Water Icicle Close Cavern - Alan Brentnall

Saturday, 6 December, 2014

As happened for last year’s TSG Christmas bash, there was quite a large, enthusiastic turnout for the daytime caving before the evening meal. Both Peak Cavern and Titan had been booked, and there was also a trip into Water Icicle, including the chance for a couple of groups to explore the mysteries behind the Iron Curtain. By 9:30 the Chapel was humming in every sense of the word. Lots of TSG cavers, who were busy getting there equipment together, were joined by friends from Masson, Crewe and Dudley Caving Clubs for the Water Icicle adventure. I packed two of my ropes and grabbed my DCRO crash bag, and we loaded the cars and hit the Pindale Road, driving through to Tidza, Taddington and over the Jarnett to Monyash, where we picked up the final five (making a grand total of eighteen).

Derby Lane degenerated into the usual quagmire, and we left the vehicles at suitable points about two thirds of the way along. The morning was bright and very cold indeed and the walk along the final section of lane to the shaft top gave some welcome warmth. It was a very large party, and different groups would be exploring different parts of the system, with some taking part in some experimental radio work using a couple of DCRO Heyphones. Because of the numbers and all the activities, I decided that we needed to provide some kind of entry and exit log, and so, after rigging the pitch, I carefully wrote down the names as each caver slid down the rope into the 35m entrance shaft. Roy and Alastair, who were involved in the radio testing, and wouldn’t be going underground, kindly volunteered to note the exit of each caver to ensure that everyone was accounted for.

After well over an hour (and a vvvvvvery cold hour at that!) the last man descended, and I rigged the second rope (to speed up the eventual exit) and, closing the lid, followed him down! The shaft was warm and thawed out my fingers and toes, and, quite soon I was surrounded by fifteen bright head torches. Although a little confusing at first, people naturally divided into the various groups, and I took the first small group of five along North West Passage to the gated Orpheus extensions. Most of the others went down the South Passage to the Great Rift and the other recent discoveries beyond.

Water Icicle Close Cavern is an odd place. Also known as Meat Mine (because of a rumour that black market meat was hung in the shaft during World War II), the name Water Icicle comes from the belief (possibly true) that miners retrieved and sold stalactites from here. You see, “Water Icicle” is t’Owd Mon’s term for a stalactite. What on earth miners thought ordinary icicles are made of is anybody’s guess!

But the really odd thing about WICC is the lack of evidence of actual mining. You have a series of short climbs at the eastern end of the Great Rift which are well-adorned with pack walls and indicate that this was the original point of entry, almost certainly from an entrance in the nearby linear copse, and you have a 35 metre mined shaft which accurately enters at the junction of three phreatic passages. There is a lead vein clearly visible in the Great Rift, and the Great Rift is almost certainly partly stoped … so maybe Water Icicle was simply the last venture in the series of mines which are very obvious when you look at the area in Google Earth? But that’s it – everything else is natural. Incidentally, the large diameter drilled holes at the foot of the junction between South Passage and Great Rift are a red herring. I’m reliably informed that Terry Worthington created these with an air drill during early explorations to try to confirm a theory that there is passage or a chamber immediately below.

For my part, I took two groups through to the huge boulder choke at the end of the beautifully decorated North West Passage. This choke, which has been the site of at least three spectacular digs in days-gone-by, was finally breached by the Orpheus team in 2009 to reveal an extensive series of large phreatic passages. The choke is now adorned by a tall metal ladder, in the place where Keith Joule once prussicked up an old rope to find, at the top, that it was held by a single alloy karabiner which was so corroded that it fell apart into several small pieces – fortunately after (the now shaken) Keith had got off the rope. This leads to the controversial gate which guards the new discoveries.

Both groups went to the dig/choke at the far end of Urchin Passage, passing The Elevator etc on the way, before exploring the even more spectacular Cherty Two Passage. This involved getting through the acrobatic Cherty Two Choke, crossing the head of another pitch and crawling through to the delightfully decorated passage at the end. Other groups explored North and South Passages, including the even newer, ungated 2012 Orpheus discoveries beneath the North East wall of Great Rift – Volcanic Bug Pusher and, for Mark Gration at least, Olympic Stroll. I’m very grateful to Peter Dell of Crewe CPC for assisting with some of the leading while I was involved in the gated stuff.

Water Icicle has always been a treasure trove of tales of heroic dig battles, mysterious rumblings and even ghosts; and, in fact, is the source of the most famous of all caving ghost stories, as anybody who has helped Ralph Johnson with a school group will testify. But it also has a reputation for bad air, and is a notorious trap for carbon dioxide, with accumulations reaching up to and beyond 5% during some warm wet summers.

Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide doesn’t always simply pool at the lowest point of a cave. Recent research has shown that the gas tends to be thickest at its point of origin, and Water Icicle is a splendid example, with the highest readings being in the upper parts of the entrance shaft – possibly where the CO2 enters through the ginging. Because of this, Peter Dell and I both carried gas meters. Peter has a QRAE 4-gas meter which will detect hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, explosive mixtures (LEL) and oxygen (you can usually assume that any discrepancy in the 21% oxygen, which forms the normal portion of our atmosphere, has been usurped by CO2), and I was carrying a Crowcon Gasman, which specifically measures CO2. You will maybe have read my report from last week’s trip into the nearby Lathkill Head Upper Entrance, where we were recording levels of 1.5% to 2.0% CO2. This Water Icicle trip shows remarkably low levels for the system, confirming Christine’s prediction that low temperatures (and it was -5°C when we entered WICC) would cause the gas to disperse from the caves.

All in all this was a really good trip around some very interesting cave passages in what might be viewed as a mine – with plenty of objectives (radio, gas monitoring, photography etc ) in some very good company; a fine day out, and a splendid way to work up an appetite for what turned out to be a fantastic Christmas meal in the evening. I’m sorry that not everybody got to see the gated section, but there are some very strict rules about who can go into the extensions, how many and how often – and a listed guide is always a requirement for this. Fortunately, TSG has two Water Icicle guides, Christine Wilson and myself, and I’m sure that subject to the rules and regulations on the Orpheus Website


one of us will be able to organise trips into this section in the future.