Sunday, 21 November 2010

Back to South Wales

19th-21st November 2010
I headed back to SWCC once again this weekend, as Ian had offered to show us into OFD III - the furthest upstream reaches of OFD. By all accounts, it's a classic trip and one I'd been hoping to do the trip for ages, so it was too tempting a proposition to refuse. Not many people know that when Nietzsche wrote about 'staring into the abyss', he was actually talking about caving in South Wales...

Caves attempted:

Ogof Ffynnon Ddu: Top Entrance to Smiths Armoury

Estimated time underground:
  • Emma
  • Ian
Whenever OFD III is mentioned in conversations, names such as 'The Chasm', 'The Crevasse' and 'The Traverses' crop up repeatedly, painting a worrying picture of the cave. Luckily, Ian had decided that today's route wouldn't involve the 'Wall of Death'. Nevertheless, as we negotiated the usual route to the Salubrious Streamway (via a small shortcut) my nerves were starting to feel the strain. The new territory for me began when we stepped across the stream and into a narrow passage which led up and to the right and eventually brought us to Poached Egg Passage. Some more easy caving led to the first serious notable obstacle: the Crevasse.

The Crevasse is a large rifty hole in the passage. It's a couple of metres wide and, as far as I could tell, a kilometre deep. Negotiating it without a helicopter is made possible by virtue of a bridge of jammed rocks a few metres down and along from where we first emerged. Unfortunately, the handline used to clamber down to the bridge ends above the hole, which usually isn't where I like my handlines to end. This meant that immediately after slithering down the line, a two metre traverse was required to reach safety. From there Ian rigged an easy ladder down to what I assumed was the floor.

Intimidating but ultimately not too difficult, The Crevasse was a psychological gateway between the 'main' cave and the passages beyond which were far less travellled and more serious in nature. We were now in a large boulder floored rift passage which would eventually lead us to the streamway. Ian led us along the passage via a series of climbs over boulders, some easy, some awkward. The constant changes in level made it sweaty work. I started to get a little suspicious when holes started appearing between the boulders beneath our feet. Inevitably, we eventually reached a hole which extended across the entire width of the passage. It dawned on me that it was a long time since we'd been walking on a real floor. We were now at the start of the traverses.

The rift passage here was an armspan wide, with vertical walls stretching up towards the distant roof and down into the darkness below. From our bouldery perch, 30m vertically above the real floor, four more 'bridges' of wedged rocks were visible in the distance, each separated from the next by perhaps 15m of horizontal nothingness. My palms began to sweat, my heart began racing and I began to question what the hell I was doing here and why I'd ever taken up this stupid sport in the first place. Thankfully, Ian was a very calming influence as he took time on the first traverse to show us the ledges on the walls that we could step on in order to work our way from one bridge to the next. We were under no illusions as to how catastrophic a fall would be, but I found the only way to get across was to focus on the technical aspects and disconnect myself from the situation: put one foot on this ledge, next foot on the ledge on the opposite wall, one hand forward... and so on. Mainly we were splayed across the rift in star shapes, but sometimes we had both feet on one wall and both hands on the opposite wall, face down - 'staring into the abyss'. We traversed in almost total silence, each in our own little bubble, completely focused on where we were putting our feet.

I can hardly remember the section immediately after the traverses, as I was recovering from an almighty adrenalin hit, but after a couple more slithery down climbs I was relieved to hear the streamway in the distance - a sure sign that we'd soon have a proper floor to walk on. We bypassed a couple of the wetter sections of the stream by inching our way along a scaffold bar (the Maypole Bridge) that had been placed across yet another hole, this time with the stream gurgling a few metres below. Finally we reached the stream itself.

The OFD III streamway was gorgeous; scalloped and sculpted rock everywhere, but with more of a canal feel than the downstream sections. Eagle-eyed Ian even pointed out several troglodyte fish sitting on the stream bed completely white and apparently not bothered by our lamps. After half an hour's fun splashing upstream, we emerged in Smith's Armoury; a large bouldery chamber and the absolute limit of the cave in this direction - a pretty remote location.

Heading back out the way we came, all too soon we'd negotiated the streamway, Maypole Bridge, and associated greasy climbs and were back at the traverses once more. I was at the back again, and watching Emma and Ian on the traverses was bad for my state of mind. My imagination, which up until now had been nicely reigned in, broke free and ran riot. As I was splayed across the rift, with nowhere to look but down, I contemplated what I'd write on my blog if I fell off the traverses, bounced to the bottom of the rift and ended up causing an epic rescue. I'm glad to say nobody fell off, nor at the Crevasse, and we were soon back in familiar territory.

To show us some more of the cave, Ian took us back to the entrance via a different route. We saw Straw Gallery, made a flying leap (literally) back down to Poached Egg, then up to Timo's Table (I recommend not asking where the name comes from), Arete Chamber, and finally ended up round the back of Big Chamber Near the Entrance. Much is made of the traverses in OFD III, and they still make my palms sweat just typing this. But they only form 10 minutes of the whole trip, and it's not always mentioned how good the rest of the cave beyond is. Many thanks to Ian for leading us on such a classic trip.

Ogof Ffynnon Ddu I - Cwm Dwr via Fault Aven Series

Estimated time underground:
  • Emma
  • Andy
I felt like caving somewhere with a floor today, so Emma and I decided to head to Fault Aven Series in Cwm Dwr, home of a formation known as the Pom Pom, under the (mistaken) assumption that we'd have no traversing to do. Andy kindly offered to lead us in via OFD I to make a through trip. We took a couple of ropes and some slings because we knew there would be some climbs of some sort to do.

The OFD I streamway was quite low as the three of us splashed up it. We soon reched one of the deep pots (18ft deep apparently) which, until it came loose last weekend, used to have a scaffold bar balanced across it. The only way across now was to take a running leap to the far side and hold on tightly before slipping back into the water!

The next hour or so was spent in a complex of higher level passages involving varying amounts of fun climbs, tight crawls and, occasionally, walking. The main aim of this part of the trip was to bypass the sumps that separate OFD II from OFD I. The most notable obstacle here was 'The Letterbox': a narrow slot 2-3 metres up a wall into which we had to post ourselves. It was a first class piece of caving and it was good to stamp my authority on it and let the slot envelope me. All part and parcel of the fun. I could go on... Finally, via a rather long and wet handline climb down, we emerged in the bottom end of Cwm Dwr and stomped up the OFD II stream to the bottom of Fault Aven, where a scaffold bar marked the climb out of the streamway.

We were now in dry upper level passages once more and the next obstacle was a ~10m pitch/climb with a cord snaking up to some bolts at the top for rigging a pull-through. The climb appeared to have no hand holds, no foot holds and no chimneys or corners to use. According to Andy, who it turns out is a really good rock climber, this means it is a 'VS'. We belayed him up and then he belayed us up from the top having rigged an extra handline to make the climbing easier.

At the top of the climb was a confusing complex of passages at various levels and, even armed with the survey, we had difficulty working out what was where. Over the next hour or two we found everything except for the Pom Pom, but saw some unbelievable stuff. The first passage we tried led past an incredible white calcite flow that had formed on a false floor and looked like dripping icing suspended in midair. It led to an awkward traverse over a hole and then a t-junction. Right ended in a giant rift impressively blocked from top to bottom with sand. Left ended in a gaping hole with the streamway far below - Fault Aven.

The next passage we tried led to further traverses on ledges above deep holes. I don't think they were especially worse than yesterday's traverses, but I for one was completely out of nervous energy for the weekend and we couldn't bring ourselves to attempt it. There are only so many sketchy climbs and traverses that I can attempt before by body finally gives up, goes into a huff and flatly refuses to give me anymore adrenalin. So at the prospect of another traverse, my legs were feeling awfully heavy and my stomach was a knot. In fact, by this point of the weekend, climbing a flight of stairs was the limit of the excitement I could take. Later we realised that this was indeed one of the routes to the Pom Pom. The final route we looked at led up a couple of short but stupidly awkward climbs to an absolutely stunning passage (again this would eventually have led to the Pom Pom if we had continued). I won't even try and describe the crystal pools that covered the floor, but I will return with a camera one day soon.

Finally, we headed back out via Cwm Dwr. The slight frustration at not finding the Pom Pom was more than made up for by the amazing bits of cave we had seen anyway and the fun of exploring unfamiliar and difficult territory; there's more than enough reason to return with a camera. Thanks go to Andy for being our OFD I leader for the day.


  1. Hi Edvin,

    This will annoy you, I and a couple of guys from the Cambridge caving climbing club got to the PomPom yesterday (5/12/2010). We got to H junction and started along a traverse which I initially bottled but the others found a point along the traverse that drops down about a body length to a lower ledge which was much easier to walk along, they came back and "held my hand" and so I go to see the PomPom. So finally I've been somewhere where Emma has not!


  2. Hey Duncan - nice one on getting to the PomPom! That must be the same traverse that we bottled; but at least I know how to do it now. I'll have a rematch with it soon.

  3. Edvin,

    The only bit of info I can add is you start the traverse it then starts to bend round a corner and widen (say after 20m or so). Before this bend and where the traverse is narrower there is a small boulder with a few cobbles on top jammed in the traverse gap at foot level. It was immediate after this that we dropped down to the next ledge. It's about a body length drop but there is no good hand holds where you stand so it takes some nerve to do it as you can see all the way down... I get dizzy thinking about it!

  4. "Mainly we were splayed across the rift in star shapes, but sometimes we had both feet on one wall and both hands on the opposite wall, face down - 'staring into the abyss'. "

    And if you, long limbed people, had to do it like so, how would I ever have to do it? flying? :P

  5. Now that it's several week's later, I'm convinced that it can't have been that bad...maybe... Anyway, you're a lot more bendy than us so I'm sure you'd be fine :-)