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Rat Hole - 5th Mar 2011

Saturday March 5th 2011

Members present: Jonathan Booth,  Mark Sims,  Matt Gosling,  Toby Buxton

Report by Matt Gosling

The team arrived at the familiar sight of Fell Becks descent into the abyss of Gaping Gill. The rocks in the stream had been positioned to funnel water down the Rat Hole sink for the Winch Meet earlier in the year to keep the water out of the main shaft. The main shaft was not our target for today though, for this trip we needed to follow the shadows into an encounter with its more sinister sibling, Rat Hole. We spent some time taking apart the rocks in the dam that directed the stream and rebuilt them to protect the Rat Hole sink. This sent the main body of water crashing over the edge of Gaping Gill main hang. With some uncertainty I crawled into the small entrance further down from the sink, it certainly had a foreboding feel about it, particularly as any rain could easily cause the Beck to rise and flood the coffin shaped passage. Further inside twists and turns met a short down climb and eventually, the stream-way. A short, easy pitch over cascades seemed to mock the coming adventure for at the foot of this small descent the real obstacles waited. A short traverse led out over a 100 meter plummet down the waterfall into the main chamber below. Descent straight down this shaft is not the way on however as sharp rocks could cut the rope. To venture further we needed to descend three meters via a tight deviation and swing into a floorless rift, thus crossing above the stark, seemingly infinite black realm that dwelled below. The swing was tight and relied on grabbing diminished handholds, I gasped in relief as I slammed a karabiner into the next p-bolt.

The bolted route we were following was a gift left by a caving legend called Mike Wooding who was one of the defining cavers in the exploration of the Gaping Gill system. The pendulum rope he had left hanging silently from the ceiling dwelt eerily in the traverse ahead. I thought about some of his last words regarding Rat Hole with an uneasy chill: “if you ain’t hard, you shouldn’t have come!” I reached out and clipped the pendulum rope into my croll. Above me the knot looked good and the rope seemed strong so I hurled myself out into a swing across the beckoning void. Grabbing onto the rocks on the other side I clambered up the rocks in the narrower part of the rift and slammed home another karabiner to make myself safe on the other side. After crossing the pendulum himself Mark passed me the bag with the 130 meter rope in and I rigged the y-hang for the descent. The bolts were well positioned and gave a nice free hang. Before I descended I consulted Mark about directions. I needed to deviate to the South wall which is the wall on the right hand side after the pendulum. As I descended into the large shaft I noticed a peculiar blue glow in a gigantic rock window to the side of me. This was the light scattering from spray in the main shaft further across. It met me as a lonely companion whilst I found the first deviation at -25 meters (note that if you want to do the route, there is a deviation at -10 meters on the same wall that should be missed out as it apparently puts you in an awkward position for the second). The next deviation was rigged in the same wall at -35 meters and positioned me well to abseil towards the confusing array of ledges and mists that made up the part of the cave called “The Amphitheatre”.

This part of the cave is located just above the rift in the ceiling of Gaping Gill and on a wet day is simply an impassable and ferocious maelstrom of white foaming water. Even on this dry day the cold spray filled the air around me. There are many bolts, spits, ropes and tat in this area that make progress confusing. I didn’t find the bolts for the next part of the route at first as they were not easy to spot. Eventually, after a lot of messing around and speculation my headlight picked out the correct ones (again in the south wall) that led over a traverse with one foot either side of the rift in the ceiling of Gaping Gill main chamber, an exhilarating experience with a stunning view. Upwards above me I stared into a breathtaking display. Behind the silhouette of a giant car sixed chock-stone wedged into the rift above, the blue hollow glow of the thrashing waterfall towered above me, its raw unhinged power smashing against the walls, now and eternally carving out the shape of the glorious cavern. The third bolt was rigged for the final part of the descent. I abseiled into the rift passing an important deviation in the north wall to land on a rock bridge in the roof of Gaping Gill main chamber, an incredible place to find myself. Abseiling backwards off this I reached overhead to place the final deviation in the south wall. The system of two deviations redirects the rope around the ceiling rock and leads to a tremendous finale, dropping into the spray infused atmosphere of the cathedral sized main chamber. As I descended I thought: “I’m having a stunning day!” As the rest of the team joined me one by one in the chamber I looked up in awe and couldn’t help but be glad for the dam we had built earlier on in the day. Not only had it stopped much of the water from marring our route but it had caused a massive amount of water to feed the main waterfall. This gave one of the most dramatic views of the main chamber I have seen, particularly against the contrast of my team-mates headlights that sporadically illuminated the crack in the ceiling over to the side. Jonnies face was a picture when he arrived on terra firma. He looked slightly shocked.

On the return to the surface Toby de-rigged and we made our way out. The entrance crawl had a bite to it on the way out but it served to enhance the first glimpse of the clear night sky. Stars twinkled above us as we made our way back down the hill to Clapham.