Dale Head Pot: Ian, Simon with Malcolm and Geoff (BPC) (20th October 2007).
My lasting impression of this trip was the constant concentration required from the first step down the ladder into the shored entrance shaft until the dip in the final sump and the relief of exiting over 6 hours later. This trip has a lot of variety and despite its reputation as a largely vertical system, there are hard sections of crawling, traversing and climbing away from the pitches, with the added spice of poor belay bolts, loose rock in the entrance series and mud on some exposed sections near the final pitch.
Dale Head had not been on my immediate to do list and only came up when Phil applied to Malcolm for a Penyghent permit and it was suggested we have a crack at Dale Head too. Indeed, it is apparent that many people think its entrance is still collapsed!
Suffering from a sore throat and headache, I was hoping I had enough in the tank for a hard trip and we arrived at the top of the fell to find the BPC guys already changed. They set off to rig a ladder down the entrance and we followed on with all the ropes required for this deep pot. Being first down the bottom of the Dig Climb, I had to clear a collapse of some decent-sized rocks and timbers to allow the foot-first entry into the notorious Heartburn Crawl, dragging the bag through this flat-out, smelly section and not looking too closely at the shoring in the side walls! Easier crawling and a twisting, narrow streamway leads over nice cascades to the first pitch, with an in-situ hanger and a spit (usable) for the narrow drop onto Bottle Pitch. Using a 40m rope we were able to link 2 more pitches to land in a showery, flat-bottomed chamber. Here a fine round bollard allowed a solid and crucial belay for the short Emery Pitch to the head of the biggest pitch in the cave, crucial because the bolts here are very poor and a back-up to the end of the rope is obligatory! Again at the head of the Emery Pitch, I found the spit to be unusable, but the bollard is perfect and a tackle bag protected the rope over the sloping rim as well.
From here Simon and I carried on and we took a complex route down the big pitch. This has an old hanger for a direct descent and no other obvious belay points and in Northern Caves this is also discouraged for SRT due to an apparent sharp flake en-route. We took the short traverse descent to the Crow’s Nest, with a welcome rebelay at a flowstone knob, which withstood my pull and punch test, allowing a descent to a dry stance in the rift adjacent to the main shaft. A rebelay bolt here and a short drop down a hole led to the final part of the descent. Again the rebelay spit here was useless, so a sharp spike 3 feet below it was used to hold a 5mm sling – it worked very nicely. From here a sideways squeeze into the space of the main shaft brings relief in the form of a big flake to stand on and a solid spit rebelay for the 17m Window Pitch. A 50m rope does the job – just!
The flat, showery base here brought a surprise in the form of 2 very large frogs, which must have unfortunately taken a dive from the top of the pitch. Amazingly 1 was still alive, although it had a nasty tear in its back.
Following immediately is the short 10 Foot Pitch, taking the route of the water and rigged from a block, with a tricky traverse above the Twenty Foot Pitch beyond on slippery rock. A slippery climb up led to a very muddy section of crawling, squeezing and traversing. The absence of any marks in the mud here suggests very few visits and also the ability of water to back up an awfully long way! A cleaner section of passage at the left of a junction led to a waist-deep pool for a clean, with the final Pool Pitch beyond, rigged from 2 decent spits.
We thought we were almost at the end, but a glance at the plan in NC2 shows a fair descent to the sump. We took the wet route, where after a short, low duck, the water flows down a round hole, not much larger than a toilet and the steep, narrow, wet progress that follows was best described by Simon’s comment of ‘this is insane!’ I agreed – especially as I was tied in a knot trying to turn around, whilst Simon suggested that this was probably where Jim Eyre got stuck – I was thinking that this was not a good place for a mishap. Relief in the form of the narrow sump pool was soon in sight and in view of Simon’s evening arrangements we headed out at full speed.
I waited at the eye of the Window Pitch to pull the bag as Simon passed it through and we were finally faced with the task of getting 2 bulging tackle bags to the surface. Getting the bags through Heartburn Crawl was not pleasant, but the final ladder climb was a euphoric relief compared to what we had just endured.
This was a tremendous, varied trip, certainly 1 of the best we have done, but definitely demanding a lot of care and respect. Thanks to Simon for a very smooth trip and to Malcolm and Geoff for putting us onto it.