Upon arriving at the NPC at about 10am, Jack quickly asked what caving I wanted to do. Since I had a car I wasn't bound to travel with the minibus. Furthermore Trapdoor sounded like a horrible option for me. I was keen to try some rigging for the first time if someone was happy to supervise. This fitted with Jack's ambitions as he didn't want to do any further damage to his wrist with a difficult trip. James overheard our plan to practise rigging and voted to come along. We soon settled on Ireby Fell Cavern, a cave none of us had visited before.
After bidding the others good luck on their trip outside Inglesport, we parked up the hill from Masongill where there were enough cars to indicate other cavers were also out and about. We promptly faffed for an hour as James struggled to suitably adjust his mud-encrusted SRT harness. With me wearing an oversuit that was too small (and didn't I know it) we followed three other cavers also going to Ireby Fell, a half an hour (give or take ten minutes) reasonable walk up and across the hill.
Ireby Fell is found in a deep and large shakehole where the stream sinks. An obvious concrete pipe marks the entrance into an impressively shored-up descending slope. We were going for the classic route - Ding, Dong, Bell - and happily following the rope of the preceding three cavers (though electing not to use it in any way if we could avoid it). As this was a rigging practise/learning trip we knew we would be slow. Jack rigged the first pitch, leaving enough slack in the rope for James and me to attempt to tie alpine butterflies while waiting and then some.
James started his first rigging at the bottom of Ding, which leads directly to the Y-hang Dong. Jack took pictures and was a good teacher. As James descended he yelled out that the rope didn't reach the floor by a few metres. He swapped over to the other group's rope and finished his descent so Jack and I could tighten up the rigging as much as possible without having to re-ascend Ding. Easily sorted and we followed him to the bottom of Dong. I was reminded of Oli and Rhys when they were in the initial stages of learning to rig in Notts I on Winter Tour a couple of years back.
I was to rig the next traverse leading to the pitch Bell. This traverse was a bit longer and trickier as it devolved into there being few footholds. Rigging adds an entirely new dimension to caving. There are many things to consider: picking the appropriate knot, tying it correctly, judging the length of rope to leave before tying the knot, making sure you are stable and able to attach and close the maillon, staying safe at all times, not dropping any maillons or slings... I was sweating and ready for it to be over by the time I had rigged the relatively simple traverse, pitch and deviation.
To my dismay my Stop wouldn't easily descend our old, dry, thick rope despite my weight so I gave up and descended the other cavers' thinner, damper rope. Jack had no problems because he was using a Simple but James didn't want to risk it so he came down their rope too. I add this experience to my private tirade of complaints against Stop descenders. To each his own I guess.
Now two hours into the trip we quickly went downstream, running into our fellow cavers making their escape. We tramped along a rifty streamway which contains plenty of curtains and big stalactites. I thought it a fine streamway; only at one point did we have to get wet, and it wasn't hard to keep your chest out of the water.
We thought we had descended Pussy pitch as the description states it is free-climbable on the way down, but upon reaching ropes that went down and that climbed upwards into a rift we got confused about where we were. Jack and James went up the rope to investigate while I easily free-climbed a cascade which that rope allows you to descend. So maybe we had only just reached Pussy pitch. Shouts were exchanged and I climbed back up via the rope while the men climbed back down to my level. Given the time we decided to head out.
James derigged Bell, and I derigged Dong and Ding. This was also my first time de-rigging and there's a certain satisfaction that comes from taking all the ropes off the wall. (It's also much easier to ascend with a tackle bag of rope underneath you than on your back.) We clambered up the ladder in the concrete pipe, filmed by James. I said something about why freshers should come caving to the camera but in all of his wisdom James decided to stop recording after I said “Freshers” so we'll never hear the rest of what I'm sure was an epic and inspiring speech.
The journey started in typical fashion as I frantically called no-shows and drop-outs to find out where they were. Our already small trip dwindled to just 5 of us in the van. We made smooth progress to Solihull where Faffmaster General Sandeep decided that whilst we shopped in Tesco he would take the minibus to his parents house to drop off a duvet. He reckoned he'd be quicker than us. He was wrong. A short while spent hanging round the Tesco frontage, Sandeep came back and we were off once again (after only a brief return to his parents house for extra faff). The entire M6 was on fire so our journey mostly consisted of zig zagging around the various closed junctions and standstill traffic (at midnight!). We arrived at the civilised hour of 2.30am.
Up with the dawn (or thereabouts), the crack team drew up plans for our escapades. Sandeep randomly chose a page from the Book of Death and so we set about packing for Trapdoor. I think every adjective in it's description was a synonym for small. Team Not So Cracked meanwhile had chosen Ireby Fell as a SRT practice location. Soon we were ready, apart from one minor flaw in our plans. We had no charged batteries. This being rather vital for caving (or so I've heard) we immediately rushed to Inglesport and Bernies where we bought them out of AA's. With our two packs of batteries we were ready. (I'm not joking, all they had was two packs of AAs between them and no flatcells).
The parking for Trapdoor is a 10 minute drive from the NPC (why do we not go there more often) and a further 25 minute walk up the hill towards Ingleborough. That timing only really works if you know where the cave is though. Trapdoor is in a small and featureless shakehole in a large, featureless field containing many small featureless shakeholes. Using my hand drawn map (copied from NFTFH) and descriptions such as "walk 60m north east from the massive shakehole to a smaller shakehole then turn north north east and walk for 15 paces etc. etc." we found a hole that roughly matched trapdoor. Dave was sent to rig it. After rigging off a thorn bush and sliding across it into the cave Dave announced that the 10m rope we had brought for the expected 5m pitch did not reach the floor by quite a way. He scurried back up. We decided that we were probably at Boggarts Roaring (Rumbling?) Holes instead.
Adopting a method of random walk across the desolate plain I announced that "there were only so many shake holes to look at". Other grumbled that searching hundreds of shake holes was a shit idea but sure enough we found another suitable triangular hole at the bottom of a shakehole. Once Dave had successfully reached the floor 5m below we were satisfied that we had found Trapdoor. In the cave by 2.30pm. Not bad.
The cave immediately makes it's character known. After the short entrance pitch theres a climb down into a grotty crawl known as the rest of the cave. I exaggerate though, as there are sporadic pitches and rifts. Very quickly we arrived at a weird climb and tight rift section. I advised Dave (who was leading at this point) to expect a freeclimb down. He went ahead, squeezed through the rift and called back that there was no way he was free climbing down that. I decided he was being melodramatic. He came back through the rift, we swapped places and I scraped my way up to the top of a 15m pitch. I decided this was probably "That's Better" pitch and so rigged it. What we had almost failed to recognise then was the ominiously named "Ripper" squeeze which the Book of Death advises you to do sans SRT kit. Hah.
There's a lot of awkward climbing down loose scaffolding and rotten wooden planks to another tiny pitch head. This one proved particularly good for kicking rocks at the head of people below you. Dave went first as he has the least use for his brain. The cave continues small and crawly for not too long. We passed "The Gripper" quite easily (we're still not sure which little squeeze it is) and finally came to the "The Stripper".
The cave here is a very tight, quite long, downward sloping rift. There are tens, maybe hundreds of blast marks and drill hole cross sections all through this section. Someone really wanted to get down here. Sandeep lead through The Stripper and through trial and error worked out the exact anatomical displacement you needed to attempt to get through. Using his sage advice we all managed to wiggle through with no problems.
Finally a short crawl later there is Electron and Megatron pitch which are completely different from the rest of the cave (i.e. massive). The pitches are joined at a small ledge and drop 50m into a large chamber. The chamber (in what I can only assume was a massive disappointment to the first explorers) is completely choked at the bottom with small boulders and its pretty obvious that the sides of this chamber fall off fairly regularly.
After a brief stop for chocolate we headed back out. We arrived to a clear and mild night on the surface (a blessing that us hardy winter cavers had forgotten) and wandered down the hill guided by the glowing sheep eyes (why are some green and some orange?).
None of us wanted to waste the beautiful sunny Sunday so we settled on Alum as a good compromise between caving and not really caving. Apart from Will getting immediately lost and heading down an entire pitch (with 2 rebelays) that we hadn't rigged it was a pleasant and fun day out. Armed with a GoPro and my camera a lot of the day was recorded. I found it an interesting trip from a photography perspective as well. It was quite hard to deal with the dynamic range in such a well-lit shaft but after a bit of trial and error worked it out.