by Julian Griffiths
Penyghent Pot is truly a classic amongst cave systems. A collection of streams sinking on the west side of Penyghent has carved a tremendous cave out of the Great Scar limestone. Cascades and clean washed rock abound, not here the muddy crawls and tight squeezes that provide a character of sorts to so many systems. Water is the king; in cutting its way down to Brants Gill Head, the eventual resurgence, it has produced a series of pitches and free-climbs that have taxed the fitness of two generations of cavers. This is Yorkshire caving at its best! As the guide book modestly states "The finest stream pot in the country, giving a refreshing varied journey with fine situations and no easy way out at the bottom". It is not a trip one tires of. Twenty trips spread over almost as many years have done nothing to diminish my enthusiasm. One gets to know every f oothold, there is no mystery as to what follows, it is all familiar, but the sheer physical enjoyment is sufficient thrill.
For such a fine system the entrance seems inappropriate, a shallow shakehole with a small stream sink a short distance away. The scaffolding in the entrance shaft does not improve the perception. Here it was though in 1949 a small group of cavers from the Northern Pennine Club started digging. It did not take them long to excavate their way down through the boulder ruckle and into a small cave with a trickle of water. The exploration of Penyghent Pot was on.
Throughout that winter a dedicated band of club members pushed ever deeper into the system, returning weekend after weekend to rig a seemingly never-ending series of pitches. This was in the days before the neoprene wetsuit made prolonged immersion in water bearable, if not wholly comfortable. The physical discomforts can only be guessed at. It was also in the days before lightweight metal ladders became widely available. The initial explorations were carried out using rope ladders. When exploration had to be suspended temporarily because of bad weather the ladders rotted and the cave had to be re-rigged. Despite these setbacks the main part of the cave to the final sump had been explored and surveyed by 1950, a major achievement. It is a reflection of what these explorations took out of the participants that the major inlet to the system, the Hunt Pot inlet, was not explored for another four years.
Now Penyghent Pot was established as the deepest cave in Yorkshire it became the target for a number of other clubs, all wishing to descend what was, at that time, one of the severest trips in the country. Unfortunately it also achieved notoriety with the first of these trips resulting in the death of one of its members from hypothermia. Shortly afterwards a caver fell from the eighth pitch, the ensuing rescue taking 30 hours to bring him to the surface. Techniques have moved on; the introduction of wetsuits, lightweight ladders and self life-lining, and more recently single rope techniques mean that a trip to the bottom is not the ordeal it once was. However Penyghent Pot should never be underestimated. The danger of being cut off by rising water is ever present and has resulted in a constant stream of rescues. Nor are modern techniques a substitute for basic fitness as many a caver has found to their cost in the "Rift", completing the trip only with considerable physical assistance from their colleagues.
The normal starting point for the trip is the car park in Horton in Ribblesdale. From here a half mile walk picks up the footpath to Penyghent just outside the tiny hamlet of Brackenbottom. Continuing up this to where it crosses the last dry stone wall before rearing up to Penyghent itself, one turns left along the wall. A further half-mile brings one to the entrance, which is no more than 100 yards from the wall.
The boulder ruckle at the entrance is shored, but nevertheless should be treated with respect as it has moved over the years and will no doubt continue to do so. There are tales of boulders falling on unwitting cavers; not something, I am glad to say, that has ever happened to me, but equally the entrance is not the same as it was on my first trip into the system in the early 1970s. At its base a short squirm and section of stooping passage brings one to the first of the major features of the cave, the Canal. Canals conjure up images of neck-deep water. This canal is only two feet deep, but this is in a passage that is only four feet high. It is as well to check at this stage that one has a good pair of kneepads as the crawling continues unabated for 1000 feet to the head of the first pitch. "Penyghent knees" are a common complaint, a product of inadequately protected knees and numbingly cold water which gives one no inkling of the damage one is doing.
The first pitch marked the end of my first trip into the cave, water levels being too high. To complete an inauspicious day a visit to the flood resurgence of Douk Gill on the way down to Brackenbottom resulted in a broken leg for one of our party, a falling boulder the culprit. It was also the scene of another incident. Opposite to the Canal at its head is the Spike Pot inlet, an altogether nastier version of the Canal which has the added drawback of going nowhere. Here it was on a diving trip one New Year's eve we lost a young student from Manchester University. The ladder is equidistant from the two inlets both of which have streams emerging. He made the understandable mistake of stepping off into the Spike Pot inlet rather than the Canal. Less comprehensible was the vigour with which he followed up his initial mistake, penetrating many hundreds of feet up the inlet before realising the error. By this time the services of the CRO had been called on to help search f or the errant caver, who emerged from the cave shortly after midnight, just as we were preparing to descend again. What a way to see the New Year in!
Below the pitch the going is easier in pleasant light coloured limestone, with the stream scurrying along at one's feet. Named Easy Passage this is only in relation to the passage that has gone before as most of the passage is an awkward stooping height. The benefits of being of short stature are readily apparent in a passage like this. Gradually it relents and by the time one reaches the second pitch over 1000 feet forward it has developed into a fine streamway 8 to 10 feet high.
The second pitch marks the start of the second major feature of the cave, the Rift. This descends 300 feet to its end in Pool Chamber and is the backbone of the cave. There are a number of different ways to tackle this and each caver, once familiar with the system, has their own preferred route. The pitch is only short, but quickly leads to the two longest pitches in the cave. For those who like their pitches big and wet the way is straight on, but this cannot be recommended in wet weather. Normally parties opt instead for a low bedding plane on the left which emerges at the head of a dry 60 foot drop in a narrow rift followed immediately by a 70 foot pitch breaking into the main shaft. If the first of these two drops is not dry, one should probably not be in the cave.
The chamber at the base is not the most welcoming of places. Spray from the pitches swirls around and the draught, barely noticeable in the entrance crawls, tears across it to reach the continuation of the Rift. Keeping a carbide lamp alight here can be an art in itself. Penyghent has begun to bare its teeth.
The next pitch offers an interesting choice of an awkward squeeze to one side of a flake or a climb over the top of the flake to reach its head. Each time I come to this I do it a different way and convince myself that the other way must be easier. The pitch itself unfortunately does not offer any alternatives to the standard fare of a drenching. The sport continues with a free-climb down and "dogs front door" through into a low, wet bedding plane. This opens out at another drop, this time 40 feet and an elegant free-climb for those with sufficient skill and confidence. It involves a step around a rib and then a chimney down. The stream, continuing its downward path, soon slips away down a narrow slot with a short traverse above ending at a huge flake. This is normally laddered, but it is possible to slide down precariously at the far end.
Below, the stream tumbles noisily into a large pit broken by an enormous spike of rock. This spike provides the means of descent, at least until small ledges afford a footing for the final 10 feet of the climb. Forward, the Rift narrows and there follows perhaps the most awkward climb in this whole section of passage. It is only 10 feet deep and one barely notices it on the descent. On the return the complete absence of reasonable hand and foot holds becomes apparent as does the narrowness of the climb at its top. This is where the struggle begins on the way out. I well remember a trip with my old diving partner, Rob Shackleton, to dive the Hunt Pot inlet sump. Somewhat cheekily we felt that this could be achieved with just the two of us. It was trying to ascend this climb with a diving cylinder over my shoulder, a box full of diving gear and a pair of fins in one hand relying on my other hand for purchase that I began to question the wisdom of our decision. When we finally emerged from the cave after an eight-hour trip it was as if we had spent the last eight hours on that medieval instrument of torture, the rack. Every muscle and limb ached. Rob, a master of the understatement, writing later in the Cave Diving Group newsletter had these words for it: "RJS and JTG then began the long haul to the surface with all the equipment and tackle. Quite a testing little trip for two". Ironically just past this climb the stream signals the end of the Rift trickling tamely into a large pool, Pool Chamber, seemingly a spent force.
The character of the cave changes, and from here to the sump, the stream flows in a large tunnel. Once, that is, Boulder Chamber has been negotiated, the exit from the chamber being cunningly concealed behind a large boulder. Soon the inlet that remained unexplored for so long, the Hunt Pot inlet, enters on the right. In previous years this used to be a major underground river carrying water from the area around Hunt Pot. Five years ago something happened to change the course of that water and the Inlet has never flowed since. Recent explorations in the cave have rediscovered the river, now flowing in an entirely different part of the system, but not the cause of the cataclysm. Such are the mysteries and attraction of caves. It is not often that one is witness to major changes in a cave's life cycle.
Beyond, the tunnel develops but, despite its size, it is not particularly easy going. The floor is criss-crossed by ribs of rock that lie just under the flowing stream. These are perfectly visible in the clear water afforded to the first member of the party; to the rest they are invisible. A number of tunnels bore off to the right as the passage becomes more complex and the stream then begins its final descent to the sump. A short drop, free-climbable with the aid of a sling, leads to the massive waterfall that is Niagara. This is passed by a delicate traverse on the left to a scramble down and final chimney, or else is laddered also to the left. Either way necessitates a duck under the full force of the stream to rejoin the main passage. More ankle trapping passage follows till the cave ends abruptly at a deep and forbidding sump pool. This sump has been dived to the depth of 120 feet, but the pool is the end for the normal caver.
The end, though, is a misnomer as it is at this sump pool that Penyghent Pot really begins. Those passages traversed so easily on the descent can turn into a nightmare ascent, fatigue rapidly overtaking aching limbs. For most though, this marks the start of the sport, a continual battle against water and cave until the relative calm at the head of the Rift is gained. One exits from the system at the end of a trip that will have taken anything from 3 hours to 15 hours, but on the long trudge back to Brackenbottom one is filled with the exhilaration of having done a superb trip, possibly the best in the Dales.