Nov. '64 was a cold, dismal, misty month in Cambridge that made any cave worthy of the name long to escape the dank fens and stride freely across the open moors of Yorkshire. A meet at Disappointment Pot was arranged. P.U. gave the impression that the hole was a difficult one, so the trip was limited to those fortunate to own one of those new-fangled wet-suits that were just coming into use. however, sheer economics forced the meet-leader to accept one other, an Army man, in order to fill the mini-bus.
Anyone walking the Backs of John's at 0200 on that Saturday morning would have been surprised to see a light from a window in third Court reflected in the river. Surely no-one could be working in the Michaelmas Term? Indeed not. Inside, a keen young freshman was making his first wet-suit in a tangle of brown paper, evostick and neoprene before snatching a few hours sleep. Such were the preparations for the trip.
The walk to the Senate House is always something of a strain, with the locals wondering who the crazy man with the rucksack is. Never mind, once surrounded by more of the same kind you can put them off with a few hearty laughs and swear words. Then, OOPS, off we go, nearly mowing down a few pedestrians and giving a last wave to the scientists grouting off to their Saturday morning lectures.
Arriving at Brackenbottom at 3pm the party ate and started to change. Getting into a wet-suit for the first time ever calls for some care, as it is easy to tear a hole right over your kidneys, as one freshman promptly did. The same young lad believed the old hands who said that this was the worst part of the trip. The Army man (no wet-suit) was able to gloat at his time.
He continued gloating as we sweated up Trow Gill but subsided into chilled silence when we emerged into the driving snow of the Allotment. Visibility was down to about 10 yards, so we set out in a long line to look for the hole, taking care not to lose the man on either side and seeing the next but one light between flurries of snow. Perhaps it was fortunate that we found Disappointment Pot before Gaping Ghyll.
The entrance and the first bit of tight, winding streamway are quite easy on the way down. The Duck showed up the virtues of a wet-suit, but was never quite up to Gemmell and Myers standard. The first pitch caused a bit of a hold-up, as it needed a two foot belay and the club possessed nothing below ten feet at this time. There was little water on the pitch as the surface was frozen but what there was consisted of very cold melt-water. We lost one man as he was feeling sick but this merely filled in time as the leader struggled to do up the shackles on the ladder with a pair of pliers, as almost none of the club tackle had C-links, and karabiners were far too expensive.
The tackle store had been stretched to its limit for this trip, as we noticed on the third pitch with its one broken rung, one slipped rung, and a nasty gap of four feet where the ladder was too short. Further delay took place at the fifth, where the screw threads on the shackles caused difficulty as they had been rather battered during the upper part of the descent. A waistlength and krab did us for a DL as we had run out of belays and the club did not have a pulley. Thus we got to the bottom in only four hours.
The plan was to get to the Main Chamber via East Passage as Short Hensler's hadn't been dug in those days. The way led via High Aven and on into a nasty wallow in mud on hands and knees to emerge in East Passage. We walked the short way to Mud Hall there to be bitterly disappointed by the traverse, which was far too difficult for us to attempt in our present condition. So we turned round without seeing Main Chamber. The Army man was no longer extolling the virtues of his many layers of wool and actually admitted feeling cold. From this point progress became increasingly slow. We were further impeded by several ammo-boxes which people then insisted in carrying around, full of pairs of pliers, food, cigarettes, and spare carbide lamps. Fortunately, we lost one in a boulder choke, though its owner wasn't too pleased to be relieved of its weight.
There was quite a lot of water coming down the fifty foot pitch, but the Army man managed to haul himself and his sodden layers of wool up, with some encouragement from the lifeline which wasn't bad for someone who hadn't been on anything more than twenty feet before. An advance party went on at speed while the remainder of us deladdered. Rubber gloves had not come into caving use at this time and it was necessary to shed one's gardening gloves to get the sensitivity to wield a pair of pliers at the threads of the shackles, hampered by mud, bad fit, and general tiredness.
Needless to say, several ladders were wound up with their belays still obstinately attached, which made for further difficulties with the rubber bands that held the clumsily crossed rolls at that time. Some of the side-wires had only four strands instead of the usual seven, which almost stopped them rolling at all. The belay of the third pitch was kinked round a rock but one coil had slipped by the time we wanted to climb the pitch, thus making the rungs vertical.
Despite everything, we got to the duck, though by this time only four of the original ten NiFes were working as we had gone over the generally accepted limit of eight hours from these old cells. Just after the duck, we paused to reroll the obstinate ladders. I watched Pete as he slept for a few moments, twitching violently on the hard gravel, and found myself wondering what an exhausted caver dreams about. Unfortunately, he didn't remember when we woke him up.
There was a sudden silence up ahead as the Army man stopped threatening to die, but we were too busy negotiating the tight and twisting streamway to wonder if the obvious had happened. This last bit of the pot is extremely sporting and is best negotiated by great cunning or brute force, both of which we lacked at this stage.
Daylight at 6.40 am, seen after a gap of eleven and a half hours, is twice as good, and it was bliss to lie in the snow, looking up at Ingleborough, quite benign in his new grey beard. The Army man had staged the miraculous recovery that is usually seen on recovering the surface, so we walked down in the shifting half light of Sunday's dawn. Now there was no cold, no pain from cut knees, no discomfort from the ladders carried over one shoulder. Once started, it wastes less effort to carry on than to stop. We walked in an exhausted and eerie silence, and it was no surprise when the peasant I had seen in the distance turned into a bush as we got closer. The undertaker and his assistant similarly turned into a large rock.
As walked over that exquisitely beautiful and quite colourless moor, we had no sense of purpose, so it was quite disturbing to get back to the minibus, wake Bob, who had been asleep in a barn, and set off for Horton. Before we had gone more than a few yards, Frank screamed and we had to stop. His sense of equilibrium was so disturbed that he thought we were going backwards into a wall.
Back at the hut, we quickly changed and had some hot coffee. The Bradford hut at this time had a marvellous way of making sure that everyone did their washing up. This involved throwing your dirty dishes out in the garden, so that the next person had to wash them before being able to use them. Climatic conditions had turned the retrieval into a desperate grout in the snow and ice even to find a humble teaspoon, which was all a bit sordid.
The resuscitated Army man creaked upstairs in his frozen boiler suit to shave. Now warmed up, we found that hallucinations had been experienced by us all, and had not been a sign of mental instability, which was very relieving. There was some argument as to whether it was better to sleep from then until we started back to Cambridge in four hours time. The driver, at least, slept for this time.
Somewhere in region of a northern town called Leeds, the only person awake in the whole bus started screaming "Mind that car, mind that-" Bang. The other driver was very angry, but quietened remarkably as ten men all very annoyed at being woken up, got out of the minibus, where they had previously been hidden behind the fetid condensation on the window.
Fortunately, the damage was small, only ten shillings each, and after a weekend like that, no-one felt like complaining.