A Winter expedition and wild camp in the Priest Hole Cave
We thought it a good idea to go on a Winter adventure up into Dovedale in the Lake District’s Eastern Fells, find the Priest Hole cave and wild camp in it. Turns out it was a bonkers idea even for two very experienced hikers. The coldest night of our lives! Would I do it again?
After delivering a Navigation Workshop over in Borrowdale, John (fellow adventurer at Robustours, see link below) and I decide last minute that we should do something a bit ‘out there’.
We’d been out the night before in a snow storm up to the Dubs Bothy from Honister and spent the night ‘cosy’ by the fire as we took a big bag of wood with us. ‘Why don’t we go bivvy in the Priest Hole?’ One of us suggested, that might have been me. No tents this weekend then.
So after having a real good meal in the pub at Brother’s Water we grabbed our packed bags and headed towards Dovedale. It’s just gone 8pm, it’s dark as you like and full Winter conditions lie really quite low.
You cross a bridge and pass a farm then head South for a bit. Oh, I’ve just remembered that we passed through a very tricky to walk through field by the river and I’m positive that a path would have simply taken us to the same place, BUT we ARE at time of writing training to be Mountain Leaders and our instincts sometimes just take us from A to B in a straight line.
We were on the brink of doing our Mountain Leader Assessments and really rather good at navigation so paths are now just a bonus between A and B. We head through this enclosure hand-railing the river and come to a small crag barely noticeable on the map, especially at this time of night, which we had to climb up. Forgotten all about that until right now.
Along the river just before we cross a little foot bridge we sit and put on our micro-spikes, it’s now icy and very slippy. We’re in Dovedale now proper.
Route To The Priest Hole Cave
It’s actually not far up the valley until we lose the path, disappearing under the deepening snow and start to clamber over boulders. I could do with excluding the next 2-3 hours as these two ‘master navigators’ spent looking for a hole in the cliff, clear on the map. I have a Fenix light and that won’t even reveal the slit in the rock we are to spend the night in.
The two guys in the same pub tomorrow morning will tell us that everyone in the bar were watching us for hours searching and there was a cheer when our lights stabilised.
Before we eventually found the cave we had to climb what I can only refer to as a small glacier. There must be a gully there about 30ft wide and the snow, now frozen solid, comes spilling down it. We couldn’t kick steps into this as it was so hard, so after donning the Grivel crampons we set about cutting notches out of the ice as steps to climb up with the axes. A fall would take us plummeting towards the boulder field that we’d climbed up and down for the last couple of hours.
50ft or so up, we level off and try again on our search to the left for a shelf where a hole may be, back again and up a bit more. We know we’re in the right place as we have resorted to looking at the OS app on our phones but where in this sheer cliff face is the cave? Grid references only give a two dimensional point on the map.
Finding The Priest Hole Cave
We sat down, had a drink and a snack bar, resolving to head back down or make our way up to Hart Crag and over Hartsop Above How so we would achieve something and not be too disappointed.
‘I’ll take a little look over here first John’, I said, ‘I just have a gut feeling about it I can’t let go. THEN we will definitely go!’
Two minutes later I was shouting sweet delights. My ‘delights’ at 0100 hours were more like, ‘Yeh, John, we’ve found it, ######### hell we’ve found it.’ I’d like to say he just came running over but there were two awkward steps to climb on the way, so dangerous in the ice that I really wondered how so many teenagers got to this place.
I got a photo of the two of us as John was getting into his bivvy and within 10 minutes we had our heads down, laughing and sighing. Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team can stay in bed tonight (so far).
A Freezing Night In A Cave
I woke at 2am frozen to the bone, shivering and in pain with it. I’d broken the rules I use wild camping and not eaten before bunking down. I got the stove out of the bag like my life depended on it and tried lighting the fuel in the small tin can I use for a burner, it won’t spark.
The cogs turn in my head and I opt for an emergency match in my first aid kit. It lights first time and the liquid ignites. The water boils in my Alpkit titanium mug and in it goes, into the pouch of dehydrated food.
While you’re waiting 10 minutes for your meal, tuck it into your down jacket to warm you. It’s quite a wait at this temperature!
Waking Up In A Cave
I sleep like a baby for the next 5 hours or so and the sun pokes itself up over the other side of Dove Crag which cradles us. It lights up the ridge of the mountain in front of us and eventually floods the valley. We can now see a safe way home.
We can clearly see now that the cave, which looks bigger in some photographs, is actually only comfortably big enough to squeeze 4 in with their bivvies. Any more would be cosy, perfect for two.
I expected to see the talked about visitor’s book but there was a single piece of coal and a plastic bag with a few cheap survival pieces in, Bear would even be at a loss.
Daylight, sunshine and a refreshed mind makes a world of difference when you are trying to find your way, the route is as ‘clear as day’ from here now. In our crampons we easily make our way down the valley to micro-spikes, then along the river to boots, the car park and a morning coffee in the pub.
What An Adventure
Life doesn’t come with adventure built in as standard. If we sit in our pants watching Netflix, marveling at the excitement on the screen we will never really live ourselves. We have to take life on. We have to dream and we have to invite adventure into our days, drag it into the night and smash the heck out of it.