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Caving in March – Lost John: Upon Failing to Get One’s Act Together

~~“Take the obvious traverse that starts above some cascades,” it said in the guidebook.  I looked at the obvious traverse starting above some cascades in front of me.  It did not seem like the one I remembered but I had not visited Lost John’s Cave for years.  There was no-one else to ask because I was on my own.  I had arrived outside the cave earlier with Angus, Helen and Martin, only to find I had come without my harness.  I had driven back to Ingleton to buy a new one while the rest of the team made a start on rigging the cave.
I climbed onto the traverse.  A series of waterfalls in the passage floor increased the drop below as I progressed but the hand and footholds were secure.  They were reassuringly darkened by the passage of other hands and feet but after a while it troubled me that I had still not reached the start of the continuing, high-level passage that I expected.  Eventually it was clear I was on the wrong traverse – as had been the hoards who had left those misleading dark patches on the holds.  I returned to the start of the traverse and went further down the main streamway.  A few minutes later I came to another “obvious traverse” and this time it looked familiar.  Very soon I came to the high-level passage I expected.  I stepped into it and traversed over a sequence of three, deep shafts – just as described for the route we had chosen to follow.
When I came to the first pitch with P-hangers set into the wall for attaching a rope, I was puzzled to find no rope.  The pitch ought to have been rigged by the team ahead of me.  There are several ways to descend Lost John’s and I had a vague recollection of something about a traverse over an alternative route on one of them.  It looked possible to traverse, starting a bit further back in the passage, although progress began insecurely and rapidly became more alarming as I moved forward.  Soon there was only the feeblest suggestion of continuing footholds on opposite walls so widely separated that stretching between them looked near impossible.  I retreated, sat down and wondered what to do.  Twice I had another go at the traverse.  On the last attempt I went a bit further and saw, round the corner, that the rift came to an end.  This shaft must be the one we were supposed to descend.
Having traversed precariously back to solid floor I tried to try to work out what had happened.  Perhaps the team had taken a route that starts with a climb down the first of the three holes I had traversed earlier.  I returned to it and looked at the climb.  It was not a difficult one but it was uninviting to someone caving alone.  It was easy to imagine getting down it and then not being able to get back up.
As I was deciding whether to go for it I heard someone coming along the passage from back towards the cave entrance.  A moment later, Angus appeared.  They had indeed mistaken the route and had descended not here, but even closer to the entrance.  They had rigged the first, short pitch they came to and only realised their mistake when they reached the second one and it did not look right.  Martin and Helen were on their way back up and Angus had hurried ahead to look for me, concerned that I would not be able to find them.
Martin and Helen joined us and I led the way over the three holes – now so familiar that I hardly noticed the drop.  We rigged the pitch that I had previously tried to climb over, abseiled down, found the next pitch and knew at once that we were on the right route.  We continued without any problems, thoroughly enjoying the wonderfully sculpted passages and impressive pitches until we reached the start of the Battle-axe Traverse.  Beyond the traverse was the biggest pitch in the cave and we had a rope ready for it, but as a result of our disorganised start we were short of time.  We feared we might not be out of the cave by call-out time (when a call would be made to Cave Rescue if we had not reported our safe return).  The Battle-axe Traverse has no foot and handholds as such.  Instead, you jam yourself against the rounded walls.  Although bolts are provided so that you can attach a safety line, it was thus not entirely with regret that we gave it a miss and headed instead for the surface.  We made good speed and emerged well ahead of the deadline.
Angus and Martin could not be with us on the Sunday.  Helen and I had provisionally planned to go to Sell Gill Holes where Helen, a newcomer to the group, would be able to get some more rope practice.  However, we decided that being partially lost in Lost John’s and climbing down and up about 140 metres of rope provided sufficient training for one weekend.  We opted for a comfortable, guided tour of Ingleborough show cave and a walk to the top of Ingleborough and back.

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