THE worse tragedy in the history of British caving happened 50 years ago this month in Craven. Clive White re-revisits the story and speaks to a woman whose father was one of the victims and some of the men who were there.

A FINE Saturday fifty years ago saw six young men excitedly setting out to explore the furthest reaches of a pothole labelled as one of the toughest challenges in the Yorkshire Dales.

They were all experienced cavers and new the risks but with the weather set fair, they were eagerly anticipating a thrilling trip down Mossdale Caverns on Conistone Moor, near Grassington.

But that June 24, 1967, was to show how mother nature can deal a cruel blow. None of those men were to see their loved ones again. They were to die together in Mossdale and it was to be their last resting place.

The six are still entombed in the pothole, the coroner having ruled the cave should be sealed. Three years later friends moved their bodies to be together at a location called Sanctuary.

They were 19 year-old William Frakes of Eldwick, Colin Vickers, 23, of Kenley Mount, Moore Avenue, Bradford, David Adamson, 26, of York Road, Harworth, Jeffrey Boireau, 24 of Swinton, John Ogden, 21 of Cuerden Street, Colne and the youngest of all, 17 year-old Michael Ryan of Dean Close Rhodesway, Bradford.

Colin Vickers left behind a two year-old daughter Rachel Taylor, who now aged 52, will be attending a special remembrance service on Sunday, June 25, at Conistone church.

Tragedy was to strike again for her family about a year later when Rachel suffered life threatening injuries in a road accident and has disabled her ever since.

Her father's death was such a devastating tragedy for her young mum, that she could hardly speak of it and Rachel only came to know the full heartbreaking details slowly over several years.

"I gradually got to know about it through contact with the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association who have been very kind and supportive and have taken me up to the site on several occasions," said Rachel.

She plans to read one of her poems at the service. It is dedicated to her father's memory from a book of her own verse published to raise money for the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association.

"Its about wanting to know what it's like to be in a cave. I'm taken into the pothole and I'm terrified but then reassured by a voice I believe is my father saying 'hello Rachel, its me'".

And she believes she has some of the adventurous spirit of her dad having abseiled down Ribblehead viaduct twice.

The details of the biggest-ever mounted cave rescue have been well documented, perhaps the most comprehensive compiled by Howard Driver, archivist at the UWFRA. At 22 he was was a member of the underground support team and a ditch digger. The material he has collated when laid out stretches around two long-sided tables.

He and his colleague Chris Baker, who was at the forefront of the rescue bid, can still vividly recall their shock when seeing the extent of the flooded cave but as Chris said: "You always have to have optimism. To believe that you will still find the people trapped but waiting safely in a chamber.

"The cavers knew Mossdale extremely well - they knew the dangers. We must remember that they were caught out by freakish weather."

A team of ten cavers had entered Mossdale at about 2.30pm but four, Morag Forbes, Collette Lord, James Cunningham and John Shepherd, were bound only for Rough Chamber on a sight-seeing trip. The other six embarked on the gruelling energy sapping journey deeper into the cavern.

That divide in ambition proved to be providential for later in the day the weather tuned wet and 22 year-old Morag, from Leeds, twice went back to the cave entrance after she and her friends had emerged at 5.30pm to await their colleague's return at How Gill Nick. On the last occasion she was horrified to see the beck in full spate and covering the entrance. She immediately took off across the fell to run about three miles to Yarnbury and raise the alarm.

First Land Rover to reach the scene was driven by Stephen Butcher of Conistone. The Craven Herald reports him saying: "I was 100 yards away and I could hear the sound of rushing water. When my friend got out the water was up to his waist - it was just a sea of water."

It was this sea of water which met the rescuers, led by UWFRA and joined by the Cave Rescue Organisation and eventually scores of other volunteers amounting to 300.

By 1am the cave entrance was under four feet of water, a 133 yard long by eight foot deep trench had been dug and a small dam but rescuers could still not enter until 11.40.

Almost six hours later five bodies were found but with the weather worsening, the cave had to be evacuated. The weather continued foul and it wasn't until 1pm on Tuesday it could be resumed. Fourteen hours later the body of John Ogden was found in a small passage.

The news was heart-rending particularly for Morag Forbes. She was engaged to David Adamson the leader of the party and they were to be married within six weeks.

At the close there was no criticism of the young men's decision to venture deep into the system. Len Huff of UWFRA, one of he leaders of the rescue bid, said: "Their luck just ran out. The weather changes quickly in this part of the world."

Two weeks later on Friday, July 7, hundreds of potholers, family and friends gathered at the tiny church of St Mary's in Conistone for the memorial service to the ill-fated cavers.

The church was packed and many people stood outside in the sunshine to where the service was relayed.

*A memorial service is to be held at St Mary’s church Conistone, at 6.30pm on the Sunday, June 25.