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Gaping Gill - three holes ticked in one go

By Martin Beale

5 December 2001

Report with photos available on vHut

The weather had held for weeks before Mathias's return to these shores for a week of savage speleology. As he landed at Heathrow, the weather broke and the rains returned. Throughout the week, I was stuck in the office praying that the rain would hold off for just one more week. Soon it was Friday and we packed up Tim's cavemobile and headed north.

An unnecessarily unpleasant 20 mile traffic jam on the M5 hindered our progress to Yorkshire, but even this couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. We broke open our mobile beer depot and set to work reading the CNCC topos. I just wanted to know that Gaping Ghyll would be possible : maybe somehow I could glean from the description that the line miraculously escaped the water. Maybe there would be some hint that at least one of the lines would go. Without this information I was destined to spend at least two more nights with doubt churning in my mind.

I felt compelled to buy a wetsuit at Inglesport on the Saturday. I tested this under a waterfall in Rowten Pot. It seemed to be doing the business, but my hands were getting really cold. This would not be ideal when trying to desperately hold the rope descending into the heart of the ghyll. Sunday saw a return to Inglesport where I purchased a pair of wetsuit gloves to complete the kit. We had the A-OK from the Inglesport team for the descent of Gaping Ghyll. Although Bernies were more reticent about our prospects on Ingleborough Fell, I trusted the Inglesport beta above that of Bernies.

It occurred to me as I passed Flood Entrance with Mathias and Unstone that I had never set eyes on Gaping Ghyll itself from the top. Our eager pace soon saw us at the hole : too our great relief, Fell Beck looked extremely amenable. There was no doubt that this was a stream, but it looked from the top that it wouldn't stop out quest to bottom Britain's deepest shaft.

The HPCC / AHPES racked and kitted up by the banks of Fell Beck, in the arena of dreams. Tim and his brother were assigned to rig our escape route of Bar Pot. Mathias was going to rig the Dihedrals route as I dropped the big one with Unstone in pursuit. I checked my clothing and kit well before heading off to the start of Gaping Ghyll Main Shaft.

The first few maillons were clipped. I was peering over the edge down a 70m drop to Birbeck's Ledge. Unstone was on the far bank of the hole taking photos and directing operations. There was a crucial spit at the beginning to deviate the rope away from the starting ledge. Unfortunately, this was a spinner and the rope was thus protected with a rope protector. After a false start, I was descending the inital mossy corner and was soon hanging in front of the rift. The terrible sight of manky old bolts and an in-situ traverse line greeted me. My heart sank for a fleeting moment, but then I saw the spanking new P-bolts heading off into the darkness. With a bit of a swing and a reach, I had my cowstails clipped into the first of the P-bolts and had got myself established in the floorless rift.

The rift is quite hard to rig. It is quite a constricted place. I was trying to back and knee my way across. The bolts always seemed to be behind my head. Half way across the rift, I had to swap the ropes. I left the 30m rope clipped in with a knot hanging down into space (in case my followers forgot to swap ropes!). By now there were only a couple of bolts before the Y-hang across the rift. There were good footholds across the sides of the rift to establish myself. I tied my best possible Y-hang into the inspiring P-bolts. Unstone was on the rope before the rift nervously laughing at the insanity of it all.

I looked down into the shaft. It was a fearsome sight. On the right of me, the water from Jib Tunnel disappeared into spray as the Birbeck's Ledge water joined if from the other side. The colliding jets of water coalesced into a maelstrom 70m below me. I was trying to work out whether the line would just avoid the water on the way down. It was difficult to tell, there was only one way to found out and that was to go down.

The initial 50m of the drop was pleasant. Mathias was shouting and yelping from the Dihedrals route. I daren't try to shout back. I thought the fear in my voice could break my spell. I needed 100% concentration on the job in hand. The shaft got wetter as I descended. I drew level with Birbeck's Ledge. There seemed to be more water in it down here than when we were on the surface. It was an angrier spot altogether. I checked my clothing for the last time before dropping into the water. Things got wetter and wetter as I encroached on the spray. Suddenly I was hit on the back by the waterfall and the force of the water shook me somewhat. Luckily, the water seems to swing you out of the waterfall after you have been hit, though eventually, you pendulum back in. I was at the level of an overhang of very sharp rock. For the first time I was able to grab hold of the rock again.

I held the rock and tried to pull myself away from the waterfall. I thought that if I could traverse the wall and deviate, all would be well. I cowered in an alcove from the force of the water. There was an old spit in the lip of the sharp overhang. I toyed with deviating from it, but it seemed like it might just pull me nearer t o the line of the water. Anyway, the further I had my rope from the sharp overhang, the better I reasoned. There were no only two options : up against the force of the water or down into the unknown maelstrom. My Petzl Explorer was having great difficulty picking out the surface of the shaft. I reasoned that a 20 - 30m drop through the water would be feasible. More than this would start to get risky. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt I could make out the bouldery bed of the shaft. My experience from Rowten suggested I would be happy under the hammering water for up to 5 minutes. I just had to go for it.

I jumped out of the alcove and the rope pendulumed me into the waterfall. I was hit again by the force of the water. This time, I had my head down and the water poured over the top of my Warmbac. With a determined steely grip, I squeezed the trigger of the Stop and went down. I knew I had probably gone past the point of no return : the only way was down. As I squeezed the trigger, I looked for the floor of the shaft. At last it loomed into proper view. Right at the end of the drop, I swung into the full force of the water one last time. The rope slid through the Stop and I dangled a metre above the shaft floor. As the cold water drenched me, I gave the Stop one last squeeze and I bottomed out on the shaft. I was buzzing from the excitement of it all. I knew I had to get off the rope and out of the water before I was safe. As I detached myself from the system, I staggered out from under the waterfall and ran around the bottom of the shaft with delight. I was soon joined by a very excited Mathias who was on the final drop of the Dihedrals as I bottomed out.

Soon enough, I saw Unstone's body on the rope. I was unsure how he would fare without a wetsuit. I hoped he would be alright as he entered the water. There was no way we could communicate from the bottom of the shaft. As he entered the waterfall, he got hit really hard and swung onto the edge of the shaft. It looked ferocious up there. His vulcan death grip on the Stop saw him zip through the last wet bit and there he was on the bottom of the shaft. I shook him to check he was still compos mentis and he was : he was buzzing with it all too. Tim and Joint were soon descending the rope too. It was exciting to watch. Everyone seemed to be going though the same rollercoaster of emotions : the floor of the shaft was just buzzing with excitement.

When we were all down there, we decided on our respective escape routes. Joint was going out via Bar Pot. Mathias, Unstone and Tim would exit via the Dihedrals. I wanted to do battle with the Main Shaft. My main concern with the Main Shaft was in having the rope getting pulled against the sharp overhang when the water hit me and swung me across the shaft. For this reason, Tim and Joint pulled the rope out away from the water (and overhang) as I ascended. Once I realised that I didn't need to use my feet to hold the rope tight, I could jug up like some sort of deranged animal. I could sense the water close to me and was very grateful that I was out of it all. At last, I was level with Birbeck's Ledge. I shouted to Tim that I had reach santuary. I swung across the shaft as the Wilkinson's let go of the rope. I was almost home and dry.

I could enjoy the shear agoraphobia of the top of the shaft as the maelstrom receded into the depths below. I ascended to the dark rift, a slice of blue sky lighting the top of the shaft to my right. In the top of the rift, the end of the 30m rope looked uncannily like a noose. It was an eery sight. My heart was pounding with the excitement of it all as I traversed the rift for what I thought would be the last time and appeared into the world again.

I was met at the top by Mathias. We were both elated. After a while, Unstone joined us. I waited for Tim, but he never arrived. We assumed he'd be coming up the Dihedrals. The plan was for me to go down the Dihedrals and derig it as Mathias dropped the Main Shaft for the derig. It was getting late and Tim hadn't come out of the Dihedrals. I decided that I would go down Main Shaft with Mathias again and then work things out from down there (we were sure that Tim wouldn't have ascended the Main Shaft).

Mathias seemed to drop down the rope like a stone. He must have been so fired up. I knew what I was letting myself in for and was thus slightly nervous as I approached Birbeck's Ledge. On the way down, I saw Tim ascending The Dihedrals. We was OK. I squeezed the Stop and dropped into the waterfall. This time I knew it would be alright. I just waited until I bottomed out. Again, the rope slid through the Stop at the end and I was forced into the heart of the waterfall again right at the end. I was again very happy to be out of the force of the water.

I held the bottom of the Main Shaft rope in a footloop as Mathias ascended. We agreed that when he shouted, I would let go of the rope. It was really exciting watching Mathias ascend by the side of the waterfall. I tried to manipulate the rope away from the ferocity of it all. I was willing Mathias on as he sped upwards towards daylight. After some time, he stopped (probably to survey the scene) and then let out a Viking yell. I let go of the rope and Mathias swung in the shaft. He must have been nervous as he hoped that he had shouted at the right time and would avoid further interaction with thw waterfall.

I was now standing alone at the bottom of Gaping Ghyll with a whole 150m of rigged rope above me to the surface (via the Dihedrals). The Dihedrals route was very well rigged by Mathias. It looked like it would not have been obvious on the way down. I was feeling confident as I ascended the bottom drop of the shaft : it was nicely out of the water. I was somewhat taken aback to find out that I'd been jugging up to a single P-bolt : most un-Yorkshire like. I tired as I ascended. The main shaft looked beautiful to start with, but all too soon, the sun was setting on the surface and the detail of the main shaft eluded me.

A very tired Martin Beale popped out the top of Jib Tunnel to be met by the rest of the AHPES team. It all became clear what has happened to Tim. Tim had been late because he had escorted his brother Joint close enough to the base of Bar Pot that it was impossible for Joint to get lost on his way out. Joint however, did manage to get lost on the way out and wandered around the labyrinth of the Gaping Ghyll system for a couple of hours before finding the Bar Pot rope. Due to this navigational waywardness, we actually all ended up back at the surface at roughly the same time (apart from Unstone who was looking decidedly cold when I met him).

An elated HPCC team trogged down past Ingleborough Cave back to Clapham. There was only one topic of conversation on the way down : that shaft.

What a day. What an end to Mathias's return to British speleology.

Initial comment from Unstone posted below:

Excellent yorkshire trip this weekend. jingling is a fine little drop. rowten pot is excellent. gaping gill main shaft is super-awesome, and the dihedrals route is a gem. i thought i was a goner the first time the stream hit me on the way down gg main shaft - i was convinced something major had happened on the surface and i was going to be washed off the rope by the pressure of the water. still, it cleaned my oversuit nicely. good effort m&m going up that baby. good effort on the rigging / de-rigging too, and tim setting up our emergency route out - psychologically it would have been pretty tough going down main shaft without knowing the bar pot escape was on. i know martin and mathias would still have gone down, because they were in full-on nutter mode, and i would have followed, because i am stupid, but it would have been loads more frightening. i also think joint going down gg main in pajamas deserves a special prize of some sort.

From my point of view, it was good to re-acquaint myself with the black bag from hell and the 100 meter rope. they make a beautiful couple. i had problems with cold hands on sunday and i need to get decent gloves asap. i had a massive hot aches session on the ledge on dihedrals on the way up as my hands thawed out. i also became very good at standing outside the cave freezing my arse off. after a while i had to shove my hands in my armpits, so then i was freezing my tits off. if mathias hadn't appeared when he did, with the carbide hand warmer, i was going to move onto freezing my balls off. still, this was all my choice, i could have gone down again and helped with de-rigging, and got even colder, but i was too lazy. i had the heater on full-bore in the car on the way home but i was in bingley before i warmed up. i am going to florida for a few days this week to make sure i don't catch a chill.

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