Halfway House Rebolting - Speedwell - Phil Wolstenholme

Monday, 18 January, 2016

Present: Nigel Ball, Dave Shearsmith, Phil Wolstenholme

Today we finally got to start rebolting the series, having two trips cancelled already due to weather. The showcave was pretty quiet with only cavers active - John Gunn and one of his students appeared as we did, to do a radon test in the Bottomless Pit, but as they didn't need to get changed, they got straight on the first boat with a guide. We didn't need a guide, and as there were no tourists yet, we got our own boat. Being unable to figure out the electrics, despite Nigel assuring John we would, we ended up doing it the old-fashioned way, silently - and remarkably quickly. As we moored up our launch, the other boat reappeared, and after a brief final chat with John Gunn, we were on our own.

After a quick chat, it was decided that Nigel would head up first with the drill, with me following behind stripping out the old belays - mostly short bolts in spits with aluminium hangers, but also one or two of those funky hangers that clamp the rope bight directly to the wall with an allen key bolt - which predictably wouldn't open and just stripped the hex hole, as they always do. Doh. But amazingly all the rusty maillons opened up, and I was able to de-rig the pitch and the traverse along the false floor to the second pitch - Nigel then prussicked up this, and pulled the rope up and then dropped it down the other side of a big chunk of intact vein that splits the stope at this point. This gives a much better, more vertical hang, and also removes one dangerous pack of deads from the upward equation.

Nigel then abseiled back down and we both began drilling stainless bolts in to create a new top Y-hang for the first pitch, and then a new traverse to the 'new' second pitch. Dave meanwhile was rearranging stones at the bottom of the pitch, partly to keep warm and stop getting bored, but also to make it easier to negotiate the passage before it, which is quite low - he did a splendid job, as I barely recognised it later. Once that was done he began climbing, whilst I went up the 'new' up pitch to a rebelay on a solid ledge, then another pitch through the 'nasty hole of slabs', bringing a small rock down on my neck as I went through - knowing what was above, I did half-expect to suddenly be squashed flat, but nothing else fell, and I wriggled through sharpish. Looking behind me made me shudder, so I went up to the next safe stance whilst Nigel replaced the lower bolts. He then persuaded me to do the last one of the set before the final climb to the top.

As we got there, Nigel said that he'd rather save the second battery for Justification Chamber, rather than wasting it on the final bolts for the pitches, which are not as critical, being drier, and we can easily do those next time - and we were far keener to get beyond it, especially me, as I've never been. Not many others have either. NIgel decided to bolt a short (10m) slot-shaft immediately before the Balcony as it drops to the same spot, but with far less rope, and far less loose overhanging crap to worry about. He drilled a bolt in and then I finished it off, putting another Y-hang over the shaft, but with an obvious hade creating an obvious rub. NIgel went down so we could see where it rubbed (!), and then as he was still alive at the bottom, I followed with the drill and bolts and put a deviation in to remove it. Only as I got nearer the bottom did I realise there was now a new rub-point, but we were now in exploring mode, so that one will also have to be done next time!

Once we were all at the bottom, Dave decided to start heading back out, as we were just checking to see if everything was still open, and he knew I wanted to see it all, so Nigel and I quickly scurried down the large slope to the base of the chamber, and past the 'J. Royse' and 'J.T. (John Tym) graffiti. We passed through the next set of chambers, all natural, formed on or adjacent to the vein, with small stopes and blasted arches connecting everything together. All the floor is backfill, evidenced by the occasional hole to deeper levels. Eventually we reached an upward rope, and Nigel announced that I should go up alone and check it out, as he didn't want to, but he'd shout instructions through to me! Erm - OK. So I prussicked up the rope, about 8m, to a narrow natural passage carrying on along the vein. This dropped away almost immediately into a much deeper hole, with an elliptical profile lower down, clearly natural, but not somewhere I wanted to fall, as this was all unprotected. So I back and footed it across the 2m gap.

Once over that, there was another sharp bouldery climb down to a muddy floor, and then a much higher climb back up another stack of alarmingly sharp flaky boulders, ranging from microwave size to small wardobe size. At the top, I could then see passage developed under a bedding roof, again all natural. Nigel was getting increasingly inaudible and his instructions seemed to be mostly 'keep going, keep left, come back in five minutes'. So I did. But in those five minutes I ended up at the most monstrous vertical choke ever, which makes the ones in JH look piddly. This is 10 metres wide and five metres high and comprised of everything imagineable, ranging from huge blocks of van size, down to gravel and mud, all in a vast cone coming out of an enormous hole in the roof. Nigel and Tony named this area 'The Barmote Court', and I can see why. It looked very interesting, but I was also aware I was about as remote as can be in that area, so didn't want to push it and maybe get injured - or squashed.

At the far left was an open crawlhole, and obviously the way on, but I knew my five minutes was up, and had a lot of sharp rocks, big drops and loose shit to get past just to get back to Nigel, so I set off back, trying to remember as much as possible. The best part of the return journey was seeing the rail marks in the mud at the bottom of Justification Chamber, so they were definitely using wagons of some sort in there. NIgel reached close to the top of the small shaft when suddenly part of the adjacent stack collapsed, pouring rocks down towards me, who had already dived for safety. He reassured me that it had stabilised, and that it was safe for me to climb! The rub-point from the bottom was far worse due to body weight swinging away from the pitch, so another deviation must be installed next time if that route becomes the main one.

I managed to collapse another section of false floor on the way back to the down pitches, but as with many sections in there, it's better down than floating in space. Some sections of the pitches are going to have to be repaired if this route gets used much, as the deads are very lose and unstable. Maybe another opportunity for some reinforcement meshing! On the last down pitch another rub-point was noted near the bottom which can be easily fixed next time.