World’s longest underwater system

The world’s longest underwater system has been created by the joining of Sac Actun, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, with Dos Ojos, by divers of the Proyecto Gran Acuifero Maya. The divers have found evidence of early human occupation dating from 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, along with the bones of elephants, giant sloths, bears, tigers and prehistoric horses. There is a brief write-up in the Guardian – seeĀ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/17/worlds-longest-underwater-cave-system-discovered-mexico-divers-gran-acuifero-maya or for Spanish speakers there is better detail in El Pais: https://elpais.com/internacional/2018/01/16/la_serpiente_emplumada/1516119767_618043.html?autoplay=1

The exploration website is at https://granacuiferomaya.com/2018/01/15/la-cueva-inundada-mas-grande-del-mundo-forma-parte-del-gran-acuifero-maya/

Diving in Cwm Dwr

Over the last couple of months I’ve had an opportunity to make some potentially interesting dives in OFD. I was lucky enough to have the sumps downstream of The Confluence as having been dived only a couple of times previously back in the Noughties. The water encountered here is not, I think, the same as that which sinks in downstream OFD2; but I expect that this section of passage will be an inlet to the main flow.

The main activity has been underwater digging, but of such a shallow and benign nature (strong flow whips away silt within a matter of seconds) that it is very nearly a pleasure! In terms of kit, this is a twin cylinder site, the appropriate clothing is a wetsuit and diving vest (both Warmbac) with neoprene gloves as a little luxury. The best thing about this is that the carry in through Cwm Dwr in a wetsuit is actually quite comfortable through the crawls and boulder choke, even after a bit of rain. A bonus is that I’m learning the optimum route through this section of cave.

Thanks are due to various SWCC members for putting me on the trail, and also – and especially – to those Imperial College stalwarts who made the first carry in for me!

The Ario Dream

“The Ario Dream”, Paul Diffley’s film about exploration in the Picos, will premiere at the Kendal Film Festival on Sunday 19th November, 9.30 – 11.00 in the main theatre.

See the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/234550815

Northern Caves III – out now

The long-awaited guidebook to the Three Counties and the North-West is launched today – this is the geographical area of the old Volume 3. Congratulations to Sam, Beardy, and their army of helpers!

Rediscovery of Knight’s Templar cave

The rediscovery of a sandstone grotto in Shropshire, found in true Alice in Wonderland fashion down a rabbit hole, has been widely reported. An underground series of arches and chambers have been excavated in soft sandstone and are believed locally to be an ancient temple used by the Knights Templar, although Historic England says that the excavation is more recent, possibly early nineteenth-century, and that the grotto has been used in recent times for “black magic ceremonies”.

See the full story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39193347. Photo: BBC

That time, when the words don’t need to

As Google Translate would have us believe!

-560 in Banka Cave, Sneznya System, Abkhasia. Dina Pimanova, Yulia Yatsusenko and Tony Seddon. Photo: Andrey Shuvalov

Thoughts on warmwear

Just a small consideration of undersuits and general insulation, in the wake of my recent trip to Snezhnaja Cave in Abkhazia, and thinking about the differences between my trips of winter 2016 and 2017.

The cave itself is a steady 6C, so not too cold. However the trip itself lasted eight days, with some of the individual working days in excess of sixteen hours. Also the surface was significantly colder, with lots of snow. All these factors played a part in the selection of kit for this year’s trip.

Last year I used an MTDE Butron, and was miserably cold for days on end. Normally I find this thin, very flexible and wicking garment fine for British and most European trips, including ones lasting several days and involving underground camps. Trying to work out why it had been such a problem in 2016, I came to the conclusion that it was a combination of two factors: caving style and physical attrition.

In the first case, Russian caving is sometimes a communal affair. Especially in this cave, where each person had at least a couple of heavy tackle bags, and some parts of the cave are a little awkward or tortuous, there is a tendency to cave as a group and move kit through obstacles using a human chain. This has some benefits but it does mean that there may be periods of five to ten minutes where there is little movement, and some of these locations may be damp or very, very draughty. Also both these trips used “pod” camps, where all stoves, food, tents and sleeping bags moved with the team, so the beginning and end of each caving day involved being pretty static while bags were unpacked, tents strung up and so on. If you rely on steady movement and burning calories to keep comfortable when caving, then you’re going to have a hard time on a trip like this.

Secondly – related but not identical – it is not easy to maintain full health on a multi-day caving trip, especially in a cold cave. Nutrition is hard to manage, even with vitamin tablets, and as a veggie getting enough protein can be especially difficult. The overall effect of hard work on a stressed body seems to be to make it more prone to cold, and the effect is increased the longer the stress goes on. In the case of these particular trips, the stress begins before the cave is ever reached; as time is short, moderately strenuous kit-carries bringing equipment up to the entrance – in conditions comfortably below freezing – are taxing, and there is not time for proper recovery before the caving starts.

So this year I opted for the significantly heavier and warmer AV Illamina, which is made of full-weight Powerstretch. This proved ideal for this trip. Slightly too warm at the start of the day, but nothing too bad; as the days progressed, the body deteriorated and the fabric became more vile and unwashed, even this problem disappeared. And at the end of the day, the cold was noticeable but perfectly bearable.

The other key elements were threefold: a Powerstretch balaclava, a thin basic waterproof and a mid-weight thermal top. None of these was required while actually moving in the cave (even the balaclava – a Buff was worn at all times to maintain head warmth), but the first two fitted into a drybag and could easily be stowed into the top of a tackle bag. Thus, at the taking down and putting up of the camp, extra warmth could be added with no appreciable delay; also at the base of a large pitch on the way out. The waterproof (Decathlon’s cheapest) was sized to fit over all kit, including oversuit and SRT kit, for mid-trip pauses.

For sleeping, adding the fleece to the Illamina gave sufficiently warm nights that the balaclava could generally be used as a pillow, rather than worn. The fleece was kept with the sleeping bag, as the other two items covered all the requirements of the working day.

This system worked well, and I’d use it again in similar circumstances; all I’d add would be a dedicated set of thick warm socks for tent life – drying your caving socks over the stove is effective but not perfectly so, and in trying circumstances a little luxury is welcome.

The only caveat. This minimum amount of clothing for effective warmth will leave you smelling like a dead badger after the first week, as there’s no allowance for changing kit, but that’s the price of efficiency!

Tony