Monday, 16 March 2015

34 going on 30 - (Dowbergill Passage article)

Another recent article from November 2014.. Although I could expand on the majority of individual themes related to the subject of Dowbergill in this piece, I am still pretty satisfied with it as it is.    

Some cave trips just stay with you, you never forget them, and the memory of them or in repeating them continues to be a source great joy. There are many caves that could be classed as test pieces. And i'm sure if there's one such example of a test piece that most cavers will never forget doing for the first time it's the trip between Providence pot and Dow cave via Dowbergill passage. 

The journey between the two caves has served a number of purposes for me over the years, but first and foremost it was always seen as a rite of passage, the baptism of a true potholer, for I refused to permit myself the status of 'potholer' until i'd done such. 

Over the years my impatience has caused me great frustration, and my inability to just sit on an idea  annoying!, but at the same time and probably with hindsight, it has been a great aid to me in getting things done, sooner rather than later. And it wasn't long after I began to take this activity serious that i'd fulfilled the ambition of completing the traverse. 
That first time still stands as one of my truly great adventures, back when it all seemed unfamiliar and incomprehensible, a personal frontier. For Dowbergill passage epitomizes the sport of potholing for me, and the very essence of Wharfedale caving. 
Most caves are unique in their own way, but that piece of passage linking those two caves is truly a unique and rare commodity.

Initially I struggled to find a willing partner, in those long pre NFTFH days (or as I like to call it 'How To Give Everybody a Good Kick Up The Arse'), you generally struggled to find many cavers willing to do anything really hard or in unsuitable conditions (things haven't really changed anyway) although there were some, there just didn't seem that many relative to the whole. And my impatience dictated that i'd probably end up having to do it alone.. 

But my friend Balders who really didn't know that much about the trip or it's reputation agreed at the last minute to join me, i'd mentioned my intentions and he'd refused to allow me to do it by myself. I think I further sold the idea based on the nice easy looking straight line on the survey and then kept my gob shut about the history of the place.

It was January/february 2004 ish, wet and cold, typical winter conditions, all the right ingredients for a proper weekend spent underground. On the Saturday, and after crashing my car due to ice on brackenley lane (embsay), I did a reconnaissance alone and as far as the Palace, this was probably one of my very early solo trips. I think I did this, not only to speed up the trip for the following day but to appease my sick and twisted subconscious for having found a partner at the last minute, thus saving me the added weight of having to go it alone that first time.

I was still using carbide as a primary light back in those days, and did for quite a few years to come even when I really didn't need to, I kinda miss that stinking stuff thinking about it. 
The following day I was back, this time with Balders. I was wearing my inherited wetsuit (which had belonged to my father during his kayaking days). The wetsuit was a few sizes too big and had to be packed out with tracksuit bottoms and woollen jumpers. Looking back now and with experience of the place, the conditions we chose that day were probably not suitable. Water levels were very high and quite fast flowing, and the water was freezing. I also knew from what research i'd done that staying high up in the passage was to be avoided. Again and with hindsight, we did very well to stay as low as we ended up staying. 
We both had plenty of cigarettes with us and ended up having a frown worthy amount of cigarette breaks, which is probably the reason the trip took in excess of 5-6hours. Balders will tell you it took ten or eleven, but I have since assured him we took nowhere near that amount. 
One thing i'll never forget is the choice of food one of us is to blame for taking, Eccles cakes and a few Yorkies. You can imagine the state of the former by the time we'd reached 800yds chamber, a bunch of dirty soggy balls of dough, and the yorkies which are always rock hard were likened to bars of steel. My first bite or two cracked one of my molars in half, leaving a razor blade to slice at my tongue for the remainder of the trip. Plus at that point we really hadn't even got going. 
The feeling that I have that best signifies that day was that of being tested or put to the test, of the cave just not letting us get away with it without a fight. Because we came to the conclusion at one point that we were never going to get out of there, that the cave gods were pretty pissed off and would keep throwing something in our paths for eternity. This was fine by me at the time, for life is never as good as when one is in limbo, when the outcome is uncertain, above or below ground on some perilous journey.
We exited Dow cave on that winters evening absolutely overjoyed with our success on the first attempt, and spoke of little else as many cavers surely have, on the trudge back to kettlewell.
I have a picture of myself and Balders some weeks later, after a trip down Hell Hole and our expressions still have that Dowbergill success written all over them. 

Things were never quite the same for me after that trip. I can't quite put my finger on what changed, maybe I felt I had everything under control from that day on, or that nothing would stand in my way. Because very rarely was there failure without eventual success, and I realised you can have or achieve anything if you want it bad enough. 

My relationship with another pothole a few fields away from providence pot is a perfect example of this persistent attitude.

After that first trip through with Balders barely three or four months passed before I did it again. This time I did it alone, and although it was spring and the cave was far more accommodating, I still found the trip challenging. 

But these were early days for me and I guess I was still hung up on the reputation of the place or the idea we'd got away lightly or got lucky that first time round and I expected it to show it's true colours the next time.
It never did, albeit over the years we tried our best to make it so.    

Even now when looking back I don't regret for a second my early approach to the sport, and I am glad that I had the drive and the desire to go about things in the way that I did. I could quite easily have got myself in to trouble at times, and there were many who frowned on my frequent onsight solo trips. I'm afraid I just wasn't going to wait. And I can bet that there is far more regret in this world associated with people not having done something than something being done and having gone wrong. Plus what else was I to do, stick with the club, with people I really had nothing in common with at the time, or even now. Over the course of those first seven intense and crazy years of potholing, I really only found two regular caving partners who matched my drive and insatiable appetite for constant hard and depraved potholing. They were both far stronger people than I was and I would not be the caver I am today without them.     

The years then passed by, the potholes got harder, and the frequent dowbergill trips became a formality, bread and butter, a means of keeping fit, mentally sharp, a fleeting escape from society and the excesses of my life streetside, and it's hard now to seperate memories of one trip from another, they've all become a blur. 

It's the people I did the trip with that serve more as a reminder than the events of the trips themselves. 

One occasion that does stand out though was the first or second time i did it in the opposite direction, heading upstream instead of the favoured downstream course. I say less favoured but can't really speak for the masses. 
Dowbergill's efficiency in cleaning a caver tends to be wasted on those that do it in an upstream direction exiting Providence pot muckier than when one started. Although i'm sure there are those who like to get home to their partners looking like they've actually been caving, plus it greatly excuses the lack of dirty football kit every weekend. 
The upstream trip in question was with a longtime friend from school, who's dad had been rescuing people from Dowbergill passage since the late sixties. He'd grown up around 'the passage', the high frequency of rescues there, dowbergill stew and the hours playing at park rash, but had never done the trip, albeit on a school trip to dow cave years prior, he was the only pupil who knew the cave and acted as assistant guide on that day. 
Aside from the fact it was a day underground with a mate, it was also a privilege to do the trip with someone who's life had largely been shaped by pothole rescues and especially that cave in particular. His dad was proud and quite surprised with how quickly we had completed it.

Time, time was never an issue. I have never worn or carried watches, especially while caving and the time it took to complete the trip was always of little consequence. The traverse of Dowbergill is one of those trips that always seemed far longer than it really was, memories of the start after exiting always used to feel like yesterday. Dowbergill has it all in a very concentrated space, and maybe the illusion of longevity is down to the fact that the need to focus very rarely escapes one.

Time may never have been an issue but I was always curious as to how quickly it could be done, and over the years, probably as many years as i've been doing it, I wondered how quickly I could do it. 
I predicted maybe an hour and a half. But after a return trip (doing it both ways) with my caving partner a few years ago, we managed it in one hour and forty five minutes each way (he was carrying a watch) and it's not like we were rushing and I realised it could be done far quicker than this. The idea of doing it in an hour seemed feasible.
But I ended up having to wait.

During the winter of 2011/12 I ended up doin the trip quite frequently, not by design or anything, these trips were mainly during the week, after work and with friends that hadn't done the trip yet and wanted too etc... Sid who I mentioned in a previous article on ukcaving, who died that following summer joined me on one of these - wearing his aforementioned wetsuit boots!

Two year then passed by without me having done the trip at all. But like old friends sometimes, you end up going over old ground and anecdotes or just ignoring one another. But old friends are always there for you when you need them.

After another pre christmas/new year period (12/13) of diving related stuff and getting fed up with waiting for the right conditions and weather I decided I'd keep myself busy with some raw uncluttered potholing. 

Due to my preference these days for operating in a last minute, unplanned, impulsive type way, I ended up doing most of these trips alone. Nothing beats moving at one's own pace, unhindered by others, with the added psychological aspects that such an approach demands. 
This trip down memory lane of sorts was short lived, barely a few months, but it brought it all back home for me, my original feelings towards caving and the pleasure it can bring. I then realised I had so much i still wanted to do as a potholer, and began to plan some rather ambitious undertakings. Such undertakings never came to fruition at the time but the seed was sown. 
Dowbergill passage happened to be the first in this series of cave trips.
The trip was uneventful and although i'd expected it to be otherwise, it was like a day in the office.  

I think i'd got curious before this trip with regards how many times i'd done the through trip and even though my journals are missing a few I came to a definite figure of 25times or more.

Some months later and after witnessing what kids get up to on youtube these days, watching endless hours of homemade videos of others building minecraft cities and landscapes, I decided i'd create my own youtube legacy with something equally mundane. So armed with a basic waterproof digital camera and a helmet absolutely covered in lights, I filmed the entire trip from providence pot to dow cave. I did it for no other reason than; someone with nothing better to do will watch the bloody thing!, and that's it. No editing, no frills, just raw footage. 

The trip down to marathon and beyond will be next!, so watch this space.
A few weeks after the film trip I still had to return to providence pot to retrieve a tackle bag I'd left prior to that trip. A couple of friends offered to accompany me for the walk, but no sooner had I made plans to head up there that evening with no intentions of going underground further than the bag, that i then realised this was the perfect opportunity to speed solo the cave.
My friends agreed to time keep and meet me at the other end, not that they had a lot of choice once i'd decided. 
I'd already had a pretty physical day by the time I set off going at full pelt through providence pot that evening, and I wasn't sure i'd beable to maintain my initial pace the whole way. 
Even though I was anything but overdressed, it's surprising how severely overheated one becomes when attempting to move at speed in neopreme and I was glad of the cold water by the time the blasted crawl appeared, although the cooling effect was brief. Providence was gone literally in minutes and it was between Stalagmite corner and bridge cavern that things were the most dangerous, where I was literally running and jumping between the slick muddy boulders, I slipped twice badly and almost quit on the idea. I say quit but this was mainly because I didn't want to give certain people the satisfaction of coming to rescue me and not because I was worried about hurting myself, but throughout the entire first half of the trip I was constantly fighting the urge to slow down. On reaching 800 yards chamber I knew that if I kept this pace the 'one hour' mark was do-able. This prediction was not based on the fact I had a watch with me (I didn't) but more my own internal clock. I was relying on my friends to time me and had I brought a watch I probably would have been clock watching instead of looking where I was going. The urge to slow didn't quit and during some of the traversing sections I was moving so quickly and recklessly that a slip of the hand would have resulted in freefall. With the major difficulties behind I soon switched off a little and at times slowed quite a bit until I remembered what I was doing. I was absolutely knackered to be frank! And was obviously struggling to maintain focus. I will not divulge what i'd been doing that day, but you'd understand. On reaching dow cave I pretty much ran to make up time I felt i'd lost and reached the surface an hour and almost a minute after departing providence pot. Apparently the time was actually less than that because of my lights going faulty as i'd setoff, so we'll call it an hour.  

Had I been fresh I'm sure I could have knocked a bit off that time, but i have no intentions of repeating it, although if someone tries to beat it, their record won't stand!.

When we arrived back in town after the trip I smiled to myself when I realised that we'd left Skipton at around half five in the evening and returned at around nine and yet the perceived enormity of Dowbergill passage was squeezed inbetween. 

As I write the number of through trips is close to 30, hence the title. 

I've been wanting to write something about the trip through Dowbergill for a longtime but felt an individual trip report wouldn't do it justice and in this piece I've attempted to shed some light on my relationship with the place. Even now Dowbergill passage is as unfamiliar as it is familiar, and if I go slow enough i'm sure there is still so much for me to see. 

© Simon Beck, 2014. The copyright for this article remains with the author. It should not be reproduced without permission.

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