Caving in the 1980’s

Knotlow Cavern

On the road to Ashbourne by 9, with detours to Steve’s house and my house for forgotten items – a flask in my case. Thence to Monyash, collecting the key to Knotlow from a shop in Monyash village. We noted that the “Bull’s Head”, which I’ve visited on at least three occasions, has re-opened as “The Hobbit”.  

At Knotlow we took a look down the 210’ engine shaft, and opened the Knotlow shaft itself, a comparative baby of 50’. Returning to the Allegro [for it was an Allegro, alas] we moved our gear into the barn and suited up. It was windy and cold; the odd powerful gust of wind penetrated the barn, raising goosebumps on naked hairy thighs. Back to the car for hardware, and over to the shaft. A single rope is made secure to a belaying pin, and I was first to abseil in, without mishap. Andy and Steve followed, and then our leader Roo. A ladder was left fixed for our return, and we descended to the second pitch, which was shorter. Another ladder was left here. Then we proceeded for some way through simple chest/waist high passages. Andy K and I were disappointed – this is in no way lives up to nearby Hillocks Mine, just across the way from here. Steve kept his gob shut – this was in fact his first time caving. A free-climb descent of ten or twelve feet was next. The other three went down this easy enough, then it came to my turn. I started well enough, chimneying down, and then I slipped… 

Falls like this occur before you even have the chance to be surprised. I fell the 10’ to the rocky floor in an instant but it seemed slow – I perceived duration during that fall, though it could have only been a split second.  I was unharmed and we proceeded. But all three of my colleagues were highly amused by the look of total, uncomprehending surprise (a “yokel look”, one of them said) on my face when I slipped.  

A little further, came unpleasant surprises for us who did not know the route. The passage became a crawl, filled with six inches of muddy and unbelievably cold water. Then the crawl became a squeeze. The first squeeze was satisfyingly hard – not quite frustrating.  The second was easier and wetter. The passage continued as a crawl. Our leader suddenly started talking about “the Bung series” and “Nick’s claim to fame” [I was the largest member of the party by some degree.] 

“You go first, Nick. Not meaning anything…no offence intended…if you can make it, we all can…” 

The way ahead led through a smooth, rounded hole, not unlike the neck of a wine bottle. A couple of false starts and I realised I could not make it through this with a helmet and lamp pointing other than downwards. Off came the helmet and lamp, which was shoved in front of me by hand, and I wriggled through with some difficulty – quite satisfying difficulty. Shortly after that, my lamp [these were actual hydrogen carbide lamps] drowned and went out. We got it relit, and we pushed on. The crawls and occasional squeezes continued relentlessly, to the point of pain in the elbows, to the point of the overalls almost being shredded by stones on the floor. The crawl went on and on, and on. Just at the point it was beginning to be a serious pain, it opened into a small room. A little stream trickled through. Iron bars inserted into the rock aided a free climb of eight feet or so to another crawl, leading to a fissure, and the end of the passage, where we rested before turning back. 

A brief halt to recharge our carbide lamps, and then back through the Bung Series and the watery squeezes. When it was time to stand up, so much time crawling ruined our sense of balance.  

At the second pitch, everyone had difficulty getting up. I fell off near the top. This was a protected pitch, which was just as well, but it didn’t stop me emitting a healthy yelp of fear, much to the delight of my companions. The ladder was hauled up, and we cleared the cavern with no further trouble, emerging to a windy summer Sunday afternoon, about three o’clock.  

Ireby Fell Cavern (grade III) 

Party: 11 persons including myself, led by “Caving Nigel”. 

We staggered across half a mile or so of fell from the minibus to the cavern entrance, and then underground. There was some sitting around as pitches were set up. This was a novice trip. Down the first pitch, then the second pitch, then on down the wet third pitch, making a total of around 90 feet of descent. Through a tunnel, then two wet and slippy free climbs of around six feet or so. Then along a bit and through a squeeze, a tight bit which took a bit of thinking to get through. Then hundreds of yards of narrow, twisty phreatic passages all around 12-18” wide. There were several ducks easily accomplished. After a lot of caving at quite a fast pace, we arrived at the head of the fourth pitch. The ladder for the fourth pitch, however, was at the top of the first pitch. It had been forgotten. There was some discussion. Caving Nigel, as the person responsible and our leader, volunteered to go back and fetch it, and started back alone.  

However, after waiting half an hour we decided in favour of Ingleton chippy, and turned back ourselves, hurrying. [9/1/21: There’s an unwritten story in there: the nominal 2 i/c of the party was “Climbing Nigel”, a very outspoken (gobby f***er would be putting it more accurately) Outdoor Ed student from South Shields. He would have led us back.] All straightforward caving except for the squeeze, which for me took about three tries. Up the third pitch, up the second pitch, getting tired now and needing to rest before the first pitch. I had no ladder technique; only the safety line kept me on near the top. Cleared the cave and retreated safely the minibus – a good day out. [I have a very vivid memory of two cavers taking the first pitch one after the other using what was then called SRT (Single Rope Technique) – what we’d call prusiking today – whilst we were waiting at the foot of the pitch for our turn.] 

The following day we did Calf Holes which I remember well for it was a sight we passed about two years earlier when we walked the Pennine Way.] 

Christmas Pot (grade III)

Route: Christmas Pot (grade III) six hours, Flood Entrance Pot (gr. IV).

Arriving in the Dales in time for lunch in the “Craven Heifer”, we moved onto Clapham to get ready. This pot has a long walk-in. More than three miles through six inches of snow. An interminable sweaty stagger through Trow Gill and up onto the moor, where it was very cold. The entrance to Christmas Pot is an oil drum set at a forty-five-degree angle, at the bottom of a doline. It took some time to set up the first pitch in the icy cold. By the time all six of us had descended the 90’ windy and broken pitch, darkness had fallen outside.  

From the foot of the first pitch, crawling passages, including passing over a hole in the floor some 30’ deep. I was in front [in caves the leader tends to bring up the rear.] Beyond that, some easy crawls, then up a bit, arriving at the start of a climb which led us to the second pitch. Down that using ladder and lifeline, some twelve feet or so. Onto a clean free descent to a gallery, which swiftly led downhill to the top of the third pitch. This pitch, thirty feet or so, led into an aven. From the aven, under a low roof, brought us to a low chamber full of pretty stalagtites and stalagmites, straws and curtains. Simon and I moved through this whilst the rest of the party were being belayed down the third pitch. Then through a light streamway, under a low boulder, past a huge stalactite and more pretty formations, and we came to a huge chamber strung about with pretties, about 10’ x 15’ x 40’. Ahead and down through a steep tunnel, and then time to turn back. 

Back up the three pitches. The 12’ free climb Nigel and I managed to do free and solo, but Nigel had to belay some of the party up it. We cleared the cave into the open air about 9pm. I pushed on ahead of the party carrying a full tackle bag across the moor, fighting a strange and irrational conviction that our outward-bound footprints lead nowhere. It took me a full eighty minutes to walk out from that cave back to the minibus in the icy cold darkness, and I was ahead of the rest of the party. 

[This trip marked the zenith of my life’s potholing experience. The following day, we went to Flood Entrance Pot. The entrance is a tight squeeze downwards. As I was in it, Nigel unwisely said that I might have trouble getting back UP through it on the way out. I could have done the squeeze, and could certainly have done it without a wetsuit, but the psychological effect of Nigel’s words at that moment were to increase my chest size by several inches, and I found it necessary to withdraw. It’s only partly coincidence that I have not been caving since. ]