It felt good, despite the artic chill, to be back on the slopes of Ingleborough. We’d all spent many months probing the caves and potholes of Newby Moss. Geoff had famously first stepped off the ladder at the bottom of Long Kin West in the same year that Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the moon. I’d had a small involvement with the 1990’s Red Rose discoveries of Trapdoor Pot and Boggarts Roaring Holes. Mick and JJ had looked down Mayday as far back as the 80’s. Even so, the Dark Lord still considered Dowlass his territory and we were fearful of feeling the close flutter of velvet which would herald his appearance.
We knew that no cave on Dowlass would be horizontal for long and anticipated finding another pitch quite soon, or so we thought…
The capped out top of the Nipper and just below where it widens out.
At the bottom the way on was a cobble choked bedding only a few inches high. There seemed to be an encouraging draught blowing out too. Where me and Frank differed was in the general size of the area at the foot of the pitch. I thought it quite spacious and a good indication that development would soon increase. Frank was more pessimistic suggesting it was quite cramped and there was little stacking space. Mick and Geoff went down for a look and a dig. Mick created a nice pond but thought that if the cobbles were removed the water would drain away and it might be big enough. The best way was probably to cap the roof and dig out the floor at the same time and so started a lengthy assault on our stocks of caps (of which we had thousands).
Mick's pool and the start of capping operations
At first the rock fell away in large chunks either side of a prominent joint in the roof, but as this disappeared it soon got harder. The cobbled floor bottomed out to solid rock and so a good half metre of the roof had to be removed to make it workable. In my experience this means making it wide enough to get both shoulders in and tall enough to be able to keep your head up and see what you are doing. Progress was slow but after about 5m an inlet appeared on bend and from there a trench started to cut down in the floor.
Capping the solid roof into an arched passage took a lot of perseverance.
A drag tray was employed to remove the spoil and this was stacked in tiers at the base of the pitch and at the back of the working area. As we progressed these two spaces became full and we would have had to abandon the dig had it not been for a lucky break. On an early trip I had noticed an unreported rift passage in the roof at the opposite side to the pitch head and above digging operations. I managed to traverse into it to find the rift was in fact a window which dropped immediately down a parallel shaft which pinched in to a choke at the bottom. Stacking space! Mick soon had a rope rigged up to it and a scaffold pole braced across the rift for a pulley. So the sequence became, clearing the spoil from the dig face by a tray which was then hauled up to the rift and tipped down the parallel shaft. This meant that for much of the trip someone had a lonely vigil up in the ‘crow’s nest’.
Reflecting back on the dig now the lure of the unknown must be strong. Just the thought of making new discoveries drove us to turn up twice a week, week after week. This was no sunny summer dig on Leck Fell where the Skylarks tweeted and the views of the Lune Valley a joy to behold. This was a cold, sometimes snowy time, hard graft all day, lonely vigils, icy water and home in the dark. Drinking an ice cold beer wrapped in a duvet was the only occasional reward.
At the front progress was slow, perhaps half a metre made each trip. However, the rift was getting deeper and that made capping easier. At the time we were using four batteries which would do fifty to sixty holes between them. Anything between four and seven caps down each and we were using over three hundred per trip. Just as well we buy caps by the ten thousand, and have just doubled this in the latest purchase!
Finally a rift started to develop and progress was quicker beyond
The rift developed into a series of ‘mini meanders’ which led us on as you could never quite see around the next corner. Capping became easier with much larger chunks peeling off the walls and we were sure something vertical would appear just around the next corner.
As I said the stream was never a danger but it was bloody cold. There were many wet days where the capper had to sit in the stream. Normally the stream trickled down the Nipper but on wet days it bounced down our rubble walls onto the working area. Worse still there was a small inlet in the roof above and we stretched out a sheet of polythene to keep the water off our heads. The noise on this sounded like anything from a gentle trot to a stampede of wild horses.
The view from the crows nest on a wet day. You can make out the polythene sheet below and the hauling ropes.
To make life at the sharp end bearable I visited a nearby pot and retrieved a 3m length of thick conveyor belt. This was placed on the floor in the crawl and by propping up the end on a couple of rocks the stream could be channelled beneath it and keep the diggers dry (ish). After 18 trips we got the first glance down a pitch ahead. It was a memorably wet day. I capped away at the front but by now all the debris was falling down the pitch which sounded about 10m deep. Geoff perched himself on the other end of the conveyor belt but poor Mick had to sit on a mere pile of sharp rocks to wait until the pitch head was big enough. The normal working area at the bottom of the Nipper was just too spray lashed. Frank had turned up late but only made it as far as the top of the Nipper, shouting down something unintelligible about the conditions he then went home rather than wait about in the freezing cold.
Finally, I placed a few bolts and declared the pitch open and gave way to Mick for the first descent. He’d certainly earnt it. I went back for my SRT kit just dying to know what we had found…….Photo credits to Frank. I hope it all makes sense. More to follow but probably won't have time until next week.