Volume 46 Number 3 Article 4
It is a cold October evening in 1990, dusk is falling. A group of three cold and ill-equipped cavers shiver their way back to a minibus parked at High Birkwith. The dripping wet jeans and cotton shirts are rapidly removed and replaced with a dry set. The wet and muddy gear is stowed in a Bernie’s bag and thrown into the back of the van and the three novices climb inside and close the doors in an attempt to get warm. They had just come back from Old Ing at the end of their first day out with ULSA. The day had started with a fry up in the Settle Down Café with its fearsome waitresses. Their guides had decided on three caves to visit, the first was an esoteric classic, Coppice Cave. This is an entertaining through-trip involving some arduous crawling, a squeeze of sorts and a pitch, finally emerging in Ling Gill a beautiful canyon. Second on the agenda was the classic Calf Holes to Browgill Cave which, although short was thoroughly enjoyed. Finally was a visit to Old Ing, at the terminal sump the older students, Kev Little and Matt Lumb bid the novices farewell and proceeded to free-dive the two sumps into the extensive Baker Series, leaving the novices to make their own way out and back to the minibus.
That was almost twenty years ago, and I was one of the three cold novices. I can now see where I might have started to get my love of through trips. Later that evening we enjoyed quite a few pints in the Golden Lion and Kev told me about the cave beyond Old Ing and how an exciting through trip to Birkwith Cave could be done. During the 90’s many of my friends took up cave diving and this trip seemed to feature fairly regularly. I never got around to learning to dive and instead enjoyed eighteen years of misery, interspersed with the occasional international jolly.
Saturday 11th April 2009, I’m in the Dales with my Spanish cave diving friend David Magdalena. We have a few hours to spare and I thought that it was about time that I made the trip through the mountain that had been eighteen and a half years in the waiting. Parking at High Birkwith on a sunny morning we slowly emptied the contents of my van on to the soggy field and proceeded to build two sets of cave diving equipment from all my spares. Soon we were clad in wetsuits and striding across the fell to Old Ing. I hadn’t been to this corner of the dales for at least ten years but was pleased to walk straight to the entrance. Caving with two cylinders made the normally placid Old Ing a little more challenging. But in no time at all we were at the terminal sump. Final adjustments were made, air turned on, flippers donned and checks made before slowly sliding under the water. Those last five words probably could do with some enhancement or embellishment. In one breath things are normal, the sound of the cave is that experienced by all cavers, in the next the lights have been dimmed, the cave is a little colder, and stiller, then as you exhale you hear the comforting sound of air bubbles rushing upwards, followed by the even more comforting sound and feel of air being drawn in, making breathing something that you are more conscious of than on your normal caving trip.
Onward, I glide effortlessly through the first short sump and break surface into a small airbell and wait for David. Even in the small airbell the sounds above water are far more acute than below. Shortly an orange glow appears below in the peaty water and it gets brighter as David surfaces in the airbell. A quick chat and I’m off again this time the line descends almost vertically and about two metres down I can feel the rope passing through an arch before heading vertically upwards, the arch is easily passed and the surface soon reached beyond. This time the water became a bubbling cauldron of breaking air bubbles long before David’s orange glow came into view. I’ve never free-dived these two sumps, and being an aficionado, I supposed that I’ll have to come back to dive them free but it did feel a lot more relaxed with a couple of bottles. Beyond was an out of depth canal, which we swam along to reach a shingle bank where we took off our flippers. Another deep section was passed to reach the point where an Old Ing sump-bypass rejoins the main stream when David announced that he’d misplaced (dropped) his flippers – Doh! I returned to the shingle bank and then undertook a couple of unplanned and chilly dives along the floor for the passage, braille caving, in a desperate attempt to find David’s lost flippers, which as they belonged to me, might cast doubt over the altruistic nature of the endeavour.
Flippers found, we headed downstream, we soon reached a pitch, the large stream bouncing down a steep cascade, the noise was tremendous. Having cowstails proved invaluable, however the in situ rope was in a very shoddy state. It obviously receives a thrashing in wet weather as the copious amounts of visible core bore witness. I was glad to reach the bottom unscathed and still wearing both bottles. David followed, these days I always feel more anxious watching somebody else in a dangerous position, I watched with baited breath as he dangled on the remnants of the old rope. Safely down, we followed the stream into another deep canal, where it became obvious that I was wearing too much lead…. As the passage narrowed progress became easier and we arrived at our third sump, just below a blasted sump bypass. We spent a minute readying our equipment before submerging and gliding through the murkiness to surface in the Dismal Hill main drain a nice sporting section of streamway.
A few more minutes of caving led to the crux sump a twenty metre long sump that descends a ramp for several metres to a slot through into an ascending rift, which surfaces at the far upstream end of Birkwith Cave. I dived first and probably stole the best visibility of about half a metre, I found the slot and soon surfaced having ascended the rift. I managed to find somewhere to stand whilst I waited for David to join me. I saw the line twitch a few times but nobody arrived. After a few minutes I was just starting to get nervous when I began to hear breaking bubbles and David then arrived, he’d almost made it through but then had returned to the Dismal Hill side before diving all the way through. We sauntered out of Birkwith Cave smiling, this was probably my first visit here in over fifteen years and I had forgotten what a nice cave it is. It had been a short trip but it certainly packed a punch, with lots of varied, wet and sporting passage in such a short space, it was well worth the wait. For the non-divers out there, a non-diving trip from Old Ing to Dismal Hill is a fantastic short trip that will blow you away – go and do it.