by John Gardner
Juniper Gulf is neither particularly deep (128 m.), nor particularly long (244m,), but it has been a magnet to cavers ever since it was first bottomed in 1924. Structurally dominated by a small geological fault, it is a cave that typifies the best of Yorkshire potholes: wet, deep, vertical, and culminating in one of the finest shafts in the country.
Attitudes to the cave have changed over the past sixty years. The first guidebooks described it as "very arduous and dangerous", whilst the next generation of guides described it as a "magnificent classic pot with fine situations". The latest guide simply describes it as a "superb trip". The moderated assessment is not because today's cavers are any fitter, or more competent than their predecessors were - in fact there is reason to believe that quite the opposite is true. No, it is because equipment and techniques have changed beyond all recognition.
The original descent, by members of the Gritstone Club, involved nine trips over a period of three months, dressed in tweeds, with primitive lighting, and using government surplus heavy-weight rope ladders. The story of their descent is reminiscent of tales of trench warfare from the Great War.
My first descent of Juniper was in 1969. There were eight of us - we needed that many to carry the tackle - and I have vivid recollections of waiting: of waiting at the bottom of pitches, of waiting half way up pitches, and of waiting at the top of pitches - all the time getting colder and stiffer in a frayed wetsuit. It took us over twelve hours. We finally emerged from the entrance cold and tired, but elated at having successfully negotiated a major challenge.
Today, however, Juniper provides a memorable three or four hours caving to be shared with one or two good friends. It need no longer be a dangerous or a serious undertaking - provided that you have mastered single rope techniques, and that you use those techniques wisely.
Juniper Gulf is to be found on the southern flanks of Ingleborough, on the old grouse moor known as The Allotment. It is best approached from Crummackdale, a beautiful and isolated valley well worth exploring in its own right. Parking for a nominal fee is normally available at Crummack Farm ¹, near the head of the valley. The walk up to the cave takes less than half an hour. It follows a fairly well defined track heading north, and crosses a desolate expanse of pavement before arriving at a gate in the Allotment boundary wall. Once through the gate, follow the wall to the right for 500 metres, before striking off at right angles for a further 150 metres.
The entrance can be missed – its location is not obvious until you are actually peering into the small valley containing the entrance shaft. On my last trip there, I spent some twenty unpleasant minutes wandering around the water-sodden moor in the mist, before eventually stumbling upon it.
The attractive elongated shaft is lined with bare rock, and in places is narrow enough to jump over. The stream cascades down a meandering trench at the north end, before disappearing under some jammed boulders.
The traditional, and most pleasant descent of the 18-metre entrance shaft is from the east side half way along the rift. A multitude of bolts provide good initial belays, and once over the lip another bolt provides a re-belay. It is an excellent daylight pitch, with attractive fluted rock, and with shrubs, moss, and ferns providing a bit of colour. After a couple of metres, the shaft widens out, and the preliminary grovel over the edge turns into a pleasant free hang.
The rope lands on a shingle bank in the streambed. Upstream, the water can be seen falling from some narrow rifts; downstream, some large wedged boulders form cascades that can be awkward to climb back up. Beyond the cascades, the rift narrows as it goes underground.
In wetter weather, the cascades are impassable, and it is necessary to use an alternative, and somewhat messier route. This takes off from the extreme south of the surface rift. Initially, a 12-metre pitch leads to a sloping ledge above the cascades. From here a short descent and a tensioned traverse above the stream, aided by a deviation, allows access to a large flake at the start of a tube above the rift passage. A traverse then leads to a ledge from which a short narrow descent may be rigged to the streamway below.
The traditional route then follows the stream down a small drop, to where the passage becomes too narrow at floor level. From here, a thrutch traverse leads to a 12-metre deep second pitch, located in a constricted rift, broken halfway down by a second thrutch traverse. The pitch is wet, awkward, and arduous, but at the bottom, relief from the spray and noise is soon offered by a large, dry aven. This route was in regular use until fairly recently and must have been most unpleasant for the pioneers carrying their heavy equipment.
These days, we can follow an easy traverse from the original small drop in the rift passage, just a few metres beyond where the alternative entrance pitch descends. This is an easy traverse, but there is momentary hesitation where a gloomy and watered shaft is intercepted. The broad ledges disappear and the passage widens out most disconcertingly, but for the long-legged, there are sufficient footholds to allow the shaft to be safely straddled. A few more metres, and another shaft is encountered, this time clean and dry. A pleasing creamy-white 15-metre pitch lands back in the stream passage at the aven already mentioned.
From the floor of the second pitch, the water gurgles down a tight rift, but our route is along a traverse following a washed-out shale band. This is the infamous traverse, rather unfairly described as "nasty" in the old guide book. With heavy-weight equipment, there is no doubt that it would be arduous and awkward, but progressing along it with a rope bag does not present problems for the modern caver. Care is required, however, as the rock is well polished by countless knees, and it also tends to be smeared with slippery shale. Most of the traverse is hands and knees crawling, spread across the narrow fissure, but occasionally it is necessary to crawl flat out. Relief is offered by "The Bad Step", where a local widening necessitates a cavalier swing from a flake onto a sloping ledge below, followed by a rising friction traverse. Bolts are available for protection, if required.
Up to now, the stream has never been more than four or five metres below, and its gurglings and gleamings have accompanied us for most of the traverse. But beyond The Bad Step, it takes an unseen plunge into a shaft, deep and wide. Our route continues along the traverse for a few metres until a deep hole appears in the floor. Stepping across this, it is possible to stand up in relative comfort. Ahead, a slot in the floor drops into the superb 25-metre shaft of the third pitch. Below the slot, the shaft widens out, and the rope hangs down in the middle of a wide rift, with the stream seen falling from around a corner. In wet weather, it is possible to keep completely dry up to this point, but flood conditions make the last ten metres distinctly unpleasant. Under such circumstances, the following, and final, pitch should not be attempted.
The rope lands us on a ledge above the stream. The original route follows the stream along a narrow winding rift, to where the stream plunges into the final, and longest shaft. A dry extension to the passage leads to a spike belay and the original 40-metre pitch. This pitch is inevitably wet, and can only be safely negotiated in dry weather. It took the original explorers four trips to descend it, and this is not altogether surprising when one considers the difficulties they must have had in carrying the four fifty-foot rope ladders along the traverses to the top of the pitch, and then lowering the ladders down the shaft. The ladders for this pitch alone must have weighed the best part of 30 kilos when dry.
Fortunately, around 1968 some Leeds University cavers took what now seems the obvious step of traversing forward from the ledges on which the last pitch landed. These large ledges lead to a narrowing of the rift, where a moderate shower lands on some unstable chock stones.
Scrambling over this boulder obstacle, we are confronted with what makes Juniper Gulf such a popular cave - the Big Pitch.
What is it that differentiates a magnificent shaft from the ordinary? An absolute answer is impossible, as it is basically a question of aesthetics. But there are a certain number of ingredients which when blended together in the correct proportions, provide a shaft to remember. Depth is important - the pitch should be too deep to see the bottom with any clarity. The architecture of the shaft has to impress, with clean lines and spaciousness, and the line of descent should be as far away from the walls as possible. Finally, and this is the icing on the cake, the descent should be accompanied by a waterfall - in hearing, in sight, but out of line. Of course, there are always exceptions - who could fail to be impressed with the normally dry Aldo's shaft in the Gouffre Berger?
There are a number of such memorable shafts to be found on the flanks of Ingleborough. A few hundred metres to the east of Juniper Gulf is Nick Pot, with its formidable final pitch, and a couple of kilometres to the west is the Dihedral route down Jib Tunnel, which emerges from the roof into the Main Chamber of Gaping Gill. But the shaft confronting us compares with them all.
In front of us lies a boulder-strewn ledge, fairly long and wide initially, but funnelling down towards the drop. From this point, the walls bell out, and then draw together again about 15 metres beyond, with an old bolt route precariously traversing around the right-hand wall. Looking up, we realise that the route that we have been following has entered the shaft part way down - the walls soar upwards for at least 30 metres, and a stream emerges from somewhere out of sight. This is thought to be the stream last seen in Juniper Cave - what a final shaft would result if that through exploration were to be made! Below us, can be heard the stream we have been following, falling into the depths.
By following a ledge round to the right, a rope can be belayed to a couple of bolts, and a descent made for half a dozen metres down the wall, to just below the lip of the ledge's funnel. From here, a final belay drops one into the shaft proper - 45 metres of free-hanging pitch down the centre of a massive rift at least 30 metres long, with clean beautifully fluted rock on either side. About 15 metres away, the main waterfall accompanies us - an impressive sight, especially in wet conditions. The descent of this shaft is an experience to savour.
The landing is made on a wide ledge of creamy limestone, awash with spray, with a three-metre drop leading to the lower stream passage. Unlike that above, this is an orthodox stream passage, with a very positive roof and floor, which descends a series of cascades into the final sump pool. With a bit of effort, even this point can be reached with feet still dry. To some, the lower passage can seem a little anticlimactic after the route we have had to take to get to here, but I find the positive termination represented by the sump pool (speaking as a non-diver!) to be a lot more satisfying than, for example, the boulder-filled pools at the bottom of Nick Pot.
The only place to go from the sump is back up. Personally, I find the re-ascent of caves like Juniper Gulf even more enjoyable than the descent. The pitches require less concentration - after all, it's easier to undo belays, than to fix them, and when ascending, one can be certain that the rope reaches the top! - and there is more time to look around, appreciate, and admire.
In the ascent, there are no major problems. The Bad Step involves a slightly bold slither, and the traverse over the watered shaft above the 15-metre pitch tends to be prefaced by a momentary hesitation. But once again, all the holds are there to be found.
Juniper Gulf has always been a classic cave, and with modern techniques, it is no longer a cave that has to be endured - it can now be savoured and enjoyed. But it must not be underestimated. It is not the place to learn SRT, nor is it the place to realise that you don't like big pitches or traverses. And whilst the modern route allows a comfortable descent under normal water flow, flooding on the last two pitches remains a risk.
Post Script Notes
- I have been led to understand that the current occupiers of Crummack Farm are not so well-disposed to people parking in the lane. (26th June 2004).