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Assynt Antics

"Ye're all doomed", "Is that so?"  Comment and riposte the catchphrases of this year's Sutherland trip.  The first delivered by Pete Rose as a rising eldritch shriek whenever a diver entered a sump and the second in the soft Tannochbrae tones of Willy Morrison from behind the bar at the Inchnadamph Hotel, usually in response to some breathlessly sensational outburst from a member of our party.  One hilarious post pub session was spent delivering ever more unlikely tales to be completed by this unlikely punchline.

But what of caving you cry? Ah, the caving.  Well, we did do some - and some cave diving as well so this article will stretch over the page.  Peter Glanvill's enthusiastic descriptions of the glories of Assynt resulted in double the number of visitors to the GSG hut this year.  More came from both Devon and Mendip and the result was a minor explosion in digging and diving activities.

For the first two days Pete Rose survived on a knife edge, his odd Scottish accent winding up certain Grampian members (up for the weekend) to a fever pitch.  The only thing that kept him from dismemberment was that they could not really believe he existed!  Things improved as the hut numbers shrank to manageable proportions for most of our stay.

On the first glorious morning Pete Rose and Tony Boycott were dragged off to Firehose Cave by yours truly who for, the past year, had convinced himself that there was a viable dig at the far end.  10 metres up the vertical jetwash which is Firehose, Pete ("caving is a cheap sport") Rose's wetsuit began to act like a reverse colander and he opted out of playing insey winsey spider.  Tony would have left as well only I was behind him with a crow-bar.

We struggled to the top and I took what must be some of the very few pictures of Firehose in existence. The dig proved to be a dead loss particularly as after an inspection of the roof at the end of the cave - where it gets quite roomy we realised that apart from one wall it was in cemented breccia.

Meanwhile Brian Johnson and Pete Dowswell tried to dive Lower Traligill again. I will draw a veil over this episode. Other bods did tourist trips in the Traligill valley in the process visiting Tree Hole.  In the prevailing dry conditions Tony Jarratt forced a downstream bedding squeeze into 60 metres of new cave (surveyed later in the week) which contained the main stream inlet.  Further prospects exist here and the squeeze is now passable by average sized cavers who do not mind an intimate acquaintance with underground streams. Waterfall Rising which looked good for an underwater dig was excavated by Vince, Jake and Tav (BEC) but despite spasmodic work during the week it never became passable for a dive - worth more digging tho'.

The next day was our Durness day with the prospect of another bash at looking for Tartan Holes and digs at Ach a Chorrain on the way.  A leisurely journey up via Lochinver and the Drumbeg road gave us superb coastal views.  Thankfully dumping Peter Rose with the diggers for a few hours Petes Glanvill, Mulholland and Cox plus unfashionably named Brian Johnson headed for Smoo. Another sparkling sunny day although with a cold wind blowing so no sun-bathing this time.  The Petes all went down to Smoo Geo while Brian concentrated on chatting up the local coastguard and doing a bit of spuddling about in the Smoo pools.  It was low tide and we were able to walk a long way down the geo before starting our dive. The mini resurgences seen last year were high and dry.  We finned out on the surface past my point of entry in 1990 and submerged to follow the eastern wall at a depth of 10 metres.  The marine life encrusting the geo walls became more prolific as we got deeper and diving was a real pleasure in the 15 metre visibility.  When we had got into about twenty metres of water things got really interesting.  The limestone walls smothered in a five o'clock shadow of brittlestar arms, hydroids and anemones were prowled by nudibranchs starfish and orange sea urchins. The odd small cave inhabited by shy navy blue lobsters could be seen.  On one rock ledge was a proper cave though - only 15 metres long it penetrated the cliff and seemed to be solutional in origin.  A few fin strokes further on and, like some magnificent cathedral nave, daylight streaming through its kelp fringed apex, reared a 20 metre high arch. It is at times like this that the weightlessness of scuba diving can be truly appreciated as one swoops from floor to ceiling with a couple of flicks of the leg.

All good things come to an end and regretfully I turned for home indicating to the other two that I had used up half my air.  The endless fin back on the bottom and the surface kept me warm in the chilly sea. The Petes made the mistake of surfacing early - they discovered we had been nearly 400 metres offshore.

Meanwhile, back at Ach a Chorrain, Pete was demonstrating how we dig in Devon.  Over 30 metres of passage was discovered and explored - spread over 5 caves just like Devon.  Still it isn't often you can discover and explore so many caves at once.

The day finished with an abseiling session at Smoo and a visit to local hostelries where Pete R. started his "Good Pubs to Shave in" guide - publication date from Pete. After a brisk walk back to Smoo from the final pub most opted for a night's kip in Smoo Cave while Pete R. and I opted for a tent over the entrance in the company of nesting Fulmars.  The next day the chuckling birds woke me and I found I could peer through one of the skylight entrances to Smoo onto Tony Boycott snoozing 25 metres below.  A brew-up soon had us all loosening up our sleep stiffened limbs before the journey back to Elphin.

While various team members surveyed Tree Hole, Brian decided to dive the Waterslide at Traligill where the stream disappears on its way to Lower Traligill Cave.  With help from Julian Walford, Pete Cox and others we humped gear down the steeply inclined and, in its lower sections, awkward bedding to the sump.  This trip was jinxed. Pete Mulholland saw one bottle take the fast way down when it slipped out of his harness, shattering the nerves of those below this novel bouncing bomb.  Then various valves began playing up and bottle pressures seemed to have strangely dropped as Brian put kit together.  A collection of glum faces including “Ye're all doomed” stared at the scum coloured pool.  At last a whip round got Brian into the sump.  He emerged briefly to sort out a gag before returning to the fray.  He explored 30 metres of passage which ended at 4 metres depth in an area of break down.  Using the remains of his air I went in for a look losing the line reel in the process - habit of mine!  We will return.

That night, it must have been night cos I must have been drunk to have volunteered, Julian Walford, the master of ANUS cave, arrived and assured us that the number one Scottish cave diving site lay in his domain i.e. upstream ANUS.  With charts, diagrams and tales of wondrous caverns his silver tongue beguiled us and Pete Mulholland and I found ourselves volunteering to push the sumps I had least expected to visit.  A trip to Lochinver for air the next day was called for.  Jimmy Crooks at the harbour nonchalantly pumped our collection of midget tanks while regaling us with diving anecdotes. He even fixed the damaged pillar valve on the Waterslide bottle.  The three diving Petes then stopped for a dive on the Drumbeg road on the way back. Scallops for the evening meal plus two dinner plates were brought up.  Long evenings mean you can pack a lot into a day.

The stroll to ANUS was pleasant with minimal kit and a host of sherpas.  Stripping in the chilly breeze was not quite as nice.  The carry to the Pit where the upstream sump begins is short and easy although the traverse down to the sump appears daunting to the first time visitor.  Soon, with the help of YAD ("ye're all doomed"), we were ready to dive. Suddenly a loud bang punctuated the quiet gurgling of the stream.  Pete Mulholland's high pressure hose had ruptured.  The option was to scrap the entire trip or for me to do a tourist dive through sump one.  The temptation was too great.  Waving goodbye to a seriously disgruntled PM, I gently pushed my head into the sump.

Clear water and good lighting made the dive along a gently meandering tube quite delightful.  At one point an inlet on the right could be clearly seen.  In low water conditions the wallow between sumps 1 and 2 was rather muddy while sump 2 was just a low duck.  At last I could dekit in a nice roomy stream passage and off I went to visit sump 3. Not having read the survey very carefully I was rather surprised to see a stream cascading from an aven near sump 3. Closer inspection of the aven suggested it would be a fairly straightforward climb so up I went. After 8 metres of back and footing I emerged in a sort of chamber (named Sotanito by Farr) formed where a section of partially filled horizontal upper passage had been washed out and enlarged by the stream inlet.  To the left beyond a delicate scramble over a mud bank the rumbling of a distant waterfall which I guessed was Thunderghast led me to a dodgy looking climb.  I turned back and looked at the right hand passage which ended in a sandy crawl.

Calling it a day I reversed the climb and rekitted.  A high pressure leak meant a rather unnerving single bottle return through the sump in low vis.  Elation greeted my discovery especially when I thought I had discovered a major sump bypass. The big put down came from Julian when it was pointed out that the aven was discovered by Martyn Farr 15 years ago. The only new thing I had done was actually use the route which in fact removes most of the hassle in getting to sump 4.

Over the scallops that night Julian persuaded us it was our duty to survey the downstream section of upstream ANUS to establish the link point with known cave.  Brian Johnson was dragged reluctantly away from a planned dive in Lower Traligill and the morrow saw a team of BEC diggers and cave divers shiveringly donning soggy wet suits outside ANUS.  The trip was uneventful apart from minor light failures.  The survey was accomplished, sump 4 reached and many acceptable pictures taken.  Meanwhile back in the main cave YAD was in digging frenzy mode.  I predict it will not be long before there is a dry way into upstream ANUS and we have Scotland's second mile long cave. Surface digs also could make the breakthrough.

The next day it rained - all day.  The three Petes went to Kylesku (pronounced Kile - Skew) and bravely kitting up in the vertical water entered the horizontal salty version lapping the south ferry slip.  Pristine clay pigeons littering the sea bed testified to the local hotel owner's lack of marksmanship while in deeper water and in a slacker current than last year we were able to explore a near vertical wall smothered in multicoloured feather stars. The whisky and Chicken Tikka in the pub afterwards were equally as good!  The evening was spent in a soggy fester with YAD again in digging mode trying to excavate a minute resurgence low down in Traligill.

The last day dawned bright and sunny.  It was go for it day at Lower Traligill.  Brian and I decided to go down unaccompanied while everybody else dug at ANUS or went down Claonite.  While I was taking a snap of Brian outside Traligill a fully grown male otter leapt out of the plunge pool and sleekly scrabbled past me to lunge into the Traligill flood sink.

The water level seemed ominously high at the entrance but we pressed on regardless with a small amount of kit.  Bitter disappointment struck when we found the diving line was submerged beneath 3 metres of peat stained water.  The jinx was still operative.  We spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures and gorge running down to Firehose.

Pete Mulholland returned to base in the evening very satisfied with his day's work.  He had made a detailed survey of ANUS sump 1, spending so much time underwater that the sherpas had begun to worry. Now plotted, this survey confirms that a dry link should be imminent.

Sadly we had to leave the next morning.  It was an extended farewell as we stopped periodically on the Ullapool road for pictures in the clear rich morning light.  We will return.  Finally if I have left anyone's activities out, my apologies - you can write it next time.

Personnel: Peter Glanvill (DSS,CSS,CDG,BEC), Peter Mulholland (DSS) , Peter Cox (CSS), Peter Rose (CSS,BEC), Tony Jarratt (BEC,GSG,CDG), Brian Johnson (BEC,CDG), Vince Simmonds, Rob Taviner, Graham Johnson (all BEC) , Julian Walford (GSG,UBSS, CDG) , Tony Boycott (BEC,UBSS,CDG)

Peter Glanvill June 1991