24 June 1967— Danger, risk, exploration. Such catchphrases surround the pursuit of the unknown, and define the extreme sport of caving. This sport attracts thousands of devotees who forage into the undiscovered depths of the earth. Adventure-seekers pursue novelty in the darkness, and discover the silent crevices in the earth.  

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Nearly fifty years ago, ten young people—eight men and two women— took a trip to one of Yorkshire’s most dangerous caves. Mossdale Scar, a cavern nestled beneath quiet limestone cliffs, had only been recently discovered; its novelty represented a particular challenge with its tricky allies and layered caverns. Mossdale had no sufficient mapping to distinguish its trails, and the cavers sought the particular challenge presented by this easily flooded cave. The ten young people present had considerable experience between them, despite their young age. A few studied at Leeds University, and took part in the Leeds University Speleological Society; despite its youthfulness, this society sought respect in the caving community.  Conquering the Mossdale would provide an important distinction for the explorers and for the Society.

A sense of expectation and the future distinguished this young caving cohort. One couple in the group, Morag Forbes and Dave Adamson, would marry in one month; Geoff Boireau had recently celebrated his first year of marriage. Several others held considerable promise in the caving community. Yet three hours into the expedition, Morag—along with three others in the party—decided to turn back. The explorers had painstakingly reached the Marathon Crawl—a nine hundred foot narrow passage deep in the cavern, but sought to further explore beyond in the unexplored Far Marathon. The fruitlessness and perilousness of the journey dissuaded the small contingent from finishing their venture.

Upon returning to the daylight, poor weather conditions greeted the emerging cavers. Light rainfall began to gradually intensify—worryingly so. Mossdale regularly flooded in wet weather conditions. As Morag anxiously waited for her fiancé and the remaining cavers to return, pools of water surfaced at the entrance of the cave by nightfall. The young woman ran two miles in search of help, and by eleven pm, a major rescue effort went underway to save the cavers from the terrifyingly real possibility of drowning.

Yet, as the hours passed and rescuers attempted to find the cavers, the outlook looked grim. Hours later, a team (including some personal friends and family of the men) confirmed the worst. Five pairs of boots had been discovered, along with bodies wedged awkwardly in the crevices of the cavern—presumably where the last gasps of air had been taken.  Further investigation revealed a gold ring and another pair of boots belonging to John Ogden, who also drowned a few feet away in the Marathon Crawl. All six cavers had drowned, and their bodies remained in the depths of the cave—impossible to extricate without severe damage to the corpses. The only thing worse than removing the bodies was leaving them unceremoniously in the earth. Yet in the end, the cave was sealed as a tomb. The incident at Mossdale would become known as the world’s worst caving tragedy.

Intriguingly, the man who discovered the perilous cave in 1941—legendary caver Bob Leakey—possessed an intriguing quality that drove his desire to explore the cavern. Leakey had a bad case of aquaphobia and claustrophobia; in order to conquer his fears, he delved into the caving world. The psychology of fear provides a context for understanding the impact and specific fear mechanisms present in the caving environment. Leakey’ intricate exploration of the Mossdale–and its classification as a Super Severe cave for danger—marked the pinnacle of his discoveries.  The six young explorers who delved into Mossdale’s depths that June day to test the limits of fear followed a similar vein of boldness and bravery. Yet the conquering of fears, championed in the sport of caving, does not mitigate the ever-present risks. In events like Mossdale, such imagined fears become harsh realities.

Sources:

“Tragedy of cavers trapped by flood.” 21 June 2004. Yorkshire http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/tragedy-of-cavers-trapped-by-flood-1-2545560

Kershaw, Ray. “What Lies Beneath: Mossdale Caving Disaster.” 15 March 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/what-lies-beneath-mossdale-caving-disaster-794268.html

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Kershaw, Ray. “What Lies Beneath: Mossdale Caving Disaster.” 15 March 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/what-lies-beneath-mossdale-caving-disaster-794268.html