Canyoning down Cautley Spout

Cautley Spout, the UK’s highest above-ground, year-round, cascade waterfall, drops 193 m in the Howgill Fells north of Sedbergh. It’s almost certainly the best canyon in England, and probably in the UK. Given the travel restrictions, we can’t jet off to Ticino for a week of canyoning, so we decided to take a look at something a bit closer to home.

Rhys, admiring the falls we are about to descend.

Cecilia, Rhys and I made an early start, arriving at the car park by the Temperance Inn around 0830, which already only had two spaces remaining. It was cold and overcast, and we were in minimal clothing so we could carry our dry clothes back through the canyon. Despite this, we warmed up quickly, setting a rapid pace up the hill to the canyon.

The view back down the valley is utterly glorious, and we have it the entire way down the canyon!

As we climbed, the sun rose and the clouds cleared. At the top, we changed into our neoprene and paused for a traditional pre-canyon lunch of bread, cheese and tomatoes. As the temperature rose, we had no choice but to retreat into the cool depths of the canyon.

Cecilia literally and figuratively gets her feet wet in her first canyon.

“Ah, bolts. I remember these.” says Rhys. Most of the bolts in the canyon are good, except on the really big pitch where you’d actually like good bolts.

The bolts are surprisingly good, a mixture of expansion bolts and glue ins, with rope of indeterminate age, and either a nice rap ring or a rusty maillon. At most of the anchors, you can escape the canyon with a little bit of climbing, though at the biggest pitch this looks quite tricky.

Some fancy footwork as I pick my way down the slippery rocks.

Cecilia getting ready for her big descent as I lounge in the sunshine.

The water isn’t too cold, nor the rocks as slippery as I was led to believe, but it still requires a bit of careful footwork in places. After the first short pitch, there is a long, sloping 30 m pitch, broken by a pool halfway down. I’m very much in my happy place at this point – the canyon is fantastic, the weather lovely and the company excellent.

There’s even a deep pool which you have to swim across! We wind the rope up and let Rhys do a canyoning style drop off, which was an unexpected pleasure.

One pool is deep enough that you have to swim!

We moved relatively quickly, especially given it was Cecilia’s first canyon. Rhys and I had a rope bag each, and we leap-frogged the rigging, with Cecilia helping to pull and pack the rope. Still, we were in no hurry with the glorious weather. There are a series of short, 10-20 m pitches, which are all quite fun, with good bolts and a choice of going through the water or avoiding it. Clearly going into the water is the right choice.

At a few of the more open pitches, we attract the attention of hikers walking up the path alongside the canyon. They look at us curiously, unsure why anyone would abseil down a canyon. We look at them curiously, unsure why anyone would hike when they could canyon.

Finally we get to the centre-piece of the canyon, an impressive 35 m abseil in which the water is funelled into a compact jet. It takes me a while to get the rigging right, as there are many bad bolts and rusty maillons to feed the rope through. Briefly we try to use one of the huge steel krabs that Rhys as brought with him, but our smaller oval krabs just pull right through it – not what you want when descending. After pulling the rope up and down a few times to try and gauge the length, it’s left to Rhys to test whether he can get to the bottom.

I throw the rope down the big, 35 m pitch. The rigging here is…interesting? It’s a mess of old bolts, tied together with thin rope and a tree thrown in for good measure.

 

Getting properly in the flow of the water – head down, focusing on foot work and rope management.

It’s a really good descent, up there with some of the best in Ticino. You start standing, and immediately lower yourself into the full force of the water, which is confined to a narrow channel and jets out a metre or so from the wall. The flow is very turbulent, and you need to keep your head down to protect your breathing space, whilst focusing on your footwork and rope management. A little lower you break out of the jet, but of course you can swing back into the flow if you want to – this is canyoning, after all! Two thirds of the way down, there is a large, shallow pool where you can catch your breath before doing the final part of the descent on the right into a deep pool. Despite the rusty maillons, the pull was quite clean and we had the rope down very quickly.

After the big pitch were a few interesting down climbs followed by the final pitch from a tree. Cecilia rigged and de-rigged the pitch, which was excellent practice. We down climbed a few more cascades before finding the path out of the canyon, and a very chill sheep and lamb, presumably enjoying the secluded quiet of the canyon to get some quality grass munching time in together.

Obligatory group photo. We made it!

We stripped off our neoprene in the sunshine, scandalising a couple sun bathing some distance away, and dried off a bit before changing into our dry clothes. The walk back was quick, and we sat at the Temperance Inn eating huge pies and watching all the varied bird life, Cautley Spout clear in the distance.

Overall, Cautley Spout significantly exceeded my expectations. We had a 50-minute walk in, 2 hrs 45 mins in the canyon and a 20-minute walk out. The abseils were all quite simple, with only a few which were more difficult to reach. The water flow was probably relatively low after three dry weeks, and there were no long swimming sections or wet abseils, apart from on the big pitch. It’s still a challenging canyon (if you’re a complete novice reading this, I would advise going with someone experienced) but a fun, rewarding way to spend half a day.

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