The Three Counties Traverse
Playing a tiny part of an impressive caving community effort
A stroke of luck meant I was free for Saturday 25th September. A plan was coming to fruition which many had been thinking about for a number of years, it was clear that after years of exploration and digging across the three counties system a full traverse was now possible for those with the best diving skills. The late Simon Halliday had discussed this with Aaron Smith, but the logistic were complex and required a massive coordinated effort to pull it off. Enter Kevin Gannon, who with the divers (of Thai rescue fame) Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell (and others), planned and coordinated this impressive feat.
We (Aaron Smith & Nathan Bartlett) arrived in Ingleton for the usual Breakfast, chatting to another group who were also involved. Then everyone gathered (I reckon 50+ individuals) in Ingleton car park to have the brief. For us, it was simple grab a bag each, don't get it wet, don't knock it around. Jason Mallinson adding extra emphasis on those two points if anything that needed to be dropped off got damaged, that could put an end to the whole thing.
The deaths head team out onto Leck Fell - Saturday Morning. Photo: Nathan Bartlett
We set off heading for Deaths head as a team of 6 also including Dave Ottewell, Ian Laton, Jack Dewison, Andrew Wright (Sandy) and Mark Simms. After condensing into two vehicles we arrived on a busy Leck Fell and after a little faffing we headed down to Deaths hole. We dropped into the impressive open pitch, descending in a broken 80 meters, it was a new pot for both of us. On reaching the bottom a loose slope led down over a small drop to the main chamber (where big meanie joins) the loose scree continues towards the dug connecting scaffolded pitch. At the bottom of this a rocky crawling passage joins the inlet. It was here that we met the others on there way back from the bag drop.
Aaron passing the others after dropping off the bags. Photo: Nathan Bartlett
It was probably around this time that at Large pot near Ireby the divers were starting the traverse. The traverse was from Large through to Rift pot, then from Rift into Ireby. With various kitting and feeding stops on the way throughout the traverse, the first dive was from the sump in Ireby into Notts. Another dive then connected Notts to Notts II. From Notts II a serious caving route connecting to Lyle cavern route would take them to the downstream lost johns sump where our bags were to be dropped.
The dive base at Lost Johns sump. Photo: Nathan Bartlett
After chatting with the others we headed to the dive base, bags dry and placed ready. We then took the opportunity to make our own connection through the system. This would be the route Chris and Jason would be heading from later in the evening, Aaron knew the way. After some rather wet wading and a few neck high swims we were heading towards the Lost Johns inlet through the master cave, passing and visiting many points of interest on the way, taking our time, we headed to Lyle cavern.
Returning to deaths head, paddling in the Lost Johns master cave.
Photo: Nathan Bartlett
Aaron reaching the top of the pitch into helictite rift.
Photo: Nathan Bartlett
Stopping for some lunch, we then ascended the pitches up-to the Helictite rift, scrambling onwards to Lyle Cavern High level. As we approached the connection, 'Bruno Kranski's Rising Sump', time was getting on. It might not be too long until the divers would be coming through. The thought of potentially getting in the way and Aaron's apprehension in potentially having to go through that loose unpleasant crawl again ('once is enough'). Brought an end to our route onwards. Later we would find out at this stage the divers traverse was slightly ahead of time so it was a real possibility. We reversed are journey back to deaths head and headed out up the pitches.
Flowstone walls in Lyle cavern. Photo: Nathan Bartlett
We arrived on the surface, to meet a team on there way back down ready to assist the divers on arrival. On the fell back at the vehicles on a fine evening we bumped into Kevin Gannon, Gaja Gannon and dog, providing high quality pork pies for replenishment. The bustling activity had the feel of some sort of expedition or fell run. We also became aware we were 'those two lost cavers', we probably should have articulated our plans a little better. We did a bit of surface spotholing whilst the underground traverse continued.
We returned to Bull pot farm to a festival atmosphere, packed with cars and vans. The beer was flowing and food was free thanks to Russel. We chatted with others as regular updates were relayed from returning teams. The divers were progressing nicely. The rest of their journey took them from lost johns sump on to the start of a long dive to Shuttleworth (witches), after a drink stop and equipment checks the dive continued onto Pooh's revenge where support helped then with the connection to another dive into waterfall chamber in the Ease Gill system. Through the night, a long Ease Gill caving traverse finally completed, the longest caving journey ever undertaken in the UK at around 4.30am. Of course I had fallen asleep by then but on walking into Bull pot farm at 07:30, it was confirmed by a few still awake, it had all gone to plan; all the moving parts, cavers from different clubs and planning had enabled the completion of a historic journey in British caving. What a privilege to contribute a tiny part to the plan.
Nathan Bartlett, with additions from Aaron Smith. September 2021
So this is how I see it.... Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell entered Large Pot (in North Yorkshire) at 11am. It took them 1.5 hours in underground dry cave to reach Coats Cavern in Rift Pot.... and then 2 hours underground dry cave to Ireby Fell Cavern via the Temple of Doom. The first dive was Ireby to Ireby 2 (18 metres). 152 m of dry cave leads to a dive to Notts Pot of 226m at 6m depth. The journey from Ireby to Notts Pot takes 1 hour. Just 20 minutes (traverse and abseil down takes you to the next sump dive from Notts Pot to Notts 2. This has a maximum depth of 9m and a length of 210m. You now arrive in the far reaches of Notts 2 near to Curry Inlet with lots of pretty formations. A trip through dry cave of around 2 hours takes you through Bruno Kranskies (dry passage with challenging dimensions) to Lyle Cavern Upper Series with climbing and abseiling down to the Lost Johns main drain. River passage here takes you past the splendid Lost Johns entrance series and down through deep lakes to the Lost Johns down stream sump after passing under the Deaths Head Pot entrance into the system. The next dive from Lost Johns to Pooh's Revenge in Pippikin Pot is 917m. (Alternatively, divers may choose to exit here and re-enter the system through Shuttleworth Pot). The Shuttleworth Pot dive is to Pooh's Revenge in Pippikin Pot is 460m with a maximum depth of 30m. So, Lost Johns to Shuttleworth (by exiting Deaths Head and re-entering Shuttleworth Pot over ground is 1 hour). Then, a 1 hour dive to Pooh's Revenge and a 1 hour stop for dinner. Pooh's Revenge in Pippikin Pot is a short dry section of cave which leads to the Waterfall Passage dive of 224m to Waterfall Passage in Pippikin Pot. (Poohs Revenge to Waterfall passage is 1 and a half hours). A dry traverse in varied conditions including abseils and iron ladders and numerous inter-connecting passages takes you to Top Sink after 5 hours. A total traverse of just over 17 and a half hours!! .......The complete traverse takes you from Large Pot in North Yorkshire, under Lancashire and out of Top Sink in Cumbria in just under 18 hours underground.
(Please note, the following is not meant to lighten the burden of such an amazing trip but..... Aaron Smith (at this point in time) is lead to believe that although the whole trip can be completed without ever surfacing between Large Pot and Top Sink, it is most likely that the divers moved over ground from Deaths Head to Shuttleworth Pot before continuing their underground traverse). If evidence to the contrary becomes available this description will be updated accordingly!
Aaron Smith, September 2021
Geoff Crossley has kindly explained and solved all my issues with the Three Counties Traverse. He explained that the two divers went from the Lost Johns down stream sump to Shuttleworth Pot via the Alcove Sump. This is a new route which was finally completed between 2015 and 2018. (After the Northern Sump Index was published). This dive is between 500 and 800m (I think) to Shuttleworth. They then completed a dive of 420m to Pooh's Revenge in Pippikin Pot. (This route avoids the very demanding direct route from LJ to PR of 917m).
Aaron Smith, October 2021
The above sketch was kindly provided by Geoff Crossley and shows the route taken by the two divers from Lost John's to Shuttleworth Pot to Pooh's Revenge. Many thanks to him for providing the above information
Links: Pictures and articles covering the real action.