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Grey Wife Hole

Friday April 15th 2022

Members present: Paulina Poterlowicz,  Rosie Marshall,  Viki Smyth

Report by Rosie Marshall

Our Grey Wife adventure really started the night before, where at one am we found ourselves leaning over the slanted railings on Millennium Bridge and watching the reflection of the moon in the grey water. It wasn’t quite warm, but for the first time this year it wasn’t cold and everything felt very exciting and new. I am saying all this in an attempt to make sense of what happened next, which was that Paulina’s throwaway suggestion to just go caving now was latched onto by Viki with great enthusiasm. At first I chimed in as a joke, because Viki clearly wanted to do it and I could tell that Paulina was becoming very tempted despite herself, even though it obviously couldn’t actually happen. But as Viki and Paulina worked themselves up, I could feel myself being caught up in the fantasy too. Despite it being very clearly a Bad Idea, we started to work out logistics and it wasn’t until we were turning the corner onto my street that reality punctured the dream and suddenly we were all aware of just how tired we were.

So, instead of midnight caving, we just put ourselves to bed sheepishly. We’d already collected Viki’s gear and packed the rope the night before and we weren’t intending to go to Inglesport for food, so we hadn’t needed to be up early, but it still stung to be woken at quarter to eight by the alarm. “Fifteen minutes!” Paulina pleaded, though I didn’t need convincing.

One impromptu fry up, some last-minute laminating, and a sprinkle of general faffage later we were heading off to the Dales, though not by the usual route as Paulina had headed off into town inexplicably.

“It’s just instinct to go towards the roundabout in Fulford!”

“Okay… You are driving directly away from Fulford though.”

It all felt very summery on the way up, with the hoards of holidaymakers clogging the roads and Paulina’s heart shaped sunglasses, and my cap firmly ensconced. I felt happy enough to sing along to practically every other song – hopefully Viki’s extended nap in the backseat meant that she didn’t have to listen to too much of this. Apologies to Paulina though!

We did stop at Inglesport for Paulina to acquire lurid cowtails and some dire warnings about the state of the entrance to Grey Wife, apparently a “collector’s item”. Now, why were we bothering to go to Grey Wife in the first place? Good question. I don’t really understand it myself, but Paulina has been obsessed with this cave since we first read about it in the Black Book and in particular with pitting herself against Jim’s Traverse. There are definitely other caves, in my opinion, but it seemed fun enough and would require using a GPS, which was enough for me.

We weren’t sure about the parking situation in Newby Cote proper, so settled for the same lay by that I remembered from Long Kin West. We had a leisurely change before setting off up the fell. I remembered Newby Moss as being a bit of a slog, without ever really tipping into unpleasant territory, and my memory was more or less correct. What there hadn’t been in September was an extremely pungent “agricultural” smell. Still, it was a good walking temperature and I was getting to use the GPS. The hillside is also absolutely littered with bones and we even found an intact sheep’s skull, bright white and toothy.

The Grey Wife shakehole is on the side of a broad, beautiful dry valley and we were in luck – it was overgrown with moss a bit, but not so much that we had issues taking off the metal cover. We’d decided that Viki could rig the first pitch if it was suitable, so she soon dropped down into the initial scaffolded climb, which was quite loose. A downward squeeze lead into the flat out crawl, pebbly but not requiring too much excavation. After that is a short section of narrow streamway, one of my favourite passage types and something I hadn’t got to do for quite a while.

Viki had said that she was turning every corner with the expectation of suddenly meeting the pitch, and she was right to expect that, because this was exactly what happened. Paulina took one look at it and said that it probably wasn’t the best pitch to start one’s rigging career; I took one look and said the same. It isn’t a particularly unsafe pitchhead, being narrow and not without footholds, but there are no back ups (and we searched quite hard for a natural to use), just the Y-hang, which is a few feet over the drop. So Paulina rigged it instead and had one of her customary long conversations with herself about where to rig the deviation.

So there we were, at Paradox Pond – a sump at the confluence of two streamways. To get into the second streamway we had to traverse around the left corner. Somebody had kindly installed a handline, which I hadn’t been expecting, but it still wasn’t inviting: the foam was a nasty yellow colour and the water dark brown, plant matter shifting on the surface listlessly. Paulina crouched at the far side of the chamber for some time (it felt like half an hour), talking to herself again about how she didn’t understand what she was supposed to do and where were the footholds? And so on. Eventually she just committed to going around the corner and getting wet.

I really didn’t want to get wet, so I tried my best to do a very cramped traverse around the corner, only to find out that it opened up enough that this wasn’t sustainable. I lunged forward as far as possible and managed to only get my left leg wet, foot sinking down into murky vegetal matter.

It was then Viki’s turn. Having gone back to leave Paulina’s car keys somewhere dry, she hadn’t seen either of us do it. She asked for advice, but only received an “eh, just commit to it,” from me and a difficult to interpret comment from Paulina that amounted to “keep a hand on the rope”. The result of this was that she plunged down into the water, pulled herself across with the rope, and soaked herself over the waist. At which point Paulina revealed that she had meant use the rope to levitate over the water – or something like that, I’m still not entirely clear on what.

We were now heading upstream for more narrow passage, some of it really very narrow and not ideal for pastry digestion. The last past of the streamway is supposedly crawling in canals and the BB mentioned that it was possible to traverse at an upper level, so I was keeping an eye out for an opportunity. Luckily, waiting for Paulina to free her bag upfront, I saw what looked like the start of an oxbow series on the right and clambered up to investigate. It did turn out to be a pretty fun traverse for me and Viki, though Paulina was by now committed to the wet crawling.

We soon emerged into an unexpectedly spacious chamber, with a waterfall at one end: Jim’s Traverse. Turning back on oneself locates the two metre high platform where the climb starts. The first natural is indicated by a loop of rope and a maillon, close to the ceiling of the chamber. I can see why this climb would be off-putting, because it is quite exposed and vertical. After some consideration, I suggested that we climb up to roof level a couple of metres right of this first natural and then traverse across to it. There was a nice extrusion of rock to fit your body around and then sit on before stepping over, and it looked easier than going straight up. Paulina had a few goes and decided to throw a sling over said extrusion to use as a foothold. This clearly made it much much harder, because her weight was thrown out from the wall and she now had to pull herself over the extrusion instead of keeping it to one side. But once Paulina has sensed an opportunity to utilise a sling, there’s no stopping her…

During Paulina’s exertions, Viki very politely asked if she could have a go at the climb, “just to see if she could do it”. I said to her that Paulina wasn’t rigging down from the natural, just across, so she was either climbing up or not going up at all.

Anyway, soon Paulina was up and sitting on the jammed block to start the rigging of the final few naturals. This involves a seven metre high roof traverse over the chamber, which is not especially narrow. Viki went up the initial climb to hand over the sling and I retreated into the chamber to watch the rigging from below. From below it looks really very severe and I was quite anxious watching Paulina bridge across. It also looked like the main bit of protection for the most exposed bit would have to be a sling over three rock “spikes” which didn’t seem particularly spiky. I hoped that there was something else that I couldn’t see from the bottom, but there wasn’t. I should mention that Paulina’s rigging commentary, always exuberant, was at levels of loudness and strangeness that I had never heard before. There was a lot of Jim abuse. Viki said later that she sounded like some sort of bird – this is generous.

I watched as Paulina made the final step across the chamber and went into agonies of ecstasy over an Actual Bolt – whilst the rope (unattached to her) hung limply down from the spike protection. I didn’t say anything, hoping that it was closer than it looked and just a simply grab out. This was not the case and I was forced into the (cold) waterfall to help her regain it.

Then it was Viki’s turn across. I don’t know how much Paulina helped her by insisting that she didn’t HAVE to do it if she didn’t feel comfortable (whilst sitting on the jammed boulder just before the most exposed section), but Viki can never seem to resist a challenge and was soon on the other side.

My turn. From reading about it, I had sort of visualised the traverse as going up one wall, ascending the whole time, and therefore safe enough to derig as my handjammer would always be above me and reasonably taut. This is not at all the case and it hit me as I sat on the jammed block that I wasn’t going to be meaningfully protected on any of this traverse whatsoever and if I slipped I would fall and die. I also had no choice but to do it, since we were using the rope to pull through an abseil on the final bolt.

Funnily enough, we had been talking about fear and exposure in caves the night before. I didn’t feel actual fear then, I don't think, but it was with some trepidation that I took out the second natural, tugging the sling out in a ‘jammed thigh’ type position without my feet resting on anything. The actual traverse across the roof is really a pleasant traverse, with good footholds and handholds and easy moves – not flaky and loose as we had worried it would be – and I did enjoy it. This said, when taking out the “three spikes” sling, I didn’t fancy hanging about putting it on my harness and let it drop instead, watching it fall cleanly down to the chamber floor.

Past the traverse is a short distance of flat out crawling over water to Poets Corner, which is really very pretty with some exceptionally long and crooked straws. The way on from here is a three metre long, really quite low airspace duck, which we simply "didn’t have enough time to do".

Turning back, me and Viki lay in the water whilst Paulina fretted over the pull through. There wasn’t enough room in the bolt for the rope, so she tried using the natural back up instead, until it became clear that it would simply not pull through. The only solution was to thread through a rusty old maillon on the bolt. She backed up the knotside of the pull through to the natural and instructed me to remove it before going down. Generously, I kept it in for Viki’s descent before taking it out. It wasn’t a great moment trusting my weight to this maillon, but it held.

It only took a relatively uneventful hour to get out of the cave, though I took an embarrassing slip into Paradox Pond trying to keep myself dry. Emerging out of the scaffolded climb felt very strange and wrong, until I realised that for the first time this year it was warmer outside – warm and not colder or essentially the same as underground. The sun wasn’t out and we were all wet, so we didn’t have the whole picnic but we ate a large amount of Viki’s amazing chocolate cookies talking about the cave.

It doesn’t seem like many people go to Grey Wife – it wasn’t very worn – and I can see why because if you are walking up Newby Moss you might as well do a more substantial cave. But it is super fun and I do recommend it. Perhaps we’ll have to go back some day and do the duck.

We collected our bones, the sun came out, and we had cake at the car after a beautiful walk back over the fell. Another good day!

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