29 September 2013

Boxhead and Lost John's

(For those mainly interested in pretty pictures: I didn't take any. I was too busy caving. But other people have; take a look here for some good ones. And here for a lovely video.)

Since joining the YCC I had been dragged to both North and South Wales, the Forest of Dean, and the Lakes District. And in the Yorkshire Dales, the local caving Mecca, I had only done a day of walk-in mine exploration. But after several months I would finally get my baptism of fire: a proper Yorkshire multi-pitch SRT caving trip. We would do Boxhead Pot, and perhaps Lost Johns. Boxhead Pot starts with a 70m rope pitch. Seventy metres! That’s 20m more than my personal record. Dearie me. I wasn’t really prepared. I figured this might get interesting.

When we set off in the morning I heard three guys from the university club would be going too. Matt hoped we could do an exchange; we would get down Boxhead with all the kit, and they would do the same with Lost Johns, and then we would meet in the middle. We would then come out where they had gone in, and bring all their ropes and paraphernalia out, as they would do with ours. If not we would just go all the way to the bottom and then back up!

We drove to Ingleton, which hosts two (!) caving cafe’s; we would have breakfast in the scruffy one. I of course had heard of this place so many times, and enjoyed finally seeing it for myself. And they did good daft breakfasts! I just went for the standard English, but Laura went for something that only here counts as a classic; a Yorkshire pudding filled with chips, peas and gravy. Strange, but surely filling! And after a while both the last YCC caver; John, and the YUCC chaps arrived. The latter were easily talked into doing an exchange. Good!

We set off to the parking space near both entrances and changed. Soon the students arrived in their slightly too studentesque car; it had smoke billowing from the bonnet. Oh dear. It was leaking oil like nothing on Earth. Hmm. A concern for after coming out...

It took us a while to find the entrance, which is a plastic tube at the bottom of a shakehole. I struggled to get down it with a rope bag; if the rope went first it got entangled in the ropes, and if I went first it hardly fit past. Matt decided to solve this by taking the rope bag himself. And then I was down!

It’s a descent down an impressive shaft. At the bottom of it is another pitch that goes around the corner, and which is the infamous 70m drop. With the enormous drops, Hollywood-esque shafts, and plethora of deviations and re-belays I started to understand why cavers think we mine explorers are softies. And why caving is big here in the north. I would have to step up my game here!

There was some crawling, some looking for the way, some clambering, some stepping over deep holes, and whatnot. And at some point a steep climb with a handline, which we changed into a climb on a proper rope, as it was up a tube and John had indicated it only works if you have long legs. And that’s probably not true; there must be short-legged hardcore cave girls who have done this, but well, I was glad to actually be attached to something while dangling high in a chimney. And after several hours we reached the bottom. This is where we hoped to meet the students. But no sign of them! John and Gary went ahead to see if they could find out anything, and to my relief found them descending the last pitch. That meant we would not have to go back up the 70m pitch! I tightened my harness; in a caving harness that is one tug on a strap, but I wear a combination harness, as I happened to have one because of glacier hiking. And that took me half an hour to adjust to something that was as tight as it went, but still wasn’t tight enough for climbing a rope. And if you only have one pitch, especially if it’s not a very long one, you can afford to have a badly adjusted harness, but down here, I needed to be as efficient as I could.

We talked the guys through the route; they had a description, but some bits are a bit confusing. And then we said goodbye. We went to their first pitch. I ached massively when I reached it; with my harness tight my back was pulled in to an awful curve. What a relief to hang myself into a rope! But what an embarrassment to try to climb up and being pathetic about it. Note to self: do arm muscle exercises and go running! I struggle on a 30m pitch! Tsk.

Between pitched I partially undid my harness; that bent-over posture really won’t do. I followed the route back, first after John, through an awful traverse. I hate traverses! I hated this one even though it was rigged. Can you imagine rigging it yourself, as the students had done...

After the rift I overtook John; we small girls were sent ahead without bags, and the three sturdy men would follow us, carrying all the rope. We were lucky with such companions!

As then men were de-rigging they vanished out of earshot, and I just followed ropes, streamways and passages. I knew the route would lead me out automatically. It was one short pitch after the other. So much rigging! But it nicely cut up the long ascent.

Together with Laura I suddenly reached a dead end. Hm! Something had gone wrong. We went back, and checked all the other passages. And then we saw a rope! It was not a rope that belonged to us, but it pointed in the right direction. Soon I saw daylight. Daylight? I thought there’d be one more pitch! But I was glad there wasn’t. We emerged into a beautiful setting sun.

We changed, being laughed at by John, who thought it was very funny we had walked into the wrong passage at the end. And then we saw Matt and Gary emerge. Now the wait was for the students. Matt was still a bit worried they would get lost, so we wouldn’t leave until they had emerged. So we stood there, on the parking spot, looking at the hillside that became engulfed in darkness. No sign of the students yet. The Milky Way appeared. No sign of the students yet. We interpreted every star and every car headlight in the distance as their helmet lights, so keen were we to know they were safe and we wouldn’t have to get back into our wet kit to descend that 70m pitch to go look for them.

And then there was a flash. This time it really was at the right location! It had been 1.5 hours of disconcerted waiting. And now some more waiting; they had to de-rig the final pitch as well before they would walk up!

By the time they arrived at the cars we were cold and terribly hungry, but we decided to wait until they were ready to drive off. We didn’t trust that smoky car of theirs! Luckily, it did start.

On the way back we went past a pizzeria in Skipton; I don’t think I have wolfed down a pizza that quick ever before. And then we went on. By the time we reached Skelton Laura was fast asleep. I was home at midnight! This surely had been a baptism of fire!

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