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Photograph of the volcano formation in Witches II Cave

Valediction: Mel Gascoyne

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This is an article originally published in Descent 265, (Dec-Nov 2018), page 9.

Mel enjoying a pint in 2011 - photograph: Sim Stroes-Gascoyne

Mel Gascoyne died on July 14th 2018 at the age of 69, after a long illness, in Canmore, Alberta, in the company of his wife and two sons. Besides his family, he has left behind many friends all over the world, including the Dales.

Mel was a founding member of the Lancaster University Speleological Society in 1966, and became an influential figure in the Dales caving world before moving on to Canada to do a PhD supervised by Professor Derek Ford.

I first met Mel when I joined LUSS in 1967. At the time the club was led by a couple of chaps whose caving background was in Wales, and they exhibited a marked reluctance to get to grips with some of Yorkshire's classic potholes. A minor palace revolution took place, and Mel was elected the new Chairman. Mel’s charisma and real leadership qualities then helped to set the standards which were maintained by the club for the next 15 years.

Underground, Mel led from the front with a calm self-assurance. He was enormously strong and without him at the top end of the life-line, most of us would have had a far harder time climbing 60 metre pitches on electron ladders. On the surface, Mel had a fine voice which led the singing on most Saturday evenings in Clapham's Flying Horseshoe. He was also renowned for his ability to keep old bangers on the road for next to nothing, a talent that not only made sure that we all got to the Dales every weekend, but was also to become the basis of his hobby of rescuing Jaguar cars rusted by Canadian winters later in his life.

Mel studied chemistry for his first degree, and his interest in polymers led to the development of the expanding foam splint with Dave Checkley for rescues. The basic idea was sound – mixing two chemicals in a mould around an injured limb, which set hard in about 15 minutes. Unfortunately when it was tested underground by the CRO the casualty complained loudly about the rather energetic exothermic reaction and the restriction of blood flow, and most of those present finished up with eyes streaming from the fumes of the reaction. With more success, Mel also conducted some of the earliest water tracing tests using optical brightening agents. Indeed, a dye test of the Spectacle Pot water was the first confirmation of the connection between Keld Head and the East Kingsdale drainage.

After Mel graduated, he worked in industry for a while, before returning to Lancaster University to study for an MSc in hydrology. This was interrupted by the rather grandly named British Karst Research Expedition to Venezuela 1973 in the Sierra San Luis which lasted some six months. SRT was somewhat primitive in those days, and I well remember smoke rising from the two hawser-laid ropes as Mel abseiled a 168 m entrance pitch in the jungle with a Figure of 8 descender a little too rapidly. Mel conducted some important hydrological field work during this time, which involved building an automatic flow stage recorder at one of the major resurgences, and setting up a laboratory at base-camp for water chemical analysis. He published two papers as a result of this work.

On his return from Venezuela Mel completed his MSc, and moved to Canada to study for a PhD at McMaster University, undertaking radio-chronological and stable isotope research into the paleoclimate of Vancouver Island and the Dales. It was here that he probably made his most important contribution to our understanding of Yorkshire caves, for he returned to England on a visit and took some 130 samples of speleothem deposits back to Canada (these have since been returned to the UK), which he then dated. Collection techniques were crude then compared to now, and his enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. I have vivid memories of my wife valiantly protecting a stalagmite in East Passage in Gaping Gill from his hammer. His results showed that many of the caves were a lot older than previously supposed; with some specimens being more than than 350,000 years, while the younger ones pin-pointed the timing and duration of the more recent interglacials and interstadials. He also undertook valuable similar dating work in Canada, the Bahamas, and Norway.

After completing his PhD Mel went on to investigate the stability of uranium isotopes in granitic rocks, resulting in an illustrious career with Atomic Energy of Canada where he spent the next 16 years studying high-level nuclear waste disposal as a hydrogeochemist and senior scientist. He retired from this in 1998 to set up his own consultancy. Mel published over 70 journal and conference papers and authored over 50 technical reports during the course of his career.

Mel moved on from caving when he left McMaster, but he continued to share his love of the outdoor world with his wife Simcha (Sim) and two sons, Owen and Trevor.

During his too-short life, Mel managed to follow up 15 years of significant contributions to the caving world, with a highly successful career in a fulfilling family environment. Young student cavers of today would do well to consider Mel’s life for their inspiration.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Simcha Stroes-Gascoyne and Dr. Derek Ford in the writing of this piece.

John Gardner
October 11th 2018