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Classic Caves - Dowbergill Passage

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This article was originally commissioned by Martyn Farr in the summer of 1989 as a chapter of a book to be published under the name of "Classic Caves". Other chapters that were also commissioned include Mere Gill by Geoff Yeadon, Penyghent Pot by Julian Griffiths, and Juniper Gulf by John Gardner. Unfortunately, the book was never published. The article was subsequently re-printed in the Bulletin of the BCRA, Issue 5, December 2005, pp:6-8.

Dowbergill Passage
by Terry Trueman and Ian Watson

"Hello Brian. No, the weather looks OK. Go up the beck for about 40 minutes 'till you come to a steel plate over a scaffolded shaft. Follow it down through Providence Pot, and out into the streamway at Stal Corner. When you get to the streamway follow it for about a mile 'till it comes out in Dow Cave. It shouldn't take too long: a reasonable trip is about four and half hours, but Sid Perou's done it in less than two. The water's not usually much of a problem, and there are no pitches, so you don't need tackle. It just goes in this side of the fell, and comes out on the other - have a good trip".

Thirteen hours later, somewhere in a black hole, things aren't looking too good ....

There is no doubt that Dowbergill Passage is a classic trip - a unique and taxing journey from one underground system to another. But more than that, it is the classic trap. The caver is lured in by ease of access, a severe grading with a blank tackle list, and a survey which shows an apparently straightforward straight line from the start of the passage at Stalagmite Corner, to its downstream emergence in Dow Cave.

And the reality of these attractions?

They often vanish into a never-ending nightmare of squeezes; frictionless, bottomless rifts; crumbling shale ledges; boulder chokes; mud; and cold, cold, deep water. To this mixture can be added the cocktail of despair - total isolation, extreme frustration, and utter exhaustion. Dowbergill Passage can be a very lonely and unforgiving place. "Overdue", "exhausted", and "stuck" are the most common preambles to rescue call-outs for the Upper Wharfedale Rescue Association, in whose area the cave lies.

The main difficulties in Dowbergill arise because there is no continuous route at one level. True, the passage is straight, but the many 'best' routes through it have to constantly change levels through a potential vertical range of 75 feet. There are any number of parallel rifts, obstructions, and apparently familiar ways on. Indeed, it is still not uncommon during après-caving talk, for the local expert to confess that on a recent trip, he had journeyed through passage he had never seen before.

Dow Cave, and the downstream exit from Dowbergill were first recorded as being discovered in 1852, but it is probable that t'owd man followed the mineral vein into Dowbergill Passage well before that date. It was not until the summer of 1954 that the Providence Pot entrance - at a height of 1300' OD, some 250' higher than that of the Dow Cave exit - was finally opened up by members of the Craven Pothole Club (CPC). A year later, the route through the passage was established when the link with exploration from the Dow Cave end was made at the aptly named Bridge Cavern (after the seven collapsed boulders jammed in a high bridging arch across the passage).

Once down the scaffolded entrance shaft of Providence Pot, the journey is through an abandoned cave that has lost its youth. The way on is irritatingly obscure with a number of futile diversions. 54 Cavern is passed near the entrance, and one soon arrives at a distinctive short, sloping calcite-floored crawl, followed by a right-turning upward squeeze over an awkward boulder.

This obstacle marks the start of a dirty, wet, constricted section, which culminates in the Blasted Crawl - aptly named in every sense of the word. This passage was forced using explosives during the CPC explorations of 1954. It is also one of the very good reasons why the through trip is described herein from Providence to Dow. The Dow exit is a clean-washed refreshing experience, unlike the muddy, sweaty thrutch out of "Provie".

Originally, the Blasted Crawl was through mud. It is now an unavoidable wallow in cold water up to 18" deep, over a soft mud floor; and it seems to get deeper and longer as time passes. A short crawl in relatively roomier passage, followed by an 'ease' up through boulders, enters a high chamber about two thirds of the way up, onto a greasy floor which runs across and down. This is The Palace, and it's a pleasant relief from what has gone before. Directly above it is a huge shakehole alongside the path leading from the Providence Pot entrance to Hag Dyke, an old farmstead now used as a hostel.

Hag Dyke claims the highest consecrated ground in England, and Dowbergill Passage runs directly underneath the kitchen at a depth of about 420 feet. There is a room in the hostel named after a caver, David Priestman, who was killed in Dowbergill by a block which simply fell out of the roof. This tragic incident serves to underline that the passage is still a very active place. New rock slippages and falls are a regular occurrence, and prospective visitors should tune into this fact.

At the bottom of The Palace is an eyehole leading to an awkward climb down onto a steep-hanging chute. Traversing off to the right, a way may be found down through blocks, which opens out into The Dungeon - another large chamber, again with a sloping floor.

From here, the way on is via a slide down a greasy boulder (facing inwards), which induces a sense of commitment since restraining handholds give out shortly before scrabbling feet find the floor. Taller or insensitive cavers will not have to endure this stressful experience.

This leads into Depot Chamber, the exit of which is through a rubble-floored crawl under some formations. This emerges dramatically into a large active streamway at the well-decorated Stalagmite Corner.

For parties thinking of a quick trip, there is a heightened sense of relief and euphoria at getting into the streamway and leaving behind the frustration and mud of Providence Pot. There is the feeling that we can now get motoring - really start to move .... It soon fizzles out.

The upstream section of passage from Stalagmite Corner is, by general consent, part of Providence Pot. It may be followed through a large chamber strewn with blockfalls to a sump. This has been dived for 150' to where the passage became too tight.

Downstream, Dowbergill Passage proper soon shows its true mettle. The stream has a tendency to disappear into bedding planes under the left hand wall, and the way forward is a linkage of crawling, walking, and squeezing. One of the squeezes through boulders pops out into Skittle Chamber, a high, wide place floored with greasy boulders haphazardly strewn with stalagmite bosses set at all sorts of angles. Beyond Skittle Chamber lie some 800 feet of bouldery and gymnastic passage, until the way on appears to be blocked.

A squeeze through a vertical slit in the left wall gives access to a parallel rift. This immediately leads to a short traverse in knobbly black limestone, and then another vertical slit, this time to the right, gives access to the near reaches of Bridge Cavern. This is quite roomy, and several hundred feet long. Boulders, which make up the floor, get progressively bigger and looser, until large black gaps begin to appear between them. Then, follow the right wall, cross at the apex of a heap, down the left wall, and across a scrabbly hands-and-knees traverse on a narrow ledge. There are a number of disintegrating "sandholds" for that extra feeling of complete security.

Beyond is a climb up a steep boulder pile with a narrow exit at the top. This opens out to a near-view of the boulder bridge which gave the cavern its name.

Under here, in 1972, one Jon Miller, a caver of some physical and mental stamina, was injured and badly pinned for some seven hours, five of which were spent in solitude.

The ensuing rescue operations lasted another nine hours before Miller was finally carried out of Providence Pot. He was conscious throughout, and helped his rescuers at every opportunity. It was subsequently discovered that his injuries were much worse than had at first been suspected, and it was many months before he was again fit. His main preoccupation on reaching hospital was to try to ensure that enthusiastic medial staff did not extract him from his caving clothing by hacking it to small pieces with scissors - the mark of a survivor if ever there was one!

The message is still clear after some twenty eight years - don't play within the boulders; in geological terms the whole pace is still in a state of flux.

Passing under the bridge leads down a slope to a sudden rift with a dark canal. Six feet of traversing may avoid the deepest bits, but eventually committal is necessary for progress.

The next thousand feet is enjoyable, almost exhilarating, fast-moving caving. There are a few thrutches and problems, but it is essentially a big clean endless rift where the stream is a friendly companion, without any hint of a threat.

Eventually, a step left through another slot into a parallel rift, followed by bouldery progress, opens out into 800 Yards Chamber. Within the chamber, the widest, largest, and most comfortable place to rest is towards the Dow Cave end. It is easily recognised by the high swirling canyon wall at the end of the chamber, and by the fact that the stream, which runs under the boulder floor, can again be heard.

Unfortunately for us all, some parties understand that "taking a rest" implies "leaving some rubbish", and parts of the chamber are getting distinctly seedy. It may only be the halfway point through the passage (hence the name), but it does deserve better treatment than some give it.

The chamber is exited via a tight sideways squeeze just above stream level, for about 20 feet. Beyond, there are two distinct route possibilities, and the information given here does not attempt to be a complete guide to either of them.

The main choice is between the roof and the stream.

The high level route follows an ascending traverse line well up into the roof to where there is a comfortable traverse forward. There is a particularly wide and holdless section, known as Greg's Horror, the crossing of which provides a good bit of entertainment. The traversing continues across sections of false floors and blank spaces, until the top of a knotted rope (which may or may not be there!) and a boulder heap are reached. Beyond is the sandy-floored Brew Chamber. This place was the focal point in the early explorations, but at least three genuine "Brew Chambers" are now sworn by, and the exact location of the original is something of a caving legend.

On leaving Brew Chamber, several smaller chambers are passed, until a double eyehole appears ahead. Exit through the lower eyehole and forward to a distinct 'S' bend. A descent, and a zig-zag down a bottomless slither, drops into the narrow streamway.

With this, as with any other descents from high levels within the passage, extreme care is required. A high proportion of rescues in the system are caused by tired or incautious cavers becoming wedged for eternity in narrowing, frictionless rifts, having failed to control or plan their descent. Extrication can be a lengthy process, and being the filling in a rock sandwich for eight or nine hours must give ample opportunity for some disturbing reflective thought.

The other route from 800 Yards Chamber at stream level, is constricted in places, but quite refreshing and interesting. It eventually arrives at the bottom of the same boulder heap and knotted rope encountered during the high level route. About fifteen feet up the heap is a crawl through, which leads to more traversing in a fissure passage, and a straddle down a short chimney onto blocks. A further traverse and descent follows, and then the first sensible opportunity to drop into the stream should be taken. It may be tight, but if you have got down to water level, the passage will go. The roof and stream routes combine around here, and the way forward now continues in a pleasant rift passage. Soon, The Rock Window, a distinctive hole in the left wall, gives access to a parallel rift, along which the stream continues.

Beyond here, the passage is oppressive and very quiet, and the water becomes cold and progressively deeper. A flake bars the way, and may force a duck if water levels are high. After further progress in chest-deep water a widening in the rift and a block wedged across it, signal the way up to the start of Gypsum Traverse, which runs about twenty feet above the streamway. There is also a traverse route to this point which is gained from numerous points upstream of the Rock Window, thus avoiding virtually all of the deep water. Its name, the Terrible Traverse, is, however, a more than adequate summation of both the route description and the joys it has in store.

The direct climb up to Gypsum is severe, and an easier and safer way is to climb up and back, following a line of cracks and ledges. The traverse line is easily gained, although care is needed when crossing over the top of the direct climb.

Gypsum Traverse is good going, being mainly a comfortable crawl over a false floor, with holes through to the stream below. It continues for some way, to end at an awkward climb down onto blocks. Directly in front is a rectangular hole across the floor, full of black water. This hole is the downstream emergence from the streamway if one elects not to climb up into Gypsum Traverse.

This alternative "wet way" is an interesting and easy route. It does, however, focus the mind, and is not for hydrophobes. Nor is it feasible if water levels are anything above normal. Beyond the rectangular hole, the water can be followed for 35 intimidating feet through two short ducks, to emerge in a large canal passage.

Across the black hole, there are at least three dry routes which reach the canal passage. One goes round the side of the large block opposite, through an eyehole and squeeze (Hardy's Horror), follows a short hand traverse ten feet above the water, passes over a block, and then climbs down into the canal passage. The two alternatives both climb the block into the continuing crawl. The first drops down a fissure in the floor, which leads down to a stalagmite boss partway along the hand traverse. The third continues along to the end of the crawl, and descends a 20' knotted rope into the canal.

The canal passage is straight forward, but never fails to impress. Soon the full height of the rift is filled with flowstone - above is the Buddhist's Temple - and the passage forms a perfect lantern glass shape. The way on ducks under the flowstone into a gothic canal passage, and the roof gradually descends until a short crawl up a tube exits into the main streamway of Dow Cave. The sensation is akin to peas popping out of a pod. Suddenly there is noise, and lots of space, Limbs can be flailed and the coldness retreats.

The thousand feet of main streamway that leads to the Dow entrance is big, active, and impressive, and is a rewarding and uplifting end to a good trip. In summer, the air may carry into the near reaches of the cave the scents of hay turning and meadow flowers, mingled with the pungent smell of somebody's roll-your-own, the noise of a tractor, sheep or curlew - just to remind you that outside Dowbergill Passage, life has been moving on.

Terry Trueman and Ian Watson
First written: 1989
Revised: December 2000

Terry Trueman, one of the authors of this paper, died in the Torridon hills on the 18th April 2001, 49 years young. This account is particularly poignant for me personally, as I spent many hours in Dowbergill Passage with Terry, some of which were on normal caving trips, but many of which were on rescues with the UWFRA, and I remember with fondness his dry wit, and his phlegmatic approach to all situations. He is sadly missed.

John Gardner
April 2001