Why am I writing a report that details my exploits underground you may wonder? Simply it is to share what a life experience this is for me. I hope that one person might read this and think perhaps I could do that. But if you think reading this will only focus on the good bits… beware that I am wearing my heart on my sleeve, I speak frankly in normal life and will continue to do so here.
What does caving offer to me, what could it offer you? Being candid - 50 % of the time it offers challenges that at first encounter made me turn pale. My focus felt heightened and other worldly distractions were left in loftier airy space. Subsequently I look back reliving the experience in happy memories, waiting to return.
I have no wish of adrenaline high sports, I have a desire of adventure, exploring and pushing myself (I am no base jumping or parachuting wannabe). At this point of my journey into becoming a caver, I realise situations faced underground may provoke an adrenaline response. This is not because they are highly dangerous if tackled in the correct manner, it’s because, they are new situations, new experiences and new skills needed, next time faced they will seem more familiar…. did you feel nervous when you first drove a car?
Small Mammal Pot
Meeting my trusted climbing partners Ian and Leif at 8 am sharp, spirits were high as we travelled to Ingleton, (Abba provided the journey’s soundtrack much to the chagrin of Leif – who secretly loved it I am sure), to meet members of the White Rose Pothole Club. Denis was on fine form, holding court, teacake braced in hand. Introductions complete to Fay and Simon, the 6 of us discussed plans, well 5 did and I the 6th listened.
It dawned on me that the people I sat eating bacon sandwiches and teacakes with - Ian, Leif, Denis, Simon and Fay were all very skilled, experienced cavers….and I was all but a novice with a paltry few months under my belt of which I will return to later.
I felt mildly pained to undertake the short trip up the lane which Ian had latterly disclosed was actually a fair old walk up the hill and proved to be a good warm-up. The rain turning to sleet and whilst I cursed every other step up that hill, it afforded me the opportunity to listen to my friends’ caving stories. Listening to their combined achievements and history of caving, I can best describe as inspiring but similarly intimidating.
Funny looking planks of wood nailed together guard the entrance to Small Mammal Pot. After being given clear instructions as to where I should take my place in the party, between Leif and Denis in order and with a sense of excitement that made my mouth dry, we headed in.
A narrow passage of stooping, followed by a small traverse, leads to the top of the first pitch head. A 20 meter pitch I felt determined I was to deploy my SRT skills on. Leaning out on my cowtails – this seemed like the most unnatural task in the world. Ropes were rigged, words of reassurance offered, and in no time I was away down the rope. Thoughts turned to “what next”? A crawl that seemed perfectly within my capability was then encountered. This is the part where my recall and inexperience will be apparent to an experienced caver. Basically we crawled squeezed, stooped, crawled, squeezed and walked for a while. The sense of camaraderie in moments like this indescribable. It would be easy for me to look for the exact route we took on a cave description guide; to talk of floor stones, turning right, turning left; however, I feel that offers no value to the nature and tone of this report.
We reached an area Denis explained was a high level traverse that would be good fun, but one for another time!
So ‘What’s next?’ I considered - we were to take an alternative route to the usual Big Pitch at Bar Pot. Traversing to a Key Hole Slot. A side way squeeze lay ahead of us. After the customary “You alright?” from Leif, I watched intensely to see how he negotiated this tall tight Key Hole Rift. Watching Leif move slightly up, then down, inching his way along with confidence, this gave me the confidence to proceed. This area was tricky yet the feeling of achievement at the end was without compare. I loved it. Exiting to see Leif taking a photo brought a smile to my face.
Approaching the pitch, my feelings of excitement were equally matched with nerves. My mouth was dry again and I heard the often repeated questions – “You OK …alright Adele? ” This comfortingly reminded me that I was amongst friends and that they have all at some point been in my position. That they had all faced fears, and left them behind in some other cave and other time.
Although confidence is infectious, watching Ian move with nimble, steady intention sows a seed that one day will I be that confident? Securing the rope to my descender under the watchful eye of Denis, I take a deep breath. Trusting the kit, trusting myself, trusting the time invested in this SRT, I press the red handle that’s going to lower me down….. and question whether I have actually done everything I need to…. eye contact with my mentors assures me I’m good to go. I talk to myself “Adele - get it right” “Adele, think…. slow your thoughts.”
Descending the rope now became effortless, far smoother and felt superb. Head torches of my friends went from what looked like tiny stars down below to welcoming lanterns.
We all reunited in an area where Denis held court. I knew we were near the much talked about Gaping Gill water fall, as the air had become colder. Simon instructed me to lead the way for the final stretch. Thoughts of feeling tired forgotten, I almost ran the final section, feeling excitement similar to that of Christmas morning as a child.
Catching first sight of the chamber, lost for words I could only offer a “wow- it’s bloody awesome”. My only regret of that day was that I couldn’t summon a more eloquent response to convey the wonder of the place. As more and more of the group entered the chamber the true splendour of the sight was revealed as additional head torch light illuminated the waterfall. I am not often lost for words but this spectacle achieved that. I chose to say little and just let my eyes absorb the picture in front of me. The 100m drop of the water fall will always be a treasured memory. Probably around this time I resolved to always encourage people to explore caving as a sport, since where else can you see such hidden wonders?
Retracing our steps back along the cave system, team members suggested I might wish to exit the cave via Bar Pot. In life I might always not be one for taking advice, but this cannot have any place in a cave. I must acknowledge and accept the more experienced person’s appraisal of the situation. Accept people are constantly monitoring your abilities, level of tiredness, and levels of enjoyment! Because that’s what it’s all about- learning, experiencing, having fun and being safe. Being able to enjoy the experience knowing you have ultimate responsibility for yourself and your fellow cavers is part of this journey. Previously I have listened to my friends discussing which cave, which route would suit my ability best, what caves I had previously done, what I would enjoy, what would give me the necessary challenge to get the most out of the experience. Over confident people that lack the ability to listen and are reckless need not apply for this sport.
Next came the task of exiting the cave. Simon had suggested an alternative route out of the system. I was happy to heed this advice. Another group of cavers had left ropes in situ, that we would utilise. Ian progressed up the rope with ease to meet me at the top. I watched Ian disappear into the darkness; I waited for the rope free call. Simon offered reassurance that I was going to enjoy this and to take my time.
There is no point in me pretending I found this next bit easy as I found this physically strenuous and stressful. Ascending the rope I would settle into a rhythm, only to have it interrupted by fatigue. Frustration grew and the odd swear word may have slipped out of my mouth, although upon reflection this is not helpful. The profanity led to Simon’s head torch illuminating my passage with words of encouragement, giving a boost to my courage. I looked at the sight in front of me, looked at the rocks that may have never had a human hand upon them. Familiar rock was in front of me with holds that on any climbing crag would looks excellent, however they offered no consolation to my present situation. Old demons returned sending thoughts of why am I dangling from a rope some 20 meters in the air but I pushed them to the far to the back of my mind, for now I have to focus on just getting up this dam rope. Every time I lifted the hand ascender I was convinced I would somehow catch the latch and open the device. I didn’t dare look down, I didn’t want to see how far I’d climbed, but when I looked up I was reminded how close I was to the top. Ian with more words of encouragement to revive my spirits, and I moved upwards. Finally I’m at the top.
I reflect on this time, the irrational thoughts of my hand ascender failing, the frustration, the enjoyment, all mixed up together. This is the time everyone new to caving must consider, there is a point at which whatever the obstacle it must be overcome, time to dig a little deeper….. At the time it may seem insurmountable but the feeling of achievement will be worth it. This is the time you listen to your friends, they tell you - you can do it, they believe in you, believe in yourself, because the rewards are great.
I can’t say I have ever been keen on heights, but I am of the belief that this shouldn’t stop me from exploring the activities I want to. Friends naturally say to me “oh you must be great with heights”; I can assure you I am not. Although that said I don’t feel like I want my concern about heights to prohibit me from enjoying caving or climbing. It’s within everyone to enjoy an activity they feel challenged by. For example more people have said to me “oh I couldn’t be in them tight spaces” - however those bits I enjoy, and I don’t find difficulty in them thankfully.
We proceeded to The Greasy slab. Looks easy enough I thought. Leif was ahead of me and had shot up this slab with ease - I progressed feeling semi-confident. As I neared the top Denis offered a push! There can be no above ground sensibilities here, and a shove to my rear was welcomed, and I spotted a hand in front of me which I grabbed. Looking back on the slab, it looked uncomplicated; however I’m aware I was struggling. Denis is then off like a shot to the exit pitch.
“Adele it’s tight up there, it’s made grown men cry”, - ‘excellent’, I thought. Ascending the rope to what Denis describes as the tight bit is difficult to recall, however the tight bit will be forever hard wired to my subconscious. “Use your equipment Adele, use the ascender, step up use your legs” Using my legs - now there’s an interesting thought. I would if they didn’t feel totally wedged. It’s at this point I knew I was messing up, I was safe, but I just wanted to be out. I did what I have done lots of time when climbing out doors, I forget about technique, and tried to climb the wall, and use brute strength. This obviously failed, I didn’t have any strength. The next bit I will omit but it contained, lots of swear words, each followed by an apology to Denis. Words can make a dramatic difference in a cave, and I was instructed to stop, and calm down. It’s hard wired into me to follow instruction in a cave, Denis offered the immortal words, “Adele you’re here to enjoy this, calm down, you’re a caver now enjoy it.” We exited the cave! Smelt the fresh air, felt the rain… It was awesome. When can we go again I idly wondered?
What I have come to know and understand is that the cavers I have met no matter how experienced, extreme, notable, or skilled - all displayed the common factor of wanting to help me have the best experience I could. Where else do you meet people like that? I must say a passion had awoken in me.
Adele Ward, novice caver 2017