News from the Cares Gorge

Tony and Paul McKrill have completed the first traverse of the Xitu/Couliembro system in the Picos mountains in Asturias, Northern Spain. 1264m vertical ascent and 9km horizontally. This is either the deepest or the second deepest diving / caving through trip in the world.

More as soon as I have news!

Return to Poll na Grai

Ok, this is really Tony’s story, so I will let him tell you all the details. This is just a quick post to say that over Easter a second attempt was made by Tony and Paul Mackrill, ably assisted by a strong Irish and English support team, to radio locate the end of Poll na Grai in Doolin, the aim being to find a diggable entrance to the dry cave beyond the sumps. Despite a hilarious session arranging comms signals:

“So when we hear you we will say ‘Surface, surface, surface’ “.


“What will you say if you can’t hear us?”

anyway, despite, as I say, considerable thought being given to the comms arrangements, the radio beacon didn’t work. Geology may be to blame. All however was not lost as Paul and Tony went back the next day, did a bit more investigating at the far end, were encouraged to find tree roots which suggests the surface can’t be that far, and re-surveyed a chunk of the passage beyond the sumps.

A proper write-up of this work in progress will follow when Tony writes it. Or not.


Hallowe’en caving in Poll na Grai

The Starless River shop was over in Doolin for the annual SUICRO symposium. In between running the store and drinking Guinness (and doing VAT returns!) there was a bit of time for a couple of trips down Poll na Grai under Knockaunsmountain with Paul Mackrill and several parties of sherpas. This is an interesting, joint-controlled and often narrow streamway, from the entrance down to Sump 1. The Sump 1 bypass is an excavated inclined-plane squeeze which is quite small and involved, for me, wetsuit removal! A further small point squeeze and a climb over a chest-deep pool (which everyone falls in) takes you to a duck and Sump 2, the first diveable sump. This is an easy 8m dive to walking passage, followed by Sump 3: about 80m. No need for fins as it is equipped with a 9mm pulling line and has numerous airbells in which the rope is belayed. An unimpressive, chest-deep gloomy canal suddenly becomes a much bigger passage: 2-3 m wide and very high, going on for over 2km of walking, crawling, wading and boulder piles.

Our aim was to radiolocate the end of the cave. It’s an interesting place, with a noticeable draft, some living insects, and a sense of being hardly visited. We set up the beacon and transmitted for an hour, but the surface team didn’t hear anything. The previous mapping was done by the explorers, UBSS, who did a preliminary survey using a diving compass and pacing, but may have been sufficiently out of their reckoning that the end of the cave is not where we think it is, given the complex nature of the passage!

This is Paul near the end of the cave where we did the radio location. After this there is a drop down, which we decided not to negotiate – the end of the cave shortly afterwards is described as too tight.

This rather dark picture near Mayfly inlet.

This is Priory Streamway, showing the characteristic joint-controlled passage.

This is the end of the cave at the high level, which is choked – down below somewhere is the low level way which pinches out.

Photos courtesy of Paul Mackrill, who is the handsome chap in the photos – the ones with the big muddy bum are all mine! Many thanks too to Robin, Fred, Steph and Tony B. for organising the radio-location and the carries, and to Andrew Atkinson for information on the sumps. Finally mega-thanks to all the sherpas of the three different carrying parties – you know who you are!

Tony Seddon





Tony Seddon and Paul Mackrill
Paul Mackrill and Tony Seddon

Diving from Aquamole to KMC

Shannon… gear post-script

Well, it’s a shop website. I should mention the kit…

AV suit- actually, the one that I had originally, which I was wearing a size too small, didn’t like George’s Choke very much. When I switched to one that fitted, it was excellent; warm enough, flexible, and a joy to wear. But still, the lesson learnt – don’t buy on the small size, just because it looks the part. Vanity has no place in caving!

My etche canyoning boots did well in the streamway; nice not to carry the extra kg of water in the footwear, especially given how much distance you cover.

Little Monkey; a nice little light. Plenty bright enough, even in the big stuff. The good duration (at next-to-highest level, it gives thirteen hours) is reassuring on a longer trip, especially when you don’t know how long you’ll take to get out… and that ridiculous 250g weight is welcome when you’re wearing a helmet (and moving fairly dynamically) for several hours at a go.

Taladro bag. Well, it carried, at various times, harness, lead, and line reels. It didn’t break and it was easy to carry, when you could wear it, it was comfortable. All that you want from a small tackle bag, really!

Oh – and it’s a cave for knee pads; elbow pads too, I’d say. I padded up on all the joints, and was glad that I did.

Easter Over the Water

The long weekend saw the shop over in Kiltyclogher for the Irish Student Caving symposium.

For an Englishman this is an area full of history, not all of it happy. A striking feature of the village was a large memorial to Sean MacDermott, who students of history will remember as being executed by the British in 1916 after the Easter rising. Not very long ago at all, this was bandit country.

Which, while sobering, makes the fact that the whole event was a riotous pissup for cavers from all over the place – Fermanagh, Clare, Mayo, Leitrim, everywhere –  all the more excellent. The ale flowed, the pubs hardly closed, the talks were well worth attending; and the Lovely Girls Competition (lovely giggle, lovely walk, lovely talent…no, don’t ask) was memorable for all sorts of reasons.

Caving was also perpetrated, despite some unsympathetic weather. Lots of trips went on of all grades and styles, but I was lucky enough to get on three trips into Shannon Cave (Polltullyard entrance).

Having met a few of the movers and shakers in the ongoing exploration of Shannon at a different time, and having seen descriptions of the big stomping streamway in the further reaches, I was very keen to get in here. I’m pleased to say that the cave does not disappoint. It’s a good, sustained stream cave with a few very delicate pretty sections, lots of shapely meandering canyon passage that just gets better the further you go… and more than its share of boulder choke.

The joke goes, “how many chokes are there in Shannon?”, the answer being, “Just one, all the way through” and it is kind of true. It’s a big, old place and in many places you’re climbing over, squeezing between , and occasionally cowering under, all sorts of limestone in a temporary state of rest. The cave is starting to see a bit more traffic, which helps, but you don’t have to go a long way off track to find some ticklish areas.

There are also a couple of narrow sections, one being the Rebirth Canal; slightly restricted sideways crawling, this is the relatively recent connection between Polltullyard and the old Shannon cave, whose original entrance is currently collapsed. The other small bit is George’s Choke (named after a local caving Reverend who was temporarily trapped by boulder collapse in this part of the cave a few years ago). This has a bit of a reputation, and a few folks had eyed me appraisingly and said “well, you might get though it…” in dubious tones.

The fact is, it’s tight; but the main problem is:

i. there’s a scaff clip in exactly the wrong place in the tighter section (but looking at what it’s holding back, you don’t complain)

ii. in some sections, you don’t much want to push hard against anything very much…

The work done by the Shannon Group to reopen George’s Choke a few years back is very, very impressive. The cave beyond makes it worthwhile, because from here down to the current terminal sump (Chris Jewell is aiming to make this description out of date) it just gets bigger and better. Where the stream is lost, high level oxbows give equally interesting going; them more canyon, more climbs, more (expletive deleted) choke. It’s a real cavers’ cave.

To get to the end -or thereabouts- and out will take around seven hours without a lot of faffing about or route finding delay. This is mainly caving, as there is only one 30m pitch by the entrance (normally dry, but don’t count on it!). If you get a chance to go there – DO. Really – you may love it; I did.

But… this is not a perfectly standard trip; it is new, it would be easy for bad things to happen; and the rescue response is very good, but not exactly over-staffed. Also, although the landowner is clearly a good bloke and friendly to cavers, access in this area is best done delicately. Anyone wanting to get in here is strongly advised to contact the Shannon Group, who know all that there is to know about the cave, and are very friendly and helpful.

Talking of which – thanks to loads of folks, especially: Steve, Steve, Aileen, Jock, Tony (for opening up the cave, making the craic happen, and caving with me) and Chris J (for talking me through George’s the first time, and letting me carry scaff to give me an illusion of being useful). Also Nikki for being dead Glam, and Helen, who is a Lovely Girl – and it’s official!

January #2 – news from Kanin

Well, I camped underground for seven days in Skalarjevo Brezno!

We based ourselves in a significant side branch (Sleeping Dragon) at about 590m or whatever. I found a nice 100m pitch that, sadly, reconnected with a main route near its base. Pleasant work, though, and interesting as it was basically a small gap in the boulder floor of a chamber that many people had walked through… so we just moved half a dozen rocks and then had to slide through a hole in the floor at the base of a boulder slope – then try and get a rebelay in as soon as possible, because it was not a good idea to have rope rubbing against any of the rocks around the hole! When you were on the pitch (Nervous Breakdown) you could look up at the floor of the chamber overhead that folks were walking across…

Nervous Breakdown. Nicer than it looks!
Nervous Breakdown. Nicer than it looks!

Also did some of the rigging across a big traverse (must have been about 40+ metres, as the direct line was 14m – I can just about do the equation) that led into a very old abandoned stream passage across the shaft from camp. The passage was about 120m long and leads to some very interesting draughting digs that might lead to much bigger stuff. The traverse (“Made in Heaven”) was moderately desperate, as it started with a completely footless section about 5m long, with the bolts about six to eight inches above an overhang…so you were desperately trying to make progress with no easy way of unweighting your cowstail, while hanging horizontally. When it was my turn to have a go at making progress, I got to the last bolt on this horror show, equipped with drill, bolt kit, etc etc, and thought “bugger, I had better go forward and see if there is a place to rest, because I`m blowed if I have the strength to reverse that right now”. Fortunately, there was a nice ledge hidden a few metres away around the next corner!

a traverse Made in Heaven...
a traverse Made in Heaven…

The fact that this was at the head of a 293m pitch (Rolling Stone) meant absolutely bog all, as with a hole that big, even a Scurion doesn`t make that much impact!

The Julian Alps (daytime -10C, night time -26C) frozen beauty
The Julian Alps (daytime -10C, night time -26C) frozen beauty

So – some discoveries (and some good potential resulting), no more depth, but a couple of fun moments. Also, I avoided dying yesterday, when the camera person dropped his big expensive bag of film goodies down the pitch when he was about 30m above me… which was a good result. As the pitch was about 80m from where his bag parted, to the bottom, suffice to say that several thousand Euros worth of cameras and data recorder were *not* in a good shape when they were recovered!

November News

As I wrote the last news I was on my way to SUICRO, the Speleological Union of Ireland annual congress, which as I expected was an excellent event. I was kept pretty busy with the shop (thanks for helping out Biff) but also managed to get to one talk on Shannon Cave and the remote exploration that’s been going on there (I like the name of their bivvi site – camp Camp) and enjoyed a trip down Pol na Gollum in sporting conditions (see Pol na Gollum)

I also found time to get my head underwater in the Hell complex off Doolin strand. This is an excellent area, in which three decades of exploration have left a legacy of several fascinating sites well worth a visit by any passing divers. Much of the most recent work has been done by Artur Koslowski, who is pushing the boundaries of Irish diving on an almost weekly basis right now.

Mind you- Artur’s view on what constitutes a reasonable amount of swell for diving at Hell’s kitchen is less conservative than mine! The phrase ‘cat in a washing machine’ springs to mind when I recall trying to get out after the dive with a pair of big cylinders. I should have recalled that old saying “Where the Devil fears to tread…they send a Polish man”.

Tony's dive route
Tony's dive route

This month the Starless River Shop has been at CHECC at SWCC on Saturday 21st and will be on Mendip for the weekend of the 28th/29th. I’m hoping to meet up with some eastern European friends at the same time to plan next year’s Papua New Guinea trip. If it ever stops raining I may even go caving, or diving.