Hardcore core: Jarv, James, Kate, Nikolas, Thomas MCW
Filthy Dropouts: DanG, Al, Will, Andrew, Jana
Having warmed ourselves up to caving for 2010 with an energetic scurry around the Mendips, a hypothermic scuttle down Penyghent, and a pleasant amble through Ease Gill it was time to face up to the challenge of King Pot. Several members were too lily-livered to face the challenge and dropped out at the last minute, reducing Team Hardcore to five members: Jarv, James, Kate, Nikolas, and myself. Continued M6 shenannigans meant detouring through Stafford and arriving at the warm and cosy NPC after half-three, the extended driving time neccesitating some creative use of a bottle by Nikolas, and almost abandoning Kate in a prickly shrub on the verge of the motorway.
King pot is my 7th cave and the 3rd to feature an entry in the Book of Death. We got underground at about 1430 on saturday. The entrance is a climb down a narrow shaft entering a small chamber. At the end of the chamber, a moderately awkward squeeze on rope then a rope climb down took us to the top of the first pitch. The way onwards from there is not the big, obvious cave but a part-concealed crawl under some boulders. This leads to a traverse over a pit - fairly easy going with the in-situ ropes. Beyond this, a squeezy-crawl through a rift leading to the second pitch. After the second pitch there is a 3m freeclimb to tight(ish) rift and then an unpleasant but easy wet crawl (initially flat-out, but soon improving) leading to a more roomy chamber where we left some food and hot ribena for later before continuing to the dreaded "T-Shaped Passage".
The T-Shaped passage is described in the book of death as "a strenuous crawl-traverse above a narrow rift" which is technically accurate but in the same way as say, stating that hurricanes are irksomely blustery. The rift beneath you is narrow and deep enough that falling in to it would get you well and truly stuck, but wide enough that you are essentially crawling over a void. The bedding plane which you are crawling along varies in height between "narrow" and "fucking narrow" and there are several tight bends in the rift which are awkward to get around. James and Nikolas went in first, me following about 10 minutes behind them. I could tell how far ahead they were by the cries of "OH FUCK" and "OUUCH" from Nikolas*. And got myself slightly stuck more than a few times, emitting my own profanities (Jarv - at the back - called out to ask if I was ok. Kate - immediately behind me - replied "He's fine, he's just having a wiggle. Apparently I had, head wedged sideways preventing me looking where I was going, managed to squeeze to the left of a boulder through a gap normally reserved for tackle sacks rather than following the rift.) I realised that we were nearing the end of the passage because I could no longer hear swearing from Nick (Though apparently James had earlier attempted a vertical shortcut out of the passage, trapping himself briefly on his unmentionables before giving up and climbing out properly). The passage ends rather suddenly with a four metre drop, requiring a very awkward 90 degree turn to the right at what seems like the tightest part of the whole passage and a traverse accross the rock face.
Moods somewhat dampened by the knowledge that we'd have to do it all again on the way out, we continued down Queensway, an attractive streamway passage with lots of boulder clambering to keep your pulse-rate up, and then down a cold, wet, elbow-deep crawl leading to Emma's Pitch. By this time I was quite tired and starting to dread the way back, so we rested at the pitch head and had some sugar to get our energy levels back up. Below Emmas pitch is a canyon passage called Festina Lente which ended at a 2.5m rope climb which in other circumstances would have been easy but I was severely flagging and rather fearing the way back so needed to be encouraged up it and given a leg-up.
Shortly, after a climb up a boulder slope, we entered King Henry Hall - a massive chamber atop Bloodaxe Pitch where we paused for more rest and for Jarv to take some photographs. We dropped down Bloodaxe and the next pitch (Victoria), landing us in a narrow streamway. Just after Victoria Pitch, the streamway is blocked by a jammed boulder at about waist level. Neither the Book of Death nor Northern Caves 3 mentions the boulder so I'm just going to name it "Deceptively easy looking boulder of doom." Getting over the boulder is surprisingly hard - tiredness, slipperyness of the rocks, and a lack of obvious footholds conspire against you, but crucially, once over the boulder, the passage at stream level becomes impassably narrow so you have to stay up, squeezed between the walls of the passage, until it widens again enough to drop back down. Nick, James, and I passed the boulder (with varying degrees of difficulty/assistance. Nick: "Oh maan, how can I not be able to climb over one small boulder?") but Kate dropped to early and became firmly wedged in the narrow section, feet in the water but not touching the ground. Jarv and James spent a few minutes trying variously to lift her out, push her out, take off her SRT kit, but she was well and truly stuck. After a few more minutes, Jarv somehow managed to contort himself (Ed - it's actually quite spacious down there under the chockstone - just rather wet!) so that Kate could use him as a foothold. Once her feet had something to push against, she was freed - though shaken - and we continued down the streamway to Kakemono Hall - a large chamber with fantastic wax-dripping/Tim-Burton-wedding-cake formations.
We rested in Kakemono and Jarv took some more photos. After some discussion, we decided that it was wise to turn around at this point. I was knackered and sincerely doubting my chances in the T-shaped passage, Nick was tired and enraged after his boulder experience, and Kate was quite shaken by her getting stuck (later, once warm and happy, it would be refered to as The Incident, and Kate would boast that she had "nearly died".)
All three of us n00bs needed help getting back over the Deceptive Boulder of Doom. Thence pitch-pitch-climb-streamway-pitch-crawl-streamway back to the T-Shaped. I was terrified and really didnt think I'd get through it. Jarv very kindly took Kate and my SRT gear, which helped no end. Kate set off first. Jarv went back to take some photos. I used my alone time by the traverse at the start of the passage to have a cathartic little cry before starting on my way. It took me a couple of goes at the traverse meaning that when Jarv returned I was just a couple of feet sticking over the top of the rockface, swearing. I got a little stuck on the initial very tight bit but thereafter surprised myself by mainly being OK. The key was to take it veeeeeeeery slowly (sorry guys behind me!), taking advantage of every time I approximated comfortable and stable to have a rest. Also, on the way out, I'd been so paranoid about falling into the rift that I'd not taken advantage of the safe footholds it offered on it's upper reaches - these proved particularly useful for getting round the corners. Eventually The rift shallowed and widened and I could drop down and walk out to where Kate had already been waiting half an hour. I gorged myself on the chocolates we'd left there and we waited for the others. On Kate's reccommendation, I had water first, then switched to hot ribena once waiting had started to make me cold. It was sublime. At the time, it was the most amazing thing in the world. Oh. My. God.
Anyway. Soon after, Jarv appeared, and we could hear Nick and James behind but they did not appear. After a while it emerged that James had got a tackle bag stuck and it took about another 20 mins before we were all extricated and assembled.
On the way in, the T-shaped passage had felt like it was quite a way into the cave, but on the way out it became clear how near the beginning it really had been. There were a couple of mildly hairy moments - I managed to pick an awkward squeeze instead of an easy climb at one point, almost trapping myself under a boulder, and the roped traverse over the pit below First Pitch was definitely trickier going back than going in - but in seemingly no time at all we were back at the entrance climb. Kate was already outside and Nick attempted the climb, smelling the fresh air and grass, but he couldn't reach the foothold and gave up, lamenting "How come woman can do this and I cannot?" With a leg-up, I exited, Nick following, passing bags out, and soon we were all out, alive, admiring the half-midnight stars. Then back to the minibus, bum-sliding down the frozen hill-side, and getting a severe telling off by the sheepdog at Braida Garth farm. Kate, Nick, and I all concluding: Never Again.
We made chilli back at the NPC, where Dave Wilson and others were still up to hand us the Tea of Recovery. Dinner at 3am (yum yum, if I do say so myself) followed swiftly by bruised, achey bed for me. Sunday I had pain everywhere. When Nick awoke he rolled over in his sleeping bag and said "I am destroyed". Sunday afternoon went to Ingleton for some pub-and-teashop caving (James and Jarv having a wander up Ingleborough. The rest of us could barely walk.)
Back in the lab, still nursing bruises, I ahve been thinking about how psychological the exhaustion I felt must have been. After the T-shaped passage on the way in and up until I was out again in the night air, I was thinking that wild horses couldn't drag me back to King, but looking back, we all got through when exhausted, inexperienced, and terrified. If I did go back, I'd be much less scared and considering how much my energy improved as soon as I was out of the passage on the way back, that should give me the impetus to go further. As Nick said afterwards "What does not kill you makes you stronger" and increasingly I am thinking that King Pot should be given the chance to make me stronger again. Though perhaps not until my ribs are better.
Yours to middle sump (next time)
*For an improved experience of this report, quoted speech from Nick in this should be mentally read out in Jarvist's doing-an-impression-of-Nick voice.
Thomas 'Official IC3 chef' Jude McCarthy-Ward