Sunday, 6 July 2014


Formations inside the astonishingly beautiful Illusion Pot.

"There's no way I'm going down there".
I nearly spoke the words out loud this morning, looking down at the descending squeeze in the Second Chamber of Lower Cales Dale Cave. Tight and intimidating, it turned me around in the direction of retreat. But I stopped before letting first impressions get the better of me, and remembered - moments like these are when the magic happen.

My 31 inch waist was certainly able to fit through that hole, why the immediate dismissal of giving it a try? Holes become tighter, slopes become steeper and everything is just more when you are going at things alone. Illusions of risk seem far more potent than when risk itself is actually present. 

Features with titles -  squeezes, pitches, ducks, abseils...these play on your mind and become more than they are. You can approach these with anticipation but they often pass smoothly, yet something you'd not given a second thought to proves to be a greater obstacle. Titles and numbers make it hard to be open minded.

Subterranean Kingsdale. Perfect banded curtain formations.

Huge blade and stal formation.

The Expressway. 200m long and like the main chamber of a cathedral.

A mesmerising straw stalactite ceiling.

On 7 occasions during 4 caving trips in the last fortnight, I have found myself tackling a crux section of cave with far more ease than I'd imagined. Unlikely looking tight squeezes have proved to demand thought and tactics, rather than brute force or the need to breathe in. "Ducking" though pools in narrow crawling passageways have been welcome cool-offs on hot days, rather than icy cold submergences which chill you to the bone.

The descending squeeze in Lower Cales Dale Cave. Actually fairly straightforward to get through, given some thought.

Handline pitch in order to see a very special and beautiful place.

An entertaining squeeze in Carlswark Cavern. A good round trip through the "duck" to Pearl Chamber, back through the Big Dig via a foray into the Dynamite Series.

Best formation I've seen yet.

Pristine coloured stalactites and stalagmites.

No, it was the simple possession of a piece of knowledge that was the only thing to turn me back from an objective in the past fortnight. The "sobering hydrology" of Sleets Gill Cave was foremost on my mind as I slowly made my way into its huge main passageway. Infamous amongst cavers, Sleets Gill can flood seemingly at random, sometimes 3 weeks after heavy rainfall. No pattern seems to exist. The advice is to not go near it if it has rained at all in the last two weeks, if it is raining, or if it is forecast to rain.

My day was chosen carefully, and two weeks had passed with barely a drop of rain to speak of. My descent into the cave was slow and considered, failing to see any signs of recent flood activity at the crucial points. I went back to look again for any changes at 10 minute intervals, and still nothing. The afternoon outside was hot and clear. The riverbeds in the Dales had looked parched or very low on the drive over.

Logically I knew that my trip to Sleets Gill was a well-timed one. And a visit to the main passageway was a privilege, as the tree-trunk sized calcite columns make it a truly magnificent place. Yet I couldn't concentrate. I felt rushed as I set up my camera for photography.

In the humbling main passageway of Sleets Gill Cave, Kilnsey. Tree sized columns and organ formations.

Though the sun shone hot outside and the rivers ran dry, my ears prickled at the sound of every drop of water from the ceiling. My footfalls echoing around the massive passage stopped me more than once, images appearing in my head of a torrent of water flooding the cave. I wanted to continue and see The Ramp, an apparently unique feature deeper in the cave which is spoke of in awe. But I simply couldn't justify it to myself. Whilst almost certainly safer than on some harder trips, the feeling of risk was far stronger. A struggle up though the very tight entrance saw me back in the heat and the haze of the surface.

The skills required for caving are often quite directly transferable from mountaineering. So it seems, are the mind games. You never know quite where they'll take you.


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