Cavers: Chris Scaife, Don Miller, Adele Ward
This evening trip was hastily arranged, when the risk of thunderstorms seemed to have abated – and it’s definitely not a cave to be in during a thunderstorm. I had been in here once before, on a cold, wet November day after the annual dinner, when much of the entrance series consisted of low-airspace ducks. It wasn’t like that last night, but it was still cold and wet at the start.
Without even a smidgeon of faces-pressed-against-the-ceiling-ducks, we were through the entrance series and into big walking passage, surrounded by flowstone and stals. We pootled along here at a leisurely pace, enjoying the decor, and climbed over a small waterfall, which I was sure was near the end of the cave. I was wrong – it was followed by an easy duck, which had been sumped last time I was here. Much more walking passage followed, mostly in tall passages that were too narrow to amble along, but stopped well short of containing anything tricky. It kept feeling as if we must be near the end, but the cave just kept on going. At Main Junction, far from the World, we went right into Keyhole Passage – a totally tubular crawl, man – where Adele decided to turn back, wanting to be home before her carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Don and I continued, through an enjoyable and aqueous floor-level squeeze, into Choke Aven, a final chamber. We climbed over this and dropped down to look upstream – the stream flowed into the chamber through a low passage, the gravelly floor of which could probably be dug out if you were completely certain there would be no flooding.
We then returned to the Main Junction and followed the main streamway to the bitter end, or rather three bitter ends. The first was a crawl on the right, shortly after the junction, and ended at a noisy sump. In the opposite direction, we followed the Handwrecker streamway to a T-junction. Right here led to some alarming passage, where at one point the water was too deep to stand up and the passage above the stream too narrow to fit through fully, so I kept my head out of the water, below the neck fully submerged and opted for a neck-level squeeze. Just around the corner was completely silted up and another passage nearby was also silted up after a frankly unpleasant squeeze, high up in the rift over deep mud. Back at the T-junction, the other passage soon ended at a tiny free-dive into a visible chamber. We could see there was no way on from the chamber and were already a bit cold, so we stopped here.
We turned around and headed back out, much faster than we had gone in, but not fast enough to catch up with Adele. To the far reaches of Smeltmill Beck Cave is a much longer trip than any of us had expected, but a pretty good way to spend a Thursday evening. We were underground for about three and a half hours and, although it had been cold at the start, the upstream passages were unusually warm.
An excellent trip. It only took me an hour and eight minutes to drive home, and that includes a diversion as the A1 was closed for several miles due to resurfacing. We should do trips like this more often!
I had a look at the survey earlier and, as you highlighted in your account above, Keystone Passage ends at Choke Aven. I really think we should go back – when it’s very dry – and have a go at digging it out. The floor is gravelly so it would be very easy to dig out. One can see that the passage continues, though in its current state it’s completely flat-out and the only way to proceed forward would be to treat it as a duck and go forward on one’s back. There might be potential here though. You never know.
As I was saying to Scaife last night, it’s funny how whenever people do long caving trips people rarely give up and keep pushing to get to the end. However, when it comes to shorter caving trips, or in this case an easier caving trip, people (and I’m including myself here to an extent) look for any opportunity they can to turn around. ‘This is probably the end of the cave, so let’s turn back.’ ‘We probably won’t find anything interesting if we keep going forward, it will just be the same as before.’ ‘I’m kind of cold. Let’s go back to the cars.’
So I say we go back and try to dig the passage out.