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Flooding Incident In Eastwater Cavern

On the 16th April a party of eight B.E.C. and three W.C.C. members were undertaking various climbing, digging and surveying projects in the remote parts of West End Series, Eastwater Cavern.  Another Wessex team were digging in the upper passages of West End and two tourist parties were also in the cave. Those working in the bottom had enjoyed a relatively easy and dry trip, there being only a trickle of water at Lolley Pot and through the flood-prone crawl into Blackwall Tunnel, the writer even remarking to Kevin Gurner that Lolley Pot is much more entertaining when it is taking a stream.

On the surface, during the early afternoon, there occurred a brief, torrential downpour which seems to have been centred over the Priddy-North Hill area, only steady rain being noted at nearby Wells.  This fell onto hard, dry ground and the major Eastwater catchment took much of this excessive rainfall, causing the entrance to become impassable and temporarily trapping all parties in the cave.

In lower West End the B.E.C. team were commencing a survey of the deepest part - the Chamber of Horrors.  At about 4.30 p.m. a roaring mass of water erupted from the too-tight inlet passage leading in from Blackwall Tunnel and the floor of the chamber rapidly began to fill up - possibly helped by water from a theoretical streamway below the chamber floor.

Tom Chapman was hastily despatched to the Tunnel to check on conditions and use his own judgement on whether to try and get out and organise a possible rescue.  In the meantime the Wessex team was contacted by the writer and warned of conditions.  Being only four bolts away from new passage at the top of an eighty foot aven they were at first sceptical, and then reluctant to leave - they were already prepared for an overnight stay in the cave.  Graham Johnson, though, accompanied the writer to Blackwall Tunnel, and both realized by the tremendous draught and the roar of the stream that things could be serious.  Tom had not returned and it was assumed that he had got out, so all those remaining slithered down the Tunnel to the low crawl.  Here the previously dry passage was now occupied by a swirling mass of inflowing, brown water with a foot of froth on top - like a Guinness drinker's dream! After watching the four inch air-space drop half an inch in fifteen minutes it was decided to “go for it”, as on a previous occasion the crawl had been sumped up for over two years!

With considerable trepidation all passed the tube to be confronted by an almost solid column of water hurtling down Lolley Pot - proving to Kevin that it was indeed much more entertaining with a stream in it.

The ascent of the pot under these conditions was something of a frightening epic, especially when the flood water and Trevor Hughes both began hurling T.V. sized rocks down the pitch. From here everyone made their way out at their own speed, noting scores of small streams entering West End and Ifold's Series from unexpected places.  No further problems were encountered on the way out, apart from those of a normal trip in this strenuous cave, and upon reaching the entrance the water was down enough for an easy exit.

In the meantime the other Wessex party, Pete and Alison Moody, had only got out of the entrance because of three rescuers sitting in the stream to form a temporary human dam.

Tom Chapman had valiantly fought his way out to summon assistance and a goodly team of prospective divers and rescuers was standing by at Upper Pitts and the Belfry, with the possibility of Fire Brigade help not being ignored.  Our grateful thanks to all concerned.

The tourist parties in the cave had not realized that the flood had occurred, being in drier parts of the system at the time of the pulse.

All those involved agree that this was a very close call.

Anyone in Blackwall Tunnel squeeze or climbing Lolley Pot at the time of the initial flood pulse would have been very lucky to survive.  The easily blocked sink at the bottom of the Tunnel was fortunately operating fairly well thanks to the efforts of Wessex digging teams over the last year and the flood may even have helped to clear it.  Should it have become blocked and the whole stream backed up the consequences could have been disastrous.  The wet and extremely draughty conditions could have easily led to hypothermia if anyone had been forced to stay beyond the Tunnel and, as stated before, rescue from this remote and difficult area is nigh on impossible with an incapacitated person.

Those working here have learnt several more important lessons from this event and a rescue dump will shortly be installed beyond the Tunnel.  This should be used ONLY in emergency.

It is once again stressed that this is arguably the most difficult Mendip trip - one of those present on this occasion stating that, in comparison, "Daren Cilau is a piece of cake ... "  Add to this the ever present danger of flash floods and you have a bit of cave to treat with the utmost respect.  Also be warned of the dangers of the cave entrance flooding and the ever present possibility of movement in the Boulder Ruckle and Boulder Chamber the latter being actively "on the move" at the present time.

Have a nice trip.

(also reproduced in Descent)

Tony Jarratt