SMWCRT Cave Rescue Training Exercise

Ystradfellte and Nedd Valley caves

Saturday 17 March 2018

Ferocious cold weather greeted the 26 team members who braved the cold and also the forecast warning of a pending blizzard that evening (‘the Beast from the East’, most relevant for the Gloucester CRG participants). The sunshine provided some compensation for the cold and intense wind chill on exposed ground, perhaps not the ideal context for a practice primarily on the surface to search the entrances of the Ystradfellte and Nedd Valley caves!

Surface control was set up in the Porth yr Ogof car park with kind permission of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and the exercise was initiated by dividing those present into three search teams. A scenario of an overdue party with uncertain cave was established simply as the basis for the primary objective of the exercise, to facilitate greater familiarity of SMWCRT members with the large number of smaller cave locations around the Cwm Porth and Afon Hepste area, Lower and Upper Nedd Valley and moorland edge around Pant Mawr East (Pwll Pinder to Ogof Sanna). With over 40 reported caves, 10-494 m in length, excluding Porth yr Ogof at 220 m and Little Neath River Cave at 8800 m, the search for the overdue caving party with an uncertain itinerary would be daunting. The key to effective location of the many caves based on recent verified GPS co-ordinates was effective route finding, not least to check the validity of the approach routes described on the archived search cards. This practice to seek efficient and accessible routes to quickly find and check clusters of caves was deemed worthwhile, although undertaken in especially challenging conditions for a primarily surface activity, with recorded -5oC, taking account of the wind chill factor from the Arctic easterly wind.

The three search teams included a guide, familiar with the area, a navigator with GPS and list of cave GPS co-ordinates to check location and route details and another individual to photograph waymarks and the cave entrances, with the intention to update the SMWCRT search cards where applicable. The initial searches by two of the teams were around Hepste caves and those around but excluding Porth yr Ogof, and the lower Nedd Valley, simply to focus time on the less familiar caves. This was based on the knowledge that the car of the overdue cavers was parked in Porth yr Ogof car park. This was later modified with new information that the cavers had travelled in two cars and, with registration details received, the second car was located at Bridge Cave car park. This justified the search in the upper Nedd Valley and Pant Mawr East throughout the exercise by the second search team.

A number of favourable outcomes arose. There were better than expected radio communications throughout the day. The use of the extension aerial at Surface Control was worthwhile and achieved radio communications over a 3 km radius. An individual walking to the crest of the ridge, west of Porth yr Ogof, that separates the valleys, was sufficient to serve as a relay and provide full VHF radio coverage. This allowed Surface Control to receive frequent updates on caves located and searched, and a dot-to-dot map tracked the progress of the three search teams very well indeed. If anything, the ease of radio communications led to a high workload and more Rescue Control personnel would have been helpful. A successful radio check was made from Porth yr Ogof cave entrance to Surface Control. Feedback from one search team identified that more radios would have been useful so that the team members could pair up to search clusters of shakehole entrances but keep in touch with the group leader, a suitable strategy for this kind of scenario.

Team 1 reported the poor state of the paths on their search route around Hepste caves and that the Ogof Ffynnon entrance was very loose and unstable. The recorded descriptions were not always accurate for the other caves, for example, with twin entrances found where one was described.

Team 2 searched an area in the Nedd Valley characterised by lots of shakeholes in very similar terrain. The main lesson learnt was not to follow a straight line to the next nearest grid reference because this did not follow the easiest route across the terrain. Good communications were maintained except from Pwll Pinder.

Team 3 reported that the recorded grid reference for Pwll y Coeden Gnau was inaccurate and the description of the route was no longer helpful due to changes in vegetation and paths. Radio communications were poor in the valley but very good on the higher slopes, as was anticipated. It was possible to achieve reasonable signal strength by walking part way uphill from the valley cave locations.

Ogof y Gwal no longer exists as the farmer has filled in the entrance again. This has happened a number of times over the years.

Several lessons were learnt about group composition and valuable feedback was received from Team members. Many of the GPS locations were confirmed as correct, a few as inaccurate and a number of photographic images have been collated of the current appearance of many of the cave entrances. Some fresh individuals participated in Surface Control to gain experience should regular, experienced individuals be unavailable to contribute the Rescue Control function in a real incident. The rescue practice co-ordination team also appreciated the need to better match the levels of experience and confidence of volunteers with key roles in a search team when there is adverse weather and too little time available to enable such individuals to learn the role. The general principal to encourage anyone present to step up and take on a rescue role, is fully encouraged to improve experience and personal development during a practice. We do, however, recognise that this may be unsatisfactory if it compromises the team’s ability to complete the objective. We also recognise that it is important in future to either provide a mentor in such circumstances, or to ensure that there is ample time available for such volunteers to settle into an unfamiliar role.

Peter Dennis, SMWCRT Training Officer

29 April 2018