Two grown men, supposedly of sound mind, stood in the middle of Leck Fell with three tackle bags full of gear and enough hardware to tackle the Berger. Purpose: to find the Leck Fell Master Cave by conquering the little known sumps in Notts Pot. Directly below where we stood was just a blank space on the caving map. We set out to change all this, alter the record books, prove some people right and knock some expert theories on the head. We knew where it was, and we were now on our way to stroll through it. We sat and rested, waiting for the distant hiker to approach: perhaps with his myriad of maps, he could show us the location of Notts Pot. Yes, we were completely lost !
With the entrance located we were away rigging the system in record time, even though the cave was half in flood. But diving with Rupert, one soon learns to ignore such trivialities. The main sump was covered in foam giving no indication of where the way on lay, and the static sump was the colour of chocolate - dark chocolate.
The next day saw us down with one set of diving gear and a line reel containing 65m. A recce dive was planned into each sump, and then an attack on the one with the most potential. Rupert dived first into the static sump, vertically down a narrow rift for nine metres and then through an arch into a bedding. The entrance rift provided him with a sporting return, indicated by the amount of bubbles belching up in the sump pool and the look on his face as he surfaced.
I spotted the empty line reel in his hand and knew I wouldn't have to wait long for the cheeky grin, which only Rupert possesses, to spread across his face. It did, along with the words, "It's gone !". Bickering, bargaining and sheer blackmail on both our parts put Rupert into the sump for two more dives but appalling visibilty, ever shifting silt banks, plus a passage which provides almost no natural belays, saw only another 30m of line laid out. But the sump was still going and prospects looked good. Rupert now left for sunny Mexico with bigger things on his mind.
Enter, at this point, Rick Stanton and big Dani, both fellow NPC members and good friends, but more importantly, both had faith in the Notts project. The push was on again. By the time we got organised, the vis had improved no end. I had the enviable task of diving first. I followed Rupe's line through the sump. Silt banks loomed up and then disappeared as did the walls and roof. The line had only one belay holding it, in a very convenient eyehole which provides a superb landmark. It was then that I realised what a hell of a time Rupe must have had finding it when he was diving the sump by braille.
I soon found the almost full diving reel buried in the silt where Rupe had left it. It felt good listening to the familiar clicking of the line reel as I headed off into the unknown. 30m later it was there in front of me: one of nature's jokes, the cave diver's nightmare. A massive silt bank completely filled the passage from wall to wall with just a 10 cm gap between it and the roof. I peered through with the 20 watt light. The passage appeared to open up again but the silt bank was very substantial. I dumped the reel with two rocks on top of it and returned to base with the disappointing news. Rick dived next to look at the situation and start the inevitable dig. The silt was very fine, almost like clay, making digging hard work. Total blackout forced a return to base. On this dive the silt bank had won the first round and, from the size of it, looked like winning the next ten.
A skinful of good English beer that same night had us both convinced that we would pass the blockage in no time. The next dive saw me swimming to the end of the line wondering which would be the best line of attack, and picturing an underwater JCB complete with a fully kitted diver at the controls. One does have some strange thoughts whilst swimming through familiar sumps. My thoughts returned to normal as I approached the offending silt bank, which was completely unchanged, even though the cave had flooded since our last dive. The line rose up it and went through the gap at the top. "Cracked it !", I thought, "The reel's been washed through on the flood". I peered through the small gap. The line reel lay in open passage, still with the two stones on top. It was the entire silt bank that had moved, not the line reel. I found the widest point and began to dig. The vis blacked out, but the hole got steadily larger until nothing but solid rock could be felt on floor and roof. A slow return to base then seemed in order.
Rick was next to dive, and passed the blockage back into open passage, much larger in proportion to the rest of the sump, and with the depth still hovering around nine metres. In the distance he could see the cave floor heading up a large ramp. The magic words drifted through his thoughts, "Airspace !", but it wasn't to be. The ramp took the passage up to minus five metres and levelled off again. On he went, belaying the line en route until a massive blank wall loomed up. A quick search told him there was no airspace. To his left a large passage led off, heading upwards, but it appeared constricted at the top. The line reel was now empty and his contents gauges signalled that it was time to head for home.
Just before the squeeze, the passage changes shape and character. Instinct made Rick stop to feast his trained eyes on his surroundings. A small bedding appeared to lead off under one wall, and being a diver, the temptation was far too great. Slowly he moved forward and stuck his head in. The sight that greeted him forced him to undertake one of the most difficult manoeuvres a diver can face - laughing underwater. For there about two feet in front of his nose, wedged firmly as if waiting to prey on anything that passed by, were the two ducks that for some months had made their home in the Duke Street sump of Ireby Fell Cavern - a familiar sight to many a cave diver. It might sound a little strange, but this was a very significant find because it told us that we were definitely on the main downstream route, although where the main sump came in was still uncertain.
The cave again went into flood, making diving very difficult. Two dives were needed just to get a full line reel to the end. The furthest point reached was about 175m in and still heading directly for Gavel Pot. It was my turn again to dive first. I took in a search reel and tied it on at the end. The steeply ascending passage had flow marks in the silt. But at the top, at only minus one metre, it was almost completely blocked. I alternated between digging and searching the blank wall and roof. By the time I had reached my thirds, I had opened up a hole big enough to stick my head and shoulders in but the blackout caused by digging meant that I could see nothing. I left the search reel tied on at the end for Rick, who now looked at everything that was there but found no alternative to what we already had. The vis had cleared in the dig and sticking his head through, he could see the tiny passage heading down again, with a small tube leading vertically upwards. Bad vis and low morale brought him back home. We retired to the pub knowing full well that Theakston's would kill off enough brain cells to make a solution look simple. The beer was excellent. Dani's humour and wit were even better, but at closing time the reality was just the same. There was no way past this obstacle.
It seemed that the logical thing to do was to determine if we were still on the main route at the end. Rick did a midweek dive to the end armed with a float which he filled with air and sent up the vertical tube. It floated quickly into airspace. The only thing our team was short of now was a diver about the same size as a fairy liquid bottle. What now ? Give it up ? Survey to a high grade what we had already got and then leave it ? Search around for a pygmy diver ? Dye test it ?
Yes ! Dye test it ! That seemed to be the answer. Again we chose a midweek night dive so as to cause as little disturbance as possible. The main downstream sump was coloured bright green while the divers kitted up. I dived first and was met at the bottom of the rift by fine wisps of green dye shimmering in my lights. Carrying on up the line, a solid wall of dye was met about thirty metres in. I attached a marker to the line and carried on. The water now was brilliant green and providing me with a fantastic diving experience. Rick dived next, enjoying the dive as much as me. Back on the surface at 1.30 in the morning after a four hour caving and diving trip, we now knew for certain that we were still on the main flow at the end. Great News. I had to convince my aching muscles, as we walked back across the fell, that it really was worthwhile.
We were convinced now that there was no way that the small hole at the end could take all the water that Notts and Ireby sent through in full flood. To stand at the Ireby inlet in Notts Pot when the system is in full flood can only be described as spectacular. Looking down at the thundering, seething mass of foaming water with all its associated power that would under normal circumstances strike fear into the heart of any caver, just drained us all of words each time we saw it. Not that conversation was possible anyway. The system was rigged for all weather, enabling us to ferry cylinders in and out at will, regardless of water levels. Rick and Dani stopped in the Dales and I returned home. Meeting up again on Friday, I was duly informed that a further dive by Rick following the back end of the dye had located another passage about twenty metres back from the end of the line. This had been followed for about sixty metres to the base of a steep gravel bank leading upwards to a wall, with no way through.
Saturday saw me in the enviable position of lead diver, but on this occasion we both knew that a breakthrough was imminent, so we both kitted up together and I led off followed three minutes later by Rick. On reaching the line reel at the base of the slope, I settled down on top of it and had a look at my surroundings. The passage was a classic, perfect arched shape, heading up at forty five degrees with a solid shingle-packed floor meeting the roof about five metres up. I approached the blockage ready to start digging in the centre of the arch. No sooner had I touched the floor than the whole lot started to shift, taking me with it, shingle burying my arms and legs. My position was safe, but the sensation was very strange. When everything stopped moving, I extracted myself from the gravel and began to dig: a very easy task. Several minutes later, the way on was clear. I gently eased my body through the gap. The passage opened up again to one and a half metres in diameter and was still going up. I followed, and moments later broke surface.
Not a sound could be heard now: total silence, pure beauty, nature at its most spectacular. The water rose up from the sump pool and flowed gently off downstream in a perfectly straight passage 30m long, 6m high and about 1.2m across, to what appeared to be a wall and another sump. The sound of Rick's bubbles brought me back to reality. He surfaced at my side. We looked at each other but no words were exchanged. No words were needed. Slowly we began to de-kit, gaining momentum all the time until gear was flying everywhere. My quick release belt just gave me the advantage and Rick's words echoed in my ears as I raced down the passage: "Hey ! Come back you bastard !".
We explored together over a mile of cave with fabulous formations, massive inlets, some over 20m high; massive avens spiralling 30m above us; waterfalls and cascades. On the way back, we were both on a high. How did the song go ? "In England's green and pleasant land".
What were our sherpas thinking ? It was over three hours since we entered the sump in Notts Pot. Poor old Rupert. The water level started to rise. It was as if the cave knew we were in and was telling us in its own peculiar way. On reaching the upstream sump again, the water was now boiling out of the sump pool leaving us to dive out in totally nil vis, but it didn't matter. We had done what we had set out to do five months earlier.