Descending Gaping Gill

NORTH YORKSHIRE

The Live Every Minute team takes on the bi-annual challenge of being winched into Gaping Gill, a 98m (328 ft) deep cave on Ingleborough mountain in the Yorkshire Dales.

If you were going to build St Paul’s Cathedral again, you’d probably not want to choose a location half way up 723m (2,370 ft) Ingleborough, the second highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales.

But if you did, Gaping Gill would be the ideal spot. The huge cave is big enough to house St Paul’s or even York Minster, depending on which version you prefer… and then some. It can only be accessed by a huge hole from the top of the rough surrounding moorland, a hole that ordinarily has the rushing waters of Fell Beck pouring over the edge.

Those waters, descending the 98m pot hole mean that Gaping Gill has another claim to fame – its waterfall is almost twice the height of Niagara Falls.

Of course, you can visit Niagara Falls at any time … and you can technically do the same at Gaping Gill, but you can only descend into the cavern with relative ease twice a year.

Every Whitsun Bank Holiday the Bradford Pothole Club set up a platform with a motorised winch to allow the general public to take the leap of faith over the edge, and in August, the Craven Pothole Club follow suit. And it’s with the latter that Team Live Every Minute took the plunge.

Along with myself (James), site co-founder Lyndsey and our ace cameraman Miles, we took my father-in-law Eric with us. Eric epitomises what Live Every Minute is about. Yes, we feature lots of thrilling adventures, some of which may seem to be incredibly exacting… but what we really want to show is that many of them can be done by people of any age, and with little other training.

Eric’s a fit 71-year-old and fits that ethos perfectly. That’s not being condescending about his age… but he has a great lust for life and likes to take on as many new things as possible.

Being winched into a cave doesn’t need any real skills other than a calm head on the way down… but the winch is only half the challenge.

Getting to Gaping Gill in itself is not easy. We parked in Clapham, the village at the bottom of the trail through the Ingleborough Estate and up over the moorland in the rugged foothills of Ingleborough that leads to the cavern opening.

The trail is about 4km (2.6 miles) long… it’s a nice easy amble past Clapham Beck and the Ingleborough Show Cave, which we found a great place to stop off for both a warming coffee and the loo before continuing. From here though, the trail gets much harder, with no real path, other than one that has been well-trodden by the dozens of hikers who walk up this way daily.

Despite being the middle of August, the British heavens played their usual joke on us, the cloud-leaden skies opening up with a steady trickle that turned to a downpour as soon as we passed the show cave and reached the open moors.

Nonetheless, we ploughed on, unperturbed by stories we heard from others on the way down. “It’s too wet, everything’s on hold,” and “the main winch has a malfunction” were just two that we heard on our way up.

By the time we reached the spectacular Trow Gill gorge, its steep walls carved by Ice Age glaciers, we were scrambling hand-over-foot as the rainwaters flowed down from Ingleborough’s summit above like a small river of their own.

From here, the trail opens up. There’s no tree cover and the wind can whip across the moors viciously. Somewhat predictably, it did just that… first drenching us, then thawing us to the bone, meaning we arrived at Gaping Gill in almost cartoon-like levels of drenchedness. I swear if I’d stripped off, you might have been able to find maybe a square millimetre of dry cloth somewhere.

Mike Whitehouse, the Craven club’s leader was sought out and we negotiated to be the last four people they were allowing to descend for the day thanks to the truly awful conditions, as well as the winch not being at its best (don’t worry, there are back up winches, as well as paths where you can be led out from other parts of the vast caving system up here).

Miles went first, followed by Lyndsey, then Eric… I only had time to wave them cheerily off, given the platform over the chasm blocks out much of the view of how deep it actually is.

Going over the edge doesn’t take a heck of a lot of courage. You sit in a chair, get strapped in and the platform below you moves out of the way in order for the winch to start the descent.

The slimy sides of the walls can be seen at first, but the light soon becomes murkier. For the duration of the two weeks of descent a year, Fell Beck is diverted from its fall into the main cavern… but don’t let that fool you into thinking you won’t get wet. The further you get down, the closer you get to the diverted waters. They fall with such force, the suck in the wind which sends their spray far and wide.

If we’d been thoroughly damp at the surface, we were all drenched to the bone by the time we hit the cavern floor. But that minor discomfort was soon forgotten as our mouths gaped at Gaping Gill in its whole majesty.

The vast walls of the cavern rise above to leave the point of access we’d been at a few minutes before looking like nothing more than a tiny pinhole. It’s well lit underground – but given these descents are temporary affairs, don’t expect to be able to see every nook and cranny. And for a tip, aside from taking much better waterproofing than we did (the guys who run the show are dressed more like North Sea fishermen in a Force 10 gale than cavers and put us city slickers to shame), a head torch is an essential.

In total, we spent about an hour underground before being slowly winched back to the surface. While we’d been down, the skies had decided that August was just not wet enough and decided to throw even more water at us. As such, if possible, our ascent was even wetter than the descent, and back at ground level, all four of us had a tremble about us as Mike allowed us to join the crew in the catering tent for a warming cup of coffee before we set off on the long road back to Clapham.

We were tired, hungry, cold and stupidly, incredibly, totally and utterly wet. But we had the most amazing of days … and might just have found somewhere new to worship.

TOP TIP:

Two words: Waterproof clothing.

Aside from that, cress up in layers. Even if it seems warm outside when you leave Clapham village, the winds whipping across the moors mean you’ll likely feel the cold on top.

KIT LIST:

* Waterproof clothes. Not the wimpy stuff… if it’s raining you will get drenched without something industrial strength.
* Layered clothing – the walk to Gaping Gill is exposed and it can get windy
* Sturdy rubber-soled shoes or hiking boots for the walk
* A head torch or strong flashlight
* Walking poles if needed
* Water
* Energy drinks and bars

HOW TO DO IT:

Descents into Gaping Gill during the two annual winch meetings cost £15 per person.
The Bradford Pothole Club runs the May Whitsun Bank Holiday meeting.
The Craven Pothole Club run the one in August.

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