Getting Tight in Cambridge
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Jura (and elsewhere) expedition
It may be that future historians will see the middle of 1966 as a turning-point. In the space of a few months, Dan-yr-Ogof hit the headlines, OFD II was at last entered and Leeds University began their triumphant progress by discovering the Kingsdale Master Cave. Even in Derbyshire, the Eldon established a short-lived record by linking Giant's Hole with Oxlow Cavern. Since then the pace has scarcely slackened, certainly not in Yorkshire. These new caves have often been well recorded by their explorers, but it is time to think about their qualities for the sporting caver. In recent years I have had the good fortune to visit a number of these caves, and this article is an attempt to contrast their horrors with their attractions. I also feel that they are little visited and need some advertisement.
Developments in Wharfedale are probably symptomatic of what will happen sooner or later in other dales away from the classic Craven District. I have sampled two of the recently extended caves, Birks Fell and Langcliffe, of which certainly the former deserves to be extremely popular because it is an exciting and varied cave. There are about 1½ miles of passage on the way straight to the sump, very nearly all of which is outstanding streamway. Water is a predominant feature, the canals and cascades being wholly spectacular, but the cave also contains superb formations, notably in Whitehall. Although Birks Fell is physically demanding, there are few technical difficulties, and it is only below the shale pitch that the cave turns rather nasty with awkward thrutches and evil canals. We were amazed to discover that in the three years since the discovery of the extensions we were the second party to reach the bottom. Access problems have now been eliminated, and this very fine cave must definitely be visited.
The attractions of Langcliffe Pot are rather less obvious. No single part of the cave makes undue demands on either strength or stamina, but extreme length and an atmosphere of unmitigated hostility lay weight to the claim that Langcliffe is the hardest trip in Britain. Craven Crawl is on hands and knees, not flat-out; Stagger Passage is fairly restful as there are perfectly designed ledges at shoulder level to lean on; Langstrothdale Chase is walking (for a mile, I admit), and so on...but as you walk home (or run, as we did when an irate bull pursued us over the moonlit moors) you may well decide that you have suffered a mildly traumatic experience. Langcliffe's reputation is going to repel most cavers, but even those who do venture there are probably going to be disappointed by the murky drabness of the cave. Except for the highly dramatic Nemesis pitch, the system is notable for a certain sinister hush, which combines with the opaque, scum-fringed pools and the dull black walls to create a uniquely repellent environment. If this attracts you, then try Langcliffe, but equip yourself with a determination to reach the end, rather than an expectation of aesthetic delight.
Whereas Wharfedale developments indicate what may happen elsewhere, discoveries in the familiar Craven region suggest what might have happened anywhere if each brief generation of Yorkshire cavers had not believed the eternal heresy that there were no more caves to be found. With an apparent ease which must send Mendip diggers to drown their sorrows in the Hunter's, cave after cave has been pushed. Black Shiver Pot and the Kingsdale Master Cave were wide open - well, fairly wide - and merely awaited someone idiotic enough to squeeze in. Many of these discoveries, such as Hangman's Hole, Growling Hole or Out Sleets Beck Pot, are not untypical of the familiar Yorkshire Pot, though they may appear to be tighter, while the Far Country/Far Waters series of Gaping Gill and Pippikin represent the older type of abandoned passage, so beloved of those dissatisfied with the present communications systems between the Northern Counties. Not many cavers other than the explorers have been down Pippikin, and fewer have made much impression on the rather fierce entrance series. The narrow and fiendishly awkward passages between the entrance pitches are technically extreme, providing the sporting caver with much entertainment, though it is precisely this sort of difficulty which diminishes with familiarity. I found the big passages of Pippikin distinctly disappointing because they aren't all that big, while they tend to be gruesomely muddy and now only moderately well decorated. Indeed, compared with the excellent state of preservation maintained in Welsh caves, the grotty piles of carbide and battered formations in Pippikin are a depressing spectacle. There is no doubt that the discovery is vitally important to the understanding of Leck and Casterton Fells, but to the mere caver the unlovely passages beyond the acrobatic delights of the entrance passage may not be quite worth the exertions necessary to reach them.
Many Northern cavers seem to be under the impression that a passport, travellers' cheques and a phrase-book are necessary for caving in Wales. I have never found this to be so. Of course, there are regulations for entry to many of the caves, probably more complex than those pertaining to Leck Fell or the Allotment, but there is little difficulty if the correct channels are followed. Access to show caves is probably rather easier than elsewhere. Even if the problems of access were more real than imaginary, the caver who appreciates underground scenery has no excuse for not visiting OFD and DYO.
The longest, deepest and most complex cave in Britain is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, which also offers probably the most exciting stream passage as well as some immaculate, if well concealed formations. Whereas the caver entering for the first time any cave of moderate complexity has a fair chance of reaching his intended destination, anyone who wanders far from the Top Entrance without knowing where he is going will spend some hours going round in circles, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu requires navigation of the very highest standard - or someone who's been before.
The standard of climbing is also high, the trip to OFD II being unique in the demands it makes on the caver's skill on rock. Where the Yorkshireman ladders, or at least uses a rope, the Welsh climb, and if you intend to use tackle on all the awkward climbs in OFD, the rope and alloy industries are in for a good year. Once climbing and route-finding problems have been faced, the possibilities for social caving are limitless, though most cavers are especially attracted by the stream passages. OFD I has long been famed, OFD II is nearly two miles long and magnificent all the way, while to my mind the canals and glisteningly black scalloped rock of OFD III are scarcely less memorable. The sheer hugeness of Little Neath River Cave (a rare example of a really impressive system which is fairly easy) may be lacking, and perhaps also the remote grandeur of the Main Stream Passage of Agen Allwedd upstream from Southern Stream Passage (another grossly undervisited place), but for straight sporting caving the potholes and cascades of OFD take some beating.
Dan-yr-Ogof is famed for its formations. The accent is on straws, thousands of them, often of great length and all very white; Cloud Chamber always takes my breath away. The helictites in the Flower Gardens and Birthday Passage are strikingly beautiful, but Dan-yr-Ogof isn't all pretties. The lakes are dramatic, especially the cataracts between them, while the standard of climbing is quite high. The size of the passages is impressive: probably no cave other than Agen Allwedd has so many miles of colossal passages, and the disturbing element in Dan-yr-Ogof is that the further from the entrance you go, the more colossal they become. The trip up to the Far North is long enough to be a fairly serious proposition, but a wholly enjoyable one because of the outstanding scenery all the way. Occasionally, I regret that there is a lack of really active stream passages, but the scale and the formations of the cave alone put it into the very highest class.
It is a mistake to leave the newest caves to darkness when the original explorers have moved on. Sporting cavers must learn to abandon the old classic trips and experiment with equally exciting systems discovered in recent years. They will probably be more than satisfied with the difficulties and scenic attractions. Without such caving I'm sure I would have been rapidly driven to insanity by the endless examination of final, pointless grot-holes in Knotlow and P8.
Getting Tight in Cambridge
|CU 1972 Contents Page||Next:|
Jura (and elsewhere) expedition