After having done a Swinsto Pullthrough, and a Rowten through trip earlier in the month – I figured the next logical step was to kick it up a notch and go for the through trip from the next cave up the side of Kingsdale, further proving that West Kingsdale is Best Kingsdale.
Mike Butcher had got in contact asking if anybody fancied a mid-week dive in the lead-up to him taking his CDG Qualifying Exam at the end of the month, I found myself free mid-week as well so asked him if he fancied the through-dive from Aquamole into the Kingsdale Master Cave.
We didn’t manage to secure any sherpas so we spent a bit of time working out how to get down the cave with all our kit, carry it all through the sumps and then get out of Valley Entrance at the other side. No matter which way we cut it, it was going to be a horrible slog. I picked up Mike in Leeds at noon, stopped for a swift fill at the Northern Compressor and were at Kingsdale for a leisurely 2pm.
I packed a large tackle sack with a pair of 5L cylinders, my fins, dive harness and other associated gubbins in a daren drum. The bag stood about as tall as me (not saying much…), Mike opted for a looser approach with his gear in one small bag, and cylinders/fins hanging down at his sides. We slung the kit over the fence on the walk to Aquamole then drove back to Valley Entrance to get changed and leave the car, we were spotted by a fellow caver who stopped for a quick chat, asking questions about our itinerary, he’d not heard of the connection from Aquamole to Valley before and was keen to hear what it was like! We chatted for a short while before he left, as he was apparently on his way to work. The walk back along the road without all the kit we’d dumped was alright, the walk straight up the hillside once we’d picked up our kit was definitely less nice. After a lot of puffing and panting we made it up the valley, along the Turbary Road, and into the entrance of Aquamole.
Mike took point with his array of dangly bits, I followed with my singular huge dangly bit. Things got off to a good start when I forgot to put the lid back on, realising this a couple of rebelays down I had to clip the monstrous load to a bolt and prussik back up to re-cover the shaft. As he descended Mike’s loose cylinders clattered and clanged all the way down the narrow entrance series, resonating up the shaft. The sound reminded me of the gentle far-off metallic thud of the forge drop-hammers in Sheffield that echo up the valley. My own bag was a lot more silent than a pair of loose cylinders but this wasn’t due to a smooth descent, the bag had a similar width to myself but with none of the coordination, meaning it kept getting wedged in the rift as it trundled down, requiring constant adjustment and encouragement as it descended.
After breaking out of the entrance series I remembered what comes next in Aquamole; a narrow winding stream passage. This should be fun. Mike had already clattered his way along the meander, having little trouble navigating it with his slender pair of 3L cylinders. I humped and gallumped the big blue bag over obstructions, through puddles and round corners. Mike had already reached the next pitch and dumped his kit, he kindly came back to help me. Between us we carried it Chuckle Brothers style and To-me-to-you’d it the rest of the way.
We dropped the next pitch, shuttled it through the next choke and emerged atop the final 40m pitch. The descent down the magnificent bell-shaped shaft was thoroughly enjoyable, even with the 4 dozen deviations on it. It was during this descent that I realised just how hot and sweaty I was. I had some 12mm of neoprene on that I had worn throughout the trip, which has been pretty dry so far. I hadn’t washed the suit in a while and, catching a whiff of it as I descended, I decided that the sooner I jumped in the sump, the better!
Once at the bottom I remarked that – despite being the most prepared for being wet as I have ever been at the bottom of Aquamole, it was the driest I’d ever seen it. My memories of Aquamole mainly involve being stood in a miserable rain shower at the bottom of the pitch waiting for freshers to prussik 40m. Now there was barely a drip! I hoped this settled weather meant that the sump visibility was good (spoilers: it was not).
Mike and I pottered around for a while, carrying out all our pre-dive faff. We double and triple-checked we were aiming for the right dive line. The way on was South – North sent us further from home, and with Mike on a pair of 3Ls, there was very little room for mistakes. The plan was for me to go first on my 5Ls, and Mike would wait 10 mins to let the vis clear a bit and allow me to scout out the route, if the line was ruined, or anything went wrong I’d turn back and be able to warn him early.
I managed to pack my entire SRT kit into a tall Daren drum, something I didn’t realise was possible. I then flooded the drum enough to reach neutral buoyancy, and packed it into the big blue bag, which I lashed tightly with a caving belt to keep it compact and low-profile for carrying through the sump. With my package assembled, the dive line found and no excuses to turn back – I headed into the sump.
The silt-out caused by my entrance into the sump soon cleared as I moved along the passage. I could see about half a metre, not quite as clear as I’d been hoping but I’ll take what I can get. The water in the passage was eerily still. There hadn’t been a strong flow in here for a while based on the amount of silt that had settled on the stationary dive-line. If I disturbed the line, the silt that had settled on it didn’t move in the sump, leaving a ghostly shadow of the line ahead of me.
The passage was fairly sizeable for the whole duration, it rose and fell amongst silt banks, the line occasionally catching in eddies and silt, but nothing too dramatic. I had forgone buoyancy in order to reduce my weight and profile, and with the SRT bag I sank slightly but with a good finning technique I could swim along the passage nice and smoothly without scraping up silt for Mike to enjoy later. There were thousands of shrimp joining me on the swim, eager to follow this new enormous friend that had disturbed their home. I spotted a few bottom-feeder fish along the way as well. The dive was over sooner than I expected, I made it through the ~168m in about 10 minutes, about the time that Mike was due to get in the other side. I hauled my heavily-laden body out of the water, cursing the lack of assistance that came with no longer floating. I clambered clear of the sump and took in the new passage. Frake’s Passage is a 30m section of above-water passage between Rowten and Aquamole. It’s quite pretty and fairly stompy, though you must duck to avoid breaking the stals in the ceiling. I heaved myself onto a cobble bank and removed my fins before flopping limp and waiting for Mike to arrive.
Twenty minutes later I heard the telltale sounds of a diver approaching. The low rumble of bubbles breaking the sump surface, a solitary clang of bottles on the cave roof, and an almighty heave-ho as Mike emerged from the water. He scrambled over to me on the bank, he explained that he had taken so long because he’d nearly turned the dive. Seconds after I had left him his regulator hose had blown, sending it flying round in the sump pool. He managed to turn it off and save some gas but his margins were so close with diving on 3Ls that he couldn’t chance it blowing in the sump. He’d fixed the hose back on and it seemed to work so he continued on the dive using only the dodgy reg, leaving the other bottle as bailout. It behaved itself on the dive though and he was safely through with one bottle still full.
We picked ourselves up and stomped along Frake’s Passage, it looked very nice but didn’t last very long before gradually lowering into the next bedding plane sump. Mike had been to Frake’s from the other side before and mentioned that he didn’t remember the pool being this low, and he thought that Frake’s was longer than this. I asked him to double check the bearing we were on before I continued on the next sump. If we went much further in the wrong direction Mike would be pretty low on gas for the journey home! He looked at his compass and said “Shit. We’re heading NORTH.” Momentary panic grasped us before he looked at his compass again and said “Oh no wait, my compass is just dodgy – it’s definitely South”. Feeling a bit mistrustful of Mike’s compass I reassured myself that we were actually in Frake’s as it matched every description of the cave I’d seen, and it even had a side passage inlet that matched the survey. Pretty happy that I was going the right way I slid into the next sump, which was much lower and wider than the previous one, and the line was pulled sideways into the wall. I unhooked it from the eddy, out of which swam a confused-looking fish that buried itself into the silt bank ahead of me. I crawled up the silt bank and was soon through the 45m sump, into a very short but tall airbell that had the same feel as the final pitches of Rowten. The next submerged section was more tall and rifty, and lasted just 10m before I heard the telltale rumble of the waterfall in Rowten falling in torrents in a passage to the right of me. Once again I flopped out of the sump and into a cobbly chamber to wait for Mike.
I could see the next set of sumps below a rock curtain ahead of me – I recognised them as the free-dives I’d done a couple of weeks ago with Leo. Nearly home! Just a handful of short sumps and a gruelling slog out of Valley Entrance left. Mike appeared behind me after about 10 minutes, apparently his hose had blown AGAIN as soon as I had slipped away into the 45m sump. He’d sorted it out and continued to breathe down the dodgy regulator, still leaving the good one intact. I we checked we were both all okay and I set off through the sumps into the Kingsdale Master Cave.
Now I was in familiar territory I could tell that water levels were low, though evidence of recent flooding filled the airbells between the dives, the final 2m dive wasn’t even sumped – in quick succession Mike and I broke through into KMC. We spent some time re-adjusting our kit to make the return through Rowten Passage as palatable as possible. We both kept our sidemounted cylinders on and packed most of our kit on our backs – I set off in haste before soon realising that my Daren drum was still nearly filled with water to achieve neutral buoyancy! I shed the 5L of water before continuing.
Rowten Passage goes ever on and on… I spent the drier sections crawling and cursing, my knees knackered and my ungloved hands grasping coldly at the gritty cobbles in the stream bed. The deeper sections were a bit easier as I could float along on my back, drifting lazily downstream facing the ceiling until becoming beached on the next cobble bank and having to exhaust myself in flipping over like a stranded tortoise, burdened by its cumbersome shell. A few repetitions of this float-crawl-float-crawl business saw me reaching the junction where Swinsto breaks in, and being able to stand up to walk properly made progress much easier. Mike and I discussed our “Optimistic Selective Memory” of Kingsdale Master Cave, in our heads it was mostly a stomping streamway passage but that bit only lasts a couple of minutes, you never seem to remember the stooping/crawling slog from Rowten itself.
We found ourselves at the bottom of the Valley Entrance pitch. I stopped to put my SRT kit on while Mike attempted to free-climb the pitch with his cylinders still on. After failing to make the first move off the ground he instead lashed his bottles and fins to the rope and climbed up unencumbered, pulling the bottles up afterwards. He also kindly hauled my kit up for me before I prussiked up last. At the top we gathered our bags and began the stooping exit route of Valley Entrance. Fairly knackered at this point, I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t my swiftest traverse of the winding tunnels that lead to the surface, slowly but surely I followed the now-familiar clanging sound of Mike all the way to the tube. Once out we found that we had a visitor – the guy we’d spoke to while dumping our kit over the wall had brought his wife and daughter to see us come out of Valley Entrance! He’d timed it quite well, we’d been underground for just over 3 hours and it was getting dark, we had another chat with him before heading back to the car and de-kitting.
A thoroughly enjoyable through trip for those with underwater inclinations. I did the trip on a pair of 5Ls with no buoyancy and had plenty of gas to spare, the line was well belayed, with only a couple of bits where it had snagged into eddies. Mike had breathed down exclusively on the 3L cylinder he had regulator problems with, leaving just over 100bar in it with a full 3L on the other side, so it’s clearly doable quite comfortably with a pair of 3s, though not much margin for mistakes if you encounter problems in the KMC end of the trip. The carry with a pair of 5Ls is very achievable solo, though I did have help from Mike in some parts. I’d recommend having a rig and de-rig trip arranged before and afterwards if you can’t find a sherpa, as carrying a rope bag with all your dive kit would be exhausting, and a quick bounce trip in Aquamole will take less than an hour. If you take the knots out of the rope in the bottom pitch you can simply pull the rope up through the deviation krabs and save the descent down.
TRIP DATE: 19/10/20