Sidetrack Cave - 04/01/2003

Written by RobEavis.

Report by Jim Thompson
Cavers: Carl (Bog) Bergmann (EPC), Jim Thompson (EPC)

It was with not inconsiderable deliberation that Bog and I finally managed to get out caving today. The original plan was to get out early and drop Nettle down Crumble and Beza pots, as a useful bit of rigging practice for both of us, especially since noone else would be there to offer advice- if we f**ked up we’d have to unf**k ourselves. Unfortunately, the snow on the ground in Sheffield thwarted our plans, and us thinking that the car would end up stuck if it snowed again and we ended up taking 8 hours over the trip. That and the fact that, being a lazy sod, I didn’t really want to have to get out of bed that morning either!

The thing was, I hadn’t even had a beer the night before, thinking I didn’t want to be caving with a hangover, so by the time I got out of my bed, I was A: cursing that I’d wasted the chance to get hammered for the millionth time over the holidays, and B: since I hadn’t got hammered, wishing that we had gone caving after all, since I’d spoken to Sam earlier who said he’d never known Winnats Pass to be shut for snow in his entire life!

Finally, one phone call and a lot of umming and ahhing later, we set out to do a quick trip round Giant’s, which was great cos I wanted to test out my new wetsuit. Except when we got to Peakshill farm, it looked like we’d never get the car back up the track if it snowed!!!! We decided to park on the grass verge, so Bog drove down to the track by Eldon quarry to turn round, and muttered something about Sidetrack.

That was it! Never mind Giant’s which would be freezing and wet, let’s do Sidetrack! I’d always been a bit disappointed about this one, as everyone else had been through it (or at least tried to) on the day I got stuck in Luton, so I still wanted to have a look. I’d read Robbie’s account of it in the mag, and seen the pictures, and thought it would be nice to see some relatively unspoilt cave (to get in practice for the forthcoming discoveries in Bagshawe ;-)).

I was a little nervous, as earlier in the year Bog and Mike had backed off thinking the entrance passages too tight, and not knowing what lay ahead, they thought it better to be cautious. Still, I wanted to measure myself, plus we’d already abseiled onto the bench in the corner of which the cave entrance lies. And I’d just got changed in the snow, so I wasn’t going through that again in a hurry!

I headed first into the low entrance, a phreatic tube heading into the quarry face and half full of dryish mud- luckily the winter had brought drippers which meant I could slide quite easily along the initial section. The mud suddenly banked up and I headed over into the tighter section ahead. This necessitated removing my helmet, and thinking back to the advice JT had given me months earlier, about how to negotiate tight passage. Although tight, in places tight enough to trap my chest, I made good progress until I reached an enlargement of the passage, lightly decorated with white stal, in which I could turn round and call to Bog that it was OK. He had been waiting at the entrance to see if I got stuck first!

What I didn’t realise until later was, that Bog was feeling nervous and unsure about carrying on- and in those initial squeezes, so was I. I didn’t mention it though as I didn’t want to spoil Bog’s trip- good job neither of us said anything or we may have been back in the pub much sooner! I called back and reassured him that it was nothing, which looking back it really wasn’t, but that nagging thought in the back of my mind for most of the way through the tight bits was ‘what if it gets much tighter- can I really do this?’.

We both made progress along the low tube, emerging into what I think was a larger section of it, however the mud had settled in a ridge right through the middle, making progress slightly awkward due to the narrowing at the edge, however I found that by hooking my right leg and arm over the hump, I could pull myself along quite nicely, so I called back for Bog to do the same.

The passage got slightly more comfortable, i.e. I could get my helmet back on and start crawling properly along it- I’ve been trying to stay off my front recently and just crawl on toes knees and elbows, and I was soon zooming along in a comfortable rhythm, slowing down and taking great care not to damage any of the impressive straws and other formations which were beginning to adorn the ceiling. I began wondering whether the place would become wrecked with an increase in traffic, and the philosophical debate started up in my head, how could such a situation be rationalised?

In spite of being head down, trying to keep up the pace, there was one point when an unmistakeable cold draught hit me right on the cheek. I stopped for a rest and to listen back for Bog making his way behind me, and noticed a small opening in a tiny arch to my right. There was a strong draught issuing from it, and even though I didn’t think it would be a viable spot to dig, I thought it might be worth knowing about in case it gave any clues, so I built a little cairn to mark the spot. I remembered what Bob said about caves draughting properly in winter, so I thought maybe the draught might stop in warmer weather.

The passage carried on and on like this, and I wondered how much further we had to go, until I reached an opening. This was little ‘n’ larges airbell that I’d read about, and I was grateful to stand for the first time since we’d entered the cave. I noticed some impressive crinoid fossils stuck to the walls here, and chuckled to myself when Bog shouted ‘you’re stood up aren’t you, you b**tard’! I imagined the sight of my feet poking down out of the ceiling in the middle of this flat out crawl...

Onwards then, along the passage which by now had enlarged a bit, and I started on hands and knees. At one point the mud suddenly banked up in a hump again, which forced me back onto elbows knees and toes, and made me realise that this is in fact a much quicker, more efficient way to move along. It proved to be an excellent lesson for the rest of the trip, and I really enjoyed staying down and going faster than I’d ever caved before on the way out. I’d mistaken this enlarged passage for that known as ‘The Litton Stroll’ which I’d read about, and upon reaching a wall in front of me, announced to Bog that we’d reached the end of the cave and it was time to head back. Wrong! Bog told me that there was walking size trunk passage ahead of us. That was exciting! I moved forward a foot or so and realised that my dead end was just a sharp right turn- onwards again!

Eventually, the nature of the cave changed dramatically. The mud floor became a jumble of smallish boulders, and I was noticing gritstone pebbles and other stuff amongst them. I guessed that a bigger stream had been up here, and I was right. I popped out into a walking sized trunk passage, which I instantly recognised as having breakdown sediments in it. I’d learnt something!
This was awesome after the long crawl we’d just done. The passage ran perpendicular to the smaller tube we’d just crawled down, and was well decorated.

We decided to explore the downstream end first, although I couldn’t tell at the time which way it was, making a mental note to find out how the stream direction can be told in a dry stream passage. The roof rose up into large avens in places, and there were stunning stal and curtain formations which became striated and translucent with a lamp beam shone behind. On the floor were old, dry gour pools, and I was a little concerned about damage as we tentatively tiptoed over these, ducking at the same time to avoid straws and carrots hanging within inches of our helmets. The undisturbed mud was like it was in the narrower tube, very smooth and shiny and had obviously not been touched since the last trickle of water passed over it. There were a few very fine dessication cracks beginning to form, and it occurred to me that these may have only appeared after the surface was broken.

At one point, loads of drippers from the ceiling gave the impression of rain underground and I started saying ‘Roger Rain’s House’ over and over in my head. These drippers were most welcome, as we were dehydrated and had brought nothing to drink, and I drank deeply, almost toppling over as I held my mouth roofwards with my eyes shut to avoid the drips. It was funny to watch Bog doing the same thing afterwards!
It was only later in the cave that I wondered if drinking this water was such a good idea, as I bent down to pass a low section, and the water was smelling strongly of cow sh*t. Bog said we must be close to the surface here! Not much further along, the passage became lower and lower, and filled with water. I couldn’t tell if this was a sump or not, but I didn’t fancy crawling through the cold muddy water to check.

Passing back over the dried gours, we made our way into the upstream end of The Litton Stroll. The passage was similar in size and decoration, however I did notice some calcite floor here, which was very reminiscent of that in Taylor’s Way down Bagshawe. Maybe this is how you tell which way the stream flowed? The calcite has formed into small gours adjacent to each other, sort of undercut inside on one side and sloping on the other, giving a sharp lip on one side and looking like mackerel.

Further on, the passage lowered again however this time the blockage was due to loads of stal columns running along and across, and not easily passable. Needless to say we didn’t attempt to carry on. I read later that this blockage looked similar to that in Alsop’s cave, which on the survey would appear to connect very near to this point- in fact prior to blasting activity at this part of the quarry, the initial part of Sidetrack was connected to Alsop’s. I was glad I didn’t have to be the one to smash past all the stal in order to push the continuation!

So, the Litton stroll explored and thoroughly appreciated, we stopped a while to refuel on chocolate and enjoy our achievement, before setting off back surfacewards. Once again I was crawling as fast as possible, recognising the different bits of passage as they flew by. I had to rest more frequently on the way back, and we both took turns in posing for ‘hero shots’ to the camera- usually of us squeezing through the tightest spots. At the large opening we first encountered on the way in, I noticed 3 tiny helictites in the wall and roof, the first I’d really seen in the Peak- and we were back out in the starry, almost moonless night, save for a sliver of a crescent, immediately getting cold as our boots broke the icy puddles on the quarry bench.

With our fingers sticking to the frozen metal on SRT tackle and krabs, we prusiked up the loose slope and headed back to the car feeling very proud and happy. Getting changed in the snow we moaned and, as usual, said ‘we must be daft!’. Despite the freezing temperature, and feeling a bit tired, it had been a most excellent trip. It was good to get to the bar in the Wanted, and enjoy a couple of celebratory pints before we headed home!

Note: We protected the rope on the edge of the pitch to avoid abrasion, however I noticed a third of the way down there is another fairly severe rub point that would definitely benefit from a rope protector being used.