THE CAVERNS OF MOSSDALE SCAR PART THREE by Mike Boon
in the clammy, granular mud. On the far side a typical flat-roofed cave ten foot or more high led off, curving gently now and then but leading steadily south. We walked in a rounded trench with banks of black peat mud reaching up to the roof on either hand. It was quite evident that in times of exceptional flood the Caverns fill to the roof. Probably the trenches are cut by water returning down the entry rift as the floods subside. After a short while, the mud floor fell away on the left hand side until we had some difficulty in staying on our feet. At one point a large block was jammed between the inclined floor and the lowering roof. We wriggled beneath, taking care not to slide down the mud slope below. The cave became more varied beyond, with steep up and down mud banks. We entered an intricate series of wide, low tunnels over the rise and fall of the slopes; sometimes we were momentarily doubtful about the way on. It was here we noticed a cool fresh draught blowing in our faces, marking the route through the narrower parts.
After walking and crawling for about 1000 feet we entered a rising chamber floored with mud-coated boulders. Towards the far end walls and roof closed to a narrow gap almost filled by a boulder. By this time, the clammy greyness of the place had destroyed what was left of our enthusiasm but from a sense of duty we cleared some mud out of the floor. It was no good; without a digging implement, the job would have taken hours. We lay sprawled apathetically on the mud for some time before we could bring ourselves to start out. One strange thing we noticed was that the draught had reversed its direction and was now blowing towards the end choke. Once down from the Caverns we picked up surprisingly well. The stomach crawls of Far Marathon went quite painlessly and we entered Near Marathon much more quickly than we expected. The duck was a grim experience; in the dark I overshot the entry squeeze and a dollop of water put my light out. By the time we had fought our way through we were both soaked to the skin. The worst was over now, though, and we moved slowly and steadily through the rest of Near Marathon and Rough Passage to meet the main stream once more. From here Pete's route-finding took us out with a minimum of effort and an hour or so later we emerged from the entrance crack into a clear, cold night. We had been underground for fifteen hours. It now only remained to walk back to Grassington. We went across the valley, then down to Conistone, falling asleep for half an hour when we hit the Grassington Road.
After the trip I had my customary reaction - a strong desire never to go near the place again. In any case, we had explored all the obvious open passages in Stream End Caverns to obstacles of one sort or another. Honour was satisfied. But when we came to write up the trip a disturbing fact came to light. Pete confessed that at the southern end of the High Level Mud Caverns he had found a rift in the floor which looked as if it would bypass the choke and anxious to get out of the cave had lain across it to conceal its presence. In the weeks following the conclusion became painfully clear. We had to go down again.
October and November 1963 were incredibly wet months in the Dales. For weeks at a stretch, the Ribble would roar under the bridge just down the hill from where I lived. Mossdale was quite out of the question but we did learn of a trip Dave Judson had made into Stream End. The weekend following our visit, he had pushed on to the end with three or four others. They spent three hours in the end choke of the stream passage without success and more in anger than in hope, had let off a charge of explosives. It had no effect and they rated the main stream choke as hopeless. The Sunday before Christmas the weather was fine and we walked up to the Scar. Flood debris was everywhere, even many feet up the cliff face and the entrance was wedged solid with boulders but we knew it would only take a few hours to clear, so on a brilliant Christmas Day we returned. Christmas dinner was chicken and an orange eaten while Pete shifted boulders from the hole. In an hour he had cleared the hole and returned to what was left of the chicken. Meanwhile, the hot sun had melted a thin covering of snow on the moors, and the beck was rising visibly, a clear purposeful current full of miniature ice floes. Once again there was too much water for us.
After more false starts we found ourselves at the Scar on Saturday, February 7th. This time, there were no fears of the unknown and we changed in quite warm sunshine feeling very cheerful. Then into the dripping blackness of the cave, the streamway to Rough Chamber, Rough Passage and Near Marathon. Pete had made a pinch-bar of steel tube and brass for the end choke which clattered merrily in the crawls as we threw it ahead. He climbed into a tube a few feet before we came to the awful duck and with relief we found that it joined the main passage again beyond it. The remainder of Near Marathon and Far Marathon went without any trouble. We arrived at the rift into the High Level Mud Caverns after about two and a half hours going, feeling fresh.
Half an hour later I was gouging out lumps of mud from beside the boulder at the end of the Caverns. The mysterious hole in the floor had just as mysteriously disappeared and I realised to my cost it had been invented to lure me into Mossdale once more. Then Pete said he could see a hole in the roof and climbed into it. "It goes, come on!" I left the dig and scrambled up a vertical fissure after him. Near the top were jagged flakes held to the sides by a thin cement of mud, then a hole appeared leading straight down. I landed on a mud floor in the passage beyond the boulder. Pete was already flat out in boulders a few yards ahead. He grumbled; "No good, no way through."
A strange jagged arch about two foot high in the left wall took me to a tight chimney eight or nine foot in height. There was an opening at the top and by prising rocks out of the clay I enlarged it enough to get through. I stuck my head through to peer at some vicious rock splinters adhering to the roof. Hoping the guillotine would not descend I forced my way through. Pete followed and we crawled through a rent in the giant boulder block. Bedrock could be seen here and there in the roof, but everything else was boulders, huge black things with wet, gritty surfaces. We moved cautiously through this massive disintegration until in a few feet the floor dropped to a lower level. Clambering over the boulders led to a wall of relatively solid rock with the draught coming from a narrow fissure in the left hand corner. We pulled out the rocks overlying it, only to find it was quite impassable. Nor were our attempts to find a way through from the lower levels of the choke any more successful. Altogether we spent some three hours grovelling about in this three-dimensional maze but all the ways we found led back towards the main passage, not into the unknown. At length, we decided we had had enough and made our way back into the Caverns. With failing lights some small luminous patches on the mud became apparent, presumably some form of fungoid life. Once back in the crawls we made quick progress and reached the entrance after nine hours below.
This trip crippled the reputation of Far Marathon once and for all. After the first trip, we had been impressed by the length and difficulty of the series and had said so. Now, with less gear, better route-finding and more confidence we found the trip reasonably easy and we knew that Far Marathon, far from being the utmost in physical endurance, was well within the reach of any reasonably fit caver. In a way, it was rather sad to see the legend dissolve, although the length, blackness and chance of flooding still make the trip worthy of respect. With the final boulder choke on both the main streamway and the south branch of the Mud Caverns probed we also felt it was time to let someone else have a go at the place. To pass either of these big obstacles would probably require luck, explosives, or monumental labour, we thought.
About a year later someone else did have a go. In March 1965, Pete had a letter from Tony Waltham of Imperial College London saying that some of his lads had found an extensive dry passage leading south from Kneewrecker Series. It connected with an active stream passage which ended in a loose but definitely possible boulder choke. Tony had another item of news -there were two routes through Far Marathon. On a visit with Mike Wooding of Bristol University, he had entered an exceptionally arduous route and had come back on a much easier route, though with two definite constrictions. He was coming back to push the College discovery after Easter, did Pete want to join him?
At Easter, we met Tony on Mendip. By chance a number of the Leeds University lads were also down and we were able to sort out what had happened. The University College party had in fact pushed a previously unmade connection between the big dry passage leading from Four Ways, and a similar passage entering Tunnel Caves. This was a grave disappointment to them but nevertheless it was a very useful closure. The Leeds lads confirmed that there were two routes through Marathon. Leakey's original route led out of the right hand wall of Near Marathon Chamber; by going straight on past the boulder we had discovered about a thousand feet of passage. This explained a lot, notably the differences of opinion between us and everyone else who had been through! The new route was nowhere near as difficult as the old.
Spring saw several of us back at the Scar. Originally the idea had been to have one party push the southern end of Tunnel Caves in the hope of making the connection with Minicow Passage while another tried the Mud Caverns choke. As we plodded steadily through the stream two lights flashed by, Dave Adamson and Alan Brook of Leeds University, on their way to look at Minicow passage. The rest of the route went quite easily for us as far as the rift up into the Caverns where Dave Judson lost his pinch-bar in the boulders. Having failed to dismantle the boulder choke by brute force, he proceeded to examine systematically every crevice in the boulders. After a good half an hour he found it and we climbed up into the Caverns.
The first place we looked at in the choke was the rift with the draught in the far corner. It seemed to have shrunk tenfold, an insignificant crack with perhaps some widening below. Passages often swell enormously in the imagination and when re-encountered are "not quite as remembered". We had intended widening it with explosives but now it seemed a waste of time and probably dangerous at that. Dave pulled out a boulder from the roof and climbed into an interesting find, another chamber superimposed on the first. I followed him and could hear him already some distance up an ascending crawl heading in the right direction. After a great deal of dubious murmuring punctuated by the grating of rock against rock, Dave came back. It went, he said, but there was every chance of getting squashed by a boulder. We looked at one or two recesses in the new chamber and then climbed down. I dabbled for a while with another suicide project, digging away the clay holding up a 200 pound boulder, holding up one of a tonne holding up the roof. The idea was to get a view of the hole beneath the draughting rift. In the end I gave up and we set off for the entrance having spent three hours in the choke.
To date we have not been back. The Leeds lads however, took up the cudgels in Minicow. Beyond the greasy climb near the old end they found a mud slope which took them thirty foot or so above the stream. Here easy walking in a high winding rift took them for 400 feet to a boulder choke. In June 1965, Dave Adamson and others visited the choke again. Dave opened up a small hole and soon the party were able to drop down into the stream. Some confused going in boulders led to a shallow sump but by digging away the gravel bank they were able to lower the water enough to get through. Another choke beyond was passed by a tricky climb. A big passage with holes in the floor leading to a stream followed to yet another choke. They dropped down to stream level only to be stopped by another syphon but not discouraged forced a fifteen foot climb back into the high level passage and the inevitable choke.
The sequel was another trip a few weeks later when one party went to Minicow and another to Tunnel Caves. After much shouting and scrambling round in their respective boulder chokes Dave Adamson found himself directly above the Tunnel Caves party. They could speak to one another through a cleft three inches wide in the floor, but try as they might no way through could they find. The connection was a most interesting discovery and tied up one more loose end in the system. The Leeds lads assumed the stream in Minicow came from Far Syphon Passage, only about 200 foot away in a straight line, but fluorescein put in the stream did not reappear, presumably because of slow water movement through the syphons.
The link between Minicow and Tunnel Caves marked another step forward in the exploration of Mossdale. Yet the cave retains its major secret, its course beyond the Stream End Caverns in the four miles of limestone to the resurgence, 400 to 500 foot below. No cave system in this country has anything like this potential for exploration: probably there are miles of galleries beyond. Whether or not they will be entered is another matter. Certainly the two chokes in Stream End Caverns will be hard to break, even in this day of intensive exploration.
Reproduced from “Down to a Sunless Sea” Mike Boon: with permission from John and Daryl Donovan