We were delighted to have managed to get a rare bank holiday booking of one of our favourite caving huts, Whitewalls, in South Wales for the end of May, and with the forecast looking amazing I was really excited for a top-notch weekend.
A typically late Friday night arrival still allowed a couple of hours for beers and of course, a cheeseboard, while agreement was reached for the Outer Circle in Aggie.
A stunningly warm Saturday morning meant breakfast outside, where it was actually too warm in the direct sun even at 9am! What a treat! We (Me, Gary, Rachel, Will, Toby, Philip, Dave and Lumens) headed along to Aggie. Sadly, a short distance inside the entrance, the cheeseboard from the night before caught up with dairy-intolerant Will and he had to make a quick evaculation of the cave and a prompt return for a serious session with the Whitewall conveniences.
We made steady progress through the entrance series, which is largely navigated by keeping left at all junctions and then, after initially keeping high over blocks, as you approach the first choke, switching to staying low and then entering the choke as a crawl on the right at floor level and then keeping left to follow the left wall up the very well polished choke to emerge in the splendid Main Passage. We have been here many times before, but this is the first time for me in a couple of years, so great to be back.
Along the main passage and a few minutes later we were at the scramble down to the streamway on the right. Down to the stream, we followed downstream in nice low water, scrambling over, through and past boulder obstructions, to soon reach an ascent out of the water to a small chamber. Here, a fixed rope climb down and then a traverse around a corner followed by another climb down returns to near stream level, and soon after that is another ascent to the start of the helpfully signposted Second Choke, where a brief crawl in the water is needed. Conditions today were so dry that you barely got wet at all here!
Onward, and a choice of two routes presents itself, either a high level traverse on a fixed rope (about 40m long and only belayed at each end) or a downward route leading to an awkward climb down a long step (best tackled by a tube just above which you can slither down) where long legs were particularly helpful. We took the latter, which following a few scrambles down blocks brought us back to the streamway. A pleasant downstream journey, now with fewer boulders but lots of slipperyness (the famous Aggie Slippery Stream) reached Turkey Junction, where another streamway joins from the right. I always imagine this point as joining the Main Streamway, with the route we have just taken being a minor inlet. In terms of passage proportions, my interpretation is correct, but this is not what the survey says and the water entering on the right is an inlet, so who am I to argue?
Upstream in Turkey Inlet starts as a narrow bit of passage but soon enlarges to bigger proportions, gradually becoming less dominated by large blocks, and including some magnificent walking sections, passing excellent formations including white wall stall, straws and large flowstones. It has been a good few years since I was last here, as my most recent Aggie trips have been down Southern Stream Passage to The Courtesan formation, at the opposite end of the cave. It was great to be back here, and the magnificence of the streamway far surpassed my memory.
After several minutes of good upstream progress, we reached Turkey Pool, which is not how I remembered, This is a deep (chest deep?) narrowing in the streamway, but it is perfectly possible to bridge it and traverse. This starts easy but the last 1m to reach an in-situ grab-rope is rather tricky, requiring use of a ledge below the water level and a bit of a step of faith which a rather aqueous penalty for failure. Despite this we all made it without a soaking (I nearly managed it still with dry feet).
Upstream further, more excellent stream passage, and we finally arrived in a massive cavern (Turkey Chamber?) where the description we were following caused some confusion. It said to 'go up the boulder slope but turn off before the top back down towards the stream'. In fact, the way on was pretty much to the top of the boulder slope, then off along the massive passage on the left and after about 100m THEN back down to the stream.
A short distance further upstream the turn off on the right towards the Inner/Outer circle was easily found, and this ascended a narrow passage up to a junction. Left here for about 100m, but again the description failed us. It said to continue up the boulder slope and take a passage on the right. We continued along the obvious passage too far, reaching a very steep slippery ascent which we assumed to be the boulder slope, but at the top we realised we had gone to far and were well on our way into Sand Caverns. What the description should have said is to follow the passage for about 100m and then watch out for a right turn obscured by a ramp of boulders on the right of the passage. If you are being observant, you will see it, but we were just joyously stomping along expecting the route to be mega obvious.
Upon locating this, we realised time was getting on, 3pm, and we'd been underground four hours. We decided that four of us would turn around at this point and commence the route out the way we had come, as to get all seven of us around the Outer Circle and back via the torturous Coal Cellar Passage would mean pushing our 10pm callout to the limit and missing our much anticipated barbeque. Myself, Philip, Gary and Dave headed back for a relaxed trip downstream, while the youngsters (Lumens, Toby, Rachel) continued on. We half expected them to catch us up on the way out, as I know those three caving as a small team would be going somewhat rapidly!
We had a nice trip out, stopping for a few photos in the streamway, and skilfully traversing Turkey Pool again. Before the Second Choke, we decided to take the alternative route and climb up the in-situ rope and then along the rather exposed traverse above the streamway. The in-situ rope here is only belayed at each end, so has some considerable sag, but it nonetheless offered sufficient reassurance once your back was against it. I'd probably not choose to come down this way as it's a slippery climb with hard-to-see footholds from above, but going up was quite straightforward and provided a nice alternative.
We exited at 6pm without being caught up by the young-uns, and headed back, pleased to encounter Will wandering along the tramway near Whitwalls clutching boxes of ice cream wrapped in a towel to keep them frozen. A very welcome treat, and a very kind thought, thanks Will (and glad to see you feeling better).
That evening was a BBQ, and Whitewalls have rather an excellent setup, with a half-oil drum surrounded by seating and a preparation table. I'd brought the supplies for everyone including sausages, burgers, buns, salad, nibbles, halloumi, and vegetables, everything you would need for a top quality BBQ, and Jerry and Tegs had joined us too which was great. A splendid end to an excellent day underground.
Sunday was another fine day, not quite as warm but still very pleasant, and Craig-y-Ffynnon was today's target. Gary had packed the massive camera box so we know there was a plan afoot, and we went with the flexibility of knowing we might go to Hall of the Mountain King, or we might go further. Rachel had never done Craig-y-Ffynnon at all, so this was a new experience for her. A pleasant change and we made leisurely progress through the cave, enjoying Gasoline Alley, the choke and Travertine Passage and quickly arriving at Hall of the Mountain King. A few happy snaps later, it was decided we were happy to head out rather than carry on to Promised Land.
On the way out, we split up at the fixed rope going up to the magnificent straw gallery above Travertine Passage. Gary had photographed this several years ago, but he was back now with a better camera, better flash, and of course the sexy, manly model of Doyle Scott! While Rachel, Toby and Dave headed out, Myself, Gary and Will scaled the in-situ rope which, with only one SRT kit between three of us (all of us requiring a different fit) took bloody ages and I got quite cold. But once up there, wellies off to avoid trampling mud across the chamber as per the instructions, we set about with photography, Will modelling, me back-lighting and Gary taking shots both looking into and out of the chamber. The straws here really are excellent, and anyone visiting in future PLEASE take care, remove your wellies, keep low, and minimise damage to the crystals on the floor too.
We made quick progress out from there, back to Whitewalls for 6pm, to meet Lumens and Philip who had been walking and had located a curry house for that night. We had a great curry at Indigo Red (really nice indeed, not just your generic brown slop with mystery lumps) and beers at the hut.
Monday was a lazy day and we decided to drive across to the other side of the valley and walk down to the Clydach Gorge to see Elm Hole, which is a spectacular place (well worth seeing) followed by lunch at a cafe in a nearby town, before departing for the drive home.
A cracking weekend, great caving and great company. Just classic YCC, really!
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