Fossil Pot by Peter Whitaker

Steve Woods & Peter Whitaker, (16 Feb 2018).

I had always heard tales of caving in the coldest depths of winter. When I first went a CPC club caving trip on 01st January 1995, my bootlaces froze, so did my belay belt, as they were called then. The trip was Great Douk in Chapel-le Dale, and I did my best to keep dry in an old blue oversuit that my dad gave me. At that time I was a thin 17 year old, and my hands went numb whilst getting changed afterwards. As the weeks went by and I went through a few trips as a probationary member, I was listening to the older members regaling tales of hands sticking to wire ladders, wetsuits freezing to backs in what was “definitely minus 15”. I look back and wonder where all the accurate thermometers were in the late 1970’s! I can admit though that winters were on the whole colder, ropes were thicker then, trips were twice as heave with ladders and ropes, the best of them could roll them to look like they had been coiled on a machine.

Me going caving after the “Beast From the East” had put down his white blanket, erected his road blocks and made his obstructive, chilling presence well known – this was nothing to do with catching up with these macho guys from long ago, it was all about reconnecting with like minded cavers, and making full use of one of the first opportunities to get out since my daughter Eunice was born. It did also make for a classic winter trip, and remind me of dales walks in the snow from my childhood.

I dropped Sara and Eunice off at my parents in Skipton; they were all off to visit the castle on the “free for locals” weekend. I picked Steve up from Embsay and we proceeded to Grassington, by the garage at Threshfield for Steve to generously buy pork pies. The road through Rylstone had only been opened the days before, the removed snow was two in giant heaps two storeys high by the duckpond. With all the snow around, We parked at the top of Grassington, and walked up to road to Yarnbury. We were overtaken by diligent farmers, on all terrain quad bikes, accessing the furthest of their herds. At Yarnbury, the drifts over the start of the track were eight feet high, with the remains of a broken and mangled car bumper poking out. Further on, the wind had scoured the path almost clear, apart from the drifts at the side; the escaping winds had stroked past the sheltered snow drifts and sculpted 1950’s style quiffs and eyebrows, into the shape of 3-d crescent waves . The old mine chimney was in sight in the distance, the only marker coming out of the bleak moorland. The one hour’s walk finished with trudging up the narrow sheltered valley in shin deep snow, the lack of wind had allowed it to settle deeper there.

Steve directed where I could dig to find the entrance after he spotted a hole where the underground draft had escaped from the snow. We stashed winter gear in the entrance and carried on; Steve carrying his drill and me with an SRT bag. Just over 2 years before, I had been down here, not far from the entrance, this time we were through the squeezes, up and down ropes and to the upstream sump with the aim of digging into the floor of the issuing stream, to drain it and access passages beyond.

It was around 15 years or more since I had been this far, in my hazy memory, all the going avens were just beyond the pie muncher. I was pleasantly reminded just how much cheerful caving technique and activity is needed to get to the min streamway; there are 90 degree squeezes, classic style pitches, rift climbs, all in the space of an hour’s caving against the backdrop of unique and impressive fossil formations.

At the dig site we energetically set about rolling away the ones we could, and Steve capped the bigger ones. I also followed the tube at the back – literally – a 2 inch ducting tube led up a slope that went past loose stuff that had been walled to stabilise it. This led to a perched sump with a bailing bucket. This was obviously very little visited, so I set about bailing it. With urgent discovery on my mind, I drained it so I could just get through. I could see the passage rising up beyond, and went for it. With half my mouth out of the water, almost to the roof, getting wetter than I needed to, I broke past my bow wave to find “enemy number one” for original exploration – somebody else’s rope hanging down! When I rejoined Steve he informed me that he had been through with Adele previously, got to the aven, and came back with Ian Cummings and Adele who successfully climbed it and put the rope up. Distraction over, I helped more with the capping. We made good progress Steve in charge of demolitions, me clearing up. We got through a few obstructing big boulders, and accessed the stream bed to start lowering it. We managed to make a start on this, which was the trip’s objective. In fact, at the time of writing on a Friday evening, Steve is on another trip to carry this on, since only another few inches are thought to be needed to lower the sump beyond its roof and create an air space to get through.

After a solid shift, we made the pleasant trip out, in dryer than normal conditions, with all the water help up in ice on the surface. We emerged back into the deep freeze of a clear night sky at 6:30, and made our way back, starting with the shin deep trudge in the snow. We had to take care, since there was more ice on the road to Yarnbury on the return.

Thanks to Steve for my first caving trip in months, hope to get back in to help you regulars again soon. Photos by Steve.