Victoria Aven Re-rigging - Phil Wolstenholme

Sunday, 31 July, 2016

Present: Ann Soulsby, Phil Wolstenholme

A trip up Viccy Aven was required to install a new Y-hang on one of the alternative pitches at the very top, that Alan and Ann had identified last week as being rather grotty - as I'd never been past Elephant's Head Chamber, and now have a drill, it was a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. We didn't exactly rush in, especially as I remembered that I'd forgotten the lump-hammer at the bridge over Peakshole Water and had to run back to the Chapel for it - one the way back I bumped into Simon Bull, who provided the cover for our new book. He attempted to show me a copy, as I was in caving gear, and got a mighty shock when I told him who I was. But it was nice to meet him all the same, though it delayed me even more.

Once in the cave we got to work climbing the shaft. Neither of us was feeling especially fit, and had decided to take it 'steady' - not much choice with a 5kg load of a drill, lump-hammer and bolts though - and as I didn't have a clue where we were going, Ann went first. Despite our feeling unfit, we got to the top belay of the left-hand series surprisingly quickly and without incident. Transferring to the giant pendulum though proved difficult for me, as my D-maillon (a Moka) wasn't large enough for the severe right-hand pull of the new rope, and all my gear was jammed up - the cam of my chest ascender kept jamming against the braking krab, either pulling open or jamming shut, depending on my position. Eventually I gave up and just transferred entirely onto my cowstails first before making any changes, and got through it OK. But a re-arangement of devices may be in order to sort this out.

On the way up, various lengths of orange and blue polyprop could be seen ascending into holes in the roof, and they were all ancient pull-throughs, presumably from when the aven was being climbed. The orange one was the one we were meant to be replacing. At the top we fastened ourselves to various ropes and had a look at where to put a new (stainless) Y-hang, and removed the old pull-through fixture, which was a single 10mm rusty old short bolt in a rusty old Spit, with a hideously deformed lump of coral that used to be an ally krab. To be honest, if that used to be a way up, I'm glad times have moved on. Finding some good rock and good placements took some chin-stroking, but eventually we settled on the right spot and put in two fat Raumer 10mm stainless bolts and plate hangers and two stainless maillons. We then tied some blue 11mm rope from these (about 30m) to check the length as we descended the usual route - it was meant to connect roughly with the 'ledge level' far below, but I had my doubts.

As I'd never seen the top section at all, Ann decided to set off back down whilst I had a quick explore of the remaining pitches and chambers. The left turn into Victoria Chamber is stunning, through straws and larger stal, and then the flowstone ramp up the top terminal choke was fabulous - I only wish I'd had longer here, but I will definitely come back to take some photos of all this sometime. The choke certainly looks partly 'tipped-in', but it's very hard to tell. and definitely one not worth attempting. The return journey, illuminated from below by Ann, was equally spectacular, only made a little more tense by the endless rocks and cracked slabs that dangle from every ledge, but it really is a roller-coaster SRT trip and must be enjoyed rather than feared, as there's so much to look at close-up, in areas you couldn't normally see. Great credit to Buster Wright and co (and Les Salmon and co before him) who took this project on, as the climbs must have been terrifying on first approach. Needless to say, there are still stemple-sockets clearly visible in the walls, and one can only imagine how the miners made these climbs possible.

At the ledge, it became obvious that our new blue rope was definitely not long enough, as it was level with the rebelay above the ledge - probably 15m vertically, but 25m if including enough slack for a pendulum, knots etc. So we'll have to go back with a longer length, maybe put in a deviation or two and attempt an ambitious pendulum to the ledge - which should be fun. But a really good trip, and lots of new stuff for me to look at and think about.


One month later...
Ann and myself returned to the top of Viccy Aven today to have another fiddle with the new rigging and determine what to do. We brought a 55m rope up with us, our estimation of the pitch length, plus enough to swing across to the ledge for the 'ultimate' pendulum - over a calcited bridge of impossible-to-determine strength, with a nice airy 30m hole below. We got to the top quite quickly, despite us trying to take it easy, but the final pendulum to the top bridge brought us alarmingly close again to a big rock perched on a ledge, literally ready to fall. I was leading, and managed to pass it without incident, but we discussed it as Ann was on the way to it, and she pushed it back against the wall for removal later.

Once at the top, I got on the new blue ropes and abseiled down the 'other' pitch back into the main shaft, this time to one side, in a tighter rift festooned with stalactites, large calcited boulders and flowstone curtains. It really is beautiful. Landing on a large solid ledge about 10m down, I assessed the scene. Behind me was a ramp of flowstone heading downwards, away from the shaft, and apart from a small hole in the floor, is a safe alcove to wait off the ropes - an obvious rebelay would be needed here to take the rope over the ledge safely, but with a good length above, a single 10mm would be sufficient. Most of the rock is covered by flowstone in varying thicknesses, but a good placement could be found with a lump-hammer. Another rebelay would ideally then be placed on the opposite wall, and if not too far down, a double 10mm would be best, as another 20-30m free-hang may be possible below that, but it would have to be rigged as it was abseiled to be certain. Alternatively, a double rebelay at the ledge followed by a deviation might also work, but it's quite a wide rift, which may make it very tight.

Either way, it wouldn't be a hard job, and would potentially give a much safer route to that section, avoiding all the shattered rock that makes ascents up the Elephants Head route so nerve-wracking. As all the rock in this route is flowstone-choked, it's unlikely that anything would ever move - it's also much prettier, and has the advantage of a safe refuge, although cavers would have to be very careful not to mess it up, as it's all pristine, creamy white magic. Sadly I didn't have the drill, and so was unable to progress any further downwards owing to the nasty rub-point I was stood on, so came back up.

Ann set off back down as I re-rigged the top to include a safety line from the new Y-hang back to the high bolt. I also picked up the large and very dangerous rock, after several minutes precariously trying to manoeuvre it closer to the edge to get it in the bag without dropping it over the edge. Ann wasn't inline, but there's no guarantees where stuff will bounce in a place like that - it was so heavy, and so close to the diameter of the bag I almost gave up, but managed it in the end. I only found out just how heavy it was when I had to prussick back up the other side of the giant pendulum and found I could barely move - it must have been 15kg at least. Better down in a bag than free-fall though.

Only another hundred or so more of those, and it should be pretty safe...


Another month later...
Ann, Christine Wilson and myself returned to the top today, armed with the drill, stainless steel through-bolts, hanger plates and maillons, and another 50m length of the fat blue circus-tent rope - it's a bit of a nightmare to use, being too thick to pull upwards on a Banana descender (which is saying something) and easily tie knots in, and very heavy. Its only appealing quality to me was that it was very soft, and free.

Ann had decided to wait at the top while we tackled the route, and then was to come back down the main route to get the tail end of the rope that we (hopefully) would have left to throw to her to tie in! Descending back down to the ledge visited on the last trip, I put two temporary galv screwbolts into the alcove to tie in a safety line and allow a refuge - it's all flowstone-coated and very stable and slopes conveniently away from the 80m drop below. Not sure yet whether that should be permanently rigged on stainless, as it's not exactly a busy part of Peak whatever's happening, but I've left them in for now. That done, Chris came down and we had a chat about where to put the bolts, and settled on a nice bit of wall on the right (looking out), which for once didn't have cracks all over it. Getting a good position balanced on a tiny ledge on the opposite wall with the rope always trying to swing me back in was interesting, if tiring, and drilling was even worse, but I got them in eventually.

I then descended further, checking where the line of the rope was above me constantly, in case it rubbed. It didn't, but a short deviation on the opposite wall just below the rebelay would be both handy and reassuring for folks prussicking up if they've never seen the belay point before - we'll do that next week. About 15m further down I found a corner point where again the rock was stable and free from flowstone, so put another Y-hang there, across the rift this time, which is much narrower at this point, so it shouldn't be a strain passing it. An old Troll hanger and bolt from ye olden days was below, but I managed to avoid it. This was now about 15m above the large calcite bridge which is off to the right and just below the 30m ledge pendulum rebelay, which was perfect. Gently abseiling onto the bridge itself and thankfully not triggering a collapse (it's fairly stable in reality), I carefully clipped into an old traverse line bolted over from the rebelay and got Chris down to inspect. At the same time I looked up and saw Ann high above, getting back onto the ropes, and realised just how bloody huge this shaft actually is.

Eventually Ann got back to the rebelay and Chris threw the rope over and it was tied in as a Y-hang to the main bolts. I then drilled a new midway bolt above the existing ye olde traverse line, and tied in our new rope as a tightish traverse from the anchors. The spare slack rope on the other side can be used as a safety for climbing on the ledges to the main pitch rope or as a very loose but safe pendulum onto the bridge itself. It should be pointed out that none of this route is for SRT novices, but it should be less traumatic for folks who can do it but don't necessarily enjoy the free-hangs, as you can touch the walls.

I guess we'll have to draw a rigging topo at some point, but first we need to test it travelling upwards, and maybe add that deviation on the second new pitch. A good day's work all round, and several pounds more lost to sweat and adrenalin. I take my hat off to Buster Wright and friends for originally climbing this all upwards on Spits. Proper hard.


Two weeks later...
Yet another visit by the same three, to finish off the job of rigging the new 'old' right-hand (North) route up to the top, on the newly-named 'Polonium Blue' fat rope. The main purpose, apart from testing it as an upward climb, was to add a deviation halfway up the middle pitch, but as we used the new traverse from the 30m ledge, it became obviousl that it would be much better with another bolt in at the far end, next to the rope up, and luckily I'd brought a spare bolt and hanger! But we decided to do that at the end, so Christine led up the new ropes, so she could sit at the rebelay above the intended deviation and check that the angle of dangle was correct as I fitted it. I followed close behind, and yet again the huge shaft reverberated with the golden tones of the Makita.

We settled on the deviation being quite short and tight, but it works a treat. The new pitches (from the 30m ledge upwards) are roughly 12m, 15m and 12m. After that we carried on up to the top to have another look at Victoria Chamber and the huge choke in the hole in the roof. On the left of the choke, high up, is a hole just big enough to get a head through, but nothing else, and empty space can be seen behind it. But without dismantling the choke (impossible in a controlled fashion), there's just no access, frustrating as it is. After we'd all had a good look, we set off back down, and very pleasant it was too, especially as you get the best views and the best of the formations, but with less of the unnerving rocks on ledges and cracked slabs!

Once we got back to the calcited bridge and the 30m ledge, I put another bolt in nearest the up rope, and we pulled the rope tight through to the Y-hang, and chopped off the spare. So it's now open for business.