Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
"I think we've got everything actually." It was Graham speaking. John's master plan put Graham in charge of organising the camp, but unable to keep out of it, he checked off everything Graham had done. Dave took no notice of either of them and packed things which weren't on the list. Confusion reigned.
"Let's take another rope...look, there's room in this one if we repack it," said Dave.
"Noooo..." moaned Graham and rushed over to prevent Dave from pulling all the carefully documented tins and bog rolls from the tackle bag. Everything was wrapped in bin-liners and sealed, and two further bin-liners placed inside the PVC tackle bags. We hoped that the important items like sleeping bags might thus stay dry.
While Graham and Dave argued in one corner of the refugio, Skippy tried getting in one of the special furry sleeping bags and thence into one of the single point suspension hammocks, hung from a hook in a beam. The bags and hammocks had been bought on the cheap without anyone trying them out. Skippy tried once, and tried again. He fell onto the floor. "Be all right underground," said John.
Skippy and I were the last in the refugio dining room. He produced a bottle of ponche. "Look, help me get this inside this bedding roll...hold it still while I push it in."
He forced the bottle in with his foot, then stuffed the whole inside back into one of the bags. There was an encouraging glug when the bag was rocked.
There were four of us: myself, Skippy, Dave and John, going to set up the world's deepest underground camp. The Xitu rift was a terrible prospect next morning with two heavy tackle bags each, made more awful by John, whose method is to beat a cave into submission, rather than the preferred technique of trying to glide through it with minimum effort. In the confined space he reached behind him and lifted a bulging bag over his head. "God he's strong," I thought. He handed it to me.
"Take this, Richard." As he spoke a hissing came from deep within the bag, and the air in the rift began to smell more and more of butane. Graham. Ever cost-conscious, he had given us a half-used butane stove to take 800 metres down a pothole, and had merely switched the thing off with an easily dislodged tap. I felt for my carbide flame and singed my hand as I put it out. "John," I said, "you and I are stuck in a squeeze with a bomb. I prevail on you to put your flame out with all possible despatch." By the time we emerged from the rift, we had headaches from the camping stove, which had finally run out. Fortunately we had spare cylinders.
We moved slowly. It was many hours later that we reached the mantelshelf, the ten-metre wet climb at the end of the Marble Steps. Dave wished to put a ladder there, feeling that an unprotected freeclimb which often required standing on each other's shoulders represented an unacceptable risk at such depth. He leaned across the drop from a slippery ledge and put a bolt in. It was suddenly very cold. Only Dave was warm, banging away at the hard, black rock. He gave the bolt a final tap to drive it firmly home and the whole section of wall sheared away, bolt and all. He cursed ad began again in a different place, while the rest of us, soaked from Dampturation and the other Steps, felt the creeping symptoms of hypothermia.
Eventually Dave managed to rig the ladder. It hung directly in the water. As we gripped the rungs with numb fingers the stream tipped itself down the inside of our sleeves, finding an icy home in the armpits and points south. John stayed at the top of the pitch, his movements even less graceful and sure than usual, passing down the precious bags which alone held the prospect of warmth - dry thermal underwear, gloves and balaclavas. Against advice, he tried lowering two at once by their drawstrings, and before they could be grasped from below dropped them. They fell with a splash and a thud into the pool below: shallow enough (**not?) to cushion the impact, deep enough to cover them with water.
"Oh no," Skippy whispered, "the ponche."
We shook ourselves like wet dogs and carried on. Our next problem was to decide exactly where to camp. Back in Oxford, John had suggested the chamber above the stream by Choss Chock pitch, the last rigged in1980. This was one of the few dry places in Xitu's lower reaches, but it suffered from having neither an accessible water supply nor a flat floor. No one had yet suggested an alternative.
In the end the choice made itself: we stopped at the first place that looked as if it would serve at all. It was at the foot of Pythagoras, where the stream ran along a boulder-strewn passage for a short distance. One wall was clean overhanging rock, the other a series of boulders stacked on top of each other like cinema seats for as far as the eye could see. We began to unpack while Skippy organised a cup of tea.
"Right," said John, "the next thing to do is to rig the hammocks." He took the bolt kit and drove a bolt into the overhanging wall at head height. "That should do," he said. He clipped the hammock to the bolt; it looked like a giant knotted handkerchief. He lowered his ample bum into the hammock and found himself sitting on the floor. More bolts were placed, higher up. Eventually the hammocks looked quite good. "Dinner's ready," said Skippy. We had already been underground for fourteen hours. It was 3.30 a.m.
One of the results of the confusion surrounding the packing now presented itself. Skippy had noticed it first, and having done so had missed out the proposed cup of tea and gone on to beef stroganoff. There was only one cup, and a very small cup at that. There were no plates, no knives and no forks. The camp kitchen was far from ideal, perched on the loose boulders. Keeping the little stove upright was a frustrating and time-consuming chore. Skippy had already dropped one of the spoons down a crevice between the rocks. He made Richard retrieve it by moving a good part of the floor before we were allowed to sit in a circle round the pot and eat, each of us watching eagle-eyed to make sure that no one got more than his fair share.
Yet slowly the place was becoming more homely. We had packed a lot of our supplies in empty porridge tins, which came with handy sealing plastic lids. Now we put them on ledges around the campsite and used them as candleholders. Their silvery insides made good reflectors, and with the addition of the light from our carbide lamps the rocky cavern seemed bright and cheerful. Its homeliness was emphasised after making a dark, cold, stumbling trip downstream for a pee before bed. I had not bothered to take a caving lamp with me and on its own a single candle cast an unreliable and shadowy light. When I returned the others were levering themselves into their hammocks. I was the biggest, followed by John. He was having great difficulty, and I watched him for hints. It looked impossible uncomfortable to me, but once in John insisted that he had never been more cosy.
For the next half hour, while the others pestered me to hurry up and extinguish the last candles, I struggled with the unyielding fabric. I was just about able to lie in the damn thing with my sleeping bag undone as far as my waist, but as soon as I tried to lever my shoulders inside the thick fibre pile bag and do the zip up I popped out of the hammock at one end or the other. If this happened at the top, it meant my head and neck were unsupported. If it was my feet which objected, the hammock developed a downhill slope, and soon I was sliding steadily towards the floor. Finally I gave up in disgust and took the hammock off the wall altogether. I laid it on the least steep slope I could find and used it as a groundsheet. That way, I woke up only once, when I started slipping downslope towards the stream, initiating a small landslide in the process.
My hammock was so tight that my jaw couldn't open on its own, which at least precluded snoring. The only position possible was lying on my back with my arms crossed like Tutankhamen. I slept for no more than a few minutes at a time, dreaming at one point that I was being eaten alive by a snake.
Far too soon the alarm went off, a cheap clock which wound down as it rang, becoming more and more feeble. The stream gurgled softly and there was no other noise. I opened my eyes and experienced the continuing absolute blackness of a cave. I could have been anywhere. Dave, lying more comfortably and in easy reach of his helmet , switched on his electric lamp. John found a torch and looked at his watch, forgetting the time he had set the alarm. It was five o'clock.
"Morning or evening?" Skippy asked.
Already, we had begun to slip around the clock, without day and night to regulate the rhythms of sleep and wakefulness.
Breakfast was simple: the same as dinner with the addition of porridge. No one felt like talking much. Then Skippy said he had a surprise. The ponche. The bottle was undamaged, and he had kept it hidden before we had gone to bed. A shot each was of such great psychological value that not even John was prepared to complain. Dressed in our dry thermal underwear, we got on with the chores, rinsing pans, filling lamps with carbide, tidying up. Finally the evil moment of putting on our wet furry suits could no longer be postponed. Stripping off in the bitter cold - the air temperature at camp was about 4 degrees centigrade - we stood naked on the rocks and tried to bear the shock of the icy fibre pile on bare skin. Screaming made it seem easier, and one by one we uttered bloodcurdling cries. I noticed Dave was missing. Minutes later be bounded back looking unaccountably pleased with himself.
To my amazement, the others seemed prepared to spend three days underground without relieving themselves. I had given careful thought to the matter, and after breakfast went to put my ideas into action. A little way downstream I had noticed a dry chamber, reached by a short, unlikely-looking climb. It was sheltered from the draught, and placing a candle tin in front of me I pulled down my thermal bottoms and crapped into a plastic bag.
It was most important that no turds should make their way into the stream. Not only would we be using it for drinking water below the camp, but the presumed destination of the Xitu water, the Rio Cares, provided the main supply for a number of villages along its banks. My chamber, though, fulfilled all requirements. I carefully sealed the plastic bag and half buried it in a recess. I returned to camp, and someone came up with the name of our new underground lavatory: The Galeria Amador, after the estimable bar and restaurant owner at Los Lagos, whose more conventional facilities had been of great value to successive expeditions.
The day's caving from the camp was to be, at John's suggestion, quite light. He and Dave were to try to find a bypass to the rift which had so wrecked Keith and Skunk's gear, while Skippy and I were to start the survey of the passage below Rape B'Rape.
I was astonished at how difficult the cave became beyond the camp. British caves were usually easier the deeper one went, as the streams grew bigger with inlets and the passages correspondingly wider. In Xitu, progress at this depth was through narrow rifts, and past ever-deeper pools, which required increasingly more difficult traverses on ledges below water level. Slowly my boots and leggings filled with water. Passing tackle made it more difficult still. I was terrified of slipping: the result would have been total immersion in a pool just above freezing.
After Dave and John had descended Rape B'Rape, I abseiled down with the end of the tape measure. A few metres down was a ledge, with a large projection from which the rope was rebelayed. "Let's take the first led down to here," I said. I took off my helmet and put it on the belay, so that Skippy could get a fix on my light to read the compass and clinometer. As I put my helmet on the rock, it wobbled.
"Hell's fire, the belay's loose!"
"Push it over the edge then," said Skippy, "it'll make a bosting bang."
Carefully I hauled up the rope and removed it from the belay. Leaning against the wall I heaved the television-sized boulder away from its moorings, two tiny blobs of calcite, with my feet. Skippy clapped. There was a sickening pause, and then a mighty crack as the boulder hit the floor 35 metres below and disintegrated. A long way down the passage, John and Dave heard the sound and hurried back, fearing that it had been the noise of a falling body.
We were already impressed by the work carried out by Skunk and Keith. Immediately below the pitch, the passage formed a glorious, clean-washed corridor in green, marbled rock. Negotiating the deep lake, we reached the next section of rift, and the upward squeezes leading to the next pitch. Like Keith, I failed to notice the easier of the tow holes, and grunted my way up strenuously, legs waving in the air. "Tell you what," I said, "this is much easier without anything tied to your waist. Put both our SRT bags into the tackle bag, and pass that through to me." He did so, and climbed up.
On the other side of the climb the steep rift was cut into narrow ledges, and the way on was clearly to traverse along past the slot where the stream poured down to the wider pitch head. I moved along to give Skippy room and parked the bag on one of the ledges, in front of me. It sat here, then started to topple. I made a lunging dive which succeeded only in putting out my light. In the dark I felt the bag fall past my feet into the hole below. There was a pause, and muffled crashes a long way down.
"That's really great," said Skippy. "Here we are in one of the world's deepest potholes and you drop our SRT gear, food, spare carbide, and everything else down a pitch. How are we going to get out of the cave now?"
I considered the logistics of ascending more than 800 metres with two SRT systems between four.
Skippy still had his descender clipped to his harness, and said he would descend the pitch to see if he could find the gear. He climbed over me, still cursing, and abseiled down.
The bottom of the pitch did not, alas, communicate with the hole the bags had fallen down. The stream cascaded down its slot, then poured out of an arm sized fissure. Skippy shouted up the bad news. He couldn't ascend now, and I couldn't go down. All I had was a length of thick cord round my neck which I used to attach my carbide generator. Skippy did have a scalpel blade, ad yelled up that if I dropped the cord he would cut it to make a pair of prusik loops.
"Just...tying...the...knots." He shouted, letting the echo die away after each word. After a while he shouted again. "Climb...ing."
For a long time I sat shivering, watching the patterns made on the wall of the shaft by Skippy's light. At last he reached the top, and we began a further wait for the other two.
Climbing up above the stream we did manage to find a bypass of sorts which avoided the far rift, Fernie's Delight after what it did to the suits made by the company owned by the veteran French caver, Fernand Petzl. I marvelled at the determination of Keith and Skunk in coming this way before: the lower route was not only tight but waist deep in water. I felt remote and deep, even with an underground camp to return to, and (**going?) into territory that had already been explored.
The bypass, though dry, was still awkward. It ended in a climb just above the undescended pitch reached by Skunk and Keith.
Bolting the pitch, and attempting to find a line of descent that avoided the waterspout pouring over the lip, took a long time. At last the rope was fixed, but it was late by now. John and I agreed that I would descend, and briefly examine what lay beyond, while he stayed at the top.
I clipped on and walked over the edge. Once again I felt the rush of exhilaration, exploration fever, always at its most intense when abseiling a new shaft. We had chosen the line well, and I passed the two ledges that Keith had seen without needing to rebelay. Fifteen metres below I unclipped and traversed over the source of the peculiar belching noise that we noticed from the tip: it was a deep pool which filled and then discharged its contents in regular pulses. The walls were light-coloured marble, and rounding a corner I felt a strong, droplet-laden breeze. The passage plunged down in a series of waterfalls which looked freeclimbable: but without a companion, I turned back. Xitu was going still, and the next section suggested that at last we might be out of the area of the tight rifts.
Two hours later, at the top of the Flyer, we met up with an exposed and miserable Richard and Skippy. The wisdom of not pressing on was now justified, tantalising as leaving the beautiful streamway had been.
By the time Dave and John arrived, Skippy and I were both very cold. We had been plying 'I Spy' to try and pass the time, only there hadn't been much to look at:
"I spy with my little eyes something beginning with R."
"Yep. Your turn."
"I spy with my little eye something beginning with G,B,H,D,W,R,T,O,A."
"Great Big Hole Down Which Richard Threw Our Ascenders."
Dave lent me his SRT gear, and Skippy rigged the rope that had been hanging down the Flyer and hurled it down the small dark hole. The belay consisted of a knob of rock around which Skippy wrapped the rope again and again, finally sitting on the knob himself. From the dark pit came the sound of a great crashing of water...I was already cold, and was now about to get very wet.
As I abseiled into the shattered shaft, I had to go down at an angle, walking with boots against the falling water. Far below I saw the yellow bag, apparently unharmed. I soon reached it, and was greatly relieved to find that it had survived the hundred-foot drop intact. I began to prusik up again through the torrential crashing spray.
I couldn't look up into the spray, and I had failed to notice that on my diagonal descent the rope had snared towards the top making it hang in a dog-leg. Suddenly it unsnared, and I was thrown to the floor, landing in a heap but with the rope still stretching up above me. What had happened I had no idea, but it occurred to me that maybe one of Skippy's loops had slipped off his belay. I tried shouting, but the roar of the stream was deafening, and even my whistle blasts were drowned by the waterfall. I gave the rope a huge tug, and it seemed sound - if the belay was going to fail there was only one way to find our, and so I continued upwards through the falling water. My right wrist had been smashed by the impact, and I was forced to climb one-handed. We had dinner that 'night' of dried meat and rice which were not fully re-hydrated. Once again we crammed ourselves into the appalling hammocks and tried to sleep.
When the alarm went off, John announced that it was eight o'clock in the evening, but we had no idea whether he was pulling our legs or not. As we got out of our beds and into our freezing clothes, heavy with water, I vowed never to camp in a cave ever again, especially this one.
My wrist was a great problem now. Over 'night' it had swollen up and was virtually useless. I couldn't put on my wellies, and I couldn't lean on my right hand without it giving way. I couldn't even pick up a bag. To strengthen it I bound it up with nylon belay tape. Trivial as this injury was, it reminded me just how remote the campsite was, 800 metres underground.
Dave and I left first, with a short length of rope in case I needed assistance on the climbs. We reached the surface at 9 a.m. the next day. We had gone down on a Sunday, and now it was a Wednesday. We blinked in the daylight at the absurdly vivid colours, released at last from the monotony of brown and grey-green rock.
While we savoured the pleasures of camping underground, the expedition grew still bigger. Those who had just arrived carried out a series of acclimatising trips in the upper reaches of Xitu. William, Trevor and new recruit Hywel Watkins investigated a passage leading off the Teresa Series, and found a chamber and a passage for 200 metres beyond, which ended in a beautiful crystal grotto, dominated by a huge, pure white stalagmite formation, the Snowcastle. Layer upon layer of stalactite daggers hung from the roof. On the walls, crystals sparkled, and there were dazzling arrays of helectites. As they advanced, the three explorers crushed more pristine crystal formations on the floor.
Others went into El Puritan. It became clear that all the various holes in the floor led, by more or less devious routes, back into the main stream. The high level rift still went on, but it seemed certain that this too would eventually rejoin the normal route. Richard and I had been terrified for nothing.
Jim had arrived with John Forder, a caving instructor at the Whernside Manor outdoor pursuits centre in Yorkshire. John had been a member of several Oxford expeditions in the 1970s, but he was little known to the current team. On his first trip, used to the perfection expected at the Manor, he refused to descend Servicio pitch, saying that the belay was too dangerous. He disliked it because it was rigged to natural projections in the rock, instead of bolts. Had we but known it, the mild frisson this caused among the expedition anticipated the most hotly contested debate within caving of the 1980's: to bolt or not to bolt.
The debate had not yet assumed its later pretentious, 'ethical' overtones, but as I listened to people discussing John's decision and subsequent action - to go down and place three bolts in the pitch where there had been none - I couldn't help thinking that if he didn't like Servicio, he should wait till he got nearer the bottom. Dampturation, in particular, was a pitch that was not, to say the least, rigged according to the textbooks. But all too often in Xitu, the nature of the rock left no choice as to the method of rigging a pitch. In 1980, when we had gaily climbed ladders without lifelines above large drops, we had taken stupid and needless risks. In 1981, I felt, we had reduced the danger a great deal. It rankled when we discovered on our return that John Forder had informed friends in Yorkshire that we had been reckless, and lucky to escape without a serious accident.
There was also intense activity on the surface, as a series of parties examined some of the entrances noted in 1979 and 1980 in more detail. Some, like 28/5, a deep shaft on the slopes of Jultayu, which had seemed so promising at first, proved to be blocked with ice at a hundred metres. The most exciting prospect for developing a new system to explore after Xitu was finished remained Ridge Cave, the high entrance I had discovered the previous year with Dave Thwaites. John set off one morning with two others and what I had thought were precise instructions, but despite fine weather, he had been unable to find it.
The next camping trip was planned to begin on July 25, three days after the first group's return. There was every chance that this would be the first British caving team to push a pothole deeper than one kilometre. John held long discussions about who should go. All those on the first camp were out, with the exception of Richard, who had soon to go back to England. Skunk, with his experience and endurance picked himself. Graham had put a great deal into exploring Xitu and was another obvious choice, while Jan, though new to Spain, was going well and deserved a chance. That left Keith as someone who in any normal circumstances should be one of those taking part.
But a day before the camp was due to leave, Keith could hardly walk. Since his thirty-five-hour epic, his knee had stayed swollen, red and filled with fluid. It was so painful that he had not even been able to walk to Los Lagos to carry food or visit the bar, and he had spent the week since his accident miserably immobilised at the refugio. "I might as well go home," he said. "It's much worse being here and not being able to go caving."
The situation called for desperate remedies, and one was proposed by Eduardo. He knew an old mountain shepherds' trick for reducing inflammation, he said. It would be painful, but had been known to work.
Eduardo disappeared into the kitchen. The smell of vinegar wafted out. He returned with a poultice, made, he said, of boiling vinegar and salt. Gritting his teeth Keith extended his leg and Eduardo slapped the poultice onto his livid knee.
"Aaaargh...arrrr...errrg...arrr." There was no doubting the pain Keith was in. His face had gone grey, and his eyes seemed sightless as he tried to keep the poultice on. Finally he could take no more and flung it away, still gasping.
Our medical officer, Richard, had assumed that the swelling and inflammation were caused simply by the impact of Keith's knee against the wall of the cave. But that afternoon, to his and Keith's amazement, the knee began to point. A dot of white appeared among the redness. It had been an abscess all along. Richard remembered one of the cardinal rules of his trade: "The good surgeon never lets the sun set on undrained pus." By teatime, Keith's knee was ripe for puncture, and a pint of poison spilled out. It began to return to its normal size and colour. By evening, Keith was walking with only a slight limp. Next day even that was gone. He dressed the knee and ran up the hill behind the refugio. The treatment had worked. He joined the camping party. As the group of five made their way to the cave a mist rolled in from the gorge, obscuring them and everything. When I saw them again, I thought, Xitu would be one of the deepest caves in the world.
We arrived at the camp, a haven of relative comfort, and put on a brew of tea. The plan was for Skunk and me to press on down the cave and to push the passage to the next pitch; not a long trip, because we had already been going for some five hours by this time. The five of us sat in a circle and slurped. By the time I had finished my tea I was already starting to shiver - although Xitu was a few degrees above freezing the permanent wetness gave the air a bone-chilling quality which seeped right through. It would be much warmer to be moving, so Skunk and I set off.
There was little doubt in either of our minds that this pushing trip would be the one that would crack Xitu. If it really was going to be deeper than 1,000 metres we would soon know, for the limit of exploration was roughly 900 metres down, if you added together the pitch lengths since the limit of the 1980 survey. Unlike on a mountain, we could neither triangulate nor use an altimeter to calculate the depth.
It didn't seem to take us long to get thorough the known cave to the limit of exploration at Chunder Pot, the 15-metre wet pitch that only Dave had descended. At the bottom of the pitch were two yellow tackle bags containing the rigging gear. There were the same bags that Dave and I had brought into the cave only two weeks before, and they had been slowly moved down the cave by each successive rigging party like two oversize batons in a relay race. We took one each, and then walked along the broad passage and around the next bend following Xitu's stream into a passage no one had seen before.
"What is it, Skunk? A pitch, or a climb?" My voice was lost in the crash of the stream as it launched out over the lip of the drop down which Skunk was peering, in an attempt to see through the spray. By way of an answer he picked up the tow bags and threw them out into the darkness. They landed with a thud a few feet below. It was a climb, perhaps ten feet.
In a British cave you would jump down a climb like this and get soaked to the skin, just for the hell of it; we preferred to stay dry. We were going to have to wear our furry suits for many hours yet, and again tomorrow, maybe even the day after that. Instead of lowering down on the big handholds which jutted out of the swirling water, we bridged out over the drip on the crumbly rock that had so often let me down before in Xitu.
The spray from the climb had put my carbide flame out, but it easily re-lit to flood the cascade in the warm carbide light. The short waterfall looked for all the world like part of Swildon's Hole in the Mendips, one of the most enjoyable passages in any cave in Britain, and , just like Swildon's there was another sporting cascade around the next bend. Instead of passing the 1,000-metre mark with another dull shaft, Xitu was taking us there down a wonderfully exciting passage, just the sort of thing that had made me take up caving in the first place. Cascade followed cascade until after perhaps fifteen of them we arrived at a drop which was too steep and too big for a free-climb. We looked around for a way of rigging a rope, but the rock was the useless crumbly stuff again. It was time to eat.
"Richard," said Skunk as he unwrapped the chocolate, "if the top of Chunder Pot is at -900 metres, then I reckon that you and I are the first Brits ever to get below 1,000 metres of depth." He bit off a chunk of the rock-hard cooking chocolate.
I chewed mine, which precluded any conversation, so tried instead to imagine what a kilometre of rock looked like...half a mile's worth of limestone that had been scrunched into place by the titanic forces that were moving Africa northwards, and being slowly eroded by this stream. The down- climbing had made my wrist injury start to bother me again, and I noticed Skunk was rubbing his damaged elbow.
At the very first cascade on the way back, I was soaked. Climbing first I found I was forced to use a crucial hold which lay right in the stream, and the icy water poured down the sleeve of my suits demolishing the dry warmth I had cherished for so long.
"Give us a light down here, mate!" came a pleading voice from behind me. Skunk only now revealed that his electric head light wasn't going. It needed resoldering. In the wet cascades we couldn't keep our carbide flames going, so we had only one light between us - my feeble lamp with its dying battery. The yellow glow barely made it down to Skunk as he came up, and it was fading visibly. I thought about the kilometre of rock again, then told myself that, in fact, this was just Swildon's, not Spain...and this double-think made things easier, and more fun. Climbing the cascades involved several drenchings, as the whole of Xitu's stream shot past inches from my face, but the buzz of passing the 'Classic Numbers' below 1,000 metres kept me warm inside.
Keith was waiting up for us when we got back to camp, wet and worn out. It was 10 a.m., some eighteen hours after we went down, and it was time for a bed, a meal. 'Tomorrow' Keith and Jan were to see what Xitu had in store for us next. Now it didn't matter so much. Xitu had made the grade, one of the deepest caves in the world, the deepest cave in the Picos de Europa. Any extra depth was going to be just a bonus.
Nest 'day' Keith was raring to go. Until now, it had taken three hours and more from first awakening at the underground camp before anyone was ready to leave. This time, Keith had tea ready minutes after emerging from his sleeping bag, and soon he and Jan were off. Skunk, Graham and I rose more leisurely, before leaving to continue the survey. After a long trip we returned, and began to prepare supper.
Keith and Jan had not come back. We were already in bed when they returned with their news: Keith ebullient, Jan more tired and subdued. They had rigged two short pitches and descended further climbs, until they reached a point where the stream flowed down a crack too narrow to follow. But there was a high level passage, full of jammed and broken boulders, and here they had crawled about, getting lost more than once, at last finding a way back to the enlarged stream passage below. There was a difficult climb here which Jan had been unwilling to try, but Keith jumped down, ascending it later with considerable difficulty. He enthused about what followed:
"It gets really big. Really big. Then I came to a huge pool: very deep and no obvious way round. But I could see a passage beyond and hear water flowing. We need wetsuits or a boat."
We slept and woke again, shedding our warm sleeping bags ad getting dressed, a process which became no more pleasant with experience. I remembered my vow not to camp again. Yet here I was. Leaving Jan and Keith asleep, we moved off downstream, our breath curling upwards in huge clouds of steam.
Keith had done a good job with the pitches, rigging from tiny flakes - the only option available. We found our way through the complex boulder area, an awkward series of climbs, crawls and squeezes. I couldn't believe how difficult it was, more than 1,000 metres down. We had expected a huge master cave, but instead were required to slide and stretch between jammed blocks which threatened to tumble and crush the insignificants who had disturbed the peace of the centuries.
At last we emerged into a horizontal streamway. We had bypassed Keith's last climb, although we had no idea how or where. We marched along, the cave flat now, at first in a narrow, slanting fissure, and then in a majestic borehole, floored with shingle over which the stream flowed in silence. It was the largest passage we had found in Xitu, but all too soon it came to an end at Keith's pool. It was much bigger than we had imagined: 30 metres or more to the other side, where the walls plunged sheer into the water. It was clear with a perfect, turquoise transparency, and we could see that the lake was very deep indeed.
Above was something that left me in little doubt that this was Xitu's end: something which we had not seen properly since the entrance rift, six kilometres away. The roof. It arched up to form a dome above the slightly fluorescent water, and we could see that it contained no further ways on.
"We've got to check the far side," said Skunk, but we all knew that Keith must have heard an echo when he described the sound of falling water beyond. With three lights, we got a much better view than Keith could have done. There was nothing on the far side of the lake, but Skunk still traversed round on tiny holds. Twice he fell in, sending waves which rebounded across the still surface from the opposite walls. Eventually he rejoined us, and we sat and ate some chocolate. We were in one of the remotest spots on earth. No helicopter could winch us to safety if something went wrong; nobody could be lowered to us on a rope. Nature had hidden this lake in the most secret of places, littering the way down with obstacles which had taxed us to our limits.
Skunk broke my reverie. "Bloody Judson."
"Sorry?" Like me, Graham didn't understand.
"So much for bloody Judson."
Dave Judson, we remembered, was the man who had come up to Ario and written it (**off?) in print.
He must have walked right past Xitu's entrance, before dismissing the region as too shattered to contain a deep cave, and going off to Iran and Ghar Parau.
"That was a bustin' mistake," Skunk said.
We got up to begin our journey back to camp. I picked up a small stone from the edge of the sump, just a pebble like any other. Perhaps on my mantelpiece it would remind me of this beautiful, secret spot. I changed my mind and flung it as far as I could into the water, sending ripples which disturbed the still surface for a few moments more.
Moving quickly, it took us seven hours to reach the camp from the bottom of the cave. Keith and Jan were still in their hammocks, having been in bed for more than twenty-four hours. Lying in their warm sleeping-bags, they had been unable to face getting up, even after Jan had somehow torn his hammock and been tipped onto the floor. Keith got up and cooked dinner as we undressed. They decided to leave for the surface.
"Just tell John we've bottomed the cave and by the way we didn't do any surveying because we overslept for twenty-four hours and would he mind mending this hammock," said Graham.
Keith scowled, and ran after Jan. They were both angry with themselves for having lain in so spectacularly.
Ages later, I pulled myself up out of the entrance to Xitu. Not having any idea of the time, I was overjoyed to find a glorious summer afternoon. We had been three nights underground, although we had spent only two periods asleep. The sunshine was blinding, and we squinted as we lay exhausted on the grass. The colours of the sky and hills were as vivid as if we had been given sight for the first time. I gazed down at the entrance. Single-handed yachtsmen could look out across the ocean and think, "I've crossed that." Back at base camp, Himalayan mountaineers could look at the peak above them which they had just conquered. Xitu was an opening in the rock among hundreds of others, all alike. For all the world it was as if it didn't exist. We went off for a cup of tea.
I had mixed feelings at the news of Xitu's end, disappointment that the great adventure was over tempered by a conviction that the survey, when complete, would put Xitu well over 1,100 metres below the surface. For the moment, the expedition was overflowing with able-bodied cavers wanting a chance to visit the sump and stay at the underground camp, while those that had already been down searched the hills around for a new cave. One promising site was 12/5, called 'Cueva del Near Miss'. It was an obscure hole at the lip of a cliff which dropped in two pitches to some very nice formations. Where it ended the cave narrowed to a slot no more than four or five inches wide, but stones dropped through this rattled on down a massive, open space to hit the floor some seconds below. Colin Nicholls tried to break through by jumping up and down of the sides of the slot until he realised that if it were to suddenly enlarge he would fall to his death. Cueva del Near Miss was forgotten about.
The other cave we had marked as having potential was Ridge Cave, but as no one could find it again, myself included, most people thought I was making it up. Elsewhere, much of the impetus behind new exploration was provided by Keith. He spent several trips bolting down the wall of Sima Catalina, a vast shaft he had found in the high country between Ario and the peaks. After several pitches, none of which were separated by anything one could call a ledge, Keith reached a hole down which stones fell free for eight seconds. He cajoled Skippy and me to go back with him armed with three ropes. Knotted together these totalled 180 metres in length. Skippy described the trip:
Because Keith had pushed most of the cave so far, we unselfishly insisted that he descend it first. It became apparent that he was getting a little psyched up over this, and after spending an hour on the tiny ledge rigging the drop with secondary, tertiary and quaternary back-ups, he spent another half hour checking things while we stood shivering, passing helpful comments like "for Christ's sake hurry up!" and "I don't think this rope's going to be long enough."
At last he clipped his rack on the rope, but this was only a prelude to another 15 minutes of alterations and adjustments. By now we were blue with cold, and after threatening to castrate Keith and throw him down if he didn't get on with it, he was finally ready.
We agreed a complex whistlecode so we would know what was happening: one blast for the first knot, two for the second, three for I'm at the bottom, follow me, four for I'm at the bottom, don't follow me, etc, etc. Keith disappeared slowly into the void. We couldn't see much from our precarious position of the ledge, and shivered for another 15 long minutes. "ARE...YOU...O...K...?" The reply came faintly: "YEEEESS!!" Well, what the bloody hell are you pissing about for, we thought.
At long last came one blast on the whistle. Ten minutes later, two quieter blasts. We waited eagerly for another 10 minutes. By this time he had been on the rope for 35 minutes. I was shivering so violently that I nearly fell down the pitch twice. We discussed what might have gone wrong. Finally Dave peered down the shaft, and with a shout more devastating than curried beans, bellowed down the abyss: "IS...THE...ROPE...LONG...ENOUGH?" Back came a very faint reply, tinged with a note of paranoia: "NOOOOO!"
Dave and I looked at each other. "Serve the sod right for making us wait so long," he said. "Glad we let him down first," I said.
We waited patiently while Keith prusiked back up to communication distance. Managing to stop before the end of the bottom rope, he said he had dropped something down the pitch and estimated a further 70 metres to the bottom. He didn't say what it was he had dropped. We got quite excited now. The total depth of the shaft must be over 300 metres! Must be one of the deepest in Europe. I prusiked out, desperate to warm up after doing three hours hypothermia research on that ledge. Dave and Keith followed quickly, knowing we had left some food at the entrance, and having no trust in my integrity.
We rushed back to Ario in a euphoric state. The first person we met there was Eduardo, who appeared most impressed with our breathless account. Then a look of recognition came into his eyes. He asked us to point out the entrance of Sima Catalina on the map. He rummaged in a cupboard and produced a survey made a year earlier by the SIE. Alas, our new discovery had already been explored. It was really Pozu Jou Tras la Jayada, and ended in an impenetrable choke 315 metres down. That meant Keith had been about 50 metres form the floor. As to the lack of evidence of the SIE descent, we assumed that they must have made their way down the opposite wall of the great shaft.
Finding a second Xitu was proving more difficult than we had imagined. Almost at the end of the expedition, when the detackling of Xitu was already underway, it was Keith who again came up with the most promising lead yet. Pozu Optimistu, Optimist's Pot, was found - and often lost - on the hill above the refugio, Cabeza Forma. There were no known caves up there, and the entrance was considerably higher than Xitu's, suggesting the potential for greater depth. When the time came to return to Britain, there had been only a few, preliminary trips into the cave, but Keith was convinced of its worth: it had 'infinite possibilities' and was 'extremely promising', according to his write-up in the log.
As August wore on, the expedition returned to more manageable size, and teamwork improved as the massive project of removing more than a kilometre of rope, an underground camp and other items from Xitu began. After an initial camping trip to de-rig the bottom, the work was carried out from the surface, and culminated in a pile of twenty-one heavy bags being hauled up the entrance series. The completed survey was computed and Xitu's depth worked out: 1,139 metres, or 1,148 including the plumbing of the sump by a weighted tape measure. Its length was more than six kilometres: easily the deepest cave then known in the Picos, and the deepest ever explored by a British team.
Martin had met a very experienced caver called Dick Willis whilst he was on an expedition to the great tropical systems of Borneo, and now Dick organised a proper dye-test. Fluorescein dye dumped into the Xitu sump was collected by charcoal lumps suspended in pieces of ladies' tights hanging in the resurgences. This test had the great advantage of having control samples for comparisons, and unlike the misleading experiment of 1980, came to an undeniable and obvious conclusion: that the water from Xitu came out at a powerful spring in the Cares Gorge.
Above the resurgence a group of Swiss cavers had, some years before, discovered a beautiful stalactite cave which intersected the underground stream not far inside the mountain. Like Xitu, Cueva Culiembro ended in a sump, and the two pools, Xitu's and Culiembro's, were separated by little more than a kilometre, but were also 150 metres apart vertically, suggesting that what cave there must be between them must be open, with airspace.
One day, after a long drive from Los Lagos and a long walk along the gorge, we drank gin and tonics in the small bar in Cain, 1,200 metres directly below Ario. Maybe in the future, we mused, cave divers might find a way through. To dive from the Xitu end would be a logistical nightmare. Culiembro though, had that much more potential...only not for us.
Fit but tired, I carried a pack down from Ario to the lakes for the last time on a day of hazy sunshine. I didn't know what I was going to do next: I had considered staying in Oxford for research but the prospects afterwards seemed uncertain. I hurried along the path without giving the view a second look. At the col I turned briefly and saw Xitu, just an innocent fold in the ground. There was no time for contemplation: I had a bus to catch. I marched on down: surely, I thought, I would not be passing this way again.
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