Down the rabbit hole

A solo trip into ‘The Three Counties’ System. With 90km of passages it is the longest cave system in Britain and currently listed in the top 30 longest caves yet discovered in the world.

I’m a long way from home. I feel it just for a few moments – the result of a wrong turn leading me down an ever-tightening crawl that isn’t going anywhere. It’s an easy mistake to fix, but it’s enough for minor doubts to appear.

Taking ten minutes break, I read and re-read the route description I have for this section of the system. The words don’t quite seem to match reality, but so it is sometimes with caves. Happy that I am where I think I am,  I go through the motions of addressing my doubts individually and considering their weight. Are they justified? If so, is there anything I can do about them?

Perhaps the passage to get here had been more complex and involving than I’d anticipated. Save for a single massive stalactite there had been few features of which to take mental note, along a streamway which had split, meandered and ox-bowed all over the place. But I know where I am now. Looking up at the ceiling of the ‘Main Drain’, a tide-line of flood debris clings to the walls high above my head. I know that parts of this passage can flood to a depth of 30 metres, but I only allow myself the briefest of moments to reflect on this. It is irrelevant today. Outside it is hot and dry, and it’s not rained for days.

Lancaster Hole 'Main Drain'In the ‘Main Drain’, one of the largest stream passages in ‘The Three Counties’ System.

My mind is back where it needs to be and I continue into the cave, but a very slight feeling of unease lingers which I can’t explain. Climbing out of Stop Pot into the ‘High Level Route’, the passage begins to require all my concentration to pass the endless van-sized boulders covering the floor . Some can be wriggled beneath but many are only tackled with awkward, gymnastic climbs. ‘I must keep enough energy to climb the strenuous exit pitches out of ‘Wretched Rabbit’ entrance’. I climb the boulders as efficiently I can to save my arms and shoulders.

The passage breaks out into a wide and low chamber filled with stalactites and stalagmites, straws and flowstone. The way on is obvious – a huge void ahead which eats the light of my headtorch. A series of immense, silent caverns take me deeper into the system. I walk for almost an hour down one of the biggest passageways I’ve ever seen. ‘Mainline Terminus’, ‘Monster Cavern’, ‘Snail Cavern’, ‘Oakes Cavern’ – each is as huge as the one before. ‘How long would it take to explore all the dozens of miles of passageways in this system?’

The Three Counties SystemFormations in the ‘High Level Route’ – s series of vast, dry caverns which link together into a long passageway above the current level of the stream-ways.

The Three Counties System

Stopping to load fresh batteries into my headtorch, I realise that I’ve gone off the end of my survey. Today the temptation to continue is not there, so instead I just sit and admire some of the calcite formations. How long had they been growing here in the silent dark?  Incalculable age in any form always sends me into deep thought. ‘Why my lingering sense of unrest?’ And my thoughts keep returning to where I’d been the day before.

Sleets Gill Cave, Wharfedale
A magnificent cave, but also the stuff of nightmares. ‘A good place to drown on a dry day’. It can flood totally and rapidly, with a delay that is still not fully understood, sometimes days after the rain has stopped. A 20m deep scree ramp from the entrance leads through a constriction, past a sump, into a 1000ft long tunnel. If a flood comes whilst you are in the cave, it will come from behind – meaning a return to the entrance is impossible. In the wettest conditions almost every inch of Sleets Gill fills with water, to the extent that it will rise the height of the 20m entrance ramp and spill out of the entrance onto the hillside. It is a unusual and unpredictable cave.

In the immense ‘Main Gallery’ of Sleets Gill Cave. This 1000ft long passage can rapidly flood to the roof after heavy rain.

Sleets Gill CaveCalcite formations stained by flood water.

It is the scene of one of the UK’s most famous cave-rescues. In 1992, two cavers entered Sleets Gill to find largely dry conditions and walked the length of the impressive main passageway. An hour later, two loud bangs echoed throughout the cave, persuading them to retreat. They found themselves stuck on the other side of a section of flooded passage which had been easily passable on their way in, and rapidly rising water forced them to the very back of the main gallery. In just a short time, several hundred metres of railway-tunnel sized passage flooded to the roof. When rescue came, the task was unthinkable – to dive two hypothermic non-divers through 250m of flooded cave passageway. It was an unprecedented rescue operation in the UK, and it gave Sleets Gill the notoriety that it deserves.

I was scared on my first trip into Sleets Gill. It was 2014 and I was a far less experienced caver than I am now, unused to the mind-games which can and do occur when alone in certain underground places. The cave echoed more than any other I’d visited and I found myself hearing sounds which weren’t there. Logically I knew there was no risk of a sudden catastrophic flood after 3 weeks of drought, but I became uncharacteristically nervous and didn’t spend long in the cave.

30th May 2016
My second trip into Sleets Gill -the day before being in ‘The Three Counties’.
The cave feels different this time, but not as much as I’d expected. The entrance squeeze had felt wider than I’d remembered and I’d felt excitement instead of apprehension as I entered the Main Gallery. But, ever so slightly, I can feel that knot in my stomach. It’s a feeling I’ve rarely had even on the most serious solo caving trips I’ve ever done – so why today, when this cave passage is not somewhere to fear?

Sleets Gill caveHearing sounds that aren’t there in Sleets Gill Cave.

Sleets Gill caveAt the bottom of the 20 metre deep scree ramp at the entrance to Sleets Gill Cave. In the 1992 rescue this constriction was under water and the trapped cavers had to be dived through.

Starting the walk along the gallery, I pause a few times to listen hard. It starts to happen again. Amongst the innocent echoes of my movement I think  I hear the roar of a waterfall, a bursting tire, a jackdaw calling. A jackdaw…really?? I’m frustrating myself and continue at a faster pace to the calcite columns in the central part of the passage.

Setting up some photographs brings me back to reality and I start to enjoy my surroundings. The first image is a difficult one as a self-portrait so it takes me over half an hour to get right. Entering a puddle faster than I’d intended, the echo sounds more like a raging torrent appearing from no-where. A while later, a dull ‘boom’ comes from somewhere unknown and I do nothing but listen hard for the next two minutes.

I can’t help but feel relief to exit the cave, despite the elation of being in such an inspiring place again. Outside it is hot and cloudless with the rivers running low, and it is only a couple of minutes before I start scolding myself for my irrational thoughts in the cave.

Foresight and hindsight
My frame of mind whilst solo caving or climbing is something I constantly scrutinise, and doubly-so if I’ve become scared. I inspect every inch of a solo trip with hindsight and try and identify if my feelings were justified, and if so -had I pushed things too far? Somewhere like Sleets Gill can play havoc with your gut instincts. On two occasions it has brought me back down to Earth, having made me feel less in control than I have on solo caving trips 3 grades harder. Despite this however, or perhaps because of it, it inspires me endlessly. I know that I’ll be listening to imaginary jackdaws and bursting tires in Sleets Gill plenty of times in the future. I’m very slowly starting to accept that perhaps it is good for some places to just be inherently frightening, and perhaps it is okay to allow yourself to feel it without question.

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