Remembering Mossdale fifty years on

Mossdale Caverns – photo courtesy of RRCPC and the Ron Bliss Collection

On Saturday 24th June 1967 a strong team of ten cavers led by Dave Adamson entered Mossdale Caverns on a beautiful summers day intending to blast and excavate at the southern end of Mud Caverns. Four of the team exited safely later in the day after a shorter trip but the remaining six continued into the cave whilst outside the weather deteriorated and Mossdale Beck turned into a raging torrent, completely flooding the entrance series and much of the cave with tragic results.

This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster at Mossdale, in what even now remains the worst accident in British caving history. Several events will take place, including a walk up to Mossdale, followed by a private dinner on Saturday evening and a memorial service at St. Mary’s church in Conistone village on Sunday.

The deaths of Bill Frakes (19), Colin Vickers (23), Dave Adamson (26), Geoff Boireau (24), Michael Ryan (17) and John Ogden (21) will long be remembered. When you appreciate the age of those who died it will come as no surprise to find many attending this weekend were friends of those involved, fellow cavers and rescuers fifty years ago.

The attempts at rescue began on Saturday with a call to Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association at 23.10, and continued for four days. Many, many people were involved. John Conway has kindly agreed to us publishing for the first time his personal account of his involvement in the rescue, which will perhaps give readers a clearer idea of the difficulties and dangers involved as well as highlighting how much things have changed in the intervening fifty years.

John Conway’s Account of the Mossdale Rescue Monday 26th June 1967

Bob Leakey – Telegraph Obituary:

“Leakey returned to Mossdale Caverns in June 1967 after six young cavers from Leeds University went missing in the system, presumed drowned. He was called in after the bodies of five had been recovered to try to locate the sixth member of the group. At the age of 53 he led a search party into the caves to a place he believed the young man might have survived, but was forced to retreat due to the risk of flooding. The body was found some time later.

It was Leakey’s last caving trip”

Myself, Phil Wilson of the Northern Exploration Group (NEG) and a couple of other cavers who’s names I cannot now recall after 50 years were part of Bob’s party that went underground on Monday morning to look for John Ogden.

Previously on the Sunday evening, myself and some NEG lads were returning home from a weekend caving in the Dales, and driving past the Police Station in Settle saw the CRO sign displayed. In these early days this was a method of contacting cavers passing through Settle (this was pre Settle bypass days) that there was a cave rescue incident in progress. We were told that five cavers had been drowned in Mossdale Cavern and that one caver was unaccounted for and that we should make our way to the cave on Monday to resume the search for the missing caver. We carried on home and I stayed at a friend’s house in Clitheroe (Rod Plant NEG), and the following morning, Monday, we made our way up to Mossdale.

Bob Leakey formed a small team of cavers with myself, Phil Wilson and a couple of others to go underground and resume the search for John Ogden. It was only when the police man at the entrance began writing down the names of those going underground and the names of their next of kin that I thought about the possible seriousness of this trip along with the remnants of flood debris in parts of the entrance series. Bob also spent some time showing us one or two possible safe areas if flooding was to occur in the entrance series and somewhere between “The Swim” and “Boulder Hall” Bob made the decision that only he and I should continue into the area beyond “Rough Chamber. In Rough Chamber Bob again showed me the “Great Aven” saying that it was a safe area in case of a flood.

Somewhere at the start of the crawls Bob asked me to wait while he continued to search on his own and that if the water level was to start to rise I was to rush further into the crawls and shout a warning to him.

I waited for what seemed to be several hours, going back to look at the Great Aven and the main passage then back to sit in the dark and look to see if the water was rising on a little pile of pebbles I’d made. At some point I decided that I’d return to the surface and change my CRO lamp, I’d no back up light, and then return and find Bob. Returning to the surface was easier than I thought and having exchanged my lamp for a new one I joined another rescue team entering the cave with a telephone and wire.

At some point around Boulder Hall and Broadway, at the time I’d no idea what the names of these passages were and neither had I seen a survey of the cave, our team met up with Bob and words were exchanged. I was I little disappointed that Bob didn’t recognize me, but I carried on with the lads laying the telephone line and I found that they also had a couple of boxes of food. At some point before or at Rough Hall, while checking the telephone line to the surface, we were told to return to the surface as quickly as possible because the little stream had now become a big stream and there were possible problems with the dam diverting the water away from the entrance.

We all emerged from what now had become a wet entrance to a great deal of surface activity around the dam; a JCB had appeared and was now involved in propping up the dam. That was it for the rest of the day and also my involvement with the rescue. After the body of John Ogden was found on the Tuesday/Wednesday the rescue was run down and the authorities made the decision that it was too dangerous to recover the bodies and the cave was to be closed.

Post Script

In 1969 I had the chance to meet up with Bob Leakey to talk about our pending expedition to the Himalayas and when I mentioned Mossdale he didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so I let it pass and hoped that he didn’t think too badly of me leaving him, all be it was just to get another light.

4th June 2017, this is my account as I remember it.

John Conway