Author Topic: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018  (Read 869 times)

Offline andrewmc

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A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« on: July 13, 2018, 07:45:21 pm »
A long way down...
Gaping Gill, Main Shaft Direct, Sat 7th July 2018
Andrew McLeod and Ari Cooper-Davis

The Gaping Gill system, containing both the highest unbroken waterfall in England and the largest cave chamber in Britain, is probably one of Britain’s best known caves. Normally, the Fell Beck plunges over the lip of gaping maw of Gaping Gill, pausing only to clatter on the pebbles thrown down onto Birkbeck’s Ledge before continuing the plunge to the gritstone boulder floor of Main Chamber, over a hundred metres below the surface.
As cavers, we know that in normal conditions most of the flow of the Fell Beck sinks into the bed of the river shortly before reaching the Gaping Gill, emerging in a series of waterfalls in the hidden Lateral Shaft and along the north wall of the main chamber. Only in flood conditions does a raging torrent hurl itself down the main shaft. In such conditions the main chamber becomes a swirling maelstrom of wind and water, with the normally dry chamber becoming a lake up to five metres deep or more, rising until it overflows down South Passage.
We were visiting in vastly different weather conditions. Weeks without rain had left the fell below Ingleborough baked and dry. The Fell Beck still flowed, but sank without trace about thirty metres upstream into the hidden ways below the streambed, and barely a trickle of seepage flowed down the main shaft. With the sun still shining and good forecast, today was a good day to descend the Main Shaft. We also had the fell almost to ourselves, courtesy of some minor football match that day…
After meeting up at the YSS, ropes, tackle and caving gear were thrown out of, repacked, and then thrown back into my car – as usual, I was not the most organised. Nonetheless, Ari and I were soon parked up in Clapham. It was far too hot to wear caving gear up the hill, and we were bringing well over a hundred metres of rope, so our bags were bulging with caving gear and tackle; under these circumstances a pound each for the nature trail seemed a sensible investment.
The long trek up alongside the much reduced Clapham Beck, and then onwards through Trow Gill, was as much as a slog as ever. On finally arriving at Gaping Gill we found the main shaft dry. But listening carefully to the main entrance or, much more obviously, to Jib Tunnel, it was clear there was still water entering the system and plunging to the depths below. Were we in for a soaking deep below?
The week before, some carabiners had been stolen from the first bolts of another Gaping Gill entrance, and a rock fell into the main chamber – or was it thrown? We had therefore brought a few maillons for the first pitch, but most likely the football had kept ‘dubious types’ off the hill anyway.
I was soon rigging across the ledge, down the first pitch with its deviation, and found myself hanging at the top end of Lateral Shaft. Here you squeeze into the top of a bottomless rift, with the floor more than eighty metres below you. Behind you, in the daylight, is the Main Shaft dropping sixty metres or so to Birkbeck’s Ledge. Ahead is the Lateral Shaft with Spout Waterfall issuing from the rock about ten metres away. It is quite an awe-inspiring place, and you can just about see the floor of the main chamber far below from the reflections of the small cobble-filled pool at the bottom.
Getting onto the traverse was somewhat interesting, but rigging the rest of the three-bolt traverse is a little easier. It ends in a good Y-hang from each wall with blackness below and the gentle roar of Spout Waterfall not far away. And so down I went…
Down…
Down…
And ever downwards. I passed layer after layer of limestone. Not far below the top, a very small waterfall issues from the opposite south wall. Then the walls pull slowly away until the curved bottom of Birkbeck’s ledge approaches. A few cobbles and boulders from the surface sit expectantly on the ledge, having not quite managed to complete their journey to the bottom. They will have to wait for the next flood to be swept off.
The water came ever closer as the waterfall spread out, but the rope took the very narrow path between the water and the ledge expertly. Only a little spray reached me until almost the very bottom, while the rope brushed only a metre or so away from the rock wall of the ledge. Still further, I dropped through the ceiling of Main Chamber, the walls swept away and I descended into empty space.
I have never seen the main chamber seem so small. On previous visits, crawling through the narrow passages from other entrances, the main chamber seems cavernous, huge, colossal – but after the majesty of the main shaft the ceiling of ‘only’ thirty metres or so seemed much smaller. I was still in the faint glimmer of daylight, and most of the main chamber, lurking in the dark, had yet to show itself.
Finally, the ground – the usual frantic race to get off the rope, then three whistle calls up to Ari. There was no hope that he might hear me shouting. Looking into the darkness I realised I couldn’t see the walls; my world ended in darkness twenty metres away. Only slowly my eyes adjusted, and the massive scale of the main chamber I had seen so many times before was once again revealed to me.
Ari descended, his headlamp catching the water in the air like a searchlight. At first, just a tiny speck of light, slowly turning on the rope, but slowly the light became brighter and brighter. Finally, he joined me on the cobble floor, and we both agreed it is an outstanding pitch.
After the exhilarating descent, we decided to explore some of the nearby side passages before heading out. First, we headed up the East Slope towards Mud Hall. There is a taped off section of the East Slope undergoing some sort of collapse; however, there is a small hole visible. Through this a space is visible that might be quite large. The floor of the main chamber is likely to be up to 30m of boulders, with probably little hope for any interest to cavers, but perhaps this hole is still worthy of investigation one day.
We climbed the iron ladder and went through the well-decorated crawls until we found ourselves at the Mud Hall traverse. A collapse last year put the stability of this traverse in question, although it was quickly repaired. The traverse lines are belayed to stakes in the mud; consequently, they should be treated with a fair degree of respect! While the collapsed section could always undergo further movement, we were able the cross and re-cross the traverse happily before returning to the main chamber.
We then climbed the opposite West Slope, and took the crawl to West Chamber. This emerges at roof level, but a short descent and fixed ladder allow you to reach the floor. A very unusual ladder and handline combination enable, with some degree of careful thrutching, an ascent into a continuation of the roof-level tube at the opposite side of West Chamber. This then traverses across a deep pool as Pool Traverse about five metres above the water. As this was not strictly on our callout, we decided discretion was the better part of valour and to retreat.
For our final bit of exploration we poked our noses in what might have been West Pot (although it might also have been West Fissure); we found loose rock, a ceiling apparently held up by one cracked block, and a short probably avoidable pitch. We decided to leave any further exploration to a later date.
And so it was my turn to climb the rope and return to the surface world. At first, the climb was easy enough, at least after removing the considerable stretch from the 9mm rope. However, stopping meant that one very slowly bounced up and down, inducing a certain amount of sea-sickness! Higher, above Birkbeck’s Ledge, the usual problem on long pitches of the frequency of bouncing being similar to prussiking frequency was found, but there was, as ever, little to be done except carry on and try to prussik out of the bounces.
Finally the Y-hang above came closer and closer, and I hauled myself onto the traverse line. Once safely on my way, I gave two whistle calls down to Ari and waited for his barely audible response, and headed out and upwards to the surface, where I ripped off my sweaty SRT and caving gear, leaving it in the sun to dry, and left Ari to derig while I enjoyed the sun and warmth of the outside world.

Offline Simon Beck

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #1 on: July 13, 2018, 09:46:27 pm »
Good write up and good effort making use of the rare conditions!

Offline Ian Ball

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #2 on: July 13, 2018, 10:16:40 pm »
 :thumbsup:
Really enjoyed reading that! 

Offline JasonC

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #3 on: July 14, 2018, 08:25:25 am »
An excellent write-up!

... and it reminded me that I wasn't sure of the whistle codes for long pitches (I don't do them very often!), so I searched online and found this...
Quote
Whistles: (International Whistle Code)
• 1 blast Stop whatever you're doing.
• 2 blasts Up-Tension or I am climbing.
• 3 blasts Down—Lower, Slack or I'm rappelling.
• 4 blasts Line is free or come on.
• Long Help!!!

- but this was on a NSS site and didn't seem to correspond to Ian's usage, so I assume this is US standard.

Looking further, the Bristol Exploration Club has this (from 1976!)
Quote
One final point - the whistle code Tim mentions is S.U.D. in case any caver feels too proud to ask.  One blast for STOP, two for UP and three for DOWN.

- which looks more like it.  Is this the generally accepted current UK standard?

If so, when is one blast used?  As an instruction to the person on the rope, or an indication that the prussiker is having a rest ?

TIA...

Offline paul

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #4 on: July 14, 2018, 09:20:31 am »
An excellent write-up!

... and it reminded me that I wasn't sure of the whistle codes for long pitches (I don't do them very often!), so I searched online and found this...
Quote
Whistles: (International Whistle Code)
• 1 blast Stop whatever you're doing.
• 2 blasts Up-Tension or I am climbing.
• 3 blasts Down—Lower, Slack or I'm rappelling.
• 4 blasts Line is free or come on.
• Long Help!!!

- but this was on a NSS site and didn't seem to correspond to Ian's usage, so I assume this is US standard.

Looking further, the Bristol Exploration Club has this (from 1976!)
Quote
One final point - the whistle code Tim mentions is S.U.D. in case any caver feels too proud to ask.  One blast for STOP, two for UP and three for DOWN.

- which looks more like it.  Is this the generally accepted current UK standard?

If so, when is one blast used?  As an instruction to the person on the rope, or an indication that the prussiker is having a rest ?

TIA...

I remember using this SUD system many years ago for climbing ladders when communications up and down the pitch were difficult. So 1 blast would mean Stop (probably as the climber had stopped climbing up or down the ladder for some reason), This could then be followed by 2 blasts for Up or 3 for Down depending on whether the climber was continuing to climb again, up or down. This would definitely make sense for 1976.

I'm not a complete idiot: some parts are missing!

Offline aricooperdavis

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #5 on: July 14, 2018, 03:20:09 pm »
We used SUD, but rather than using 4 blasts for "off rope" we did a call and response style thing. So when Andrew got off the bottom of the rope he gave three blasts to tell me to come down, and I replied with three blasts to tell him that I was coming down. Similarly, when Andrew got to the top he gave two blasts to tell me to come up, and I replied with two blasts to tell him that I was coming up. Worked well enough, and we didn't discuss it before hand but both understood what was going on, so must be reasonably intuitive :)

Offline JasonC

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #6 on: July 14, 2018, 08:30:56 pm »
Thanks.
Some time ago, I did the direct drop down Alum and heard one or more whistle-blasts from my companion who had gone first.
I assumed it meant 'rope free', the extra clue being that the rope had gone slack, and there was no-one behind me, so all was good.

Next time, I'll know what to do  (remember to bring a whistle ;))

Offline caving_fox

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Re: A long way down... Gaping Gill main shaft 7th July 2018
« Reply #7 on: July 16, 2018, 09:33:30 am »
Quote
he usual problem on long pitches of the frequency of bouncing being similar to prussiking frequency was found, but there was, as ever, little to be done except carry on and try to prussik out of the bounces.

I find they can appear to help, using the momentum of the up bounce to help you up the rope, slightly reducing the amount of effort you seem to need per prussik. I suspect thermodynamics means it doesn't actually help.



Also use SUD, and it has always been apparent whether it's a command to a follower or a notification to a belayer what to do.
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