The Great North Road

Sitting in the New Inn playing the "Where are you caving tomorrow?" game, various ideas are put forward. An OFD through trip is suggested. Done it, seen it, fallen off all the bits there are to fall off, I think to myself. I need a bit more of a challenge for my Peter Pan exploits. "What about a Great North Road trip in Dan-yr-Ogof?" I suggest. Various people seem enthusiastic, but then somebody adds that they knew a person who fell off the climb into the Windy Way, and what is more, everybody needs to be back by 7.00 pm as it is the weekend of the Christmas dinner. Most people mutter agreements into their pints and I drift off into dreams of half decent caving trips and digs which actually go. Suddenly, through the beer sodden daydream, I can hear a voice.

"I'll go," it says, and then repeats again, "I'll go on a Great North Road trip."

Snatched back to reality at the last, I realise that it is Chris Grimmet who is speaking.

"But we'll have to get up early," he then adds.

"How early?" I ask.

"Oh, a bit before eight."

That early, I think to myself, and make an attempt to reduce the number of pints which seem to be slipping all too easily down my neck.

A noise rattles around my ear and then cuts its way into my brain. I turn over and hope it goes away. It doesn't and then somebody or something starts shaking my shoulder.

"Time to get up if you want to go on your DYO trip."

It's Chris Grimmet and he's probably already been up for five hours.

Realising that I got myself into this, I stagger down the stairs, insert some soup into my stomach, fill up a tackle sack with approximately the right gear, and we're off to Penwyllt.

Arriving at SWCC, the place is strangely silent. Nobody in the kitchen, nobody in the common room. All in bed suffering from the grog I suppose, or maybe it's true that Penwyllt is the earthbound Marie Celeste of the caving world.

Eventually we apprehend a key person and some twenty minutes later we are getting changed outside Dan-yr-Ogof. The management appear and after exchanging pleasantries we make our way to the River Entrance. Fortunately, the rope on the 15 ft climb into the show cave is still in existance so I proceed to wendy my way to the top. Better than the previous trip I think as my nose draws level with the gate. Last time it took us more than an hour to actually find it! After a brief moment fumbling around with the key the gate swings open. A howling draught hits us as we slither reptile like onto the cold concrete floor of the showcave. No lights, tourists or piped blurb are there to greet us and the whole scene is strangely cave like and lonely.

In a few minutes we reach the fence marking the end of the showcave and now, besides the sound of our feet, there can be heard the dull ominous roar of the streamway. Over the gate we are soon sploshing merrily through ankle deep water. The weather has been dry so the lakes are low. For some strange reason this has not made the water any warmer and I let out a yell when the water hits the bottom of my chest. Through the cataracts, I am starting to get used to the cold, and the chill of Lake 4 is hardly noticed. The next section of the cave passes uneventfully. We do not get lost in the 1937 series and our carcasses plus tackle are cursed through the Long Crawl in reasonable time. I do not fall down the pitch into Gerrard Platten Hall and we think there is even time to admire and not ignore the straws in Cloud Chamber.

Things are going too well, for when we reach the cold unrippled surface of the Green Canal, no buoyancy aids are to be seen. Normally, if the only thing I had to transport across the canal was myself, the lack of floats would not pose a problem. However, this time we have a tackle sack, SRT kit and assorted rigging material to transport aswell. I leap around the corner into Hanger Passage remembering there to have been a large lorry inner tube ther last time. It isn't now and all we find is a deflated water wing which would not float a mouse. Gloom and despondency sets in. What do we do? Abort the trip or take the lengthy detour through the Lower Series? Almost at once the other alternative occurs to us. What if Chris swims with one end of the rope while I swim with the other? What a brilliant idea! However, we still have the problem of transporting the SRT kit and rigging gear.

"Only solution is to stick it down our fronts," I mutter as I unzip my wetsuit and jam a descender and other bits into place. The only problem now is to work out who is going to go first. After a moments hesitation Chris plunges in clutching one end of the rope. He soon disappears round the first corner and then the only sign of his progress is the snake-like disappearance of the rope into the pool. I hold on tight to the other end of the rope and when the rest of the slack has been taken up, I tuck it round my belt and plunge in too. Surprisingly I can swim quite well with the additional weight about my chest but in the back of my head is the nagging worry that the rope has somehow become spooled around a rock and is lurking somewhere ready to drag me down into the stygian depths.

The nightmare scenario begins to unfold when I hear an anguished cry up ahead to the effect that Chris has dropped his end of the rope. At least I've got my end of the rope, I think smugly to myself. I round the last corner and see Chris up ahead with the water still out of depth. "Luckily I've got my end of the rope," I shout as I feel about for it. My hand makes one circumnavigation of my belt but the only thing I can find attached to it is my cell. Chris doesn't appear to take it too well.

"Bet you we'll find it floating around somewhere," I add as we begin to cast around for it in the murk.

"Bet you it's on the bottom!" Chris says sourly and disappears under the surface. He reappears a moment later with a loop.

"Better throw it back in now if you don't want to go on with the trip," I jest.

We stagger out of the canal to be greeted by an impressive array of rubber rings, ducks, etc. Obviously there is no truth in the rumour about SWCC removing fixed-aid floatation devices.

The next section of the cave passes uneventfully. It is even possible to go faster in Go Faster Passage. Then rounding a few corners, the chain ladder at the start of the climb up to the Windy Way looms into view. At the top of the ladder I breath a sigh of relief when I see the fixed rope on the climb into the Windy Way proper is still there. Not wishing to make things too difficult for myself, a hand jammer is attached to the rope and I self-line myself to the top of the climb with relative ease - relative that is to a person who suffers from vertigo pratting around with no rope on a climb with slippery ledges. The knee wrecker crawl through the Windy Way then follows, and when the passage finally enlarges, we see that somebody has done the decent thing and also put a rope on the rather airy traverses which follow.

At the bottom, a while is spent trying to find the way on. However, the head of the 50ft pitch down into the Great North Road is eventually located when I nearly fall down it.

"No fixed ropes on this one," I mutter.

"Mind you, I don't think I'd like to have discovered I'd carried that tackle bag in for nothing," adds Chris.

The head of the pitch is quickly rigged with our one piece of rope and Chris descends using our one set of SRT kit. Some way down the pitch, a voice drifts up from the depths.

"Bit of a rub point here. It really needs a rebelay."

"Not a lot you can do about that if you're going to get the SRT kit back to me," I shout back down.

After a while the SRT kit is returned and I duly make my descent through the roof of the Great North Road. Touch down is made onto a smooth sandy floor. To one side a stream slips silently by and when I look up my light just picks out the cathedral like grandeur of the passage.

There are no boulder obstacles to get in our way and rapid progress is made as the passage quickly grows in size. However, I guess that passage this good can't last for long and after a while a few breakdown boulders begin to appear, dotted around the passage. Initially, these are skirted until it is necessary to scramble ape-like over them. Eventually, a towering black wall of boulders looms which seems to offer no way on. A scout around, however, reveals a small hole disappearing off down between the passage wall and the boulder collapse. The boulders in this hole are worn smooth, a sure sign that cavers have passed this way. We wend our way through the choke and then thrutching up between some large blocks, I notice my light stabbing upwards into a large void. A bit more frantic scrabbling and we are both standing in a large chamber.

It is at this point that Chris extricates a survey from somewhere about his person. A moments study and Chris indicates that this must be Pinnacle Chamber. If this is Pinnacle Chamber, I wonder, where is the pinnacle? Then with a quick look around it is spotted lurking in one corner of the chamber. Chris does some more calculations and concludes that the way to the Far North must be up a climb near the back of the pinnacle. And then the slightly illogical nature of the decision to proceed up this grotty climb when there is a stomping great big passage going off at the back of Pinnacle Chamber dawns upon me - and probably on Chris too.

"Well we haven't got much time left before we have to turn back," says Chris. "I'm sure the Far North can wait for another day."

This as it turned out was one of the better decisions we made that day.

So off we stride trying to put in some distance before we have to turn around. We pass a stream bubbling out of what looks like an impenetrable choke and then the passage appears to loop back on itself and narrows down to a sinuous stream canyon. Progress is then made on a small ledge above the streamway but soon the ledge begins to fade away in a section designed to disturb and unnerve. The art of tackling slippery ledges is to build up enough momentum beforehand to get you over them, I think to myself. However, thoughts in such situations do not overcome the obstacles themselves, and after a moments hesitation and a little inelegance, I am on the other side.

An interesting looking passage then veers off to the right. Not really caring where we go now, we decide to explore. The passage grows in size and then the floor in parts becomes covered with crystal encrusted pools. We proceed carefully and after a while, based on what I have read previously about the cave, assume that this must be the Mostest. The passage starts to close down soon, and after a few sandy slopes, we find ourselves staring up at a hole in the roof with a rope dangling down it. They must be doing some climbing down here, we conclude together. This, however, turns out to be wrong assumption number two of the day.

We round a corner to see various plastic lilos and implements strewn across the passage. A possible beach party for those allergic to the sun? Maybe not. This must be the camp set up to probe the further recesses of DYO. Past the camp we plough our way up a steep sandy slope. One step forward, two steps back, as the sand swirls and then falls away around our feet. This can't be the way on. It doesn't look worn enough. Soon the sand rises to the ceiling and I am proved right. Chris looks at his watch and I know we must be heading back if there is any chance of having even a cold Christmas dinner.

After half an hours uneventful caving, we find ourselves back at the Great North Road. Staring up, I notice that somebody has kindly alleviated the rub-point by inserting a Y-hang rebelay.

"Very kind," I mutter sarcastically as I realise the implications of this seeing that we only have one set of SRT kit.

"Well, I'll go up first then, and throw the gear back down to you," suggests Chris.

In a moment he has his SRT gear on and is prussiking up the pitch. Everything is going fine until I hear some mild cursing drifting back down from the rebelay.

"Bit of a tricky bugger," shouts Chris.

Well if he's having difficulty, God knows how I'm going to fare, I think to myself.

A few minutes later a set of SRT kit is winging its way back down to me. Removing the items from the bag, the equipment appears strangely unfamiliar. The unfamiliar bit seems to relate to the length of the footloops and cowstails, for although we are approximately the same height, Chris appears to have the limbs of an orangutan. However, I manage to strap myself into his gear and attempt to start prussiking. I soon realise that things are not going too well when with every spasmodic frog-like movement, I only seem to rise a few inches. But somehow I slowly manage to struggle up.

I look upwards and see that I am finally getting near the rebelay. I hope Chris was only joking about the difficulty. But at the back of my mind is the nagging doubt that problems usually come in threes. I quickly realise that applying text book rules to this rebelay is not going to get me past it. Whoever has kindly rerigged the pitch has left almost no loop in the top rope. I can thus only manage to insert my long cowstail into one of the anchor points above and cannot gain enough height to remove the load on my jammers. Further attempts to insert my short cowstail into the anchor meet with dismal failure.

Mild panic is now beginning to set in. I have been floundering around for some time and Chris shouts down to ask what is wrong. A few assorted swear words convey the general situation to him. I flail around a bit more and then suddenly Chris, having abseiled back down, appears above me.

"I don't seem to be able to get past this one," I say, half in jest, half in resignation. "Better get out the rescue."

Chris reiterates the logic of the situation - I have to get the weight off my chest jammer if I am to have any chance of passing the rebelay. However, I am not a very logical person and I proceed to thrash and flail around a bit more.

Sinking back into my harness, I am almost giving up hope. After a brief moments rest, I once again find myself using brute force to try to clip my short cowstail into the hanger above. For some bizzare reason, this time I succeed, and as I slump back down, I realise that at last I have taken the load off my chest ascender. I am now in automatic, and the rest of the rebelay goes according to an SRT instruction manual and I finally join Chris at the top of the pitch.

"How long did I take over that?" I ask Chris.

"Only about half an hour," he mutters.

But there is no time to run over the intricacies of my incompetance if we are going to make the Christmas dinner.

As we climb the traverses to the start of the Windy Way, I am starting to feel pretty tired. Should have had more than one bowl of soup for breakfast I think as I try to find enough energy and concentration in order to stop myself from falling over.

The climb down to the Rising is made without incident and I almost feel as if I am out. But then it occurs to us - do we swim the freezing Green Canal and risk dropping more kit, or alternatively miss our Christmas dinner by taking the Lower Series and adding three quarters of an hour onto our journey? Insanity rules the day and the Green Canal is selected. Fortunately, the lorry inner tube is still in residence and after a brief discussion, little persuasion is needed for me to park my backside in the inner tube while Chris pushes me and the rigging gear to the far side.

After this pleasant cruise, things cannot get worse. In fact things are going so well I start to speed up. However, when I start to speed up my glasses start to steam up at a faster rate. One solution I have found in the past is to put them in the top of my helmet and hope they don't fall out which I duly do. I realise that things were going too well when I prang my helmet severely against the roof while bumbling along in Knee Wrecker crawl. Things are rattling about up top and I wonder if my brain has popped out. When I remove my helmet I discover the frame of my glasses is decidedly mangled and one lens has popped out.

"Wouldn't be a decent caving trip if I didn't wreck a pair of glasses," I say to Chris as I stash the remains away in my top pocket.

The rumbling of the streamway over the cataracts dies away and once more we make our way along the lonely concrete rampways of the tourist cave. No further mishaps occur apart from mild burns to the hands as I slide down the rope into the Resurgence Cave a bit too fast. Anyhow, no need to worry as we are almost out and with a bit more sploshing around we exit from the cave to be greeted by a cold foggy night.

We change as quickly as possible, and squinting through the one good lens, I make my way through the mist back to Penwyllt where I manage to reinsert the loose lens back into the frame. A trouble free trip is then made back to Ystradfellte and we arrive back with only five minutes to go before the start of the dinner. Someone asks me in the carpark how the trip went.

"No comment," I mutter, as we pile straight in to the pub.

And, of course, what happened next is a much more predictable story.

It may be of interest to note that the climb up noticed in Pinnacle Chamber is in fact the way into the Pinnacle Series and not the way into the Far North. It is the chimney type climb noticed near the camp which leads to Overpass Passage and the way to the Far North.

Adrian Paniwnyk