Even among Yorkshire potholes, Rat Hole has an impressive reputation. Twenty-five years elapsed between its discovery and the first ladder descent - and that was only repeated once. Some fifty years after its dicovery, it nearly killed the SRT pioneers, and a later 'modern' SRT route had had few descents. The keywords seemed to be 'tight', 'wet', 'loose' and 'sharp'! So is this fierce reputation deserved.
I think the answer is that it depends on how you approach it. As far as tightness is concerned, the thought of wrestling bulky ladders down the Rat Hole entrance tube fills me with horror, but a well trained rope bag isn't too much of a problem. Similarly, there are sharp, loose places - to quote an early explorer "a forest of tottering flakes" - but these are avoidable. What Rat Hole does offer, though, is a variety of superb situations, and from being an intimidating icon, it has become one of my favourite caves.
In 2004 I found that the 8 mm bolts John Gardner and I had installed in 1986 were rotting, and decided to replace them with P-bolts. This small job eventually took nearly a year! Apart from the first few belays, I ended up with a completely different route - although it was closer in spirit to both the 1935 ladder descent, and the early SRT epic, while keeping to sound rock with sensible rebelays and deviations, and was suitable for rigging with the most delicate of rope.
After the constricted and sculpted rock tube of the entrance passage, the pitches proper come as a complete contrast. Suddenly there's a lot of space under your feet - 100 metres in fact - broken only by a beautiful semicircular clean washed ledge. The key to the route is the top traverse where a deviation followed by an unusual pendulum move takes you away from the original wet, loose descent, into a parallel 50 m Mousehole shaft. This starts out compact and friendly, becoming more and more impressive as you descend. The Rat Hole waterfall keeps you company on one side, while on the other glimpses of Main Shaft appear. For the last portion of the route, the rope emerges dramatically from the roof, descending alongside the waterfall for the full height of Gaping Gill Main Chamber.
Not respecting the weather could be a fatal mistake in this cave, as in others in the area. The entrance is only a few inches above Fell Beck, so I leave you to draw your own conclusions! The ideal scenario is a descent during low or moderate flow, coupled with settled conditions. During my many visits there have been a number of times when I have cancelled trips due to high water levels. However, in normal water conditions the descent does follow a pretty dry line, with the dampest part being a sprinkling of water from the Mousehole Inlet onto the 50 m ledge.
Craven Pothole Club have had close ties with Rat Hole - theirs were the first descents both by ladder and rope, so it was fitting that Mike Bottomley of the CPC should have made the first 'public' descent and ascent of the new route. As for Rat Hole's reputation - will it still be shunned by today's cavers? Time alone will answer that.
Sadly, Mike Wooding died of natural causes in Meregill Skit on 9th August, 2006. Mike was my caving partner for 35 years, and he is sadly missed. His rebolted route in Rat Hole will be a lasting legacy to his independence, his skill, his thoroughness, and his courage.