Report by Jim Thompson
Cavers: Mike Annesley (EPC), Jim Thompson (EPC)
I thought it was going to be another one of those nights when Mike called me at the office. ‘Do you really want to go caving tonight?’ You see there are just some days when all I want to do after a long day staring at reports and documents, all I really want to do is sit down and sink a quantity of ale to blast away the stresses and mundanity of the day past. Other nights, I can’t get out of the office fast enough and feel like an amphetamine crazed dog with two dicks, if you can imagine that. I think I’d rather not now I’ve mentioned it! Anyway, today was not a two dick day and I felt like sh*te, and was having a sh*te week so I was expecting yet another night leaving Crumble and Beza for another day and feeling guilty for not going underground, thus failing to maintain my 2 night a week average. I was starting to get annoyed with myself, it seemed that the last 3 times I’d been intent on bottoming Nettle, and made arrangements days in advance, and sorted the ropes and even divided up the gear for quicker rigging, I’d somehow not made it. Still, if Mike wasn’t feeling like caving, I wasn’t about to argue. When Mike phoned later I found myself feeling really motivated again, so we quickly agreed that we should just get on with it. An early start was thwarted as I’d forgotten Mike’s wellies, which I’d borrowed the week before, but eventually, we reached the lay-by and were soon walking up the hill toward the pothole.
As Mike had rigged the entrance pitches the previous week, we agreed that I would take that role, and he would continue to the bottom of Beza shaft, from where I would have the unenviable task of derigging. I soon found my feet on the rope, metaphorically speaking, and in no time at all I was laying upside down in the flats, looking up at the P-bolt which protects the step across the pitch head of the Grand Canyon. On the top of the Bottle pitch, I had been disappointed to see a pair of bright shiny Petzl hangers, loose on their threaded bolts which protruded a long way. I wondered why anyone had bothered; particularly as the rest of the pitch is fitted with discreet, functional P bolts. I noticed that there was a lot more water dripping than the previous visit, and it lent a more ‘alive’ atmosphere to the place. I was soon joined by Mike, and proceeded to rig the next Y hang and drop the short way into the boulder choke underneath which is the impressive Elizabeth shaft- Derbyshire’s deepest natural shaft. Mike took the lead at this point, and as I perched upon a boulder near the pitch head, I was appalled to see spent carbide dumped all over the place. It wasn’t just dumped in one place, or particularly discreetly; rather, it seemed to have been thrown up the walls, into crevices and in a huge pile next to me. I could hear Mike rattling tackle and scraping his way down the pitch, and peered over to see the faint glow of his lamp in the narrow rift beneath the boulder on which I sat, suddenly realising that I wasn’t in the safest position- should I slide off the boulder I would find myself dropping through a small hole and down the pitch itself! Fortunately I had my long cowstail clipped to the belay, so I rolled a fag and thought about other things. After a longer wait, I became a little impatient as I had started to feel cold, so was glad to hear Mike bellow ‘rope free!’ from the depths. I quickly got set up on the rope, checked my Stop, and set off downwards. Upon reaching the small hole, I realised that I would have been very unlucky indeed to fall through it- it was an awkward squeeze through, where I had a bit of difficulty squeezing the handle on the Stop, but eventually after a bit of grumbling, I found myself popping out into an impressive narrow rift which had water trickling down the flowstone covered walls. I continued past a couple of easy deviations, however there were still a couple of rub points at intervals which twanged disconcertingly on the rope. I reached the point where Mike sat on a small ledge across which the rope crossed, rigged off a spit in the centre. I wondered what a comparative pain in the arse it must have been when all the rigging had to be done using 8mm spits, which had to be attached by hand using a spanner. As Mike continued to the bottom of Beza shaft, I sat uncomfortably trying to avoid the cold dripping water, which occasionally ran down my neck. The manoeuvre across this ledge was a little awkward- it was necessary to climb over a constriction through which I couldn’t pass my toes, and as I slid head first towards the next pitch I was glad to be on the ropes! By the time I touched down, the character of the cave had changed. The rift continued down a loose slope - ‘The Shakes’, and I followed Mike to the bottom of the handline, starting to feel cold and wet by this time. At the bottom, a fairly large chamber opened out above us, and there were a couple of low openings through which I knew there were ways on- one, ‘The Sting’ forms the connection with the bottom of Elizabeth shaft, the other is the continuation into Red River passage and the awkward looking Dratsab, which when read backwards gives an indication of the nature of the crawl! Tonight though, we would be going no further. Neither of us wore a watch, but I had a feeling that we were a long way from home, had a long way back to climb and derig, so further exploration would have to wait till a longer day. In addition I had a feeling that we would be pushing it if we were to get to the pub in time, so I took no time in ushering Mike back off to surface whilst I sorted out the tackle bags ready for the derig.
Once the rope was free, I started quickly jugging upwards, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the return journey was in fact easier than the abseil. This was because I could bridge across the walls, use handholds and generally help myself out. The tackle bags were empty at this stage so there was nothing holding me back. The hole at the top of Crumble was also far easier to climb out of, and soon enough I was passing an empty bag to Mike and carrying on straight up the entrance pitch with 100 metres of rope hanging off me, not really noticing it apart from in the Narrows, where I had to kick the bag free of constrictions a couple of times. I began to sniff the fresh air near the top of the shaft, and knew I could relax a little, as I knew Mike was some way behind me, and I took the final few metres at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, with not many more metres to go, I gave my already injured knee a slight knock on the wall. The pain was out of all proportion to the impact- I’ve whacked my head harder in the past and not really noticed. This time the agony rifled through my knee like a bullet, and I slumped onto the rope choking back the vomiting reflex it had induced. I made a mental note to see the physio about this, and dangled a few minutes longer whilst the pain subsided. I had to swap feet in my foot loop, as the injured knee had lost the ability to work, and eventually I resorted to free climbing the walls and sat a few moments on the ledge beneath the cap of the shaft.
I climbed out of the lid into the windy night and grabbed the phone- 11.30 pm, we’d missed the pub! Oh well, no point in worrying now as I still had to wait for Mike, so I rolled a fag and stood shivering in the breeze as the moisture sapped the warmth from me. It was nice to be out in the open again despite the chill, so I didn’t bother climbing back to shelter under the lid. After what seemed like an eternity as I shivered in the wind, Mike’s rattling got louder and he appeared at the pitch head. We packed the last bit of rope away and raced off down the hill, slipping and sliding on the wet mud full of sheep’s hoof prints. Back at the car, I was pleased to have finally got to bottom of Beza shaft without any fuss. We shook hands and congratulated each other on a job well done, and began the drive back to Sheffield as the car warmed up and the dark night slipped by.