Sunday April 5th 2015
Members present: Andy Hurlbatt, Sophie Hentschel
The entrance leads immediately to a short free climb which posed little problem, and the ‘Rope Climb’ is just around the corner. Not fancying posting myself unprotected through the hole without fully knowing what was on the other side, I rigged our prepared rope from the convenient P bolt and abseiled. Finding myself in a chamber with a circular hole in the floor (the First Pitch) I realised that the second page of the description was with Sophie. The anchors are obvious, however, so soon the pitch was rigged and I landed in a reasonably sized chamber.
Soon the other two were with me, and we continued over some muddy boulders, over a traverse (with in situ rope), to a constriction, requiring a short amount of thrutching on your side. Beyond we found a reasonable chamber with a sloping floor, at the bottom of which is the continuation. Whilst waiting for Thomas, Sophie and I traversed around the slope to the other side of the chamber, where there are a pleasing amount of straws under the far wall. We enjoyed them while listening to Thomas’ moaning, as he is prone to.
Back at the bottom of the slope, Sophie took over rigging, and was soon down the Second Pitch. At the base of this, I somehow ended up in front again, and led us through a short section of rift, before diving into a section of bedding plane to begin a medium length crawl. A few minutes later, after a couple of left turns, the floor starts to drop away, and we started the aptly named ‘T-piece passage’. In this section of cave, the vertical space (stem of the ‘T’) is often too tight to allow legs through, so we were left crawl-traversing in the tight horizontal space above it.
I was glad when I saw the end of this passage in sight, but not so glad when I saw that the exit was above a not insignificant drop of about 4 metres. The passage gets trickier as you approach the exit, with the rift widening, and the horizontal section getting tighter. There are very few foot holds in the rift. To get out, you have to get your body back to the vertical in the widening of the stem, while not slipping into it. From here, you need to hug a large nose of rock to bring your legs out of the rift, above the drop. Then a traverse around (with an in situ line) brings you to the other side of the chamber beyond the exit. I managed this with a bit of rope grabbing and unsteadiness, and waited for Sophie to instruct her on how to get past this bit.
Issues began when Sophie, whose hips did not fit above the last section of the rift due to the tightness, had to descend to the vertical slightly earlier than me. Having successfully gotten herself vertical, she ended up with her hips facing the wrong way (left) to safely complete the traverse out. Unable to pull herself back to the horizontal due to the passage shape, and with the rift too narrow to turn around in, the safest and quickest option was decided to be for me to go back up and rig a short pitch rope from the in situ line. This was done fairly quickly, and soon Sophie was out of the awkward piece.
Thomas was not far behind, and seemed to have difficulty at the last tight bend before the awkward section. As he came forward, complaining about the passage, I went back up the traverse, where he was able to pass me his tacklesack and, for some reason, his helmet. The difficulty at the previous bend was indicative of what was to come, as it transpired that although appearing very similar in build to myself, Thomas’ frame is bulkier than mine, with larger shoulders and ribcage. He was unable to reach the exit of the passage while staying horizontal, as the top of the ‘T’ is quite tight here, so he also had to descend to the vertical earlier.
“Scheisse. Scheisse! SCHEIsse!”
Before I could get to him, Thomas had freed himself from having his head trapped in the top of the ‘T’ while his body slipped into the rift, the lack of footholds leaving his weight supported only by his neck. He soon navigated his way to the bottom of the chamber, slightly shaken, but otherwise uninjured, and we stopped for a rest.
It was here that the seriousness of situation started to become clear to us, though I feel as though it came to me later than to the others. With what had happened it was obvious that re-entering T-piece passage would be both physically and psychologically demanding, with the danger of slipping into the rift ever present. We decided that the best option would be to rest and recover here for a short time, and then turn around without exploring further.
Having had the most difficulty, it was decided that Thomas should be in-between Sophie and I. Sophie crossed the traverse and entered the rift. At this point, it is necessary to bring your legs up and out of the rift, in order to traverse across the top of the first tight section. However, this is made very difficult by the lack of foot holds, and requires significant upper body strength. Combined with the intimidating possibility of slipping and becoming physically stuck in the rift, the manoeuvre is a challenging one if you fit above the last of the rift, and in hindsight, virtually impossible unassisted if you do not. Not being able to fit, Sophie was unable to complete it.
I tried next, and after considerable exertion and much jamming of feet and knees in the rift, was horizontal above it. However the shape of the rift meant that Sophie was unable to see how I had done it, and without being able to see my own legs, it was difficult to describe, short of “jam your legs in”. I came back down, and Sophie tried again, but wasn’t able to get to the horizontal. Tired, frustrated, and scared, she came back down.
After some discussion, rest, and water, I went back up with a rope to rig a traverse line as tight as I could, with a pitch down, so that Sophie and Thomas could self-rescue. After around half an hour of to-ing and fro-ing in the passage, hunting for naturals to rig from, I finally had something together. However as soon as Sophie approached the entrance to the passage, it was clear that it was insufficient, and relying upon it could result in a dangerous slip into the rift. The additional requirement to have hands free to move traverse line attachments complicated matters even more. By this point my poor night’s sleep was taking its toll (if you share a hut with the WSG, take earplugs, they snore), and the physical effort of staying horizontal in the passage was becoming difficult. I reached a place in the passage close to the end where I could mostly relax, and Sophie and I discussed options.
With some backwards and forward of ideas, it was decided that in the current situation, Sophie and Thomas were safe and comfortable and could stay that way for a number of hours if need be. The risk of ending up in a worse situation through making an exit attempt was deemed too great, and with me too tired to be of much use should the need arise, we agreed that outside assistance was necessary. After a difficult parting, and exchange of survival equipment, I began my exit of the cave alone at a few minutes past five.
A fast, but not rushed, pace brought me to the surface in a little under half an hour, the whole time my head running through various scenarios of what could go wrong. I deposited my SRT kit and oversuit, retrieved the car key, and jogged down the hill to our car, parked near the entrance to Braida Garth Farm. Without holding much hope, I turned on my phone to be surprised by a weak signal. A minute or so of climbing the hill above Valley Entrance gave a strong mobile signal (Vodaphone network, though emergency calls can be made on any network). I anxiously placed my call to 999, specifically asking for North Yorkshire Police. After quickly getting through I described the situation to the operator who took details and passed the message on to CRO, after telling me to expect a call back. The next fifteen minutes felt very long indeed, and were spent constantly checking I had phone signal. The CRO controller took some further details and apologised for the delay, explaining that they had only just cleared up from another incident. He told me to hang tight and expect someone on scene within 20 minutes. Not knowing what to do, I stayed on the hill in case I still needed phone signal, and watched the farmer on the opposite side of the valley herding stubborn sheep.
Around quarter of an hour later, a private pickup arrived at Braida Garth, and someone got out and waved me off the hill. This was the first CRO on scene, and he drove us to Braida Garth where he had already arranged with the farmer to use the yard as parking for CRO vehicles. Within a few minutes more vehicles were arriving, both private and CRO marked, and the farmyard was bustling with activity. From an outside perspective it was very difficult to make sense of who was doing what, and various people, all friendly, asked me for details on the situation underground. Soon though, it was clear that everyone was performing pre-determined tasks, and people started walking up the hill to the entrance. After offering to help, I was given a tacklesack containing a drill, and walked up the hill with a group of CRO members.
Upon arrival at the entrance, where mist was descending, a scene controller and communications officer were already there, setting up a HeyPhone for underground communication. The first two cavers went underground quickly, to reach Thomas and Sophie, followed by another two a few minutes later with the underground HeyPhone and other supplies. By this point I had lost all sense of time, but I think it was around 7 when the first two went underground, as it was still light even through the fog.
The next few hours were spent talking to CRO members and offering my services as Sherpa to ferry equipment up the hill as and when required. Tea was drunk, jokes were made, and cavers went underground. The CRO team were all very relaxed, and helped me to stay calm. I think they were glad, just as I was, that the situation was not as serious as the last time they were at King Pot.
Sooner than I expected, the news came through the HeyPhone that Sophie was the correct side of T-piece passage, and spirits were raised. The next hour or so are not clear in my memory, but not long after, Thomas was also reported freed. People came and went from the surface team, and eventually the first caver resurfaced tired but good spirited. Shortly after ten pm, more cavers started appearing, and soon I was able to greet first Thomas then Sophie, both tired, but uninjured, just over five hours after I had left them. We picked up what we could to help out CRO, and set off down the hill.
Ever since it dawned on me that the situation was more serious than “you’ll be fine, just give it another go” I’ve been thinking about what went wrong, who’s to blame, and how it could have been avoided. In hindsight, the answer to all three of these questions is fairly simple. At some point, one of us should have said “this is too much, we should turn around”. For example, when I saw that it was difficult for me, I should have realised that the other two have different physiques to me, and twigged that one of them might not be able to do it. Sophie, when she was struggling on the way down, could have communicated to Thomas just how tricky it was. Thomas could have realised earlier that he was struggling with the crawl-traverse more than either of us, and that it might be too much for him. There were plenty of occasions where any one of us could have realised what might happen, but none of us did until it was too late. Once we knew we were in trouble, I think we mostly made correct decisions. Once we knew that fitting back through would be an issue, we had to keep a close eye on our energy levels, specifically mine as the one who would need to get help if required. The risk of exhaustion, combined with that of any one of us slipping into the rift and making the whole situation a lot worse, was why we thought, and still think, that outside help was the correct choice. Others may have different opinions, if you wish to discuss any of this, please get in touch.
For those who don’t want to read the whole report, the take home messages are this: Know your limits, and the limits of those in your party. Know when to say ‘enough’.