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Caving in Wales: Ogof Ffynnon Ddu – The Cave of the Black Spring

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The two weeks after our Australian trip it was mostly hot as hell in Finland, and I was busy with getting everything back on track. I generally like hot weather as long as I can escape it, but unfortunately our crappy apartment is freezing in the winter and hot and stuffy as hell in the summer, so I’m not looking forward to summer days in the city. I didn’t have that much time to wind down, apart from the midsummer festival Juhannus which we spent in our cabin with pals, mostly eating, saunaing, drinking, playing board games and sleeping far too late.

NIBBLED BY A CAVING BUG

After that there was too days of catching up with work and equipment shopping, until it was the time for Susi and I to leave our first caving trip ever. Miri has been hinting that I should try it for some time now, and caving has started to sound more and more interesting. As it happened, Miri’s and our schedules didn’t match, but when Dare asked us to come to Wales to check some caves, against all odds there was an empty weekend I could free from the calendar.

(Check out the big photoset of the trip on Flickr!)

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The South Wales Caving Club headquarters, where we stayed for the weekend.


I think the main lynchpin in trying caving was to hear that it doesn’t actually require any climbing skills. Although I can see what’s fun in wall and rock climbing and it’s great pastime to do at times, it’s not something I enjoy in the long run just by itself. For me climbing feels like a tool for getting somewhere.

Also, the caving equipment was surprisingly down to earth and cheap. We already have wool socks, thermal underwear and fleece pants we use when diving, so what we needed in addition to that was short rubber boots, a fleece jacket, knee and elbow pads, a helmet, an overall and a head lamp – and that’s it. We ended up buying a proper climbing helmet, and at 44 euros it was the single most expensive item in the list.

The Map

A map of the cave system. Yes, it takes the whole wall, and more.

OFF TO WALES

On last Thursday Susi and I hopped on the plane to Wales with Dare and Taina. I had slept really badly for a couple of weeks thanks to jetlag, the hurry and the stress, and the goddamn heat, so most of the trip went napping and reading about Chernobyl. We flew to London and drove to Wales with a rental car. Wales played to all the cliches, offering us an endless streams of place names with C, LL and W in them, driving rain and sorry looking sheep clinging on every bit of the mountainside.

Our destination was the headquarters of South Wales Caving Club in a village of Pennwylt. It’s limestone area, and there are several cave systems there to explore. Our aim was to go to Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, also known as “The Cave of the Black Spring”, which has over 50 kilometers of caves and tunnels to explore. The caving club headquarters is an old stone house that used to be accommodations for some miners. Now it’s a very cozy two storey clubhouse that has a nicely relaxed atmosphere.

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In the first morning I woke up in Wales, I was almost overrun by sheep.

FIRST DAY IN A CAVE

On Friday, after a hefty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, we were off to OFD II, which is a dry and labyrinthine part of the whole cave complex. The entry was up in the moors, where we waded through sheep that looked and bleated at us disapprovingly. The entryway was a locked hatch on the bottom of a rocky knoll – and down we went. With us we had Nigel and Nick, who are experienced cavers. Dare was our guide and navigator, but Nigel and Nick were there to help us get along if we had started to head to totally silly directions.

All Neat

Caving gear - made to be practical, not to look cool. This is from the beginning of the trip, when all this stuff was still clean and shiny.

For those in the know, this is the approximate route we took, or rather a list of the places we saw: OGOF FFYNNON DDU II – Top Entrance – Gnome Passage – Corkscrew – Salubrious Passage – The Trident – The Judge – Swamp Creek -The Crossroads – Cross Rift – Shatter Pillar – Selenite Tunnel – Arete Chamber -The Big Chamber Near the Entrance – Top Entrance

In practice, what we did through the day was to clamber over enormous boulders, squeeze down to holes and tunnels that were barely wide enough that we could fit our fat asses through, go up and down cracks and crevices where one slip would’ve meant faceplanting on rocks five to ten meters below us, wading in an underground stream with clear and really cold water, and so on.

Traversing a Chasm

There's quite a drop there - I'm not sure how much, because we couldn't see the bottom of the chasm.

We also did a couple of traverses, one of them going over a hole with an eleven meter drop down, and the other one was crossing over a rift in the rocks with our feet on the one side of it and our hands on the other. It was a nice challenge to inch along that crack, find places for your feet on the narrow rocky shelf that was polished absolutely smooth, and at the same time stare down into a rift what was too deep for our cheap ass lights to see the bottom with.

The five hours simply flew past. The whole days was a nice combination of seeing interesting stuff, the enjoyment of exercise, and learning new skills. When we got out, I was pleasantly tired – make no mistake, half a day spent clambering over rocks makes you find muscles in your body you didn’t know you had.

Traversing Salubrious

It's easier than it looks. Then again, there's only a couple of meters of drop here, instead of over 20 meters, as there is on one traverse nearby. We didn't go there this time.

MOVING UNDERGROUND

I have a healthy amount of fear of heights, which mainly keeps me from doing bloody stupid stuff like jumping off airplanes or doing bungee jumping, but I was surprised that teetering over and next to 10+ meter drops didn’t feel bad at all and barely made my pulse quicken. Mainly that had to do with how surprisinly easy it was to move even in dangerous looking areas compared to what you’d expect.

The clothes definitely make a difference. When people clamber over difficult terrain, they try to avoid dirtying up or ripping their clothes, or banging their bones too much on anything hard. When you are wearing several layers of clothing, a helmet and elbow and knee pads, and you are supposed to be in contact with the rock, moving suddenly becomes far easier. On top of a crevice and want to go down? No problem: lay down on your back, slide down the slope, wedge your foot against a wall and then squeeze down the crack, wedging yourself against the rock walls. Knee and elbow pads also made crawling far easier. We had some rather tight squeezes followed by crawls where your ass is touching the ceiling, but it didn’t even feel that uncomfortable.

Traversing a Chasm

Taina was the shortest one of us, so she had a bit more interesting time in situations like this.

As counterintuitive as it is, climbing skills seem to be to caving what swimming skills are to diving. You don’t really need to know it at all, but it may help at certain points, and if things go pear shaped, they may help to save your skin. Moving in a cave at this level is far more about wedging and clambering, than graceful climbing. Also, you’ll end up using your hands surprisingly little. Susi’s suffering from a carpal tunnel syndrome on her right arm, and she did completely well with that wrist bandaged and mostly out of the play.

Roomy

A lot like diving, caving too is about going to places of moving natural beauty, and ending up staring someone's ass for half of the trip.

UNDERGROUND STREAM BY H. R. GIGER

The second day’s climb took us to a wet part of the cave system, OFD I. The entrance was on the bottom of the hill, and we had a nice climb through a sunny Welsh countryside.

At the Entrance

Me, Susi, Dare and Nigel at the entrance of OFD I.

When we got in, it was clear from the beginning that this cave is completely different from the first one. The walls were glistening black, and there were far more of those rounded, organic and Gigerian formations than in the upper parts of the caves. Parts of the place were like concept art for Aliens. At one point I was helping Taina take a photo by holding a slave flash, sitting in a dark tunnel with my back to the darkness (no, I haven’t seen any horror movies, why do you ask?). When I turned my head, I was faced with something that looked like a fucking alien head, staring at me. I almost jumped at that, but not quite.

Mind the Gap!

Mind the Gap!

What we did was to step into an underground steam or a river, which has carved itself a narrow rift that’s over 20 meters high. The walls of the rift were black and looked really organic, and the bottom is riddlet with potholes, some of them just a handspan deep, some of them 2-3 meters across and for all intents and purposes bottomless. We waded up the channel, trying to keep our footing in the stream, crossing the larger pots by balancing on metal pipes and finally making it to a small waterfall, above which the stream went into the rock wall, accessible only to cave divers (Dare found one cave diver line in place).

Close Encounter

Imagine sitting alone in a corridor, turning your head and facing this.

There were also escape routes along the walls, such as chains hanging down the rift. This is in case of flooding: if you see a pulse of water come down and hear a distant rumble, you have only a limited time to find higher ground before you get slammed by ten tons of water. If the water level goes much above your knees, it’s a good chance that if you fall down, you won’t be able to get up anymore.

Waterfall

A small underground waterfall.

ROLLING ON THE RIVER

Our exit was rather interesting, since we had to do it in a bit of a hurry. We had taken a bit too much time taking photos, so there was a chance that we’d miss our return time to the surface. Every caver team has to leave their route information and estimated return time to the headquarters.

If they miss the time, the duty officer in the headquartes will initiate a rescue – and we didn’t want that. We climbed up the rift wall using ropes and harnesses and doubled back through some very impressive and beautiful areas. There was a painful crawl, a wide but very low area, where the most effient way was to actually lie down and roll around. I emerged there feeling slightly nauseous and dizzy, and had to take a second to get my bearings, since you don’t want to putter around not knowing where you place you foot.

Natural Light

This is more or less how it looked to the naked eye, without a camera flash.

After that we looked for a tunnel under two rocks and squeezed down to a sharply inclined tunnel with really smooth sides, where the biggest challenge was not to slide down uncontrollably. Then it was time for The Elephant’s Posterior, which started by crawling in two handspans or more of water (yep, an essential property of caving clothes is their ability to stay warm when soaked through). After that it was basically a tunnel that was winding downward, too slow to sit up in most places – and with a really smooth marble-like wet floor. Yes, it was an underground slide, where you could just slide on your ass for several meters in one go.

Streamway

Wading in the underground stream.

The potentially scariest place of the trip were the Bolt Passage and Bolt Traverse. Those were areas of the cave where you had to wear a harness and fasten yourself to a cable on the wall to stay safe. The reason is that the latter part of it was on the top of the 20+ meter high crevice the stream has carved itself. We climbed over a boulder and found ourselves standing on a slippery and downward sloping cliff, with a sound of rushing water coming from the bottom. I couldn’t resist leaning back from the cable and looking straight down – and wondering where the hell had my fear of heights gone.

When we got out, we had to still face the physically most taxing and frustrating part of the trip – climbing up the hillside back to the SWCC HQ.

Tensions Mount

After hours and hours underground, the tensions in the expedition started to mount.

Again, here’s a list of the places we went to: OGOF FFYNNON DDU I – Toast Rack – Loopways – The Step – The Streamway – Boulder Chamber – Lowe’s Passage – Roundabout Chamber – Pie Chamber – The Elephant’s Posterior – Bolt Passage – Bolt Traverse – Rocky Holes Chamber – Dugout – Toast Rack

In the evening we went to the local Tesco to buy some more food, encountering some Welsh kids who showed their arse to us on the way, and checked out the Neath train station where Susi and I have to be on Monday morning. We found the station, which was closed. There were tons and tons of “If you are naughty to our staff, we’ll lock you up for ages” and “Rules for Conduct for the Passengers” posters, but not word one about when the station and the ticket machines are going to be open. Made us feel very welcome as tourists, that did.

Squeeze

"Does this passage make my ass look bit?" "No dear, your ass makes this mountain look small."

INDEPENDENT EXPLORATION

Sunday dawned playing on the Wales cliches again: it was windy, it was raining, the moor was covered with thick fog and there were again sheep everywhere. For us this was our first truly independent trip. Nigel had accompanied us in the previous day in OFD I, but now we were on my own – and promptly started by almost not finding the cave entrance.

Gollum

The feral system administrator of the deep underground stalks his prey.

Our aim was to go through some of the areas we had seen, such as Gnome Passage and Corkscrew, and to try and find the Mini Columns area. The pace was slow, we did a lot of backtracking and checking tunnels out, but it was just a great trip for the day.

Two days of exercise had taken its toll and although I was feeling mentally very alert and enthusiastic, my body started giving up, which didn’t make me feel that safe. You have to be sure of every footing, but my aching muscles kept conspiring to place my feet in the easiest places, not those that are the most safe, so movement ate up a whole lot of concentration.

Trident

Me and Susi at the Trident, a three-pronged stalagtite.

Mini-Columns

The Mini-Columns

We took several very interesting detours, which lead us to a large boulder filled chamber with a sagging ceiling and a lot of small geological dribbles. We almost gave up, but Taina noticed the right way from the survey – which was a particularily muddy and inconvenient passageway Dare had scouted out a little bit, but given up on it. Basically the passageway was shaped like a stretched out letter S and it was so narrow that you had your balls/tits one after another. Susi kicked us to check it out too, which was a good thing, since it led straight to the Mini Columns, which was an area well worth checking out.

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When we got out, the air was really warm and rainy, and the fog was bad enough that we almost missed the club headquarters. We dropped our bags there and went to check out the entryway to Cwm Dwr, a third place we would have checked out if Susi and I would have stayed longer. The entryway is basically a concrete lined pear shaped hole, half the size of an average well, which you slide down for a few ten meter stretches. Going down is the easy part, but coming up, that’s an another story…

The Entrance of Cwm Dwr

Had we stayed longer, this would have been our next destination: the entrance of Cwm Dwr.

RPG MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CAVES

Because all of us were geeks, there was the obvious conversation about how ridiculously wrong most of the cave related stuff in traditional fantasy role-playing games is. Sure, you probably have those nice Hollywood caves somewhere, where the floor is nice and level and the lowest entranceway requires just a bit of stooping down. Then you have these limestone caves that are basically 3D labyrinths, where you often move two meters vertically for every meter you move horizontally, clambering over fields and fields of boulders and squeezing through holes where you are sure you’d need a hinge on your pelvis. You can pretty much forget traipsing around with two handed swords and a full plate mail. Let’s not even talk about determining if a passageway is winding in some direction using marbles…

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Into the Abyss

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Then there’s the matter of getting lost. You have a light source and you have a map, so what’s the problem? Well, the caves are very three dimensional. That entrance you were looking for? It might be ten meters high on a wall, or a vertical shaft with a diameter of half a meter that’s in middle of a field of identical boulders, under two rocks just like every other. There’s a ton of nooks and crannies that look like tunnels, but aren’t. Or maybe they are, but they end after a meter or two, and the map maker coudn’t be arsed to draw them in the survey.

All in all, a very eye-opening experience for a RPG/fantasy geek, and one that opens nice options for GMing.

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Taina traversing a chasm.

CAVING BUG: IT’S BIT

It’s now Sunday evening, we have the whole clubhouse to ourselves for the day. I’m sitting in the gray late evening light. Outside the moor is quiet and static and it doesn’t sound like anybody is awake.

Lunch Break

Viisikko syö evästä luolassa!

When we decided to come here, I was already thinking that caving could be a nice addition to our outdoor and travelling hobbies, right next to diving – and it was nice to be right. Equipmentwise, on our level, caving seems much lighter than diving, and cheaper too. It’s also a great chance to see the local wilderness and general surroundings above the ground also. Underground, there’s not that much life, which is the only major minus for me in this hobby, but nevertheless it combines sightseeing to a certain kind of excitement and exercise, which is a good recipe for me.

Although diving will remain my number one ourdoors hobby, I guess we should budget at least one caving trip per year from this on!

(Check out the big photoset of the trip on Flickr!)

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...and don't you complain that I never take you anywhere!

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