Volume 34 Number 2 Article 2
Heaven and Hell
Twenty past eight in the evening, platform two, Manchester Oxford Road Station. The most depressing place in the world. Crisp packets pirouetted in the wintry gusts and mixed with the flotsam of urban squalor. Decades of grime clung to the place and every biscuit-tin train that screeched past painted yet another veneer onto a greasy canvas. I waited under a fluorescent hell for the next arrival. It was yet another dirty Tuesday at college.
Out Sleets Beck Pot is on the slopes of Fountain's Fell above Penyghent Gill. The stream that flows into it enters at a sink lower down the slope and the water joins as a side passage further into the cave. It is generally wet and sporting, and is one of the few decent trips left in the Dales that has not been spoilt by over zealous bolting. It's also really impressive with an architecture somewhere between gothic and surrealist.
For weeks before the trip it had really put it down every weekend. On Fridays we were greeted with relentless stair-rods of rain hammering down. Week after week our plans were thwarted but then at last we were greeted with the first glimpse of spring and the skies cleared for a merciful weekend of sun. We packed the bags with more than enough rope and raided the tackle store of nice, juicy handfuls of bolts and maillons. It would have taken a pick and shovel to get us out of this trip. It was a small team, well actually just two of us, but we were really fired up and determined. Out Sleets Beck Pot would be ours!
It was at the first pitch that things started to go wrong. Lizzie had a few moments of darkness when her lamp flickered and then faded in and out. It seemed to be notoriously "peril sensitive" as it shone like the sun in easy walking passage but decided to fade, flicker and just plain die when, and only when, a climb, squeeze or pitch was encountered.
"I am not happy with this lamp at all!" Lizzie said, giving the wire and terminals an exploratory tweak. We tried all the usual lamp fettling methods: tweaking the cable, trying to get inside the headset, throwing it in a pool etc. but in the end its condition became critical and it failed to respond to therapy. It was fucked.
There was no hope of descending any further and my mind was firmly made up when my own lamp flickered disconcertingly as we were rapidly de-rigging the first pitch. The image of two Petzl Zoom head torches safely locked in the boot of the car flashed through our minds as we gave it some serious legs to the entrance. We had been robbed of a fine pot and we drove back to Ingleton in a black mood.
That night I brooded over the trips shortcomings, had a good old moan about things and generally put the world to rights. Sometime that night Ange heard my moans and pledged to go back and do the "unfinished business". That made three of us for the trip, a better sized team with more lights!
This time everything went swimmingly as we had all the lumps and bumps mapped out and all the knots pre-tied for rigging the first pitch. The first pitch is called Cascade Pot and it really thundered as we traversed away from the water and descended to the side of a perfectly cylindrical chamber. At the bottom the water has constantly rattled stones against each other and through centuries of attrition ground near perfectly spherical cobbles. Some cobbles, perhaps the size of a fist could be found jammed solidly into cracks in the walls, they didn't look as if they had been there long. It was a reminder that for all its grandeur it could also be an unforgiving place. A clean cobble crawl leads out of the chamber to a wet crawl that grew into a real belter of a streamway. At one point the first of few formations overhang the passage. They are slightly off-white and have a striking resemblance to cauliflower! Don't believe me? Go and see for yourself!
However the cave does not just have a striking display of Brassicas, it also has some moonmilk formations that look like gallons of double-cream, pity I hadn't brought some strawberries really! Erm hang on a moment.
Deluge Pot is next, an easy forty footer with one of those thank-God deviations to keep you (relatively) dry. At the bottom we ditched our SRT kits and set off for the rest of the cave armed with a 20 metre lifeline and a wetsuit hood. Yes there is a bit of a sting in the tail in the form of a protracted duck. To get into the duck you have to wade into a deep pool and launch yourself, arms and legs going at full speed, into a rift at the other end. Then simply traverse the rift keeping your head and anything else out of the water. Do it properly and the wetsuit hood is merely psychological support, so was the way we rigged the lifeline. On the other side we got a wriggle-on to warm up after our immersion.
"You are totally off your head Paul! This is meant to be your birthday trip for Christ sake!", Ange and Lizzie blurted out.
"Next time we do this will be in summer, in wetsuits, in a drought and you can do this in your birthday suit!" (It was my birthday that weekend.) It wasn't long before we reached the low, muddy sections where the walls are adorned with compost-heaps and the atmosphere is one of decaying vegetation. We turned round at this point and left the putrid delights of See-Saw Passage for another day.
It didn't take long to reach the duck where the trusty "lifeline" snagged around our feet just as we exited the pool and we had to swim for the shore before our oversuits filled up and it was glug, glug. glug. On the way out I collected a few souvenir cobbles, placed them in the nearest tackle bag and gave it to Ange. I think you can imagine the sort of response I got when we unpacked them.
On the surface it was perfectly still and warm. Penyghent was basking in the warmth of the first decent weather of the year and for a few blissful moments we soaked up the rays feeling totally contented with a fine trip away from the stresses of work. And long may that feeling live on.