Caving for beginners
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
The flow of water over the rocks was strong. We had arrived at the pool in time to watch the last person of the group ahead disappear up the waterfall. The water sprayed hard and cold over his face and entire body.
Our leader turned to us. ‘Would you like to climb the waterfall or return the way we came?’
I sat with my head bowed, like a child hoping that the teacher would not call their name. ‘I’d like to.’ ‘Me too.’ ‘And me.’
All faces turned to me, the last to answer.
We were in Upper Long Churn in the Yorkshire Dales. One or two of our party were experienced cavers, but most of us were beginners. For one (my husband Mike, pictured above), it was his first time. Up until this point, the going had been easy. We had mostly been able to walk upright, and the caves were fascinating.
Our guide (Nick from Yorkshire Dales Guides) was excellent at enthusing us about what we were seeing.
He explained how keyhole-shaped tunnels are formed - a strong flow of water creates a round tunnel and when it subsides, the remaining stream erodes a vertical channel at the bottom.
He showed us the gours (gour sounds like ‘Gower’). In Long Churn, they are like tiny rice paddies along the side of the caves, but they can be huge.
Patches of the roof sparkled silver in the light of our head torches. Apparently, these are just water droplets hanging from the rock, and they are golden when certain bacteria live in them. Personally, I prefer Mike’s explanation that they are mithril.
For a while, I avoided treading where golden orbs sat in the stream, as I thought they would be difficult to walk over. That was until another of our party pointed out that they were eddies in the peaty water reflecting our torchlight. When I looked more closely, I could see that they were dancing about in the water, only to disappear as I trod among them.
The route into Dr Bannister’s Hand Basin chamber had been fun. We had followed the water upstream, wading in some places and straddling or edging around the deeper pools. But now, it didn’t look like fun. Now, there was a waterfall to negotiate. And it looked scary.
‘I’ll go with the flow.’ I really did not want to climb it, but I couldn’t stop everyone else in the group from doing so.
Straddling the flow of water where it plunged into the pool, I looked up. I could see Josephine standing at the top, encouraging me. There was only one thing I could do. I lifted my right foot onto a ledge, wedged my left shoulder onto the rock face and started to climb. It took me a few attempts to cover the first couple of metres, but after that, it was fairly straightforward. My heart was pounding in my chest when I reached the top, but that just added to the feeling of satisfaction. I know that for some people, that would be an easy climb that they would just bound up. But for me, it was terrifying.
After a brief sojourn outside, we returned down the waterfall, back to our starting point and then continued downstream to Lower Churn. More delight at the rock formations, including what looked like a set of false teeth, and more terror squeezing sideways through a tight vertical section. For some reason, the tight horizontal section that we had to slide through on our bellies caused me no trouble at all, which just goes to show how illogical fear can be.
I loved my time underground, but when I saw plants and sky and climbed back to the surface, my heart soared. Although I’m clearly more of an overground person, I’m pretty sure I’ll take the opportunity to go caving again.
I don’t have a waterproof camera, so only took one photo of Mike before we set off. Thank you, Josephine, for letting me use some of your shots in this blog. I have also included a couple of links to the Wild Places Photography website to illustrate the shapes I have described – and to introduce you to the world of amazing cave photography.
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