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Potholing is the poor cousin of caving. Both involve exploring underground caverns, but caves are big and awe-inspiring (if you are lucky!), whereas potholes are usually small, cramped and wet. However there is always the hope that your miserable pothole may lead into a magnificent new cave system. In England both are always cold.

When I was in England in the mid-Fifties I had a colleague at English Electric who belonged to a group of potholers. They had a pet pothole somewhere in Yorkshire - I don't remember where, but think it was probably in, or near, Wensleydale. A small stream flowed down one of the Dales, only to disappear into a crack in the ground. They had discovered that if the water level wasn't too high they could divert the stream down another nearby crack, and get into the original one. They had also found that if they put fluoresceine dye into the water it came out four miles away on the other side of the mountain, so you could guess their ambition.

I had done a fair amount of rock climbing, both in Australia and England, but I had never been potholing, and my friend persuaded me to accompany them one weekend to Yorkshire to see what it was all about. Potholing was a moderately serious business, and I was fitted out with a miners helmet and lamp, and a spare waterproof costume. They promised that as it was my first taste of potholing they would only take me down for half an hour. However it had been a wet summer, and the chosen weekend was the first time that summer that the water level had been low enough to divert the stream, so once they were underground they soon forgot this promise.

The initial crack went horizontally into the hillside. It was just high enough to crawl through on your tummy, but after about 20m it opened into a vertical shaft rather like a lift well, about 2m in diameter. This was about 10m deep, and they had rigged up a rope ladder so they could get down the shaft. Unfortunately the ladder was a metre or so short, so when we got to the bottom we had to lower ourselves till we were hanging from the bottom rung, and let go, dropping into a pool of cold water up to our waists. And here I discovered that my waterproof costume was spare because it leaked, and my clothes were almost immediately saturated.

From this point the going got more interesting, and we had to worm our way along a meandering crack. At one point you normally had to put your face underwater and hold your breath while you crawled under a low piece of ceiling, but fortunately the water was low enough that we didn't have to do that. At several places the crack was so narrow that we had to turn our heads sideways to fit through. After a while we came to a vertical crack something like a metre wide, which we descended by putting our feet on one side and our bottoms against the other, and cautiously lowering ourselves down. In rock climbing this manoeuvre is called chimneying.

We went on a bit further, and then the party split up and several groups went off to explore different options, while a couple of the party accompanied me back to the entrance. When we got the chimney I found that the rock was polished like glass and wet. It was very slippery, and as I was cold and wet I did not have the strength to get myself up again. Fortunately somebody gave me a shove from below, and I managed to get past this obstacle. When we got to the lift well the two people with me went first, and then I tried to get on the ladder. I jumped up and grabbed the bottom rung, but again found that I did not have the strength in my arms to reach the next rung. I tried a couple of times, but then I fell off the ladder into the pool, and my helmet came off and disconnected. I could not find the helmet in the water without any light, and I was left in total darkness.

The other two had reached the top, and didn't feel like coming back for me, so they told me to wait for the next party, who would be along in a few minutes. Unfortunately the next party had found an interesting diversion on the way back, so they had gone off to explore it, leaving me standing in cold water in total darkness for something like half an hour. By then I had been cold and wet for a couple of hours, and I was suffering seriously from hypothermia. I didn't care any more, and if they had been a little longer I would have laid down and gone to sleep.

I never tried potholing again!

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 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

Potholing

A near death experience!