Halfway House Workings, Speedwell Cavern - Phil Wolstenholme

Sunday, 1 February, 2015

Present: Nigel Ball, Dave Shearsmith, Phil Wolstenholme

Today being my birthday, I'd bravely decided a couple of weeks ago with Nigel that spending it in the scariest, nastiest part of Speedwell was somehow a good idea. And as I'd provisionally agreed to photograph it for my and Jim's next book, it was imperative that I get a grip and get up there, to whatever horrors awaited. So after a large birthday breakfast at the Courtyard Cafe in Hope (thanks Nigel!), we slithered up to Speedwell to see the car park was now an inclined ice rink, and no-one was remotely 'home' in the shop. Despite Winnats being 'closed', many were ignoring the signs in both directions, and so we privately anticipated disaster any minute, albeit in glorious sunshine.

As the staff finally arrived, we ran into the outbuilding to get changed and then scampered down the steps onto the second boat in, so we could safely get into the branch canal before the first boat came back out. The large clay dam makes for an almost flat-out crawl for a few metres, and then a small wooden door opens into a wide, high passage, with deads stacked in the roof in mined-out cavities. Longcliffe Vein itself comes in from the canal after a few metres on the left, and is completely backfilled. Two rises through deads are the ones Trevor Ford originally climbed (and scarpered from after the deads began collapsing around him), but a third rise, just before the passage forefield, is the one Nigel and Tony Marsden bolted, and a shiny piece of orange Mammut dangled ready.

After the inevitable and necessary pep-talk about stacked deads and false floors, and how 'not touching anything' was easily the most important motto of the day, Nigel led up the first pitch, with me following and Dave backing up. The pitches are nearly vertical, but not quite, and hade in two directions at once - forwards and to the right, so you're endlessly thrutching and free-climbing between stacks of loose deads - which is kind of fun in a strange way. That said, being careful and steady, we got to the top fairly quickly, where several recent small-scale collapses have taken more sections of 'floor' downwards, leaving it different to Nigel's last visit. All the floors are false, apart from small sections of vein left here and there, and one horrible metre-wide section of 'floor' hovered above us on the last up pitch, held up by a chockstone about an inch wide.

We decided that once we were all up, it would have to go down, and so I was volunteered to traverse out and begin dismantling it from the top, and then effectively waggling and thumping the jammed remainder until it all crashed down, luckily not down the pitches and not hitting the ropes. That out of the way, the traverse was now a lot easier, using the ledges the miners had jammed stemples on. The next section of floating pack, a few metres further along was horribly unstable, with a 'ledge' of large stones overhanging the drop, and no way of climbing onto it without it collapsing. The traverse rope could be seen beyond this neatly heading into a pile of spoil - I complimented Nigel on his clever rigging into rubble, and which pretty much confirmed that we weren't going to get any further today.

I had a crawl eastwards along the main passage, having to crawl under the most horrendous stack of deads imagineable, about the dimensions and volume of a small van, and held up by four small wooden stemples. At the run-in, lots of very small deads in a pile led to much larger ones at the roof, giving us yet another pretty much impossible dig. All hope gone, we set off back down the pitches as carefully as we'd gone up them, and before long were back at the canal, where we jumped on an inwards boat for quick trip to the Bottomless Pit for my second birthday treat - a very quick climb up Nigel's new rope to the very top window in the big cavern. A super-fast prussik and I was up there taking in the magnificent view, but then the horrendous rope-rub and sideways twanging on the large ledge made me think again about going right over, and time was running out too, so I came back down to get back on the same boat we came in on.

All in all, quite a busy weekend! I ache now.