“Hanging there in the middle of all of this furious beauty, suspended well above firm earth yet somewhere below the reach of the sunshine, unable to reach out and touch anything except the surrounding emptiness, yet moved to the core, his path through the shadows illuminated only by the lamp he brought with him, dwells the marauder of the underworld; the caver.”
In this special feature, Matt Gosling, Treasurer of York University Caving and Pothole offers an insight into the club’s recent visit to Gaping Gill, near Ingleborough, North Yorkshire – one of the country’s most famous caves.
A Chasm in the side of a Mountain
Fell Beck is a stream in the Yorkshire Dales that draws the water making its way down the eastern face of a 723 meter high mountain called Inglebrough. It twists and writhes its way down the hillside for only a couple of kilometres before being thrown into the depths of a large chasm, as if devoured by the earth. This intriguing place is called Gaping Gill. As this fateful point in the journey of the stream is so close to its source, the amount of water spilling into the caves here can vary quite considerably, responding rapidly to any rainfall hitting the fell. This means that the direct route down the main shaft can often become impassable as, whilst attempting to descend here, the caver could be overcome by the sheer volume of water thundering onto them from above.
Luckily however, an obscured entrance to the side between two large rocks finds its way into a short, stooping passage that, after a few meters provides alternate access to the main shaft. Descending from this point allows the caver to be kept away from the water and provides a much safer point from which to assault this incredible pothole. The fine descent of 110 meters was to be made on two 65 meter sections of rope, dropping us directly through the ceiling of the stunning main chamber, a place large enough to contain the York Minster.
The York University Cave and Pothole Club (YUCPC) team (Team 1) consisted of me, Richard Gover and Nicola Topham. We were to descend the main shaft of Gaping Gill and then make our way through the labyrinth of cave passages to Stream Passage Pot where a second YUCPC team, (Team 2) consisting of Steve Gilbert, Max Spicer and Kevin Francis, would have rigged the ropes for our exit from the system. The second team would ascend the Gaping Gill main shaft and derig the ropes here. This caving strategy requiring two separate teams is called an “exchange”.
Our team of three arrived at the cave on a fine, sunny day and sat on a rock next to the entrance to put on our SRT (single rope technique) harnesses and equipment. The mouth of Gaping Gill is something of a tourist attraction to fell walkers passing by on their way to the summit of Inglebrough and many stop and gaze with wonder into the imposing entrance to the pothole. A friendly chap from the South was very interested in what we were doing so I talked with him as I was getting ready about what we were planning to do. He then looked in astonishment as I got up, stepped into the stream and went head over heels on the slippery rocks landing with an almighty thud. How embarrassing!
The Lateral Shaft
It was decided that, as the most experienced caver, Richard Gover was to rig the ropes for our team on this challenging descent. We followed him through the small passage and watched as he expertly threaded the ropes into place and then disappeared down the shaft. After a couple of minutes I looked over the edge to see what he was doing. He had descended such a long way that he looked tiny, swinging around in the depths, his head-light very visible and contrasting with the shadows below.
Once the muffled and distorted call of “rope free!” was heard from Rich, I clipped into the loop of the y-hang and loaded my rack (a simple abseiling device, the rope weaves between metal bars that produce a sensible amount of friction on the rope). It was then time to trust the equipment and put my weight onto it. Bearing in mind that this was all taking place above a void containing a waterfall twice as tall as those of the Niagara River, this was quite a leap of faith! After double checking that my rack was loaded correctly I unclipped from the ropes overhead and proceeded on my journey into the abyss.
Three deviations need to be negotiated in this fifty meter section of the descent. These are slings that are put in place to steer the rope away from the periphery of the thundering water, holding the caver safely toward the walls of the cave. The bag of rope that was attached to my harness gently oscillated as it dangled below me. As I steadily abseiled, I glanced over my shoulder several times in order to witness the incredible scene playing itself out behind me. During a bright day such as this, the sunlight streaming in from above illuminates the haze of the waterfall, scattering from the multitude of soaring droplets and creating the illusion of dancing white shapes that dart about in the plummeting column of thrashing water. The deep rumbling roar of the falls collapsing upon the cave floor can be heard echoing all the way up into these dizzy heights of the shaft and the scale of everything here is humbling. A fall from this height would certainly be fatal.
For all that it is beautiful, this colossal venue is, very certainly, also ferocious. Fifty meters down from the entrance a large ledge over to the side must be reached. This is achieved by swinging as a pendulum on the rope until it is possible to catch hold of either the next rope or a crack in the wall above the outcropping, an incredibly thrilling thing to do. It is then feasible to clip into the safety of the next traverse line, lower yourself down and stand comfortably. After a yell up to Nikki of “rope free” I handed the rope bag to Richard who proceeded to rig the second half of the route.
The Main Chamber
Once Nikki was safely positioned on the ledge and Richard was clear of the next section it was time for me to take on the rest of the descent. The first obstacle was a tight deviation that went off at a wicked angle towards the wall opposite the ledge. In order to pass this I had to jump away from the wall whilst dangling on the rope in a very exposed position and snatch at the rope with the karabiner linked into the sling. This was very exciting and on the third attempt I succeeded, the rope beautifully redirected through the deviation above me. The route now clings to a vertical face of rock that juts out directly between the two main bodies of falling water in the ceiling of the main chamber.
This is certainly an amazing place to pass two re-belays that guide the rope down the best possible route to a position where you can make the final drop into the main chamber. This final abseil was stunning. As you move but a few meters below the vertical outcropping it is possible, for most of the descent, to see right up through the main shaft to the blue skies outside whilst the monumental main chamber unfolds all around you. On either side water thunders from the ceiling acting as rumbling curtains to outline the rocky, organic walls and below, the water hitting the floor produces a tumbling mist that struggles to obscure the floor of loose stones.
Once the floor of the chamber had been reached, Richard, who was standing some way off, beckoned me over. “Come and watch Nikki abseil the final section, its incredible!” he said. He wasn’t at all wrong. We watched as; all the way up in the ceiling, moving between the rebelays like a spider traversing its web, she made her way to the top of the final drop. Then, watching her descend as a silhouette against the gleaming backdrop of the water was fantastic, if only we had taken a camera! Once the team had reconvened in the main chamber we moved out on our route through the cave system. Throughout the rest of the days caving though, it was the breathtaking descent of the main chamber that continued to entertain my thoughts.
Stunning photography from this trip, and others, is available online at www.yucpc.org.uk via the ‘Gallery’ link. For further information, or to get involved, contact [email protected]