THE MOSSDALE CAVERNS DISASTER BY ALAN FINCHAM
The disaster of June 24th at Mossdale Caverns, Conistone Moor, will be remembered as the most tragic accident in the caving history of this country, leading as it did, to the deaths by drowning of a party of six very experienced and well equipped cavers, amongst whom were some with the most intimate knowledge of this arduous and complex cave system. The sense of shock and grief has spread very far and deep amongst both relatives, cavers and friends alike and will be a bitter memory for the rest of our lives.
Inevitably we find ourselves asking; why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Was enough done in the circumstances? What should we learn from the tragedy and how can we ensure that it will never be repeated? The writer is one of those who, through long experience with Mossdale and friendship with some of those who died, finds himself involved in these considerations and feels that some answers must be given. In what follows a factual account of the circumstances and results of this disaster is given, although there are some matters in which the views expressed are those of the writer and are not necessarily those of the many other persons concerned.
To understand why this party ever entered Mossdale on that fateful Saturday, it is necessary to know something of the history of exploration of the system.
Entry to Mossdale Caverns was first made in 1941 by a party of cavers from the British Speleological Association who penetrated the cave through what has come to be known as the Lavatory Basin (or Old) Entrance. For some years after this exploration was carried on under the leadership of R.D. Leakey and the cave was roughly surveyed to the limits of the Marathon and Kneewrecker branches of the system. In 1947 an account of this work was published in Cave Science (Vol. I. p. 7) with a provisional survey plan of the cave.
During this phase, the exploration was impeded by the necessity of obtaining low water conditions in Mossdale Beck which made access through the restricted and wet Lavatory Basin Entrance feasible. At a later date the New Entrance was opened into the cave at the northern end of the Scar, enabling parties to enter and leave the system with greater ease and safety, even in relatively high water conditions.
However, the British Speleological Association parties seemed to lose interest in the system and further exploration and detailed survey appears to have ceased for some ten years, until in 1957 parties from the newly founded Leeds University Speleos began to visit the system with a view to producing a detailed survey of the known passages and eventually, it was hoped, of extensions to the cave. At this time cavers with any significant first hand knowledge of the cave were few, and the Leeds parties found it necessary to 'explore' the cave from the beginning, slowly gaining in knowledge and experience of the intricacies of the nearer passages and advancing the detailed survey methodically through all of the nearer reaches of the cave, In the course of this work, it became clear how great was the deficiency of recorded information on the system; several passages apparently hitherto unexplored and unsurveyed were found and the real problems in making a full survey of this extensive labyrinth were appreciated.
Not the least among these problems was the existence of a grave flooding risk, which presented an even more serious aspect when we considered the very large number of man hours which would be required to complete a full survey of this complex, and in many parts very restricted, system. We knew by inspection that in severe flood it was likely that nearly all of the passages in the nearer parts of the cave would fill to the roof; possible exceptions to this being in Boulder Hall, some avens in Broadway and the Great Aven (c.80' high) near Rough Chamber. Beyond this latter aven it appeared certain that all of the passages would flood apart, perhaps, from High Level Mud Caverns towards the end of The Far Marathon Series and a few avens in the Kneewrecker branch of the system.
During the earlier phases of the Leeds survey (1957-1960), work was concentrated in the section of the cave up to Rough Chamber and then later (1960-1962) in the complex of small passages between this chamber and the junction of the Kneewrecker and Marathon passages. This section of the cave proved to be intricate and required a great deal of time for survey and exploration. Parties were safeguarded by the installation of a telephone line from the entrance to Rough Chamber, and frequently operations in the cave were carried on from a standing surface camp which enabled constant communication to be maintained and the timing of activities to be selected at leisure. In this way the survey and exploration of all passages up to Kneewrecker Junction was virtually completed by 1962. Then came a lull in activities due perhaps to changes in interests among some of the surveyors and the natural periodic recession which clubs are subject to from time to time.
The completion of the Mossdale Survey became a thorn in the side of the Leeds club and it was two to three years before a new wave of surveyors and explorers, freshly clad in wet suits, took up the task again. The telephone line had long since fallen into disrepair, each violent flood taking its toll despite efforts at repair and replacement. The new team were not greatly interested in the 'nearer' parts of the cave and telephone lines were not then thought feasible beyond Rough Chamber (some 30 minutes from the entrance) where the cable would prove a constant impediment in the smaller passages. However, the cable to Rough Chamber was again replaced and 'contoured' as far as possible to the passage wall. This was the third full telephone cable which had been run into the cave and these operations alone had consumed much valuable time and man-power. No cable was ever installed beyond Rough Chamber, although this was discussed on a number of occasions.
1965 produced a fresh wave of activity, and in a series of lengthy sorties into the extremities of the cave the 'new' men now made rapid progress with the survey which had been started so long ago. The Near and Far Marathon Passages were surveyed and the existence of a loop passage in the Far Marathon (Far Marathon West) was confirmed. Stream End Cavern and the ramifications of the Kneewrecker System were explored and surveyed in detail. An aural connection between the Marathon and Kneewrecker Systems was established via the extension of the Mini-cow Passage from Far End Stream Cavern, and the suspicion that the Far End Stream was not the same as the Main Stream seen at Broadway and Syphon Passage was confirmed. Work was done to try and force ways through the chokes at the extremities of High Level Mud Caverns and at the terminal choke of Stream End Cavern. In 1965 upwards of 8 major survey trips were made into the cave yielding over 7,600 feet of surveyed passage and utilising over 400 man hours of caving time. It must be recorded that Dave Adamson was prominent amongst those who completed this arduous task. The exploration and survey of the readily penetrable passages of Mossdale Caverns was then complete and it had taken many good cavers hundreds of man hours to carry out.
The next phase of the exploration was clear; to attack those few places, of which we now know, where a real extension of the system could be expected. The survey had shown over five and a half miles of passages, enough to place the system in the top ranks of British caves, and yet it was clear that this was but a beginning. Above all what was the course of the main stream beyond the sump in Syphon Passage to the rising at Black Keld? What was the origin of the intense draught felt in Far Western Passages? Of what high level series were The High Level Mud Caverns a fragment? What lay beyond the terminal choke of the Stream End Cavern? It was the promise of these challenging questions which motivated the party of six on June 24th 1967.
A party of ten cavers entered the system at about 1400 hours on Saturday June 24th. No one was left on the surface since telephone communications were not in use and the underground cable to Rough Chamber was known to be broken in several places. There had been some rain over the Grassington area in the previous few days, but the moors appeared dry and the quantity of water entering the cave was well below normal. The weather forecast for the north had been noted as 'bright periods, chance of thundery showers'. After entering the cave the party at once split; six men going on in front with the intention of examining the extremities of the High Level Mud Caverns or probing further for a way through the Stream End Cavern boulder choke. These six men, well equipped and very experienced were; Dave Adamson (U.L.S.A.)*, Geoff Boireau (U.L.S.A.), Bill Frakes (B.P.C.** and N.C.D.G.***), John Ogden (H.W.C.P.C.+ and N.C.D.G.), Michael Ryan (B.P.C.) and Colin Vickers (B.P.C. and N.C.D.G.). The remaining four cavers; James Cunningham, Morag Forbes, Collette Lord and John Shepherd, made a sight-seeing trip as far as Rough Chamber and returned to the surface which they reached at about 17.00 hrs. It was now raining lightly; the sky was overcast, but the conditions did not appear to give any cause for alarm.