Chris Harle tackles the Titan cave in Castleton
Over the last three winters Mad (Mick Langton) and I have been on over forty caving trips in Derbyshire. However there has been a nagging self-accusation that has continued to taunt us. “But you haven’t done Titan yet.”
Just six miles away from the Outside shop, Titan is a monster cavern lurking beneath the hillside above Castleton and is part of the complex Peak-Speedwell caving system. The name refers to a single vertical shaft that measures 141.5m /464' high and is now recognised as Britain’s deepest natural underground shaft. It beats the previous record in Gaping Gill, Yorkshire by 43.5m /142'.
Incredibly, Titan remained hidden until 1999 when it was discovered by Dave ‘Moose’ Nixon and friends. It took a further six years of monumental effort and engineering skills to make it accessible for caving.
So, this year we got our acts together to make the trip happen. This meant focusing on several vertical trips to get fit, becoming members of the British Caving Association (because access is only granted to those who have the requisite insurance) and then making a booking through the designated key holder.
To strengthen our team, we decided that we needed someone with technical competence, who was fit and had no fear of wild situations, could carry heavy bags and most importantly someone we trusted and was enthusiastic about going. Who better to recruit than Mr ‘Piolet d’Or’ himself, Paul Ramsden?
To get to the top of Titan you must locate a locked manhole cover in a field on Hurd Low. Then a 50m abseil down an excavated shaft and just a 20m walk leads to a balcony overlooking Titan. It is higher than Big Ben or the London Eye and twice as high as Chesterfield’s ‘crooked spire’. With some trepidation I looked down into a bottomless chasm, but my bright headlamp was swallowed up in the enormity of Titan. Paul thought he had the answer by bringing down a large and heavy spotlight. Unfortunately, its beam was totally underwhelming and a big disappointment. Neither of us had reckoned with the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ of the torch world. Mad smirked and said, “That’s not a torch.” He pulled out a chunky handheld torch, turned it on and illuminated the world. “THIS is a torch!”
Caving photography is notoriously difficult, but Paul’s efforts certainly give an excellent impression of the grand scale and atmosphere. Mad had the unnerving task of rigging the ropes and abseiling first into the void below. The first pitch is an 80m free-hanging descent to the sloping ledge appropriately called the Event Horizon (the boundary of a black hole). This is immediately followed by another 60m drop accompanied by a waterfall, which on this occasion provided only a momentary light shower.
We gathered at the bottom to marvel at our surroundings, take a selfie, and contemplate the daunting journey back up the rope using mechanical ascending devices and a fair amount of muscle power. Initially our efforts to ascend were frustratingly abortive due to the considerable stretch in the rope, but eventually you leave the ground on a very bouncy rope. Many, many pull-ups later you gratefully arrive at the intermediate belay station, where a tricky changeover connects you with the even longer top section. Part way up you realise that the floor is now 100m /330' below you, that your headlamp only dimly lights the surrounding rock walls, and that the single rope you are hanging on seems to be getting thinner and thinner…
All very spooky and not to everyone’s taste but I absolutely loved it. When we eventually emerged into the sunshine and the picturesque Peak District landscape it was clear that Mad and Paul felt likewise. Everything had gone to plan and the 4-hour round trip had been reasonably efficient. The celebratory pint of Farmer’s Blonde has never tasted so good.