Mark R, Rob Eavis
“After your “muddy trip” yesterday, fancy a clean one down Oxlow this Sunday? Just three of us currently but could benefit from a fourth….”
“What.. down the Eldon’s new Oxlow extensions, 300+m of barely touched virgin cave freshly discovered in the heart of the Peak District in a strategically important area? Bolt climbing into an unexplored Aven you say.. nope, not interested thanks.”… is absolutelynotwhat I said. Instead I jumped at the chance and excitedly got home and packed the bolting gear, drill and batteries that night!
Rob, along with several other Eldon members who I’m not going to try and name because ill miss off someone important, have recently been poking around in New Oxlow. They pushed a pair of tight, bendy squeezes and with very little digging emerged into a very large piece of wide open cave passage. I was extremely excited to have been asked to go along and help out with some more exploration. Unfortunately for me the timing was a little off, it was the CAN summer party on Saturday night and I had a hand in helping to choose the beer for the free bar. So it was with heavy head and a lurching stomach that I arrived at the Oxlow layby for the second time in 4 days and sat very still with my eyes shut sipping water waiting for Rob to arrive.
The other two cavers who were going to be there had, for one reason or another been unable to come along so it was just the two of us. That made for a pair of heavy bags once loaded down with bolt climbing gear, survey gear and all the ropes to get down Oxlow, adding further to my night before burden it made for an uncomfortable trip in. Rob commented at one point that I looked rather sweaty and once or twice asked if I was OK.. I must have looked and sounded quite a state. Fortunately though as we all know, there is no better cure for a hangover than 2 hours of caving with a heavy bag, especially when most of it is crawling. Even better, the crawling was interspersed with sections of flat out, squeezes and dragging myself through water, mud and gravel. “This hangover will be gone in a jiffy” I thought to myself as we arrived at the first of two tight and awkward squeezes marking the start of the new stuff. Rob has been in 8 or so times before and was able to direct me in the best method for forcing myself through and contorting arms, legs and spine to allow passage. It may become easy with practice but it’s a difficult pair of tortuous, grunt inducing thrutches.
Eventually though we passed through some passage called Crusader and were looking up into Nights Templar. I don’t want to give too much away here but suffice to say, it is a really truly impressive and significant piece of cave. As we caved we drew comparisons with sections of Rowter and the rubble slopes leading up into the top of the Templar reminded me of the slope up into the top of Hourglass Aven. After what I think was about 1 hour 45 minutes(?) from the entrance we were at the base of a high aven perched on a loose slope and surveying the void. I think that this was only the second trip up to this point so there was lots for Rob to look at and re-acquaint himself with. There were three points worth looking at for climbing, the first target was a hole dropping out of a horizontal roof. Rob had said that he thought this would mean a horizontal aid climb under the roof to reach it but as it happens we were able to pick a route up which was a windy traverse on vertical and good quality rock. I kitted up with my new shiny adjustable etriers and set off. It took a while to get into a rhythm.. that’s a lie actually I’m not sure I ever got into a rhythm on that traverse and I was fairly slow but eventually I got to a point where Rob couldn’t see me but I could look directly up into the little shaft dropping out of the roof. It was inconclusive until I was a metre or so up and could free climb a little way but sadly, after all that bloody beer sweating effort it closed down about 5.5m up. Knowing that we had more work ahead of us I rigged a pull through in a couple of bolts and abseiled out of the hole then swing across to de- rig the climb.
The second two climbs were both up the big aven. It took us a bit of deciding but eventually we opted for the south end (I think) and I began a vertical climb up into the high darkness. This time I did feel like I got into a rhythm and made good progress. With about 12 or 15 bolts placed I came back down, de rigging the climb as I went and re- kitted then headed back up and continued climbing a second pitch. As I progressed upwards things became slightly clearer and the bolt route began to trend right towards the highest and most open part of the aven that we could see. At what I think was 20+m up I stopped opposite a large alcove in the other wall and placed three bolts for us both to share as a sort of ‘hanging belay’. I pulled the rope up through all the runners and dropped it back down the aven again for Rob to ascend, stripping the route as he went. A few minutes later we were both hanging above the black space, this made it feel like a very proper bit of bolt climbing and exploration. We placed a bolt on the opposite wall just below the alcove and I climbed across and flopped myself into it. It didn’t go anywhere to the left but there was a definite continuation to the right up into a narrow vertical rift. I placed another bolt, rigged the rope and Rob followed me over. He went squirming up into the rift pulling rock out as he went and got to a boulder blockage just a metre or two in. There is a definite continuation beyond and it definitely draughts but will require either a cap to remove the problematic boulder or a lot of hammering and crowbar work.
We hopped back into the main rift at the top of the aven and I climbed out horizontally, placing a bolt as I went. I went either back and foot or legs across the rift nervously peering down at the long drop below. Eventually though I reached the far end and we rigged a traverse line across the entire top of the aven. There is a possible continuation at the far end but it’s well blocked and 5 or so metres further up everything we could see was choked with boulders. By now we had generated quite a cobweb of rope with the 40m length we had, so we re- rigged everything using Rob’s Stainless stuff and abseiled back to the ground. Just as in Hourglass, everything knocked off at the top finds its way to the bottom and throughout the day we had some rather big rumbles from below. On the way back to the window up into Crusader Rob knocked a load of loose rock off the slope to clean it off a bit and partially re- filled a very interesting dig they had started in the bottom of Nights Templar. This could prove to be an extremely important spot, Rob is best placed to explain why and hopefully he soon will do, perhaps at Hidden Earth or the next issue of Descent?!
I exited the cave, slipping through the contortions with relatively little trouble and trudged slowly along behind Rob on my hands and knees silently debating to myself which I would like most- my thick knee pads or for Rob to cave a bit slower!
As is often the way though the trip out was shorter knowing what was ahead of me. It gave me time to think about what I had seen today and the rather extraordinary nature of its discovery. It’s a bloody awesome find and just goes to show that if you know where to look there are still impressive bits of cave to find- more than we know! Well done to the Eldon digging team and thank you for allowing me the privilege of helping explore one more little bit of the newest find in Derbyshire :D