Victoria Aven - Phil Wolstenholme
Present: Ann Soulsby, Phil Wolstenholme
As most members appear to have retired from weekend caving, only me and Ann were up for a trip today, and we decided that rather than get covered in mud or get soaked, and both wanting to do some climbing, we decided to do the always-fabulous and sparkly-clean Victoria Aven, and to add a practical touch, measure off the new pitches we bolted last year so a topo can be drawn up, should anyone decide to do this trip. The aven has been problematic in recent times, with loose, flakey rock near the top of the main route to Elephants Head Chamber (the 'left-hand' series) threatening to dismember or pulverise unfortunate cavers below, should a clumsy foot dislodge some of the lumps, some of which are very large. A repair/rock meshing trip to fix this problem has been promised by the Buttered Badgers, but so far has not materialised. As this pitch head is approx. 70m above the main stream passage, that's a long way for tons of rock to fall, and ideally they are going to be pinned back rather than attempting removal from that height.
To make matters worse, the further route up from this rebelay to the very top of the aven (a large pendulum across the shaft to the 'right-hand' series) takes climbers close to very unstable stones perched on tiny ledges, which again can easily fall if caught by a wayward toe or loop of rope. I brought the most lethal of these down in a tackle-sack last year, and it must have weighed about 15kg, despite being no larger than a football. Passing rebelays and a downward pendulum with that hanging below me (and Ann below that) was interesting. Last year we decided it was time to sort this mess out, so over two trips, Ann, Christine and myself installed a new route downwards from the calcited bridge at the top of the main pitches, keeping close to the north gully, which is almost all covered in flowstone at the top end, and far less fractured near the bottom, so it's much safer, easier and extremely pretty too. All bolts, hangers, maillons and deviation krabs are quality stainless, so will last a lifetime. We also derigged and removed some of the old tat that was hanging about. The route description below is from bottom up.
The first 'pitch' up from the stream is actually just climbing the mud slope below the aven, and this probably accounts for the first 8-10m before you even see a rope. Following that, three short pitches with rebelays (and with many stemple sockets in the walls!) reach the '30m ledge', a wider area, and from where the first rope (a spectacular pendulum over the shaft) to the higher reaches begins. A new traverse to the right (north) has now been installed here, and a few metres sideways walking on ledges reaches the first new rope pitch up. A flowstone-coated bridge of rocks adjacent to this traverse should not be stepped on for safety reasons. The first pitch is 12m to a Y-hang rebelay, across the gully. Three old isolated spits are here, which used to hold a length of polyprop rope, and may have been part of the original climb, though no other spits were visible, so it's possible they were added from above. As usual, it's very difficult to find out what previous visitors were up to, as they often didn't write it down, or are now dead.
The following pitch is 15m, with a deviation 3m from the top - the rebelay at the top is a Y-hang on the west wall, with a large (solid) calcited ledge and alcove adjacent to rest or hang out in should it take your fancy. The floor here is solid, and doesn't require a rope connection as long as you're well inside. The next pitch is 12m, and takes you through a hole in another calcited bridge, to a final pitch of 2m to the main rebelay where a safe stance can be made. From here, a short traverse left across the main shaft leads to the top of the original 'right-hand' route. Heading right, another ledge-traverse back over the hole just climbed through (whilst on the next climbing rope!) is followed by a pitch up of 8m, with a tricky deviation taking the rope through a slot between the wall and a flowstone-coated boulder. This leads to a large shallow flowstone ramp, and all the remaining climbing of about 6m is on foot up this, and is very easy, with ropes for protection.
At the top, the ropes can be abandoned, and a duck under a large arch leads into Victoria Chamber, with a mud floor and which is very richly decorated with both stalactites and stalagmites, and large solution cavities in the roof. Another large ramp of flowstone can be climbed for about 8m to the terminal choke, which is a huge pile of boulders pouring from a hole in the roof - space can be seen behind these, but the gaps are too small and the choke is too unstable to risk an attack. This is where we found the probable bison rib-bone last year. This point is about 105m above the streamway passage, and probably only 20m below the surface - it's likely the choke is a collapsed doline or possibly even miner's backfill. There's a Bronze Age burial mound also nearby on surface (Scheduled Monument), so this may have been open when that was being constructed. No jewels or gold to be seen though.
The trip back down is even more spectacular, as the full space of the shaft can be seen, and gives much of the sense of space that a trip in Titan provides, but unlike Titan, the smaller pitches, varied rebelays and closeness to the walls make it a much less stressful, more interesting and challenging trip, but remarkably quick to complete given the distance covered. We were back out within 2 hours as there was only two of us, but nevertheless, it's a great SRT practice trip, and a good confidence-booster for doing big stuff safely and relatively easily. Having put the bolts in, I was eager to see how it felt just as a caver approaching it from scratch, and it is really pleasant and satisfying. It doesn't fix the problems on the other side of the shaft, but at least this route is now safe to use, and is highly recommended for SRT fans, even though I say so myself.