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Photograph of the volcano formation in Witches II Cave

Bar Pot to Main Chamber

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This series of articles is intended for the guidance of experienced cavers, who may not be familiar with the details of the best routes through the more complex systems in the Yorkshire Dales. To echo the sentiments in Northern Caves, it "is intended as guidance for the wise, not the obedience of fools"

Gaping Gill is a justifiably popular trip via both the trade-route entrances of Bar Pot and Flood Entrance Pot. The big pitches in both caves are superb, and the visit to Main Chamber is one that every British caver should experience at least once. The problem, however, is that the bits in between are somewhat boring - aptly described by David Heap as "mine-like, muddy tunnels", and most visitors finish up with a somewhat jaundiced view of the system. The route described in this article is intended firstly, to provide a somewhat more memorable trip; secondly, to allow the visitor to sample the more impressive passages in the traditional part of the system; and thirdly to take up a little more than the three hours that a visit to Main Chamber and back through Bar normally takes.

This route essentially assumes a descent of Bar Pot or Wades Entrance, makes its way into the Hensler's Master Cave through New Hensler's Passage, and continues on to East Passage through Mud Hensler's Passage. The Main Chamber is then reached via Mud Hall and Near East Passage, before a return is made via South Passage and South East Passage. All circular tours are satisfying, and this one especially so as it traverses a very varied set of passages. For a couple of people taking in all the obligatory sight-seeing, it will provide a trip of about four hours. It isn't overly complex, and route finding shouldn't be a problem. A survey is attached.

If descending Bar, once down the big pitch, take the passage away from the Main Chamber into South-East Aven (if you're confronted by a big 'ole you've gone the wrong way!). Note that you will need to take your cow tails, and a harness or load-bearing belt.

If descending Wades, once down the big pitch traverse to the left (facing out) of the continuing shaft, and up a slope. The bottom of Bar is a few metres further on. Be careful of the hole in the floor, which has already claimed one life.

There is an obvious passage under the wall at the bottom of South-East Aven - ignore it. New Hensler's Passage is found by climbing up the far slope for a few metres, where you'll find a descent down a small rift adjacent to the left-hand wall. Throw caution to the winds and hurl yourself into this. It descends awkwardly into a bedding plane which soon arrives at a T-junction. Turn left, and follow the crawl ignoring the obvious passage to the left (this is the other end of Amphibian Passage seen in South-East Passage). Soon the passage gets a little wallowy ahead - fortunately you can bypass this by following a low muddy bedding oxbow to the left, marked by a prominent stalagmite. This soon rejoins the main passage, and before long the floor breaks through the porcellaneous band, and the passage develops into a somewhat more pleasant vadose trench. This is the start of Hensler's Master Cave.

Very shortly a prominent passage enters from the left. That is the way we will be eventually going, after we've done our sight-seeing. The next inlet is on the right, and is from Disappointment Pot. You can easily make your way up this to the bottom of the last pitch. It's easy going at first, but when it starts to become lower, there is a boulder pile under the left hand wall. There is a fairly straight forward route up through this, into the very impressive bottom chamber of Disappointment Pot.

Back in in the Master Cave, continue downstream through the ever-increasingly imposing passage which eventually reaches proportions of 10 metres high and 10 metres wide. At this stage, the passage divides into two, with a slope climbing up to the right. The lower section takes the water some 150 metres to a sump, and the upper section climbs and becomes a superb coffin level-shaped passage. At the end of this, the passage dips steeply into a static sump, but just before an iron ladder leads up into the roof and on into the remoteness of the Far Country and Far Waters. But that's for another day.

Returning to the top of the Master Cave, take the junction on the right previously noted. This low, wide phreatic passage leads past Hensler's Long Crawl on the left, over a fissure in the floor, and into the impressive Hensler's High Aven, down which descends the last pitch of Hensler's Pot. The way into Mud Hensler's Passage is straight across the chamber. Mud Hensler's begins quite innocuously as a slippery slither along muddy calcite - awkward, but nothing to write home about. It then turns into a hands-and-knees canal, reminiscent of Providence Pot's Blasted Crawl. A couple of minor ducks are the sting in the tail, before the passage changes character as it enters an inclined rift. This gradually ascends (with a short descent in one place), and finally emerges up a muddy climb into East Passage.

To the right, the extremities of Far East beckon - from here Terminal Chamber can be reached in ten minutes or so. To the left, Main Chamber beckons. This way leads immediately into the gloomy vastness of Mud Hall - the second largest chamber in the system. Above, a lightly-watered aven marks the 45m final pitch of the Corky's Pot entrance into the system.

Traditionally, it was necessary to drop into the bowels of Mud Hall, ascend a 20 metre ladder, and then up a handline to reach Near East Passage. In 1981, however, Bradford Pothole Club placed a traverse line which dispensed with the need for tackle, and makes the trip possible from this direction. A cow's tail, however, is useful, as you will be traversing above a 30 metre drop. The traverse starts with a horizontal sectione on good mud ledges round a corner. The way on is then up a slope to the half-left to a chain, which ascends to a higher level. An easy traverse follows which soon returns you to solid ground.

The way through the once-attractive East Passage is straightforward, although when the passage seems to divide in a lower section, keep to the left. This leads past a brown stalagmitic flow on the right, to an iron ladder which descends to the top of East Slope in the Main Chamber.

Having been suitably awed by the Hall of the Winds, you now need to find your way into South Passage. This is most easily achieved by following the south wall (opposite the waterfalls), back to the east, and hence up an easy climb at the end of the chamber. The passage at the top is easy going until a low pool appears ahead - take the low passage to the right to reach the end of Pool Chamber after a couple of minutes. It's now walking all the way to the prosaically named T-Junction. En route, there is a small taped-off crystal pool on the left, with an impressive display of small cave pearls - admire, but do not touch!

At T-Junction, Sand Cavern is a couple of minutes off to the right, and it's well worth a ten minute detour if you haven't been there before. At the far end, there is a high bank of sediment, which exhibits a superb example of seasonal varving.

Turning left at T-Junction will take you back to Bar Pot within ten minutes or so. The route passes the high South-East Chamber, in the corner of which is the start of The Near Country - some 300 m of passage which currently terminates close to Hensler's Master Cave. Once past S.E. Chamber, you should take either the first or second passage to the right. The former is easier, but involves a slightly more exposed traverse round South-East Pot. The latter is a small, cobbly tube. The bottom of the Big Pitch in Bar is twenty metres further along South East Passage.

I like this route. It involves some interesting caving, and visits most of the better parts of the traditional Gaping Gill. However, although it isn't technically difficult, it is more arduous than the standard route, and is best not regarded as an option for novices.