Birks Fell Cave
Saturday, 19 April 2014

The date of the permit drew close and it became apparent that the weather would be good. Previous permits for this cave had been rained off so this development was most welcome. The next challenge was to assemble a team. Shezi had already been talked into the trip. Mark hadnt managed to recruit anyone for Sundays YUCPC Dale Head permit, and the forecast for Sunday had deteriorated, so he decided on Birks Fell instead. Mike Bottomley was thinking of coming with a few others and Mike Butcher and Kristian Brook also decided to come.

It would have been silly to all go down as one group so Mark, Shezi and I became the rigging team. This required an early start so Mark and I left York at 7. Stopping at Leeds to pick up Shezi and the tackle, we made good progress up Wharfedale. We reached Kettlewell at 9 and found Zarinas to be shut. Fortunately the Cottage Tea Room was open and we ordered food. At this point, Matt and Gary from YCC walked in and looked as surprised to see us as we were to see them!

After eating and chatting we went to the car park in Buckden. The price of the car park was fortunately cheaper than equivalents in the Lake District. A chilly change ensued then we set off walking to the other side of the dale.

I handed the permit to the farmer, who asked us to let him know when we were out, and followed the path up the hill. Mark and I quickly located the cave entrance but Shezi did not and was heard shouting for us over a wall. Quickly reunited, we sorted out gear, pulled up our kneepads, turned on our lights and went into the cave.

A section of stream passage led to the Bradford Crawl. As expected, this required some excavation. I made slow progress, moving individual cobbles to the side of the passage to allow me through. More crawling, walking and crawling took us to the first pitch. We didn’t fancy the bypass so abseiled down instead.

We rejoined the streamway after further caving. This stream passage contained several cascades and is probably one of my favourite cave passages. We emerged under the wall of Shooting Box Aven to the sight of an impressive waterfall.

A mixture of boulder-floored and stream passage took us to 40 Years Corner with impressive formations. There were many flowstone formations throughout the cave which were pearly white and had not been damaged by the passing of cavers. Most of these still seemed active which may have helped, immediately washing off any mud which had been transferred onto them. The relatively low
number of visitors to the cave has also probably helped.

More boulders, streamway and crawling followed. One crawl, the Second Wet Bedding Cave, was full of grit which gets inside your gloves and boots and annoys you. At Moon Milk Cave we slithered under The Block and chose to climb down to the streamway directly beneath The Block, instead of the more exposed climb further on which is suggested in the black book. Our chosen route is probably not suitable for larger cavers, but then neither is the squeeze underneath The Block.

Cascade Pitch was just around the corner. This had spits with hangers on them. Subsequent research has suggested that these may belong to the BRCC. Later on, Mike and Kristian told us that they had found P anchors at the top of the rift, but that is not the usual route and would require more rope. Mark rigged the pitch, discovering that a mix up with the bags had occurred, which would cause problems later at Shale Pitch.

A few cascades took us to a rift passage. The guidebook indicated there would be a duck here but this was only a short section of thigh deep water in stooping height passage. More streamway and decorated passage took us to the Elbow Bend.

Up until here the passage was mostly straight but the character changed at this acute bend. The cave was more oppressive with a slippery floor. A short section of deeper water took us to some streamway and a narrow traverse. The damp, 91m long Shale Crawl followed and this section had thick mud coating its low roof. Eventually we arrived at Shale Cavern and went to look at Shale Pitch.
Mark got rigging and very soon discovered that the spits were in an appalling condition. In particular, the nearest hanger on the right hand wall was very loose and the cause was traced to a piece of rubber inside the spit, preventing the bolt from being screwed more than halfway in.

At this point, Mike Butcher and Kristian Brook arrived. Mike was fairly keen to descend the pitch but his enthusiasm waned (along with ours) as the rigging problems became apparent. Mark had rigged a tri hang to the three bolts and backed this up to a small spike. However, the position of the bolts meant it was inevitable that the rope hung in the full force of the stream. A knot pass not far below was required because of the earlier tackle bag mix up. To top it off, the natural rebelay anchor described in the black book could not be located. Descending the pitch would have been neither pleasant nor safe and we decided to turn around at the top of the pitch.

Shezi, Mark and I set off out while Mike and Kristian finished derigging the pitch. At the top of Cascade Pitch we found Mike Bottomley with a small group. After a chat we continued, stopping to eat in Moon Milk Cave. Mark found that his malt loaf was soaked in cave water. In addition, he remembered that he didn’t like malt loaf anyway. After he justifiably complained about the quality of his meal we continued to Shooting Box Aven. We had a very quick break to refuel again then set off out, with some minor route finding confusion in the Connection Crawl area. Eventually we were out after around 7.5 hours underground.

We walked back to Redmire Farm to let the farmer know that we were out then got changed by the car. Mike and Kristian arrived and we learned that Kristian had lost his camera in the cave. It seemed to have escaped his oversuit pocket via a rip in the bottom.

Mark dropped us off at Skipton station after some minor faff caused by the lack of signs to the station. A train soon appeared, taking Shezi and I back to Leeds. A change at Leeds took me to York where my bed was very welcome.

Many thanks to everyone for coming and making the trip a success!