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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 Jonathan Booth

On a Monday afternoon I was wandering idly round the lake, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the bickering of the geese, feeling pretty much at ease and at peace with the world. My musings were disturbed by my ringing phone, it was Matt, and I picked it up.

‘Hi Jonny do you fancy Rat Hole this weekend?’

My heart sank.

‘Well, err, I’m not too sure, I’d have to see what I’ve got on’ I said, buying time to get some excuses lined up. ‘Let me get back to you’.

Monday became Tuesday and I still hadn’t thought of anything. Rat Hole is a cave that Matt and I had talked about for a long time, but the conditions needed to do it didn’t come around so often, as any rain would defiantly sump the entrance crawl and batter you to pieces further down. I’d always been apprehensive about this cave and I was in two minds about whether or not I really wanted it, I didn’t feel I had to at all, my excuses were really more to myself than to anyone else. However after checking the forecast I saw that it was about as good as it was going to get, and I began to wonder…

By Wednesday, I was beginning to fancy it.

Thursday came, a quick look at Metcheck and the environment agency water levels chart, I’d come to a decision and at training I put my name down before I could change my mind. By this time I knew what was coming.

By Friday the butterflies had arrived in my stomach and before I knew it it was Saturday and I was trudging up the now familiar walk to Gaping Gill. We arrived at the sink and were pleased to see barely a trickle going down the shaft, however when we saw the Rat Hole sink my mood fell a little, even there was a strong flow of water charging in. After a brief discussion we decided that it was probably fine but we should stack the odds in our favour so we set to work building a dam. Half an hour passed and we had reduced the amount of water going into the sink by about 2 thirds so things were looking up. When we arrived at the crawl the water was lapping uncomfortably close to the bedding plane into which we must go, possibly due to fact that the entrance is downstream of the sink so our dam, while reducing the water going into the sink, had possibly raised the water levels at the entrance, but its swings and roundabouts I suppose.

Despite the care we had taken in our decision I couldn’t help being a little bit shocked as I squeezed into the rocky jaws and saw the liberal sprinkling of flood debris. Caves like this need treating with a large dose of respect, it’s not brave to take chances but things were as good as they would ever be so I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind and on we crawled. Thirty meters of flat out bedding plane followed, tighter in places but mercifully opening out and before too long we were in the small but impressive streamway. It wouldn’t be the first time we were feeling thankful to have built the dam.

We searched for a drilled thread and found it, and Matt began rigging what was to become a pretty bold rig, little did I know what awaited. An innocent looking four metre pitch dropped us into a bowl and a traverse took us into a rift. Edging along the rift I saw Mark swing about, and looking down below me I was horrified to see the water leave the floor like a runaway train and go falling and falling, seemingly forever into a black nothingness. Shining a light down revealed nothing, I tried not to think too much about the fact that I was in the very apex of a crack in the roof of the chamber.

A bead of sweat dripped off my brow and fell 100m to the chamber floor. I was shocked.

The others in front of me had swung down and out of sight as the followed the rift, when the call came I abbed down another few meters and braced across the rift once more. Before me the rift widened and a lonely in-situ rope beckoned. Matt and Mark were on the other side and Toby was waiting above me. I fumbled around, cowstails in the traverse line and croll on the rope, ready and I was swinging and dangling above a nameless black until I reached a ledge and joined Mark.

Toby waited at the other side of the swing and while Marc and I waited Matt did battle in the Mousehole shaft, a huge inspiring pitch that was really a cylindrical widening of the rift. Here was the crux, the way on was hard to find and Matt was on his own, a tiny speck of light that was soon lost as the route deviated under an overhang. Time passed, we grew cramped as we watched the rope and tried to decipher the twitching, was he putting a deviation in, or coming back up? Eventually we heard a yell of triumph and rope free, our hearts leapt and we made ready.

The pitch surpassed all expectations, to the left was the Rat Hole water, madly thrashing about its shaft like a demented serpent. To the right was a scene of such terrifying beauty that no words can do justice to, the rift widened and became a mountain scene of peaks, ridges, timeless majestic towers and ravines between which the waters of Dihedral and Main Hang played and roared like wild beasts. The surging of the water caused the whole spectacular scent to be lit with a flickering firelight as I nervously abbed on down.

With a steaming rack and a thumping heart I touched down on the amphitheatre, a grim stormy ledge in the roof of the chamber with the Rat Hole water screaming down and crashing around me. Anything other that low water levels would make this a perilous place to be. Even before I could sort myself out I heard yells of triumph from Matt and soon also from Mark as they reached the chamber floor. Traversing along the top of the chamber and abseiling out of the lofty roof I felt humbled and overawed, the vista before me as I span gently around was beyond my wildest dreams; soaring spits of rock and violent cascades whirled around me and all too soon it was over and I lay on the glistening cobbles.

The others joined me but I didn’t celebrate yet, not until I was once more outside, at no point along the route can you let your guard down, of all SRT routes I’ve had the privilege of attempting this one was probably the least forgiving of any error or mis-judgement, give it half a chance and there would be serious trouble.

Hours passed and we were all out, the crawl proved difficult but Toby once again kept me going and eventually I wandered beneath the stars and smelt the coming spring in the damp grass and was truly thankful of the good fortune that allowed me a glimpse of such a world.

Rat Hole has a hard reputation, with the right build up of trips it is certainly do-able but there is no room for anything to go wrong. Watch the weather as pretty much all of the cave would be very dangerous in moderate to high water. It has to be said that it is a real experience and surely one of the most humbling and thrilling of all trips for me was the culmination of nearly 3 years of struggling on the ropes.