One last trip. There’s just a few bits that need doing. We should probably just get it done. One. Last. Trip…

There had been discussion between myself and George for some weeks about the need to tie up the Hammer Pot survey while he still had the will to return to the place. We were pencilled in for Sunday, straight after George had a night shift booked in and with amber snow and sleet warnings for all of the north. Last time it had snowed whilst we were caving on Fountains Fell we had been forced to abandon his van there for a week and walk most of the way back to Horton. Not looking promising…

But then, the stars (or in this case the abject failure of Stroma/HRS to organise a job properly) aligned, and Friday was free with a great forecast. At this stage in the game, such an opportunity is not to be sniffed at, so I rather sadly asked Louise if we could postpone our planned evening of nice sport caving for the following week. Permission was granted and I proceeded to hurriedly pack and attempt to dry kit from the previous days action in Langcliffe. I had not been caving much at all this year after extredition to Ireland and I wanted to make sure things ran as smoothly as possible as I suspected I was not at all as fit as the last time I was in there just over a year ago.

Up at 7am to start cooking breakfast before George turned up with the wheels, and after faff (some necessary, some probably not) we were on the road by 8:45. The back way which sneaks between Ilkley and Keighley via Silsden was taken with great efficacity and we were in Settle to pick up cave snacks just over an hour later. The drive up to Fountains Fell was very picturesque and reassuringly sunny, with Penyghent looking particularly magestic. Despite being marginally smaller than Ingleborough and Whernside, I feel it has so much more character than both those hills. Its fantastic position, bridging the more desolate and wild lands of Wharfedale and Littondale to the east with the rather more civilised and tamed fells to the west that are home to most of the better-known caves in the Yorkshire Dales, lends it a certain stateliness and regality, like a watchman of the hills. It also holds so many unknowns and secrets which are screaming out to be unlocked and solved, which could shed light on a system possibly even bigger and more impressive than the Three Counties. Excitement began to build: could we, today, finish a chapter in our involvement with this fascinating place?

After packing bags we set off to the entrance, planning to change there. However, en route a further good omen presented itself in the form of an open door to the shooting hut, a first-time occurrence that we felt lucky to have been a part of. Gratefully accepting its shelter, we changed at quite a leisurely pace. The sun was out and it was not windy (which will astound anyone who is a regular visitor to Fountains Fell). Perfect conditions. We were somewhat reluctant to leave the tranquility of the surface, but needs must. Underground just before midday.

Swift but sweaty progress through the entrance series and Stemple Rift, which felt just as I remembered it. Sludge Crawl was much more pleasant than the last time I was in there, mainly due to my choice of garms. Double thermals are really not warm enough; 5mm neoprene perhaps a tad overkill, but a vast improvement. My glasses steaming up meant that the big milled holes in the floor of Out Fell Master Cave were a twat, but you’ve still got to be impressed by the sheer volume of water that enters the cave here. Tiptoed tentatively around the corner above the last pitch to the ropes, and once on the floor tied a knot in the end, for this was to be our aid to climbing up to a window 4m up the wall on the left of the chamber you’ve just landed in. George and Mike had explored this previously but not surveyed it, so now it was time. I headed up rather gingerly and found a station while George did some disto and PDA fettling. It often takes the disto a little bit of time to warm up to the environment in this cave, so although frustrating this didn’t dampen our spirits too much. After about 5 minutes it was shooting reliably so we started off. The passage was an enlarged rift that immediately ramped downwards back to stream-leveland then dropped down to a tube with a sandy floor that ramped down further still. Foam everywhere on the walls implied that the downstream sump backs up to here in the wet. After a few more legs and becoming very filthy We looked at the data and saw that a splay down through the very tight tube that I had been reversing into basically connected with a splay from the downstream sump. Satisfied that the connection had been made, we hightailed it out of there, exacting due caution on the downclimb. A fall here could mean a broken ankle, and exiting Stemple Rift with one of those would be very serious. The pitch rope was almost too well wedged to be removed from the crack, but I climbed back up and gave it a good tickle and it was free. Only 2pm; making good time.

Back up the ropes (hopefully for the last time for a while) and further wary fluttering around the parapet above the tumultuous currents. Climbing blind around a corner at the bottom of this cave above a big wet drop really focusses the brain on the task in hand. Further unfinished business here at Tank Passage: around 15-20m of wet rifty thrutching up an inlet to an impassable calcite blockage. This time Peachey was the culprit for the lack of data. Arriving at the data-front was not a pleasant experience: Tank Passage is rather well decorated and its constricted nature makes careful caving difficult. George bravely volunteered to insert himself into the rift backwards with the nail varnish while I followed on with the disto. We got 4 legs in before the disto decided to start giving us 255 so I reversed out and gave the lens a clean. Back in, had a go for a further few minutes trying to get something before George said “fuck it, the passage doesn’t go anywhere, we’ve got better things to do” to which I fully concurred. With around 4m of survey (if that) to show for nearly 45 minutes work, we decided it was time to look at the end of Incline Passage. Quick Double Decker break and we were away.

The mud in Incline Passage is really out of keeping with the character of the rest of the cave, which is what makes it an interesting place. I packed the Mark Wright Training Tower 11mm special into my kit bag with little room to spare. Olly and George had last time got to just before Goggle Drop, the piece of passage enlarged by Sam Allshorn and Mike Cooper in 2008/9. I can confirm that for someone lankier than George and I entering the passage to the pitch-head would definitely be awkward. I arrived at the pitch-head to find the hangers still in place. Typical Allshorn behaviour, forcing you to lug gear around for no good reason! Rope soon installed and on my way down an extremely impressive shaft above a very dark, ink-black sump pool. Mud up the walls around 4m above the level that day: this thing backs up! A good swing across (there should have been a rebelay installed to avoid having to do this but there wasn’t any real rub and we forgot so we didn’t bother) allows a very solitary boulder to be gained – an island of relative sanctuary above a whole other world of darkness and doom. A very very muddy slope leads off up toward a large aven at this end of the chamber. After the survey was completed, we set off back up to the top. I have left the rope in place, so someone better come and dive it soon. Even if you don’t find any cave, I want to know where the deepest point is so I know where to aim for when I swan dive in from the pitch-head! Getting out of Goggle Drop got me pretty knackered. Must be less unfit.

Onto the final stretch, the golden goal, the home run. The upstream sump was extending an alluring beckoning finger tickling us towards it. If only the disto could make it there… It had been having problems on some of the larger legs in The Water Butt, and now it really seemed to be on its last legs. we made around 20m of progress before it really started to fail us. George, master teaser, tried his hardest to coax it back, but it was just not to be. As Olly said, ‘a survey of a cave that good just can’t finish!’ George packed up the gear while I went and had a nose around the upstream sump. First I had a look up a very wanky inlet where you crawl flat out in a passage half full of water with really horrible catchy bits everywhere to inhibit progress. This was followed to near where it connects back in at Sludge Crawl. Then back to look at the upstream sump, which was pumping out water like one of those big fuckers from the thai rescue. It looked like a very strong current to be diving into. Don’t worry though, the Water Butt sump is much nicer…

With no further progress to make on the survey, it was a case of pack up and fuck off. Sludge Crawl felt rather pleasant compared to the wanky inlet I had jsut explored, and was over in a breeze. It was after this, however, that I really began to flag. I don’t really enjoy SRT most of the time anyway and in my absence from it have become remarkably poor at it. Consequently, some pissy little pitches make me become very tired. I think the inflexibility of all my neoprene was a possible catalyst for the rapid deceleration. I arrived at Stemple Rift feeling quite mentally drained. I spent around 10 minutes trying to find a way into the thing, but to no avail and almost getting my head stuck. George returned to inform me that I needed to get much higher further back. This was done, and then it was just a case of deep breaths and slogging it out. This was not at all pleasant and really made me remember what it is like to be unfit at caving, not something I enjoy at all. On the other side we had another Double Decker each and then inched our way up the first pitch and back through the entrance series to emerge to an incredibly still and frosty night after around 10 hours underground. Very pleased with the conditions on the surface, we changed pleased with our efforts (despite the need for ‘one last trip’) and also pleased that it was Bin Time at Booths. A lot of pastries were consumed on the drive back to Leeds.

I think I’d better give some real credit to George for sticking with it on this project, I’m sure it has been really difficult about 95% of the time but now it is dead close to being finished. Luckily Olly is the ultimate psyche doctor for Hammer so I’m sure between us we can make it happen…

 

photo of the sump by Mike Bottomley. We meant to bring the camera but it did not make it 🙁

video of Sam emerging from Goggle Drop, again by Mike.