Marathon Obsession (Mossdale Caverns) by Simon Beck

I have but two choices, to carry on or turn around, both offer torment but only one attainment. There is no where to hide from this crushing environment, no calling time-out. Every hard fought inch must be recaptured and the further one goes the deeper-in one gets. The mind reigns in this physically repressed environment, one moment it is your friend the next your foe, your motivation and all your worst fears. Vanity and wealth count for absolutely nothing here, past experience and the fortitude gained are the only currency. These dour devoid confines rarely offer friendship but under the right circumstances are the only friend one needs. The greatest of satisfaction can be had through the existence of a simple hard earned end. Escape from the pressures of society can be achieved through the blinkered like reality that ensues. Loosening the grip your existence has on you can be a liberating thing but to truly succeed one must be willing to go all the way. Dangling a leg over the side is a common virtue, and satisfy’s the masses. To abandon the program completely is one thing but returning later is another…. It becomes addictive and then just necessary..

Conditions above never cease oppressing, you recall all those days when the forecasters were wrong. The weather can appear devious and you imagine a crafty Nimbus towering above the Scar, blackening with might, ready to unleash it’s fury! And you, worse than a sitting duck, unbeknownst deep below and confident that it’s nothing more than fiction and that such a thing could never happen to you.

For those who believe the myths, the thought of a few ramblers pissing in Mossdale Beck might make you nervous – didn’t Leakey say the morning dew was enough!

These unwanted thoughts are necessary, they keep you on the ball, alert and constantly seeking a place of refuge should the unexpected arrive.

Why has it taken me so long to return to this place? I stop for a moment to take it all in. The echoes of my passing give way to a total and eerie silence, the rumble from Kneewrecker is long behind me.

It was a boxing day more than half a decade ago when I last passed this way, I was not alone on that one. The previous night’s Helwith and a drunken Paradiso would probably give most folk an excuse – I’d still need one to cancel a Mossdale trip and unlike some my caving isn’t done in the pub. A massive storm days prior was still receding, I knew we were in for it that day. Privy we were to the violence of that Cave, the cloak and dagger hangs heavy in winter. Far Stream was still heavily sumped and the discovery of a Nife Cell added to the aura of dread evident that day.

My visits ceased for quite a few years, I was busy elsewhere, doing things that demanded more than Mossdale required. One winter I returned and began to remove the old telephone lines installed in the sixties and stretching from the entrance to Rough Chamber – I had vowed to do this (one day) many years prior. Interest and momentum died quickly, my circumstances failed to accommodate it fully at the time. A few late evening trips were all I managed, succeeding only as far as Fossil Chamber.

The urge to return was strong and yet my wasted youth was once again confirmed with the passing of many a missed opportunity.

Spring had been a success, a good circuit of regular solo’s were adhered to weekly, sometimes during reckless conditions. Our main project showed promise and appeared willing to compromise. A badly crushed finger cost me two breaks and for my colleague far worse, a stroke. The place seemed to be aware of us, we felt it’s fury against our faces and at times I sensed the Shroud, threatening but distant. We were possibly on to another one that fit the mould of the region. Efforts were felt and cut to the bone, during one November frenzy we put in almost 14 successive night sessions.

I had plans to solo Langcliffe Pot during this period but when the weather arrived I was too strung out to even entertain it. Having visited the bottom of Langcliffe twice already I knew what was expected of me. I settled for the Far Waters instead, a trip I documented in ‘Season in the Abyss’. It was fun, but such novel feelings towards the outing had never been a part of my original plan; I was looking for trouble and a good dose of the Shroud – the one cast by the Yoredales – not something Gaping Gill was going to give me. I cursed the project for what it had robbed me of and vowed to better order my priorities in future.

The renewed vigor of spring turned stale come Summer and I starved on my own despondency. The right days were forever arriving on the wrong. I buried myself deep elsewhere and tried to forget that life, turbulent intimacy and abject sedation prevailed.

September brought salvation, a fairer front arrived and hope brought a temporal break from the clutches of the demon. Within two weeks I managed five Mossdale trips, three of these were undertaken alone, the rest were accompanied. Profound they were to say the least but the grand finale during a gathering storm readdressed my almanac.

The first of these felt reminiscent of the old days ending up being a late evening trip. I had scheduled a mid afternoon departure from Yarnbury but my course got interrupted and it wasn’t until after 8pm when I left the car. Great Whernside appeared to hover in the twilight that evening. A pleasant approach it was, but one preferably done after as opposed to before. The sheep obviously bedding down for the night scattered as I approached, the few that remained were like curious gargoyles atop the Scar.

It was pitch black as I organised things better done in the daylight. Strange sounds are carried to the Scar by night, reflections of the world left behind.

My still tender finger was forced into Neoprene gloves, the largest splint A&E had given me was a perfect fit over the end, some tape did the rest. I knew effort would be required at this hour to go the distance and slapped the despondency from my face. A sip from the hip flask aroused me further albeit something more exotic would have been better received.

Photo © Simon Beck (2016).

A ghostly mist had gathered during my preparations adding to the conscious silence, the ominous rumble and the feelings of peril.

I can be incredibly disorganised at times, tonight was no exception, but like an On/Off switch, once I go I go! few I doubt could keep up.

The cleanliness of the entrance series made those fleeting hours worthwhile, although within minutes I reached the limits of my labour. Glad I will be to return Mossdale Caverns to it’s natural pre-sixties state.

There is a density in the atmosphere of this place, the silence threatens when the waters do not – the Shroud is ever present.

The black river has risen during my absence, the sediment dam was purged but what little I did had little effect and I pledged to address this at a later date. Familiar twists and turns brought ever more distant landmarks in to view but my drive was faltering and had since the beginning. The late hours have become harder to defy with age.

I turned round while heading down Rough Crawl knowing full well that if I got to Marathon I would have defiantly carried on. The return journey was not wasted, I gathered up some large sections of telephone wire, did some photography, found an open lead and investigated what others were on with. Losing my camera was the downside but fortunately I had a good idea where it was. The stable weather was here indefinitely so knew I would be back as soon as I could. The walk back to Yarnbury that night was through thick fog, an eerie and disquieting affair..

I wrote that first trip off as a re-introduction and I was back better organised the following Sunday evening.

My initial pace that session was furious, reaching Kneewrecker Junction in half an hour. The Marathon from my past, the Marathon of my dreams and the one that lay ahead would all coalesce from here on out.

I have long pondered this length of passage, more than any other, stir crazy it as made me in the past. Desperate just to be there!

Drowned in there I have many times, in my dreams and my imagination. Wake up number Seven!

My curiosity to experience this terrifying end as at times outweighed my required need to survive it. I am willing at the very least to accept my fate should it come in such a manner.

Why the hell has it taken me so long to return?!

Near Marathon is by no means hard going, well protected knees are the only requirement. Places where one can stand are surprisingly abundant, but to progress upright costs in neoprene to the gnarly fossils.

High ground is also reserved although the flood debris says otherwise.

Conditions today were guaranteed good but there have been occasions in the past when they haven’t and a trip down Marathon in less than perfect conditions is a great test of one’s nerves. Purgatory must be handled or just ignored, I used to embrace the notion I was possibly Immortal.

An overwhelming feeling of sickness throughout was how one ex-caving partner admitted to feeling after a trip part way down Leakey’s Marathon, the day was sticky and humid and thunder looked a possibility beforehand.

It is surprising how your memory can fail you over time, mine was bullet proof at one time relating to the underground and yet today Near Marathon seemed far far further than I’d remembered it being. I didn’t waste time at the juncture and eased my way through the initial restrictions of Far Marathon, a far cry from the monotonous toils of Leakey’s.. Again, the only demand that Far Marathon sets is forward motion, it’s either that or turn the fuck round, you’ve come this far!….

One noticeable change is that of the general ambience, the forbidding nature of this cave becomes further stained.

If there is such a thing then the crux of Marathon comes at the end, being a few hundred feet of flat out crawling. Or grovelling as I have done in the past in a wetsuit jacket that was far too restricted.

It is here you pay tribute and it is here you accept that such an end is anything but fiction.

I was alone the first time I traversed the Marathon crawls in their entirety and I remember well, during those final stages my thoughts relating to the state of the weather above and the inner fight I was having to keep on going.

The warm sweat stinging my face was a nuisance today and I was awaiting the arrival of the pool that not only signals the end of Far Marathon but a chance to cool off. It is all too easy to waste energy and struggle to dispatch quickly with this feature. A nice steady pace is the one best kept, on one side part pulling, pushing and sliding. It’s a real wellington boot toecap wrecker!

Barely a loose object exists in the farther reaches of Marathon, proof enough of the power and uncompromising current that flows down there.

Prior to the final section and off in a cross rift to the side I noticed a few sections of broken off telephone line, which from memory have been there since I first visited.

On the issue of the telephone cables; aside from the fact they are unsightly and of no use for communication anymore their only other use appears to be that of a navigational aid, another reason to be rid of them. The wires are made of stern stuff and require decent cutters hence why they’ve stayed intact for so long. I’ve noticed other bits in the further reaches before and should any diving be undertaken in later years beyond the known cave, these slowly deteriorating snares could no doubt cause problems. I wouldn’t fancy been snagged badly on that stuff underwater!..

Photo © Simon Beck (2016).

You emerge from Far Marathon with mixed feelings. Relief is predominant but the unsettling fact you’ve to return the way you came follows quickly behind.

I will never ever forget, many years ago, being plunged in to complete darkness here when my Duo switch was knocked off. The Raven like Claws of darkness gripped me in an instant! Believe me when I say; I wasted no time in switching the Bastard back on!

The cobble slope leading above (HLMC) and beyond (Far Stream) took a lot of work to excavate and even after that I still managed to get grounded and stuck. It appeared that no one had been this way for a while, but again maybe it only takes one or two bad floods. I climbed the hidden chimney that leads to the Caverns above and sort shelter from the imagined storm.

When we visited that Boxing Day the flood waters of previous days were still receding from the Mud Caverns above and trickling down the walls, the climb up I recall was incredibly slippy.

The High Level Mud Caverns may well offer sanctuary from all but the most severe and sudden of floods; but even so, the truly decisive point in such a predicament would be when is it safe to make your exit?! Christ! what a gamble that would be, but worth the guaranteed best seller should you make it.

Those elevated Caverns were my limit for the day and I made my exit soon thereafter but not until I’d consumed about as much of their hospitality as I could stand.

Bidding farewell to the secure expanse of the Mud Caverns offers a sudden sickening unease. Should I wait five, or ten minutes more? Just in case.. You almost slide down the cobble slope and splash down at the beginning of what feels like the long torment to come. You are back in the game again, holding far less than what you began with, against a merciless and herculean like opponent. You’re only play is that of chance. You offer yourself forth and so it begins… This is Potholing and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what those who frown upon what Cavers do imagine they are doing, a gargantuan misconception and one I remind non-cavers of every chance I get. Why? If you want such an image then you best go and earn it first!..

The Mr Beck that so many love and cherish is never far away is he?

I have on many occasions lay still in Far Marathon and listened and imagined..

Numbness is all I have felt, no terror or feelings of regret for putting myself in this place. If such did occur then I would have no choice but to face it, not for one second would I choose this. But if you are going to visit severely flood prone caves then you had best be willing to pay for it. There are those I have caved with over the years who’s apparent inability to accept this suggests they should stay well away from such places and yet they don’t..

I knew I would be back soon so didn’t get all teary eyed during my swift departure from Marathon.

My knees began to protest part way up Near and were quite painful come Rough, it pays to be a hardy ignorant bastard at times.

I searched for my camera on the return but failed to find it and actually gave up on it at that point.

As I approached the 1st Drown or Glory I heard a series of very loud ‘Glock’ like sounds coming from upstream. It wasn’t created by my wake because of the difference in water levels – I was downstream of the cobble dam. I stopped at that point and waited just in case the place was flooding and prepared myself to head back to Boulder Hall. I even retraced my steps to check whether my movements in the water were the cause but didn’t appear to be.

Getting stuck in gathering water between the 1st Duck(D&G) and Razor Rocks would suck! An unequivocally awful ending.

The true Mossdale Caverns experience begins beyond those black watery wades and safety isn’t guaranteed till you’ve returned that way..

I headed for the exit after a brief observant wait….. The final remnants of this experience were wasted on the excesses that gaining the surface would herald.

I surfaced to a stunningly clear evening and reveled in the dying light as I made my way back.

I received a call off my Father as I left the track for Legerins and made haste for the car.

I then spent the night at Manorlands with my Aunt and dying Uncle, who sadly passed away the following morning. Even though there is a constant flurry of activity, Manorlands was silent that night and only a fountain outside Ian’s room could be heard, I would nod off and lucidly wake thinking I was back in Marathon…

I returned to Mossdale the following weekend, not once but twice. I had planned on another further reaches trip for the Saturday and attempt to gain the final choke. But my first wife who’s caving trip that day had been cancelled joined me for her first ever visit to Mossdale. The weather was on the verge of breaking and looked possible for the following day. I lent her one of my Wetsuits, a better light and my Wetsuit Gloves.

I was sans finger splint at this point having gotten sick of considering it’s complaints.

The trip felt like slow going after Caving so much alone but Jane still did very well. We turned round while heading down Rough Crawl and on the way out gathered up more telephone cable and sort another future objective. I also found my camera, it wasn’t far from, but not where I assumed it had got snagged and ripped from my belt. Had I not been sat waiting for Jane I would’ve never noticed it. Jane had arrangements for that evening which she unfortunately missed, although I did my best to try and get her back in time.

That evening I tried to push aside the urge to return the next day, the gathering storm was imminent, a trip to the further reaches would be a daunting and careless proposition. I didn’t sleep that night much and the following morning began looking at every forecast I could get my hands on, I also called the met office. Some said there was a 50% chance of it raining today, others said less and more. The met office chap I spoke to almost convinced me it wouldn’t be here till the following morning.

I rang my old caving partner to see if he fancied joining me on this one. He’d been suffering from a bad case of the cold and was going on holiday in a few days so I knew it was a long shot. I was surprised and exultant when he agreed to join me. This was not a trip I relished on my own and wouldn’t have been the success it was without him. We met in the early afternoon and made our way over. While waiting for him at the car a single drop of rain had hit me square in the face, I cursed there be a second one.

We maintained an incredibly fast pace that day and reached Far Stream in ninety minutes. Not unlike that boxing day when we’d last been here together I found the passage ahead sumped. I waited for my companion who also had a look, he said he sensed a slight airspace. I didn’t want to drown my tobacco which was stuffed inside my helmet, so took it off and handed it to him. He handed me his spare dive torch and I lowered myself into the bitter neck deep water. The lapping waters and slither of airspace let out a deafening series of rings as I moved closer. The airspace was unusable but I definitely sensed it rising on the other side so dived through. I banged my head a moment later followed by a few breathless splutters as I attempted to pass the rising low airspace. But then I was through! My companion who was in no rush to join me, being full of cold and obviously suffering waited for me in the waste deep water. I then headed helmet-less with one light down Stream End Caves.

The going is narrow and upright and the walls are coated in thick glutinous dark mud. A low sinuous floating duck was passed to more upright and slightly more spacious going.. The single spot beam in my hand shed little on my surroundings, engulfed I was in a Wraith like Black. The vulnerable feelings of dread were the most intense I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing while caving. I reached the Cobble slope that leads to the final choke minutes later and squinted through the gloom to the enlargement beyond. The slope needed excavating slightly to pass over the top and with my Companion waiting and not knowing I turned round. I will be back I said. The Final Choke is the only site I’ve ever had a true desire to push and it was here on this day that I decided, the choke is where my future efforts will lay.

It was while heading back to Far Stream that I noticed how ferocious the flow of water is here, with poor lighting I just hadn’t noticed and wondered whether it was beginning to rise!  On reaching the sump I dived through in one go and again banged my head on the other side!

We then headed for the temporary sanctuary of the Aven below the Caverns and had a rest. I offered my only food a Twix while I had a smoke and a sip from the flask.

I stayed a little longer while my partner headed on out, I listened to him disappear and then there was silence. I stared fixedly with primeval eyes at the blackness above and realised I had attained exactly what I have long sort. There have been many occasions in the past when I’ve felt the same; it’s just, you’re never always aware enough to appreciate. It wasn’t just the physical objective we had achieved that day but the subjective vacancy I was feeling towards anything but the very act of purely existing at that moment in time.

That fleeting sense of contentedness was short lived.. ephemeral.. Like a tiny atoll at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean I continued with this game of survival knowing that one day the wave will come. Only prolonged hope keeps me fighting…

I caught up with my mate at the juncture of Near and Far Marathon, the booming echo of his movements ahead were a constant reminder I was not alone. Glad I was of his company that day. We continued our unknowing exit and made the surface after a four hour trip. The weather broke about eight hours later..

There is no light at the end of this tunnel, only darkness, the only light is what you bring and the deeper you go the darker it gets, but with the right eyes you can see the light that comes with seeking the dark.

To be continued…….

Mossdale Caverns (Photo © Simon Beck, 2016).

Copyright © Simon Beck, 2016. The copyright for this article and photographs remains with the author. It should not be reproduced without permission.

This article has been reposted here with the permission of the author and originally appeared as ‘Marathon Obsession (Mossdale Caverns article)’ by Simon Beck, Legends Session, 8 February 2016 available here.