As I write this I am huddled on the floor of Graham View; the epicentre of ULSA’s operations. I have stayed the night to gather valuable intel on the inner workings of their club and provide here a comprehensive report.

Much like the British and Germans in the Trenches, ULSA and SUSS decided to bury the hatchet in the festive period and so ULSA allowed a few of us to join them on their seasonally traditional “Christmas Cracker” trip. This trip is usually organised by Alice and involves a mystery location, mulled wine and mince pies.

I gathered a group of keen people, two of whom had to drop out (standard caving trip attrition) and Saturday morning at 8am sharp saw Adelaide, Olly and Me heading to Leeds on the train. We arrived at Burley Park station and met an impatient Nathan who told us we were behind the others. Nathan knew the “secret location” of the trip and would not relent upon pressing interrogation. Arrival at Inglesport Café proved that Brendan is far easier to break, revealing the location in an instant upon asking; Christmas Pot and Grange Rigg, of course – what better location for a festive trip?

We parked in Clapham and got kitted up. In total there were 24 cavers heading up Trow Gill, yet only 23 SRT kits were present. Nathan spent a quarter of an hour cobbling together a kit from slings, pantins, krabs and a micro-traxion. Soon he was content and we all set off. Upon arrival at the top we divided up the rope, and cavers. I chose to take myself and our two freshers with the ULSA “Elite” down Grange Rigg, which I was told only once inside the cave, is a Black Book trip. We followed the stream which was flowing weakly, ahead of me Olly disturbed some dusty cave foam, dispersing it into the air causing me to inhale it. Would not recommend.

Wob Rotson who was, let’s say, “not feeling his best” was leading and rigging for some reason. I soon learned of his penchant for missing bolts, yosemite bowlines and not bothering with cowstails, it seems we have much to learn of their “efficient” rigging techniques. We descended the first pitch and were soon following streamway to the next. A lot of wet crawling and squeezing (some of which would be impassable in much wetter weather, I imagine) lead to the next “pitch head” which could, and should apparently be free-climbed according to ULSA good practice guidelines. The pitch, like most in this cave, began with a squeeze. I tackled it head first, though upon realisation that my current position left me unable to rig my descender I decided to free-climb it myself – when in Rome; adopt poor practice. Adelaide was next to come through and had a hard time of it, we spent a few minutes pushing, pulling and rotating her. Then we tried to push her back to adopt a new strategy, and in the attempt we somehow managed to push her forward and down the climb, where I caught her.

Wob now decided to teach another ULSA fresher, who was also “ill”, to rig. This lead to a lot of waiting as Typhon is incredibly tall and the pitch-head requires a full-body rotation in a small space. Once Typhon’s lanky self was down Olly followed in a similar gangled fashion, he had some fun as his long cowstail got hooked underneath his kneepad, meaning I had to squeeze down beside him, undo his kneepad and drop it down the pitch.

We all gathered in the chamber below, where Olly showed me exactly where his kneepad had landed; just inches from a fissure that dropped into inky blackness below. Once the next awkward pitch was rigged I followed Olly down, tantalisingly close to the bottom of this pitch is a tight squeeze that requires some careful negotiations, once I was through I waited for Adelaide to descend. She reached the squeeze and stopped. Literally “Stopped” as she’d let go of the descender handle, which was now pressed firmly up against the wall in front of her, preventing her from pulling the handle to descend. In order to help her I had to climb up the rift and hunch down beneath her so she could stand on me to free herself, clutch her descender and abseil down on top of me. Following that tight descent I soon became very glad that our intended route didn’t go out that way.

The next section of passage was “Anemolite Crawl”, an awkwardly tight T-traverse above a fair drop that tries to suck you downwards. If you adopt a bracing position against the sloping walls you can keep high and avoid slipping down. Sometimes the central rift closes up enough that you can use it as a foothold but more often than not it is irritatingly just too wide to be of any use. In some of the flatter sections of the crawl it was apparent that someone who had been here before had not has a good time, as there were specks of blood throughout, and some parts I’d term as definite “pools” of blood. Adelaide, following behind me, was also clearly not having a good time as I heard a multitude of exclamations and grunts from her direction. I found a small chamber to comfortably sit in and wait while she crawled along the painful traverse sans kneepads.

Shortly after this small chamber a climb down into the larger ‘Battleship Passage’ opened up. I came down to find Wob Rotson stood over a sleeping Typhon in the streamway. We woke him up and sent him off ahead to find the way, we climbed over the boulder collapse and were soon presented with an option of going up or down, the way up looked more promising so we sent Typhon down with a tackle sack while we went up and over, which soon became a pretty obvious way on. Typhon continued to insist his way on also lead the same way and stayed in the streambed swatting pebbles aside and inching forwards whilst the rest of us passed over with relative ease.

Voices ahead, distinct from the aggressive Death Grips lyrics being bellowed by Wob, indicated that we’d run into the others coming down from Christmas Pot, turns out we’d met the head end of their group. We followed them into the next large chamber where they sat in wait for the others to get down, George and Wob carried on to the final pitches, which were once again free climbed in accordance with ULSA policy. At the bottom of the small cascades we reached a large rift chocked with boulders, here we waited with Alice while the Wob crawled down the boulder pile and through the choke at the bottom, Olly followed a short distance before deciding against the tight wet Drainpipe crawl and so turned back to join those of us in relative comfort at the top. Typhon went down the choke and was soon either stuck or asleep inside, as we heard nothing from him for a few minutes. We sent George in the retrieve Typhon while the rest of us headed back to the main group.

A festive sight greeted us upon arrival, the chamber was warmer than the draughty rift we’d come from and sat around were the Christmas Pot contingent, sipping hot mulled wine from saucepans that Luke Stangroom had been preparing on a stove. Mince pies were passed round, mulled wine was drunk and carols were sung for a while before we started sending people out; there were a lot of us and the way out of Christmas Pot was mostly SRT, the perfect recipe for a long exit. 4 ULSA members lead the way out, followed by the SUSS triplet. Aside from a few dropped rocks (the pitches are incredibly loose, and there was a recent boulder collapse in there) a smooth exit was made up the half dozen or so pitches out of Christmas Pot, and we were soon on the surface, close to 9:30pm.

We set off walking the long, cold path back down to Clapham, in the distance I saw lights near to the Gaping Gill main shaft. Assuming it was just late night ramblers I ignored them and continued walking. I coldly and stiffly climbed over the stile the leads off down the hill, as we made it over the other side we heard a call of “help, we’re lost!”, we called back to the walkers letting them know they should follow us, and the path, down to Clapham and continued on. Shortly after this dismissive response to a genuine cry for help the ramblers had caught up to us and told us that they were properly lost, they were lighting their way with their phone torches and had no map. We got told that they had just done the Three Peaks and were headed back to their car in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, which was the other side of the hill they were following us down. They accompanied us to the bottom, chatting away, once down in Clapham we sent them to the pub to phone a taxi, but before they left they insisted on a group photo to thank us publicly on Facebook.

After waiting for the others to join us at the bottom we packed our stuff into the MPV and drove back to Graham View, ordered pizza, fixed their electric fire, watched Brendan Hall take 25 minutes to get an MPV out of a cul-de-sac and crashed on their kitchen/dining room floor.

So the things I’ve learned from my experience undercover on an ULSA trip are:

  • Cowstails are apparently optional
  • Free-climbing pitches is mandatory
  • Freshers should be taught to rig on Black Book trips
  • If you’re mulling wine down a cave, you don’t need to bring water – hydrate with more wine!
  • Lost hikers are surprisingly common, though incredibly gratious
  • ULSA trips are more eventful in general, especially with 20 people down a cave
  • Inglesport for breakfast is genuinely a great way to make sure freshers have actually eaten before a trip

I must now quickly conclude my report and leave the ULSA heartland to return to the safety of South Yorkshire, as my refusal of bin-scavenged sausages for breakfast may have compromised my deep cover operations.

Jokes aside, I had a great trip and all three of us enjoyed our time with ULSA. Big thanks to Alice Smith for organising the Christmas Cracker, and to the residents of Graham View who hosted three foreign cavers in their house for a night.

Trip date: 3/12/16