Free-diving Yorkshire sumps – Langstroth Pot and others by Ian Cummins

Caving to me is about rock and water – it’s either got an active streamway or I’m not interested.  Pitches are spectacular, but once versed in the techniques, going up and down ropes is not particularly exciting – give me a climb up a cascade any day and the modern trend for water avoidance in caves is not for me – I call this ‘anti-caving’, but I digress.

A perfect trip for me involves wet crawls, an active streamway, cascades, free-climbs and water-washed pitches from natural belays.  Langstroth Pot fulfils most of these criteria, with the addition of free-diveable sumps allowing for that purest of experiences – the through-trip.  Again going back to my early caving experiences, the deaths of 3 cavers in these sumps were then recent history and the impression that made upon my teenage memory still lingered when Simon and I decided to tackle this trip and on our first passage of the sumps we left fixed ropes behind to recover the next day to be sure.

One needs to be well prepared to free-dive safely.  Wetsuit, hood, mask, weights and extra lighting are all going to make the experience more pleasant.  A few deep breaths to calm one’s nerves and a steady pull into the sump is required, carefully avoiding the projections that generally guard the entry to most dives.  Some would advocate facing the roof – Denis Bushell for example, but this doesn’t work for me, as I tend to keep on my side looking forwards and up.

The unfortunate accident in 1976, when 3 Newcastle University cavers died in Langstroth highlighted the danger of CO2 build-up in the air-bell if one lingers there.  The normal flow of fresh water through the system oxygenated by its tumbles down the pitches means that this is not a problem normally and I have passed this way many times with a couple of breaths before continuing on and like the Mossdale tragedy, the only good thing from these incidents is that lessons have been learnt and heeded.

In contrast to Langstroth, other popular sumps such as Rowten are shallow and generally have good visibility (although the odd big block may have to be avoided or moved!), whilst the Sleets Gill free-dive has the quality of diving in gin, which should appeal to one of my chums at least as the realisation of a perfect dream.

After having done the Langstroth pull-through several times with Simon, the idea of a solo appealed to me and came to fruition on a cold, clear, dry day – definitely one to remember, recounted in the following account from the archives……

Langstroth pull-through solo: Ian Cummins (30 December 2008).

I’m not sure when the idea occurred to me, but after doing quite a few solo trips recently and enjoying the experience, the Langstroth pull-through, being a favourite trip, seemed to be a very appealing prospect.  With perfect settled cold conditions, I knew the sumps would be a lot easier than on any of our previous trips, but asked Simon to do me a big favour and check the lines, just to be sure and he also volunteered to leave me a few weights upstream of the sumps to make my diving easier.  With a call from Simon on Monday night to say the sumps looked fine, I was all set for the next day, with Simon volunteering to come up to the cave after his work if I hadn’t called in.

Cutting the gear to be carried down to a minimum, I had 20m ropes of 8mm and 9mm, a belay plate and a sling for a harness, all fitting into an SRT kit bag, with my mask and hood in another.  Clad in 3 layers of neoprene, I was ready for the cold water, especially after doing my longest cave dive in a beautifully clear Kingsdale Master Cave a couple of days before.  Having the luxury of a whole week off work, I had a leisurely start to the day, arriving in the dale at 1 pm and after a quick coffee from my flask, I was soon changed, apart from the problem of getting my rash vest to pull down over my wetsuit.  Thankfully, a chap was walking down the road with his terrier and gave me a hand – turned out to be Jack Nadin of the Burnley club, who wished me an enjoyable trip before continuing his walk.  My biggest concern about the trip had been finding the entrance without ‘The Navigator’ being in tow, but lining up the stone circle and noting a familiar tree, I was soon climbing down the jagged entrance pitch and beginning the slightly arduous entrance series.

Whilst not being particularly intimidating, the crawling passages to the 2nd pitch go on enough for one’s mind to wander during the monotonous repetition of movement and rather like the bizarre way one’s mind jumps chaotically when on a lonely lead of a climb, I recall analysing such diverse matters as the shapely bottom of the lass at the filling station, why militia fighters always drive Toyota pick-up trucks with a 50-cal machine gun on the back and what the guy in Children of Bodom is singing about!  I guess this is just a way of putting discomfort to the back of one’s mind until more concentration is required – either that or I’m a total lunatic.

Reaching the head of pitch 2, with brain re-engaged, gear was carefully arranged, whilst telling myself – DON’T DROP ANYTHING!  The top of this pitch is the only really tricky obstacle in the cave and a drop down for a few feet is required before a squeeze diagonally into space.  Wedging myself on the ledge below, the pull of the rope was checked before completing the drop and the rope pulled down.  Feeling rather matter-of-fact, than nervous or excited, I knew the major obstacle was passed and the rest of the pitches would not be a problem.

Enjoying the fine helictites and stals in the sidewalls here, the perch at the top of the 3rd pitch was reached and the rope very carefully threaded through the in-situ sling.  Looking at this pitch, I couldn’t really contemplate climbing it in case of a cock-up, although I reckon the 2nd pitch is do-able in dry conditions.  Remembering my first trip down here, when we found a hung-up rope on this pitch, I was pleased to see the rope pull down easily and the extremely pleasurable caving down the streamway was fully enjoyed.  Pitches 5, 6 and 7 were dry enough to be easily climbed and in what seemed like a minute or 2, I was at the last pitch.  Fixing my 9mm rope here for a return trip to Goat Inlet (please don’t nick it – OK!) made for a rapid descent on my belay plate and I made my way to the alcove where Simon had stashed a weight belt.

With the belt on, all the spare kit was stuffed into the front of my vest and the 8mm rope was arranged to be dragged through the sumps.  With hood, mask and extra lights sorted, I was soon pulling down into the first sump pool, marvelling at how the head-banging obstructions were easily visible in the clear water.  With only a few seconds taken to compose myself before the air bell dive, I was soon popping up to transfer to the exiting rope and pulling down to emerge in Langstroth cave.  Emerging in the fine passage downstream, I took a few seconds to enjoy the moment and made my way out to the surface.  With plenty of daylight left, I had a quick coffee from my flask before setting off to find a mobile signal to call Simon – what a top way to end the year!