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Photograph of the volcano formation in Witches II Cave

Top Sink to Near Ease Gill

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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"

The main traverses in Ease Gill are Top Sink to Lancaster, or Top Sink to one of the entrances on the far side of the Earby Series. However, before embarking on these, especially the latter, it is recommended that you first gain familiarity with the more obscure parts of the routes in a leisurely way, and this article describes the way through the top part of the system. Most guides covering the top end of Ease Gill tend to chicken out of giving positive guidance in finding the way through, and this one rashly attempts to break the mould. Top Sink is an active cave, and this route should not be attempted in anything much worse than average water conditions. Both pitches can get pretty damp.

The entrance is a little obscure to find, but it's on the true right bank of the beck, close to the old fence and opposite an isolated length of wall.

Top Sink is straight forward, but exhilarating. The first pitch requires a couple of 20 metre ropes, and is belayed in an alcove round to the right, which is a little awkward to get into. It's a fine pitch, although it does tend to be well-watered towards the bottom which is a good reason to leave the trip until summer, a warm shower being a lot more acceptable than a cold one! If you are leaving the pitch rigged, it is worth noting that there is an excellent deviation bolt three or four metres down, not marked on the standard topos, which means that the water can be avoided until the very bottom.

The next section of passage is known as πr² Passage. This is a rift which meanders aggressively in three dimensions, forcing the spine to flex first one way, and then the another, providing an excellent opportunity to stretch the sinews in anticipation of the rigours ahead. This doesn't last long, however, and Penknife Pitch is soon encountered. This is a straightforward drop down a short shaft, where it is possible to keep dry. Immediately beyond is a junction with another stream joining from Wisdom Tooth Passage on the left. The two streams combine and continue their way through Bradshaw Passage - 150 m long, half of which is a hands and knees crawl which is worth taking knee pads for.

Some forty-five minutes after leaving the surface, you will enter an older, higher, and more collapsed area of cave. This section of the route appears to be complex both on the survey and on the ground, but in reality there are no real problems in finding your way through. In essence, the stream follows a lower, more confined route, whilst a series of meandering high-level oxbows provide convenient bypasses. The secret is to follow your nose through the oxbows. It really isn't possible to go wrong for more than a few seconds when going in this direction.

Eventually you will find yourself on some shelves high above the stream (which has now started to descend). On the other side you will see Limerick Junction where a small active inlet cascades from a bedding passage in the opposite wall a couple of metres below you, into the main stream below. Here you drop down a couple of metres onto a ledge, cross over, and traverse easily past the entrance to Limerick Passage. When the ledge runs out, step across the stream passage again into a short oxbow passing The Bridge of Sighs, made up of calcited cobbles. Immediately beyond this, take a bold stride back across the stream into yet another short oxbow. Half-way along, clamber up the wall on the right to a platform overlooking a hole, with two passages going off opposite - one to the half-right and one to the half-left. Traverse round and climb up onto a flat bedding slab into the one on the left.

You've now cracked the major navigation problems. Follow the passage for a few metres until it passes under some large chockstones to where it begins to choke straight ahead. Continue to the end, and then turn round, and you'll be able to step up the chockstones into the high level continuation of the rift. After a few metres this opens out dramatically into the superbly atmospheric Nagasaki Cavern - a 100 m long, 15 m high passage which has a timeless quality that inspires a feeling of awe. Behind you is a huge boulder perched in the roof, seemingly supported by nothing - "The Rock of Ages"

Start the descent into Nagasaki by descending a narrow path between a giant boulder and the right-hand wall, and then down a couple of sandy climbs, still by the right wall, to the lower level. Progress is then straightforward through a sequence of large chambers until one is forced up a slightly greasy clamber on the right-hand wall. This can be avoided by going back a few metres to where a rope hangs from the roof, and following a route under the boulders starting from the left wall.

At the end of the chambers, the route enters a rift passage, where holes soon start to appear in the floor. These are easy to step over at first, but eventually a positive upward traverse is required which takes you to the top of the climb leading into Easter Grotto. Alternatively, look for a protected traverse along a bedding which takes you to half way up the same climb. From here, you can continue through Easter Grotto to Gypsum Cavern, but the energy-saving route is to descend into the Assembly Hall. The initial climb down is greasy with an off-balance move half way down, easily overcome with a short line. At the bottom of the climb, a furtle through some boulders leads to another climb down into the Assembly Hall itself. This looks quite frightening from the top, but it is easily descended by traversing to the far side of the hole where there are holds a plenty.

The passage leading off from the bottom of the chamber leads into the White Way - a well decorated passage that runs above the stream. This soon drops into the water, which is then followed until it starts to get low. Keep an eye open for a stal-guarded letterbox opening on a shelf in the left wall of the passage, which is the start of a pleasant bypass to a flat-out section often sumped.

The main stream is soon encountered again, and is followed along Thackeray's passage until a boulder run-in is encountered on the right. This is Holbeck Junction, and is where the Pool Sink inlets join the main drain from the left. If you are exiting through Spiral Staircase Passage, follow a rift passage on the left which leads after a couple of minutes into the bottom of the Pool Sink passages. Otherwise, climb up the short slope to the right, and follow the main passage. It isn't possible to follow the floor all the way to Stop Pot, and it is soon necessary to proceed at a higher level. However, do try to keep as low as possible depending on water levels, and don't be tempted into the boulder choke above. The lower area is reasonably stable, but the upper area is dangerous, as freshly scarred blocks testify.

Stop Pot is reached within a couple of hours of entering the system, and an exit can be made through Wretched Rabbit or County Pot according to taste, and on whether you have pre-rigged the short pitch in Country.