Volume 44 Number 1 Article 4
The Illusion of Dale Barn
6 August 2003
A trip with Andy Walsh, Lionel Rice and Bill Sherrington (Red Rose CPC) and Richard Mercer, Kendal Caving Club.
As the call has gone out for more contributions for the Club newsletter, I thought I would put together some notes from a trip we made some time ago. It's a while ago and I am a bit uncertain about my descriptions so beware.
Bill and Lionel had made a tourist trip in July 2003 into the Dale Barn system via the 'back door' of Illusion Pot. Bill was particularly interested in 'Perfidia' passage and it's "digging" potential but Andy reported past difficulties in persuading people to make the trip.
The Dale Barn system is now surveyed to over 4km of passage. Organised explorations of this system have been taking place since the mid-1950's. A lot of progress has been made by early "mud miners" (after the divers had done their bit) but the challenge of finding a non-diving cave-through trip between Illusion and the Dale Barn entrance still beckons. The system links the East Kingsdale Valley and Chapel le Dale. We returned with a keen interest to target 'Perfidia'.
This article is a brief sequel to the Andy Walsh article, "Illusion's Faithless Passage" in Descent magazine (No.161, September 2001) and the Red Rose newsletter (Volume 36 No 2, June 1999). The account in the Newsletter describes the trip to the end of 'Perfidia' in very arduous terms. The Northern Caves 3 Guidebook is not up to date on the breakthrough that had been made from Illusion Pot into Dale Barn or the full reach of 'Perfidia' passage, although Dale Barn is mostly covered. The Northern Caves Sump Index 1995 is more up to date on the Dale Barn series. An up to date survey covering the Illusion Pot sections has been illusive. There is a NCC survey but I can't find it!
We met at Bernie's Café and chatted about Devis Hole Mine and the Otter's Hole rescue. Richard was back fresh from the Berger and the Red Rose Cavers were full of Notts II chat.
Andy and Richard would video their own adventures (without Andy setting his tackle bag on fire as in Devis Hole Mine) and Lionel and Bill decided to tackle 'Perfidia' and check out the end dig and search for reported draughts.
It was a very hot day, so hot that a cool cave was the place to be. We descended the Illusion Pot storm drains into the heavenly bliss of a strong cool draught from Chapel Le Dale! The descent is around 90ft. The shaft is lined with storm drains with good footholds and includes metal fixed ladders with the odd loose bolt.
At the base of the climb down is a makeshift dam. It is important to be aware that in wet weather water can pour in at this point. The dam was an early attempt to deflect water from the continuing low passage to avoid it becoming a 30ft "duck". Some bailing can assist in lowering the duck but it can refill during your time in the system, so beware. In any event, it will deliver a good soaking before the rest of your trip. A guide rope is in place along the length of the low crawl.
If I remember correctly, we continued beyond the duck to a massive chamber containing huge sediment / sandy deposits, the Expressway (Formerly known as Vandals Passage). The Expressway is up to 15m in diameter.
To the left you will pass under a very high aven (The Missile Silo?). There are some amazing mud formations in the Expressway. They look like a New York City aerial view. There are fine crystal formations in an end chamber whose entrance is hidden by placed large rocks. Do not be tempted to push across to the far end as these pristine formations will be put at risk of damage - It has been checked and surveyed.
We took the right-hand passage up and down sediment slopes to the Rushton Chamber. The rocks that litter the floor remind me of dinosaur eggs - perfect spheres presumably formed under pressure by water from glaciers. The Rushton Chamber contains many pretties and straws.
'Perfidia' leads off from the right hand side of the entrance into Rushton chamber when coming from Illusion Pot. It is a flat out crawl and is continuous with the Expressway 15m diameter and sediments except in Perfidia the sediment rises to its roof.
For Bill and Lionel, captivated by the challenge to link two valleys, the Perfidia epic began.
The parting words of wisdom from Andy were "see you in 3 hours - it's OK at first but it gets worse", and "keep to your left".
When the "red mist" descends, a caver's judgement can be impaired. 'Perfidia' is not for the fainthearted or unfit. Flooding is fatal, unless you have gills. The air bells offer sanctuary but oxygen is time limited as reported by a "caught diver" and evidence from tidemarks. I advise an attempt after and during very dry weather and after a full Bernie's breakfast. Take plenty of water to drink. 'Perfidia' is a Latin word meaning treachery, deceit, and faithlessness.
Passages like 'Perfidia' do not need grading - giving a chest size would be better as a guide to difficulty. People with chest sizes of 42 inch plus will have some difficulty. If over 46 inch, bring a digging tool and allow lots of time. Decide whether you want your head to the right or the left at the beginning of long stretches. Only enter if the weather has been dry.
Although no water appears to come in from the roof of Perfidia, flooding regularly clears the tracks and disturbance of the mud and silt left by previous idiots. Navigating the way on depends on finding a squeeze you can get through and a bit of luck. Generally keep to the left but some time can be wasted searching and probing routes on.
We passed through a number of dry air bell chambers called the German Helmets. These have been surveyed previously to the midway wall on Whernside. More bells appeared (the bells and more bells, Quasimodo). The tidemarks in these bells were high which was a bit worrying.
After 2 hours and 20 minutes of flat out crawling we were still pushing on. We deluded ourselves that we were pushing new stuff because we could find no disturbance of the mud, and we had been at it for much longer than the 1.5 hours that Andy had said it should take. Also we had got to a stage of actively digging our way onwards through squeezes and it seemed much longer than the 600m reported.
The actual length of this crawl is a bone of contention with experienced explorers who give varying distances between 600m and 1200m for the one-way crawl.
At this point a very tired and twitchy Lionel had a brief moment of anxiety. This was an opportunity for Bill to provide succour and support. Bill, articulating common concerns, gave reassuring counsel;
"Lionel, we are deep under the mountain with hundreds of feet of limestone above; we are tired and expect to be exhausted on the return journey; we are in a flood prone system; there are many tight squeezes to navigate; we are probably lost as there are no tracks; bad air is a risk and your dogs are at home with no one to let them out or feed them if you are overdue; who cares if you are overdue? The weather is hot and humid above ground and there may be storms. So why are you panicking?" (Thanks Bill.)
Later, Andy gave us the bad news - we had not reached the bitter end. We had not reached the end dig. We had not found the place with digging tools. We had not reached a ramp leading to walking passage. We need not have worried about bad air; this is a serious problem at the Dale Barn entrance only. (Don't you hate "ferrets" that tell you after the trip what you should have been looking for.)
A chance meeting with Bob Mackin in the Wheatsheaf pub provided more background information about the system and its digging history. We listened with great interest as "Mr Pyrotechnic" outlined the advances from the 70's onwards and his own epic digging and Diver Sherpa trips. He asked if we could return to him a small digging tool from 'Perfidia' that we had come across. This was a small trowel used in the past for "clearing chicken shit" and had been used by Bob for the higher purposes of cave digging. But why request the return of a rusty tool so many years later? Was there some chicken shit to shift? Or did it have antique value?
Perhaps the best place to dig through Perfidia is via the Dale barn Series entrance rather than from the Rushton Chamber. The end of Perfidia is possibly only 200-300m from Dale Barn but would the Farmer let us park and dig? I doubt it.