Let's talk about Swan Dike Pot
Saturday April 22nd 2017
Members present: Joseph Smith, Joshua Young, Martin Albacete, Peter Newbery
Swan Dike, which breaks out into the day beside the road which cuts a thin grey path against the green between Pen-y-ghent and Fountains Fell, had turned our first trip around not long after reaching the crawl leading to The Trick. The crawl had been wet, tight and ultimately uninviting to all those present. Far removed from the wet reluctance of the cave, however, a number of us agreed that the crawl was, perhaps, not as hideous as we had initially concluded, and the seeds for a return attempt were planted. It was perhaps these thoughts, which fashioned the basis of a vindictive quest to return and avenge this defeat, which nourished the causes of a much less dignified failure as early as thirteen months prior to the second attempt.
The morning itself indicated no sign of lurking disaster and, though the tunes of Radio One had not lived up to my musical preferences for the majority of the journey, as we departed Inglesport for Swan Dike, a remix of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting was played in some species of otherworldly good fortune. She insisted, repeatedly, “I just know that something good is going to happen”, and it was received with eager belief as we changed under a fantastically blue sky. By all means, there was no absence of good omens that morning.
As Josh, Peter and Martin finished getting geared up, I (leaving nothing to chance for what I intended to be a first-class debut trip report) sat by Swan Dike’s stern mouth, making notes of the silence over Fountains Fell, fractured only occasionally by the songs of birds unknown to me. When we were ready to continue, the entrance – all weathered scaffolding and old wood – looked far less unappealing than it should have, instead inviting us out of the sun and into the cool earth. Naturally, as cavers, this invite was received as compulsion, and we descended.
The first chapter of our journey, through crawls both wet and dry, was efficient enough, and though we did not reach the first pitch in the suggested time of ten minutes, our progress was indeed smooth. I continued to record my observations as Josh made swift but precise work of installing and rigging from the spits (which would be extensively tested before the day was over), and before long we had matched the progress of our last attempt.
As the smallest and most accomplished with negotiating all things tight, Josh entered the crawl feet-first in line with guidance garnered from previous trip reports, and we waited for his report on the accessibility of our nemesis. Before long, the verdict was received, but it was not positive. Following sounds of mild distress into an initial crawl which had been confirmed as much more pleasant than recalled, I encountered Josh within The Trick, having lowered his legs too soon into the tightest part of the squeeze. While my capability to assist was largely limited to offering company in the crawl, the efforts to return to the chamber quickly paid off and next steps were calculated.
It was at this point that I feared our attempts had been thwarted by the cave once again but, having identified the cause of his previous struggle as the lack of familiarity with the passage, Josh made a second, head first attempt to scope the squeeze, and results were enthusiastically positive. Flashes of Big Meanie reminding me of the discrepancies between what was tight for me and a chasm for Josh, I enquired about the ease of return, which sounded equally positive, and followed into the squeeze. Even before experiencing any kind of tightness in The Trick, I found myself almost unconsciously discussing my disinclination to journey further if it involved my usual methods of brute force to pull myself through, though even now I cannot place where this reluctance surfaced apart from some unfounded gut instinct. On reaching the meter-long Trick, however, I experienced no tightness beyond any previous experience, and after pivoting into the water on the other side, it was Peter’s turn. Having kept his SRT kit on, some difficulty was experienced in negotiating The Trick on this attempt, but with the tender support of my shoulders and spine to assist with the squeeze in the limited space, Peter was soon through, and I had been promised my first pint. Martin followed with outrageous ease, and the trip continued in high spirits.
Having conquered the source of our prior defeat, the trip was declared a success regardless of whether we managed to bottom the cave or not, and the passages gave way to low and wet crawls on the way to the next pitch.
After perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes of crawling and stooping, we reached a section of well received traversing that would take us to the next pitch, and took a moment to put our SRT kits back on. It was here that Martin realised he had managed, through some awful comedy, to lose his rack somewhere in the cave, presumably since removing his gear at The Trick. In a combination of heroic zeal and recognising an opportunity to keep moving while the next pitch was rigged, I offered to make a hasty search for the missing rack, and retraced our steps. After scrambling around the bottoms of murky pools, I eventually returned victorious after finding the rack, naturally, in the shallowest part of the streamway. I traded in the rack for my second promised pint, and the three Nasty Weather pitches were gradually descended until we reached Wet Belly Crawl, which led to final pitch and the sump.
It is difficult to precisely articulate the absurdity of this flat out wet crawl, suffice it to say that my relief to see water after the mud and squalor atop the previous pitch crumbled into misery after the first few minutes dragging ourselves through the crawl. I am uncertain whether everyone else was as unhappy in that passage but, in front of me, Martin was suitably unimpressed.
After the final pitch and a short crawl, the climb to down to the sump was admired. Then, damp in the small chamber, we hastily agreed to get moving again, and our exit operations launched. I followed up the rear to derig, at first planning to accept the offer of rotating between the three of us who had not rigged. After another bitter jaunt through the wet crawl, however, I much preferred to subscribe to derigging the rest of the pitches if it meant the exit would be as unbroken and active as possible. Perhaps, through some deeper motivations, I was also hoping to earn another pint.
Regardless of intentions, however, three hours after bottoming the cave we reached The Trick without any difficulties at 19:30. With just enough time for comfort before call-out, we removed our SRT kits once more and tackled the last significant obstacle before the smooth sailing of the last pitch and entrance.
But somehow, ‘significant’ now feels like an understatement.
Martin experienced slight difficulty in what proved to be the tricky task of keeping his legs high enough to ensure a fully horizontal entrance into the raised squeeze, but with modest aid in hoisting them up, and a hearty amount of squirming, he managed it past the tightest section with no considerable strain. His difficulties began with this section when returning to retrieve the tackle bag full of rope and SRT kits, when attempting to negotiate backwards through the dogleg which did not, I can only fathom, cooperate well with the natural direction in which his knees bent. I would care to document the difficulties he faced further, for completion of this report, but found myself much more distracted at the time by my own efforts to make it up into The Trick, which were extremely limited and inconsistent.
My initial constraint was felt through my chest, which had an insistent tendency to become jammed between the walls of the squeeze. A variety of exotic manoeuvres followed while I waited for the passage between myself and the open chamber beyond to become free. Between endeavours to find innovation and offer advice to Martin (which rapidly became more and more absent as help stepped in from beyond the crawl and my own struggle increased), I had evolved the problem from my chest to my hip, finding that I could fit my body through by entering low, but that this created intense difficulty in raising my lower half afterwards.
After Martin had executed whatever complex acrobatics had allowed him to negotiate past the awkward bend, I was somewhere in the grip of a solid twenty minutes (and possibly longer) of a break in composure. A voice from the other side raised muffled concerns about callout, and I gathered the recent disorder must have stolen from us some of that comfortable time before we had to reach the surface. Attributing my current strife to strain within my own head, I supported that an advance party should try to make callout if possible, and as Peter and Martin made their way for the surface I took a break from writhing in the squeeze to clear my head.
Given time to return to a coherent place, sober from the tide of alarm that had started to rustle in over the cognitive fringes, Josh re-entered the crawl and offered to join me and offer assistance. I was immediately reluctant to accept, lest it risk an amplified condition in which we both experienced a struggle to return, but soon started to appreciate that my previous state of apprehension had not left me entirely, and I was increasingly hesitant to force myself back into The Trick. After reassurance that he had not struggled with the return himself, Josh joined me past the squeeze (much like Martin, with outrageous ease) and offered assistance with establishing and maintaining a horizontal position.
The results of this initiative were cut short, however, by a call from beyond the squeeze from our advance party, who were struggling to find their way out of the cave. Now with half an hour before callout, negotiations began in earnest. I was loath to even consider missing callout, let alone actively seek to summon cave rescue, but I appreciated a distinct personal bias in the situation and, undoubtedly cruelly, assigned final jurisdiction to Josh.
I dare say a mutual reluctance was felt, but as the result seemed progressively more inevitable, it appeared safer to commonly concede than proceed with uncertainty. After re-joining Peter and Martin with not nearly enough effort to make me feel better about myself, a second trip to the surface was underway, with Peter remaining behind now to provide verbal company and chocolate in my gloomy isolation.
At this point we entered a stage of waiting. Following a few more select attempts with an infuriating inconsistency between exasperatingly close, and some distinctly less successful attempts, it seemed unlikely that any sudden success would arise from the current standard, and so I stalled my attempts and rested now that external aid had been deemed necessary. I switched off my light and alternated between standing and sitting in what limited dry spots existed. Between bursts of conversation, I cycled through strange mental landscapes, idle in the black silence. Amongst these was the recognition that my trip report notes had been reduced to a sodden mass of illegible pulp, and one singularly most alarming moment of stark and terrible realisation that for all the owed pints I had managed to accumulate, the obligation had now surely shifted to me to purchase rounds.
When cave rescue arrived in a steady decent of discussions with Peter, and I awoke from this inward cycle of mental eccentricity, we engaged in rotations of similar techniques to those I had attempted thus far, but with the added structure and oversight vastly welcome. It is impossible for me to place whether I managed to get incredibly lucky on our way into the cave or dreadfully unlucky on the way out, but no attempts at self- or assisted rescue bore significant fruit over those additional hours. I could almost indefinitely detail the positive perseverance of that support, and the level of tolerance that persisted in spite of the decreasing levels I had for myself at points, but it would ultimately drill down to my concrete assertion of gratitude, and the ultimate failure of these initial methods. As we approached sunrise, the decision to blast the constriction – which had always sat wholly unwelcome as a concept with me, as much as it now appeared to be necessary – was made.
This action was the critical success of the operations, and exit followed soon after. But there was no concluding sense of victory; vitally, I think, due to the invasiveness of the procedures. It is unfortunate that such a result was necessary, but the enduring circumstance is that it has occurred. And where these consequences are irreversible, there exist lessons to be drawn.
Amongst thoughts of pints and notebooks, the time assigned to sluggish thought in Swan Dike allowed for a significant analysis of where the critical errors existed that led to this outcome. And the unavoidable fact is that it is impossible to attribute isolated events.
Perhaps the mistake was in my choice to progress past The Trick despite an implacable instinct of doubt. But unless doubt is founded, where is a line drawn between what level of risk is accepted and avoided?
Perhaps, as the largest member of the group, certain exertions in returning to look for the rack, and derigging, should have been fulfilled by someone with a lower risk of encountering difficulties in the squeeze. But again, only in hindsight can we claim to have any real confidence that these factors might have attributed to insufficient energy for the exit.
There is scope for extensive critique of the events and decisions that led to this result, but I think there is one which can be assigned as a paramount take away.
This trip was inspired and fuelled by a lack of objectivity, and I will not deny that I was the guiltiest for encouraging this over the past year. Through a sense of competitiveness that extends even to caves, this trip was approached with a mind-set that success would be measured by making it past The Trick, and the declaration upon doing so that the trip was from that point on a success meant that this bias was not a solitary phenomenon. And when that objectivity was lost, risks began to emerge that should have held much more weight.
When Josh’s first attempt through The Trick was shaky, as much as it was not lightly dismissed, would we have reacted differently if turning around was not seen as some lumbering failure of purpose? The answer, again, rests on no foundations of absolute certainty, but the introduction of this recognised bias necessarily clouds our opinion at least that little bit more.
Nobody wants a rescue situation to unfold, especially when they are tied to it through direct involvement or through associative ties, but I believe, through this unfortunate incident, that they hold an undoubtable value to reassert values that have faded. The key message established from the King Pot rescue was to understand limits and appreciate there is a time to admit if something is too much; and this should have been decisively identifiable at some point during this trip. But instead of being recognised and ignored, I believe any such concerns were more likely repressed by notions that we had something to prove.
Too much emphasis was placed on the idea that the trip would be a failure if we didn’t make it past The Trick again, and that this was unacceptable. In my mind, this identified the core, persevering message from the whole affair.
Because at one high-spirited point during the trip, I decided on the deliciously pretentious conclusion for this trip report.
“There exists an incredible satisfaction about creating a rivalry with an entity that has existed before you, and will outlive you, by thousands of years, and winning.”
But it’s much more valuable to remember that as cavers, we are constantly picking fights with innumerable systems that have existed long before, and will exist long after, every one of us. And when we truly account for that kind of scale and respect, we should never consider admitting defeat as a failure.