Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
By the time the British Cave Research Association conference came round again at the end of September, the survey of FU56 had been computed and drawn up. An enormous blue-print a metre high, it breathed excitement and allure, with its long series of plunging shafts and final question- marks where the Pyramids route led away from the Valley of the Kings and at the point where the stream sped over the last, undescended drop. It hung at the club stand in the fading sixties splendour of the Bristol University students' union, the team members clustering round. At a meeting convened during the lunch break it was confidently assumed that FU56 would be among the very deepest caves in the world. Was it not 300 metres further up the hill than Xitu?
Graham agreed to continue as leader for the following year. He even had a special jacket made by a well-known outdoor clothing manufacturer with an embroidered logo reading 'Pozu Jorcada Blanca '83'. He also continued to demonstrate his ingenuity by developing a waterproof rubber-lined bash- resistant copper box for his Sony Walkman personal stereo. He showed it to Richard and me one freezing February day in Yorkshire, explaining that the tedium of waiting at the pitches in FU56 would be much relieved by his invention. And he could always boogie to keep warm. Later that day the car blew up, forcing us to spend a bitter night on the M6 inside it by the charmless town of Wednesbury. The stereo, if not the box, proved its worth.
The real problem was Danny - Chris Danilewicz. He had done geology at Exeter College, where he had gloried in the reputation of a wild man. It is very hard to give him a personality profile - underground he was one of the safest of cavers, but, on the surface he was, well - suffice it to say that an evening with him was a pretty dodgy business. There are only three places that a guy like Danny can end up; in a debtor's prison, on an acute liver ward or as an officer in Her Majesty's Armed Forces. With Danny it had been the latter, but by how close a head I shouldn't care to speculate.
The Duke of Wellington's Regiment was now stationed in Gibraltar, and they stuck a rifle in Danny's hands and got him to march his men up and down the short border, knowing that whilst he was there Gibraltar was safe from the Spaniards. No Spaniard would want Danny on the same side of the border as his sister...
From the frontier post, Danny wrote to us. He was getting 'hundreds of pounds' from the army to bring a whole platoon of soldiers on our expedition. Only two of them had done any sort of caving before; the rest would make themselves 'useful'. They would carry heavy loads up and down the hill to our Top Camp day after day...Danny would order them to.
In Oxford there was panic. The squaddies were the last thing we needed. What was wrong with carrying our own gear up the mountain? The bored soldiers would surely only riot, burn down the bar or get Amador's daughter pregnant. We would be banned from Spain for ever...The worst possibility was that they would actually do as Danny commanded. Anyone who takes orders from a bloke like Danny must be a real psychopath. The whole idea sent shivers down our spines - it was unwieldy; it was divisive; it was too late. The post wouldn't reach him in time - our expedition had been taken over by a military coup.
There was other, better, news. Ian Houghton, the expedition letter writer, had saturated the business world with begging letters of the most brash kind. Crates of tins and jars and boxes began to arrive in Oxford, but better even than this was the rope. As we needed a great deal of new caving rope, Ian had written to all the manufacturers asking for some, free. In return we would let their managing director come for a while on our expedition. If they gave us enough rope, maybe we would even let him stay at home.
A fortnight later we got a reply, from Lafayette, Georgia, USA. Smokey Cauldwell, the owner and director of Pigeon Mountain Industries Inc., would be arriving mid-expedition at Bilbao airport with 1,000 metres of PMI flex, the finest caving rope in the world. He would bring it as hand luggage. This was talking - not only, at 80p per metre, much more than any of us could afford, it was also, at 1,000 metres, much more than any of us could lift. Smokey was obviously going to be a great help. The shame was that he could only stay a week. He explained in his letter; "my wife, MaryLou, gets kinda anxious if I'm outa state boundaries for too long."
We had the recurring problem of getting a van. Danny might at least have managed to borrow a tank or two, but he hadn't, and we had to get a vehicle to get our gear to Spain and back. By good fortune we had Steve Roberts in the club, a metallurgist from Cambridge who had sensibly moved to Oxford. He is a man who Knows About Engines. He had never been on an expedition before - the Cambridge Cave Club Expeditions are fairly select affairs, and Steve had never been selected. By contrast, we were desperate for manpower, especially people who Knew About Engines. We got Steve leglessly drunk (not difficult) and Graham and I held his arm as he signed the expedition deposit cheque. Knowing About Engines he was delegated to organise a van.
He got one on the cheap. Very cheap. He may well have known about engines, but not at all about bodywork, brakes, suspension or steering. The van had no windows for the passengers, but they weren't needed as you got a fine view of the passing scenery and of the road via the rust holes in the sides and floor. The starter motor was seized, and there was no reverse gear. The engine was, however, good. It always started when you pushed the van forwards. Graham fixed the electrics: "It's easy - to put the lights on, just push the yellow plug, on the end of the red wire, into the blue socket. Don't worry about the sparks."
Graham had also rigged his ghetto-blasting cassette recorder onto the dashboard, so we could listen to foreign language tapes, and reply in unison - "Mais non, il ne reverse pas."
The doors locked, but could not be unlocked. The only way in was to crawl in over the top of all the gear in the back, and it was a grade IV crawl. To keep costs down, five people were to go with the van to Spain. Three in the front, and two on top of the tons of rope, free breakfast cereal, free biscuits, free peanuts and free packet soup - notwithstanding all the tents, sleeping-bags, caving gear, cookers and water containers.
"Steve," I said when I saw the loaded van, "I don't like it. It's so difficult to get in and out - don't you think it'd be worth cutting some emergency doors in the sides in case of a crash?"
"Are you kidding?" He beamed back. "You don't need to worry about getting out in case of a crash. Any crash and all this gear will instantly crush us to death!"
We crossed the Channel and drove red-eyed through France into the following day, pausing for pleasant interludes in roadside restaurants. Towards evening we sped along the geometrically straight highway that cuts though the forest which spreads out flatly between the Pyrenees and the Dordogne. Dusk was coming on and with it a tenuous dewy fog. In the back, unable to see anything past the mounds of luggage in our constricted cell, Iestyn and I dozed, and listened to the pop music from Graham's stereo. My brother Phil, driving, reached down for the awkward light switch.
Suddenly the van began to shake from side to side. The tyres thudded as they hit the kerb and bounced off again, making the uncontrollable oscillation worse. Steve managed to yell: "Phil, what the hell do you think you're doing?" and tried to grab the wheel, but then, with a large bump, the van mounted the verge and ploughed into the ditch. With a crack the stereo smashed through the windscreen and flew, still playing, into the field beyond. After a tremendous lurch the van was still.
I had been hurled forwards and lay upside-down on the front seat with blood pouring from my nose. Iestyn moaned behind me, his knee cut open down to the bone. Graham rushed round and opened the back to free him, but was met instead by an avalanche of free breakfast food, free biscuits and free packet soup, which tumbled into the ditch. Midges began to cluster, scenting free blood. The stereo was still playing.
The van was wrecked, lying on its side in a ditch and surrounded by debris We didn't even know where we were, except that it was a long way from any village, garage, hospital.
But things work in France. A Citroen ambulance whisked Iestyn and me to the hospital while the others were towed out by a rescue truck. Iestyn had his knee stitched up by a medical student who was going to pass his stitching exams with ease, but hadn't as yet done any anaesthetics local or otherwise. My nose was examined, and I was told to avoid violence for at least a month.
We re-met the next day, in the fly-blown yard of a deserted garage to inspect the remains of the van. "Lunch!" said Steve, producing half a baguette between five. The mechanics had all disappeared to sleep in the sweltering afternoon. It felt like thunder.
It was Steve Roberts who broke the torpor. Who needs a windscreen? There would be a Ford dealer in Santander surely? With indescribable nonchalance he looked at the wheel arches, and pulled. The old, soft metal gave easily - the wheels could move again. The head lamps were suspended with some wire. The sides of the van had parted from the former, but ...why bother? The old van, now christened 'El Sod', pulled creakily away onto the open road. Ten minutes later we were doing sixty on a dual carriageway. By now the storm had broken and hail blew from a Biscay tempest unimpeded into the cab, where Graham was driving clad in full caving gear.
That night we were in Santander. It seemed pointless to ask the sleepy Spaniard at the Ford dealer if he had a new windscreen for an ancient Transit van, but unbelievably he did - from nowhere four mechanics appeared and beat it into place with their fists. By two the following afternoon we rounded the last bend to a damp, foggy Los Lagos, with 'Riot in Cell Block Number Nine' blasting out across the deserted moorland to signal our presence and give expression to what, improbably, had turned into euphoric, unrestrained joy.
There was no one about. At last we caught sight through the mist of a low line of orange tents, arranged neatly in line like an army camp. It was an army camp. Around the tents lay our new friends, all wildly, paralytically drunk, Danny most of all. Their officer was quite unable to give a sensible answer to the vital question - where was the rest of the expedition? He repeated again and again the slurred argument that he and his men had been waiting for us for three days in the mist, and had had nothing to do but visit the Los Lagos bars.
After tipping the van's contents into a huge heap on the grass we went down the hill to Cangas again to look for the foot passengers, who had arrived from England by train. It turned out that they had been sleeping under the seats of the Arriondas stadium for the last two nights, and they too were worse for too much wine. We drove back to the army camp. That first day it was immediately clear that there would be trouble. From either direction it looked like us and them: a bunch of over-educated toffee-nosed intellectual snobs or a gang of thugs who spent their evenings discussing 'contacts' experienced in Northern Ireland and what a shame they had missed the Falklands. The amount of common experience was minimal. Danny had, moreover, made a trip up the hill and sounded pessimistic: "It's been the worst winter here for years. They had snow as late as June and it's still lying everywhere. FU56 will be full of ice."
Next morning, Steve and I set off for FU56 with Andrew 'Nazi' Goring, one of the squaddies, so- called on account of his surname's resemblance to 'Goering', rather than his politics. Danny's gloomy report was immediately confirmed. Through intermittent rain we crossed huge snow-fields which we had never seen before. Even the Vega Aliseda, the little dale before the last steep climb up to FU56, was full of snow for its entire length, and big open shafts noticed the year before were concealed completely. It took some time to locate top camp in this changed landscape, confusing enough at the best of times with its web of ridges and depressions: at last, we found the tiny patch of grass, miraculously free of snow, and pitched a tent. The temperature was about minus two. Nazi crawled into the tent and got into a sleeping-bag, declaring that as far as he was concerned, the cave could wait. Hoping against hope, Steve and I took a small quantity of gear and made for the entrance. Even the south-facing slope leading up to the doline was snow-covered.
Yet nothing had quite prepared us for the sight which greeted us as we breasted the final rise and walked across the flat limestone pavement. Where last year the entrance scoop had been a great open gash on the hillside visible for miles, at least 20 metres deep and 30 metres across, there was only a vast iceberg. The snow level came up almost to the doline's rim. It had always been thought possible that there might be a blockage inside the shaft leading off from the bottom of the scoop, but the idea that the scoop itself would be snowed over had seemed unthinkable. For the second time in forty-eight hours it looked as if all bets were off. The only hope was a narrow gap between rock and snow at the back end of the scoop, just wide enough to insert a human body. It looked as if this led directly onto what should have been the entrance shaft. I kitted up, belaying a rope over the doline rim into this icy fissure, not bothering to put on a proper caving suit but just pulling a harness over my shorts. It started to sleet.
Shivering at the contact with the great white mass now surrounding me on three sides, I abseiled down, the rope pressing against the snow and rapidly becoming iced-up. Ten metres down I reached what had been the bottom of the scoop: now, a horizontal squeeze beneath the overhanging ice to gain access to the top of the entrance shaft proper. There, the belay, a great flake, was hidden under the snow. Where once the pitch had been a spacious, rocky tube, with just a little snow along one wall, the iceberg had almost filled it, leaving a tiny, body-sized chimney. Yet still I was able to slide down, though only too aware that the acoustic deadness meant an almost certain total blockage very soon. Fifteen metres from the lip of the shaft, it came. A solid, white floor, with densely impacted stones holding it together. It felt quite unshiftable, and there wasn't even any room to dig. My 1982 spray painted blue line was nowhere to be seen. I yelled to Steve that I was coming up. Disconsolately, we made our way to Ario. Alvaro, whose command of English had come on strides, was ready with some helpful thought: "It seems perhaps that FU56 is a system which man can only enter once in every 1,000 years. Your efforts, therefore, may well be futile." Never one to accept defeat without at least a token effort, Steve spotted a large shovel. "But of course you may borrow it," said Alvaro. He looked out of the window, at the dark spires across the gorge and a strange, purple twilight, a gale driving the clouds across the sky at furious speed. It felt bitter for the time of year. "I think tomorrow will perhaps be the commencement of a storm of many days' duration," said Alvaro. "I think it's a terrible misfortune."
Alvaro's weather forecasting tends to be as accurate as the predictions made by some geologists about unexplored caves. Next day dawned fine and clear, the beginning of a long spell of hot dry days which would eventually melt nearly all the snow which now bedevilled us. But first we had to get into our cave.
By lunchtime on the following day top camp was well-established. Phil, Andy Riley, and two new visitors to Spain, Steve Gale (an academic geologist in Oxford as a junior research fellow) and Steve Mayers (a member of the Sheffield University club invited by Ian Houghton) had joined Steve Roberts and me. Andy and I were seized with impenetrable depression. While the others took turns to descend the shaft and dig laboriously, risking being suffocated by a sudden underground avalanche as they undermined the impending iceberg, we looked for non-existent 'alternative entrances' on the surface. We believed that even a quite lengthy dig through scree and boulders in a blocked shakehole would be more quickly profitable than the grim struggle going on beneath us. Steve Roberts soon came up with a suitable name for the blocked shaft, which had been known only as 'the entrance pitch' in 1982. He called it 'Snow Joke'. It wasn't.
Steve recalls: "Objectively, it was a beautiful sight. The sun shone down the little hole at the tip, reflecting off the snow plug above, and bounced down the glistening shaft like Walt Disney's version of the light that shone on the righteous. I couldn't take it. 50 feet down where snow met rock I looked up and suddenly wished very much I was somewhere else. I was meant to dig away at the base of this? I prusiked desperately up, dislodging loose snow which pittered down into the depths, waiting for the big rumble which must come any second. It didn't. I forced myself to shove away more snow at the top of the shaft, on the grounds that if it had to be widened all the way down it was better to start at the top."
Yet by teatime the digging parties were sounding unwarrantedly optimistic. They had cleared a space wide enough to dig properly at the blockage and evolved a system whereby one loosened the snow and the other stacked it. A short way down, the fissure widened, and throwing the snow to one side was quite easy.
Around the petrol stoves and encouraged by the ponche liqueur, spirits revived. Tomorrow we would go for it. After all, there was no choice.
Muzzling his fears Steve joined me for an early start and we descended rapidly to the blockage. Already, the scene had changed markedly from my first visit, the fissure considerably widened by the joint efforts of the sunshine and the diggers. We set to work in a frenzy, hardly pausing. After half an hour I noticed that bits of snow at the bottom of my excavated hollow were falling away below to one side. "Er Steve, I think we had better clip onto the rope," I said. If the blockage suddenly 'went' it might be 25 metres down to the bottom of the shaft. A few minutes later there seemed to be a small window opening up by my left welly. I kicked some more then crouched down, sticking an arm through a tiny hole which I speedily widened. At last I could stick my head through and whooped in exultation. We had cut under the blockage and the way on down was clear, my blue line a short way below. I took the spade and frantically widened the space, turning an undercut overhang into a wide hole going all the way down vertically. It was much easier work now, since all I had to do was hack wildly and let the snow fall down the shaft - it would take more than this to block the way on at the bottom of Is Necessary, where this dislodged snow was going to end up. Still whooping and yelling like a madman I set off down the rope: "Aha! FU56! FU56!" Below the former blockage, there was a large but harmless bank of ice on one side but there was no doubt now: we were in. I climbed back to Steve: "Shall we go caving then?"
We decided to behave as coolly as we could, knowing that Graham and other team members would have arrived at Top Camp expecting a long dig. Walking into camp still wearing our caving gear we answered the other' enquiries with sad looks, saying nothing. Trying to look inconspicuous we started sorting out tackle for the first ten pitches or so. At last we could contain ourselves no longer. To disbelief, then celebration, we relayed the news. In the afternoon we rigged the cave as far as the second of the Mistral Shafts.
Three days later, Sunday July 10, Steve Mayers and I were ready for what looked like being the first pushing trip of the expedition. Top Camp was now consolidated, with carries by most of the team and most of the squaddies having amassed a vast pile of stores and equipment. In the unbroken heat wave that was now shrinking the snow-fields at almost visible speed, this was a considerable achievement. To leave Los Lagos for the strenuous uphill climb of three and a half hours - a fairly fast time - much after dawn or much before dusk was to risk severe heat exhaustion. From the top of the gully between the Vega Aliseda ad the slope down towards the Ario path, the mountains shimmered across the harsh white lapiaz, the rock radiating and reflecting additional heat. There was no wind. It was fortunate that for the time being at least, the melting snowplugs all around Top Camp gave a much closer and more copious supply of water than that used the previous year.
Changing into caving gear designed for the chill conditions of deep alpine potholes in this weather was unbearable. To have walked up the steep rocky slope from camp to the cave in close-hugging furry suit and PVC outer would have been unthinkable, but pulling on one's gear in the solar oven by the entrance was almost as bad. Between trips, one's sit harness would dry and stiffen, making putting it on exhausting, strenuous and sweaty. Once inside a furry, even pulling on a recalcitrant pair of wellies was enough to produce rivulets of sweat on forehead, back and chest.
Six metres below the lip of Snow Joke we had fixed a rebelay where the rope rubbed against a projection in the wall, and it was usually about here, during the few moments it took to negotiate this obstacle, that one would cool down. The sweat, previously felt only as an annoying dampness, turned icy. Lower down, FU56's average temperature was about three degrees centigrade. The brief period of heat before descent made the rest of the trip considerably colder.
On our last foray, two days earlier, the series of short wet pitches, the Bathroom Steps, had seemed far in. Today, we reached their end - we had rigged them all as SRT climbs, much safer than the horrendous unlifelined ladders of 1982 - in only two hours, moving rapidly to keep warm and keen to reach new territory as fast as possible. Beyond the Steps, the chore began: ten pitches to rig again, improving where possible on the often inadequate or dangerous methods of the previous year. This year, we hoped the pitches would be used many times en route to greater depths: there was no room for short cuts.
It was not until well after midnight that we reached the top of Wallop, the last drop negotiated in 1982 and the last pitch in the dry section bypassing the stream, One Step Beyond.
We rigged Wallop a little more conventionally than George had done on our brief visit the previous year and descended. Swollen by the great volume of melted snow water, the waterfall now thundering into Lago Victoria hurled an unavoidable spume way beyond its plunge pool, filling the entire area of the cave with spray. Gingerly, I led the way through Don't Look at the Roof, the flakes above as delicately threatening as ever. On the other side Steve pointed out the obvious: "Er Dave, you know there's a much safer way over the top of that..."
And then, at last, we crossed those question-marks left at the end of the survey. Where the stream flowed swiftly over the lip of Tantalus pitch, we climbed above it, as so often in Asturian caves: following the line of the water now 20 metres below, traversing on small ledges in the winding canyon. We expected to come eventually to a convenient spot to make the descent comfortably away from the rumbling water.
Instead, we reached an area of breakdown, where the cave walls had undergone collapse. A chaos of boulders and other geological litter now formed a floor, so that it was no longer possible to see or hear the streamway below. We stooped beneath projecting rocks, and irritating gritty particles detached themselves as we brushed against the wall, sometimes falling inside our furry suits to itch maddeningly, out of reach. A low slope led to a letterbox, through with issued a peculiar hissing . I squeezed through and exclaimed in amazement.
We had entered a cavern that dwarfed anything else in Pozu Jorcada Blanca, a chamber at least as big as Eton Palais in Xitu. We stood at the top of a scree slope, its bottom invisible in the blackness swallowing our lamps, which flickered and complained, the flames buffeted by a mighty wind blowing down vertically from the far distant roof. The hissing sound came from the crackle of water falling with the wind, tumbling from the invisibility above of some unknown pothole to lose itself in a jumble of boulders at the base of the scree. The chamber became known as the Hot Tub.
Gasping, we advanced. The scree slope slipped and slid a little as we descended, making a path among the rocks which had lain there undisturbed since first falling from the roof. At the bottom, we hurriedly skirted the pit choked with boulders beneath the inlet cascade, unable to avoid the water entirely, and reached the shelter of a narrow rift passage opposite the letterbox through which we had entered. Twenty metres further on the floor dropped away. The walls were covered in a brown, brittle popcorn formation, long-dried out calcite crystal, and here Steve unhesitatingly picked out the sole possible line of descent which did not require a rope, weaving backwards and forwards in the fissure to deep to the narrowest part where the friction of pressed-out knees and elbows might compensate for any deficiency in the provision of footholds. I baulked a little: "Come on, it's easy. Don't be a wimp!" It was 3 a.m. Bleary-eyed and yawning I cast aside wimpdom and followed Steve, above the stream again, in a slightly wider canyon passage with a rapidly increasing absence of floor. Soon we could go no further. We had reached the most unpleasant, most difficult to rig and probably most dangerous pitch ever encountered on OUCC expeditions. For two and a half hours we - mostly Steve - struggled to place a bolt, in each spot the rock shattering and splintering. There were no natural belays either. It was awful, monstrous. It fully deserved its political name, which stuck: Pol Pot.
At five in the morning, as I dozed, Steve was satisfied at the combination of bolts in loose boulders and wires placed round dubious chockstones and abseiled down. Soon he was out of earshot and lulled by the music of the stream below I slept properly, slowly becoming deeply chilled as the glow of activity faded. Some time later I was jolted awake. "Are you coming down?" I remembered I was on a pushing trip I had looked forward to for eleven months or so. "Yes. I'll be right with you. What is there?" His reply surprised me: "Hundreds of metres of streamway. I haven't reached the end."
After so much verticality, FU56 had flattened out. Below Pol Pot - its landing on a loose boulder slope 15 metres down as nasty as its top - a brief climb, exposed to ammunition from above, led back to the streamway. Upstream was the fine cascade of Tantalus pitch, the passage having passed beneath the floor of the Hot Tub. Downstream was a long, tedious, winding crabwalk, often kneedeep or more in water. After 200 featureless metres, marked only by the propensity of solid-looking ledges to fall at a touch into the stream, there was a climb over boulders: then more of the same. In all we covered nearly 500 metres, the bottom of the passage almost completely flat throughout. At last, on a right- hand bend, the floor lowered again and brought us to another pitch. Beyond it looked as if the passage was altogether different: a sluggish, wide meander. We looked at the drop and christened it Delta pitch. The stream before had to be the Mekong. Pleased by this ingenuity, benefiting from the second wind that often comes during long trips underground, at the time one might consider getting up at home, we began to make an efficient and speedy exit. Six hours later, most of that time spent climbing the ropes of what we were, audaciously, beginning to think of as the 'entrance series' - all the way down to Wallop at 520 metres - we emerged, blinking, into the Picos midday sun. We had been down twenty-three hours. Soon, we thought, this would seem like a brief excursion, one the cave really started to go...
An hour after collapsing in sleeping-bags and dozing, over-heated, back at Top Camp, Graham arrived with several helpers, many of them from the army group. No one, it seemed, was ready to go caving, however, either that day or the next. Danny appeared to be doing very little for the squaddies and Graham felt responsible for keeping them occupied. Organising potholing trips had, for a time, taken second place.
Petty arguments kept breaking out, often centred on food - the squaddies despised the garlic and green peppers tossed in most Oxford stews, the cavers despised their total lack of drive. The soldiers spent nearly all their time at Los Lagos, sitting on the grass looking at the can of beer held between their legs. Their idea of a good time was having no orders to follow.
Eventually Delta got rigged, but the trip advanced only 20 metres or so, stopping at some deep pools. The team missed an obvious line of ledges a few feet above the water.
On my next attempt, with Steve Mayers and Richard, we negotiated the pools and reached a small round chamber, the Pleasure Dome, where several passages led off. One quickly choked with silt, and was later the object of a desperate digging expedition. The streamway ploughed on straight ahead, but in place of the lofty canyon of the Mekong and the wide gallery below Delta pitch, the Brahmaputra, it flowed in a constricted, strenuous rift, well-supplied with sharp, suit-ripping flakes. This, we thought, was surely an immature passage opened up only recently in geological time. We had lost the draught as well: somewhere there must be another way... This suspicion was heightened by what came next: a spray-lashed, 10-metre pitch gained by a slot of terrifying narrowness directly above the drop. We called it the Vortex and left it well alone. In the remaining four hours before we made for the surface we investigated the many possibilities for larger, high level passages radiating form the Pleasure Dome, where the draught seemed to disappear. Steve performed several daring free climbs to gain access to a large sandy tunnel that had our spirits soaring again. But to no avail: after a miserably short distance, the way was blocked impenetrably by massive fallen boulders. Our growing depression was intensified by leaving the tin opener behind. Again, a party had gone to push but exited without having added more than a very few metres of depth.
At least the cave was still 'going'. This time, a team was ready to take over without a day's gap. Graham and Phil felt fit and mentally prepared for some serious exploration and proved their point by getting up remarkably early. Then, as the log book records,
this trip started at the incredibly early hour of ten o'clock, and around midday we had descended the entrance series to Don't Look at the Roof. An hour or so later we had reached the Vortex, the previous limit of exploration. Graham added another ladder to the top of this and descended the extremely wet pitch finding a small tight rift on through the waterfall. I then had the rather terrifying task of carrying three heavy tackle bags down this soaking wet pitch without a lifeline, getting thoroughly wet in the process. At the other end of the rift was a pitch, after which the passage opened out. Our hearts were really going now as we thought the cave was going strong again. However only 50 yards or so down the stream, involving some tightish traversing, the passage reached what we had all feared for so long: A SUMP.
And that, it appeared, was that. On their way out Graham and Phil looked, as the earlier party had done, for high level bypasses, but without success. A sump. The end. FU56 was not going to be the deepest cave in the world. It was quite deep - of course, without a survey, we as yet had no idea how deep it was - but it didn't really get near Xitu. So much effort and anticipation for this. I looked across at the sweep of white mountains as I heard the news and wanted to tear them apart. There were few that night who had the detachment to laugh at this predicament. All the water, the whole of Jorcada Blanca's very considerable stream, just slid into this dank, low sewer, airspace zero. And now what were we to do?
Most reacted in time honoured fashion, by drinking considerable quantities of alcohol and being inactive. Through the gingebras y tonica, the tintos and the conac Fundador, the depression was like a miasma.
Two less obviously affected individuals were George, who had recently arrived, and Smokey Cauldwell who now had just two days to go of his lightning seven-day visit. In his short time with us he had already proved his worth, not only with the gift of his excellent rope but also by his great experience and dry, Southern wit. "I guess you'd call it a carbide assist," he would say, describing an epic rescue he had directed in the States: "There was nothin' really wrong with the guy and all you had to do was light a lamp right under his ass and out that cave he'd go." Smokey and George decided to look yet again for a high level passage on the day after Graham's sad report. At two in the afternoon on the 17th, they set off, expecting to reach the surface again by the following morning.
The possibility of an underground accident had always been a nagging worry on our expeditions. There were no rescue services within call, and the warm sunny weather, the wine and magnificent views belied the seriousness of our caving trips. Not only were they longer and harder and more frequent than in Britain, but the caves themselves contained sections of prolonged difficulty through which rescues would have been almost impossible. And the caves were new and deadly: no worn down mud to guide the way on, no guidebook descriptions. Every handhold or belay had to be tested - none had been used before and sometimes the friable Picos rock crumbled at the slightest touch.
John had once warned everyone of the dangers of loose rock. "Always have at least three points of attachment," were his unnecessary words. William, like all of us the victim of at least one heart- stopping slip, was more emphatic: "Always have at least FOUR points of attachment in new stuff."
Quite how one would then move, William did not say.
Despite the dangers, the only accident which had taken place during this expedition was when Al Cousins had fallen and cut his arm descending one night from Amador's bar. There had been near misses. Bits had pulled out of rock with people attached to them, holds had crumbled, cavers fallen on their heads. In Jorcada Blanca, Dave and I had abseiled down a pitch in One Step Beyond and later picked the belay up, rope still attached, with one hand on our return. Everyone feared that sooner or later, there would be the real thing.
As George and Smokey set off, we were surprised to learn that this would be Smokey's deepest trip in all his years of potholing in the 'beeg peeyits' of Georgia. They were unencumbered by tackle or the chore of having to derig. George had even left his camera behind. They bade Andy farewell and left him at Top Camp on his own, keeping a lonely vigil under the tarpaulin that served as cooking shelter, sunshade, rain guard and drawing room. Someone had to stay and wait to make sure they were all right. Soon Andy made for his sleeping-bag and stayed there.
In the morning, no one appeared to relieve him. And now, right on cue, as the caving was turning sour, so did the weather. As Andy huddled under the tarpaulin the mist blew in, the drizzle running off the edges into the washing-up. Huge sparkling droplets formed on his beard and hair. Nothing in the camp was quite dry. In the late afternoon, Graham, Paul, Sara and I arrived. We were not exactly raring to go. But Andy was now increasingly concerned about the two underground. They had been down for twenty-eight hours. The trip to the bottom and back would take about twelve hours, and everything that might need a rope was rigged. Surely they couldn't have been looking for a bypass all that time? Might they have found one and discovered a huge new extension? New pitches? A squeeze they had been trying to widen? A double light failure? All possibilities were discussed, and the final one only with the greatest reluctance - an accident.
"Surely," said Paul, "if one of them had an accident - broken leg say - the other would be out by now to raise the alarm?"
"Could be helping him out," I replied.
"One thing's for certain, you can't get lost in that cave." Something in his voice suggested that this was by no means the certainty he maintained. Andy, ever the master of logistics, came up with a foolproof plan:
"Right. If they're not out by eleven - that'll be thirty-one hours - Graham whizzes off down the cave, followed by Richard and Paul, who bring all the rescue gear. I'll go to Ario - should get there before midnight if I hurry. I'll mobilise the troops there, a group was supposed to be going there tonight. Sara stays here and cooks a MEGA amount of trough."
What should we do until eleven? Eat, of course. What was there, apart from the rice, asked Graham. Andy said: "Our best bet...is pilchard vindaloo and Mornflake porridge bhajee."
By ten o'clock things were fairly sombre. The daylight had gone, and the cold mist persisted relentlessly. It was impossible to see even across the tiny campsite, and the carbide lights spluttered as the mist seeped into the generators. Graham, Paul and I got into our damp, cold furry suits, belching up the taste of the meal as we did so. Graham stuffed his pockets with spare bulbs and batteries, and then grabbed as much chocolate as he could find. Between us, Paul and I had a lot to carry. There were two ex-army ammo boxes each, with the medical gear, food, a stove, more chocolate, carbide and more batteries. The medical set was quite well-stocked, with four bags of plasma expander, intravenous antibiotics, dressings and bandages. There was even a nurse's uniform (to clean things underground, although just about the entire expedition had had their photos taken in it). The piece do resistance was a large supply of injectable morphine, carefully smuggled into Spain each year. It was enough to stop several horses.
Paul and I agreed that the best use for it if someone was really seriously injured would be to administer enough morphine to finish them off, so remote would the chances be of a successful rescue. Graham departed. We would see him at the bottom.
As Graham said goodbye, Paul attached the two ammo cans to his donkey's dick. They were heavy, and needed to be tied to him so that they didn't fall down and slip inside the cave. Normally, a donkey's dick, the standard way of carrying equipment by a short length of rope, is clipped into the main sit harness. Paul was short of a karabiner, however, and tied the donkey's dick cord directly to his harness attachment with a figure of eight knot. This act was nearly to cost him his life.
Meanwhile Andy stiffened his jaw and moved away into the foggy dusk to negotiate three miles of interleaving karst ridges, depressions and blind valleys, in order to tell a knot of rosy-faced, intoxicated cavers at the Ario refugio, "Right, I want you all out on that hill by 7 a.m."
Paul and I descended the cave with already tired eyes, Graham's cries of 'rope free' echoing from far beneath us. Our progress, weighed down with gear was painfully slow, and by the time we reached the Meander of the Argonauts Graham was already out of earshot. At every opportunity the ammo cans jammed in the rift, and I also carried a large bag of food. I tended to rush ahead a little, knowing the cave much better than Paul, and mindful too of the plight of George and Smokey somewhere in the depths beneath. It was about half past three in the morning when we reached One Step Beyond, 400 metres down. Here the passage between the pitches doesn't really have a floor, but the slit in the bottom is so narrow that the only way on is to traverse to a wider section breaking into the next shaft series down to Valley of the Kings - 20 metres below.
I was about to abseil down this shaft when there was a cry from behind: "I'm a long way from a place of safety!"
The tremulous cry re-echoed in the big cavern below. There was more than a little panic in it. "What do you mean?" I asked, little realising that this was Paul's way of saying he was about to die.
Not knowing the cave well, Paul had forgotten about the traverse above the slit in the floor to the next pitch. Thinking he was still in the constricted vertical section which begins the One Step Beyond series, he had squeezed into the improbably narrow slit at what should have been boot level. This was not at all easy, and he had had to force his body through, breathing out to make his chest smaller. He had kicked his ammo cans beneath him through the slot and they hung below from his central maillon harness attachment, tied in place. He had raised his arms above his head and pushed to get his bum through the tightest part of the slot, and them his chest. Too late he realised his mistake. Below the slot the cave opened out onto the 20-metre pitch. When I arrived back to see what the fuss was about, Paul was dangling by his tensed shoulders, his body and legs waggling helplessly over the drop. The pull at his waist from the heavy ammo cans was dragging him inexorably downwards.
"Help me out of this, Richard." Paul's voice emerged with great strain, as he held his chest expanded to try to avoid slipping any further.
"Drop the ammo boxes, Paul," I urged, gripping his collar.
"I can't - they're tied to my waist." His voice became higher in pitch and more anguished. "Every time I move an arm I slip further down."
This was true. Paul's position depended on him bracing his shoulders: even the slightest relaxation allowed him to fall further into the mouth of the abyss. It dawned on me that he was really about to fall sixty feet. I gave a command designed to instil hope: "Stay there."
I reached over the fissure. Perhaps I could just reach down to his centre maillon. I couldn't, so went back to the pitch head to fetch the rope. I tied a figure eight knot into a loop and clipped in a krab; reaching down with this, my arm pressed tightly between his face and the cold rock, I was able to secure it to the centre of Paul's sit harness. We both breathed a sigh of relief. "How the hell did you get here?" I asked after a long pause.
"I can tell you it was a hell of a job - probably the hardest squeeze I've hone." As Paul said this, he relaxed, and fell at last through the slit into the gaping drop below. The rope took his weight and slapped against the rock as it became taut. I passed the rest of the rope through the tiny crack and it was clear the there was enough to reach the bottom, where his badly chosen descent route connected with the conventional pitch. After some fumbling, Paul sorted out his gear and abseiled down to the roomy chamber, where I joined him after re-rigging the rope.
"I've never been so scared in all my life."
"What about that time that huge nurse trapped you in a corner of the medics' disco?"
"Never, I tell you, never."
Resuming the descent, we abseiled on, past the dusty silence of the Valley of the Kings and the awesome free abyss of the Sphinx. At Lago Victoria, by the wind and spray of the re-entering stream, we met Graham, George and Smokey. Paul unpacked the stove, tea and biscuits and offered Yorkie bars, provoking a loud retching in Smokey and George. It transpired that Graham had found them below the awkward climb-down form the rift beyond the Hot Tub. Returning form another fruitless push, they had missed this climb and found only the impenetrable boulders beneath the floor of the great cavern. Eventually they had given up hope, and lain down to rest on one of the sandy ledges above the stream near the top of Pol Pot.
They had marked the walls with soot arrows burnt on by their carbide flames around their makeshift bivouac. Then they waited, snatching what sleep they could, miserable, cold, wet and hungry. "We talked for hours about whether to eat our last half Yorkie bar on Tuesday or Wednesday," George said later.
At last Graham showed up and disclosed the elusive way out. He had ten Yorkie bars in his prusik bag, which they wolfed down immediately. By the time Paul and I arrived, they were both quite ill from this, with chocolate bursting from their ears. The tea settled their stomachs a little, but even then they looked unwell.
On the way out, however, it soon became clear that George and Smokey, once warmed up by the exercise, were easily the freshest. Their rescuers were exhausted, and we made heavy weather of the 600 metres of strenuous rope work and endless difficult squeezes in the rifts between Lago Victoria and the entrance. I remembered the elation of twelve months before, when Dave, George and I had seemed to float out of the cave after our rediscovery of the stream. This time, as we broke surface towards 9 a.m., the 'victims' skipped down the hillside into camp, whereas we slunk out behind them, slouching and withered, feeling like hostages released after some prolonged terrorist siege. George and Smokey had been down forty-three hours. We met up again at the little circle of tents, the sun streaming down without much warmth in a way which old Picos hands knew meant that this was only a temporary break in the weather, not a proper improvement. The Ario team, goaded so dramatically by Andy the night before, were there in force, and Sara was ready with steaming plates of stew. Smokey came to thank us once again, with a genially unabashed grin. "Well," he said, "I guess you could call that another carbide assist."
George, oblivious of our desire to do nothing but collapse, was leaping about with his photographic gear, trying to organise a team portrait. Suddenly Smokey, who had been quiet for a few minutes, let out a loud exclamation, realising that he had missed a day and that there was no time to waste. He had ten hours to catch his flight from Bilbao, a steep mountainside and hundreds of kilometres of dreadful winding road away. George offered to drive him there. Within minutes they were packed and off down the hill like a couple of spring lambs. And they made it. Fifteen hours or so after being lost hundreds of metres below a remote Spanish mountain, Smokey was enjoying a bourbon on the rocks aboard a transatlantic aircraft. His three man rescue team, by contrast, didn't move much at all that day. We chewed our lentils in silence, then crawled into our tents like woodlice hiding form the daylight. We lay still.
The burst of adrenalin provided by the Great Jorcada Blanca Rescue soon faded. The torpor creeping up on the expedition was soon back, and with it, renewed appalling weather. Further attempts were made to find a bypass to the baffling, shouldn't-be-there-at-all sump, most determinedly by Steve Mayers, but to no avail. The survey, too, proceeded at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, the almost constant mist made any sustained search for new caves impossible. Parties were getting lost within a hundred metres of Top Camp and forced to orientate themselves by yelling at those wiser people who had not left their tents.
Relations with the soldiers might be said to have sumped too. If there was ever a nadir in the history of our explorations in the mountains of Asturias, it was now. At the end of July a large group of us drove down the hill towards the station at Arriondas, braving the vagaries of El Sod on the crazy bends and precipices of the Lagos road for the last time. And surely, I thought, this really must be the last time. What those left would get up to in their last two weeks was up to them, but the chances of another expedition after this seemed slim. Goodbye Picos, I thought, a complex of emotions - nostalgia, anger, disappointment and wistfulness for good times past - making a large lump in my throat. I thought of Keith: what would he have made of this? Goodbye, Picos. And maybe good riddance.
That Dave's pessimism was eventually proven wrong was due to the efforts of those left behind. Those on their first trip to Spain - Ian Steve Roberts, Phil - got on with it, in spite of everything. Two of the soldiers, Ray and Wingnut (so called because of his large ears, started caving, and relationships with the army started to improve.
In 3/5, the very small cave near Ario which was left over from 1981, Wingnut pushed through into new territory through a narrow rift, despite his ears. 'Wingnut's Rift' showed how things might have been...we could have had a great time. In Jorcada Blanca the various tasks were carried out: surveying, photographing. William's account of surveying the Vortex gives a chilling feeling: "One of the wettest pitches I've done, and the rope failed to run through my self-lining ropewalker! I just climbed up to the ledge where I pushed the rope thorough and tried to put off being frightened, the water pouring onto my back. At the top I remembered to be terrified and swore blue murder at the pitch - this one is DANGEROUS!"
The cave was detackled. "After John had chucked the traditional stone down the entrance," wrote Iestyn, "all that was left was to carry the tackle bags back down to camp in the dying rays of a gently setting sun."
Well, not quite all. The sun wasn't setting on OUCC caving expeditions just yet. There was one day of nice weather, one day that could be used to go shaft-bashing - an entrance was discovered, and marked as F7. Several small holes led into a chamber filled largely with ice. Phil, Iestyn and Ian went to check it out.
After traversing the entrance rifts we climbed down an interesting 8-metre drop to the top of the first pitch. At this point we decided to abandon the survey, and in our euphoria kicked about two tonnes of rock down the pitch, revelling in the crashes and booms from below.
At the bottom we swore for joy; to the right was a large onion shaped passage with a deep trench, while to the left the pitch continued. Following the latter way, we landed on a boulder slope...walking downslope, back underneath ourselves, we soon came across a draughting vertical squeeze. Casually we threw a rock down this, and then got the shock of our lives - after the initial extensive rattle there was a silence. "Great, it's going," someone said. "Boom!" the hole replied. "It's really going," we all agreed, but the hole still had the last word with a deep "BOOM!" Expletives were exchanged...the small hole turned out to be a shaft of impressive proportions; 20 metres down to a ledge at an inlet, and we rigged another 38 metres free hang down to a further ledge. Only 20 metres of rope was left and it was getting late. We threw some rocks down the next pitch. It sounded very big...
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