Ask anyone and I bet you they have never heard of Sleets Gill cave, yet it is possibly the most dangerous place in Britain. All caves are dangerous places but Sleets Gill is deadly. A trip down there at the wrong time is like playing Russian Roulette, with the end coming slowly and with terror rather than at the speed of a fast bullet. To make matters worse it is technically an easy cave and anyone with a pair of jeans, an old jumper and a torch can explore it. Fortunately few go near it and most don’t know about it.
The problem with Sleets Gill cave is in it’s ‘interesting’ hydrology…it floods totally. Most caves flood when it rains but there are normally high level places where you can sit out a flood, but Sleets Gill is different – it floods several days after it rains. And it is not possible to predict when. It is all to do with the water table…when it rises it comes up through the floor and can sump the cave. Often the force of the water is so great that it rises up the 100 foot entrance slope and flows out into daylight, spilling down the ancient normally dry streambed. And this makes Sleets Gill unique, and very very unpredictable.
The cave is in Littondale in North Yorkshire and the only entrance is a 5 ft wide evil looking hole situated under a small limestone escarpement at the top of a dry stream bed. Entering the hole the passage drops a hundred feet or so down a 45 degree slope and ends up in a small chamber – often with a pool of water at the bottom. At the other side of this chamber is a railway sized tunnel which winds under the earth for over 1000 feet and is stopped by a rockfall. Because the far end of the tunnel is higher than the entrance means that if the cave floods the entrance is cut off first and you are trapped…to watch your fate as the water rises towards you sumping the passage before your eyes.
Various tales are told of people who have had narrow escapes..that have been down there and have felt a pressure wave on their ears, or have heard strange noises. I personally know one lady who was down and said she heard a loud bang and water started squirting out of the wall and across the passage. All have managed to beat a hasty exit. That is until 1992…
Roy Deane and Les Hewitt were in Sleets Gill when it flooded…fortunately on this occasion it didn’t completely sump and they managed to get to the the far end of the main tunnel and waited and watched the water slowly rising towards them. A few hours later their wives raised the call because they didn’t return home when expected and Cave Rescue divers found them and they were dived out. A short time later the cave sumped completely…the water hitting the roof and rising up the 100 ft entrance and pouring out into the outside – they were extremely lucky!
Describing their experiences they said they heard 2 loud bangs and ran towards the entrance but were met with a large amount of water coming towards them and were forced back up the passage. They watched as the water rose filling the passage to the roof as it moved towards them. The only dry bit was at the very end of the cave and there they waited for hours watching the sump pool and praying the water wouldn’t get any higher. You can’t imagine the horror these two went through – the stuff of nightmares.
I first met Paul when I lived in Ilkley and we were both into photography – only Paul was into CAVE photography. His world was one of crashing rivers, huge shafts and big abandoned passages – it made my meagre photos look very boring. I knew then that I had to be a caver. So he invited me on one of his club trips – little suspecting that something was wrong when the rest of the club wouldn’t go near him…and gave him funny looks. I didn’t realise then that he was famous as ‘The Most Rescued Man in Britain’. Virtually everything he did would go wrong…mind you most of it was his fault – for instance he fixed his rope descender with pieces of a meccano set (these things are made to save your life) and it fell apart when he was abseiling down a 90 ft shaft. He had to freehand down the last 40 ft. He taught me about rope work by having me abseil down his mother’s bannister at home. I was deeply suspicious…
Paul had a mate called Dave and he was crazy too! Dave once poured 2 lbs of calcium carbide down Paul’s toilet to see what would happen – calcium carbide makes acetyline gas when it gets wet – it provides the flame for caving lamps. For weeks after there was a funny smell coming out of the drains and no one dare smoke a cigarette anywhere in the vicinity. He also had a ‘bang’ licence and and he used to keep his gelignite in his bathroom cabinet next to his toothpaste. ‘Bang’ is sometimes used to ‘persuade’ boulders to move in caves or to widen restrictions. He always used far too much and would never tell us when he was setting off an explosion, often we would walk down a passage to be met with a huge bang and a load of rocks coming at you.
Paul and Dave use to knock about with a lass called Stephanie. I liked Stephanie, and several years later I was to help rescued her when she got stuck 90 ft down a shaft. Stephanie seemed to spend each weekend stopping with either Paul or Dave (but unfortunately never me)…
Stephanie once told me that Dave had ridden his motorbike most of the way from Skipton to Ingleton, a distance of about 30 miles, standing on his seat and drinking out of cans of beer. Sadly, but not unexpectedly he died in a motorbike accident several years later.
So one morning I was having breakfast and the doorbell went and Paul and Dave were stood there (but sadly not Stephanie).
‘Come on, get your things we are going caving’ said Paul. I didn’t have any ‘things’ because I had only ever been once before.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Never heard of it’ I said ‘Does it flood?’ I asked, looking at the rain.
‘Hasn’t flooded since the ice age’ said Dave. ‘you can borrow my things.’
So we got to Littondale, parked the car and I took one look at the evil looking hole and thought ‘this bugger floods’ – there was flood debris in the dry streambed and on a fence near the entrance. I didn’t like it one bit, but I didn’t know what it was really like. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone.
I had recently bought some huge lightbulb sized flash bulbs from a boot sale and I had one left. I packed it with my camera into an ex-army ammo tin and slid into the entrance. It was covered in loose stones and I half slid and scrabbled down about 80 feet to a constriction where the roof almost touched the rock and I had to dig the floor away before I could get down. Whilst I waited for the others to catch up I could feel the cold breath coming from below but I could only hear silence. ‘Not good’ I thought. I wasn’t happy.
When the others caught up we walked through the small chamber and out into this magnificent bore hole. It was round and the walls and roof were covered in thick brown mud, and it had no projections or ‘pretties’ at all – another sign of flooding. It did have some big gour pools on the floor though, and these were quite nice, so we tried not to stand on them. I got the feeling I was walking through a huge sump…well I WAS walking through a huge sump, but this one was dry for the moment. I hoped it would stay dry for a little longer. It was very frightening but awe inspiring at the same time.
Just off the main gallery are two small very wet crawls – ‘hydrophobia passage’ and ‘hyperthermia passage’ and we explored these. They are very long and are about 2 – 3 feet high with very cold fast flowing water. We crawled several hundred feet up these on our hands and knees and the water seemed to be getting faster. Paul wanted to explore the far reaches of the cave but Dave and I wanted to go back..I was nervous and had a bad feeling.
After about 3 hours exploring we headed out and eventually we emerged into heavy rain and got changed behind a wall. It was such a relief to be out!
When I got home and after a bath I realised I had left a lens near the entrance. I thought that the cave is so little visited I would go for it in the morning – it was well hidden. Imagine my horror whan I got there the next day and the normally dry stream bed was a full torrent and water was pouring out of the entrance! I don’t know when it had flooded but it can’t have been much after we left. We were very lucky!
I made a mental note never to go near Paul or Dave again (but not Stephanie), but of course I did!
Since then I have been down Sleets Gill twice, once solo, and I always get very apprehensive beforehand and always check the local weather forecast…but I still get nightmares thinking about that first trip…