Two cavers have completed a record-breaking grand traverse of the ‘fabled’ Three Counties cave system which wends its way beneath Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire.

This report by Russell Myers, of Craven Pothole Club, charts their remarkable feat of extreme caving and diving.

AT 4.30am on Sunday, September 26, Jason Mallinson, of Huddersfield, and Chris Jewel, of Cheddar, (two of the British cave divers who helped rescue the Thai football team in 2018) emerged from Top Sink, an entrance into the fabled Three Counties system, having completed an arduous 17½ hours of extreme caving and diving.

The 89 kilometre long, Three Counties system is located under the fells of Casterton, Leck and Ireby to the north east of Kirkby Lonsdale and sprawls out in a network of interconnected cave passage and numerous entrances under the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The original entrance was found 75 years ago on September 29, 1946 by George Cornes of the now defunct British Speleological Association, when he sat down in a depression on Casterton Fell and noticed the grass wafting in a cool breeze at his feet and unearthed the entrance to Lancaster Hole.

A 35 metre vertical drop led to the discovery of some of the UK’s most amazing cave passages often decorated with eye-popping limestone formations. From then to the current day, an enormous amount of work has gone into exploring kilometre after kilometre of cave passages, often hard-won where cavers excavated their way through blocked passages or had to dive flooded sections to find new ones or indeed, link key sections of known caves.

Two key connections in 2010 and 2011, excavated after heroic work by local cavers, created a situation where it was possible to go down the entrance to the system at its Eastern extremity and emerge out of an entrance at its Western extremity, down in Yorkshire, pass under Lancashire and emerge in Cumbria.

It was described as being ‘on a par with an underground K2.

Cavers began to speculate about the possibility of undertaking what became known as the “Grand Traverse”. It would not be for the faint-hearted, requiring cavers at the top of their game but also highly skilled in cave diving to tackle the underwater “sump” sections along the way. The number of cavers in the country capable of this could be counted in single figures. The most challenging aspect of the traverse is the submerged passages, many of which had not been revisited since the original explorations by cave divers in the 1980s.

To solve this, a huge amount of preparatory work was undertaken by Cave Diving Group members supported by other cavers in the earlier part of the year as soon as Covid restrictions were lifted, to re-establish these routes and replace the diving lines which cave divers stringently follow to avoid getting lost in the murky underwater environment.

Fast forward to January 2021 and after nine months of Covid restrictions had decimated caving activity, thoughts were beginning to turn to what might be done once caving could be resumed and out of this thinking the idea of the “Grand Traverse” emerged.

Kevin Gannon, secretary of the CDG (northern section) grasped the potential for the project with both hands after a frustrating nine months doing nothing. He began developing a detailed plan to achieve the project and pull the various strands together. Months of planning and preparation saw a group coming together from disparate backgrounds but bonded by a common goal, months of Covid restriction frustration was about to be unleashed in an explosion of well-organised caving. The project was on.

Saturday September 25, Ingleton Community Car Park 10am - 50+ cavers were milling about renewing friendships and making new ones as they were organised into respective support teams, pork pies were distributed (essential caver food) and there was a palpable buzz of excitement and expectation in the air that something special was about to happen.

The crowd quickly dissipated to the respective cave entrances they would use to access the system and provide the necessary support to Chris and Jason. The two divers were underground at the planned start time of 11am and the adventure unrolled with the first crunch obstacle looming in the form of a particularly awkward, tight bit of passage with a fearsome reputation, connecting the Large/Rift Pot section with the next, Ireby Fell Cavern. The obstacle was quickly overcome however, and the two cave divers plus a support team were on their way.

Parts of the route are very complex, a veritable three dimensional maze and much time could have been wasted simply on navigation to find the correct passages. To this end a system was devised whereby the cave divers would be accompanied by ‘dry’ cavers from the support teams with expert local knowledge.

Kevin located himself strategically on Leck Fell with his back-up crew to co-ordinate activities and receive progress reports from support teams emerging from the cave after Jason and Chris had passed key milestone points.

Over two km of diving would eventually be undertaken by the divers before they had completed the traverse and a further eight km + of “dry” caving completed before they emerged at Top Sink. After the last sump dive into Pippikin Pot; as Chris was de-kitting his diving equipment and asking for his dry gear, it arrived seconds later from the surface entrance of Mistral, delivered “just in time” by the phenomenal support team. Everything went according to plan other than an anxious half hour when a support member accompanying Jason and Chris, with detailed knowledge of the last leg of the route to Top Sink through Easegill Caverns, found one section, “the Wallows” had silted up with gravel. A frantic half hour of boot work succeeded in kicking and scrabbling enough gravel out to squeeze through the diminutive low passage; a close shave.

Chris and Jason emerged looking remarkably well after their superhuman achievement to a welcoming applause and a glass of beer from the assembled supporters who had trudged over Casterton Fell in the early hours to greet them. It had truly had been an exceptional event of the highest order.

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