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Photograph of the volcano formation in Witches II Cave

Rat Hole - A Grand Old Shaft of the Dales

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This article was originally published in Descent no. 69, March 1986, pages 30-31.
Route sketch map

Note: The route described below has been superseded by a new one developed by Mike Wooding which takes a slightly different (and better) line and uses permanent hangers. This article should now be considered to be of historical interest only.

Waiting for colleagues to complete the Three Peaks on Spring Bank Holiday 1984, I popped into the Craven Pothole Club cottage to escape from the weather. The conversation turned to the re-opening of Rat Hole after 23 years, and the disaster that nearly befell Steve Gough during an SRT descent of the comparatively unknown shaft. Stories of torrential waterfalls, loose rock, and razor-sharp flakes did not exactly whet the appetite, but did lay down a challenge that wouldn't go away.

During the autumn of 1985, Mike Wooding and I sampled the delights of the Gaping Gill shaft complex by following the excellent routes down the Main and Lateral shafts established by Lawson and Elliot. We were truly impressed. The situations, and accompanying rock scenery, are absolutely magnificent, and in our view, unsurpassed in the Dales.

Fully inspired, we then transferred our attention to Rat Hole. We read the accounts of the other explorations in the CPC Journal (Cordingly & Gough, 1984; Waterfall, 1984), including the very frank account of the SRT sortie of 1983 (Cordingly & Gough, 1984). From these articles we were amazed to discover that since the first exploration in 1909, a full descent and ascent of the shaft had yet to be achieved - truly a remarkable statistic for one of Craven's major potholes.

The CPC explorers of 1983 had benefited from two temporary engineering projects. Firstly, they diverted the beck round the various Rat Hole sinks, thereby reducing the amount of water going down the shaft; and secondly, they opened up the Rat Hole sink entrance, thereby facilitating access to the system.

We mentally prepared ourselves for exploration to take place over a number of trips. It turned out that five trips in all were required.

Our first trip was made in November. The entrance passage to Rat Hole has an undeserved reputation. It is a snug fit, but there are no major difficulties in transporting a tackle bag, and it isn't long. It is, however, susceptible to being inundated by Fell Beck, and on one occasion, we had to dam the entrance to stop it from being used as a flood sink.

The passage passes over the Rat Hole Sink passage before turning back on itself, and so one is rather surprised to find the water flowing from left to right at the junction. A few yards downstream, the stream plunges down a 4 metre pitch. A traverse bolt on the left was inserted at the head of the pitch, with a belay bolt and its associated backup on the far side. Because this short pitch is so close to the main shaft, we found it convenient to use the same rope.

Immediately below the first pitch, the water disappears down a gully in the floor, covered by jammed boulders. Reasonable ledges, however, continue along the narrow rift to where the shaft widens out. The view from this point is quite impressive. The Rat Hole water compares in quantity with that going down the Main Shaft, and in wet conditions the water hits a small ledge a few metres down, and spreads out to fill the shaft totally. It is a rare occasion that a light can penetrate more than about 15 metres. The traverse is protected with two bolts on the right of the traverse, and leads to a Y-belay also on the right.

Once hanging from the belay, the way on is obviously not down into the maelstrom. Fortunately, the top of the Gaping Gill rift is apparent to the east. A deviation in the south wall, and a tensioned traverse of about 3 metres, leads into the rift, away from the waterfall. A Y-belay gives a hang down the rift, and a tensioned traverse further to the east for another 3 metres leads to a deviation bolt on the north wall opposite a prominent blunt spike.

About fifteen metres below the Y-belay, a landing can be made on a small ledge next to a spike (Spike Ledge), which overlooks a large and impressive shaft that has been christened Mousehole. This shaft is about six metres in diameter, and soars up about 20 metres. To the southeast, a not-insignificant inlet emerges from somewhere in the roof. Below, and to the east, daylight can be seen faintly filtering from the Main Shaft. A bolt has been placed for protection in the north wall above the rather loose spike. About 43 metres of rope are required to this point.

On the south side of the rift, a bulge of rock 30 cm thick overhangs the shaft. The way on is to sit astride this (a bolt is positioned for protection) and to reach round for a concealed Y-belay. From here, a beautiful free hang enables a descent to be made of the Mousehole Shaft, with a fine view of the Rat Hole waterfall to the west.

The shaft itself terminates in a floor with a window through to the Rat Hole Shaft at about 43 metres above the Main Chamber floor (the same height as Birkbeck's Ledge), but a pendulum of about 3 metres to the east enables a fairly damp stance to be gained next to a large jagged pinnacle (Pinnacle Ledge). The rope can be belayed back to the pinnacle with a sling. About 70 metres of rope are required to this point.

The view from here is one to be savoured. To the east the large ledge on the Lateral Shaft route appears surprisingly close, with the water from the Main Shaft cascading beyond, and to the west the Rat Hole waterfalls continues to crash down into the darkness. Fifty- four metres below, the cobbles on the Main Chamber floor are discernible through the continuation of the rift. It is not, however, a place to linger. The water coming from above, and the winds caused by the three major waterfalls, make the stance singularly chilly. Some care needs to be exercised here, as although the rock to the north is solid enough, the south wall is made up of fault breccia, and simply a touch is enough to send debris below.

The way on is to the east of the pinnacle. A Y-belay in a uniquely sound part of the south wall, and a deviation from a bolt in the floor, sends the rope past a very sharp flake system. A landing is made onto Wingfield's Ledge, after passing a deviation bolt located in the south wall opposite a small ledge some 8 metres down.

Wingfield's Ledge is impressively large. To the south it slopes down towards a continuation of the rift, and to the north it finishes in under a very useful overhang - useful for protection from both the ubiquitous drips, and from stray rocks. A few metres to the west, it drops a metre or so onto a large and superbly sculptured scoop formed by the Rat Hole waterfall, which continues down on its journey to the Main Chamber through a small hole.

To the east, it becomes less well developed, and gives rise to a definite respect for the climbing efforts and courage of Major Wingfield (Rule, 1913). The top of the undercut is formed at the boundary of a large shale band. This is displaced downwards on the south wall by about two metres - an observation which confirms Dick Glover's analysis of the Main Chamber fault (Glover, 1974). A bolt has been placed under the overhang for protection, and for belaying the next short stage.

From here, a short slanting abseil towards the south-east leads to a Y-belay in the south wall ( about 97 metres of rope are required to this point), and hence into the vast expanse of the Main Chamber, with an entry midway between the Spout Tunnel and Rat Hole waterfalls.

As one enters the Main Chamber, the rift is open all the way through to the Main Shaft, but to the west, a bridge of in-situ fault breccia isolates the Rat Hole shaft. A total of about 135 metres of rope are required to reach the Main Chamber, but the six re-belays means that the longest rope need only be about 36 metres.

This route is excellent, and worthy of the Gaping Gill shaft complex. The rock is sound, except for a patch on the south wall of Pinnacle Ledge; water is not a problem, provided that the entrance is not flooded; and the line is clear of the rock (all our explorations were conducted on 9 mm rope).

If you enjoy SRT, then you will find that Rat Hole provides a pleasant and memorable afternoon's entertainment.


  1. Cordingly J. & Gough S. 1984. "The Rat Hole 1984" Jnl CPC 6, No. 5, pp211-218
  2. Glover R.R. 1974 "Cave Development in the Gaping Ghyll System" Ch 18, p 363 in "Limestone and Caves of North West England" ed. Waltham A.C. pub. David and Charles, Newton Abbot
  3. Rule A. 1913 "Gaping Ghyll in 1913" Jnl YRC 4 No. 13, pp160-163
  4. Waterfall A. 1984 "The Rat Hole 1935" Jnl CPC 6, No. 5, pp218-220

John Gardner
January 1986

Post Script Notes

  1. According to John Cordingly in a letter published in Descent 71, Burnley Caving Club had made a complete descent and ascent of the Rat Hole Shaft in May, 1985.
  2. I heard that the "uniquely sound part of the south wall" used for a belay off Pinnacle Ledge was found to be not quite so sound by another party!
  3. The route was straightened up and P-bolted in 2005 (rigging guide).

John Gardner
April 2011