The Volcanic Bug-Pusher - Alan Brentnall

Tuesday, 12 May, 2015

This week's Tuesday evening trip was a visit to Water Icicle Close Cavern, near Monyash. Water Icicle is, in many ways, an oddity; a mine, with precious little evidence of any mining, sporting a fine climbing shaft leading accurately down to the intersection of three phreatic, fossil passages, one of which (The South Passage) leads to a fine, high rift, which is the favourite theoretical entry point for t'Owd Mon, presumably from within the long strip of trees towards which the rift points.

One worry about trips to WICC is simply getting there. The route from Monyash to the mine goes via Derby Lane, a dead-end green lane which can be very problematic for non-4x4 vehicles. This trip, however, was blessed with a recent drought, and the lane was as dry as a bone. The weather during the trip itself was also quite kind, if a little windy and cold. Another worry is the air quality. Water Icicle has a very bad history of high carbon dioxide levels but, as the weather was quite cold (sub 5 degrees Celsius), we hoped for fresh air, and we were not disappointed.

To start with, there were seven of us, and, as soon as we'd kitted up, we made our way over to the shaft, opened up and started rigging. It took us quite a while to get all seven to the foot of the 30m shaft, but, once down, we removed our SRT rigs as they would not be needed further and, more importantly, we were heading into some quite muddy regions. The first objective was Batty Farber Passage. This was down the afore-mentioned South Passage, and the entrance is adorned with a bicycle wheel, which has obviously been used as a hoist / winch by the diggers. (In fact it isn't the only example of bicycle-usage down WICC by any means.) Although Batty Farber was originally entered by its spoonerised namesake back in the early 1970s, it has recently been extended, and we all followed the trail of bang wire right to the end. It's obviously going to keep on going, but the diggers seem to have decided to give it a rest and go digging elsewhere!

Coming out of BFP, we met up with Clive Westlake, who had followed us down and made our numbers up to eight. Clive told us some interesting and amusing tales about the portly Mr Barber before we set of along South Passage and into the Great Rift. As I said earlier, most of the passages in Water Icicle are quite large and well decorated phreatic fossil tubes. Great Rift is the exception - more like the foot of a pitch - which is exactly what it is; a stope!

Several years ago, there was a proposal to add a second entrance to Water Icicle, and Ralph Johnson sent me on a solo trip down into the mine with a Heyphone to try and radio-locate the top of the known section of Great Rift. I'd been to the top some time before with Keith Joule, so I readily agreed and, after a fair bit of climbing and squeezing up pack-walled steps and along short passages, carefully carrying my precious cargo, I arrived at the "end" - a deads-lined passage with a roof of coconut-sized cobbles and a mass of roots. The result of this experiment showed that I was not yet under the plantation where the miners got in, but still in the field, and, according to my altimeter, 6-7 metres down, so there must be a couple more "steps" at least before we'd break the surface. Unfortunately this work never bore fruit, as the Devonshire Estate people were unenthusiastic about a second entrance (although there were hints that a ventilation hole might be considered) and, consequently, interest waned.

Since then, in 2012, the Orpheus diggers have rooted through the mud at the very foot of my climb and produced The Welsh Connection; a short 4-5 metre crawl which leads to more large phreatic passages, going under the name of The Volcanic Bug Pusher leading after 85m to an extensive dig at Oh No Choke. On the way it passed Donkey Kong Aven, which a couple of us climbed, and Olympic Stroll, a 65m crawl, which was also explored. It's amazing, and very encouraging, that such a short dig can give rise to such a fantastic discovery, and when you examine the large circular air-drill holes back in Great Rift which were put there by the original explorers in the 1970s, you have to wonder at how unlucky Terry Worthington was not to have drilled in the correct direction!

Back at the shaft, we carefully kitted up, trying desperately not to "clart up" our SRT rigs with the sticky Water Icicle mud, before slowly ascending the shaft into the cool night air ... and we just about made the pub. A water icicle is, of course, t'Owd Mon's term for a stalactite, which is odd, as I've often wondered what t'Owd Mon thought ice icicles were made of?