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Nine Days of Hard Rock Hospitality

By Mark Lumley

Friday 13th March - not the most auspicious date to begin an extended caving trip but at 11.50pm Clive Gardener and myself (Gonzo) headed into the entrance crawls of Daren Cilau loaded up with piles of BBC camera kit and personal gear.  Pete Bolt was several hours ahead and we were hotly pursued by the fiery breath of 'Enri (the Camp Drunk) Bennett, Tim Allen, John (Big Nose) Palmer and Steve Thomas.

The nine day camp had been planned a few months before.  Andy Cave had the unenviable logistical nightmare of catering for the crew and over several weeks Cardiff Universities' UC4 members lugged in over 40 loads of dehydrated food, thermal gear, carbide and booze.

The main objective was to push west from 12 O'clock High and Acupuncture with a view to an Agen Allwedd connection through the Gothic Passage extensions.  The dig was also used as a sponsored event raising £600 for the Black Holes Expedition to Mexico next spring.  £100 was also raised for Gwent CRO.

We split into three groups on day 1.  Tim, John and Steve went up to Aggy Passage with Pete O'Neill & Dave King who were down for the weekend and continued a long term dig through the boulders at the end. This choke has great prospects for a major extension but it is big, vertical, unstable and self clearing. Over 8 trips more than 400 tons of boulders have come down!  Meanwhile 'Enri and I opened up the crawls through Hard Rock while Pete tackled a climb in the Kings Road, which ultimately led to 60ft of well decorated passage - Pixie Boot Grotto (What's in a name?)  Clive stayed in camp and tried to clean a mixture of rice and orange juice off the filming lights we had so painstakingly carried in.

Day 2, saw the departure of Steve Milner, Dave and Pete O'Neill.  Clive had filmed the arrival of 'B' & Hugh in camp, the reel was taken out and used by John Cravens Newsround (Stardom!)

We split into groups again, some pushing the shattered beds of Acupuncture, others opening up the 12 O'clock High boulder choke.  (Overzealous digging on my part resulted in a meaningful relationship with a large lump of limestone).

We found the idea of day and night irrelevant over the course of the week and gradually adapted to days of 20-30 hours with 8-10 hour sleeping periods in between.  Dehydration got the better of some of us during the interim period and back at camp on night 3, I became commode-hugging drunk in five minutes flat on a couple of shots of rum much to the amusement of Clive who was recording 'the Camp Atmosphere:'

Our workloads increased dramatically by Tuesday and we found ourselves eating vast amounts of carbohydrates to compensate.  The arrival of several groups of UC4 cavers with fresh veg and bread during the week was most welcome.

Wednesday saw the departure of John Palmer and Steve Thomas.  Andy Cave and Steve Allen arrived for the, second half of the week.

During the midweek period we found some difficulty in co-ordinating sleeping times and work shifts, so the labour intensive chokes at the western end of the Hard Rock had a reprieve, while small groups pushed straight forward digs in the area around camp, one of which is 40ft in and looks quite promising.

A lot of work was also being done at Aggy Passage and we sorted out a team to film the progress. This proved to be quite character building as the choke started to collapse while Tim Allen was inside and Clive & I were lying on our backs filming and lighting him.  Tim had a near miss and Clive and I legged it down the rubble heap with the BBC's pride and joy an odds-on favourite for becoming a pile of scrap.  Half an hours sound recording of people removing the spoil was rendered useless by the premature arrival of a Half-Ton Herbert to a chorus of 'F* .. K Me!!' from those on the receiving end.

Thursdays 12 hour work period was spent removing more spoil from 12 O'clock High and looking for high level leads around Catnap Rift (above Oregano).  Banging 12 O'clock didn't sound as though much had happened but we all noticed that the draught had increased on our way out.

By Friday we decided to cut our losses.  There was no way we were going to get through Hard Rock in the two remaining days (although the dig is by no means abandoned).  The same went for Aggy Passage.  We only had about 200ft of new passage to show for a hell of a lot of work. Putting connections to one side we just wanted to break into a big healthy horizontal Welsh Virgin and see how far we could go!  Accordingly we split into two groups, Pete, Enri, Clive and Tim tackling the choke at the end of Frag Street (High Level off Bonsai) while Andy Cave, Steve Allen and I pushed the shatter that blocks the way on in a bedding near the start of Forgotten Passage.  This proved after 30' to have as much appeal as a weekend in Slough so we disconsolately went to help the others.

Meanwhile, the Frag Street dig had broken almost immediately into 400ft of low, crystal covered bedding ( Frig Street) with an extremely strong draught.  This heads east and the end is easy digging.  Potential is superb with an interception of the missing lower reaches of Darens' big fossil passages on the cards in the next 100 metres (The Clydach connection gets nearer!)

Friday night was an extended celebration party night with appearance of hidden stashes of Southern Comfort, Glace Fruit in Brandy, Spiced Rum, Champagne and Caviar.  We swore undying allegiance and crawled drunkenly to our mould riddled pits (a caver-friendly 20 metre stagger).

After copious amounts of Tea, Coffee & Anadin, Saturday was spent taking photographs in the Time Machine, then filming & digging in Aggy Passage.  Pete Bolt completed a long climb in the roof of the passage (it didn't go).  We then sherpered piles of filming kit to the top to the ladder pitch to make life easier on Sundays' mass exodus.

Dave King had rejoined us during the day and while we slept Steve Milner, Bob Cork & Dany Bradshaw arrived to give us a hand out with the kit.

We were up after two hours sleep.  A busy couple of hours then ensured that every scrap of litter was packed up to go out. Cooking and sleeping gear were then stashed and there was little to show that we had been there at all except for an emergency brew kit and the all pervading smell of paraffin.  Then we headed out of Daren with a mixture of excitement and genuine regret at leaving the place that had become our home.

A team of porters who were coming in to help never arrived so we dumped an enormous pile of personal gear near the entrance crawl and carried on with the camera kit (a soul-destroying array of heavy, 12inch ammo boxes).

We emerged into daylight after 210 hours with a shock.  We all expected to be dazzled by the brightness but having lived in a world of greys and subdued browns for so long, anything blue seemed fluorescent and our eyes found it difficult to cope.

I lost a stone I never knew I had during the week.  Celebrations in the pub that night amounted to little more than a pint there just wasn't room for any more.  Over the next few days we all ate voraciously.  Several of us found it difficult to readjust to a 24 hour clock and a normal working environment.

In conclusion I think that the camp was a great success.  We raised a lot of money for two good causes, found one of the most exciting leads under the mountain and put the Daren/Aggy round trip several hundred man­hours nearer to completion.  Morale was high throughout and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

I would suggest to critics of the 'Hard Rock Approach' that the media interest the project generated (National TV, Local T.V. in several areas, John Craven, Radio 1, numerous local radio stations, National & local papers) showed cavers and caving in a much more favourable light than the usual 'Sill sods .. dark muddy 'Oles ... always need to be rescued .. 'image with which the sport is normally portrayed.

Many thanks to Troll, Speleo Technics & Bat Products for their kind help with equipment. We'll be back down at Easter.