CHRISTMAS DAY DOWN HAMMER POT by Frank Barnes
On Christmas day 1964, the Happy Wanderers were having a discussion in Ingleton transport cafe whether to attempt Hammer Pot on Fountains Fell as arranged about a month earlier, It had to be a night trip because it was hard to get permission for access to the fell at this time. Although about six of us were keen on going, the other half of the club were not because all the parties and drinking etc. were more tempting to then. Those of us that decided to go soon found ourselves being driven up to Fountains Fell.
The weather was bad enough down in the valleys, but when we got onto the high ground the weather was appalling, with blizzards and drifts all over the roads. On reaching the car park at the entrance to the track that led to the shooting hut on the fell, the six of us started to walk up to the hut with our caving gear. It was a real bone freezer. If anyone was going to pack in that night it would be on the walk up, and in fact two people had to turn back with cold and sickness. When the four of us had changed we had not far to walk from the hut to Hammer Pot, about a quarter of a mile down the track and fifty yards to the left. The pot is at the bottom of a small shakehole and a few slabs lie over the entrance. The way is under one of these slabs and through a flat crawl for a short distance to a twenty foot rope pitch. After this a short walk down a high passage leads to the notorious stemple passage, a tight rift with sharp knobs of rock on the walls. Ken Taylor was the first to go through: he did not find it too bad and told us the that the thing to do was to traverse on at the same level as we started all the way to the end and then drop down.
John Ogden went through next, and he too being small like Ken did not find it too tight. Then came my turn I found it very tight especially at the end where we dropped down. There were several stemples jammed across the rift and I couldn't see much use in them going down. Dave Midgely followed me but found it too tight, and after passing me his tackle he set off to go out. I dropped the tackle through to the others, who were waiting in a small chamber for me. I had difficulty in getting through, but I eventually popped through the roof of the chamber like a cork out of a bottle, and swung down to join them. The passage from here was easy walking for quite a way to a fifty foot pitch. This was nice and easy, against one wall with a trickle of water going down. By the time I reached the bottom the others were on their way to the next pitch.
When I arrived at the third, a twenty foot pitch, I found it ready laddered. After walking a few yards from the bottom of this, I dropped down an eight foot cascade and I saw John and Ken waiting for me in a small chamber with crawl leading off.
Although we had not heard much about it, this was Sludge Crawl and proved to be the crux of the whole trip. It was about eighteen inches to two feet high and three hundred foot long with a deep canal all the way and only a four inch air space for the last fifty feet. On the floor under the water was a deep layer of sticky mud. John led first in the-crawl and Ken followed him, both carrying twenty five feet ladders: I carried a rope.
We all found the water very cold and our tackle and bodies sank in the mud, making our progress very slow. I think the main thing that kept us going was the sound of the loud roaring and banging of the water in the Outfell Master-Cave. I was left quite a bit behind by the other two, although I could just hear John shouting back “I think I'm nearly through.“ It seemed to take hours to get to the end but when I finally broke through to the master cave things looked quite different from the miserable crawl. I found myself in a passage about eight feet wide and ten feet high with a large, fast flowing stream coming down the passage from the left.
By this time the others must have been half way down the master- cave which is about five hundred feet long. It looked like a fast easy sprint to the last pitch, but I was sickened when I kept dropping down deep holes hidden by the stream and immersing myself up to my neck in water, so I had to pick my way carefully. After climbing down a cascade of fifteen feet, and trying to avoid the water which was coming at such a force as to knock you over. I could hear the others shouting over the noise of the water. When I reached them they were looking down a fifty foot pitch which looked impossible because of the volume of water that was going down, but we noticed a dry passage opposite to the one we were in about ten feet lower down. We traversed round to this, which was quite easy although exposed. Once we were all in this passage we decided that each one of us would go down the pitch and return straight away without untying the life line. When we had all bottomed it and were assembled back in the dry passage again, there was no shouting because this time we were quite tired, and none of us felt up to dragging that ladder and rope through Sludge crawl again. So we rolled the tackle up and left it at the top of the last pitch. Then we started to move out.
As we trudged back up the master cave I thought of Sludge Crawl, the coldness of it, the mud and grit eating its way through my woollies and rubbing into my skin and also of the tight rift. How would I shape getting back through that in a tired condition? But we had beaten it to the bottom, what sort of fight would we have to put up on the way out? When we reached sludge the water didn’t seem any higher, so it was probably freezing on the surface. I don't think we spoke to each other on the way through. There was nothing much to talk about except that it was again miserable and we were glad when were out of it.