Caving in the UK – Part 2 – Dales

The first day in the Dales was rainy and gray, but after a breakfast at Bernie‘s (a Dales tradition) and meeting up with Tony we headed up to Gaping Gill. All together, there were five of us: Tony, Hat, Becky, Kevin, and I. We went up…and up….and up. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked that long for a cave in my life. I think it took about an hour and twenty minutes to get the entrance. For those of you familiar with TAG, about 2-3 Surprise hikes is about the distance.

We entered the system via Bar Pot. It has two pitches to get down to Gaping Gill. The first pitch has a tight squeeze at the top, but a little wiggle and I popped through managing to not get any bits caught in my rack. It’s an awkward approach too, a 90-degree sideways bend. Lay down on your side and wiggle the feet over the edge, slide out while aiming down, clear your head of the above boulder, right yourself, and go down!

There was passage and climbing down and a handline for a slick angled boulder that I realized would be heck of a hard time getting back up later…and eventually the next drop. The first drop had been about 50-feet and this second one is about 100-ft. Tony expertly rigged the traverse line across boulders that reminded me of the land bridge in Surprise, except much more open to the floor below. At the end of the traverse was the rig point. Again, a nice easy pitch without a rebelay. I was quite happy with my decision to bring my standard climbing system, a Bungee-and-a-Half along. It would do fine for both drops without issue, and I already worked it in my head for how to approach the top of the first drop on the way out.

Now there was a lot of crawling. Luckily, hands and knees, and rather nice floor, so it wasn’t hard crawling, just a lot of it. “Follow the draft!” Tony said. And follow it we did. The airflow whipped its way through the tunnels and as it got stronger the noise of the massive waterfall in Gaping Gill main chamber became louder. Popping out into that from such a small crawl was amazing! The flow as crazy, and I can see why they rarely drop the main chamber itself. It would be rappelling in a massive waterfall for the entire time.

The top is kind of keyhole shaped, and this day it was just a wall of water. I couldn’t even see daylight as there was so much of it pouring in! I managed to get some photos although bits seem blurry due to the hurricane conditions. Water was everywhere in the air. We checked the time and realized we needed to be making our way out. While it would have been cool to watch it even longer, we probably would have gotten cold!

Climbing the 2nd drop was easy. The handline for the sloped rock though…that was a different story. It’s awkward, tight, nothing to push off from, not really easy to SRT climb it, really odd angles no matter what way you look at it. I made it up about half way and then having nothing left to hold/grab/push from, Tony jumped in behind and so I could push off his shoulders to the next bit to grab. Lots of effort for such few feet of progress!

Eventually we reached the first (entrance) drop. I was doing fine temperature wise so I let quite a few others go ahead, knowing I could be up and out in a zip. I made it to where it starts to narrow in one set, not bothering to rest. But here is where I had to plan things a bit. I went into the narrow part about 5-6ft, and then in a spot I could still turn sideways and bring my feet up (it is a slot) I detatched my foot ascender. I went up to the lip and then popped off my roller. Now for the most awkward part. Having my knee ascender on the tether actually makes maneuvers like this easier than if it were a croll and I was so closely attached to the rope. Being in a slot that barely fits my hips means there is definitely no way for me to invert so I climbed up as high as I could, letting my upper ascender get a lot of slack, trying to reach the approach line with my cowstail. Unfortunately the shape of the super-awkward rock in the way (as if a 90-deg slot bend isn’t bad enough) prevented me from going over top, and the cowstail wasn’t long enough to go underneath. So I unclipped and down-climbed slightly. I basically just jumped for it! I got partially into the horizontal slot and had to detach my upper ascender. Tony offered to clip into him for extra safety so I did. The two of us together definitely were not falling anywhere as we are both wedged as it is! Pulling myself in using him as a meat anchor worked, and my hips broke free and I was out!

The hike downhill seemed as long as uphill. You may laugh, but when going down seems to take forever and a day, just as long as uphill took, something’s wrong! Down should be faster! Becky and I booked it as fast as we could as it was late and there would likely be no place to eat but we still couldn’t keep up with the guys who started to literally run down the hill. I’m pretty sure that physiologically we are not meant to go that fast. Our strides are shorter, center of balance different, and we were almost falling over as it was! A local caver came to our rescue for food, inviting us over to her house for frozen pizzas, tea, and cookies.

I only had two days in the Dales, so the next morning was my last. I was tired but I wasn’t about to miss Alum Pot! The best view in all UK caving, I’m told. So, off Tony, Hat, and I went.

The hike was much better! We went down through Dolly Tubes which puts you out on this ledge part of the way down. The pitches are short and easy, I probably could have frogged it but I just used my Bungee-and-a-Half. I watched Tony rig intently and asked questions and chatted in general. One of the pitches was a drop to a rebelay onto a “real” traverse to the second drop. I was actually the most nervous about keeping my feet under me and not slipping off the traverse!

It was indeed a marvelous view. I stood on the ledge for about five minutes, just staring. Apparently that is a typical reaction to this view! I honestly think it’s better than Stephen’s Gap, although that could be simply due to it being new, and Stephen’s Gap I’ve seen quite a few times at this point.

You may want photos, but bad news there. I am gutted that my camera somehow got turned on in my pack, and the padding of it must have kept knocking the shutter button, as a fully charged battery managed to drain itself in an hour or so. I found bunches of short 1-2 second movie clips later, so no wonder it drained so fast. However, there are plenty of photos on the Internet already of this view. So, I decided to ingrain the view into my memory as best as possible, to draw it upon my return home. It ended up rather accurate, with only the “Greasy Slab” being on the wrong angle. Not bad for a month after seeing it in person!

Tony had to make it back home, and so we didn’t spend long. I was curious as to how my system would hold up to the very alpine rigging (somewhat basic alpine rigging, but way more than you’d typically see here in TAG!) as Gaping Gill had been straightforward. I could tell Tony was watching me, curious as well. I will note that for all this vertical stuff in the UK, instead of having a QAS I had cowstails. I had the upper ascender running for safety as ropewalkers do, just not that 2nd QAS.

I climbed up the rope to the traverse, clipped in my cowstails, unclipped my foot and knee ascenders and popped off my chest roller, swung myself onto the traverse, took off my upper ascender. Moving along the traverse is simple with cowstails so no worries there. Approaching the rebelay I attached my upper ascender first, pulling out the slack . I then unclipped my long cowstail and attached my knee ascender. At this point I was past the rebelay, just still clipped in with the short cowstail. So I unhooked that, letting myself out. After three texas-cycles with moving the knee ascender up, standing in that footloop and pushing up my upper ascender, I had enough space to attach my foot ascender and popped on my chestroller and in seconds I was up (it wasn’t a far drop). My climbing system worked very well for their rigging, and my decision to ditch the QAS in favor of cowstails was indeed correct.

All in all, it was a brilliant day. I wish I would have been able to stay longer in the Dales and seen more of their vertical caves. Tony from Starless River was an awesome guide and great to discuss varying vertical techniques and rigging with. I’d highly recommend caving with him if you ever go to the Dales!