Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The twelve days cavers of Christmas

Trip dates: December 12th-13th 2015
Authors: Claire and Duncan

SWCC: Mark Burkey, Jess Burkey, Helen Hooper, Duncan Hornby, Andy Jones, Brendan Marris, Jon Tatton, Claire Vivian, Phil Walker, Jo White (& Dan).

SUGGS: Derek Cousins

This is a dark Christmas tale of long journeys (12 hours for Claire), human endurance (freezing one's ass off) and cake. The story begins in the hobbit town of Hardraw… The fellowship of cavers met at Ye Olde School Bunkhouse of Hardraw run by 2 SWCC cavers/hobbits Helen and Andy.


The group arriving at about 7pm moved to the undisputed world champion of pubs the Green Dragon. Camped in front of a roaring fire, mugs of ale and 7 hours of motorway driving stress to release we drank beer and discussed our assault on Moria.

Our original plan was an exchange trip between Grange Rigg and Christmas Pot but the weather (clearly caused by Sauron throwing a wobbly) had put an end to that idea as the forecast was rain and snow. New plans were hatched and people were divided up into groups.

The road from Hardraw to Ingleton, in places the snow was so deep it could cover a whole hobbit!


It was the Middle Earth Gaping Gill system for the whole team on Saturday. Getting changed at Ingleborough Hall in the rain was distinctly unpleasant, the sole advantage being that the rain limited the faffing.

Changing in the freezing rain at Ingleborough Hall. With zero faff everyone was kitted and ready to go in minutes!

Given the size of the group, 3 trips were possible. There would be a rigging and photographic trip into Christmas Pot, a Flood Entrance to Small Mammal exchange trip and some members of the group were also able to take advantage of a pre-rigged Bar Pot for their entry to the system (thanks LUSS!).

The long walk up, which took around an hour, got more pleasant as time went on and we got warmed up as we chatted and walked. It was a very pretty area to walk in and it was good to look at Clapham, wander past Ingleborough show cave (which had plenty of visitors as it had been turned into Santa’s Grotto) and see Trow Gill.

Small Mammal/Flood trip

Helen and Andy were the first to set off with their descent of Small Mammal, then Jon, Phil and Claire headed to Flood Entrance and Duncan, Derek, Mark, Jess and Brendan went off to Christmas Pot. Last, but not least, Jo and Dan descended Bar Pot. We all started around midday.

This was my first visit to Flood, though Phil and Jon had both been there before on several occasions. My early impressions were very favourable as it was distinctly warmer inside the entrance than standing outside in the snow, being buffeted by the wind. Jon had elected to rig, Phil and I helped carry the rope.

The first pitch (15m) had a quite snug take-off (a slot in the floor), and my tackle sack was determined not to fit through the opening without some rearranging, then on to an easy re-belay on a ledge. This was soon passed without a hitch. Then came quite a few metres of mainly hands-knees crawling before the second pitch which was around 20m. Again, no problems encountered here. In fact, it was all going so smoothly that something had to go wrong fairly soon. Some small cascades were met next and these then took us on to the final big pitch, 38m, in South East Pot, along and through a large waterfall.

The first thing to go slightly wrong was when Jon could not find the first deviation and ended up rigging one from a piece of red cord looped around what looked like a chock stone part way down. He descended successfully and shouted up to me and Phil that one of us should look for the missing deviation on the way down… at least that’s what we found out he said later on, as at the time we couldn’t work out what the message was over the roar of the waterfall. I was next down. I had been standing on a ledge around 9m below Phil at a re-belay for a while getting cold. Now it was time for the big pitch. Reaching the level of the deviation, I could see this was not going to be completely straightforward as it was way out of my reach and I needed to pull myself towards it. As I pulled I could see the rope coming towards me through the deviation. Not good. It soon stopped this as I’m guessing it was then tied at the bottom of the pitch. Opening the deviation krab was the next problem as I couldn’t feel my fingers at this point. So after some considerable faffing, this was finally passed and I descended to the bottom of the pitch, through the waterfall. The others pulled me over to the ledge and then I tried to abseil slightly lower but I must have pushed the handle of the Stop in too far as it sent me into free fall to the ground. It was only 4-5 feet, but I still have a lump on my head to prove it happened and remind me not to do it again. Unsurprisingly, Phil made it the base with no problems whatsoever.

We met Jo and Dan here as they had caught up with us from Bar Pot. They told us that Andy and Helen had seen the waterfall and not fancied prusiking up through it, so had gone back to ascend Small Mammal again and were then going to descend Flood and de-rig above the waterfall. Jo then led the way to Gaping Gill main chamber. This was seriously impressive. When we got there, there was a massive waterfall completely filling the shaft. No daylight was visible. Spectacular. We then headed out via Small Mammal. We were fortunate to have 2 ropes on the big pitch up (around 30m) as our LUSS friends were still off exploring so this made things faster. All happened without incident until we had some route finding issues finding Small Mammal after the Greasy Slab and then communication errors. We thought Jo and Dan were going out of Bar, so began to de-rig Small Mammal. Then they both appeared at the bottom of the de-rigged Y-hang. Ooops. This was quickly rectified and they soon joined us. As this had been going on Helen and Andy had returned to give some bad news - the water had risen and they were unable to retrieve Jon’s 70m rope from the 3rd pitch in Flood Entrance. Following a mildly hypothermic walk back to the cars - OK, we also sat down and had some fun sliding down some of the snowy slopes on the way back to the path - we changed as quickly as we could manage with frozen fingers and then headed to the New Inn to wait for the Christmas Pot cavers. It was around 5pm by this point, so we were a bit surprised that the others were not already at the pub as we had expected them to finish before us. 5.45pm came and there was still no sign of them, so we begin to get slightly worried. However, not for long as they all walked through the door at 6pm.

Christmas Pot trip

Derek lead the way to Christmas Pot, we turned right after the style and followed the wall. At some point along we headed away from the wall to the entrance, located in a small sink hole.

Duncan and Derek at the Entrance of Christmas Pot.

I had asked everyone if I could rig the trip, to gain experience in the presence of people with far more rigging experience than I. The pitches are beginner friendly,with convenient ledges to stand on and easy access. Initially everything went well as I rigged each P-bolt. I eventually came to a Y-hang and did a bunny ears knot, when I loaded it, it started to slip. Derek who had been keeping a watchful eye suggested redoing it with a figure of 8 and alpine butterfly, a configuration I was aware of but had never done. So keen to impress I did this and cocked it up then got myself well and truly knotted up! At this point I had become aware of Christmas Carols echoing down from above as Brendan, Jess and Mark hung around trying to keep warm.

Un-knotted I descended the rope and just at the wet splashy part of the pitch my descender jammed up with kit pulled out of the tackle bag. I had reached the 1m from the end of the rope knot and this knot had stopped me abseiling off the end of the rope. So that's why people put knots in ends of rope! At about 1.5m from the floor I had to swap over to my ascenders go back up to the Y-hang, pass this, turn it into a single figure of 8 knot to give me the extra metre. Whilst at the Y-hang the Christmas carols turned into Christmas curses...

The next section of the cave involved contorting our way through crawls to end up in a chamber with a dry-stone wall and a climb down to the next pitch head. This climb involved an awkward entrance over a 5m drop. I insisted on having a handline put in place and attached my petzl stop and thrashed around trying to reverse into the top of this climb. I was pleased to see everyone else found it as awkward as I had! It was easier to climb up and out but I would recommend a handline when trying to get into it.

The second pitch and it’s several rebelays went better with everyone joining me quickly at the bottom. We were at the point where Grange Rigg cave joined Christmas Pot. We went downstream and immediately entered a very pretty section of the cave. We passed through this to get to the end. Mark and Brendan headed back to the pretty section and I poked around in the end chamber and found the way on to the next pitch. This pitch was taking a lot of water and I decided against descending it as it would have just been a total wipe out!

Catching up with the others, Mark and Brendan did their photo magic and captured some excellent photos.

© Brendan Marris 2015, Derek in Christmas Pot Stream way

© Mark Burkey 2015, Derek in Christmas Pot Stream way

© Brendan Marris 2015, Duncan in Christmas Pot Stream way

With photos taken and constant shivering setting after standing around in the stream way for 30 minutes we headed out. Derek de-rigged whilst the other blasted their way up ‘n’ out.

What had been nothing more than trickles on the way in had turned into small streams. Whilst each pitch was fairly short and in some cases it was easy to keep out of the water this option got progressively limited with the final pitch just metres away from the entrance turning into a full on shoot of water which you had to prusik up through! I emerged out into the freezing night soaked. Mark had been a trooper and hung around in the bitter cold and we waited a further 20 minutes before Derek finally popped out looking like a drowned rat.

We quickly gathered our stuff and marched off the mountain to meet the others. I was surprised to see only our cars as I had expected the others to have been longer. Had I really been that slow at rigging, apparently so! We quickly changed and headed to the New Inn pub and found the others huddled in front of the wood burner. With everyone accounted for we were all beaming away and recanting our tales.

Eventually we headed back to Hardraw, went straight to the pub for a superb meal, huge puddings, lots of beer and several renditions of “Wonder wall” sung by a bunch of pissed up cyclists from Huddersfield trying to out sing the folk band next door!

Trip time (from car park and back): 6 hours

The team tucking into some well earned grub!


Sunday...despite much planning the night before everyone got up to a truly winter scene and thought….naaaaa not caving today!

View from the Bunkhouse

As a complete distraction to the cold reality of outside we managed to entertain ourselves with a bit of rope tying.

Duncan, Mark and Brendan practising knots

Breakfast included a healthy dose of rope tying... 

With time whittled away we headed our separate ways. Some of us headed over to Ingleton to meet up with Jo and Dan for one final coffee and cake at Inglesport cafe before heading home.

Ribble head viaduct and snow covering the hillsides

Jo, Dan, Duncan and Derek at Inglesport Cafe


  1. Good write up. The pre-rigged ropes were ULSA I think, rather than LUSS. LUSS went defunct in the early 2000's
    Derek is SLUGS as well ;-) Society of Lancaster Undergraduate Speleologists

    1. Oops... Felt a bit rude to call Derek a slug ;-)

  2. Brilliant photos and a excellent blog. Sounds stunning

  3. With flood warnings aplenty, we did procrastinate for a few days before retrieving the aforementioned 70m rope from the 5th pitch--our memories of near hypothermis still fresh.

    On the trip reported above, by the time we had arrived at the final pitch, having battled with water all the way through the cave, Andy was shivering uncontrollably and so I went down past the rebelay to the deviation. I was drenched and, at that point, several pulses of water engulfed me entirely as I struggled to changeover without looking up and drowning! (Although caving folklore and CNCC rigging information consider Flood Entrance to be a dry route into Gaping Gill, it had obviously been named as such for a valid reason!)

    Going back through the cave was touch and go due to extreme cold and continued battles with waterfalls at each pitch. And the walk down (mainly) horrific--with the exception of the portions where we could slide on our bums...but nothing sitting in front of the fire in the New Inn for 2 hours in full outdoor kit wouldn't put right!

    We returned yesterday to retrieve the rope. Andy was in full-on fitness walking mode and we made the trip, car to car, in 3 hours. (Needless to say I'm tired today!)

  4. Good on you Helen and Andy for recovering the rope, I sure Jon will be relieved it was not washed away! As always a great weekend and looking forward to popping up North (if one can actually pop up North on the M6) for more caving!

    1. The hobbits of middle earth will always give you a warm welcome--and like to seize every opportunity for a mug of ale at the Green Dragon!