CAVING: Exploring the magnificent GAPING GILL

Well, with my Masters Degree coming to a close this month it feels like a while since we have had an outdoors adventure and to tell you the truth I was getting cabin fever! Although we travel when we can and that is amazing, we love having adventures closer to home when we can’t, but not having a car can make it harder. But luckily one of our oldest friends was back from his intrepid job doing rope access out on the oil rigs and we headed over to Yorkshire to visit one of the caves on every cavers list, GAPING GILL.

Caving is not something we are completely new too having completed CALF HOLES and ALUM POT (including the infamous Cheese Press) a few years ago but it had been too long since we descended into the cold and wets depths below! I don’t know what it is really about caving which is appealing, I mean, you end up wet, cold, dirty, covered in bruises and usually have to spend hours in cramped and uncomfortable conditions, but yet it is such a thrill!

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Having much more experience in terms of rope work and abseiling since last time as a result of more climbing, exploring and mountaineering we were able to tackle this particular cave which may have been a step to far last time. We also had much more of our own equipment too, last time having been shouted at mid cave for not having helmets, in reflection I can see why!

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We had actually been up here before when we walked up Ingleborough (the mountain on which this system lies beneath) and peered down into Gaping Gill with awe and hoped to one day explore beneath. Gaping Gill is infact the the highest unbroken water fall at 330 ft in Britain (nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls, which is pretty insane!) The space itself created below by the water fall is so vast that you would apparently fit the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral in here!

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We decided to take the BAR POT route down into the main shaft as it is one of the easier in the section and most importantly was the one Lee knew best, not sure you want to get lost down here! The entrance is in-between some rather unassuming rocks at the bottom of a small ravine, you just wouldn’t think at all that anything like this could exist below here, it’s crazy to think what is below your feet!

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The first pitch is around 40ft high and brings you down into an impressive looking chamber, seems simple enough, but not quite. The problem here is that the entrance is really quite tight! You have to set yourself up on the abseil whilst squeezing though a gap of around 15 inches of cold, hard and precariously shinny rock! Even I found the gap quite tight but once you have negotiated this top section the space rapidly opens up to reveal the cave below! After this you have to use an in situ knotted rope to slide down a 13ft greasy slab into another open space below which I believe is called Bridge Hall.

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Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get many photos of this section of the cave, or really many others than the main shaft as our torches just weren’t powerful enough to light these open spaces and once crawling Lee and Shorty weren’t too keen to stop for photos. This was my first time photographing in a cave and I think it was quite a sharp learning curve.I have since bought a better torch and a travel sized tripod to bring with us and would probably try to set up the camera as best I could before hand so as not to hold us up. These caves take longer than you think and so me faffing around for another half and hour with my camera wouldn’t go down well! Hopefully we will get the chance to go caving again soon so I can have another go!

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After negotiating the first pitch it was time to walk around a few sketchy looking drops, I was helpfully informed by Lee whilst shimming around one, clinging to wet shiny rocks that a fall down there would surely kill you! Cheers! The bank on the other side of the drop wasn’t too inviting either, and if I am honest this was the worst part of me, 100ft abseil: any day, teetering around a 100ft drop with no rope: not keen! But hey ho, it’s all part of the excitement!

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On we went to the “Big Pitch” after negotiating a few more “don’t stand there or you might die” sections. I was quite looking forward to this if I am honest, abseiling is pretty fun and the reality is that a few years ago, before we started climbing properly, I would have been quite scared at this point, but now I think, ahh, that’s nothing!! With Lee’s expert rigging skills also I knew we were in safe hands… even if we didn’t have enough carabiners! The decent into this massive space was pretty awesome and I really wish I had some photos of it (maybe a return trip sometime), I took my time going down to take it all in and look at all the details of the rock formations, a truly magnificent space.

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Now began the final push to the main chamber. This was though a series of intestine like tunnels, twisting and turning and occasionally opening up into smaller chambers big enough to stand up for a few moments before decided which tunnel leading off from here was infact the right way! Hensler’s system I believe this is called, and for the most part the tunnels are only about a foot high and can feel quite claustrophobic.

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This section was pretty monotonous to tell you the truth, we crawled and crawled for what felt like an eternity. With no knee pads to hand the relief on my poor knees when we even got a few seconds of walking or crouching felt amazing! This would have been a cool spot for some photos but  we just wanted to get through to the other side and try to remember the way back!  This is also where everything ended up covered in mud after dragging ourselves and our bags through puddles and rocks, not sure now the white bag was the best decision!

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So finally as the roar from the cascading waterfall hitting the rocky floor below became louder and louder we finally made it to the main chamber, the largest cavern in Britain. The space is breath taking and no photo will do it justice, it is just massive!! The waterfall itself had much less water than it had last time Lee was down here but was no less impressive, although it makes you wonder just how loud it would be after a storm! We were cautious not to get too near the opening as it seemed people were throwing large rocks down which was actually quite scary with the noise echoing around the chamber.

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The lights are our head torches!
The spray from the water fall fills the whole space too and it really is quite hard to get a decent photo in these conditions, although I feel I have learnt a lot from it and hope to have another go! What is hard it to focus when all you can see is totally darkness through the view finder, but I am not too unhappy with these photos. It is just nice sometimes to capture something of what you saw. In the summer a local potholing club set up a winch down the main water fall and also light up the chamber, I would love to come back for that and hopefully with the added light get some better photos!

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We hung around in here for a little while, exploring some of the corners of the chamber and re-fueling before the grueling trip back out of the cave. I could have sat down there for hours, it was really quite peaceful and there is something quite mesmeric about watching the patterns and waves within the waterfall!

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So back we headed the same way out as we came it. The craw on the way back was pretty painful to be honest but we made good time and hurried through to get it out of the way. Now it was back to the 100ft abseil which I had to enjoyed on the way down… not quite the same on the way back up!! We had done some jugging up ropes before but nothing of this distance! I had serious doubts as to my ability to get up this thing, as well as trusting the gear at that height too!

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I ended up blowing at only around 15ft and thought I was done for, but after swinging around hopelessly on the rope on the over hanging section, once against the flatter wall I was able to get a bit of  a technique going and managed it without too much hassle, although any ideas we had about climbing the day after had gone out of the window!!

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Finally we made it back to the final shorter pitch, which was no more easier to squeeze out of than it was to get into, after rather unglamorously hauling myself out and crawling back towards to light we were back above ground after having an amazing, challenging and unforgettable adventure… as well as being covering in mud!

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Now for the rather scenic, if longer than it felt before, walk back to the car. We got a few strange looks carrying all that equipment, rope and mud from folk walking the other way probably wondering what they had gotten themselves into! A nice gentleman going for a walk with his grandchildren stopped up to ask if we had just been caving and mentioned his experience of the cave some 20 years ago which was great to hear.

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So, thanks to Lee for this amazing experience and with my Masters coming to an official end this month I look forward to much more free time for more explorations, climbing and adventures!

The day after, I couldn’t move!! Who knew caving was so strenuous!

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If you would like to go down Gaping Gill there is a winch set up over the May and August bank holiday and costs around £10. Check out the website here: www.bpc-cave.org.uk/gaping_gill.htm

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.