Confusion and SRT in Maskhill mine : The Resolution

Consider this scene for an instant - a cold winter night in January outside an utterly deserted railway station several miles south of Matlock in Derbyshire. I had been standing underneath a lamppost for some time (there were no dogs in this god-forsaken place to worry about!) when finally, the screeching of tyres was heard around the corner, deafening in the quiet air. As if in a BBC2 thriller series, a light green Austin Montego drew up and a horrendous muddy face peered out from a greasy, sodden wet window.

"George, hope you haven't been waiting long - jump in." I decided it was wise to tell this 'fellow of the night' that I hadn't and I accepted his invitation. Once inside this mechanical monster (albeit delightfully named Sue), I was able to distinguish the desperate faces of Nigel Clark and Martyn 'wheels' Pickering, those two sturdy Croydon folk. "What was the problem?", I asked.

"We haven't finished rigging Maskhill" was Nigel 's stern reply...

Which is where this story starts (or was it later in the Jug and Glass after several pints?) The plan had been for Nigel and Martyn to tackle up Maskhill Mine on the Friday, leaving all, the rope in place for an assault via Giants and Chamber of Horrors on Saturday, with my added help to de-rig on the way out. However, they appeared to have been foiled by an almost complete confusion over the pitches.

Looking in the 'Caves of Derbyshire' guide it became obvious that either one, or possibly two, pitches they had rigged weren't actually mentioned or that the wrong lengths of required tackle had been given. With this in mind, it seemed like a good idea to bottom Maskhill the following day taking great care on the way out over noting where suitable bolts and belays could be found and attempting to draw the full passages in order to produce a simple grade 1 survey.

The result is the survey which accompanies these notes in which each pitch or free climb is shown together with recommended belay bolt positions (a la Elliot and Lawson). Perhaps surprisingly the survey resembles the one in Caves of Derbyshire (CoD). The main reason for producing it is to indicate to those descending using SRT a reliable, tested route with knowledge about total pitch and rope lengths required. (As always, the author cannot accept liability for the readers confusion or for their 'lost pints').

The pitch lengths are approximate (taken from the arithmetic mean of guesses by Nigel, Martyn and myself), but I feel that the total rope length required is a good guide (marked in a circle at the bottom of each pitch). Due to the lack of harmony between CoD's pitch numbering system and my own, I have labelled each drop either C... (free climb (down]) or P... (pitch), with lengths iii metres. The survey and the notes are liberally strewn with S.I. units, but good old yards, feet and inches are used in the description. Unlike CoD, we also offer names for the pitches; we hope this may help to overcome any further confusion (but may of course add to it). The naming convention involves well known drinks available at a pub local to Orpheus C.C. cottage so they are, hopefully, memorable.

Maskhill Mine, Derbyshire - Description

The entrance is 200 yards west of Oxlow Caverns above the Castleton -Sparrowpit road (B6061). Remember to pay 25p (per person) access fee at Oxlow House Farm.

A narrow and muddy mined shaft is 100' deep (P30 - 'County'). The ring belays suggested in CoD look dubious - use the scaffolding poles as well. 70' (20m) down, a diversion on the East wall takes care of a large smooth, rub point just above. From the bottom, passage 600fl enlarges to a 20' climb (C6) (referred to as 2nd pitch in CoD) with shoring timbers enabling a free climb with care. Note that this also appears to be incorrectly described in the warning in CoD as the 3rd pitch, which has previously collapsed. A handline may be useful but is not essential.

A muddy small passage soon enlarges from the climb into cleaner natural passage. A large circular chamber is entered with an easy 6 climb (C2) down into some nice canyon passage, arriving at the head of a 30' pitch (P9 - 'Bill') which requires a traverse line at the top for safety. (This is referred to as the 3rd pitch in CoD).

At the base of P9, a steep slope is best tackled with a long traverse line to lead directly onto an 85' pitch (P26 - 'KB'), the start of Murmuring Churn and the 4th pitch in CoD. The 3rd bolt is suitably placed about 6' (2m) above an 8" (20 cm) wide ledge on the left wall (going down). From here, two bolts may be reached several feet lower giving way to a free- hang. These bolts (Tarzan Belay) are a good stretch from another nearby ledge and can provide some entertaining manoeuvres.

From the bottom of P26, two routes are obvious. Upslope, a mud bank looks out over the main pitch in Murmuring Churn (not recommended) whilst downslope, a grit floored tunnel leads to short 25' pitch (98 - 'Rodger') with a bolt at head height above a well placed take off ledge. This is called the 5th pitch in CoD, which remarks (correctly) that it may be free climbed with a handline. However, comparison of CoD's survey and the accompanying one shows that although their description seems to be similar to ours, their location of the 5th pitch seems to be on the other side of Murmuring Churn. CoD then mentions a 'further' pitch that follows, but is not marked as the 6th pitch or in the tackle list. The 6th mentioned in CoD is the big pitch (Waterfall Chamber), which comes later. This 'further' pitch is 35' deep (P11 - 'Peculiar') after traversing out along a sheer wall ('Five Miles Out') via 3 bolts, from which the rope will free-hang. Mention is made in CoD of its free climbability for 50' (15m), but this is certainly not recommended.

From the base of Pit (bottom of Murmuring Churn), an inlet enters to run into Waterfall Chamber. A descent of 6' (2m) is made, followed by a climb back up (there is a fixed ha2ndline). The big 130' pitch (P40 -'Pedigree') immediately follows next to a traverse line leading out across to a large passage unmentioned in CoD. A suitable diversion can be found just below this passage on the way down, as well as another further up (not required). An airy free-hang continues to the bottom passing the mined out entrance to Oxlow Caverns on the East side, where a ring and hanger can be seen. It is possible to pendulum over and attach a rope to these giving a 'cheats' way into Oxlow and Giants (alternatively, a 50' (15m) rope could be krabbed into the ring, a descent made on the big rope followed by a prussik up the 50' into Oxlow).

The last pitch of Maskbill follows at the base of P40 (Pearl Chamber) onto a wet slope leading to deads and a chain that can be used as a belay for the 15' drop (PS - 'Grouse' - a nice short pitch to finish with.) into Pool chamber, from which the final dry chamber can be found to the West. The Eastern end of Pool Chamber contains a sump.


Pitch/Climb Name used in this description Total ropelength Hangers
P30 County 35m -
C6   8m handline useful -
C2   3m handline useful -
P9 Bill 15m 4
P26 XB 40m 5
P8 Rodger 15m 2
P11 Peculiar 20m 3
P40 Pedigree 50m 3
P5 Grouse 10m -

Reference - Caves of Derbyshire by T.D. Ford and D.W. Gill (1984), published by Dalesman Books. See pp. 93-94 for the Maskhill description and P.111 for the survey.

George Pankiewicz