Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
And so, to some acclaim from the caving world, we went our separate ways. Of the 1980-1 hard core - the 'hombres' as we were beginning to refer to ourselves with tongues only half in cheek - several were staying in Oxford. Keith still had another year to go before finishing the pre-clinical part of his medical training. John, Graham and William began research projects. Richard started learning how to be a proper doctor at the John Radcliffe hospital. I went home to my parents in London, and threw myself into journalism, first as a freelance and then as a staff reporter at the magazine Time Out. Skunk went back to Birmingham and developed a serious illness that was never satisfactorily diagnosed until it cleared up as mysteriously as it had begun nearly three years later. Martin moved to Cardiff and began work at British Telecom, and Skippy began to train as a doctor too in Birmingham.
For the best part of three months I was out of touch with the club altogether. I had had enough of caving for a while: the arguments and tensions of the latter part of the 1981 expedition seemed fresher in my mind than the thrill of Xitu and I devoted all my energy to a new kind of discovery, digging out the news.
The way things worked out at Time Out Mondays were always the busiest day of the week, before the magazine went off to the printers. Often I would be in the office until after midnight finishing off stories. My phone rang at about 7.30 in the evening of Monday, November 16. A piece of paper was in my typewriter on which I was about to begin my main article for the week, and the sound of the telephone bell came as an annoying distraction.
It was John. He came straight to the point. He had already conveyed this message several times that evening. "Dave, I'm afraid I've got bad news. Keith's dead. He was killed diving at Wookey Hole on Saturday. The funeral's later this week."
I stammered out the obvious questions: how, when, most of all the one nobody could ever answer, why?
John knew very little: even today, no one really does. Keith had been with several experienced divers in the far reaches of Wookey Hole, the cave from which flows the River Axe near Wells in the lee of the Mendip Hills. The first part of the cave, as far as the ninth chamber, is open to tourists and lit by permanent electric lighting, but beyond, it is accessible only to divers - who have still not probed all its secrets.
Keith had been attempting to dive the sump between the ninth and nineteenth chambers, a long but now well-worn way which he had successfully negotiated before. There are two routes through the sump, and Keith set off first through the lower, deeper passage, leaving Martyn Farr - one of the best cave divers in the country - to follow along the shallower, but more difficult route.
When Farr reached the end of the sump Keith was lying - in sight of airspace, at the very end of the flooded section - in ten feet of water, motionless, with his airtank mouthpiece floating free. Farr immediately dived to retrieve him, and soon joined by others, began a desperate attempt at artificial respiration which lasted vainly for nearly an hour.
What might have happened? Some thought that perhaps Keith passed out from cold: his wetsuit, his friends would remember with a grimace, was not always in the best condition, although he was wearing two wetsuits when he died. Rob Parker, another experienced diver who was on that ill-fated trip, suggested that Keith may have swum too fast uphill from the 'elbow' of the sump at seventy feet depth, and found himself unable to take in enough air to feed this strenuous exertion: then, maybe, instead of resting he decided to 'go for it', thinking himself (rightly) to be almost at the end of the sump but without enough air in his lungs to make it. There will only ever be theories.
And we had lost a friend, an hombre, a comrade without whose skill and daring we might never have reached the bottom of Xitu. Keith was an overwhelming person: for a very long time after his death, sometimes even now, we would speak of him as if he was alive, telling stories about him: not consciously as a way of remembering him, but simply because he had played such a central role in everything we had done that it was impossible to talk about Spain or caving without bringing him into the conversation.
Without his death, we might never have gone back to the Picos. His own presence on the next expedition had been doubtful: after Xitu, he said, he didn't think deep vertical caves could ever have the same allure, and he had, he said, 'found the way on' - with air tanks on his belt. his losing that way stopped the rest of the team's accelerating drift apart. At his funeral in Wedmore, not five miles from where he died, we were together again, and after the Catholic priest had intoned what seemed to me a maddening ritual untruth about how lucky Keith was to get to heaven early, we sat with his parents, drinking whisky in celebration at our own survival and toasting the man that he had been. A few weeks later we had a dinner in Oxford. Graham would lead another trip. El Joon '82, a small reconnaissance, was on.
"Above all we need a van," Graham said. At this stage in the late Spring this lack was keenly felt. The most obvious thing to do was to invite some mug who already owned one. George had a Land-Rover, but the most important bits of it were often wrapped in old newspaper on his kitchen table. The only place it was going was perhaps his living room table, and then only if he cleared the Maxi away. Nick White was a good bet: good old Nick, without him there would never have been transport in'81. Perhaps he guessed the way our minds were working. He emigrated to America. We wrote to Kenning's van hire. Six weeks later came the reply: Mr Kenning, to whom we had made our request, had never made loans of this nature and anyway, he had been dead for some months. Word seemed to have got round.
Paul Cooper, a medic and climber on his first trip to Spain, suggested thinking big. "Let's buy one. How much cash have we got?" Graham knew: "About three pounds." We went to the pub, to be joined by Tom Houghton, yet another medic.
Sitting in the Rose and Crown John took a sip of his beer: "Barclays!" he exclaimed.
"I thought this was Ind Coope," mumbled Tom.
"No - this is the answer. Borrow the money, buy a van, and sell it when we come back." But who would want to buy a van after if had been used by cavers for six weeks? Nick White? No, he had emigrated to America. We agreed to solve that problem when we returned. I went over to the phonebox and called the bank. They would see us next day at 11a.m. "It'll mean getting up early then," said Tom. Paul was trying to e practical: "Let's all go looking really smart, to impress the manager how sensible we are." I looked around the room. There wasn't anyone there a mother would willingly leave alone with her baby.
The following morning we were ushered into the manager's office by a pale girl. She pressed herself against the wall as we passed. The manager rose to greet us, but instead of shaking his hand, John rolled our huge survey of Xitu out onto his desk. It smelled more than a little of stale beer. "This is the cave," John said, not letting the manager speak. "We camped here and explored it right down to this sump. It's mainly vadose, but there's a bit of high-level phreas here, and here." He stabbed the map with his finger as he spoke. Graham had got out a file and opened it, spilling photos out onto the desk, pushing them under the manager's nose. The latter had gone pale too and was gripping the top of the table tightly.
"I went caving once..." he gave a slight shiver.
"Oh, that's great," said John. "We're off to the Mendips this Saturday. Fancy coming? Ever done any free-diving, I can lend you my old wetsuit though it is a bit leaky..."
The manager looked up, ashen. "How much do you want?" he said, reaching for his pen.
Oxford University itself sold us its old van: a yellow Ford Transit that had taken various clubs all over the United Kingdom. It had been abused by students but well looked after between outings by one of the 'bulldogs'. In the 1960s these university policemen were the terror of rioting undergraduates. Now that the rules had been loosened they took out their frustrations on the Transit's engine.
It turned out to be the all-time great expedition vehicle, differing markedly from all its predecessors and successors by starting, travelling along and stopping when, and only when, requested. Graham fitted his 'ghetto-blaster' stereo cassette into the front and on the appointed day, Friday July 9, we set off to the heavy beat of rock and roll. Laden with two kilometres of rope, food, tents, caving gear and several cavers, thirty hours after departure we lurched once more onto the grassy Los Lagos campsite. The mountains, fringed by glinting snowfields, were as calm as the windless surface of the lake.
"The first thing we must do," said Graham, "is..."
"Go and have a drink at Amador's" came the immediate reply. Graham found himself standing in the field alone, and raced off after us. Catching up by the entrance to the bar he told us breathlessly that on no account should we mention the Falklands. The task force had recaptured the islands only eight weeks before, and the Spanish had been warm in their support for their Argentine co-linguists.
The rotund, twinkling Amador hadn't changed at all. "Hombres!" he exclaimed.
"Hombre!" I took his hand. He got out some glasses and poured ponches, the local liqueur. None of us had had time to change money but this is never a problem in Amador's. For his regulars, los Ingleses, it was always possible to defer payment until manana. Beaming, Amador explained to the others in the bar who these foreigners were. One turned to Graham, furrowing his brow, and dredged out some schoolboy English:
"What you theeng of Heneral Belgrano?" Graham choked on his drink, but before he could think of a reply, the Spaniard continued: "When you geeve back Hibraltar? You like Juan Carlos? Lady Diana ees beautiful. I have been in Tunbridge Wells."
The whole bar fell into laughter, and the Spaniard's pals clapped him on the back. More ponches were ordered. Amador waved aside our feeble attempts to explain about the cash: "Manana, manana."
Once installed again at Los Lagos our plan was to set up two further camps, at Ario and later, after making a series of forays from the Ario refugio, somewhere in the high country beyond.
The pasture of Ario lies at the head of a long dry valley running up from Los Lagos, followed for most of its length by the sweaty path only too familiar to Oxford speleologists. Xitu, of course, is where the valley rises to meet the plateau's edge, near the viewpoint or mirador which affords a panorama of the surrounding hills. Looking towards the main ridge of the massif from here, at first the land slopes down, into a confusing area of depressions, blocked shafts and interconnecting ridges, the Joos de la Cistra. Beyond it rises again towards a wall of high peaks: Jultaya, Cuvicente, La Robliza and La Verdellengua. It was among these peaks that our first goal, El Joon, Lay. The Joon, a deep, scooped depression, is entered by a high pass, the Boca del Joon. To get there was a long walk across difficult country. In high alpine limestone like the Picos no one valley or natural feature can be followed for long. Without surface drainage to guide and shape the landforms, valleys have no outlets, while most ridges tend to end in sheer cliffs. Alvaro, the new warden at Ario, said he would show us the way. It seemed to be an excellent idea.
Alvaro had been a keen and expert climber until a serious fall left him wrecked. He was a short, powerful man with curly hair and long arms. Bulging muscles tugged at his T-shirt, which covered a scarred body. His left leg bent sideways at the knee, the bones knitted badly after his accident, so that as he walked he would lope along at great speed. His broken English was almost a parody of an accent, and lurching by my side he told me what had happened to him. His pidgin gave the story a simple horror.
"I have very luck. In Macizo Central I make climb - very difficult. Is winter. After finish climb, I descend and felled three hundred metres. I lie in snow for four hours before found, but all the time I..." and he made a sign to indicate that he had been unconscious. He had, he said, broken both legs in several places, and had had operations on his shoulder, left knee and his right elbow. It was a remarkable testimony to his endurance and his determination that he had got himself back into such fine shape: eighteen months after his fall he was itching to begin climbing again and could now easily do pull-ups on his middle fingers alone.
Alvaro knew the mountains well, and his skill made the walk to El Joon much easier. Our problem was that we had been molly-coddled on Ordnance Survey maps, which generally showed mountains as up and valleys as down, and marked rivers only where there were any. Spanish maps didn't bother with such dull traditions as this, and so required some imagination to interpret. Alvaro had ho difficulty at this, and could often even point out on the map where we were! He seemed quite at ease with the fact that the map showed a depression where there was in fact an obvious mountain, and that the thousand foot cliff wasn't shown at all. Navigating in the mist with this map would be impossible for us - so we decided to build a line of cairns across the wasteland of the Joos de la Cistra. Stuck in bad conditions in El Joon, all we would have to do would be to locate the start of the cairns and then follow them back to food and a warm bed.
Slogging up hill the first landmark was Pozu Jou Tras la Jayada, the 300-metre-deep abyss abortively explored by Keith in 1981 and before by the SIE. Close up, the entrance was a terrifying, jagged rent in the earth. Fifty metres away, among the grassy boulder slopes and clumps of startling alpine flowers this gateway to hell was invisible.
Further up the mountain was la Jayada itself: a huge open cave that could be seen from the Xitu mirador and further still. It amounted to a very large rock arch spanning a snow-field, and here, an hour's stiff walk from Ario, we set a tent, leaving it filled with tackle as a base to 'bash' the nearby shafts. It was only a few minutes now to the Boca del Joon - the snow and jumbled scree - showed there were no prospects of finding a cave. Alvaro and I poked around for a while and set off down our line of cairns in the dy8ing rays of another Picos sunset. Even if the Joon appeared to have limited potential, many of the slopes nearby looked promising in the extreme.
The next two weeks were blessed with superb weather. High in the mountains the sun blazed down from a clear sky, hot and clean in the sparkling air. Below us, on all sides, was a thick layer of cloud which covered the Costa Verde and usually Los Lagos: it was easy to imagine, walking among the rocks and flowers in search of entrances, that the rest of the world no longer existed. Day after day we walked the slopes to check each open pothole to see if it lead to a cave system. There were dozens of openings everywhere. Most were blocked with ice or rubble not far from the surface, but of these many required a preliminary descent on rope or ladder to check that there were no ways on.
There was much to make up for our initial lack of success. Large square-winged Egyptian vultures circled the cliffs in the rising thermals, and also small thrushlike birds known locally as Perdices. Sometimes the silence was broken by a falling rock, and there would be a flurry of movement high on a cliff face - shy rebeccos, the chamois of the Picos. These small deer, though the timidest of creatures, would gaze at the cavers from a vantage point on the skyline, baffled no doubt as we grunted and sweated along with our heavy packs. They were incredibly agile, racing along the crags with enviable ease. Only once did I see one slip. As George and I rested on a small col, a pair of the delicate animals raced away from us up an apparently sheer face. Above them, the rock looked a severe proposition for a roped human, but as they stood abruptly motionless on a ledge there were perhaps seven hundred feet of precipice beneath their hooves.
The female charged at the rock, her four legs slipping briefly on the last, smoothest steps. She got to the top and looked back at her mate, as if to say, "How about that? Your turn now." He launched himself up the cliff but on the smoothest part he began to slip helplessly. Still running for all he was worth, he slid backwards down the blank wall toward the huge drop below. All at once he leapt off and spun round in the air, landing so as to face down the crag. Half-falling, half running, he raced down until he regained the tiny ledge and stopped dead, resting for a few seconds. After another failed attempt and similar jump and retreat he gave up, picking a longer and less steep route across the face while his mate waited on the summit above. How dare we think ourselves masters of the caves we explore, I thought. The rope and ironmongery in my pack seemed all the heavier as I slung it on my back and began a slow trudge up the mountainside. The graceful rebeccos had long since disappeared.
We divided the mountains into sectors, each with an appropriate letter form A, given to the area round Jultaya, swinging north to F, the highest and most remote region at the back of La Verdellengua. Soon the log-book was covered in people's jottings on the entrances explored. Needless to say, no one found Dave's increasingly mythical Ridge Cave. There also remained Pozu del Opimistu: this, for the time being, thanks to Jan's dire warnings, we left well alone. Finally, after much slog, we decided to pursue C4.
Paul and I found the shakehole, and thought at first it was blocked, but a small black space required further inspection. A 10-metre ladder climb led to another drop of similar length, although at the bottom our electric lamps showed what looked like an impenetrable rubble floor. I suggested leaving it at that, but Paul insisted on finishing the job properly, tying another ladder to a dubious flake: "There you are. You can go down now."
Over the centuries, the entrance to C4 had acted as a giant funnel for frost-shattered rock, which had tumbled down to make a great pile of underground scree. The ladder lay against the scree and for most of the way down seemed to be the only solid barrier preventing the whole lot from caving in on top of me. Only a few rungs down I could see that the way on at the bottom was hopeless, filled with razor-sharp boulders on every side. Yet just below the pitch head, set in one wall, was a square window into a much larger shaft. Stones fell down a long way before hitting anything.
Somewhat ecstatically we raced back to the store tent to grab a 100-metre rope. Soon we had it rigged: we crawled through the window and into the shaft, reaching the bottom via a series of difficult changeover manoeuvres in mid-air.
The chamber below had no outlet. There was, however, an overhanging wall some 8 metres up one side, with another window through which stones vanished when thrown up from the bottom. How to gain the window? Alvaro! He had done some aid climbing, and a little caving. We grabbed him when we got back to the refugio that night:
"You can do it, Alvaro! Come with us and make a great breakthrough tomorrow."
"I bring it. Is necessary it."
"I bring it. We have when finish cave."
Alvaro's SRT gear was rather individual...it was his climbing gear. For ascending he used two jumars with etrier stirrups attached to them by very thin pieces of cord. For descending he used a figure-of- eight, the simplest type of descender available - fine for climbing, but not suitable for use underground. They are difficult to control and twist the rope into tight kinks as you go. Worse, they have to be removed from one's harness before they can be attached to the rope, so there's always the chance of dropping them. We decided to put Alvaro in the middle of the party.
At the flying rebelay, 20 metres above the floor of the first big pitch, Alvaro stood in his etriers and removed his figure-of-eight, putting it on the rope below the rebelay. Then, using his gorilla-like strength, he gripped the rope and pulled up on one arm to detach the jumar and his etriers, and lowered himself onto his descender so that he could carry on abseiling. The only problem was, he had forgotten to re-attach the figure-of-eight to his harness.
"Plis!" came the cry.
Paul raced down the rope to the rebelay and peered down the shaft. Alvaro was standing in his etriers again, having managed to clip them into his figure of eight via a safety cord. He couldn't go back up to sort them out because the figure of eight was now out of his reach; nor was the safety cord clipped to his own harness - he was clinging to the etriers for dear life. The figure-of -eight couldn't even let him go downwards, because the rope had twisted over the top of it, stranding Alvaro in a very exposed perch.
From the belay, Paul could just reach the figure-of-eight, but Alvaro's weight loading it made it impossible for him to unlock the loop of rope. The only solution was for Paul to lower to Alvaro a loop of rope attached to the belay, from which the jibbering warden could dangle whilst Paul freed his descender, which Alvaro then thankfully pulled down to him, and used to reach the bottom of the shaft.
Up ahead, John and I had found a third window in the wall of the cave, which led to another big pitch - Alvaro's skills as an aid-climber would no longer be needed - possibly just as well, as he was still shaking. We decided to take him out, and he was very pleased to see the daylight again. His eyes lit up:
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "Now is time for it! I have it in my bag."
With this he reached down into his bag and produced ham, sausage and a tube of gooey evaporated milk which he squirted into our mouths in turn. "Is good it, eh?"
We reckoned to do our own aid-climbing in future.
C4 was a disappointment, though. The new pitch was 35 metres deep, but very difficult to rig. The problem was that the rock at the top was loose and dangerous, flaking away in great chunks and making loud booming noises from the floor far below. At the foot of the pitch was a large hall, but with no way out. The cave finished, like the others we had found, only 120 metres below the surface. Optimistu, the revolting cave by Ario, was our only choice left.
Pozu Optimistu was the deepest cave in the world. I was sure of it. Before the expedition left, I could talk of little else. Occasionally Graham would protest: But Dave, we want to get up into the high peaks this year, and Optimistu really doesn't sound very nice..." But I would have none of it. It was also Keith's last cave in Spain, pushed by him and whoever else he could commandeer in the tail end of the 1981 expedition. I felt that I owed a duty to Keith's memory to explore this cave.
The entrance was high on Cabeza Forma, a rocky hill rising above the path between Xitu and the refugio. There were no other known caves on this hill, and the additional height gave it a depth potential well in excess of Xitu's. Arriving in Spain, to be met by chance by a shopping party in Cangas - I was deeply impressed by their suntans and their powerful smell, discernible even from the other side of the town's little plaza - I made plans to make a start on Optimistu immediately. The entrance had been located but was very difficult to find, Richard warned. But that same evening I was up at Ario with George, with whom I had driven out, raring to go.
We were lucky: the next morning dawned warm and clear. About a kilometre from the refugio as the crow flies, it took only two hours of stumbling under the weight of several hundred metres of rope - always a good idea to think deep, after all - to find the entrance. It breathed depth, I thought to myself. A great black cleft, entered on a 30-metre rope: at the bottom, a slanting mossy cavern, dominated by an enormous pile of snow.
I knew from Keith's description that the way on was very obscure. We found it, almost buried under stones, below one wall: a low, flat-out crawl, leading to a bizarre little tube, barely big enough to enter, corkscrewing down. It was time to take a deep breath: impossible to see what lay below beyond my body filling the descending passage. I had to let myself go, trusting to Keith's account in the 1981 log that the tube did not suddenly open out into a large shaft. Soon I was reassured. It slowly enlarged and gave way to an easy climb down the wall of a big, dry and exceedingly pleasant corridor. "George!" I yelled, "this place is absolutely brilliant..."
For some reason, most caves that are, according to the potholer's definition, 'nice', begin that way and usually remain it. Equally, those that are not - filled with loose rocks, tight, in the habit of making their explorers dunk their ears, nose and throats in cold grey mud - announce their hostility at the outset. We have been very lucky in Spain. Nearly all the systems discovered over the years have been very nice indeed. They may have had their dangers and difficulties, but such struggles as they have entailed have been fought according to Queensberry rules.
Optimistu's true nature dawned slowly. It became slightly nasty, then really rather awful, then unremittingly horrendous and then lethal only by degrees. Its bare statistics - 102 metres deep, 254 long at its miserable finale - give no hint of the desperation involved in reaching the end. My nice dry corridor gave way to a shaft, blind at the bottom, traversed over on a series of sloping, loose and slippery ledges. By now I was already having doubts: the next section, a slimy, tortuous fissure, confirmed them. There followed a dangerous, missile-prone pitch into a big, steeply sloping gallery.
The floor here was made of boulders; so too the roof and walls. Between the boulders were many black spaces, and occasionally one would step on a crumbling foothold and slip: as one recovered, clasping the largest available piece of rock, one would hear the clatter of the former foothold as it tumbled down the black space before coming to rest with an echoey thud 30 metres down. (Subsequent investigations confirmed that all possible routes at this lower level were blocked.) After a final nerve-wracking 45-degree descent along the edge of a big flake, with only balance handholds along the nearby wall, a solid floor was reached again.
There was worse to come: a tiny hole, the Oubliette, leading straight into the side of a shaft, 15 metres deep from the point of entry. There was no way one could squeeze through the hole wearing a bulky descender. We forced our bodies through backwards, pushing out over empty space until the widest part of the chest and shoulders was through: then a rapid scrabble to clip rope into descender, descender into harness, before the strain on the left arm hanging from the knot on the belay became too much. On the second trip we fixed a ladder here, improving matters considerably.
When I get to Spain I always feel a great rush of enthusiasm which takes a few trips to wear off: every year it's the same. Despite all the above I remained keen to carry on. We still had not reached the last, undescended pitch found by Keith the year before, an essential target for the first day. It didn't seem too bad at the bottom of the Oubliette. A passage in clean rock, with a little water should we need a drink. A dead end. Still pulling three bulky tackle bags between us we glumly submitted to the alternative, a low tunnel at boot level. Keith had mentioned this crawl but surely it couldn't be that bad?
It was a measure of my beginning of expedition keenness that even at the other end my first worry was that this passage - Unclean, Unclean as it came to be called - would be a tiresome and time- consuming obstacle when Optimistu was further along the way to being the deepest cave etc. The first 10 metres or so weren't extreme: the next five times that length were. The sludge, cold, grit-laden, viscous, was many inches deep. At different levels in the fissure were broad flakes, forcing one to press deeply into the filthy trench beneath them. Everything caught. The last part was the worst, contorting, unremittingly strenuous, appalling with the infuriating yellow tackle bags. Again it emerged onto a pitch, but a traverse led to a small ledge from which to belay. Even the roof was covered with mud here. We were still keen but it seemed wise to leave it for that day.
Overnight we became keener still, and Tom joined us for a foray into the unknown. Things were bound to improve soon: we decided to take even more tackle into the cave - it would be a pity to waste the trip. Several hours on, the pitch was rigged and I abseiled down 15 metres. My heart leapt. The mud had gone: I was in a spacious stream canyon strongly reminiscent of Xitu. "George, Tom," I cried, "I think we're on the verge of a really significant discovery." Sometimes people do actually talk like that. Round the next bend was total defeat. It took a long time to explore the numerous levels in the canyon but all were far too tight. It seemed only fair to take out the three big bags of extra tackle and we turned round for a long, hard ascent.
Outside, thirteen hours after we had gone in - it hardly seemed possible that such a short cave had taken so long - the 1 a.m. hillside was as gloomy as our moods. It seemed to take an age to dekit, with Tom quite exhausted: setting off into heavy drizzle and impenetrable fog we were soon lost. After an hour of climbing, descending and complete failure to hold to a straight line Tom suggested stopping for the night. Still caked in the mud from Unclean, Unclean, George and I demurred, but Tom just sat down. If he stayed there he would soon be out of earshot. When we needed it most the Ario path at last betrayed itself: a sandy runnel across a featureless meadow. Expecting to find a silent, sleeping refugio we stumbled towards the hut, puzzled by the light still shining from the ground floor. Inside there was chaos.
Alvaro had unexpectedly lowered the price of beer to almost normal from its top-of-mountain premium, and helped by brandy and Coca-Cola a wild session ensued. Only that day Alvaro had guided his horse up the mountain with a new load of drinks, and by the time Dave appeared, grey- faced with mud and fatigue, the mountain of cans on the table betrayed the dismal truth - we had drunk the lot. The lone Spanish walker staying at Ario had a hard time of it, as one by one the victims of the free market economy lurched across to the door, the born again fabada falling out to the eagerly awaiting goats. William was especially bad. Later, with everyone tucked up in the dormitory upstairs, his terrified yelp suddenly rent the night air:
"Help, help! Am I being sick out of the window or over the edge of my bed?"
Under a cold, wan sun next morning, with storm-promising clouds on the horizon beyond the gorge, the casualties of the evening's revelry began to face up to the miserable truth that after nearly four weeks, El Joon '82 had not produced a decent cave. Our leader was in the worst state, and in no shape to make the suggestions needed to lift the growing despondency. He crouched on all fours on the grass by the fuente, softly groaning. Richard examined him tenderly, peering with disbelief into the acid- ravaged battlefield of Graham's throat. "This man has a prolapsed uvula," he announced. Paul and Tom, the other medics, rushed to view this unusual clinical event. Graham felt no better at all. It was to be several days before he returned to his normal, unobtrusive self.
As the hope of finding a new deep pothole receded, the clouds moved in. By afternoon it was raining steadily. Wrapped in waterproofs, Martin and I made a half-hearted foray to look for a cave which Martin had decided ought to exist under the dry valley below the Ario path. We found nothing. People laid plans for a series of trips to the beach. Our Picos days looked like being about to end with a sad, frustrated whimper.
That evening, as Richard and I made one or two members of the team blench by drinking a small amount of beer (Alvaro had been to the shops once more), we discussed the only course left open. One of the areas marked off on the map, 'F', the most remote and inaccessible, had still not been examined conclusively. There was one entrance up there, Richard said, which might go: it had already been rigged down a big pitch onto a pile of snow and there appeared to be a way on. It would mean setting up a new camp high in the hills, a longer hike from base camp. Back in England - convinced that we need look no further than Pozu Optimistu - I had argued vociferously that it would never be practical to explore the really distant parts of the mountains without a helicopter for supplies. Now I enthusiastically agreed with Richard's suggestion of setting off next day. A new phase of exploration was about to begin.
The cloud had gone again next day, and enlisting the help of Martin Laverty and Martin Hicks, a talented cave photographer who had met his namesake in South Wales, we set off for area 'F'. Our walk took us up over a col into the Vega Aliseda, a grassy valley closed at each end, and then up a further steep slope to a pause in the gradient below the peak of Punta Greoriana. Here, about 1,950 metres above sea level, was an arid, rocky desert, with neither vegetation nor water. Below a small cliff, it dropped into a black void, vertical, blade-like strata seeming to emphasise the possibilities that this place held for a deep cave system. Opposite the cliff, the shakehole was floored by a steep slope of stones down which we walked to peer into the shaft. The whole was like a giant scoop taken out of the mountainside.
A small stream was running off the big ice sheet on the nearby slope, and we filled our water containers above the point where it disappeared into the ground. Ten minutes below the cave entrance in the opposite direction we had spotted the only flat patch of grass for a very long way. At first sight hardly bigger than a snooker table, we were to find ways of cramming tents here into every corner.
Dave and I pitched the tents while the Martins went off for a closer look at the cave entrance. When they returned Laverty spoke first: "I don't think it'll go. There's lots of evidence of glacial action and some big erratics, and the beds looked slumped..." The rest of his geo-speak was lost, because Dave was whooping and jumping for joy:
"That's fantastic! He's always wrong! He said Xitu would end and it didn't; he said Xitu would come out at Trea and it didn't; he said Optimistu would probably go and it didn't..."
Manfully, Martin agreed. He said, as he had always done, that the only way to find out what really happened underground was to go and look. The others bade us farewell and set off down the hillside in the late afternoon sun, leaving Dave and me alone. From our camp, the bare and ragged limestone mountains fell away into the bed of cloud far below, a white carpet stretching to the shoreline 30 miles away. On one side, the peaks of the Sierra de Cuera, a lower range between the Picos and the coast, rose up from the cloud like islands in a sea, beginning to go pink in the dying sun. Our perch felt higher and wilder than Ario, with its busy refuge. That extra altitude must yield a still deeper cave, we felt sure.
Rousing ourselves from our reverie we decided to begin exploration that evening. The name I had originally given the cave on finding it had now stuck - FU56. The Spanish authorities would want another name after a local feature, we knew, and eventually the official title became Pozu Jorcada Blanca, corresponding to a rocky col above the entrance. But meanwhile FU56 seemed highly appropriate. The previous year, we had been sure that Xitu was the deepest cave in Spain, and its camp the deepest ever set underground. It was only on returning to Britain that we discovered the truth: BU56, a French/Spanish exploration in the Pyrenees, was deeper on both counts.
The first pitch from the bottom of the scree slope was a twisting, awkward descent of some 30 metres. Now, as in the first, brief foray a week or so before, we rigged it on electron ladder without a lifeline - dangerous and scary. For much of the way, one wall of the shaft was lined with slowly melting ice, chilling our fingers to the bone when the ladder rungs pressed against it. Twenty metres down we landed on a broad, sloping platform made of snow, carrying on through a descending body-sized tube, the conduit for the not inconsiderable volume of water from the melting icebergs above. Suddenly it opened out into a vertical rift, floored with unstable stones, falling rapidly to the head of a large shaft. The position was exposed: the floor was too loose to stand on and we wedged ourselves in gingerly, without a belay, as I banged in a chilly bolt in one wall. Threading a tape around a large spike at the shaft's lip, we soon had the requisite two points of anchor. Before letting down the rope, we dropped stones. The soft, almost inaudible sound of their landing suggested both depth and more snow at the bottom.
It did not do to look at the ceiling here. It was made of very large blocks balanced, it seemed from beneath them, on soft, dry mud. I pointed this out to Richard as he eased his weight onto the rope to begin his descent into the unknown. "Piss off, Dave. I'm busy."
He slid down in uncharacteristic silence, thinking of the blocks no doubt. Soon enough the familiar cry: "Rope free!" I joined him. He seemed to be having second thoughts. He was not at the bottom at all, but crouched in an alcove formed by a ledge no more than half a metre wide a long way from safety. The rope was too short. Richard lobbed a few more pebbles over the edge. Shining our electric lamps downwards, we could see a dull white patch. There wasn't far to go but the further reaches of FU56 would have to wait until next day.
Heavily laden with the sausage-shaped tackle bags we set off on a fine morning, the weight of the gear hanging on donkey's dicks from our waists adding to the hazards of (**the) entrance pitch. We tied on a longer rope at the top of the shaft below the loose boulders. Dave went down first and soon confirmed that he had reached the bottom: on a pile of snow, as it transpired, but only a small one. The way on was not blocked.
We were in a chamber the size of a drawing room. Stepping over a deep pit at one end, we reached a further drop almost immediately. Another bolt and a short descent: at the base, a further drop of 12 metres. Dave rigged it in no time at all from large flakes. The cave was going swimmingly.
Our hopes were quickly dashed. Beyond the last drop the cave continued as a tiny, winding slit, far too small even to enter. We stared in miserable disbelief. This was just how the other caves had ended - but this time we weren't even 100 metres below the surface. Dave crawled in - well, wedged his head and one shoulder inside - the widest part of the passage. There was a long series of grunts, and his feet inched forwards into the tiny hole. He backed out again. "Let's eat the chocolate," said Dave, "then I'll have a go at widening the passage with the bolt hammer - you can't really see but it might widen past the first bend. Meanwhile you have a go at looking for a bypass." He began banging - I wasn't letting him at the food just yet - while I climbed the short pitch with bags of tackle.
Halfway up the pitch above, there was an inlet on the wall opposite the one we had come in by. I tried climbing up, but the rock was very unstable and overhanging. Instead, I tried prusiking up until I was level with the hole in the wall, and swinging across. This wouldn't do ... I had to be a little higher. I took a few more steps, began to pendule and gained the passage without difficulty. Getting off the rope, I tied it carefully to a boulder, lest it should swing back to the vertical, leaving me stranded.
I was in an inlet, long abandoned by its stream, running upward from the junction with the pitch where I had swung across. And yet...suddenly, only a few metres on, it reversed gradient and began to run downwards, further into the cave. It was an easy scramble along the passage, ducking under the old flake, to the top of another pitch! What was more exciting was that I could hear Dave's remorseless hammering coming up the pitch from below, not behind me. I cried out: "Dave! I've found a bypass." He was as excited as I and made haste to join me. I met him at the pendule junction and we collected the tackle.
"Er, Richard, the head of this pitch is only four inches wide." I looked down at the shaft properly for the first time. He was right. But it looked as if the constriction was only really narrow right at the top. We were in luck. It was made of calcite, calcium carbonate first dissolved out of the limestone by the water which formed the cave and then redeposited. Calcite - the stuff form which stalactites and stalagmites are made - is very weak rock. It took only a few blows with the hammer before our constriction was flaking off and falling down the pitch in satisfying chunks. The electric excitement of discovery held us fast and we hit harder and harder.
"That's it. We can manage that all right." The top of the pitch was still tight, and rather unusual, involving forcing oneself through the narrow gap from a comfortable sitting position. We called it The Chair. It was broken by a ledge, and in all turned out to be 18 metres deep, watered by a splashy trickle. It dropped us into a room with a sandy floor, with a large passage leading off. To my chagrin, I found that this passage ascended, rapidly becoming too narrow to force - it was the very fissure Dave had been trying to hammer. He came racing up behind me, having just completed the descent of The Chair. "How big is the next pitch?" he asked. There was no next pitch. The Chair water joined the inlet and seeped away through the sand. It was the end of the cave.
"Might as well eat the chocolate and piss off out," I said. Then I noticed the pile of boulders sloping up above my head. We had already found a way on by climbing up a little in this cave - could it be the same here? Scrabbling up, showering Richard with loose, muddy debris, I reached the top of the pile. Curving away left there seemed to be the start of a narrow rift passage. I crawled over to a gap no more than a foot wide. Through it, I could see the passage continued, but a big flake - made this time of solid rock, not calcite, barred the way. After a few token hammer blows, the position seemed hopeless again. "It's no good. There's no room to get a decent swing. I'm coming down."
As Dave backed out, one of the boulders he was lying on rocked gently. It became clear that the pile was very loosely packed. We began pulling at the unstable blocks, at first the small ones, cautiously, then, with a new frenzy we pulled at much larger boulders which had originally seemed to be part of the cave walls. They rolled down the slope and buried our tackle bags. In ten minutes the hole was big enough to enter. Without the rocks, we passed easily below the flake which Dave had tried feebly to hammer, and the passage led off, a winding fissure with white, smooth walls. As we crawled in, they reflected our carbide flames, filling the passage with bright light.
The passage was of a type with French cavers call a meander, a narrow corridor winding both in plan and cross section. Movement in it was strenuous. As in the Xitu rift, we had to support ourselves without a floor in the widest part, and it was so narrow that it was impossible to face ahead. We thrutched sideways, looking over one shoulder, unable to turn our bodies or our heads.
Richard was trying to find a route high up, near the roof, and I struggled along six feet below him. At a particularly fierce bend, the curses from above indicated that his level had come to an end. Mine too looked impassable. The only chance seemed to be to drop down into a wider space at boot level and pray that if it didn't go I could climb back up.
Without holds, I went for it and slid down five feet. My wellingtons came to rest on a ledge, and using the extra leverage thus gained I made it round the bend. I shouted with delight: "It goes! Come on down!" My last words echoed and re-echoed. Not much further - all easy going along the ledge - I was at the lip of a big shaft, booming and honking like a crazy foghorn and listening to the glorious reverberations coming back from below. My conversation with Richard - "get the tackle-ackle- ackle...don't forget the chocolate-olate-olate" - resounded mightily, the first human voice the cave had ever heard.
By the time Richard returned through the rift - then and henceforth the Meander of the Argonauts - I had a bolt nearly in. Lassoing a projection on the opposite wall, I rigged a 'y' belay, sharing the load between the anchors - an excellent, almost universally applicable technique which was, however, new to OUCC at the time. The pitch below was ample reward for the struggle though the rift. No more than half a metre wide at the top, where the fissure came to an end, it belled out immediately. The rope hung perfectly in the centre of the shaft. A powerful draught was rising from below, breaking up the stream into soaking droplets.
At the base, a flat platform 18 metres from the top, the water gathered itself and flowed into a narrow chute. As Richard hurried to join me, I climbed down the steeply descending canyon to reach a last ledge. I rolled a portable TV-sized rock from its perch on the left wall and it fell free for two or three seconds. The sound of gunfire rattled up the shaft, suggesting the rock had broken up; and the fragment continued, each new booming impact deeper and more muffled than the one before. Richard was beside me again and we repeated the exhilarating process. The cave was a goer. At last we were beneath the awkward zone 100 metres down, and our rocks were falling perhaps 100 metres more. "OK," he said. "now we can eat the chocolate."
We had discovered the entrance series into a properly developed stream cave. In the days that followed, Pozu Jorcada Blanca fulfilled its promise. Below the limit of our first exploration, three further pitches - the Mistral shafts, after their icy wind - took us to a further difficult horizontal section.
We reached Rift 2 by means of a traverse over a 10-metre drop - at floor level, the passage was far too narrow, but across the traverse, Walk on the Wild Side, we gained access to a meander every bit as bad as the first. It would have been virtually impossible to have rescued anyone on a stretcher from beyond it.
It led to another fine pitch - a 15-metre drop in a waterfall landing in a pool of water with green marble on the floor and walls, strongly reminiscent of the deeper parts of Xitu. George, Paul and Tom explored the streamway beyond, rigging four wet drops on ladders. Eventually, after a final short descent, the stream flowed through a slit in the floor of the narrow, straight passage. Crawling ahead, they found themselves once more sitting at the top of a large shaft.
The Font was possibly the most impressive pitch any of us had seen. A perfectly circular tube 55 metres deep, the walls were made of grey and yellow marble, washed constantly and made more reflective by the drizzly falling stream. From the top, Tom watched George abseil down for the first time, surrounded by a ring of light, a small figure dangling beneath him. Abruptly, the ring became a disc as George reached the floor far below.
The bottom of the Font presented another difficulty. The stream, which had grown larger as it made its way through the cave, crashed down a narrow slit 20 metre deep and then disappeared through an impassable slot. A minute rift led off horizontally above. Perhaps it might be passed, but it would be hard going, with projections on the walls making it narrower still.
John heard the news when the pushers returned about breakfast time. "Right. We'll go down and force a way through with a hammer."
With Martin Hicks and William (the thin men), he left soon afterwards to push the cave further. It was now 370 metres deep. The vertical slit below the Font ended in a small chamber, from where John and Martin made forays into the rift, trying to hammer at the flakes and projections blocking the way. They could see that the passage enlarged ahead of them, probably ending in a vertical drop, and they rolled a chock stone along the rift above their heads - attaching a ladder to this gave them a means of getting to and from the hammering position ad something to grip while carrying out the exhausting, frustrating work. Lying flat out, in a passage that squashed from all sides, they made feeble taps with the hammer at full reach. It was slow progress.
William was a long way behind them. His electric light had bust, and his carbide flame was refusing to stay lit for very long. He cursed in his inimitable way and called on ahead.
"I say, chaps, where's the way on?" No reply, just the sound of frenetic hammering from far below.
He got to the rope and slid down the cleft as his light failed again, this time for good. Now in utter blackness he cautiously abseiled on, feeling for a possible floor with his toes. He came to an abrupt halt, swinging in the dark and bouncing against the wall. What could be wrong? He felt his descender and found...yes, it was a rope-protector jammed in it. Unable to see, and out of earshot of the other two maniacal hammerers, he had to change over, move up, disentangle the rope protector, reposition it above him, change over to abseiling, lower his weight onto the locked-off rack, detach his ascenders and clip them to his waist, re-position the rope protector and finally after an age, get ready to abseil again.
He moved only two feet before, in the dark, he stopped again unexpectedly. There was a second rope- protector immediately below the first and he had abseiled onto it.
The three of them staggered out of the cave the next morning with John subdued but breezy. "It'll only take another five hours' hammering," he said. Dave questioned him closely from the warmth of his sleeping-bag. Could normal sized people get through? Was there any chance of a bypass. Yes, said John, perhaps there was. Before dozing off again, Dave vowed to find it.
By the time I woke up properly, the weather was at its vilest. Breakfast, swaddled in waterproofs under the makeshift plastic tarpaulin at one corner of the campsite, did little to inspire any of us with enthusiasm for going underground. The tired hammerers said they would make their way down to Los Lagos to join the rest of the expedition for a meal at Amador's. Richard and I looked at each other glumly. It had been quite a few days since either of us had eaten a large hot meal, much less sampled any interesting Riojas, during which time we had put in two surveying trips. But time was running out. We had to get this cave as deep as we could. As we changed into our damp furry suits, hardly able to see beyond the rim of the tiny camp, William volunteered to stay in his sleeping-bag until we returned in case we got into trouble.
Reaching the entrance, our spirits sank still further. We felt sated with caving, and the conditions did nothing to revive our appetites. The cliff above the first pitch was carrying a stream from the heavy and continuing downpour. Correctly we expected to get wetter still as we descended. We carried two heavy bags of tackle. Vainly I tried to summon up my conviction that an easy bypass to the hammer rift would exist and be discovered immediately.
By the time we reached the end of the Meander of the Argonauts the emerging consensus between us found expression. "Richard, this cave is awash. Let's jack." Without another word we dumped the tackle and turned tail
The weather was no better after our short trip. The afternoon was wearing on, and the stupidity of having gone down at all - instead of making for the conviviality of Los Lagos - bore on us heavily. Changed back into chilly surface clothes, we looked at our watches. "We should just make it if we set off now," said Richard, "but to save time let's go across country on a compass bearing." Knowing no better, William and I agreed.
Richard's plan was to cut out the big dog-leg of the normal route by way of the Ario path. From the map, it looked as if nearly half the distance of the walk would be saved. Thinking hard of steaming plates of stew we set off into the mist.
We sere soon stumbling in a bewildering maze of depressions, rises and descents. Even if we had wanted to, we would have been unable to find the relative haven of Top Camp again, and we clung to the bearing for dear life. Time and again we began steep downslopes: this at last must be the climb down to Lagos, I thought. But pausing for a spot of awkward boulder scrambling at the bottom, the bearing took us inexorably up again. William had ricked his knee and was going very slowly. Increasingly anxious, aware that the others would be well into their meal while darkness was approaching, Richard and I hurried ahead through the veil of rain. From a long way behind, invisible, William made urgent pleas for us to wait. When he caught up, he showed the first signs of exposure.
At last the bearing brought us to somewhere we knew - Las Bobias, no more than two miles from where we should have been. I told Richard and William to follow me along the path while I ran ahead in the twilight to tell the restaurant to save us some food. I dashed off, pleased and surprised at my remaining energy and fitness. Splat. I went headlong in the mud, grazing my ear on a rock, pulling thigh muscles and adding filth to my drenched clothing. Yet we all made it. Richard ad I munched our way through most of the menu: soup, menestra stew, trout, steak, cheese, creme caramel. William was served with his soup. Splat. He closed his eyes and slipped, unconscious, his forehead on the rim of the bowl and the soup spilling across the table.
The bypass to the final rift did exist. Dave and I found it two days after our difficult walk to Lagos. It was a classic piece of Picos cave formation.
At one time, the water from the Font had flowed off at quite a shallow angle into a wide passage. With the centuries, it had found a weakness in the rock and cut down in a new, thinner slot - Stead's Braille Blunder and the impassable rift beyond. As in many other cases - perhaps rainfall had once been higher - the old way was big enough for cavers, and the new was not.
Dave was waiting on the small ledge at the top of the blunder while I went down to investigate and noticed a black space in the opposite direction, to his right, about a metre away. John had muttered something about there being a possibility here and after a short climb Dave had confirmed it. One Step Beyond was the bypass we were looking for. The rock was loose, muddy and brittle: difficult to bolt and untrustworthy as a source of natural belays. But it was big.
Three pitches led into a strange chamber, flat-floored and square. It had smooth vertical walls and was silent, sound-absorbing: as oppressive in its way as the row from the crashing waterfalls further up the cave. It had almost no water at all and we called it the Valley of the Kings. Pitches led off from it in opposite directions. To the right was Pyramid Pitch: a short climb down into a triangular passage with thousands of tetrahedral pedants in the roof and walls. A further drop lay beyond and we dropped the usual booming rocks, guessing its depth at about 30 metres. To the left was the Sphinx. This gaping black chasm, into which we peered from a slippery ledge covered in fine, ochre mud, was even more sound absorbent than the chamber. Our stones landed with the muffled, choked sound of thunder many miles away. The unreflecting mud made it very gloomy. The whole area of the cave was also numbingly cold, chilled by the silent, yet powerful draught which was itself a sure sign of greater depth.
We both felt unaccountably uneasy, and relieved to make the decision to leave these pitches for another party. FU56 had, without anyone noticing, become a serious undertaking. Our trip had lasted for more than twenty hours. From the Valley of the Kings, it took at least five hours of steady effort to reach the surface: the hard slog and natural grandeur of the shafts punctuated by the struggles - harder on the way up - in the rifts. The big decision each time was whether or not to remove one's gear. Taking off the encumbrances of chest harness, chest ascender and other bits and pieces was time- consuming, and the process had to be reversed at once on the other side of the meanders. But leaving it all on increased the risk of getting stuck, of wasting energy in a futile battle with solid rock.
AS the depth of the cave increased, so too did the logistical problems. After a twenty hour trip, cavers were good for nothing but eating, sleeping and lying in the sun. Ferrying loads from Los Lagos was a three to four hour walk. Moving rope, belays, food and carbide up the hill was a major task, and we were down to just ten active expedition members. With ten days left before we were due to leave, Jan advanced the proposition that it was time to halt exploration and detackle.
Worn out by our long trip Dave began to get angry. He said that now was the time for an all-out assault and rather over-stating his case - not for the first time - he claimed we could double the depth and de-rig if everyone were to pull their weight. Jan, who had just arrived from doing a strenuous carry, was particularly annoyed at this, and maintained that it would be irresponsible to push the cave a metre further. Dave was due to leave a few days before the end, he said - and wouldn't that just be so convenient as a way of missing the de-rig?
As we went off to fetch some water, Jan confided in me.
"Richard, this cave scares me. It's all right for you - you've explored most of it, but for those of us who haven't got used to it, it's pretty serious."
He was right, it was. The pace of the expedition had excluded some of the team for no other reason than their failure to be in the right place at the right time. Not everyone relished a twenty-four-hour trip down a tight, cold pothole. A compromise was reached the next day. One last trip to photograph, descend the Sphinx, complete the survey and begin the derig. When no one was watching, Dave slipped a pare rope into the bag with the survey gear.
Fit now after the exertions of the previous days and weeks, Dave, George and I slid almost effortlessly down the cave. George had with him his huge photographic ammo can (it was slightly smaller than the Xitu fibreglass version, but still as big as a comfortable stool). He also had his big prusik bag and even bigger tripod. As he came down the Font, we watched from below; he looked like some monstrous live bait with fishing weights dangling below. The things clanged together as they swung below him from his donkey's dick, but this clutter didn't slow him down in the slightest. George cycled 20 miles each day to work and 20 miles back, fuelled by a breakfast of dry wheat - at lunchtimes he went for five-mile runs. Twenty-four-hour caving trips were quite a relaxing weekend for him.
He unpacked in the Valley of the Kings. His idea was to photograph me on the first ever descent of the Sphinx, and handed me a flashgun and a mouthful of bulbs. The pitch was rigged with 'lightweight' rope - 9 mm in diameter instead of the usual 11 mm. It was tied to a huge projection which jutted out over the drop, and to get onto the rope meant squeezing down between the edge of the shaft and the rock lump whilst tied on; the unnerving 62 metres of nothingness directly below. I remembered Ben Lyon's words as we bought the rope off him. He folded our cheque up and said, "Now don't be going and killing yourselves will you?"
As I loaded the rope, about the thickness of my little finger, it visibly narrowed. I am always scared that the rope will break. It's not enough to know that its specifications probe it would support the weight of several London taxis. What would I think about in the moments before hitting the floor? Would they be seconds of peace or panic?
I began to abseil. It was no help to may nerves when George said: "OK. Hold it. Turn your light off, Richard, and when I say 'now' fire your flash gun."
I had gone about seven metres, and when I stopped, bouncing gently on the rope, there was a lot of empty space between my heels.
There was a succession of flashes as George, Dave and I all let off the guns we were holding. For a split second the chasm below was brilliantly lit. It seemed to be a pleasant tube. I hung there while the process was repeated. Fifty feet further on George called for more shots, and twice more again.
At the bottom the crackling from my PVC suit and the clanks as I undid my descender from the rope hid a thrilling discovery. The pitch became quiet again as my shout of 'rope free' echoed into the distance and a new sound became noticeable - the very faint rumble of a great volume of rushing water.
"What's it like?" shouted Dave, impatient.
"I can hear the stream!" We could hear each other perfectly at either end of the 62-metre shaft - its second unusual acoustic property. There were cheers from above me. We were surveying as we went, and as they came down George and Dave measured the pitch. Together we walked over to the hole in the wall which was producing the noise.
There was another, 30-metre pitch - we were all pleased now about Dave's extra rope. For 1982 this would be a one-off, and George rigged the pitch as quickly as he could. There were many severe rub points near the top but rather than place a bolt he installed a safe, but preposterous rebelay on one wall - a tape round a flake that meant the changeover was carried out at an angle of 45 degrees, a manoeuvre of exceptional difficulty. But it was enough to get us down.
"What's it like?" Dave still couldn't wait. George's answer was enigmatic.
"No streamway - waterfall." There were sounds of him scrambling about, then quiet. We abseiled down to meet him. From the bottom of the rope, a sloping corridor filled with noise brought us to a wild, spray-lashed scene. A spout of water spurted from a tiny chink in the wall 20 metres up, landing amid waves and spume in a circular pool. John would have had to do an awful lot of hammering to have come out of there.
From the pool, Lago Victoria, the stream sank through the foot of a giant boulder pile, higher than the last pitch. George had already found a way through, crawling into a hole a few feet up. Dave followed him. "Jesus Christ!" he said, then, more calmly, "Richard, when you come through here, don't look at the roof." I failed to resist the temptation. It consisted of rows of razor-sharp boulders, rocky teeth all pointing down, some supported by tiny pebbles wedged at their sides. They were of a size and weight that could chop a man in half. It was impossible to say whether the act of crawling under them might cause a major collapse.
Beyond the hanging death was an easy climb into a streamway. For the first time in FU56, the passage was an easy walk. It meandered with the stream, very large now, flowing in and out of clear pools. We charged along, scarcely able to take it in. This was something like the fulfilment of dreams. Horizontal development at depth: the start of the master cave of the region. Shortly we reached another pitch. We had no means of descent. The three of us sat there, jubilant, eating chocolate and throwing stones over the edge into the large cavern below. We scrawled 'OUCC 1982' in a mudbank by the lip of Tantalus, the undescended shaft.
Our return to the surface was long and hard. We detackled the cave as far as the start of One Step Beyond, filling six bags, and helped George take more photographs. Two days later, after a great team effort of communal sweat, I was the last man out of the cave, with everything, except the ladder on the entrance pitch on which I was standing, removed. Lest a hard winter and poor spring completely fill the first part of the cave with snow, I carried a can of blue spray-paint, making a thick guideline along the roof up as far as I thought was the highest level such a blockage could reach. On the way down I had buried a bottle of pink Spanish champagne in the last snow before the entrance, and picking it up I slipped it into my prusik bag. The last ladder was pulled out and I opened the bottle as dramatically as I could, passing it round in the warmth of a perfect Picos evening. We all felt there was something to celebrate. The survey data had been computed and now we knew the depth to the top of Tantalus: 520 metres.
Next day I slipped off back to work, leaving the others to further celebrations and guilt-free trips to the beach.
We had all agreed on putting up a memorial to Keith, but felt a little uneasy, knowing that he himself had been very rude about a similar plaque to a caver in Black Shiver Pot in Yorkshire. The caves are permanent, he had said, but we are transitory. In the end, we decided to put it at the bottom of Xitu's steep entrance climb, where it would be seen by future cavers and those making more than a casual inspection, but not by walkers on their way to the refugio. It was made of stainless steel and read:
POZU DEL XITU - 1139METRES
KEITH POTTER WHO DIED DIVING
IN WOOKEY HOLE 14.11.81 THE
FIRST MAN TO BOTTOM THIS CAVE
In successive years it has not tarnished at all.
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