Sleets Gill Cave
A Subterranean Spectacular
We dropped into Littondale by taking my favourite road over the moors from Settle - a chance to see the impressive limestone canyon of Yew Cogar Scar - one of the biggest masses of limestone in Britain.
The Yew Cogar has to be seen to be believed - its terracing jutting into Littondale like the prow of a gigantic liner. It is one of the great sights of Yorkshire.
Sleets Gill is a low arch leading to a bizarre slope giving one the impression of descending a giant rabbit burrow. This entrance once lay near the floor of the valley - but it has been left high and normally dry as glaciers have since lowered the valley floor.
The infamy that surrounds Sleets Gill Cave is well deserved. The passages below are sufficiently deep underground to lie very close to the water table - and it can take rainwater weeks to seep down through the surrounding limestone. Without warning - even on dry days and up to a week after rain ... the cave can suddenly flood to the roof. So bad is the flooding that water is forced out of this entrance and gushes down the normally dry limestone gill towards the valley below. Worse .... the first part of the cave to flood is the bottom of the entrance slope ... so anyone beyond it would be trapped in the passages beyond. This most famously happened to two cavers in 1992, when they had to be rescued and dived out by the cave rescue team (see my April post on Dowkabottom Cave for more details).
Even for those who intend to go no further - a trip to the bottom of the entrance slope is a fantastic experience. There is no other cave entrance like this in Britain. Lying on your stomach - in clothes that don't matter - there is this fantastic view back up the steep 52 metre slope to daylight. Sleets Gill is just awesome.
As we reached the constricted section at the bottom - I jammed by feet into the crack and managed to get this shot looking back up to the entrance. It is an unworldly feeling ....
Most people would look at the crawl at the foot of the slope - shudder and retreat! However, if you spend a good 20 minutes kicking cobbles away and widening the crack ... you just lie on the scree and almost sledge on your back under the rock .. wondering where the hell its going to all end! Coming up - as you will see later ... is amusing indeed!
Meanwhile - as you await your turn to descend into the bowels of the earth ... have a look round at the fine calcite walls. Why not?
Once through the low section there's a chance to sit up in a small chamber. Jed is taking a breather - with Emily emerging through the crawl just behind him.
Then there's yet another low crawl under the rock. Knowing the amazing sights that lie ahead, and having come this far - it would be daft to turn back!
Just under here - and then we're in. There are huge mud banks everywhere that have been built up by flooding and they are very slippery underfoot. You have to take care here.
The first sight of the Main Gallery is a humbling experience for a mere human. Your ears feel a strange kind of pressure and there is this feeling of being really deep underground. The world outside seems a mere dream.
Emily negotiating the mud banks in the Main Gallery. The floor is often of calcite and gour pools - so 'Golden Gallery' would aptly describe its beauty.
Stalactites are few as the cave still floods to the roof with regularity - but there are some fine flowstone formations along the walls of the gallery.
The best known feature in the cave is this fabulous flowstone column in the far reaches of the Main Gallery.
At the far end of the Main Gallery - a drop leads down to the notorious Hydrophobia Passage - a low tunnel containing a fast flowing stream where the caver literally has his face in the water. Beyond that is a massive underground ramp even larger than the entrance slope - but these require full caving gear and nerves of steel. After a couple of hours underground - we sensibly turned back - knowing the challenge of getting back up the entrance slope was enough to think about!
Even though it hadn't rained for more than a week - and before that for a condiserable time - water was still flowing in a sinister way along the floor of the Main Gallery.
Beginning the long crawl back up the entrance slope. The angle is steep and as you grab at the rocks they just move with you. It is a battle against gravity and the roof is only inches above your head.
I was about fifty feet above Emily when her light first showed itself where she was crawling up behind me. Wish I could have tape recorded her voice!!!
Yes - that yellow helmet is approaching slowly. Five minutes of struggle can perhaps get you ten feet higher!! Such is the challenge of the crawl out.
Some idea of the severity of the crawl. I've known it a lot easier in the past - but the recent wet winter has played havoc with the cobbles.