Buttered Badger Potholing Club
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Marble Steps Exchange (sort of)

Mark R, Joe, Becky, Luke, Shane + LUPC Freshers

For the last day trip of LUPC's year we had decided to call in for some badgery assistance and attempt the exchange trip in Marble Steps. Something similar had happened a couple of years ago, but in true LUPC tradition we hadn’t quite bottomed it, and considering how nice the cave is, I was eager to return to give it another go.

Daddy Badger kindly obliged, and after the usual routine, we found ourselves enjoying an Inglethief breakfast at an ungodly hour. I’d brought enough rope to rig the Sidewinder and Gully routes, rendezvous in the main chamber, drop down Stink-Pot together, split up again, rig The 90 and The Intestines separately, and meet back up for a second time in the lower passageway, before heading out the opposite ways to which we came in. Simples!

This had required quite a bit more forethought than I am used to when it comes to packing ropes the night before, but I was confident that the right ropes were in the right bags, and that with Mark and Joe rigging, and myself Becky and Shane looking after the novices, we would be able to keep cockups to an acceptable minimum.

Pulling up on Masongill Ln, the site of some of our favourite sagas, a chorus of “ahh crap” rung out as another group of cavers were kitting up. They must have arrived just a few minutes before us, and they told us they were heading to Marble Steps as well. Damn. That said, they were a small group, and looked vaguely experienced so we weren’t expecting too much of a hold up. How wrong we were. After kitting up ourselves and plodding up the hill and across ET’s favourite field in the country, we were slightly disappointed to find that the other group had barely started rigging. Despite the fact that there were only three of them, they were rigging all three of the possible different entrances into the cave (why?!?!) which took a while, so we sat on the hill and admired the view. We’d gotten lucky with the weather, which was of some consolation.

After a while Mark and Joe decided enough was enough and went off to rig the 2 different routes at the head of the cave. Joe and I shared a few “ooh I wouldn’t do it like that”s whilst examining the questionable rigging decisions made by the other group. Joe led a team of Ivet, Henry and Becky, and Mark headed off with Adam, Francis, Shane and myself following.

The Sidewinder route was more fun than I remembered it – going down that way and back up the Gully would definitely be my recommendation if you’re trying to decide which group to join on an exchange trip. Taking up the rear(oi oi) as I poked my head over the pitch into the main chamber, I was greeted with the heart-warming sight of the main chamber lit by 8 different head-torches on various bits of rope in various bits of the chamber.

The newbies had a bit of a faff with the various deviations and rebelays, but nothing spectacular (c.f. the last time we were down there!) and before long we were all at the first rendezvous point. Once again I found myself at the back of the group taking ‘a supervisory role’. I.e. avoiding carrying tackle sacks, but quickly found myself at a bit of a bottleneck as the group had started backing up in the traverse through the short meander inbetween the main chamber and the Stink Pot pitch. Joe had reached the other groups rope and was debating with Mark as to whether we were meant to split up before or after the pitch. I naturally knew best, but being at the back of the group was unable to inform the decision, so on Becky’s recommendation, went for a bit of a wander.

I clambered up a bit of a slippery slope between the main chamber and the traverse. It quickly led to a bit of a waterfall. I decided to dive through it to minimise my exposure to unpleasant wetness. A decision which I immediately regretted as my left forearm came into sharp contact with a (quite beautiful) flowstone formation on the other side. I reeled around for a bit, kicked the flowstone (it was clearly its fault) and carried on. The passage gradually became ever tighter, and the footprints in the mud started to thin out. By the time it had become a flat out crawl there was only me and one set of footprints going forward. I must have gone about 15 metres and couldn’t be bothered taking my SRT kit off in order to push it any further, so wriggled my way out backwards, and retraced my steps to catch up with the others. They hadn’t moved.

We decided to go past the pitch head and congregate in a muddy chamber where there was just about enough room for us all to sit round and plot. Some of the more ‘special’ freshers engaged in a mud fight, and Joe explored a muddy crawl of his own. We eventually decided that I was right, (well, I decided that I was right) and that we all needed to go down the Stink Pot pitch, but we could hear murmurs, so waited for the other group to come back up before we carried on. We soon started to make our way down. Becky discussed with Ivet how she wishes she had a penis, and that she really needed to pee. She then had a screaming fit and claimed that a bat was in her hair. I made a mental note to have her sectioned when I got out.

At the bottom of the pitch we split up again, and I went with Mark, Henry, and Ivet down The 90. It’s quite a nice pitch, moderate length and dryer than the last time I saw it. At the bottom we continued on, down another couple of short pitches (which Mark rigged “excellently” - To quote Mark -), and finally into the low wet passage at the bottom.

I’ve since glanced at a blurry survey on the interwebs, and am pretty certain we were in the right place. The passage (part of the 3 counties system) sumps in various places depending on the weather above, but allows for a bit of an unpleasant crawl to a chamber where an exchange is possible with The Intestines route.

We crawled around for a bit until Mark found a fork, the least unpleasant looking branch taking us in a circle, back to the top of our last pitch. I was about to suggest we go back down and look at the other branch of the fork, when we heard Joe shouting above us. It wasn’t easy to make out what he was saying, but he didn’t sound happy so we headed back up.

Somehow he’d found a window in the side of one of the Intestines pitches, and come across to meet us at the bottom of The 90. We decided to exchange here as we were happy that we’d seen enough (half of the group had made it to the bottom after all).

A bit of improvised rigging was required to get Joe’s team down into our chamber, but we got there in the end, and split up once more to head out. Joe came with me and Henry back up the Intestines – the abnormal route made for quite an unpleasant bit of de-rigging which I ended up doing.

After an awkward climb (I forgot my Pantin) I ended up de-rigging a pitch head, hauling a tackle sack, and trying to get over a ledge into a near flat out crawl. This route is not as fun as The 90.

Shuffling along the crawl at a snail’s pace, I found myself faced with a particularly awkward section, where a maillon wanted unscrewing from a bolt. It was jammed closed, and as I was feeling around for a spare maillon to use as a spanner, I noticed this section of the cave had a really unusual smell about it. It wasn’t necessarily unpleasant and I was struggling to put my finger on exactly what it was. I was still lying face down with little room to manoeuvre, so carried on without being able to properly investigate the smell’s source. The passage widened a little bit and I could get on all fours. There was that smell again, but being able to inhale sufficiently now I could think about it in a bit more detail. Almost a sweet smell, but mixed with the scent of the mud I was covered in I guessed something was decaying, like old fruit dropped by a careless caver. But I couldn’t see anything. The passage widened again, and I could hear Henry ahead of me shuffling on. The smell became even clearer, and I realised it smelt like Vimto. It was a bit strong though, as if someone was drinking it right under my nose. Almost as if the carton in my pocket had exploded in the crawl, leaked all over my car keys and stained my white shirt an attractive pink. Bugger.

I caught Henry, he relieved me of my tackle sack, and I finished de-rigging the Intestines route, vowing never to return. Shane and Mark were still de-rigging The 90, so I headed out back to the main chamber for our final rendezvous. We reconvened, and decided on who would de-rig what. I escaped without being asked to do anything, and headed out. It was pushing 8pm, and the short climb out took longer than it perhaps should have. At this point I remembered I had dinner arrangements! Disaster! Nevertheless we pressed on in good spirits, and by 8:45 we were all out, changed, and ready to go home. We thanked Mark for looking after us, and headed home. Putting my foot down in my compact sports model MPV I made it back to Liverpool in 1 hour 15 (sacrificing fuel economy for dinner). Home, changed, and still moderately muddy, I was able to reflect on a highly successful last LUPC/BBPC collaboration of the year.

Here’s to many more