Monday, 16 February 2015

The Grind Traverse

14th February

After several trips that probably weren't worthy of being blogged about, I had a feeling this one might be different. Tom and Emma had dreamed up a particularly perverted itinerary for Tom's romantic birthday caving trip: a combination of the Grind Circle, with a long Ease Gill Caverns through trip. The classic 'Greater Ease Gill Traverse' goes from Top Sink to Pippikin Pot. It's possible to do a longer trip by exiting out of Bye George Pot instead, one particularly notable obstacle being a squeeze known as The Backbreaker. Today's plan was Top Sink - Bye George, via the Grind. What better way to spend Valentine's Day?

I don't know what the collective noun for a group of cavers is, but let's say that a gaggle of potholers (9 in total) approached Top Sink at 11am, stripped off oversuits in unison and added to to the water levels in the cave. The first part of the trip went well. Easy and familiar caving, and enough people acquainted with the route, meant that, despite the group size, the landmarks came thick and fast: Holbeck Junction, Stop Pot, the high level series. It would have been perfect were it not for the constant anxiety gnawing at the back of my mind of the difficulties yet to come. We were a sweaty, sticky mess as we abseiled down the 88ft pitch to the start of the day's real objectives.

Throughout the Wormway, an angel on one shoulder was constantly whispering to me about how close to Link Pot we were. I could be at the surface in another 5 easy minutes, rather 5 hours if I ignored the turn off to the Grind! A demon on the other shoulder castigated me for such weak thoughts (well it might just have been one of the other cavers actually) and I found myself in the middle of the group as we sidled, then crawled and finally squirmed awkwardly flat out for half an hour or so through the Grind. As I lay sprawled in front of a puddle, my face resting in the gravel, whilst Holly in front of me negotiated Pickle Corner, I had the usual existential crisis which occurs on trips of this nature and resolved never to go caving again.

Little by little, we contorted ourselves through Pickle Passage's delightful S-bends, emerging from the roof tube in Easy Street, near the bottom of the Serendipity pitches, which were quite damp today. As if a switch had been flicked, most of us started to feel really cold. My balaclava, which until now had been used to mop my brow, stayed firmly on my head for the rest of the trip.

Unable to keep warm, and now quite tired, the lure of nearby Link Pot was very strong again. Tom had other designs however, and before we had time to organise a mutiny, he had dashed off ahead to leave the Serendipity ropes at the bottom of the entrance pitch and led us into the Wet Wallows and away from temptation. Strangely, I hadn't banked on the wet bits in the Wet Wallows being wet. But it was one ear, one eye and half a mouth in the water for a metre or more (and a very soggy balaclava as a result). Drenched, cold, miserable; I felt very sorry for myself. If I could just get through this little flat-out bit, I could then turn right and make a hasty exit out of Mistral Hole before anybody noticed...

But then I'd have to go back and do Bye George Pot another day. Bugger. So I decided to carry on.

In normal circumstances, the Lower Cigalère Streamway would be a brilliant bit of caving. Some fun cascade climbs, a clean washed streamway with potholes and 'nice shapes'. Then a narrow, deep canal which, if you have the energy, can be bridged on some outward sloping ledges underwater to keep you quite dry. If you don't have the energy then it's several minutes of chest deep wading to reach the bottom of the impressive Grand Cascade Pitch. Guess how much energy I had.

I got quite worried when I found I barely had enough dexterity to put my SRT kit on and wondered if the sensible option would be to throw a tantrum and get somebody to escort me back out of Mistral. But clinging onto Emma's promise that 'Bye George definitely isn't as bad as the Grind', I decided I should see if the prussic would warm me up. We would be heading out in three groups of three and on the pitch I prepared my speech to Holly and Noel at the top of the pitch, "I'm scared, tired, miserable, and probably hypothermic; you're going to have to help me out of the cave". Instead all I managed was a pathetic whimper that, "I think I might need some moral support on the way out". Holly assured me she felt similarly, which was somewhat gratifying.

To my great relief morale picked up now. In our group of three we kept a steady pace with enough squirming and sidling in the narrow passage to warm us up a bit. The early difficulties were not as horrific as I'd built them up to be - a couple of short, damp squeezes involving grovelling at floor level. And so we arrived at the Backbreaker.

The Backbreaker is a sharp 90 degree bend negotiated on your side at floor level. The problem is, if you face inwards, then (unless you are short; some people managed) your legs don't bend the right way and can't follow you round. The answer is to face outwards, hence the name. Others tell horror stories about needing to remove wellies and scrape heels from scallop to scallop...

Noel got through without difficulty, but Holly's first attempt went wrong and the resulting noises certainly made me nervous. In the end, with my helmet and bag passed through ahead of me, and Noel's guidance, I managed to pop through first time and felt a great clichéd weight lifting from my shoulders.

The surface was tantalisingly close now, just a little more thrutching, an easy squeeze and a short pitch and we were there! Clambering out of the Bye George entrance tube, the lights from Leck Fell House were only a few hundred metres away and it became apparent how much distance we'd covered.

We staggered back to Bull Pot Farm via Link Pot to pick up the gear left earlier, and warmed our swollen knees and stiff backs in front of the fire. A great trip in great company. God alone knows how Tom, Becka, Emma and co. managed to stay so chirpy and fresh for the whole trip, despite carrying some tackle out of Bye George - but thanks for all the pre-rigging and tackle carrying!

I expect I'll go caving again at some point.

T/U 9 hrs

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