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Northern Weekend

Another thrilling episode in the Wilton-Jones saga

by Graham Wilton-Jones

‘It is still more comforting to spend two trips, laddering on one and de-laddering on the other.’ (David Heap)

I can think of nothing less comfortable than doing two trips into Penyghent Pot, even if spaced by a week or so of work.  Perhaps carrying all the tackle in and out on the same trip could be worse, but our Fred had arranged better than that.  He had organised three groups; one to start early on Saturday morning and ladder the pot to the bottom; a back-up party to help tackle hauling through the canal as necessary; and us - Fred, Bernard, Brian, Throstle, Bucket and Graham - do de-rig.  We were to go down about mid day.

Originally I had decided to spend the weekend on Mendip, but a phone call from Bucket on Friday morning changed my mind.  So having dashed down from High Wycombe and endured the committee meeting, I forfeited the call of the Hunters and sped northwards, arriving at 1.30 on Saturday morning.  Not the best sort of preparation for a relatively strenuous trip later that day!

The days caving did not start well.  We were not at all welcome at a certain caving headquarters near Horton, where we had previously stayed on a number of occasions.  However, such pettiness was soon left behind as we climbed.  Jangling with hardware, up the slopes of Penyghent. Across the fields we saw the back-up party heading towards the 'Crown' - sensible fellows.  Up at the entrance to the pot, a small orange tent was the only sign that anyone was 'at home'.

By 1.30 we were all making our ungainly way through the canals and crawls of the entrance passage. The stooping, hands and knees progress and flat-out crawling in icy cold water sometimes half-filling the passage is not excessively arduous, but it can be slow, awkward and painful as it proved when we returned, tired and worn, with piles of tackle.

When we finally reached the first pitch we were all surprised to find two ladders belayed there. However, we soon discovered the reason, for up the passage came a party from a York club.  One of their members was ill, so they were taking him out and abandoning the trip.  This was just as well, as C.N.C.C. booking is required for this area.  We had access for the whole weekend and were more than a little annoyed to find the York party pirating this access.  Incidentally, this also meant that they were trespassing and this could have jeopardised a very carefully negotiated agreement with local farmers and landowners.  We were more then glad to see them come out.  Consider the implications of a cave rescue under these circumstances from the nether reaches of the system, and the ensuing uproar!

The second stretch of passage is designed for people who are five feet high and involves almost continuous stooping all the way down to the next pitch.  Fred turned back because of old injuries which this aggravated.  This section was soon over and, below the next pitch, we found ourselves lying flat in a bedding plane looking out over a big pitch with no sign of a ladder.  Had we read the appropriate literature more carefully, we would have been quicker to find the alternative descent to the left.  The first 18m (59 feet) section of this is free-climbable, but the ladder for the next 20m (66 feet) or so, hangs mostly free near one wall of this wind and spray swept pot.

The rift passage that follows contains a number of short, vertical sections, roughly half of which are free climbable.  Mostly we were in the stream, but occasionally it was easier or drier to traverse above for a while and climb down at a more convenient point. Suddenly the passage drops out of this joint-controlled rift, down a short cascade and into a bedding plane. A little bit of wading brought us into the Boulder Chamber - a brief enlargement of the passage with an aven and some large loose fill.

Here we caught up with the tackling party, led by Mick.  They had had some difficulty in finding the route in the Rift Passage, where it is possible to traverse at the wrong level (as in Dowber Gill) and so had lost time. While they now set off on the last section, we sat around to let them get ahead and consulted the survey. After some time and some food, we continued down between boulders and the edge of the chamber, back into the stream. Below the next pitch, in the half-flooded bedding plane, we came upon the slightly warmer water emerging from the inlet from Hunt Pot.  I had a look along the passage, but the thought of crawling in all that water did not appeal.  Bucket had to go up and look as well, and shouted back that he could stand up, and that the passage went on like that.  Disbelievingly, we crawled along and came, indeed, upon a brief rise in roof level, only to see B.C.T. crawling along the next bit of bedding plane, muttering excuses about not saying that the standing up section went on for ever.  We told him to come back and not be so silly, which he did. We continued downstream.

These final sections of passage are not joint-controlled but do follow the jointing fairly closely. This results in the floor being cut up with deep grooves, just right for twisting ankles or braking legs.  We therefore went more slowly and with caution.

We rapidly descended the next two pitches and caught up with the advance party once again, who were having some difficulty in laddering the final pitch – Niagara.  The impression on this pitch is somewhat of Niagara Falls, and the resemblance must be closer in flood conditions, but the pitch is short and easy like the previous one and can be free climbed out of the water.

Soon we were down at the sump, where we lingered a while - for the advance team had only just begun its exit.  Although foam was visible high up in the roof in places, we were not particularly concerned, since the forecast was excellent and conditions had been dry for some time. We had not gone far on the route out when we caught up with the other team again - and this occurred on several of the pitches.  The journey back to the surface was fairly straightforward.  We had abseiled down most of the drops and I was to self-lifeline out first.  However, this only proved necessary on the big, open 20m (66ft.).  On this I had great difficulty moving my Jumar up the rope, and hung on the rope several times to get more tension in it.  (Brian held it at the bottom).  I was therefore just a trifle upset when I reached the top to find this line, with a bight part way along it, casually draped over a rounded flake of rock and a bloke's hand on the top to stop it jumping or slipping off. After a few pleasant words about belaying, I lifelined the next man up and we started hauling tackle.  Except for one silly display of incompetence, when the tackle fell from a great height - scattering those below - all went well. I must stress that this incident was the fault of the collectors and tiers, not the haulers.  We only hauled the tackle up the 18m (59ft) and the 20m (66ft). On all the other pitches it was possible to carry it or hand it up.  Perhaps this was a mistake on the first pitch, for the take-off is rather awkward and carrying tackle up this was, at least for me, a great effort.  From the bottom of this pitch to the end of the canal was hard and the only thing that made me hurry was the thought of a jar at the Crown.

So at last we reached the entrance, after eight hours.  Willing hands appeared - I don't know whether they were from the laddering or the back-up team - and helped us out with the equipment.  Thanks, anyway, and thank you, Fred, for such excellent organisation.  You missed a good trip, but I shan't go again.  Once is enough for anyone!

The title of this article did say 'Weekend', so I suppose some mention of the following day should be made, Fred's house is not too far from a disused railway viaduct which has 70 foot (21m) arches.  After bones and muscles had recovered a little and I.B.S. had diminished, we went out for a couple of hours A & P - or S.R.T. - or whatever you like to call it.

I think that when I give up caving, I shall take up railway arching!