Hillocks - The Knox-Nixon Bypass - Alan Brentnall

Tuesday, 11 November, 2014

When the Walf Engine Shaft was finally capped by Crewe in the late '90s, it became obvious pretty quickly that a "one-way exchange" was possible, whereby you could nip into Hillocks and pre-rig the hand-picked shaft, and then everybody could abseil down the engine shaft and surface via Hillocks - the lower Hillocks pitch being avoided by squeezing through to the parallel shaft and free climbing this. And this became quite a popular evening exercise - and still is a nice trip for any number of cavers.

But a year ago, Steve Knox told me that, after climbing the parallel shaft several times, he found it a bit of a bind, and, on one trip with his partner-in-crime, Paul Nixon, he got half way up the climb and said to his friend "Why do I always end up doing this climb?" To which Paul replied, "Well don't bother - just walk round if you don't like it!" And Steve, suddenly realising that Paul's voice was coming from above, looked up and saw Paul grinning down at him from the top of the pitch. And so, the Knox-Nixon bypass came about.

Since getting the story from Steve, I had never had the chance to try the route until this week's Midweek Caving session, when twelve of us met on a wet and windy night at the Knotlow Triangle. The plan was a Hillocks-Walf exchange, with six going down Walf Engine Shaft via the Balcony Route, and six going in through the Hillocks oil drum. I opted to rig the Engine Shaft route, while John Martin rigged the Hillocks pitches.

I've always been impressed with the sheer size of the Walf Engine shaft, and had a great "ab" down the rope, watching for the point where the Balcony Passage breaks off - about a third of the way from the bottom. Clipping the bolt just above the passage, I fed enough rope through my stop to allow following cavers to abseil straight into and along the passage without needing to do a change-over at the bolt. Popping two butterfly loops onto the traverse line, I shouted "Rope free!", and started rigging the parallel climbing shaft.

Alex soon appeared in the passage, and we chatted as I abseiled down to the rebelay bolt. The deviation below is a bit critical, as you need to get the length just right. Too short and the result makes for a difficult transfer, too long and the people prusicking later will create a bad rub against the wall. Fortunately I'd been working in this shaft only a fortnight before, and had a sling tailor-made.

Eventually all twelve were re-united at the foot of the Engine Shaft, and, after a brief foray to exmine the Sump, my group started to climb the lower Hillocks Pitch. John had rigged the parallel shaft (the one you can free-climb in the one-way exchange) so, after the awkward climb up into the stope, we squeezed through to the foot of this. Jess went first and, at the foot of the rope pitch, dropped through into a lower stope, where it was possible to do a traverse forward to a ginged climb upwards. Pretty soon she was up at the top of the rope pitch looking down on Sigi who was making her way up the rope. So! - We'd found the legendary Knox-Nixon bypass!! Well done Jess!

Bernie followed Sigi up the rope, and I dropped into the stope-traverse and followed Jess's route. Excellent alternative, but not exactly a "walk around". None-the less easy enough, although the finish was a slide over some fairly loose deads. There may have been another climb up which avoided these, and came out of the passage higher than the Y-hang bolts, but that alternative will have to wait until another visit.

Eventually all twelve were reunited at The Triangle where the rain was still falling, and we retired to The Bull's Head satisfied with a grand trip, and ready to plan something for next week.