RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 45 Number 1 Article 4
March 2008

The Ups and Downs of Spiral Staircase

A tale in four parts

We decided it was about time that we had a look down the 'new' link between Wretched Rabbit and Spiral Staircase Passage - we reckoned it would be well trodden by now and a description on the Internet (http://www.braemoor.co.uk/ cavingtrip/route19.shtml) suggested it was easy going. As it was, it turned out to be a multi-trip, mini-epic, albeit an interesting one!

The Red Rose surveyors and slaves have put in a lot of hard work digging out the connection; it has become a very popular trip, however published accounts of the discovery are somewhat sparse, and we thought we would offer this article as a small tribute to those who shifted all those boulders to ease our way through! Les Brave - we salute you!

A brief prologue

Andy Whitney's article in Speleology (May 2004) describes how the Red Rose re-survey of Wretched Rabbit Passage (WRP) has revealed a hidden complexity to what was once thought to be just a straight-forward stream passage. Spiral Staircase Passage (SSP) has been known for decades (see Ashmead's survey, 1967). Ray Duffy recounted that the new survey suggested that the upper end of SSP ended just under the floor of WRP at the bottom of the Big Rift, before the start of the WR main stream-way. An article in Descent 187 (2005) entitled 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' by Simon Jobling and Sam Lieberman described how they scooped out boulders and silt from the end of SSP to reveal a dangerous boulder choke. Subsequent attacks with a long prodder and help from Paul Windle, resulted in a stream of mud and water, and created a crater in the floor of WRP. After Herculean efforts by a team of diggers to clear the boulder choke, a connection was opened on 21st September by Simon Jobling and Richard Bilton, though it took a good bit more work to make it all safe and shore-up the crater with scaffolding. A flat-out crawl through to SSP was gradually washed out to 'hands and knees' crawling. Ray and Sam continued to stabilise the crater in WR (Descent 189, 2006), and replaced the scaffolding with the 'Wailing Wall' - a beautiful four-metre-deep 'dry' stone wall, steeply sloping towards the WR Rift - a veritable work of art - more suitable as an instillation in a modern art gallery, rather than hidden away in a cave! Ray tells me that Simon was the 'brains' who designed and engineered the structure, while Ray himself, provided the muscle; sadly he tended to trap his fingers in the boulders, causing him to scream and cry-out with pain - hence the 'Wailing Wall.'

Act 1. Zig & Zag go forth (15th November 2007)

A quiet Thursday afternoon. We were soon across the fell and staring down the Wailing Wall into the black, uninviting, body-size hole. The far side of the crater provided a traverse into the main WR stream-way, and an easy climb-down to the hole. Julie went first (spurred on by a small waterfall of cold water down her neck) and quickly disappeared.

Julie entering Spiral Passage through the hole at bottom of the crater and Wailing Wall

I bravely followed and was rewarded by a cobbled, roomy, hands and knees crawl which, after a few metres, enlarged to walking-size passage. This continued around several zigzag bends for about 70 metres, after which it widened into a section decorated with an array of lovely white straws (300 - 400 mms), taped-off, but still somewhat vulnerable to damage.

Julie in the Straw Section of Spiral Passage

Half-way along the right-side of the straw section is an interesting blind aven, decorated with flowstone. The end of the straw passage is marked by a serpent-headed rock, and bifurcates left and right.

Julie at the junction, at the end of the straw section; the fixed rope in the easy passage is to the left.

To the right is the main SSP, it's a little bit narrow and awkward and the plan was to give it a miss on this occasion. The easier passage to the left, after a few metres, leads to a large window onto a ledge overlooking an eight metre drop. A fixed rope, belayed to a ring hanger and a choke stone, disappeared down into the darkness of a wide rift. We had a good idea what was at the bottom, but were uncertain if the rope reached the bottom or if we could climb back-up, so we retreated out through WR. Back at the Farm, Rowena and her mother took a break from cleaning the drains and floors to reward us with a cup of tea.

Act 2. My kingdom for a ladder (22nd November 2007)

A very quiet Thursday. We had planned to use a ladder from the Farm, but were defeated by the door lock - not the code number - the battery in the lock was dead, and no amount of cursing or pressing the keys would bring them back to life! Undaunted, we carried on with our trip to the Wailing Wall and SSP. The visit wasn't wasted because we had brought a camera and we were able to get some good shots of the decorated section of the passage. We had another look down the roped climb, but again decided against a blind descent and retreated homeward, stopping for a cup of tea at the new café and pottery near the main road.

Act 3. The journey below (29th November 2007)

Another Thursday. This time we were armed with a ladder and rope and went straight to the window in the 'easy passage' of SSP. The 10 metre ladder (belayed to the ring-hanger) landed nicely on the floor of the rift, and we then abseiled down the belay rope. At last we were at the bottom and after a quick sortie, we soon recognised our location - the climb-up from Green and Smelly Passage, the Blind Pit and the end of the Bore Hole in the coffin-like trench were quickly spotted. The only thing we couldn't find was the end of Spiral Staircase Passage! Anyway we were very happy to climb back-up the ladder and make our way out through WR, and another visit to the Pottery Café on the way home. Later, an email from Ray told us that the lower end of SSP was near the bottom of the rope, about a metre above a large cairn of stones - we must have walked right past it!

Act 4. All's well that ends well (22nd December 2007)

A quiet Saturday before Christmas. We picked-up Alan Kerr in Ingleton and were soon in WR showing him the marvels of the Wailing Wall. At the end of the straw section Alan and Julie had a quick look part-way down the right hand passage of SSP, then we all abseiled down the fixed rope into the rift without any problem. At the bottom, on the right, just four metres away, was the cairn which marked the bottom entrance of SSP (a rather obscure slot, just above head-level, which is why we missed it the first time). Alan and Julie climbed up the cairn, squirmed and crawled their way in to SSP and back up to the straw section; and then climbed back down the fixed rope to where they had started! Everything was now clear and joined up.

The trip continued: a careful climb-down into Green and Smelly, then along to Stop Pot and an exit through Wretched Rabbit via the long route. Yes, it took four attempts and we were a bit over-cautious, but so what - they were memorable trips and we learnt a lot - Ease Gill keeps coming up with wonderful surprises - thanks to the hard work of the Red Rose surveyors and diggers.

Peter & Julie Mohr
Alan Kerr

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