This project has been supported by dozens of cavers/divers over several months, not to mention the connections made over the decades by the diggers to make this historic traverse possible. This account is only a summary of my small involvement, and a chance to post some photos of the event. I apologise in advance that I have been unable to mention everyone by name, but thank you all for your patience and help with documenting the areas I was located at.
I was first introduced to the project back in June when, after being contacted by Chris Jewell, I agreed to spend a weekend helping with logistics for him to check sump lines in preparation for an attempt of the 3 counties traverse later in the year.
Everything seemed to conspire against us that weekend, with boulders falling and blocking the entrance to Ireby, Chris damaging his back, and various team members having to leave earlier than planned. Josh Bratchley had however managed to clear the exit end of the sump in committee pot and we had managed to rig Ireby and Notts pot which were needed to check out the sumps from Ireby through to Notts2.
A couple of weeks later Josh messaged me and asked if I would like to join him diving them. As a CDG trainee I jumped at the change to get more experience, and on the day we were joined by George Linnane and Mitch Parry.
Kevin Gannon, who was overseeing the logistics for the attempt was keen to have the preparations documented and so I contacted Bartek and Paulina Biela to help with the carry and take some photos of us exiting the sump in to Notts 2.
The dive itself went well. I was sent through the bypass sump first.....something about if I fit then everyone would! After this Josh, the more experienced of us, who had dived the sumps before back in 2016, took the lead. We were expecting the line in the Ireby to Notts sump to be in poor condition, and we, unfortunately, weren’t disappointed. There were numerous lines which had to be gathered and a number of line traps, but with a good meter and a half of visibility the sump was easily passed.
After exiting the first sump in to Notts there is an awkward rift climb down which Josh managed without issue, but I needed steadying on as I made my way down. The second sump had worse visibility, but the line condition was far better. Josh had to dig through a silt constriction which I enlarged somewhat more to get through before exiting in to the stunning Notts2 streamway with Bartek snapping away.
By the time we reached the scaffolded climb I was pretty knackered and very glad to strip off the bottles and bag up the dive kit. Bartek took one of the bags for me, leaving me with just the two seven litre cylinders, and as I reached the final 10m of the exit shaft George took pity on me and helped carry the last part of the climb out...note to self, always take a belt to hang heavy bags from when climbing!
The outcome from the dive was that it was decided the first sump would need to be relined and the climb down bolted for a handline to be installed.
A date was set for the traverse and once again Kevin was keen to have the attempt documented. I contacted Bartek and also Bill Nix to help cover the event. The biggest problem for us would be trying to guess what time to be at a location to photograph the divers as they passed through the cave system, whilst at the same time not getting in their way.
Bartek had spent a couple of weekends recceing different locations and decided on Notts 2, Shuttleworth and Mistral for his locations. I took Notts pot and Waterfall chamber and Bill, who was caving during the day, decided to head in to county pot to try and catch the divers and Beardy as they passed through Easegill Caverns.
On the Friday evening Chris was taking his rebreather in to Lost Johns via Deaths head hole and I joined him to get a few set up shots as Lost Johns wouldn’t be covered on the day.
The following morning the support crew met at the main car park in Ingleton where Kevin gave a briefing on the plan for the day.
My team consisting of Ian Patrick, Josh White, George Linnane, and my wife Jess, headed to Masongill and took a few photos of the team walking up and entering Large pot, bang on 11a.m, the time that had been planned for.
We then raced back down and drove to Leck Fell to change and head down for our first underground location, Notts pot.
We set up flash guns around the exit of the first sump, going through a plan of how we would photograph in the confined space and move ahead without getting in the way of the divers. The other main location I wanted to set up for was the handline climb down which I thought would make a great shot. As I finished Josh shouted that there was movement on the line and we all rushed back in to position. The divers began to surface and I started clicking away, but immediately realised the backlight wasn’t working. After a few hurried commands Josh saved the day, climbed over the sump pool to reset the strobe which had gone in to sleep mode. The divers wasted no time getting out of the sump and continuing on. I rushed to my next location to capture them coming toward the rift climb. At this point all the careful planning went to crap as Jason looked ahead and announced that the rift looked ‘a bit dodgy’ and proceeded to the main line and abseiled down that way.
With the lighting set in all the wrong locations I grabbed a quick shot of Chris as he headed to the short pitch to the next sump and Ian headed down the handline to try and grab some video. The entire thing had taken just 8 minutes and the divers were at least half an hour ahead of schedule.
After a quick repack, we made our way back to surface. Unfortunately Josh had irritated an old shoulder injury during the trip and so, after thanking him for everything, we sodded off and left him to lick his wounds.
We had planned on a leisurely drive to Bull Pot Farm where we would have something to eat, clean up, and sort kit for the next location, but word came down the line that the divers were now 2hrs ahead of schedule! If we were to get ahead of them then we would only get time to change in to dry gear and head off again.
With the sun dropping the midges were out in force feasting upon us at the entrance to Mistral and we were relieved to get underground away from them. I had been expecting the route to be worse than it was through to Waterfall Chamber and so was pleasantly surprised that the crawls weren’t as bad as I had been warned. Once again, we set up to shoot the divers surfacing out of the sump. Whilst we waited we shot some photos of the camp being set up and even managed a cuppa before the divers begun to surface.
Once again the carefully placed lighting would be scuppered because as the divers emerged it was quickly evident that they would need help de-kitting their 12ltr bailout cylinders before they could get out of the sump. I clicked away and gathered the strobes back in whilst Jason and Chris began to transition from diving kit to the dry caving kit which had just arrived, before grabbing some well-earned food.
Ian then headed up the pitch to try and take some video of the divers as they exited, and George helped repack the dive gear and would carry Chris’s rebreather out for him, so Jess and I split the rest of the gear to head out with.
I think it is fair to say that after pretty much not having caved since the Covid outbreaks, Jess was exhausted by the time we got back to the farm and declared that she was done for the day. Ian and I changed in to warm dry clothes ready for the walk across to meet the divers coming out of Top Sink and begun to stroll across to the beck. George, who had gone for a shower caught us up as we strolled past the County Pot entrance. Unfortunately, it has been years since I had last visited Top Sink and I managed to walk straight past it. Ian at some point had separated from us, but I managed to lead George on an extra half hours tour of the beck before we saw lights and heard shouting behind us. I joked that it would be typical if the divers were emerging to a load of people with their backs to them waving at us! Fortunately, we made it back to the entrance before the divers, but only by minutes.
Chris, Jason and Beardy emerged to cheers and applause, not to mention a well-earned beer at 4.30am, just seventeen and a half hours after heading underground two counties away. Becoming the first cavers to have ever traversed the 3 counties system.