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Wellington Caving Group

2006-Mt Arthur-20th Anniversary

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This article was first published in SumpThink in October 2006

Caving Mt Arthur, New Zealand

Mike Coburn

Mike Wood tells me that this tear, in October, is the 20th anniversary of the first Nettlebed through trip. Accordingly, he has given me a copy of "The house journal of the Edward Dunlop group of companies" which contained the following article.

"Write something on Caving for the Bulletin, Mike." Well yeah, O.K., but it isn't that easy, a lot has happened in New Zealand Caving in the last year or two, especially in the Marble Mountains of N.W. Nelson in the South Island.

For 20 years or more Cavers have tried to break into the large cave system which was believed to lie beneath Mt. Arthur. At the base of the mountain on the N.W. side the Pearse River flows out of the rock in a huge spring, obviously large caves existed within the mountain, but the spring was impenetrable even to divers, and attention at first was focused on the many shafts which pocked the mountain above the bush line. None of the shafts however led to any significant horizontal passage, most became too small to follow, or were choked with rock debris. Then in 1969 a Nelson Caver on a prospecting trip in the bush above the rising, discovered an entrance in a nettle patch, which he called Nettlebed Cave. Initially 1.3 km in length, this cave ended in a tight squeeze out of which roared a powerful draught. In 1979 the squeeze was first passed and Nettlebed began to give up some of its secrets; an underground river was found which was dye-tested to the spring, expeditions and private trips over the next few years surveyed their finds and added to the growing map. Because the cave was being explored from the bottom up, rockclimbing techniques had to be employed on some of the obstacles, including a 150-ft. high waterfall, an underground camp-site was established to help exploration in the far reaches of the cave. By 1984 the known cave was about 23 km in length, and the pace of discovery had begun to slow.

About this time several Wellington Cavers were considering buying an old car and garaging it in Picton so that South Island Caving trips (and tramping, skiing and canoeing trips) could be done more easily.

The "Long Range Caving Croup" was formed, and we bought a 1963 American Rambler station wagon. This vehicle was an eye-opener to those reared on Japanese cars, It apparently used jelly for suspension, had only three gears, and steered like a bus, but it took six Cavers and vast amounts of gear, and freed us from the inter-Island terries. We could now leave work on Friday night and fly by the cheapest "airline". This was a single-engined Cessna which landed in a paddock outside Picton; this saved us time, and trips to Mt. Arthur became feasible on normal two-day weekends.

With the slowing pace of discovery in Nettlebed, and the arduous and time-consuming nature of a trip to the back of the cave, attention was once again turning to the "tops". If a connection could be made with the cave beneath, it would provide a magnificent 'through trip and also give a much needed second entrance to this huge system.

In early 1985 two W.C.C. members had discovered a draughting hole in Horseshoe Basin which, when enlarged, revealed a vertical shaft. At the bottom of the shaft was a tight horizontal rift to the head of another shaft. This pattern of vertical pitch, followed by tight rift, was to continue for 11 pitches to a depth of 350 metres where, wonder of wonders, it intersected a roomy streamway. Up to this point, I had steered well clear of Windrift, as it had been named, Vertical Caving not being my strong point.

I had started Caving in the mainly horizontal caves of Wales, Vertical Caving moreover had undergone a revolution in technique, no longer do Cavers use the narrow wire-sided ladders and lifelines when pits have to be descended. Instead, alpine climbing equipment and techniques have been adopted and adapted until pitches hundreds of feet deep are now routinely done on a single rope. The downwards abseil is exhilarating, but inching back up that same rope using a system of sliding clamps attached to a harness, is something I find nerve-wracking. Still, over the years I had acquired the gear and experience to do these caves and now Wind rift had broken into the first sizeable stream passage found from the tops, I couldn't feign disinterest any longer. The cave was large and very interesting and the stream almost certainly drained to the Pearse about 1,000 m lower on the other side of the mountain, but it was now taking an enormous amount of time and energy to push.

We would fly to Picton on a Friday after work, drive to the top of the Graham Valley, and then walk for an hour with 60- 70 lb packs to the Mt.Arthur hut. If things went well, we got to bed about midnight. Next morning after breakfasting, sorting gear and walking to the cave, we would get underground about 11 a.m. then cave solidly for 18-20 hours before emerging into a frozen dawn and stumbling like zombies back to the hut to face another drive to the ferry. All this effort resulted in about 2 hours at the bottom of Windrift. The rest of the time was spent dragging body and pack up and down the torturous entrance series. To make things worse, the Rambler had been rolled and destroyed on the last skiing trip of 1985. We decided to mount an expedition of six people to spend 9-10 days underground so that Windrift could be thoroughly explored and mapped.

On 28th December, 1986, six of us with fourteen packs struggled back down Windrift. It took 24 hours to get everything down to a dry side-passage off the stream where we established a camp. A lot of thought had gone into our gear and supplies and several firms helped out with equipment and finance. We had fairydown sleeping bags and clothing, and Canterbury International Sportswear had made us special Caving oversuits from a new soft waterproof material. We had hundreds of metres of rope from Donaghy's N.Z. Our food was mostly freeze-dried though we also took a number of of Christmas puddings. We had two kerosene stoves, survey gear, climbing hardware and, of course, carbide. The lights we use burn acetylene gas which is produced in a generator slung around the waist. Water from the upper half drips onto carbide in the lower half and the resulting gas is piped to a jet on the front of a climbing helmet. A standby electric light is also mounted on the helmet.

With our camp-site established, we were set to stay down for up to ten days. By this time we hoped to have explored and surveyed the whole cave and hopefully linked it up to the Nettlebed System. The camp-site was a great success. Every "day" after breakfast we set off to see what the cave had to offer. We climbed, crawled, waded and swam, all the time surveying and occasionally photographing but by 6th January, we had run out of ongoing leads. Windrift was now about 4 km in surveyed length but the only possible routes left to Nettlebed were underwater and the thought of getting scuba gear down that entrance series didn't appeal. We started to break camp and de-rig the cave. It took two days before ourselves and all our gear were safely back at the hut and we all reckoned it would be a very long time before we ventured underground on Mt. Arthur again.

But, one snowy weekend in August saw four of us prospecting among the snowdrifts on the northern side of Arthur Ridge. Still chasing the elusive top entrance, we found a shaft just below the bushline which was taking in a howling draught. This hole was. .. christened "Blizzard Pot". It went down 30 m to a very tight squeeze with a right-angled bend in the middle. Below were more pitches needing more ropes. We returned next day and dug out some rocks which were threatening to run into the squeeze and rigged another three pitches before running out of rope.

A month later we were back and it was still snowing. We descended another 5 drops. Some of the pitches and passages were given names. At "Big Bong Pitch" the rope hung from a large piece of climbing hardware jammed in a slot. "Dodgy Piton Pitch" was hung from a small peg which didn't bear too close an examination. A 70-ft abseil out of "Big Virgin Passage" brought us into a chamber about 100 ft in diameter and 100 ft high, but here the cave began to fight back. The only route on was down. through the floor which was a pile of jammed boulders. A spray of freezing water fell from the roof and trickled through the boulders, soon saturating us and when Dave tried to squeeze downwards, the rocks started rumbling down with him. We beat a hasty retreat vowing not to return till Summer when the cave might be drier.

The next weekend I had arranged to take a friend Caving. Paddy O'Reilly was a caving buddy of mine from way back and he was visiting the country. Dave and I were to take him into Nettlebed for a weekend. While in there, we of course decided to visit the part of the cave which we thought was closest to our discoveries in Blizzard Pot. This we did and found an inlet series with a small stream dropping out of the roof. As our party consisted of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman, we called the series "Old Joke Inlet". We surveyed the new find so that we could add it to the map and then headed out.

Back in Wellington the survey was drawn up, added to the Nettlebed map and compared with our Blizzard Pot map and the relative positions of both entrances on the Topographical Map., The conclusion was, "a few metres horizontally and 50 metres vertically should see us through". This of course was theoretical. In the real world we knew that Nettlebed was a vast cave which had been explored and surveyed piecemeal by dozens of different cavers. Cave surveying is done with a 30 m measuring tape, a compass, and an inclinometer. I guess surveying above ground is done in much the same way but in the often wet, constricted and difficult conditions of a cave it would be quite easy for small errors to creep in and accumulating errors from the only entrance could mean that the cave did not run in exactly the direction we thought it did. It was possible, even probable, that we were still a very long way from a connection. On the other hand though, it was equally possible that random errors would cancel each other out, spirits began to rise and we planned another push. All the misery of the previous trips was forgotten, the snow drifts, the blizzards on the ridge, the ice forming in my beard, all forgotten.

On Saturday, 18th October, we set out again from Mt:Arthur hut. A flurry of snow greeted us as we reached the ridge but it didn't have the bite of Winter. We had three more ropes totalling 100 m and in Dave's pack were several Vesta dinners, "just in case we got through". We soon reached the previous limit and got through the boulders with very little drama. It was now much drier but surveying it was a pain. A steeply descending passage lead to a 10 m pitch and more descending passage, then a 34 m pitch to the head of yet another drop. Doubts began to niggle again, perhaps it wasn't going to Nettlebed. What if it just petered out? Trevor kicked down several tons of boulders which were jammed across a rift and abseiled down followed by Dave, John and me. It took a while for the truth to dawn on us but we had dropped right out of the roof of Old Joke Inlet! When the yelling and yahooing had died down, Dave and I showed John and Trevor around the new bits and the we headed down to the camp-site in Salvation Hall to cook our Vestas and get some sleep.

Early on Sunday we emerged from the bottom entrance into a beautiful morning. We had gone in 1,130 m up the mountain and come out on the valley bottom at 270 m and we were the first! It was a good feeling.

It was a two-day wonder in the N.Z. Press, but there was an interesting sequel two weeks later. I was at home on a Saturday afternoon polishing the dog when the phone rang. It was a Melbourne radio station wanting an interview on the story. I reluctantly agreed thinking they would ring back when I'd got my brain into gear, but they said "right, just hold on until the music stops and you're on". I was left holding the phone, listening to a country and western ballad and thinking "my God, they're going to do it now, live"! I think it went off all right, but obviously I never got to hear it, maybe someone out there did?