Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
Cave diving is the epitome of what most people consider perfect torment. Swimming down a constricted tunnel filled with bone-chilling water is bad enough; just try getting lost, or damaging your gear, or staying down too long, or going too deep, or any other mistake. They all mean certain death. Usually initiates dive alone, but going with a partner only introduces the added risk that he will run out of air and kill you for yours.
There has been very little diving in the Picos. In the 1970s, a Swiss team lost a diver in Cueva Culiembro, the Xitu resurgence, and since then the bureaucrats in Oviedo have been reluctant to give permission to the few who have applied. Meanwhile the business of supplying divers with air, compressors and other specialised items, all of which weigh a great deal, means that any non-diving team with a diving contingent would find itself with little time for anything other than 'sherpa-ing' for the divers.
All these points were made to Danny at a meeting called to plan the 1985 trip. He agreed with them all: they were the very reasons he wanted to go diving with four of his friends in the Picos - almost no one else had. The great systems of the western massif were all undived: Osu, Hoyo la Madre, Xitu and Culiembro, where the Swiss found a bypass to the sump where their diver was drowned, leading to more passage and a virgin sump which Danny was sure should lead straight to Xitu and the deepest 'through trip' in the world. But Danny was still unpopular in the club. He had not been forgiven for bringing the soldiers in 1983, and no one wanted to waste 1985 looking for his body. He left the meeting in a huff.
The planning of expeditions had, by now, been honed to a fine art. The timetable of things to do was well-established, and Steve Roberts, who had been volunteered as the new leader, whisked things along with his word processor. Dave and I never went to the meetings in Brasenose bar any more, but the young blood went there still, fantasising.
The Bay of Biscay looked as if it had never known a storm since the day it was formed as the ferry ploughed steadily toward Santander. We sat on deck on a circle of mats around a big box, from which we helped ourselves to cheese, pickle, bread and Ricard.
"It's just incredible, a seventeen-year-old winning Wimbledon." I took another swig.
"Soon enough, seventeen-year-olds will win everything," replied Steve Mayers, "there are plenty of seventeen-year-old climbers who can climb the pants off anyone."
"God how depressing! Only twenty-nine and already over the hill. Look at us...the average age of these expeditions is getting higher and higher. They'll end up like a P & O cruise."
The combination of sun and Ricard was making me depressed, and it was all the more depressing to be sitting, as we were, next to York University Caving Club Expedition, who had just started caving in the Picos not far from our Top Camp. Their area was large and new; unexplored by cavers.
"We've got these three brilliant leads, and there are dozens of entrances all around just waiting to be looked at. We're going to have our work cut out this summer I can tell you." It was a very brash and muscular youth talking. He looked a bit like Boris Becker.
"Well," I replied, grabbing the bottle as it passed by again, "we've got three poxy leads: 3/5, which is a tight horrible pot that'll drop into Xitu; F20, which is a 200-metre shaft entirely full of ice; and Sima Tras la Jayada. The trouble with Sima Tras la Jayada is that it's already been bottomed by two Spaniards who couldn't find a way on. They were probably right, but they've been wrong before, and we're clutching at straws now."
If the Ricard was making me depressed, it had had the opposite effect on Dave.
"But there's Ridge Cave! You haven't mentioned Ridge Cave!" He started bouncing up and down. "We'll find Ridge Cave! We'll find Ridge Cave! Ridge Cave, Ridge Cave! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"
The yellow Luton van coughed along the north coast road with its 2.5 kilometres of rope and eight cavers. It was one of the hottest days of the year. Here we were driving through Cangas de Onis once again, the bartenders leaning against the same walls as when we had said goodbye in August 1984. Even the road works were unchanged, and the half-completed house stood just as it had done for five years, with its upper storey still only a pile of bricks and a tangle of scaffolding. It was as if the entire townsfolk had deserted the place as soon as we had left, and had returned a few days before as part of some monstrous conspiracy of permanence.
We unloaded the van then ambled over for the celebratory drink.
Shock number one was soon coming. A note from Alvaro, explaining that he had left a crate of cider for 'my bestest friends, the most wonderfuls peoples ever to came at Ario'. Beside this was an addition, in scrawled but better English, from...Danny! This said that he had helped himself to one of these bottles in a moment of severe cash crisis, and so sorry and all that. Only a week and a half before he had rolled up with his bestest cave diving friends to do the diving he'd wanted to do for so long. When challenged by the Park Warden Danny had showed his true resource. "We are the Oxford University Cave Club Expedition. The permits for us to cave here are coming out in a couple of weeks. We're just...er...an advance guard."
Their trip had been unimaginably successful, a snook cocked at us good and proper. The bunch of them had dived all the easily accessible sumps around...Cueva Trumbio hadn't 'gone', but Cueva de Osu had. This cave, which had been visited by so many French, Spanish and English cavers over the years, ended in a sump only 2 metres long! There was a lot of cave on the other side...
Hoyo la Madre, the massive resurgence lying at the foot of a deep ravine not 3 kilometres from Los Lagos, had had a 100-metre long sump beyond which was another long section of passage, where the entire stream could be followed up a small waterfall before another sump barred progress again. Only a few days before we had set off - probably as Danny and Co. were diving in Hoya la Madre - we had finally analysed the dye-detectors from 1984 (it had taken us ten months to get them out of Steve Gale's loft). It looked very much as if Hoyo la Madre was the resurgence for the Top Camp area - the dye put into Jorcada Blanca had come out in the big resurgence. The depth potential was enormous. All we needed now was to get a cave going up there, one as good as Xitu. The breakthrough was just waiting to be found -'el exito' - the Spanish for 'success'.
The first breakthrough, such as it was, came in 3/5. This cave had been first pushed by the SIE, the Barcelona caving group, in 1978, and rejected - it was tight, horribly loose, and as unattractive as a Picos cave can be. In 1981, we had decided to have a look at it, and so William had been despatched to see what it was like. As a 'thin man', he had loved it...but he totally failed to get anyone else interested. After Xitu was bottomed, 3/5 was ignored, for it lay directly above the line of the Xitu survey. Obviously, the best we could hope for was merely another entrance to the main system. Why bother?
In 1982 we had been too busy looking for the deepest cave in the world elsewhere, and 3/5 was forgotten. But the following year, the depressing end to FU56 forced us to set our sights lower. Wingnut, the army character with the big ears, managed to force a way through the final rift into new territory. The passage continued to get still tighter, and as Wingnut didn't want to risk getting his ears stuck, he turned round and headed out. There were no plans to go back - 3/5 was a sordid place.
But we hadn't reckoned with the SIE. At the end of the 1983 expedition, as we were about to leave, we showed them our survey of 3/5. They recognised it as the hole they had abandoned in 1978, and no sooner had we left to catch the ferry, than they went down it. They got about five metres further than Wingnut, and claimed that the passage now really was too tight.
William was undeterred. "Look," he said, "I mean I know the Spanish have got through the rift and say it doesn't go, but dammit, that's what they said about Xitu. I've simply got to have another look before I write if off. Simply got to."
So here we were, at Ario once more, ready for that other look. William had been pressed into taking some of the novices, Steve Roberts believing mistakenly that 3/5 was an 'easy introduction' to expedition speleology. After the second unsuccessful trip, William was not pleased. He wrote in the log book: "Total abortion. I feel sorry for Dave Horsley who's now had to go down twice with..." He never finished the sentence, being far too polite to name the culprit who had brought matters to a halt.
The culprit's name was Gerhard: one of the strangest and most colourful characters ever to grace an OUCC expedition. He hailed from Bavaria, and was in Oxford conducting some extremely cerebral mathematics research. Not only in the Picos, where it was far too hot but only marginally ridiculous, but also among the spires of the university city, his normal dress was lederhosen. On his second caving trip, a beginners' outing in Wales, he fell 20 metres down a narrow fissure, unfamiliar with the principle of traversing above such drops. He had since endured a series of similar mishaps, yet owned an array of SRT equipment larger, newer and more impressive than the rest of the team put together. Each new setback only redoubled his enthusiasm.
In 3/5, the team had been poised at last to made the great breakthrough when Gerhard attempted to pass Wingnut's Rift. There were grunts, groans and strangled cries. He tried it on his back, on his front and on both sides. There is a common conceit among cavers to deny that a narrow bit is too tight for them: "It's not tight, only awkward," they say, lying through their teeth and regretting the greed of preceding weeks. Gerhard's approach was more individual. As Dave fretted and froze on the far side he kept insisting: "It's much too wide. The passage is too wide for me." What he meant was that he couldn't get a purchase on the broadest part of the fissure, and slipped down into the impassable trench at floor level. But after the trip was abandoned, and Gerhard repeated his explanation back at camp, he passed into folklore as the only man to be defeated by a rift that was too big.
Steve tried hard to persuade William to go down 3/5 again next day, this time to show the capable Phil and Fred the way on. Beyond the 'wide' section, Dave Horsley had found another way on, obscure enough to have been missed by the SIE - a tight slot with an echo, suggesting a pitch. Only William could be relied upon to find it again.
"Look, Steve," he complained, "I've been down that cave too bloody often and I don't see why I should go again. My gear's all wet and I'm fed up with it." But Steve worked on him, and true to form, William gave in. He set off, still grumbling, with Phil and Fred skipping along in front.
Phil and Fred were soon pushing ahead, down the slot at the far side of Wingnut's rift and down the 45-metre pitch which followed - a big change from the awkward short pitches that 3/5 had offered previously. The passage which followed was even worse than Wingnut's...'(No) Picnic Rift'.
"I say, wait a moment, it's just like the Teresa series," William said as he led off down another narrow passage. "Grunt, grunt, I'm sure that I've been here before! Grunt, but no! God! Hell! I haven't. You know it's NOT Xitu, grunt, grunt, definitely not! Oh Hell! this rift is truly awful!"
When they made it out onto the surface again William was effusive...
"Look, I mean, I'm going on a pushing trip tomorrow, and, I mean, no one's going to stop me."
The next trip found the link with Xitu. 3/5 entered as a pitch coming straight out of the roof above Graham's Balls-Up pitch -"we came down into a big chamber with a huge pile of boulders and we soon spotted a tell-tale pile of used carbide. We were in Xitu. We found some truly appalling bolts sticking out of calcite veins. Back on the surface only 2.5 hours later."
3/5 was finished at last. It was the 'last adios' - not only to 3/5, but also to Pozu del Xitu, now a magnificent cave system with three entrances, all 1,000-metres potholes in their own right; the original, and highest, was much the easiest. The whole of the plateau had now been explored; it was adios, too, to Ario.
In our propaganda for sponsors, we had made much of the potential for the 'third system' - the putative cave which ought to exist in the huge expanse of broken limestone between Ario and Top Camp. Previous investigations in this area had always been sporadic, and unsystematic, as Richard and Sara had shown towards the end of 1984. Idly leafing through the journal published by the club after the 1981 trip, they came upon descriptions of cave 3/7: "Cave 3/7 lies further along the ridge away from Ario at the head of an obvious gully. The entrance is an open shaft 9 metres by 3 metres. Stones thrown down took between five and twelve seconds to hit the bottom." In other words, no one had ever been down to have a look. They discovered a fine 80-metres shaft. It was blocked at the bottom, but the rain falling on this huge sector had to go somewhere.
There was only one major cave known - Pozu Jou Tras la Jayada, the 315 metres pothole explored by the SIE. But they had only sent two people to the bottom of the shaft, and unlike Keith who made an abortive 'discovery' of the cave in 1981, they had descended in the freezing showerbath emanating from a huge snow pile on a ledge halfway down. The extensions to 3/5, and the fact that it had taken the SIE so long to bottom Cabeza Muxa, hardened my belief that there might be a way on that they had failed to investigate.
On first inspection, the shaft was a very different and more serious proposition than it had been in 1981. I realised just how serious as I screwed a hanger into one of the old bolts at a rebelay 50 metres down. I heard a deep, forbidding rumble, roar-rattle-crash-BLING-BLANG- BOOM!!!...spontaneously. I looked down and saw the cause: car-sized boulders made of ice hanging on the wall. On top of the icebergs, stuck precariously above the route of 1981, were snow banks, which in turn were full of lethal little rocks. Swinging from the rope I spent a long time trying to dislodge the icebergs in reach: each one fell with the same terrifying, and lengthy sound. There were far too many.
I was back next day with Phil and Fred: good men to have in a crisis. There was, we found, a way to avoid the worst of the ice...at least until we reached the bottom. To one side, the shaft bifurcated, and we followed a route of unremitting verticality guarded by an overhanging roof. Phil went off first from a small ledge 100 metres down, abseiling past bulges where we needed bolts to avoid abrasion. Like the Xitu big pitch, the shaft sloped outwards, requiring an interminable series of rebelays. but our techniques had advanced a long way since those days. Dangling over nothing in a harness, trying to find a purchase on the smooth, glistening wall, was merely uncomfortable.
Phil banged in two or three anchors, then prusiked up for Fred to take a turn. We waited on the ledge, the only place to sit or stand for 100 metres in either direction, the only sounds the hissing of the showerbath on the far side of the shaft and the pinging of Fred's hammer far below. Three hours passed, then at last a cry to break the monotony: "OK...come...on...down..." The echo prevented any further communication. There was little we could do but comply.
Fred had got himself a little niche, from which a rift led behind him into the side of the shaft. It seemed to be another parallel pitch, covered with calcited popcorn. Rocks fell down it for a long time. The original bifurcation had rejoined the main pothole now, and I prayed we were out of the line of fire. The day was a little chillier: there had been fewer avalanches of late. It was my turn to carry on. Fred's fissure was difficult to rig, so I returned to the main abyss. The rock was wet and fractured, bolting impossible. I chipped and scraped at the poor, crystalline wall; the rope twanged ominously on a rub-point lost in the blackness above. What I need is a nice, natural arch to make a thread belay, I thought. Some fat chance...but no, there was one two feet above me. I slid a wire round the solid handle and abseiled on. Looming out of the darkness was terra firma. A proper ledge at last, big enough to unclip from the rope after so many hours of collective dangling. Ten metres further was the real bottom. So it had one after all.
At the back of the ledge was another drop...a window into another parallel shaft, presumable Fred's fissure further down. I dropped a rock - it was deeper, much deeper, than the main pot opposite! El Exito! Success!
I yelled up: "Rope free. I've found the third system!" As the others heard my call, their excitement matched mine. We regrouped on the ledge, whooping and dancing. La Jayada had been cracked: the SIE really blew it this time.
For form's sake, we kicked the spare rope to the bottom of the main shaft and abseiled down. A flat- floored, matt-black cathedral, chilled by the snow, wind and water which ended its hissing in a deep, clear pool. The floor was an impenetrable choke, on top of which were clumps of moss and wild thyme. We had knocked them off at the entrance - the only sign that the shaft, whose twists and turns blocked the daylight, was open to the surface.
We had three bolts left: we had better make them good ones. The first went in at the top of El Exito, the second a few metres down. Really very excited indeed, I descended. Below, a steep, loose slope in a high rift. I advanced gingerly: another pitch was probably very close.
Around the corner the floor changed to hard mud. Then there was a wall: a dead end, with only an aven bearing a tiny splash of water. It was the cruellest moment of my life. We were about 5 metres deeper than the bottom of the main shaft reached by the SIE.
By the time we reached the surface at 11.45 p.m. we were drenched by the sweat of more than 300 metres of vertical ascent. The final changeover, just two metres from the top, was the most strenuous: as I fought and steamed in a warm summer wind I couldn't get the stiff rope out of my chest ascender. The Picos had won again. The third system was a flop.
Richard and Sara had come up to Ario with Steve Mayers. They consoled me with appropriate doses of cumbres de gredos, the clarete wine which the new refugio warden Vlas sold in cartons - a sign of progress, since more cartons could be packed onto a donkey than the old plastic bottles. "Don't worry, Dave," Richard said. "There's always Top Camp. You might even find Ridge Cave."
"Richard," I replied, "fuck off will you?"
Things at Top Camp were only going in a sort of so-so fashion. Despite the hard winter, the snow was very low, which was good for finding caves, but it also meant that we were going to have a bit of a job finding enough water to drink.
At the best of times the water supply at Top Camp was precarious, for there was no surface water at all on the colander-like hillsides. In previous years we had been able to fill our water containers from the streams which ran off the bottom of the ice-sheets. The run off would fill the containers quickly if you chose a big enough snowfield, although the water had a liberal dash of glacial filth in it. This year our old favourites had shrivelled and we ere forced to fill washing-up bowls with shovelfuls of snow from the small piles that remained in the shadows. Inside a black plastic bag the contents would melt within a day or so, and there was a queue of them waiting to be used. Every morning there was the ritual 'spooning of the crud', as handfuls of the filth were decanted off the murky water that remained. A sup of tea made with this stuff had a head of scum on top which made it look like a draught of Birmingham canal water.
Some Spanish walkers appeared, and were grateful for the drink which we offered them in the sweltering heat. They sat in their shorts as Steve Mayers and I laid out the plaited ropes on the grass, assessing what lengths had made it up to Top Camp.
"Why are you here ?" one of them asked, in good English. She was a blonde, heavily made-up lady, dressed improbably in a bikini, and sweating profusely.
"Well," I began, quite slowly, "we want to discover where the water goes which falls on these hills in the caves, underground."
"Ah, yes, the water." She examined the icy cupful she was sipping, and the tide marks of scum which ran around the sides of the tin mug. "But there is very much water at Los Lagos?"
"Yes, well, we know - it's just something that we do on our holidays." I felt foolish.
"Where are the caves?" she asked, but soon wished she hadn't, for Phil Duncan let out a barrage of enthusiasm.
"F20 is just over there on that ridge - up by that snow field and left a bit. It's a vertical hole right into the ground that leads down 100 metres to the top of an ice tower over 150 metres high!"
The opening at the surface was small enough, but as you abseiled down the colossal nature of the shaft became obvious. The light at the entrance grew less and less noticeable as the sides of the shaft sloped away on all sides, and the last 70 metres of the rope were free-hanging well away from the walls, landing on the top of what was, in effect, an up-ended glacier. There was a bergschrund on all sides between the snow and the walls of the shaft, and tossed stones indicated that the depth of the cleft between ice and rock was over 100 metres in places. Phil Duncan and Steve Roberts had been unable to rig much further down, however, as the ice slowly squeezed them towards the limestone wall. The rope cut into the ice tower, making the ascent into a nightmare. Worse still, the top of the glacier was slowly receding, so that on successive trips the anatomy of the place changed considerably. It wasn't anything that we were expecting, and the cold dripping of the meltwater had frozen them both in the process of their getting to know it. Steve Roberts, in particular, was a jibbering wreck. He described the cave as 'obscenely vertical':
"The 70m puts you by the wall where there are two bolts - though you can't get at them now of course, the traverse needs re-rigging. Take some of the rope from Tonto and re-tie to a bould...by the way take two hangers. God the ice! It collapses and skids off down the gaps around...brrr." Phil Duncan interrupted him.
"There's this faint blue glow, you know..."
"Not in F20 there isn't, it's so dark! I know all caves are dark but..."
"I didn't mean in F20," Phil replied, "I meant in the gins. There's this faint blue glow to the gin at Los Lagos...I think we need some."
It's important, I thought to myself as the two of them made their way off, not to suffer any vitamin deficiencies on an expedition. That included Vitamin G.
They had left the four of us, myself, Sara, Steve Mayers and Dave, to crack on down the wet, drippy shaft to what we hoped would be the ice-cold streamway below. At least the water there would be clean.
Dave offered to carry some rope to F20 for Sara and me, while Steve went off for more from La Jayada. The way to F20 from Top Camp was so long and difficult it was impossible to do any more in one day that get there with your caving gear. Perhaps a kilometre of landscape to cross, but in all that way there was not one patch of grass to put up a tent, only the unforgiving Picos boulders which was why we couldn't camp any nearer the entrance. Our problem was how to find the cave in all this chaotic wilderness - the descriptions left in the log were awful: "From the camp go down the hill to the big pile of boulders and follow up the green valley. From there take the brown fully and leave it at mid-height, then branch off right and climb. From here the route is too complicated to describe. PS the map I've drawn is useless actually."
By late morning we were still struggling up the green valley with our heavy packs, and the sun was debilitating now. We identified the brown gully, only when to leave it? We puffed our way up...and on and on, scrambling on the knife edges of rock that lined its sides. One slip here and you would slice your leg off. No sign of any cairns, only a large snowfield that was softening in the heat. Munching some of this we eventually found ourselves struggling over the top. I threw my pack off in frustration - it was soaked through with sweat, and started attracting a swarm of flies. I cursed at our bad luck, and turned to Dave - perhaps if he went left, and I went right we should manage to find the entrance without having to reverse the awful gully. He didn't reply, but furrowed his forehead in a strange way.
"Do you know, I think that I recognise this view?" I looked out across the new expanse of featureless wrinkled rock. I looked back towards our camp. The view was almost exactly the same. Dave had shot off and was poking about in the rocks right on the top of the ridge, whereas we knew that F20 was half way down.
"For God's sake, Dave, let's find this cave and get on with it - look, it's half past one already." The heat of the sun was unbearable; all around there was a shimmering of haze from the baking rocks. Sara had taken refuge under a small overhang and was sullenly chewing some snow, knowing full well that nothing could hurry Dave up. I looked at her and shrugged my shoulders when we heard a distant shout. It was Dave: he'd gone for miles down the ridge in obviously the wrong direction. We ignored him, and then he appeared on the skyline a couple of hundred yards away.
"I've found 2/6!" He seemed very excited about it. "2/6 is the cave that I found straight after I found Ridge Cave...look, I've just got to find Ridge Cave now, it must be really close."
After all the hyperbole and embellishment since 1980 I couldn't conceive of Ridge Cave being anything other than a legend, and I certainly wasn't impressed now. As I negotiated the ragged top to the ridge, with its loose scree and blind shafts, my head beat with throbbing pain...perhaps I was getting sunstroke?
"Look," said Dave, "there it is."
And there, indeed, it was. Above a long sausage of snow was a short, flat wall. Some two feet above the top of the snow was some paint; faded black writing. It said 'OUCC 1980 1/6'. This was the legend, Ridge Cave itself, re-discovered after five years. It was probably the least impressive cave entrance that I had seen for a long while, for the massive pellet of snow all but filled the oblique cleft in the rock from which it issued. There was just enough room to squeeze between the snow and the rock and walk into what might be a cave. After Tras la Jayada it was quite pathetic. No wonder we had been unable to find the place. Dave's writing was only just visible today, with the snow at a low level - in other years the inscription and the cave entrance itself would be completely covered.
"Go inside," Dave said, smugly.
I slid past the snow and slipped into what suddenly belled into a very large cave - a 3-metre diameter tunnel headed straight into the hillside. The snow soon stopped, leaving a sandy floor and easy walking to the head of a short pitch. No one had ever been down this pitch, but for five years Dave had been boring us stupid with its potential.
"What I think we should do is this - Richard, you and Sara have your caving gear here, so go in now for a 'cheap and nasty' trip, just to see if the place goes, while I get more gear from Jayada. Tomorrow all four of us will push it as far as we can, with all the rope we can get, and we'll forget all about F20 and then go and have a massive meal in Cangas. Maybe even a wash."
"Don't you want to be the first down that pitch, Dave?" It was after all, his cave.
"No, I've waited five years, so I can wait another twenty-four hours." He also knew that he wouldn't be able to stop Sara and me going down. "See you later."
We came out of Ridge Cave quite late, with the sun just starting to redden the top of La Verdellengua with its dying rays. Way, way across the expanse of nothing there was a tiny orange blob - one of the tents at Top Camp. I gave a loud, meaningless call, and it echoed back and forwards across the slopes. A minuscule figure appeared and stood on the top of a boulder - we could just make out its arms waving.
"Does...it...go?" Dave's voice came perfectly clearly across the amphitheatre. Sara and I called back together.
Straight away the figure began jumping up and down, and waving its tiny arms, but only after a long delay did we hear the sound of Dave's simultaneous cheers.
By the time that we got back Steve Mayers and Dave had prepared a large meal for us. Dave was still excited.
"For five years I've waited for this cave. Five years. I was a completely different person then - a second year undergraduate just turned twenty."
I though about what I had been five years before...researching in an obscure branch of speech analysis. Living on a student grant in East Oxford with my cat. Now I was in Sheffield training to be an eye surgeon; mortgaged, engaged, responsible.
So four of us went on a pushing trip all together - an unusual event, but it meant that we could carry all our caving gear over to the cave as well as a huge amount of rope. The only limitation that we set ourselves was that we shouldn't cut any of the lengths of rope - otherwise we would carry on caving until all 250 metres of it was used up. As we changed in the cool of the entrance chamber, sheltering from the furnace outside, Dave made a speech. He stood on a boulder and pointed one finger in the air.
"This trip," he pronounced, "this trip will change the course of speleology in the Picos. After five years the mountains are at last ready to five up their secrets. We will need luck, yes, and why not, a certain deontology?" He was pushed off the rock by Sara as she went out of the cave again, clutching a loo-roll. Never pass up the opportunity to pass water, especially before a long caving trip.
It was a truly magnificent trip. Pitch followed pitch as the cave led on downwards, with squeezes and false leads between them. There being four of us, it took very little time to find the way on, even when it was not obvious. At one point the cave seemed to fizzle out into a tiny slot, but five minutes later we were rigging another pitch, which had been obscured behind some jammed rocks...kick the rocks down the drop and off we go another 30 metres...towards whatever was at the bottom. The tiny stream vanished not far inside, leaving most of the route through old, fossil caverns. When we ran out of rope we had rigged eleven pitches and were rather more than 200 metres down, sitting at the top of a very large pitch. Hunched on a ledge we ate some olives.
"What really gets me," said Dave, "is now nice this cave is - no ice, no freezing wind, varied caving. I told you, didn't I?"
"Yes, Dave, you told us. I can't say I believed you."
Finding Ridge Cave was a moving moment. I thought of all the parties I had blithely sent off into the mountains with the vaguest of instructions on its whereabouts., certain that its proximity to 'the ridge' would make it easy to locate. I recalled a walk with George in 1982, when we had searched every crest for miles, ending the day with burning thighs...every ridge but this one, which I had so often seen from Top Camp but ruled out because it seemed too far from Ario for Dave Thwaites and me to have explored on that distant July day. Each time we struggled up a scree-filled gully I was convinced that this was the ridge at last. How the old lags - absent friends on this expedition, Graham and John - would laugh when they heard the news. And we had been so close to it in 1983: finding it then would have changed that bitter year entirely.
The first pitch after Sara and Richard's two short drops was a beautiful, circular shaft with white, fluted walls. I called it 'Dancing in the Dark', and sang the Bruce Springsteen song all the way down. Next morning Steve Roberts appeared at camp bright and early.
"Well? What happened then?"
"Oh, we rigged eleven pitches, got into some really nice stuff; it's still going at the top of a biggie."
"So you got to the bottom of the glacier then? How deep's the shaft?"
"There is no glacier, Steve. I'm talking about Ridge Cave."
"Come on now, Dave. Don't piss about. What happened?"
Eventually, our leader was convinced. He sounded relieved: he wouldn't have to go back down F20.
"Let's start with the calamares, and then, perhaps, the steaks. That way we could have several glasses of sherry - fino - with the first course, and that good Navarra wine later."
"It's just that I'd rather have the trout, you see, and that's a main course. We can't be going drinking red wine with trout, and there won't be any white worth drinking in Cangas. It's just going to have to be champagne before the meal and during the meal."
"Oh look. We're at Lagos." We had been so engrossed in our plans that neither of us had noticed the walk down was over. All the years of caving in the hills meant that we could tramp down the mountain on auto-pilot. We'd be walking up again tomorrow, of course, but in the meantime we should have to go shopping. And have lunch. We arrived at the tents at 10. The wind was beginning to pick up. Dave began to butter some bread: "Better have some breakfast too. It wouldn't do to be too hungry, or we won't enjoy it so much."
As he spoke, a strong gust rocked the old frame tent we had used for our kitchen since anyone could remember. An empty Coke bottle flew across the campsite at high speed, and as we watched a Spanish tent of poor design collapsed onto its two thrashing inhabitants.
"Serves them right," Phil said. "They shouldn't be doing that in a Catholic country." The wind became more continuous, and it suddenly became obvious that we were going to have to take drastic steps or have all our tents destroyed. The kitchen didn't appear capable of lasting much longer.
From the store tent we dragged out several lengths of caving rope, and unravelled them on the grass. The wind was getting even stronger now, and it was enough just to throw the rope up into the air for the wind to send it flying over the tip of the kitchen tent. Some of the ropes were attached to pegs, or large rocks - some were simply tied to the wheels of parked cars. A crowd of Spanish campers had assembled, wondering what the 'locos ingleses' were doing, then all at once seemed to understand - they fled across the campsite in the direction of their tents, which, one by one, were being demolished. My own two-man was torn to shreds before I had a chance to get there - mangled poles jutted out of the blue nylon which flapped uselessly. Cavers began rushing about, giving each other orders, and ignoring all of them. Steve Gale, fearsome in his Assyrian beard, barked commands in all directions.
"Don't pull that, we've got to get a line across to there. Quick! Help me with that peg someone!"
"Take this thing and tie it around that thing!" came the reply. In the heat of the moment vocabularies seem to contract.
"Grab this pole! Somebody grab this pole!" A voice came from within the store tent. "Help me hold this tent up!"
"Help me pull this tent down!" shouted Steve Gale on the outside, and a struggle ensued, culminating in the inevitable collapse.
The Yellow Van now was beginning to lean alarmingly. I leapt in, started the engine and did a three- point turn to bring it into the wind, scattering a generous top dressing of cow dung round the campsite as the wheels spun to get a grip. As I was doing this, our pavilion tent leant back under a particularly strong gust. Like the other base camp tents, it was borrowed and useless. Climbing expeditions always seem to have superb, high-technology tents that will put up with anything that's thrown at them, but we cavers, as usual, had a rag-bag of ancient cast-offs. The pavilion was a tent of the gypsy palm- reader's variety, and had in its time been half eaten by a grizzly bear in northern Wisconsin. Now the Los Lagos wind was about to send it home.
"The pavilion's about to go, Steve." Steve Gale turned around and stroked his beard.
"Don't worry, it's quite safe." His reply seemed very well-thought out. The tent collapsed only a moment later, and the single central pole shot through the roof. The blue canvas fluttered down to the ground as the pole stood to attention for a moment, then majestically toppled.
The Spanish holidaymakers were faring no better with their trendier gear. One tent, looking like a telephone kiosk, was ripped into the air, revealing a startled Spaniard sitting on his thunder-box. He skipped into the safety of his car hurriedly pulling up blue trousers over white legs.
Only one other ten remained, its owners absent. It was a large purple frame tent, and it was taking a terrible hammering. The rubber thongs which held it down were snapping, one by one.
"I say, let's go over and tie it down," suggested William.
As we advanced towards it with a hammer and a long length of SRT rope, the owners re-appeared. They asked us just what did we think we were doing, in complex Spanish subjunctives. I began to try and explain, but just then the whole tent was lifted bodily from the ground, revealing only for an instant its aluminium frame before another vortex of wind tore into it, twisting and snapping the tent into a conical spiral, rather like a miniature Matterhorn. It then fell onto the grass, a useless crumpled heap which flapped for only a moment longer. The wind had suddenly stopped.
"What a shame," said Phil Rose, and farted aggressively.
"You must be English," said one of the men.
The discovery of Ridge Cave charged all of the expedition with a new vigour. There was now a single objective - to push the caves at Top Camp. The mass keenness which afflicted the cavers gave me the same marvellous feeling of unison of effort experienced by a rowing eight pulling wonderfully well, or in an orchestra getting it just right. I was no longer tempted to feel a useless old fogey.
Whilst we repaired Base Camp and indulged ourselves in Cangas, the aficionados of the huge, cold, wet shaft made another assault on F20. Ian Houghton, in particular, was tormented by the place. He had seen it the year before when the glacier (now called 'the Ivory Tower') had been over 50 metres higher. Now, day by day, it was getting smaller, and consequently Tonto pitch, which landed onto it, was becoming longer and longer, coupled to which the landing was onto a treacherously slippery ice ledge. We couldn't really carry on any further down the shaft without ice-axes and crampons.
The solution was simple - a twenty-foot sideways pendule through a waterfall and into a parallel shaft which, although reasonable wet, was free of ice. The shaft dropped for a further 33 metres before it broke back into the main one again, and met the snow pillar once more. The solution was simple - a six-metre sideways pendule through another window and another parallel shaft with a 30-metre drop to a ledge, from where 33 metre further down there was the floor; solid rock at last. The Ivory Tower filled half the height of the whole shaft system; half of the 225-metre sheer drop from the surface - a pile of snow higher than St Paul's Cathedral.
Unlike La Jayada, this big pit didn't end in a large chamber with no way on. Instead of a dismal mud floor the shaft dwindled into a small trench which carried away a stream. This passage ran directly below the Ivory Tower where there was a drenching shower of meltwater tipping in from the roof - the explorers dashed through in an attempt to keep their carbide flames alight, to the dry passage beyond. It continued, carrying its stream, but the passage became loose and winding, both in the horizontal and in the vertical, and paradoxically smaller and smaller, so that in the few metres before it belled out into a pitch head it was a tortuous, squalid thrutch. After the icy grandeur of the entrance shaft this came as an unpleasant surprise.
In Ridge Cave, where the four of us had come to a halt, Steve Roberts and Phil Duncan had rigged the pitch from a jammed boulder. It descended 30 metres, passing through geological ages - from loose, dry re-eroded crumbly stuff to hard, clean limestone. The next drop was round the corner. It sounded big. Steve, Nicola and I pushed on. The shaft was complex, with several ledges and bulges, but by employing some complicated knitting techniques with tapes and wires I was able to get away with only one bolt on the way down: 67 metres. Below was a sloping ledge and a further drop. Steve was waiting at the top:
That Dave was bolting on the end of a 70-metre rope was fine by me and Nicola: we had lots of chocolate. Eventually the clinking down below was replaced by 'Rope free' to cheers from the chilly upper duo. Cavers must have reptile blood...waiting in the cold results in floating torpor after about half an hour. We called the pitch Fred Flintstone; Barney Rubble was the one above. It was thoughtfully split into 20-metre lengths between rebelays, facilitating conversations as we descended: 'Big pitch, this eh?' and other gems of Varsity wit. At the bottom, a small bouldery slope and another drop in the rift. My turn. A quick ferret though the bags produced only one 9mm length despite our cunning ferrying forward of ropes as we came down. Ho hum. Out with the bolt kit.
Rope backed up, to put it loosely, to a boulder which Dave sits on, just in case. I walk backwards to the edge of the pitch and lob stone off down...weee...eee...bonk. It lands in the base of the rift, 25 metres or so below. If I smile enough I won/t have to look at the rope or what it's tied to. Bolting off the walls fails miserable, so I put one in the rock I'm standing on. The rack slips alarmingly once or twice as I made pinging music with the hammer, but Dave and Nicola have reptilised and take no notice.
Electric on. Teeter, swing and twang. I'm hanging on the belay rock which looks comfortably large and solidly jammed. Wary of my worn rack (well, it's an excuse,) I descend slowly, watching the wall and the floor...kick and spin and the rift suddenly isn't a rift any more. In the far off blackness, colossal boulders fade up and back to no wall that I can see. There's no echo. At the bottom, I'm unable to move too far...the vast cavern has a silent, dark presence that is only accentuated by the faint and regular drips coming f9rom somewhere behind me.
Dinosaur Beach. It felt like the end of the trip: we all sat boggle-eyed and silent, occasionally nodding our heads meaningfully (and chewing chocolate - so much for the rapture of the deep). A tour revealed the chamber's true size, and the chaos that lay underneath. Boulders heaped on rocks heaped on rocks heaped on pebbles. Many routes were looked at, climbing up and down. The most horrible was a squeeze past an egg-timer poised pair of rocks that on the other side proved to be nastily balanced on not much and also holding up the roof. Beyond this was a rift down which stones fell a long way, and which was declared not to be the way on. Somewhere in this horrible, loose maze a draught was found again, and it led us to the obligatory undescended pitch. We called it a day and went out to find that it very nearly was. I lay outside in my sleeping-bag facing east to try to see the dawn, but as the sky got redder the sandman finally found me.
Three days after my rediscovery of Ridge Cave, it was nearly 400 metres deep. We had come a long way since the days when pushing parties would set off into Xitu with one ladder, find a pitch, spend several hours rigging it and fail to descend. If Ridge Cave had continued on down in similar fashion we would have been 1,000metres below ground within a week. It didn't.
The next trip was also a threesome, and the three of us, Steve Mayers, Geoff Hogan and I, all knew we were unlikely to get another look at Ridge Cave. Dave and I had to take a turn in F20, and then departure loomed. He would be back to writing about racial attacks, I to removing cataracts. It seemed very far off.
Beyond the pitch, a long, descending rift took us down a steep slope without the need for rope. At the bottom we heard the sound for which we'd hardly dared to hope: a streamway.
"We've cracked this cave, Richard," Steve said, "all we gotta do now is follow the stream!" He nipped off down the passage but soon returned, crawling back at stream level, dripping with water.
"It's a boulder choke all right," he said, pulling himself up into the streamway passage again. "If you want to follow it at stream level it's going to take a long time...it's quite tight and there's a biggish rock blocking the way."
"Well, we've nothing for it but to look at some higher level, then. Let's leave the bags here." I refused to be put off by the setback.
On the continent, cavers refer to boulder chokes as 'chaos'. What they are is nothing more than a passage which has been completely filled by boulders falling from the roof in some ancient collapse. Although it is not likely that one of these boulders is going to fall out of the roof while you are there, the ones that have already fallen are more often than not poised one on top of each other in a most delicate way. Quite large boulders can be made to settle, or wobble, or sometimes the passage of caver through the choke slowly undermines the supports of the whole pile, and it can suddenly collapse into a new pile through which there may not be a passage. No one who has ever seen it can forget the boulder-choke in Langcliffe Pot, where the way through is to crawl down an avenue of car-jacks which are supposed to hold the choke up - only as you thrutch along you can see between the rocks into inaccessible gaps where lie the mangled remains of car-jacks which held up the choke not so long ago.
The stream which we had only just found, and which seemed to be the key to the rest of Ridge Cave, had vanished through the tiny chinks between the boulders; what we had now to do was to try and find some devious way through the bigger chinks in the boulders at a higher level. I have a recurring dream, which I was now trying to suppress, of crawling though a Spanish boulder-choke only to find that it collapses behind me, trapping me on the far side...I concentrated instead on the bright, clean- washed rocks that had jammed themselves in the canyon. We climbed up them, showered by a series of drips.
We each decided to try at a different level, so as to explore as much as possible at once. Steve Mayers climbed up very high and wriggled between some boulders jammed many feet above where Geoff and I were looking. This was wise, for it meant that the two of us couldn't drop anything on his head. Geoff vanished like a rabbit down a lead to the left, and I pressed on through a small hole into a chamber where the drops drummed rat-a-tat-tat on my helmet.
This chamber was simply a space between the boulders, which were the size of sofas. There were many smaller ones jammed between them and most of these smaller ones were loose. I managed to kick a few out of the way and opened up a hole into another chamber directly in front of me, and thankfully free of drips. One particular fist-sized rock didn't seem to want to move, and I tugged at it a couple of times to try and make the hole a little wider; only later did I realise that this little rock was supporting the entire roof of boulders above me...I crawled into the second chamber very gingerly indeed.
"I don't like this, I don't like this at all." I said it to myself but Geoff was quite close in some other hole and replied in a very jolly voice.
"Oh, I'm enjoying it actually." He began to hum, kicking loose rocks away in time with his tune, causing great crashings and bangings that put me even more on edge. One of the boulders in the roof above my head could rock to and fro, and because of this I decided that it would be better to try and move downwards instead.
I could hear the stream now, shooting down some small cascade probably about 3 metres below me, and the noise was coming from a hole by my feet. I took off my belt and hat, and, holding these in my right hand, I slid down through the hole into the blackness below, flailing both legs about in order to try and get a foothold. The place I had dropped into was the shape of a sentry box, with the only way out at roughly face level, into a similar sentry box on the other side. To get through I performed a sort of slow-motion dive through the hole, so that I was left standing on my hands upside down, with my helmet dangling from my chin-strap. It was absurd.
After a long struggle and many contortions I managed to turn upright, only to discover that there was no way out. I had to perform another handstand in order to reverse the move, accompanied all the time by the distant crashes of Geoff and Steve settling the boulder choke. Just let me out of here, I prayed. There are no atheists in loose boulder chokes.
On the other hand, once out of the choke, sitting down eating pineapple with the other two, it seemed most implausible that Ridge Cave had been designed by an all-knowing deity. Who would take the trouble to carve out a splendid passage and then fill it up with boulders just so we couldn't enjoy it? After all the promise, Ridge Cave was going to fizzle out, with no way through the choke. Bored by the hours of poking about, we glumly made our way back to the surface. We got lost.
"Is this Dinosaur Beach?" Geoff asked. We had stumbled into a massive chamber.
"I don't think so...there's water running down that wall."
"Oh well, we must have discovered another big chamber then."
"Yep, sure have."
This second chamber was as big and impressive as Dinosaur Beach, but was flat-floored and square. Lying like monstrous dice on the floor were two rocks as big as houses with a third glued to one wall. Why didn't it fall? Above us the walls stretched into nothingness, darkness blacker than any night. Drips fell out of the dark like shooting stars as they caught our light and then fell into the boulder floor -they were the same drips that had rattled on my helmet 50 metres below. The floor of this chamber was the top of the boulder choke, 50 metres high - a pile of rocks bigger than a hospital. It suddenly occurred to me that I would rather someone else found a way through them.
Two nights later, the night before Geoff, Dave and I had to leave for Britain, Fred and Phil came back from the cave, whispering in the dark so as not to wake anyone. In fact they woke everyone, because we were all wondering whether they would have managed to force a way through the boulders in the stream. Or was Ridge Cave just another Picos joke?
"What's the time, Phil?" Dave's voice. It was pitch black and very cold.
"It's half past four. Is there any food? Oh great!" He had found the congealed stew we'd left them.
"There's no way through the boulders at the bottom." Fred's voice joined in, a very quiet, depressed voice. I could hear him unstrapping all his gear, the swish of PVC against grass. "We managed to get past the boulder in the streamway, and down a little pitch beyond, but there's no way out of the final chamber - the stream just flows on through chinks in the rocks and that's it. I had a look at your climb though, Richard."
"Think you can do it?"
"I'll give it a chance. Will you leave your belay plate?" Through the nylon skin of my tent I heard the unmistakable sound of two men eating cold lentil curry, by carbide light.
The climb which was the only possible way on was a long shot. It was also a long climb. In the second huge chamber was a large boulder poised halfway up one wall. We called the chamber 'The Big Crunch' after the noise that this boulder would make should it eventually fall, a time which seemed overdue. This far wall, complete with suspended boulder, was on the down-stream side of the cave, and above the boulder was a passage which seemed to carry on in that direction. What we had to do was to climb up this wall and into that passage. If it 'went' it would carry us over the top of all the boulders and on into the rest of the cave. I had showed the climb to Steve Mayers, just before we left. He said it looked 'hard'. Steve can climb to the standard of E6. The hardest climb in the world is graded E7.
I wondered if Fred would manage it. If he didn't that would be the end of Ridge Cave. In Britain a choke like that would be blown to bits...they say that in Craig-ar-Ffynnon they blew up the boulder choke every day for six months before they got through - perhaps we could bet hold of some dynamite and smuggle it into Spain...no one ever searched the van on the way in? No - I dismissed the idea. The climb was our only chance. As Dave and I cruised the Escort into yet another restaurant car park on our way back to England next day I thought to myself that Fred would just have to go over the tip. Certainly there was no one else made enough to try.
Fred had soloed up to the boulder on his first try - that is to say with no protection by a rope. However, six metre up, underneath the huge block he found it possible to arrange a sling and clip the rope to it, so that if he fell the rope would save him by suspending him from the sling. For every foot that he climbed up above this sling he would fall two feet before it held - twenty feet above the sling and a fall would finish him off. Next morning, William put in a few bolts at the level of the sling and just a little to the right - the way was now clear for Fred to keep what he called his 'appointment with fear'.
Ian climbed up to William's bolts and examined the rest of the climb. It looked impossible. Fred was lifelining him from below, and shouted up encouraging words, but much of the way was overhanging, and the tiny holds snapped off in Ian's hands. Any parts that weren't overhanging were merely ledges of loose choss, and as he moved about looking for a possible way to climb up, Ian had to kick steps in all the rubbish, rather like ice-climbing. Below, Fred huddled under an overhang as bucket-loads of gravel tipped down.
All at once the rope wet taut, and there was a squeal from above - a hold had snapped away and Ian had come off. William's bolts had held.
Ian came down, and it was Fred's turn. The appointment could be put off no longer. He prusiked up to the bolts and eyed up the overhanging boulder. All he could do was to put in another bolt to abseil on - not trusting the one that had already taken Ian's fall. As soon as he started abseiling, though, Fred found that he could pendule around the side of the boulder and into a small gully on the other side, which presented easier climbing. Fred began, gingerly, to make his way up.
"Suddenly a large handhold went," he wrote later, "and I was flying past the bolt, wondering how long it would be before the rope caught me. then I hit a knob of rock, landing on my back and ripping my glasses off. I ended up dangling, with a sharp pain..."
"I abbed down, had a bite to eat and then set off up again. I got to the top of the gully and ran out of rope. Ian would ;have to come up to one of the bolts before I could carry on. By the way, all this time I was scared absolutely shitless."
Whilst Ian came up, Fred had to hang from a dodgy-looking spike, which threatened to snap off at any moment, so that he was almost glad when the time came to start climbing again. This time there was no easy way around - nothing for it but to tackle the final overhang.
Like all limestone climbs, the holds were slightly smaller than one would like, and on these Fred had to haul out backwards on arm-power alone, in the manner that sloths hang from Amazonian branches. Sloths don't wear wellington boots, but there was no point changing into smaller, climbing boots, because if a welly boot didn't fit on a foothold, then the hold would snap off for sure.
To Fred's surprise, the holds didn't break, and he wasn't sent spinning off into space again; instead, he managed to pull over the lip of the overhang and onto a fairly good slab with some solid-looking boulders only a few feet away. All he had to do now was to mosey up the slope. But he couldn't move! His lifeline, which zig-zagged up from bolt to bolt was stretched over the lip, and the combined friction made it impossible for Fred to pull up any more of it. He was a victim of the dreaded 'rope drag'.
He tried to haul up some spare rope with more and more frenzied efforts, but he couldn't do it, having to use one hand to hang onto the rock. His options were limited now... He couldn't climb back down over the overhang; far safer to jump right off into space, and hope that Ian would save the day. He remembered, though, that he wasn't on some Derbyshire edge, but at the bottom of a Spanish pothole...
There was nothing where he was to attach the rope to, so one possibility was to simply untie the rope and walk up the slab unfettered, only, what would he do then? If Ian couldn't throw a rope up to him, he would be stuck at the top of this remote cliff, for a very long time indeed. He only had one serious chance, although it was a while before it dawned upon him. He was still wearing his SRT gear, so what he now did was to dismantle it with his spare hand and tie all the cow's tails and footloops together. He clipped these to the end of the lifeline, and lengthening it in this way he could move up the slab a few more steps until the rope became taut again, with the boulders still tantalisingly out of reach. All he had left now was his thin shock-cord, an elastic strap that he sometimes used to pull his ascenders into place when climbing a fixed rope. With this knicker-band on full stretch he made it up the slab at last. Standing now behind the big blocks he could heave up all the spare rope he needed, and belay it for his descent.
"What's happening, Fred?" Ian intoned from below.
"Oh, nothing, just scared shitless again."
Fred's Folly was a gamble, but it paid off. At the top of the climb, the passage continued: an ancient high level, who knew how far above the stream which we hoped to regain. There were pitches down again, including one of 70 metres, and yet another big cavern, the Big Beluga. Phil and Ukie pushed Ridge Cave to its 1985 limit there during a 30-hour surveying and de-tackling trip. A loose climb led on through the floor, bearing a howling draught. The depth was 460 metres; the prospects excellent.
The three and a half weeks Richard and I spent in Spain in 1985 were the longest period of fine weather we had known in the Picos, but after our departure, there was a sharp change. While Britain endured the worst August (after what had seemed to me the worst May, June and July) for many years, snow fell on the mountains again. The team was much reduced in size, and those who remained had their work cut out. F20 was going too: an endless series of vicious, bewildering rifts, all with many ways through and none of them pleasant. Occasionally, a pitch provided relief as the passage widened to at least a couple of feet. Frequently, parties became lost among the different traverse levels, mysteriously bypassing pitches or having to retrace their steps when they came upon shafts for which no ropes were in place. The cave ended with another pitch into the unknown: 360 metres deep and still going.
Everyone hoped that F20 would drop into Jorcada Blanca at the Hot Tub, but back in England Steve Roberts fed the survey data into his computer and produced an accurate line. There was a long way to go towards Jorcada Blanca, and it looked as if the cave was already too deep to reach the great chamber where Perdices and FU56 met. There were no further inlets big enough to account for the F20 stream in the Jorcada streamway: to gloom from those who knew the place, but excitement from those who didn't, it was realised that F20 really might join the main Jorcada stream beyond the sump. Or, of course, become flooded itself at the same level.
A brilliant icy day towards the end of January, 1986. Two figures cocooned in duvet jackets, pick their way across the frozen, snowy moorland towards the gritstone summit of Outer Edge, the loneliest spot in Derbyshire.
"What about this summer?" asks Richard. "I don't suppose I'll be getting away. Got to be getting into the operating microscope."
"That was definitely my last expedition," says Dave. "Climbing in the Alps this year."
"How about a long walk in the Andes? Ecuador or Peru?"
"I've always fancied climbing Mount Kenya. And they have great beaches at Mombasa."
A short pause as they skirt a peaty grike, and turn to gaze at the white emptiness of Kinder Scout.
"I'm glad we found Ridge Cave. It's going to whizz under all that limestone near Top Camp, join a really big stream - I knew it was a winner the day I first saw it in 1980."
"There's a bloody big problem if it is."
"What do you mean? It'd be great."
"Exactly. That's the point."
It sinks in. "Oh no. Oh my God. You mean we'll ;have to go back there again."
"Yup. I just don't see how we can escape."
In silence now, they pass the summit stones and begin to descend, almost in sight of Sheffield but high and remote in the winter hills. Hands in pockets, wriggling toes inside their boots to maintain circulation, they trudge on into twilight, down, down to the valleys below.
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