Saturday April 20th 2013
Henslers Pot to Henslers Master Cave sump
Gary, Matt, Philip Judson
We have had a permit for Hensler's Pot up at Gaping Gill for the last two years, but on both occasions the weather has forced a change of plan. However, with the weather looking nice and enthusiasm from three people (myself, Gary, and Philip) the trip was on! There were three tacklesacks to carry so this seemed the perfect number.
We followed the navigation guide in Not For the Faint Hearted which is totally accurate on rope lengths and navigation, although somewhat plays down some of the physical difficulties of this trip.
After an early start and breakfast at Inglesport, and we were up at the Bar Pot style by midday, in really quite warm April sunshine. Hensler's Pot is quite easy to find. Instead of following the main track towards Gaping Gill, turn right next to Bar Pot and follow along parallel to and about 50m from the wall. A line of small shakeholes is reached, one of the first being the entrance to Marilyn with large metal grill (a superb trip), and about 100m beyond here is the obvious shakehole of Hensler's with an oil drum entrance sunk into the ground.
The entrance has a pleasing fixed ladder, and drops immediately into a low flat out bedding crawl. After about 20m of easy going crawling with the bags dragging behind the duck is reached. This is basically a short (1m long) flat out crawl in 3-4 inches of water below a rocky outcrop, and is over with in seconds. Gary went first, getting a total belly-soaking, but unbeknown to him he kindly pushed all the pooled water into the bedding beyond, which meant Philip and I were able to wriggle through resting on our arms and keep our upper body dry (although legs and arms wet). I suspect a bit of 'plunging' of the duck with a tacklesack before going in would also work well to lower the water. What I don't understand is that given the amount of enlargement that has obviously been done in the lower regions of this cave, why the rock outcrop that causes this duck was not removed? It would be a relatively easy job and would have made the explorations somewhat easier.
The passage beyond reached a short drop and became more awkwardly shaped, meaning the tacklesack had to be pushed in front until the first pitch was reached with a tiny chamber to put on SRT gear. This entrance series in all takes less than 20 minutes and isn't anything too bad.
Then follows a series of relatively easy (by this guide book's standards) pitches, very pleasant indeed. I was starting to wonder what was so hard about this cave after all!
After the third or fourth pitch (I lost track) the next crawly sections starts. The first part of this is about ten minutes of low crawling though relatively smooth rounded bedding passage with shallow pools of water. The remaining tacklesack was easily dragged through without issue. The passage then becomes a narrow and blasted hour-glass shaped rift. The lower part of the rift is too narrow and so progress must be made in the top half, which is a pain because the tacklesacks kept jamming in the narrowing, or dropping to the lower section. The guidebook describes two thrutchy sections. They're not kidding! The first section is about 4m long, and is where the rift pinches in, meaning a tight wriggle lying totally on your side. This is particularly strenuous as you keep slipping down into the narrow part of the hourglass, which although too narrow to slip through, it wedges you in, meaning each thrust of the body is ten times more effort. Gary went in first and reversed out to remove his SRT kit. I actually slipped through with SRT on, pushing the remaining bag ahead.
We were then greeted with the second thrutchy section only metres beyond the first. This one is about 6m long and much tighter, so off came my SRT kit. Pushing a bag through this is torture as it wedges in the narrowing, and must therefore be rolled lengthways, which was exceptionally hard on my arm. Each thrutch had to be initially upwards into the wider part of the rift and then along, again totally on your side, and each thrutch used a ridiculous amount of energy just for a few inches of progress. We contemplated turning around... this was not our idea of fun... but given how close we were to the final pitch we pushed ahead. It took the best part of 30 minutes for us all to pass these two thrutchy sections, an average speed of about 40 metres/hour!!!
Beyond the second thrutchy section the going doesn't get much easier and you drop down a blasted hole into the lower part of the rift, where more squeezing reaches the head of the next pitch with an acrobatic takeoff (this was to prove my downfall on the way out). Shortly past here a flat out crawl along a straw-lined gallery reaches the final impressive final pitch, a stunning 40m shaft with deviation from some in-situ tat, and a welcome return to easy SRT caving.
From the bottom we headed down to Hensler's Master Cave for a potter about, but conscious of the time we didn't stay long and were soon on our way back up. I knew we were in for a hard slog out, but what followed was far worse than I imagined.
The main pitch was quickly derigged and we were onto the next. Getting off the top of this pitch is exceptionally difficult. Philip seemed to manage it, but when I went up I simply couldn't get off the pitch head. This basically involves getting off the rope into a flat out crawl away from the pitch, at the same height as the highest anchor. There are no footholds, no handholds and so thrutching your upper body off the pitch head into the passage is exceptionally hard work. I tried for several minutes, after which time I was starting to feel a little anxious. I have never struggled with any pitch head in this way before (and I have done several other caves of similar difficulty). Eventually and with many adrenaline-related expletives (sorry Philip) I got my belly onto the passage and my legs followed. Phew! Gary made it look easy. Perhaps I'm losing my touch.
Then came the thrutches. My arm strength had been weakened by now. Forcing myself and pushing the bag through these thrutches was agonisingly difficult and tiring and I seriously lost my sense of humour here (again, sorry Philip). I did not wish to be down this cave any more and I was getting concerned about our stamina levels. Gary suggested using a rope to pull the bag through but for me this merely delayed the progress of our outward journey so I just got on with the job.
Thankfully, after the thrutches, the low crawling passage seemed easy, and Philip took the bag from here which was much appreciated.
The following pitches, which seemed so easy on the way down were all very strenuous on the way out. Several pitch heads presented challenges getting off them which I had not anticipated on the way down, and none offered much space to pack rope. Philip continued ahead now with the big blue bag (our actual name for it was less polite) which was by far the heaviest and getting this off the pitches was sometimes a two person job. Progress was slow but at least we were progressing.
I must admit that I did not enjoy the journey out. Usually in caves like this the outward journey is never as bad as you picture it to be while you're having the turn-around chocolate bar at the bottom, but Hensler's Pot was the exception to this rule.
By the time we got to the top of the first pitch, we were all totally broken and grumpy. My suit was ripped in several places (including all the way down one arm), my emergency light had been ripped off, and we were all in a delicate state. The smell of fresh air spurred us on through the entrance crawl, and Philip and I were so pleased to be nearly out that I barely noticed the duck. We got out at 8:45pm to a chilly but otherwise fine evening with 15 minutes of twilight remaining. Of course, at about this time, my grumpiness went away and I suddenly decided that I had enjoyed the trip after all.
Hensler's Pot is a very strenuous trip to do as an up and down. I cannot even begin to imagine having enough energy to go on and to the massive trip into the far reaches of the Gaping Gill system that the guidebook recommends. Nonetheless, just a trip down to Hensler's Master Cave is a very satisfying achievement. Hensler's would make a superb trip as an exchange with Bar or Marilyn, which are much easier and would mean a better balance of easy and harder caving.
I have never been so bruised and achy after a caving trip for many years. But I'm glad we did it!