Ian Cummins by Steve Warren

Main Photo – Ian after a successful venture into Kilnsey Cave. Photo Steve Warren July 2018

In September 2006 a new face appeared on the White Rose Pothole Club caving scene. Ian Cummins had done some caving in past years, he then went into climbing quite seriously, and now he was back to try his hand at  caving for a change:  After a 20-year break from caving, what made me start again?  Curious really – scouring Teesdale last winter for the bouldering motherlode, I came upon a sinkhole and felt the urge to investigate – but sensibly decided to go home instead.  A few months later on the 3 peaks walk took a detour to Juniper Gulf – the name evokes a scene of natural grandeur and the sight of that long, narrow rift was enough to make me want to cave again. Hence the wonders of the Internet brought me to the White Rose site.  Abby said yes I could come along and even better, Steve would lend me some gear”

Thus, Ian’s first encounter with the White Rose caving scene was on a day of pottering around anything remotely cave-able in the Birkwith area accompanied by Gary and Abigail Rhodes, Emma Hughes and others. Calf Holes – Brow Gill, Gods Bridge even, Old Ing – Rough Hill Inlet and so on were all fully explored. A week or two later Ian and I met up again for a potter around Coppice Gill and Ling Gill, these re-introductions to our beautiful caves had Ian addicted, just as I had been several generations earlier.

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Ian climbing out of Ling Gill Cave October 2006. Photo Steve Warren

A few weeks later we had another easy but wet day exploring Jingling Caves and Rowten Caves when we were joined by Nigel Easton and Jan Brownson for an absolutely excellent round of some great little cave passages. As the day progressed it became wetter, and wetter, so I thought it would be a great idea to have a look at Yordas Cave – one of my all-time favourites. The place was in high flood with a large river running across the main chamber. “Just duck under here” I said to Ian, as I looked into the Chapter House where a thundering cascade came down the climb from the Upper Entrance. With water crashing down on our helmets I fruitlessly tried to show Ian the usually easy five metre climb up in the east corner of the chamber. Going round to the stream entrance we were able to get part way down the eastern gully and back up the western gully but the main descent lower down was quite impassable, positively dangerous, in fact, in view of the great volumes of water. It was all most impressive and I think our newcomer was completely sold. 

Ian then embarked on an ambitious assault on just about every cave and pot in the Dales often accompanied by Simon Beck. What’s more, Ian faithfully produced a written report for the WRPC newsletter, and later, for the website, on just about every one of these trips. But before all that there was a preliminary sortie into the near reaches of Lancaster Hole by Ian and me accompanied by Emma Hughes, Dave Walker and the Three Duddies. Later on, in November 2006,  we all set off to do the complete Lancaster – Easegill through trip, with the added lure of a Wretched Rabbit exit.  What a wonderful experience, all the more since it was some fifty two years since I had first made this through trip with Brian Varley, girl-friend Vera, and Colin Smith of the Craven Pothole Club, that turned out to be an epic, but then it is another story.

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Ian at Hagg Gill Pot sump May 2011. Photo Steve Warren
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Beyond the Hagg Gill Sump May 2011 Photo Ian Cummins: Canon D10 waterproof camera

Beginning to show my age, but not yet done for, we had great days together in Sell Gill, Alum Pot – Long Churn, Cliff Force, Smelt Mill Beck, Dow Cave and elsewhere, until Ian started to take on the challenges of the digs in Wharfedale and in July 2009, accompanied by Brian Nolan and Phil Sowden, he made the first through trip from Hole in the Wall into Langstroth Pot and out to surface via the Langstroth Pot sumps. Ian also explored sumps in the Upper Wharfedale digs – Compass Pot, Hagg Beck Active Sink, as well as Hagg Gill Pot sump bring out some excellent photographs of what he had seen. His one ambition was to undertake the classic and little known through trip from Redmire Pot to Birks Wood Cave. This was to prove a formidable challenge supported by Ian’s daughter Beth and by Adele Ward but it was thwarted by unsuitable weather as well as other commitments.

But ahead lay the Mossdale challenge, Fairy Holes in Weardale, and numerous ventures into the mine workings of the Northern Dales. With more newcomers, Lief Andrews and Adele Ward, the mysteries of underground surveying had to be tackled. After many years of surveying and a little geological knowledge, I was able to help Ian, Lief and Adele get the hang of surveying and some basic geology. This resulted in important new observations in the Caplecleugh workings at Nenthead.

Ian’s interest in Weardale’s Fairy Holes, second only to Mossdale in severity, led to “Fairy Holes History to May 2015”, which is a classic in speleological research. Several arduous trips of up to ten hours showed that  Fairy Holes is not simply the longest single stream passage in the country, but that it has a speleological history going back in the mists of time, long before Blaeberry Burn found its way into the system. The current understanding of all this has revolutionised our thinking about cave formation in many other cave systems in particular the Dow Cave – Dowber Gill – Providence Pot system. 

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Myers Passage, Fairy Holes, Weardale. Ten hour round trip from surface. Photo Adele Ward, 2019

In 1949 Arnold Waterfall predicted a series of large caverns behind Malham Cove, he also predicted the same for Kilnsey Crag. The story behind Malham Cove is told elsewhere but that of Kilnsey Crag risings is relatively untold. It was not until Ian Cummins took on the challenge that the answer was found. 

In the early 1950’s Arthur Smith and the “Austin Twins”, Tom and Fred had made a great effort to gain entry to the system, followed by David Judson in 1963. Arthur Champion had a go in 1973, and myself and Edward Whitaker in 1994. The simple answer was that, in 2018, Ian Cummins showed there are no great caverns behind Kilnsey Crag, the only accessible cave being just about as small as a cave can be. That story is told elsewhere.

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Kilnsey Cave end Passage. Photo Adele Ward July 2018
Pic 6 End chamber
Kilnsey Cave – End chamber. Photo Ian Cummins July 2018

There is yet more to the Ian Cummins story, in the twenty or so years before joining up with the White Rose Pothole Club Ian had built up a formidable reputation in the climbing world, not only in the English Lake District and North Wales, but also in the Californian climbing scene around Yosemite, Joshua Tree and elsewhere.

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Ian Climbing “Streetcar Named Desire” – one of the top climbs in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Anon.
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Ian Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, California
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Ian climbing in the Lake District. Anon.

Ian, with a quiet unassuming friendly personality, always had a ready smile on his face. He died quite suddenly and unexpectedly whilst making preparations for a further adventure into the underground of our Pennine Dales. Ian left a wonderful family; his understanding and supportive wife Sue, daughter Beth and son George, both occasional fellow cavers. As a research scientist in the School of Biomedical Sciences at Durham University Ian will be sorely missed by his colleagues. 

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