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Ireby Fell Cavern, June 2022

Report by Andrew Northall. Take a look at Andrew’s blog for more cool caving things!

Ireby Fell Cavern is a classic Yorkshire caving trip that neither Gracie nor I had managed to do yet, so on 17th of June we set off to rectify that. We were enticed by the promise of spectacular sandy passage in Duke St, as well as what was reputed to be a fun bit of SRT to get there. The CNCC website housed a comprehensive route description, as us Dales cavers are privileged to be able to expect, and with a laminated copy in hand we set off for a trip down to Duke St II via the sump bypass.

Having been at work in the morning, we set off rather late, arriving at Inglesport around 3pm. We picked up some short lengths of rope that were missing from my collection, in order to prevent using a 30 metre rope on a 10 metre pitch. As it happened, we could’ve not taken any rope at all, as the entire cave was rigged with good quality (new looking) rope, with two separate pieces of rope on some of the pitches. Despite the good quality of the rope, the mallions it was attached to seemed to have seen better days. Having made the effort of bringing all the rope with us, we endeavoured to use it regardless, lest our efforts be in vain.

We arrived at the parking spot at around 4pm and set about steadily packing the rope – around 150 metres in total – into our two tackle sacks. It was steady away as we were both rather tired, and although it was only spitting a very fine mist of rain, we were both absolutely soaked by the time we started to walk up the gravel path towards the cave. It’s interesting how such a barely perceptible amount of rain – not enough to even register on the forecast as an event – can lead to being so sodden.

The nice chap in Inglesport told us that the only bad part about Ireby was the walk, and I could probably agree with that, although it passed quickly despite the thick fog. Visibility was only 10 to 20 metres but we found our way to the entrance without any difficulty, with the aid of a pre-loaded GPS track on the Ordnance Survey app on my phone. Initially passing a smaller depression on our right, not far from the road, Gracie asked if I thought that was the entrance. “No”, I said, “I’ve been led to believe that you can’t miss it – it’s truly huge”. This turned out to be absolutely correct, and when we arrived at the gigantic sinkhole sometime after crossing a stile, we knew we were in the right place.

After taking great care to avoid the numerous slugs, and loose paving stones, on the descent to the bottom of the sinkhole, we set off down the ladder and I began rigging the traverse across to the first pitch head. As mentioned, the entire cave was found to be rigged, Ding Dong Bell route in this case, however we continued past this and started rigging the Shadow route.

I found the rigging relatively exhausting – particularly the “leap of faith” from the last set of traverse anchors to the anchors for the first Y-hang downwards, and the pendulum swing required to get round the corner after the narrow rift beyond the first descent. I descended quite too far in the narrow rift before realising I should’ve stayed high up, and this meant a mid-rope changeover and a climb back up. Half of the battle was simply locating the anchors, it seemed like none of the next rebelays were visible from the last until you got very close to them, and this meant a large amount of trial-and-error searching was required. Someone who knew the way would’ve been useful here! Overall, all this added to the fun and we both really enjoyed the Shadow route, particularly the fantastic final shaft, which made it all worth it.

Gracie descending the atmospheric Well Pitch in Ireby Fell Cavern
Gracie descending the atmospheric Well Pitch in Ireby Fell Cavern

There was a piece of in-situ tat, with lots of knots in it, hanging down from the roof with its tail end floating around just above the anchors for the final Y-hang. I wonder if anyone knows why this is here, what its use is, or if it is meant to aid the rigging in any way? I spent a good while pondering its utility, but in the end struggled to come up with anything.

Pussy Pitch was quickly reached, with some in-situ worn completely to the core on it, in contrast to the fantastic quality rope on the rest of the pitches. This is apparently free-climbable, but we did not spot the route, nor spend too much time looking for it, and quickly made our way into the Upper Main Streamway. The water levels, it seemed to us inexperienced lot, were exceptionally low. There was barely any flow at all, the “duck” was merely a case of getting our knees a bit wet, and several parts of the upper streamway were completely dry. The Shadow route didn’t even have a dribble of water on it, despite being reputed to be fairly wet, and Well Pitch and Rope Pitch had just a trickle. Later, we would find the sump in Duke St to be completely static (or at least it seemed to be). I wonder if this is normal, or if we had visited when the cave was particularly dry?

The Upper Main Streamway was annoyingly twisty and narrow, which left me rather dissatisfied. Gracie made shorter work of it with her smaller frame. Thankfully, Well Pitch and Rope Pitch were soon passed, and we emerged into the gigantic boulder chamber. We noticed there was a piece of new looking rope hanging down from the ceiling just after Rope Pitch – does anyone know where this leads? I was very impressed by the height of this chamber – it seemed to go upwards as far as the eye could see and it would be interesting to explore the upper reaches of it at some point.

We found our way easily into Duke St and we were not disappointed – it’s easy to see why this place has a good reputation – it is a truly stunning bit of passage with a lot of character. We felt elated to be stomping down it without any concern for hitting our head, legs, arms, or bags on any sort of wall or ceiling. The dig opposite the entrance to Duke St was quite intriguing – does anyone know if this is still active? It seemed like a lot of progress had been made, albeit with a lot of mud/clay still to be shifted.

With it being almost 10pm already, it was time to turn around, the trip to Duke St II would have to wait for another day. The journey out was swift and uneventful, and when we emerged from the sinkhole, we found the mist had cleared. We stopped for a few moments and enjoyed the nighttime skyscape of stars and distant lights from our vantage point high up on the fell. An excellent trip, and we can’t wait to go back.