Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
After Xitu, home and Oxford seemed unbearably flat. Fitness faded. With advancing Autumn, the previously distant threat of finals loomed very large. On my wall in a flat I rented for an incredibly low sum from Magdalen, the survey of Xitu, now drawn neatly and printed on a vast sheet of AO size paper, had pride of place. As the months passed, I would often break off from study and turn my chair to meditate on the map of the cave and its continuing challenge.
In September, most of us travelled to Nottingham for the annual conference of the British Cave Research Association. Simon's lecture with slides was the highlight of the two-day show, and he had to give it twice, flagged in the programme under the impressive, simple rubric: "Pozu del Xitu - 829 metres." When we had left for Spain we were caving unknowns, meriting only a small grant from the Sports Council subcommittee in charge of donations to expeditions. Suddenly we had arrived. Our heads swelled.
Early in the academic year we chose a committee for the return visit in 1981. It was obvious that this expedition would be on a much bigger scale than anything OUCC had organised before, and already we were getting requests from old members and other cavers with a stronger or weaker connection with the club to come. Everyone knew that Xitu was almost certain to become the first British discovery deeper than the magic 1,000 metre level.
The sudden fame and great promise of the cave, further broadcast in a series of articles in caving publications, made me uneasy that another team might try to 'pirate' it. To arrive in Spain again to find another group already in the system, or worse still, to reach new ground and find a tell-tale line of bolts, was a dismaying prospect. After a chance meeting in the barn used as a changing room for Swildon's Hole in the Mendips just before Christmas my worries became almost obsessional. Some cavers from Sheffield University told us that one of their number, Steve Worthington, a well-known figure in caving circles, had gone to Xitu in September with the intention of pushing it solo. He had been using the 'cordelette' technique, whereby a complicated system involving a lot of nylon string means that the main rope does not need to be left in place on the pitches, but can be carried on down the cave, to be hauled up in place from the bottom of each shaft using the string on the way out. The net result is that much less gear needs to be carried. Worthington, our informant told us, hadn't got far: from the description, it sounded like no further than the bottom of the entrance series. But I wondered if he intended to try again. He had already been solo to the bottom of the Gouffre Berger in France, the first cave deeper than one kilometre and still a classic. Xitu, according to Martin, who had also done the Berger, was much harder. But if not Steve Worthington, I thought, what was there to stop some Poles, or Catalans or French? The rest of the team tried, unsuccessfully to allay my fears.
Slowly, the organisation proceeded. Raising money, food and equipment was extremely easy this time. In charge was the only person with any sense of order - John Singleton, the leader for 1981 by acclaim and default.
John wasn't only organised in himself, he was good at organising everybody else and cajoling them into helping. We were planning an underground camp, somewhere near the limit of the known cave, so that more teams could reach the bottom in comfort and, therefore, safety. More rope and ladders and karabiners and tapes and wires and bolts and hammocks and thick sleeping-bags were bought than any of us had thought possible. One thing was certain: this time, we would not be stopped by lack of tackle. What wasn't being used in Xitu could be used for pushing other caves which we knew existed in the Xitu region - Dave's find on the ridge was top of the list.
Jim Sheppard turned up one evening with a computer-printed guide to all the SRT rigging throughout the cave, planned so that newcomers would know what to expect. Like me and the other Oxford cavers who had missed the 1980 expedition, he was fired with enthusiasm by the stories being told and retold in the stone-vaulted cellar of Brasenose.
A crucial figure in our plans was Nick White. Together with his wife, Alison, he had been caving regularly with the club for some time. The epitome of the scatter-brained scientist, tall, intense, bespectacled with a wild thatch of blond hair, he was working on new methods of radio-carbon dating, and his big ambition was to get hold of a piece of the Turin shroud. His great asset was that he knew about cars.
For a while Nick and Alison had lived in a double-decker bus in the car park of an Oxford supermarket in order to save money to buy a house. Its eventual purchase meant selling the bus, whose big-end bearings had long since gone. Nick couldn't get hold of any new ones, so built a fire with some bricks around a pile of coal and cast them in the car park, oblivious to the puzzled glances of the shoppers wheeling their loaded trolleys past him.
John told Nick to buy a vehicle. He chose a Land-Rover, built twenty years before. We heaved up the engine outside the club tackle hut in deep snow, as George Hostford, Nick's mechanical assistant, lay underneath to change the clutch. George was already acquiring a reputation for being hard. He shovelled in a quantity of fresh snow beneath the cab so that he had 'something soft' to lie on as he worked. Nervously, I wondered how I was going to keep up with people like this underground.
Nick insured the Land-Rover on the policy for his own Morris Minor and drew up a list of drivers, as at the last moment he was unable to come too. But he gave us lessons on the hills around Oxford, showing us how to double-declutch in the lower gears. George welded together a huge roof rack, which was loaded to a height of several feet with gear. More was loaded in the back, until there was almost no room at all for those travelling out by road. The passengers had to lie with their noses against the roof, on top of 2 kilometres of rope.
As we drove through France next day Keith let out a sad sigh. "Well, this is the last OUCC expedition to Spain I suppose. It's a shame really."
I was stunned: I was hoping this would be the first of many expeditions for me, and I thought Keith was even keener than I was. He went on: "We shall bottom Xitu this year, and I doubt we'll find another cave at Ario, as we've already looked pretty hard." I told him he was surely wrong, and there were still many caves yet to find in Spain. But he continued prophetically: "Even if there is another expedition, I shan't be going on it."
In the misty dawn we pulled off the road onto the broad meadow at Los Lagos to a couple of small tent, the only ones on the huge field. A thin voice emerged form one of them.
"I say!" William's unmistakable Etonian accent. "Are you from Oxford?" Skunk responded with his usual friendly greeting:
"Get up you lazy sods." Dave stuck his head out from the other tent. He looked serious.
"Richard, it's worse than I thought. The cave has been pirated. There's a team in it already!"
"Who are they?" asked Skunk.
"Estonians," said Dave, "and some Letts. One or two Uzbeks in their party as well, I believe." A cock crowed from the top of a large, semi-permanent structure made of a big green tarpaulin at one corner of the meadow.
"What's that?" I asked William.
"That's the bar, You'll enjoy this expedition." Brandy for breakfast was a new concept for me, but one that I had obviously got to come to terms with. We came back from the bar to create a vast pile of equipment where the neat flat lawn had been. The tents, of course, were at the bottom.
John had given the expedition vanguard the job of setting up camp and moving as much gear as possible up to Ario. We were to rig the cave as well, but this was supposed to be a bonus. It was assumed we would not go far. Some of us, particularly Dave, Skunk and Keith, took this as a challenge. We had about ten days before John and scores of others joined us. If we took things gently, we might achieve very little. On the other hand, it was possible, Dave said, if we went at it, to rig the entire cave and push on into new passage. Skunk didn't say much about this, which was a sign he agreed. Dave insisted that we should rig the whole of the entrance series next day. Everyone was sceptical: it meant carrying an awful lot of stuff up the hill and there surely wasn't time. It had taken nearly a week the previous year. Dave was adamant and asked for a companion. I volunteered, to dark looks from the others This wasn't Yorkshire, they muttered, but Spain.
Soon enough, sweltering under a huge rucksack, I discovered what they meant. The walk up to Xitu made the walks in Yorkshire look like a turn around the block. With the lakes out of sight we marched along through a broken wilderness of nothing, each rise bringing into view another one just ahead. The pointed peaks remained as distant as ever, as did Dave, who had left me far behind.
"I usually sing to myself," he shouted back, "to set the pace."
I was terribly, terribly unfit. In Oxford I had rather foolishly bought an extra-specially large rucksack, into which I should be able to fit everything I needed to go caving. I was paying heavily for this mistake, because my extra-specially large rucksack was now crammed full of an extra-specially large load of ladders and ropes. I was carrying very much more than any other member of the expedition would, and comforted myself with this thought as I plodded along slowly behind Dave, whose rucksack obviously weighed next to nothing.
I caught up with him eventually at Las Bobias, a small spring, where I threw off the terrible weight. As I drank the lovely mountain water, Dave revealed to me in the gentlest possible way that the last hour's walk represented the first, and easiest third of the walk up to Ario.
"You haven't anything to eat, Richard, have you?" he asked tentatively.
I told him that I had been relying on him. We had still eaten nothing all day.
"Not to worry," Dave reassured me, "we shall be able to eat at the refugio."
Dave hadn't been pulling my leg about the rest of the walk. The way became steeper and rockier, and there were some galling sections of descent.
By the time the refugio came into sight, in the lovely alp of Ario, I was no longer exhausted, for the tiredness had seemed to vanish again some way through the third hour of the walk, and I was completely resigned to the rhythmic plod and my heavy pack. Nevertheless I was famished. We met Eduardo, the guardian of the mountain refuge, and he was pleased to see us.
He had been warned of the arrival of our expedition, he said, and was looking forward to our siege of Xitu. He didn't seem to hold much regard for mere walkers, who were only on 'holiday', and not into dangerous sports. He himself, he told us proudly, was proficient at ';le ski extreme', where one skied off-pist down excessively steep drops at very high speed. Dave asked him if he had anything he could let us have to eat.
Eduardo apologised for being nearly out of food. He did have, he said, a couple of cans of something which was apparently 'tipico Asuriana', and called 'Callos'. He got them, then left to look for his horse, which had been wandering loose in the meadows outside.
We opened these tins and tipped them into one of the refugio's greasy dishes to heat up - it was a gaudy red stew containing quite a few white blobs of indeterminate ancestry; they were rubbery and spongy-looking. It smelled horrible, but Dave grabbed a spoon and plunged it into the bubbling mess. My stomach rumbled uncontrollably.
A few moments after taking a mouthful of this stew, a look of horror came over Dave's face and he rushed over to the window and spat it out.
"Try it, Richard, it's...lovely."
It was the foulest thing I have ever tasted. Callos turned out to be pig's lung stew, famous for its incredibly hot sauce, which managed to make the lungs even more vile than if they had not been cooked at all. With Eduardo outside, we took the opportunity to chuck the whole lot behind a rock, where the refugio's dog jumped on it with a whine of delight. After three mouthfuls it stopped eating, coughed violently, then scurried off. The Callos was still steaming incriminatingly when Eduardo returned. He glanced at it, and smiled to himself.
Dave and I were now desperate for food, having had our appetites whetted by the thought of the stew, but the only food was at Los Lagos. We had no option but to go, and ran back down the mountain with our empty packs flapping on our backs. After a massive meal at the base camp, we packed our bags with food and still more caving equipment, and walked back up the path in the dying sun. The sunset was remarkable, tingeing the tips of the highest peaks in some improbable shades of scarlet and crimson. At the refugio, now worn right out, we made another large meal and climbed into the uncomfortable bunks which sagged so badly in the middle that for the rest of the expedition I slept outside on the grass.
Eduardo had again decided to make us all 'federados' on special reduced rates. Lying in the dormitory, a disturbing thought crossed my mind, for I had watched rather too many spaghetti westerns, and I knew that 'federados' were the cannon 'fodder Mexican soldiers who were mercilessly slain by the dozen towards the end of the second reel. I had bad dreams.
My apprehensions were fuelled further by the amount of gear that we sorted out the next morning. This year we were planning to rig every one of Xitu's entrance pitches with electron ladders and with ropes, so that they would be set for the heavy traffic ahead. This meant that even with Eduardo carrying for us we could hardly manage to get the gear to the entrance in one trip. How could there be a cave, I wondered, that required this amount of tackle just for its entrance series? We had bag after bag of rope, and tangled bundles of ladders which dragged along the ground behind us. We had to take this monster pile of gear through the Xitu entrance rift, the rift that I had heard so much about in the Brasenose College Bar, the rift in which one chap had been stuck for two hours, the rift that made Xitu so serious.
The idea was for Dave to go through first. I was to follow with as much gear as I could manage, and we would make trip after trip until all the stuff was through. I reckoned that we could manage it in four trips: in fact it took six.
"Follow me then," said Dave, and disappeared into the darkness with the first couple of tackle bags; down the first pitch to the start of the rift. As I dragged some ladders behind me, I fought to control my worry. This was my first caving trip outside Britain. Just how hard was Xitu going to be?
Almost straight away there was a curse from Dave. It wasn't the normal sort of swearing that you hear underground, the sort that cavers use when a minor problem arises, such as ripping one's suit, dropping a bag down a hole or falling up to one's neck in icy water, it was an abrupt 'Oh No!' in a quiet icy tone. Something horrible had happened, and I crawled forward as quickly as possible to see what it was. There, on the floor of the chamber below, Dave was on his hands and knees with his nose pressed against the rock floor, not moving. He looked hurt.
"What...what's happened, Dave?" I asked, expecting the worst.
"I've lost my bloody contact lens, dammit!"
"Thank God it's only that; I thought it was something terrible."
"It is terrible! I shall be wearing glasses in all the photos from now on."
Half an hour later, wearing the glasses, Dave led me through the rift. The heavy bags and awkward bundles jammed repeatedly below us - drop one and you never get it back. One of the landmarks was a forlorn karabiner winking up from the narrowest part of the floor. I couldn't turn my head around to see ahead, and my ears rubbed on either side of the smooth limestone walls. Soon, soaked through with our own perspiration, we sat on the pile of gear on the far side of the rift and watched our breath curling in great wafts as we paused to cool off.
These trips solved the rift for me. I got to know its every bulge and subtle change of shape. I knew every place where you could get a toe-hold, or use an arm-jam to stop yourself from sliding into the funnelling walls. The rift was Xitu's gate: get through it easily and you started your trip feeling fresh, or emerged on the surface not too close to desperation. I never had trouble with it again.
Some people had epics in that rift, with vast amounts of sweat and energy used to go only a few yards. Later on in the expedition Chris Danilewicz, a geology student who had just joined the army, got stuck for more than an hour. He slipped down in the central part and was thoroughly jammed, trying time and again to free himself whilst his four companions waited patiently on the far side for him to get out. The rift was far too narrow and difficult for them to have helped him, and eventually, cold and impatient, they realised this. As the stuck man wasn't in any real danger they might as well get out and begin making supper. Furthermore, his jammed body was just the thing they needed to make their own trip through simple - they could walk over the top of him! It is said to this day that he has them down on his personal hit list.
Beyond the rift we continued the descent, the volume of tackle slowly diminishing as Dave and I used it up. We rigged the pitches with self-lining ascents in mind, where one abseils down the rope and climbs back up on the ladder, with an ascender clipped onto the rope as a safety device. It was a good method, and quick, but there were was always the danger that cavers who were tired after a long trip would be over-confident and wouldn't bother with the ascender, which could be fiddly and took time to arrange on the rope. Later in the expedition one chap was knocked right off a ladder by a stone falling spontaneously from the roof. He dangled 20 metres above the floor from his self-liner, which for the first time he had taken the trouble to use.
Dave and I finished our trip by rigging the last of the twelve pitches which led to Xitu's first stream. Worn out, but elated, we regained the surface just as the last flickers of the sunset were leaving the highest peaks, twelve hours after we entered the cave. Tomorrow, we both agreed, someone else could carry on with the rigging.
At the refugio there was only William, who had gone to bed, in his pyjamas as usual, and Keith. Keith was stirring a large stew, which looked delicious.
"Try it," said Keith, "it's fabada, 'tipico Asturiana'. Thankfully, it was quite unlike Callos.
"Tell whoever else is going down tomorrow that they've to rig to the Gap at least," Dave said between mouthfuls of beans.
"There's no one ready to cave tomorrow," Keith replied. Apparently the rest of the expedition vanguard had done a series of carries in the midday sun, and were now all suffering from heatstroke. Kev Senior had arrived and was fit, but had had a swim in Lago Enol and lost his glasses underwater - he was now blind as a bat. Dave had two gulps of wine then changed his mind.
"Right! We'll rig to the Gap." I lowered my aching body into a chair and inwardly groaned.
After we had made this foray with William the following day, the pace of the expedition quickened. Jan, Keith, Skunk and Skippy, all now recovered from the heat, piled tackle at the furthest point we had rigged, then carried on downwards in a series of trips. Keith and Skunk spent a long time re- rigging Flat Iron Shaft, making it safer by 'gardening' it of loose stones.
Belayed from their new take-off at the big muddy ledge where the main shaft began, they happily dangled in space and knocked small scree and large blocks down the booming pitch. Some of the bigger blocks had seemed firmly part of the cave wall, but on closer inspection Keith and Skunk were finding that they were merely stuck on with a layer of dried mud. One such boulder turned out to be the 'chossy ledge' of 1980. Driven into it, of course, were the two bolts on which we had abseiled 100 metres.
They emerged late in the evening of July 11, just seven days from our departure from Oxford. There was enough tackle stockpiled at the bottom of Flat Iron to rig the rest of the known cave, they said. Anyone who went down next day with another bag or two could, if they were prepared to spend long enough underground, push on into new territory. Richard and I looked at each other. It was our turn.
Next day dawned cold and foggy, a clinging drizzle reducing the visible world to an unappealing radius of about ten yards. The entrance pitches were wet, and by the time we reached the Teresa Series the prospect of doing a trip on the epic scale required to advance beyond the 1980 limit seemed remote. The ebbing of enthusiasm was unspoken but shared.
"Well, this is it." We were at Flat Iron. The shaft had lost little of its power to intimidate. I sat in the small chamber below the last climb down and smoked a cigarette, hiding from the terrifying inflation of magnitude lurking through the slot beneath my feet. I at least had been there before. Richard had never been down a pitch remotely as large, and he checked and rechecked his gear, obsessively making sure the screwgate on the karabiner linking his descender to his harness was tight. In a few weeks' time, this shaft would come to seem commonplace, but now it needed an effort of will, a conscious, slow effort of fear-control to stand up and clip onto that rope.
"See you soon. It's not that bad."
A small era later Richard joined me on the platform above the last drop into Eton Palais. I had now worked myself into an angry lather of frustration: "Jesus fuck shit Christ!"
Still trembling, relieved in the extreme to have bottomed the pitch, Richard looked at me, bewildered.
"The tackle! I can't find the bleeding tackle!"
To this day, I do not know what happened. Skunk and Keith had told us that all the rope we needed and more was here, on this ledge. We could not find it, and vainly Richard joined me in hunting under every boulder. With the gear we had brought down ourselves, we had only enough to rig into Eton Palais and the first of the Samaritan pitches. When faced with a long, overnight trip into unknown passages I had felt unenthusiastic, unsure whether I was ready at such an early stage of the expedition. Now that that prospect was gone, I was inconsolable.
Glumly we fixed the rope into the chamber and resolved to poke about as much as we could. We found the place where the water falling down Flat Iron arrived in the Palais, and followed its tortuous course through the chamber's boulder floor, hoping to ascertain whether it really did flow off somewhere to emerge at Trea. The evidence of our eyes was unequivocal. it passed through the cavern straight into the streamway below. Martin's dye test - and the elaborate, improbable theory which he had based upon it - was false.
At Samaritan One we rigged the pitch more sensibly than it had been in 1980, reducing the wet section to the last few metres. We stood on the ledge above its sister and cast down a few rocks. The draught was very strong, the blackness enthralling. "You know what we've done," I said. "We haven't just fucked up our own trip but made it virtually certain that Skunk and Keith will get a long way into new stuff." Richard mournfully agreed. Teamwork was all very well but some ideals are best in moderation.
Our only accessible lead was back in Eton Palais. From the Flat Iron rope, it was possible to pick out what looked like a passage on the far side of the chamber, much further round than the streamway. The walls of the cave appeared to taper in, but not to close down altogether. Trudging up the loose slope, we confirmed that there was a passage, a slot about a metre wide. Soon the only way on was down. The stream was no longer audible. Postulating an alternative shaft system, or a new high level passage like the Teresa Series that might one day turn out to be the real way on, our depression lifted.
Richard led the first climb down. I had noticed that he had taken a long time on it, and had said very little. After a few moves, on brittle flakes above what looked like a long drop to one side, I was more voluble: "How the hell did you do this? It needs a bloody rope!" Richard's response was neither too mocking, nor too alarmed. "This is a bit bloody..."
We were in a circular room, 15 metres below the start of the climb. The floor below the ledge on which we stood plunged down in a further drop which was obviously not freeclimbable. Everything was loose. A few days earlier, interested to test the liberalisation of Spanish culture since the death of Franco, we had purchased a gynaecological text cum girlie magazine called El Puritan. This was the name we decided to give to the new series of passages.
"And this," Richard said, "shall be the Sala de la Disciplina Inglese."
Our log-book entry after surfacing described what was to come:
Now El Puritan ends decisively to the right. Two further exposed climbs in another chamber, the Sala de la Ropa Interiore, the second of which has a very nasty exposed mantelshelf traverse move, lead into a passage, a high, brittle rift of considerable age, the Galeria de las Mujeres Perversas. Progress is variously walking on jammed boulders, crawling and climbing until a very nasty climb at a T junction where I (Dave) nearly went to the bottom of the rift, about 40 feet, with a large boulder that had been the main handhold.
I have never been so close to being killed before or since. With the main drop directly below me, I had lowered myself over the edge, intending to reach a ledge 2 metres down of the right with my feet. I was clasping with both hands to the firm edge of what I thought was simple a ridge of rock in the floor of the passage above.
I was fully committed when I realised that the ridge was a boulder pinned only with dry, dusty mud. It was moving. As it slid, so I began to slide into the hole beneath.
Richard saved me with a hand under one armpit. I grabbed his arm and my legs dangled. The boulder moved down my body and fell free, reaching the bottom with a booming retort. I scrabbled for land.
Our lights were now dim. Sorting out the series of climbs had used up all the water in our carbide generators, and their gas output was greatly reduced. At the slightest knock, they went out. We had electric back-ups, but both of us had not troubled to bring spare batteries, and this alternative light source was running low as well. We knew that if we lost the light altogether, we could be in serious trouble: no one knew we had any intention of venturing this way, and we were far out of earshot of Eton Palais. We had to hurry, yet the climbs, illuminated feebly, were more difficult than they had been on the way in. By the time we reached the safety of the Palais and its water supply, we were both in a shaken, nervous state. El Puritan was going. But it was far and away the most frightening and unattractive piece of cave we ever found in Spain.
Hours later we tiptoed into the dormitory in the refugio, the dawn sun breaking on the peaks but still far from the grassy Ario depression. Keith stirred and opened one eye:
"You haven't been long. What time is it - 7.30?"
"7.15. We couldn't find the tackle."
He looked at me with disbelief. "You couldn't find the tackle? But it's on the ledge, you stupid berks!"
Later that day the character of the expedition changed. John arrived, purple beneath his mountainous rucksack. With our leader were Graham, and eight others. The days of being a cosy, close-knit advance party were gone.
John was all for establishing an underground camp immediately. He argued that the cave was almost certain to be several hundred metres deeper, and that any further pushing would be highly dangerous. There was tension in the air that night in the gaslit common room of the refugio as the argument went back and forth. Keith and Skunk put it forcefully that having worked so hard to be in a position to begin new exploration - something no one had expected so soon - they deserved one crack at it. John put the counter-argument just as strongly. Even to reach the top of Rape B'Rape pitch, the limit of 1980, would be a serious undertaking, involving the rigging of five pitches and the carrying of a massive weight of tackle. In the end, with some grumbling, John gave in. He urged Skunk and Keith not to spend more than twenty-four hours underground lest fatigue lead them into carelessness and danger.
Having won their point, the two pushers took it easy next day. They rose late, and took a long time over breakfast. William and Skippy left to have a look at 3/5, a promising entrance found in 1979 which the survey showed to be very close to the line of Xitu, suggesting that the cave might provide an easier entrance. Graham went down Xitu to tinker with the rigging in the upper part of the cave. John descended with Jan and Mark Godden to survey William's Bit, the long muddy passage William had discovered the previous year branching off the Teresa Series. Still Skunk and Keith sat chatting in the refugio, smoking endless Winstons and chewing bread and tinned pate. Keith spent a long time trimming the ends of yet more cigarettes so that they fitted in his waterproof case. To fond and envious farewells, they left at last at two.
An hour or two later they met John and his party, who were already on the way out. Again John admonished them not to take longer than twenty-four hours ad they promised that if they went over that limit, it wouldn't be by much.
William and Skippy emerged with a promising report on 3/5. It was never going to be an easier entrance to Xitu: much of the cave was constricted, and formed in crumbly rock. But it was still going nearly 100 metres down, and would repay further visits. According to the survey, it was near the great black aven above the Gap. If it did connect there, it would make a magnificent entry to the main cave.
The following morning, July 16, was cloudless and warm. We took our breakfast out onto the grass and wallowed in the sunshine. John, Richard and I decided to take some rope and look at the unexplored pit beneath the 'bold step' at the beginning of the Teresa Series. With any luck we should meet Skunk and Keith on the way out and could give them a hand if they were tired. It seemed strange that they had already been underground for a night and the best part of a day, and were going to be underground a long while yet.
Leaving at ten, we were down for about ten hours. The trip was very efficient, and after reaching a first ledge 25 metres down we rigged five further pitches, all dry and spacious. Drawing us on was the sound of a considerable volume of water.
To rig the last drop into what appeared to be a chamber containing a deep pool, we stood on a calcite bridge across the shaft. John and Richard bolted furiously while I played a wailing blues harmonica, spurring them to complete the work more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. I was just getting into the theme from the Old Grey Whistle Test, when John handed me a rope.
"For fuck's sake get on down. We can't take any more."
A nice free abseil of 20 metres then wet feet. IO recognised the place instantly. We were in Chopper Chamber, having found merely an alternative - albeit a pleasanter one - to the Trench pitches route.
There was no sign of Keith and Skunk on the way out. Graham, Hywel and Mark had gone down to the big pitch with some camping gear, and they had not seen them either. By the time we were all changed and sitting in the refugio ready to start dinner it was 9 p.m. The two pushers had been gone thirty-one hours.
Richard, typically, looked on the bright side: "Well it does mean the cave probably hasn't sumped."
I feared the worst: "What if one of them is hurt? What would the other do - stay with him and wait or come out for help? What time should we plan a rescue?"
John grumbled about what he seemed to regard as a challenge to his leadership: "I told them very clearly about the time. They knew exactly what they're supposed to do."
As the evening wore on, our uneasiness grew. It seemed unlikely that it would have taken Skunk and Keith more than twelve hours to rig the remaining pitches up to Rape B'Rape. Given that they must have expected it to take eight or nine hours to reach the surface from there, it was hard to come up with an innocuous explanation for their lateness. By midnight we had finished the last of the pungent red wine Eduardo sold in plastic bottles. Eduardo had gone to bed, so we couldn't purchase any more. Richard expressed the consensus which had emerged by default. "We'll wait 'till morning then. And if they're not out then move fast..."
It was hard to sleep in the crowded dormitory at first. Two fears occupied my mind: that they had finished the cave, or that one of them was hurt. But at last sleep came. At 3 a.m. I jerked awake. They had arrived. I asked Keith what had happened. Almost incoherent with exhaustion, he was fighting with his sleeping bag, trying to get into bed, and complaining of a sore groin. He said only one thing that related to his experiences of the past thirty-seven hours.
"Xitu isn't giving up easily."
A few hours later on the force of that remark became apparent. On their way out, Skunk had bashed and badly bruised his elbow. Later, clipping onto the rope at the bottom of Samaritan One, Keith had flicked it, pulling it out of the water, hoping to avoid a soaking. It had caught behind a projection and then, when he was already on the way up, come free. He had been sent penduluming into the rock with great speed, and took the full impact on his right knee. By the time he reached the top of the pitch it was badly swollen. From this point on, their exit was extremely slow. Keith was able to use his leg only be gritting his teeth. Most of the time, he was forced to prusik up the ropes on one foot. The long horizontal passages between the big pitch and the entrance series took him eight hours to negotiate, instead of the usual two. All the time the pair had battled against exhaustion. They had long run out of cigarettes and food.
Yet their trip had been an outstanding performance. From the bottom of Flat Iron they had carried five tackle bags between them. It was not until 6 a.m. that they reached the head of Rape B'Rape. Keith wrote the trip up soon after regaining consciousness on the morning of their return:
This was the trip we'd been looking forward to for nigh on a year...after rigging the pitch we breakfasted on a few squares of chocolate and a very welcome fag and at 7.15 a.m., 16 1/4 hours after setting off we started the big push to the bottom of Xitu. A nice section of long, winding marbled streamway with a few short climbs saw us to a three-metre scramble down to an attractive greenish lake of unknown depth. We traversed round the right-hand wall.
Beyond, Keith wrote, the stream cascaded down a narrow slot which looked impossible to rig on rope:
Not to be defeated I espied a small hole between large boulders jammed overhead in the rift. Balancing precariously on a rock I lunged upwards, copped hold of a flake and heaved myself up, laboriously working my way through the vertical squeeze. Emerging into a small chamber I looked around and a few feet away saw a much larger hole heading back into the rift I'd just come out of.
There followed a period of profound blasphemy. Ahead of me the floor dropped and disappeared and I found myself in the roof of the rift, with the stream 100 feet below. I rigged the pitch with natural belays. This drop is to be known as Flyer Pot, because we found it after 18 hours underground, and an 18-hour shift at British Steel is known as a flyer.
At the foot of the pitch the stream roared away down a series of steep climbs, the last bypassed by an exposed path along the right wall - The Traverse of Truth.
After 50 feet or so we dropped into a tight, sharp rift which rips Petzl suits to shreds - ask Skunk. Several hundred feet of this suit-shagging, body-shagging, morale-shagging passage are followed by a small chamber. The river disappears down a four-inch slot and we climbed up, to a perch 25 feet above the re-emerging stream, which we rejoined after a rather unsafe climb down. This leads to a wet, overhanging 10-metre pitch which will require bolting. It appears to land on a ledge, beyond which is a 15-foot drop to another ledge, and then we thought we could make out a further short pitch beyond. At 11.30 Thursday morning we began our 15 hour ascent, emerging to a beautiful moonlit night at half past two Friday morning.
Keith ended his entry in the log with a recommended list of tackle for 37-hour pushing trips:
Four times normal cigarette supply; ammo can of either valium or librium; cyanide capsule (only to be used in extremis); spare limbs to replace those belted against rock walls; spare boots, light, undersuit, oversuit, SRT gear, knackers; replacement crutch, to be used when the first one is chafed by furry suit and harness out of existence; replacement brain, to be used when first one is worn out of existence by lack of sleep.
The new passages sounded serious. But the depth of the cave must now, we knew, be approaching 1,000 metres with no sign of the end. Meanwhile the epic qualities of Keith and Skunk's adventure had removed any argument about the need to camp.
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