If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 16 April 2010

Getting Stuck

I posted recently about the incident in Manchester Hole which led to the loss of a young boy's life. It made me think about the only time I have been in a similar situation. There's no particular point to this post: it's just a reminiscence.

We decided one weekend to do a slightly more demanding trip than the usual ones. There were a hard core of about six pupils that came every time, and one or two more who came along to see what it was all about. For this reason, we normally kept to caves that were Grade III or less. (Grade III is 'difficult', in the spectrum of easy - moderate - difficult - very difficult - severe.) That meant there was plenty of sport, but no outrageous hazards or obstacles that would cause the inexperienced undue problems. Bear in mind that we usually had three staff and perhaps eight pupils between 15 and 18, so the supervsion ratio was very good. For this trip, we took only the most experienced of the pupils - I think four of them, and three staff.

We chose Swinsto Hole in the Kingsdale system. The cave is entered through a shakehole high up in the valley side,

which drops through a series of pitches into the Kingsdale Master Cave. This is a huge cavern underneath the valley of Kingsdale, into which many of the local potholes descend. I've no idea how many St Paul's Cathedrals you could fit inside it, but it is spectacularly massive. Swinsto drops into the master cave, so most people view it as a one-way trip - enter through Swinsto, drop to the master cave, and exit at valley floor level, where the car is only a few hundred metres away. This means that the pot cannot be laddered (unless you have no objection to leaving behind hundreds of pounds' worth of aluminium) and needs to tackled with single ropes. Each pitch is belayed with a nylon sling (which is left behind) and descended on a single rope, doubled, so that the rope can be pulled through and recovered in order to do the next pitch. Minimum equipment is about seven slings and about 30m of rope, but sensible people take a bit more than this just in case.

The key to a successful trip through Swinsto is to remember that climbing out of the master cave to the exit at Valley Entrance is very difficult, so it is necessary to enter Valley Entrance

and traverse the stooping Roof Tunnel, to rig a ladder down to the floor of the Master Cave. Then you can climb the fellside to the Swinsto shakehole, safe in the knowledge that your exit is secure.

On the day we did the trip, the weather was dull and wet, with the prospect of light rain later. Swinsto is not a pot that gets dangerous in wet weather - it just becomes what cavers call more 'sporting'.

The exit route, however, through the Roof Tunnel passes through waist-deep pools, one of which is known to 'sump' (flood to the roof, necessitating moving under water for a short distance) after heavy rain.

The trip through Swinsto was challenging and exhilarating, and we all got very wet indeed. Having done a lot of caving with ladders, which are a pain to lug around, descending the pot with a single rope felt very liberated. We finally reached the master cave and stopped for a Mars Bar. The ladder we had rigged was still there (cavers are pretty trustworthy people) and we climbed it to reach the Roof Tunnel. However, while we were underground, it had been raining hard. When we got to the pools, the final one had filled almost to the roof, and the only way out was to crawl and semi-swim through it. It's not a great distance - perhaps 10-20 feet - but it's a bit of a challenge if you weren't prepared for it. We talked about it and decided that we were confident we would all make it through, so the trip leader went through first, followed by the pupils in order of competence (least first) and I waited behind to make sure all the kids got through, and then I would follow. And all the time the water was getting deeper.

By the time we had all the pupils on the far side and only I was left, the water had reached the roof, and there was nothing for it but to dive the sump. I managed it by lying on my back to make the most of the small airspace, and swimming the submerged section with a rather inelegant backstroke.

This is the Roof Tunnel; on that day, this section was completely submerged.

Then were back in daylight, trotting to the minibus through the rain, changing into dry clothes (girls one side of the bus, boys the other) and sharing flasks of coffee and soup.

Was that dangerous? It was certainly quite a thrill, knowing that we had encountered a difficult situation and come out the other side (literally), but I am sure that at no time were we, or the pupils, in any serious danger. For one thing, if the passage had been totally blocked, we would have retreated to the master cave, where there was plenty of room to sit up high and wait for the water to go down. We would have conserved our lights by only using one at a time, and passed around the ammo boxes we carried, which were full of high-energy food like Kendal Mint Cake and Garibaldi biscuits. As we had notified the police before we set off, it would only have been a matter of time before Cave Rescue would have been alerted after our non-appearance, and help would have been at hand. Or, more simply, we would have waited for the water to subside, and then walked out all by ourselves. As it was, we emerged without incident, and it went down as one of the best trips we had ever done.

That was at a time when teachers did things like that because they were worth doing. We didn't fill in any forms, or do formal risk assessments. Pride in what we were doing meant that we were ultra-careful with the children in our care, and I'm sure that any of us would have sacrificed ourselves if it meant saving the life of one of the children. That was how it worked.

NB1 - these are not my photos - I never took a camera into a cave, more's the pity.

NB2 - these are my own recollections, and should not be relied upon as definitive guidance to an exploration of the West Kingsdale system. Get a proper book.


  1. Richard,I believe to get around the lack of air problem some cavers now use aqualungs!N

  2. Nikos, I believe they do! But to have a convenient aqualung, you need to be anticipating getting submerged; we anticipated nothing more than a soaking. I've met 'proper' cave divers, and they are a strange breed of men - tough, with a thousand-yard stare and no sense of proportion whatsoever.

  3. I thought a sump was a fully submerged passage and a duck was a passage that had limited airspace.....

  4. For me, a sump is a submerged passage, a duck is where you have to put your head underwater to negotiate something, and limited airspace is just one of those things. This was a sump, with 10-12 feet fully underwater as I remember.


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