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Marble Steps Pot Sidewinder - Gully Exchange

Saturday January 11th 2014

Members present: Chad B,  Evan Cooper,  Luke Brownbridge,  Sarah Jefferys,  Vicky Bailey,  Will Scott

Report by Vicky Bailey

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

T. S. Eliot was probably a caver.

Luckily, he decided to stay behind on this particular trip, which eased the conscience of those errant English students who should have been writing essays on him.

Sarah was in charge and led her gang of handsome brunettes up the hill to the entrance of Marble Steps. The mud and rocks leading down to the first bolts belied the grandeur of the title, but nonetheless made for a picturesque cave entrance, fluffy with moss and wild garlic, nestled in a sun-striped coppice on the side of the hill.

Luke and Sarah peeled off to rig the Gulley route while Chad led the rest of us down Sidewinder, whose smooth, windy passages were as agreeable to our descent as a dragon’s gullet – a fun start to the cave. I dangled about on the ceiling of the first chamber as Chad picked his way around the rocks below like a prowling alley cat, presumably looking for the way on. The time suspended in space, in the dark, with a fancy new neoprene hood which effectively made me deaf as well as blind, prompted much whimsical thought, and I caught myself thinking that if I switched my torch off I’d go invisible.

The next chamber was a mess of boulders tossed about like a collection of giant’s dice, over which we scrambled to reach a low, inconsiderately stony passage over which we were obliged to crawl. After a series of interesting squeezy descents we reached the biggest pitch, beneath which it was raining. It was here that certain scientific and anthropologic discoveries were made, including a strange clump of pink crumbliness, which might have been a species of lichen, or stone, or elderly sandwich – and a fag-end, potentially centuries old.

After about five seconds at the bottom of the final pitch – which was brown and wet and not much else – I was on my way back up again, Will waiting behind to de-reg. My ascent was plagued with the woes of newbie caverdom, from harness-adjustment anxiety to prusik-envy, as well as a personal cloud of faff that followed me throughout the trip; losing my foot-loop, finding it, tripping over it, hanging from it, trapping it in the hand-jammer; trapping chest strap in the hand-jammer, trapping hair in the hand-jammer, trapping finger in the hand-jammer … and anything else that seemed to fit.

We met Sarah, Luke and Chad in a narrow passage and agreed, for various reasons, that Evan and I would go on ahead back to the cars while the others finished descending and de-rigged. Evan overtook me before long, disappearing like a cave-goat into the dark, and I was left to negotiate the giant’s dice on my own, glad that I never made a habit of watching horror films.

At last I emerged into the first chamber. All was black, still and empty, the rope onwards hanging motionless over the mantle. I switched my torch off and total darkness fell. My comrade, true to his name, had evanesced…

I discovered Evan searching for the bypass route to the next chamber, which we eventually found, after an abortive investigation of a narrow passage which led to a lone, skinny waterfall, very pale and ghostly, with an in-situ rope dangling over it like an old fashioned door-bell – which neither of us had the nerve to ring.

The last ascent was, for me, infuriatingly slow, with the rocks at just the incline to make prusiking difficult, and many temper tantrums were had while Evan waited above as the sky turned from deep blue to black. Eventually I reached the top with an exhausting inefficient monkey-bars technique – more practice needed here – and off we strode, towards a hillside dotted with lights. Determined to compensate for my slowness in the cave, I sped down the footpath at top speed and fell into the mud.

“Club wellies don’t have as much grip as personal wellies” said Evan, overtaking me.

After a quick, cold change we sat in the car, played with the heating – succeeding in filling the car with cold air – shared marmite sandwiches and read the road map.

Two hours later our comrades returned. I accidentally watched the group of unknown cavers parked in front of us change out of their gear – a magnificent spectacle, strange silhouettes thrown onto open car doors by criss-crossing headlights and helmet beams, steam billowing out of opened oversuits – what a tribute to life, humanity, the enduring pulse of mankind beating out into the January air! And then I realised what I was doing and quickly buried my head in the roadmap, pretending to be interested in Middlesborough.

All changed, off we toddled to Bodrums for obligatory pizza and a brief immersion in the buzz of Skipton night life, before the long ride home; parking up at the container half an hour to midnight, before the long stagger to bed, pausing to show off a shiny new collection of bruises to our loved ones.