Saturday August 8th 2015
Members present: Adam Walmsley, Mark Sims
As the years rolled by, the idea would surface now and again but was always swiftly cast aside as folly. I would periodically stumble upon and enjoy reading Beardy’s write up of his crazy birthday celebration, which really should be enough to put off anyone of sound mind from wanting to attempt the same. However, there is something strangely appealing about silly challenges, and I wanted to do something big before my retirement from caving next year. So when Sims asked me in May if I fancied it, I said words to the effect of “Yep, it’s now or never”.
All the usual rules of the challenge were taken as read, but Mark also insisted that we should be “in it to win it” and do the whole lot without any sleep. That concerned me somewhat, but at least it meant no extra camping gear to lug round. The battle lines were drawn, potential dates were pencilled in, and two more keen cavers were recruited from the Buttered Badgers. Most of the planning process passed me by in a blur. There were multiple iterations of a spreadsheet calculating the very minimum tackle requirement needed to do all three pots, which I was apparently supposed to understand and check. Brand new 8 mm rope was ordered and cut to length – we were going for ultralight delight.
All of a sudden it was the night before the big day and we were gathered at Tim and Jane’s house having a barbecue and packing gear. We fed well, and despite Tim’s best efforts, resisted drinking the bulk of the copious beer on offer. I almost got away with my pack being 3 kilos lighter than everyone else’s, before the bathroom scales came out and everything was equalised to 20 kg. We managed to get to bed just before midnight giving us a half-decent six hours’ kip before sun rise. By 6:40, four sleepy cavers were setting off up the hill from Chapel-le-Dale.
It was a perfect morning - still, clear and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. We were having a stunning day, ten minutes in, walking along a nice smooth piece of track, when Mark R fell flat on his face. His boot laces had hooked his feet together – it was an inauspicious start. After the obligatory photo and much mirth we got on our way. The route to King Pot took us a good 3½ miles out of the way from the standard route up Whernside over some quite awkward tussocky ground. More than once, Chris fell into a moorland grip, getting his feet wet early. At King, the midges were out in full force and we were their breakfast. We made a hasty change and threw ourselves into the entrance.
The caving in King Pot went smoothly. The new 8 mm rope felt rather rapid at first but we soon became used to it, and the lightness of the tacklesacks was appreciated by all. Noting the strenuous nature of the entrance series, I was glad to be doing this pot first, and not at the end of a supersized three peaks walk. Two hours in and we were setting up a group photo at the foamy downstream sump. Mark R had brought a decent camera and some flash guns with which to document the experience - these days if you don’t have photos you haven’t done it. On the way out, the T-piece Passage provided some fun and games, with tacklesacks and bodies becoming ever so slightly wedged, but it was nothing a bit of thrutching couldn’t solve. You are not as fat as you imagine. I must have thrutched a bit too hard at one point as I came out of it with a really bad back.
Thankfully the midges had mostly dispersed by the time we surfaced. We basked in the sun for a while, ate some bagged pasta and changed back into our freshly-dried walking clothes. I loaded up on vitamin I; my back was quite sore. The walk up to the summit of Whernside was interminable – a long slog up a gently sloping featureless fell. Whernside is surely the most boring hill in England, though the beautiful weather redeemed it slightly. None of us had thought to bring sunscreen, and we needed it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists. At the summit we tried in vain to upload some photos to UK Caving. The plan had been to do live updates as we went. That seems wildly optimistic in hindsight. At the top we had a rest and pondered a direct descent of the steep face towards Ribblehead, but in the end opted for the more gentle but circuitous path via Force Gill.
The walk from Ribblehead to Penyghent was fairly tough. We didn't take many breaks, just kept stomping away, gradually getting further from Whernside and closer to Penyghent. We had been passing a steady stream of three peaks walkers all afternoon, but they dried up at around 5 p.m. and we had the path to ourselves. The final ascent up to the summit was particularly difficult. Our pace slowed to a crawl and we were all hanging out, so to speak. At last we reached the top, collapsing into the bench behind the wind break. Within a minute we were feeling the cold. Now that the sun had gone down and the wind had picked up, our t-shirt and trouser combo wasn't quite sufficient, but it was all we had. Mark R pointed out that we were now 12 hours into a 30+ hour trip. We didn't like that thought.
We arrived at Penyghent Pot at dusk. Mark R was feeling quite ill and, after changing into caving kit, lied out on the grass and started groaning. We had been refilling our water bottles at various points since Whernside, purifying it with chlorine tabs. Whether it was something in the water, or dehydration & exertion, we don’t know. After a while the groans turned to full-on retching and it was clear that Mark couldn't continue. An uncomfortable few minutes were passed trying to decide what to do, with the prospect of full abandonment being raised. Chris and Mark S headed back to the main path and after a while were able to call Tim and arrange a lift for Mark R from Brackenbottom. Eventually the heaving stopped. We gave Mark directions to the meeting place and he set off, carrying all his kit, leaving behind a small pile of the most unusual looking vomit next to the entrance.
And then there were three. We set off into the cave, sad to have lost Mark but relieved to be continuing. I knew of the infamous Penyghent Long Crawl but had not bargained for those little bastard knobbly pebbles which line the stream for so much of its length. I had only brought my naff thin knee pads which were wholly insufficient. Look after your knees; you'll miss them when they're gone. After the crawl, the pot improved no end and I quite enjoyed it through my haze of tiredness. I was caving in my walking boots to save carrying wellies, so was somewhat unsure of my footing in the cave environment. The submerged ridges in parts of this pot took concentration and I felt lucky not have come to grief on them. To economise on rope, we had planned to free-climb any pitches which were free-climbable. By the 10th pitch we were all out of rope and this left us with a sketchy free-climb traverse and jump to reach the base. Chris sensibly decided to turn around at this point but Mark and I rather imprudently went for it. Do one thing every day that scares you. Ten minutes later we reached the sump, this time having no camera for a photo.
On the way out Mark and I half expected to catch up with Chris, and developed a niggling concern that we had somehow passed him and left him stranded in the cave. This fear grew when we saw his water bottle at the top of the first pitch. Having to go back down Penyghent Pot again just didn't bear thinking about. It was therefore a huge relief to hear his voice as I was climbing out of the entrance. Chris had just caught about ten minutes of heavy rain, but that had now eased to drizzle. I looked at my soaked clothes and decided I couldn't be bothered changing into them, so I ate some chocolate instead. The cloud was low and blocking out any hint of moonlight - visibility was poor. We set off in what we thought was the right direction, but it took us a worrying while to find the wall we needed to follow back to the path. It was now something like 3 a.m. The next few hours were really hard.
Lack of sleep was now hitting home. As we walked through Horton in Ribblesdale, I was falling asleep on my feet, swaying all over the road and having vivid hallucinations. I would periodically stop and stare at some inanimate object like a bench or some road markings, seeing something else entirely. Wondering why I'd stopped, Chris would ask if I was ok, whereupon I'd immediately wake up, say I was fine and continue walking. At the footbridge over the Ribble, Mark said he might change into his walking clothes, so we sat down on a bench and immediately fell asleep. I woke up and asked Mark if he was going to get changed, but he seemed unable to decide and we all fell asleep again. After some time he did get changed and we continued on our merry way. I decided that the sleep situation was getting a bit silly, so I took a pro plus. Whether it was the caffeine or the advancing daylight, I did start perking up a bit, though I was still seeing things. Any remotely vertical object - boulders, signposts, sheep - I would think was a person. What does that mean? Don't ask me, I'm not a flipping psychiatrist!
We plodded on over the Allotment and up the side of Ingleborough. It was a fairly subdued affair, the inclement weather dampening our spirits. Once on the Swine Tail, we dropped our packs and nipped to the summit. So we didn't carry our bags to the top of each peak - no one cares. The race is long and in the end, it's only with yourself. After a steep descent down the Arks and the flagstone highway we arrived at the edge of Southerscales Nature Reserve. Here once again we sat down and went straight to sleep. I woke up and looked at Mark and Chris sitting there in the wind and the rain, soaked through in t-shirts, arms covered in goose bumps, faces covered in mud, huge rucksacks on their backs, fast asleep. What someone would have thought if they came across us I don't know. - "Nutters!" probably.
Presently the cold brought us all round and we had a chat. Chris decided to call it a day and headed back to the car. Mark and I decided we really didn't want to go through all this again, so we'd better finish it off now. We gave ourselves 5 hours to do the pot and finish the walk. Mark then had the unenviable task of changing back into his soaking wet caving kit. We couldn't find the start of the Mere route on account of a marauding goat willow, so opted for the Aven entrance. As soon as we started caving, energy levels increased and alertness came back. I'd not done Meregill before and it was top of my to-do list. It did not disappoint, living up to its reputation as the best pothole in the Dales. We both really enjoyed the caving, moving quickly and efficiently to make our rendezvous.
By the time we got back above ground the weather had cleared up and it was a decent day. Mark and I shook hands, ate a celebratory Chorley cake, and walked down to Chapel-le-Dale, arriving bang on 13:30. Mark R was there with his camera to capture the moment. Although I thought I felt reasonably good, the picture tells a different story. It's all relative I suppose. :p