Between 2010 and 2015 the Buttered Badger potholing club undertook a huge effort to extend Rowter Hole into the challenging cave it now is. In 2013 I joined this effort, undertaking almost weekly digging efforts which ultimately gave us this awesome cave in the Peak District.
It’s hard to summarise what went on here but I suppose I was fortunate, before I joined the team had been digging elsewhere, the elsewhere turned out to be a blind dig that didn’t return the rewards it deserved. When I finally turned up ‘gin shaft’ was not long under way, probably around 6 metres deep and not yet at the full width it would soon become.
Rowter hole up to this point had been a mostly mined chamber reached by a 60m descent down a old mine shaft. You could take in the whole cave in a matter of minutes with the prussick out taking less than 10 minutes when we were at our most proficient (and we didn’t have several drills and concrete strapped to our harnesses!).
In April 2013 the new dig location was started, I joined in around October 2013, in March 2014 we made a small breakthrough into a small stream passage, and then in May 2014 we finally got through the dodgy choke into the two left wellies pitch. It was all happening very quickly but was taking a lot of effort, we were down there 1 night a week and most weekends as well, our bodies were getting battered. Through a lot of hard work we finally reached Sunrise in June 2014 which completed our effort of turning this cave into a epic.
Gin shaft gave us the first breakthrough, named after the gin wheel we used to haul buckets and also the amount of gin we indulged in to sooth our pains. This was digging at its easiest, it was a 60m descent to the main chamber then a 1 minute walk to the dig site. It was a well used dig so we had some supplies there, including a stove for mid dig tea breaks. The whole digging effort was finely engineered, with setups for 2 diggers and setups for more diggers. Space was an issue so when we had enough diggers we had one or two digging, two hauling, with the bucket then attached to a second system to take it diagonally, which two others hauled. The idea was to leave space around the dig for spoil for the occasions when it was just Mark and Myself digging down there. Progress was very rapid with a solid wall making up one wall, and a rectangular scaffolding system making up the other three walls. The idea was to dig down a foot, then hammer down the planks to stop infill, then every 3 feet we’d install a new ring of scaffolding to brace the structure and slide the boards behind this.
Our first breakthrough came on the weekend of the 1st-2nd March, just a smidge over 10 months since we started this dig. During two midweek digs the previous week we’d discovered a bit of an alcove in the solid wall with a crack, a crack leading off into blackness with the sound of water beyond. This first breakthrough, much like the second, was somewhat sketchy. The alcove had left boulders just somehow hanging in the roof, defying gravity but waiting to cause an almighty crash, a crack backed up by 15m of rock directly above us. It took us an entire day to secure this alcove, carefully sliding 8 foot scaffold poles along the roof and adding countless supports. The scaffolding could never hold the weight of the rocks but that wasn’t its job, as long as we stopped the rocks from moving then the rocks themselves would support the whole thing. With Saturday being almost solely used to steady the rock face Sunday was to be our breakthrough day. That’s not to say it happened straight away, it took all of Saturday morning until it was “safe” enough to go on. The rift that lead on had rock peeling off it in huge chunks, which required capping to blast it apart (not ideal in such a dodgy spot), and then more hauling to get it all out.
Finally not long after lunch Mark carefully lowered himself through the rift, finding himself on a floor, a floor which turned out to be false as every step caused banging in the distance below. Despite the build up to this breakthrough we seemed lost when it happened, with Mark calling up for the bolting kit and us all struggling to find it all, eventually the last part was located (the all important spanner) and I climbed down gin shaft with it in my mouth to pass to Chris to pass to Mark. We all sat at the top of the rift listening to the drilling, passing the rope through carefully with no idea of how big the drop was down there. Finally the call of “rope free” came and Chris followed on down, the sound of rocks bouncing as every movement touched some part of the cave that had never been touched before. The second call came and I oh so carefully followed, I didn’t want the cave collapsing on me but I did want to see.
Over time we came to realise that this false floor was far more stable than e first thought, but at the time it was a false floor that could go at any moment, so I made sure I was attached to the traverse line with as little slack as possible. The end of the traverse was a very short pitch, maybe 5-7 metres, it always felt less as there was a wedged boulder half way down making it essentially free-climbable. Below this was the fabled stream, running from the west where it appeared out of the ceiling, and running to the east, where it disappeared into bad badger choke, another pile of rocks to get through!
This first breakthrough whilst small in size was big in importance, we had flowing water now, something to follow. This was natural cave, no stemples, no sign of miners from 300 years ago, fresh new cave. Quite frankly it was awesome.
It took almost exactly 2 months to get through bad badger choke, as on Sunday 4th May four of use made the breakthrough into two left wellies, so named as Adam turned up that morning with wellies consisting of a left foot welly, and a left foot welly….
We’d been working through this choke horizontally above the flowing water that was somewhere below. This involved more scaffolding and the passing of rocks out until there was a hole ahead opening into darkness. This hole opened up into real cave, a passage 4 metres wide and 6 metres tall, a passage that continued until a large drop, a pitch 35m or so down into a unknown pool of water. We hadn’t expected this and so our 20m of rope only took us down to a ledge that didn’t really improve our ability to see beyond.
Mark and myself went back the following Tuesday and ferried as much rope and bolting gear as we could through the two dodgy chokes to the top of two left wellies. Mark rigged the descent down which required some traversing to avoid descending in a waterfall and then disappeared. He left the bolting gear behind and said he would shout back if he needed it. A minute or two later I heard.
“Tom! Bring the drill… Bring everything!”
I arrived at the bottom a few minutes later looking a bit like a pack horse, with rope, drill, bolts, the lot bolted to any part of my harness I could find free. The pitch followed a waterfall into a pool of water, a pool which we feared may be a dark nasty sump, it wasn’t. The pool was inches deep and a huge cave continued beyond the waterfall, underneath where we had just come from.
White flow stone and the relief of the cave continuing gave this next pitch its name, “milky relief”, and with Mark bolting on I eagerly followed down into cave so different from what was above, large open and clean washed. It’s an odd sensation when you stop and think, here we are in the UK, yet we are stepping on ground no other human has stepped on before, seeing things no other human had seen before. At this point more humans had been to the moon than had been to these caverns, insane!
The bottom of this pitch brought us to “decisions decisions”, so named due to the choice of ways on. The waterfall disappeared into the floor (which we’d eventually dig through into a sump), there were silt filled tubes to the side, a silt filled passage ahead and then a narrow rift disappearing uphill and away from us. This rift turned out to be the way on, called the “Ice cream trail” due to its white flowstone walls.
The Ice Cream Trail
This rift acts as a natural barrier to a lot of cavers, it’s tight twisting route involves drops of 5 metres and squeezes, it only goes on for 80m or so but it doesn’t half cause some bruises. Due to it’s tight nature it was only fair that little Chris went first finding his way all the way to the “crystal orechasm”, a too tight squeeze that lead to a large unknown drop.
It wasn’t until July that we got into the Crystal Orechasm, descending into this much darker part of the cave. The walls seem much blacker in the Orechasm with a drop of around 35m from the squeeze down to the bottom of this chamber.
The bottom of this chamber has water disappearing into the floor, and if you throw a rock down the right place you can hear it plopping into pooled water. After surveying the whole cave and neighbours it can be seen that this part of the cave is oh so close to Whirlpool rising in peak cavern (a neighbouring cave). But for now we had another way on, back above the squeeze into the orechasm, a bolt climb up for 30 or so metres into “hourglass aven”. The traditional way to get into this part of new cave is something new, you squeeze out backwards onto the pitch, then do a horrendously wide rope to rope transfer to get up onto the fixed rope that leads up into the next part of the cave, more absolutely huge cave that continues up to “sunrise”
After the rope to rope transfer you prussik up the large crystal orechasm, through a bit of a constriction, and up into the equally huge hourglass aven. Hourglass aven is a 45 degree slope of loose rocks that if you disturb they will slide down 80 odd metres and impale which ever poor sod was at the bottom. This meant we had to be careful, and stick close together when moving around (and always inspect the rope before used).
We would eventually install rock nets along this slope to catch all the loose death. Black netting across the route at several points, only allowing the rocks to slide a few metres at a time. We put a handline all the way up the aven which does require prussiking up in places, until it reaches the relative safety of the top, where the floor becomes solid and not scree, and there is a side passage off to the party sausage (so named after I offered party sausages around for a mid cave snack, they’re unsurprisingly robust).
Above hourglass aven is the throne room, so named as this chamber at the top of a calcite slope has a big upstanding calcite slab at the top with steps below. I mentioned that it looked like a throne and the chamber had its name. Above the throne room was a short bolt climb that lead to more darkness, annoyingly we didn’t have the kit the first time as it’s a long long way to drag it, but we knew we’d be back.
When Sunrise was finally climbed into and surveyed it became the furthest reaches of Rowter. A cave now over 180m deep, which then climbed 120m the other side. The top of sunrise isn’t that far from the surface, if there ever was a breakthrough to the surface it would make for a very enjoyable through trip, but for now it is a single entrance challenge. Without excessive gear it’s only 5 hours to the end and back, but with a mix of squeezes, pitches, scrambles and thrutching it certainly saps your energy.
The Rowter Hole extensions was a massive project undertaken as a hobby. Countless individuals put their time, effort and money into making this cave what it now is. We hope that many cavers will enjoy what should become a Peak District Classic. I feel honoured to have been a part of project and to have done something truly unique in this country.