a sloping and wet ledge. Then the final haul into the cave passageway shut me down for a few minutes. I seemed to be there for quite a while, trying to work out how to get up just the last metre into the entrance. Then it clicked and it was all suddenly so simple, and I easily stepped up into the muddy passageway.About to rig the rope for the abseil out.I couldn't hardly contain my excitement as I rigged the pitch ready for the abseil for the return trip. Here I finally was.A muddy passage led to a gate, and a climb up delivered me into a beautiful grotto ordained with formations of every kind. I sat and stared for a long while.A beautiful banded curtain formation.The first grotto.Large stalagmite boss in the first grotto.Pillar formation.With the greatest of care I crawled through the taped passageway, the fragility of these beauties foremost on my mind in the cramped space. Looking back behind me revealed the grotto to be even more stunning than I first though, some stunning pure white stalagtites hanging down behind an undercut.  Hogmorton Aven let me stand up and stretch before I returned to look for my main objective.A spectacular "hanging grotto".Carrot formation.Straws and blades.A hole in the floor of the first grotto lets you slide down to a brilliant stalactite/stalagmite formation. This marks the start of a sloping "balcony" which overlooks the most incredible chamber.The Crystal Pallas was absolutely amazing to look down into. Gigantic stalactites and curtain formations hung down in demented shapes from the ceiling, and a pure white gour pool reflected my headtorch back at me from below. Awe struck, I instantly vowed to return in the future with more gear to descend fully into the Crystal Pallas to see it more closely.Straws in the entrance to the Pig's Trotters passageway.Abseiling out in the dark.Job done.My abseil out was in the dark[...]



Getting the rope out for Jugholes Cave

2014-06-03T08:28:03.733-07:00

Beautiful formations in the Upper Series of Jugholes.I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit intimidated by the idea of using a rope today. The last time I'd used a rope was over two years ago, abseiling down the side of the Un-named Pinnacle on Aonach Dubh to check out potential new routes.Despite an intensive period of roped climbing in 2009, pretty much everything I've done since has been solo, my rope usually remaining undisturbed in my rucksack and mainly  there for forced retreats.Today was the first time I've used a rope whilst soloing a cave. The fact that I felt ready to make this signficiant step-up in terms of difficulty felt like quite a big deal, as who knows what opportunities it could unlock in the future?But first impressions looking down the 15ft shaft into Jugholes Upper Series this morning caused me to have doubts. The shaft was in a tight spot beyond a crawling sized hole, with a smooth mud slope leading down to it. I was going to need to crawl feet first through the hole to enter the shaft, and it felt like a pretty awkward place to carry out a bit of ropework I'd never done before.Dropping a rope down the 15ft shaft the enter the Upper Series. I'm learning that first impressions are of limited value in general when it comes to caving, so I spent a few minutes trying to figure it out. Above and to the side of the hole was a chockstone, so I made a thread belay with a long sling and tied in the rope. After tying a number of Alpine butterfly loops to turn the rope into a handline, I dropped the rope down the shaft and started moving down.Looking up from the bottom of the shaft.Crawling down feet first and facing in, I lowered myself down the mud slope by putting most of my weight on the rope loops. Very quickly I was over the lip of the shaft and climbed down my handline, finding some good footholds to make things easier.A piece of cake really, especially considering for a moment I'd thought my plan had been over-ambitious. It felt good too, really good.Navigating by the sound of a stream, I found my way into the immense roof-collapse which leads to the Bee Hives Chamber. It felt like a bit of a maze to begin with, and only after the second of two crawling passages was I convinced I was heading the right way.A fine grotto on the "Bee Hive" slopes.Colourful veins running over the roof. An odd layer of green clay covered the slopes to my left, the first of many points of interest in the cave. Then the "Bee Hives" themselves appeared, a giant slope of flowstone that is one of the most extensive in Britain. I must have spent at least two hours exploring the chamber.Hundreds of curtain formations.A row of proto stalagtites.From the main streamway you could be completely oblivious to the large number of small but very fine speleotherms that decorate the walls and roof. Whilst photographing one particular grotto it must have taken me twenty minutes to fully notice all the formations, some very fine curtains appearing even at floor level.Small but colourful ribbon formations.Climbing back up my rope was a quick job, but the morning as a whole felt like another step towards a wider world. There's been a few like that lately!James[...]



Elderbush Cave

2014-06-09T04:07:48.680-07:00

Elderbush Cave is one of those ones that must be frustrating to adventurous walkers excited by coming across a large and impressive entrance, just to find it seemingly only going back a few metres. So many times as a hillwalker I've felt a pang of curiosity at coming across a cave, only to be disappointed by it not really going anywhere.First impressions are deceptive in Elderbush Cave however.  Today an inconspicious tunnel in the shadows of this damp hole led me down to a bit of a milestone caving trip.That tunnel didn't last long until I reached a sizeable chamber with some beautiful flowstone formations, and I was transported back to a childhood fascination by staring in awe at some well preserved fossils in the walls. But the chamber seemed to have come too quickly, I thought the cave was longer than this?Some beautiful flowstone formations in the main chamberAn impressive fossil veinThree high-level passages broke off from the chamber, all of which would involve some climbing to get in to. The first two seemed too tight. The third one looked more promising, but the climb looked awkward and coming back down it seemed like it could be quite touch and go.I nearly just turned around, but I decided to try and "work" the problem. The issued seemed to be a lack of high handholds, which would make reversing the climb very difficult. A very sloping  left foothold seemed useless without a high handhold,  and I couldn't find much for my right foot. It didn't look promising. But I tried pushing against the left foothold and jamming my back up against the wall behind me, which allowed me to stay in a position of tension on the sloping hold. Now I could see a high ledge for my right foot, so I bridged across and searched for any handholds. I took my time, inching up and down making sure I didn't make a single move that I couldn't reverse.Before long I'd got up the climb, and moved up and along the high passage to reach a tiny "balcony" overlooking a large chamber overhung by a flowstone pillar. From here however it was clear progress was impossible without a rope, so I slowly but surely reversed the passage and downclimbed back to the main chamber.Pillars overlooking the final deep chamber.An overhanging aid pitch to get down to the final chamber. One to go back for.So why was Elderbush Cave a small milestone for me? It wasn't the first climb I've had to do in a cave. On the way back from the main chamber I found a very small gap in the floor leading to what looked like a grotto beyond. It was to be the first proper "squeeze" that I've done on a caving trip.I didn't take this lightly. Whilst soloing a cave there are very few places and situations in which I'd be willing to commit to a real squeeze. But this was close to the entrance of a cave from which I knew for sure how to exit, and a passage wall directly opposite was going to be very useful for pushing against with my legs to help get me through.The squeeze, with a glove for scale. Photo taken from an already low chamber.The squeeze was perhaps 35cm wide. It took me a few tries to work out how to get through. Lesson 1 - keep your arms stretched out flat in front of you, don't bend them at all. I heaved against the wall behind me with my boots, and inch by inch I wriggled my way through the hole.Although the grotto which I emerged into didn't yield much, I felt a satisfied at having tackled a significant me[...]