The single word “Mossdale” means so much in different contexts. Followed by “Caverns” it becomes one of the most remarkable caves in the Dales, with the long crawlways explored by the indomitable Bob Leakey, largely on his own, in the summer of 1941. Followed by “Tragedy” it becomes that weekend in 1967 when six Dales cavers died in a massive flood. The six were members and friends of the Happy Wanderers, and none of us will ever forget them; nor can we forget that awful weekend.
I made just three visits to Mossdale Caverns. The first was in the winter of 1963, with Pete Gregory. He was on my course at London’s Imperial College and had previously lived at Yarnbury, when his mining engineer father was working the old mine tips of Grassington Moor. And Pete had then been into Mossdale, I believe with Bob Leakey, but only into the river passages that formed the initial part of the cave as far as Rough Chamber. He took me into just those same passages, and I was seriously impressed by this amazing cave with its very cold water and the big questions about its far reaches.
My second visit was at Easter 1964 in a group of Imperial College cavers. Two teams went into Mossdale. One went down Kneewrecker and dug through at the end of Fourways South, only to find themselves in 64 Cavern with a new way into Tunnel Caves. I went down the Marathons with Julian Hardenberg and Mike Wooding (who was by then a regular friend of the Imperial cavers). From the small chamber at the end of Near Marathon we dutifully turned right into Leakey’s Marathon, as I had spoken to Bob Leakey about the route and this was the passage that he had followed. It was nearly all wretched crawling on one elbow along narrow rifts, but we eventually climbed up into the High Level Mud Caverns for a look around. On the return journey, we missed the turning into Leakey’s Marathon and headed up Far Marathon East, eventually squeezing under a fallen block to emerge in the little chamber at the end of Near Marathon. It was only then that we realised that there were two Far Marathons. The fallen block had diverted Bob Leakey into the West passage in 1941. Only in 1963 had Mike Boon and Pete Livesey shifted the block enough to enter the small and wet passage beyond, thinking that they were following Leakey’s route and after dismissing the narrow entrance to the original Far Marathon. They therefore explored Far Marathon East, which proved to be a lot easier than Leakey’s alternative.
My third visit was in 1967. On the evening of Friday June 23rd, a group of us drove north from London. We passed through some really heavy rainstorms, but without realising their portent. The morning of Saturday the 24th brought a lovely summer’s day. We enjoyed the dry conditions with a jaunt down Meregill Hole. Just along the fell, the Brook Brothers and a Leeds team returned to their new discovery at Black Shiver Pot. And across in Wharfedale, Dave Adamson led a strong team down Mossdale; he was joined by John Ogden, Bill Frakes, Colin Vickers, Mike Ryan, Geoff Boireau, John Shepherd, Jim Cunningham, Morag Forbes and Colette Lord. Their aim was some blasting and excavation at the southern end of the High Level Mud Caverns.
We emerged from Meregill in the early afternoon. At about the same time, John Shep, Jim, Morag and Colette turned round on their short trip into the Mossdale river passages, leaving the other six to continue into the far crawls. With much of the day still in hand, we headed for a quick trip down Washfold Pot, but were forestalled by a heavy rainstorm. We waited it out on the Ribblesdale road, but then abandoned Washfold and merely laid plans for the Sunday. The same rainstorm trapped the Leeds team in Black Shiver Pot, where they endured long, enforced waits in various semi-dry chambers. And the same storm turned Mossdale Beck into a raging torrent.
While her three friends had returned to Braida Garth in the afternoon, Morag Forbes had waited at the How Gill hut for her fiancé, Dave Adamson. With the heavy rain continuing, Morag walked back to Mossdale for a second time and was horrified to find a great lake across and over the entrance. She ran across the fell to Yarnbury, where she could make the phone call to set the rescue effort in motion soon after 11pm.
The call-out was massive, and throughout the rest of the night Mossdale was the scene of frenzied activity, with huge numbers of cavers along with fire engines, pumps, JCBs and tractors all working to stem the flow of water into the cave. By dawn there was a major new diversion ditch, six feet wide and deep for more than a hundred yards to carry the beck’s still powerful flow beyond Mossdale Scar and away to the Bycliffe Sink in the valley towards Gill House. The ditch’s left wall was essentially a dam overlooking the Mossdale entrance, and it was a fragile structure that required constant repairs and improvements to keep the water away from the cave. But it worked, and by mid-morning cavers could get back into the cave. Among the first were some of the Wanderers, including Frank Barnes and John Rushton (some memories have faded in the nearly fifty years to when this was written, and there are other names that should be added here if anyone lets us know). A phone cable was laid through to Rough Chamber. But no-one had been further into the cave before and the far crawls had a reputation of complicated route-finding in a maze of small rifts. So, while the stream flow continued to ameliorate, there was a bit of a hiatus in progress.
Because my university friends and I were based in London, we were on no call-out lists, and we slept through the night in blissful ignorance in the Clapham barn that was our usual weekend abode. We emerged in the morning to find the notice on the door of the CRO depot announcing a call-out at Mossdale. It was Jon Hallam who recognised that this could be big and still on-going, and persuaded the rest of us that we should head for Mossdale even at this late hour. Only on arriving at Conistone did we realise the scale of the event. Jon had a Land Rover, so we were quickly dispatched up the track to Mossdale. On arrival at the Scar, fronted by a new sea of mud, cavers, machines and ditches, we reported to the Surface Controller and I casually mentioned that I knew the way down the Marathons. The instant reaction from Len Huff was that I get changed and head into the cave where a strong team led by Jim Eyre was waiting for a Marathon guide. Dave and Alan Brook were not around, because they were still stuck in a Black Shiver Pot that nobody else knew existed, Pete Livesey was climbing in Norway, Mike Boon was in Canada, and Dave Judson was away in the south.