RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 46 Number 3 Article 1

June 2009

Lost Johns on Rope Ladders -1953

Mel Wilkinson

A transcript from one of Jim Eyre’s early diaries - describing a 1953 Red Rose trip down Lost Johns on rope ladders.

inside front cover:

Jim Eyre 1953

Original Red Rose


K. Pollit

T. Helme

R. Johnson

J. Eyre

P. Kitchen

Lost Johns. Rope Ladders

This is a 1953 account of an early Red Rose Pothole Club descent of Lost Johns. It depicts the usual trial of strength as a fairly large party entered the cave and some stationed at various points as lifeline men, and some gradually become tired or cold, leaving - as was usual in those days, the real enthusiasts or head cases pushing on in front. Some of this account has been lost and we pick up the narrative where I am trying to get down a wet pitch to Thunderstorm Depot along an exposed traverse above the drop in wet conditions. An exposed traverse above the rift high above the stream took me to

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the right, away from most of the deluge. By working my way along this I was able to hook the ladder on a projecting rock and affect a descent away from the main force of water. The rift below broke out into a large chamber and the water from the aptly named Thunderstorm Depot was augmented by another stream, which united plunged down into the spacious chasm ahead. I could make out Sykes on the ledge high above, his arm moved and a wet rope end cracked me across the cheek. "Rope coming down", the faint sound of Tom's cry reached me above the roaring of the water as I began pulling in the slack. The beam from his headlight was broken by the bulky mass of rope ladders, which had been affixed to the rope and soon I was sorting out a tangled sodden mass of rope as Sykes and Bateson joined me. Leaving them to their unenviable task I went in search of a belaying point for the 'wet pitch'

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a miniature Niagara that some very imaginative pioneer had first baptised. Working my way to the edge of the waterfall I peered over at the welter of broken water and could just make out a broad ledge 50 feet lower. A canyon like passage led off this to disappear in the black gash of the final pitch. The smooth polished rocks were devoid of any jagged spurs of rock but still searching, my yellow circle of light illuminated an iron bolt driven into the wall out over the drop. Tom handed me the rope ends of a ladder whilst I cautiously traversed out and hooked the ends on a bolt. "What is it Jim?" asked Mike Bateson, looking up from under his yellow oilskin cap. With his helmet jammed over the floppy yellow material obscuring his face he was almost unrecognisable "A 50 foot" I answered and stood back watching them fastening

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the ladders together. "I'd shove another half-hitch on that Tom" I muttered "Aye - one for his nob!" answered Tom. The deed done I tossed the ladders into space and watched the resulting jerk on the bolt. Sykes picked up the life-line, tied on and walked to the brink. "Hell - I didn't know it was that wet" he remarked. I looked at the one remaining ladder and sundry ropes "I hope the last pitch isn't more than 25 feet" I said "You know I have a feeling we've dropped a ladder somewhere" answered Mike Bateson dolefully, little knowing how true this was. "Well, I'll have a look at the last pitch and see if we can manage it on a 25' said Sykes as he began the descent. Taking the strain on the line I suddenly felt his speed increase when he hit the water and I more or less lowered him to the ledge. We watched his light bob about below us as he chopped into the cleft and made his way to the

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next pitch. His beam flashed upwards - "We've had it!" were the only words we made out and we watched the unhappy figure below dash under the water to retrieve the end of the lifeline. Three watery blasts of the whistle came to our ears and I began heaving in the line whilst Mike took up the slack around his body. Eventually a very wet bedraggled Sykes hove into view. A stream of profanities left the blue lips "Wet, never seen owt like it - Hell - like swimming the ruddy channel! - next pitch nearly 40 feet" he gasped. We stood for a while as we discussed lowering the ladder down off the wet pitch whilst Tom stood there shaking visibly. "Pull the ladder up and we'll return next weekend" he suggested between chattering teeth. We fell in with this idea and pulled up the ladders and dragged them away from the water.

Soon I arrived at the top of Battleaxe "Did you

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bottom it?" enquired a youth who was sitting on a neatly coiled ladder. "Ask Tom" I said - He did and received a verbal attack that left him speechless. "Well I didn't know you wanted it - I thought it was a spare!" he exclaimed sadly. Leaving the ladders on the dry pitches in position we made our weary way out. Slowly we reached the top of the pitches and were traversing over the holes in the top passage "Watch the holes" I began, when I was interrupted by a scream and the sound of a falling body. I doubled back to the first hole and there 20 feet lower sat a very surprised and frightened Nancy (Dilling). "Are you alright?" I shouted "Just a minute, I think I've broken my ankle" The anxious period of silence that followed was broken at last. "No, it's twisted - Blasted silly thing to do!" Nancy moved from her rocky prison. We soon rigged a ladder and aided her to the surface where on my bike I ran her

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down to her car. Later when everyone was changed her spirits had picked up and she was able to drive her car back to Lancaster. Fortunately Nancy's unsuspecting passengers never realised that her footbrake foot was out of commission and were unaware of the skilled use of a nearly defunct handbrake and their nearness to disaster!

As to be expected the weather broke and the following weekend we arrived to find the hole almost engulfed by a roaring cascade of water. Two of us entered and nearly had legs broken by boulders, which were being swept along by the force of the water. A pothole in flood is an awesome sight as whole rivers are engulfed in the quivering hillside, digested in the hungry cave systems and spewed out in the form of turbulent risings in the valleys below. One often wonders how pools of water come to be in passages high above the shallow

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stream below, or how such a trickle of water could come out of such massive chasms. We realised quite well, as sat on ledges, we watched the roaring waters pushing along football sized rocks as effortless as if they had been peas! All our ladders and ropes were down below and we bemoaned their fate as forlornly we headed back to town.

The heavy rainfall gradually diminished and once again we arrived hopefully at Lost John's. The sullen waters were still in a restless mood and higher than when we first descended a fortnight previously. The weather forecast for the next few days was pretty grim so we decided to retrieve our tackle whilst it was still usable and at the same time, if possible reach the final sump. The women were left on top and only a handful of us set off. We began the descent along passages that were still wet from the flooding. The normally dry pitches lashed us with spray

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that ran up sleeves and down necks, just enough to make us thoroughly uncomfortable. The small pitches of Candle and Shistol contained slimy mud, which had been washed in from above and the ladder was unrecognisable! It was here that the mighty roar of water could be heard and to our dismay a fierce jet of water spewed across the rift-like aspect of Battleaxe. Our ladder thrashed too and fro in the spray like a living creature and of the spare ladder there was no sign. We were now all soaked to the skin and I decided another wetting wouldn't do me any harm. Halfway down the ladder I became enmeshed in a hopeless tangle as the heavy volume of floodwater had wrapped the ladder around itself to leave the knotted ropes in a contorted position before the volume had diminished. Unravelling the rungs the best I could I hurriedly slid down to Thunderstorm depot. Here indeed was thunder as the stream shot out into space over the wet

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pitch in a frenzy of liquid movement that formed a perfect arc before hitting the ledge well out from the wall below. Someone shouted that the spare ladder had been found washed down from above. One rung was broken but otherwise it was intact. Standing watching the torrent of water I suddenly realised that once past the top section its force would carry well over anyone climbing the ladder. “You're barmy!” someone ejaculated as I rigged the pitch. "There you are, you'll only get wet at the top" I said with pride. "Well, you can go first,” exclaimed Sykes still suffering from his previous contact with this pitch. I would rather have had someone else for my experiment but no-one was forthcoming and reluctantly I stepped out onto the ladder. By hugging this closely I received a terrific battering on my legs, backside and shoulders as slowly I squeezed my way down inches from the full force of the water. The ladder swung out slightly

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and I was suddenly enveloped, gasping for breath I slid down a few rungs and found I was clear. Lucky for me I hadn't hit the full force. I continued my descent in icy cold water that came down with the intensity of tropical rain, hastily untied and crept around the ledge to the final pitch. This too was wet but not enough to worry us as nearly all the stream was engulfed further back in another cleft. I looked up at the others and was rewarded by an impressive sight. The flashing lights appeared from a semi-concealed corner and diffused light hit the top of the waterfall and curved, glistening walls overhead. With my own light I illuminated the lower half of the 50 foot pitch whilst the roof towered out of sight into darkness. The roaring and the wind made it impossible to hear, so I just waited shivering yet strangely elated by the waterfall I had just defeated. A light flashed across the gap above as a tiny figure stepped onto the ladder.

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I watched as the bobbing light became engulfed in the black streak of whirling water. "Ah, he's clear" I thought and watched his descent. "Hell, thought I was going to get my head knocked off!" shouted Sykes as he ran across to join me. The tackle was lowered and arced out in the waterfall like a salmon fighting its way upstream. I dashed into the spray and retrieved it.

The final pitch proved to be 35 feet to a broad stream passage. The black peat covered walls towered up out of sight and the dark sullen waters flowed out of the range of our lights. Here and there cake-like masses of froth floated majestically past into the gloom ahead. We were soon joined by the other shivering enthusiasts and one by one we slid into the icy embrace of the stream. The water crept up to thigh level, then slowly rose to a point I personally couldn't stand, but slowly, remorselessly the depth increased until we were up to our armpits. Suddenly the floor gave way to soft mud and to my horror I

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found myself being sucked down. Shouts from the others told the same story as half swimming we turned round where the roof lowered ominously. We had covered a considerable distance down the master cave but the conditions were too much and we had to retreat. Upstream powerful waterfalls came down from above on their way from Notts Pot and Ireby Fell Cavern a mile and a half away. It was several years later before we proved this with the aid of fluoroceine - also the connection of Rumbling Hole lower down the fell. The mighty master cave of Lost Johns has been forced for a considerable distance in extremely dry conditions but still holds it's secrets. How many more caves and potholes drain into this sullen 'Styx' that follows the water table to meet the waters of the mighty Easegill System? Shall we ever know?

Looking around at my companions I soon realised that their only interest, just

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then, lay in getting up into the beautiful outdoors again. We had two new members and their features had become haggard and lined. The ruddy glow of their cheeks had faded to a delicate greyish blue. "How do you feel?" I asked as I lit a cigarette. "Bloody cold" one replied whilst the other gazed in astonishment at my cigarette. "How the hell do you keep fags and matches dry in this lot?" he asked in amazement "In my helmet - never fails" I answered and indeed it doesn't. We soon arrived at the top of the last pitch and found the water level had dropped slightly, just enough to immerse the 50 foot ladder ahead. I stopped coiling the last ladder long enough to watch a chap struggling up the ladder with water breaking over him. I soon realised he was in difficulties as he stopped and hung momentarily on his hands. "He'll never make it" muttered the figure at my side. Blurred shouting came to

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our ears and the figure on the ladder struggled upwards. As on a distant stage we saw the puppet-like figure fumble and fall. My stomach gave a sickening lurch as the lifeline held and he swayed to and fro across the pitch before blindly grabbing at the ladder.

His progress upward changed rhythm as the people up above dragged him up almost bodily and out of our sight.

Being last to vacate the damp and draughty ledge I was now feeling the effects of the cold and was relieved when the life-line came snaking down from above. I tied on, whistled and dived into the icy deluge. Grabbing the sodden mass of rope and wood I tucked my chin into my chest and climbed slowly, methodically upward through the heavy weight of water. At long last my head broke through the top of the waterfall and I was pulled into the side by the staunch lifeline party who had been at their station for a lengthy period. The ladders were pulled

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up; untied and coiled then the heavy cumbersome bundles were manhandled to the foot of the next pitch. The delays on the pitches became longer as the weight of rope ladders and ropes increased and our strength diminished. Fourteen rope ladders and hundreds of feet of heavy wet rope would have to be distributed amongst seven men when we eventually pulled up the ladder on the final pitch. Already there was some talk of leaving some tackle in the top passages as our weariness increased.

Soon the doubled rope of Centipede Pot came into view and I tied on and ascended whilst lifelined from below. Pulling myself into the passage above my attention was drawn to a cut in the belaying rope. Two out of three strands had been cut through, unnoticed when we had come in earlier in the day. I was lucky indeed to see it now and hastily altered the rope prior to lining up the next man.

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With the last pitch behind us we struggled along with two ladders and several lengths of rope each. One of the newer members was given one rope as he was all in. It was the new 250 ft coil and several stops were made whilst we assisted him and his burden over more awkward stretches. "This is ridiculous!" said Barker, "We need lightweight tackle" "Costs too much" Sykes answered. "Needn't,” said Ray "I know a chap". Hello, here we go again, I thought.

Three months later the amazing Ray Barker had all the necessary wire and alloy and a few months after that we were the proud possessors of 500 feet of brand new alloy tackle. If necessity is the mother of invention then the father (in our case) surely was Lost John.

This article was transcribed from one of Jim Eyre’s early diaries which have lain unread for many years in the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club library.

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