Sunday, 14 February 2016

I love to hate you

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Cwm Dwr. Actually, that's not true. I love Cwm Dwr, I just hate the entrance series. Since I've spent most of the last few years at a size that didn't really suit that particular piece if cave, I've pretty much avoided it. In nearly a decade as an SWCC member and countless trips into OFD 1 and 2, I've probably been in Cwm Dwr less than 10 times. So, a planned 1 to Cwm Dwr through trip with additional time for some exploring around OFD 1 1/2 actually made me a bit nervous. Believe it or not, I'd never done the through trip before - after all, it meant going out through Cwm Dwr. On the other hand, even carrying a bit of excess Christmas weight, I'm significantly smaller than I was a year or two ago so it should be OK.
So, on a bitingly cold Saturday morning, off we go down the hill.
Our first detour comes quite early on. Tim's been studying the new survey and it seems to suggest that there's a way through that wasn't clear on the old one. After a few misses, Tim manages to lasso the stal boss at the top of the calcite climb just before The Step and up we all go. After a refreshing wade through the waist deep pool, and a bit of crawling to warm up again, sure enough, it goes through and we arrive at the Eagles Nest, way up in the roof above the stream. A handy thread presents itself and, with a handline in place,  its an easy climb down to the first ledge where there's a rock bridge over the steam and another climb down to the next ledge. With everyone down the first climb there's a pause. I wait with the rope while Colin and Chloe wait the other side of the bridge. Tim goes down the second climb to check out exactly where we are. There's a shout and I'm given the go ahead to pull the rope down. We all gather on the next ledge where Tim meets us with a grin. Turns out, the rope is only just long enough to get us back to the stream. More of a problem is that the ledge we're on is directly above the 2nd Pot. Climbing down here would mean either a very careful descent onto the middle of the scaffolding or a big splash and an early bath. However, a short slope leads around the corner onto the escape route. We drop down the chain and carry on up the streamway, noticing that it appears to be a bit on the high side. Not scarily high, just high enough to draw attention.
The next bit of excitement comes as we make our way through the choke. Just as we pass the entrance to the passage leading off to the sump, there's a massive booming sound. I recognise it straight away as the sounds of a sump either opening or closing. Trouble is, we don't know which. Since it hasn't rained for a while, I'm fairly sure the water level is dropping but this still adds a bit of urgency to the rest of the passage through the choke. Once we're out, I suggest we head down towards the sump to check out what's going on. The tide mark in the wet sand confirms that the water is indeed going down. We relax and head off up the Connection and on to the climb that leads into OFD 1 1/2.
Tim's been here before so he leads the way up the climb, dropping the rope down for use as a handline. Once we're all up the climb, we start exploring. Turns out, none of us have memorised the survey as well as we thought. There's quite a bit of back tracking and circling for a while. On the way out of one particular dead end we meet a mixed party of SWCC and Morgannwg cavers apparently doing the same thing. We chat, then set off in opposite directions, only to meet again a few minutes later as the passages loop around to rejoin each other. We tag along for a while down the only remaining unexplored passage choosing opposite directions at the next junction. After a fairly snug crawl, we come to a bit Tim recognises. A spectacular dry crystal pool. The only way on is to traverse, carefully over the top of it. There's more concentration going into this traverse, about 3 feet off the floor than any I've done high above certain death. Nobody wants to be the one who puts a muddy footprint in the crystals. We pop out at the top of a large rift. A well worn path leads off to the left but appears to simply stop in a small chamber. A hunt around and a passage in the roof is revealed. But there's a problem. It's a vertical tube and very tight. There's no way I can climb it. One at a time, we all come to the same conclusion - this is definitely a one way passage. The only way out is back the way we came.
We head back over the traverse and into the crawl. Guess where we meet the other party! It's a bit like one of those picture puzzles where you slide one piece at a time, sliding the next one into the gap in the right order to complete the picture. After a few minutes, we've worked our way past each other and we head out and back down the climb.
Packing the rope away we carry on with the through trip. A quick check of the watch suggests that we may have spent a bit longer exploring than we should have done so we pick up the pace, heading through the letterbox and on up to the divers pitch. The crawl up to the head of the divers pitch reveals a new problem. The sound of the waterfall up ahead makes me suddenly very aware that I'm lying on a very full bladder! It's no better when I get out the crawl. I can't take advantage of the running water - it runs over the pitch that Tim is standing at the bottom of and Chloe has started descending.
However, there is quite a lot of water running over, making hanging on to the handline a bit tricky. We manage to communicate with Tim over the noise of the waterfall and he sends our 20 metres of rope back up, attached to the end of the handline. A few minutes later, I'm safely attached and the pitch is rigged to belay Chloe through the waterfall. Colin follows and I de-rig, drop the lifeline down to be packed away and make my way down the pitch to take advantage of water that's running away from everyone else.
Another check on the watch confirms that we spent a bit too long exploring. We're going to miss our call out, the question is, by how much. We're off into Cwm Dwr and picking up the pace until we get to the choke and the next bit of excitement. None of us are entirely sure of the way through but we follow our noses, or to be more precise we follow Tim's nose, until we reach the "bastard puddle".
It's a low wet grovel in the middle of the choke that's simultaneously an unpleasant place to be and a most welcome landmark, confirming that we're on the right path. I start to slide down between the boulders into the puddle and come to a sudden stop. My belt is hooked on a protrusion. I'm upside down, on my back and going nowhere. I can't get my hands around to take the weight and unhook myself. I call Tim to see if he can help with a push but then I realise that I can reach my belt. I slowly release the buckle. Knowing what's coming, I brace myself and, as the belt comes undone, so does it's temporary hold on my descent. I land, head first and rather ungracefully, in the " bastard puddle".
Gathering my breath and what's left of my dignity, we head on up the Cwm Dwr Jama until we reach the hole in the floor that marks the start of my nemesis. I don't know what it is about these next few metres of cave but it really messes with my head. I know I'm almost 3 stone lighter than I was when I failed to fit and had to abort. I know I've been through plenty of times since then but it doesn't matter. As I get closer, I feel my breathing getting faster and I have to force myself to slow down. I know what comes next if I don't. I'll start moving faster, trying to brute force my way through instead of thinking. I hear the gravel moving. Tim's at the tight bit. Then Chloe's through and it's my turn. With an apology to Colin, I take a final moment to get ready then I'm in. There's a second where I'm not quite lined up and I stick but I'm ready for that this time. Don't force it, just inch through. We're still running late though so there's no time to hang about. I catch up with Chloe in time to spot her up the awkward climb with the angled metal bar and we're on to the final challenge. Just like the crawl, this gets easier every time. I learnt on an earlier trip that I don't fit in the concrete pipes if I try to put my toes in the holes knocked in the sides. My femur is longer than the diameter of the pipe. The way up is to go backwards, put my heels in the holes and my femur is at 45 degrees not 90 and it all fits. One hand over the top of the last pipe and I'm out. Tim has run ahead to get the ticket off so technically we're only 15 minutes overdue.
It's been a great trip. Most people stomp along the through trip so we're all glad we took the time to explore along the way. I still hate the Cwm Dwr crawl but I know how to beat it. It's the key to some really great caving so I guess I'll just have love to hate it.


  1. You are clearly made of the right stuff, if I heard "booming" sounds in a choke I would probably s**t my pants there and then!

  2. Excellent report Piers. I haven't followed the route past the Column all the way to the stream before. It sounds exciting! Glad you enjoyed your first OFD1 to Cwm Dwr through-trip.

  3. Ah ha! I was one of the "other party" you kept bumping into and I suspect the booming sound was a few of us playing on the bouncing boulder at the end of the streamway. We were there for a few minutes trying to get the boulder to rock...noisily.....