Beneath the Mountains
Exploring the deep caves of Asturias
David Rose and Richard Gregson
|Beneath the Mountains|
It was a sombre return for me from Bilbao; I flew into Gatwick on a wet July afternoon and drove down to Torquay. My diary read '1.8.83; start work for the next 38 years.' Not only was I starting work, it was one of the busiest jobs conceivable, as a medical houseman. It was quite likely that I should never go caving again, beyond maybe the odd trip to Yorkshire. I felt that my youth was over. I imagined my framed survey of Xitu hanging above the fire for a few years, then being moved to the spare room, then into the bathroom, then finally being confined to the attic. Years later it would be discovered there, and used as a roof for a tree-house, or as a sledge.
I could picture Dave and me as old men, demolishing a bottle of port after a large meal, like veterans reminiscing about campaigns on the North-West Frontier.
"Now, we were here..." moves pepper-pot, "and Xitu...was there..." moves mustard. "If this is the resurgence..." moves decanter, "what were we to do?"
In November I went to the 1983 expedition reunion dinner, expecting to be really depressed. It was full of optimistic conversations and plans for 1984. The new expedition leader was Steve Gale, a junior don in a branch of geology, and his status in the university, as well as his rather formal manner, were helping things along. As we talked, we were drowned out by Phil Rose and Ian Houghton entering a spiral of hyperbole about the new entrance that they had found together. It would join Jorcada Blanca after the sump: it would be an independent, deeper, system containing huge pitches; it would reach a big master cave; it would...Steve Gale interrupted them.
"It will sump."
They were choked into silence, while he treated us to an exposition of cave geomorphology and genesis. The level at which the limestone is saturated, he said, is higher in the centre of the massif than at the edge of the massif, so the caves in the centre of the massif, he maintained, would reach the phreas at a greater altitude than the caves nearer the edge of the massif, now, as the area around Top Camp is in the centre of the massif... Everyone listened intently for a while, but soon lost interest, geomorphology never having been one of our strong points. Wild imaginings were much more fun.
Later Dave cornered me.
"Do you think there's any chance of you going next year?"
"Not really. I've a job which finishes on the first of August, and I'm not allowed to take any holiday at the end - continuity of the care of the patents and all that. Any other job I get will start on August the first, and by the time I get to be able to take some of my measly holiday allowance they'll be back from Spain. Anyway you can't guarantee that they'll let me take any holiday at all. Consultants are an odd bunch..."
"Give your job up."
"You give yours up!" Dave was still trying to make his way in the cut-throat world of journalism, where, as in the cut-throat world of medicine, holidays were frowned upon. We both liked caving, sure, but when it was a choice between caving and eating...
Steve Mayers had already made his decision. He had given up his well-paid job (with car) working for a drug firm, and was now climbing and caving on the dole. I just couldn't bring myself to do that, so the prospects for caving seemed hopeless.
As it happened, I got a job in Sheffield, starting on August 1, 1984. On the way back from the interviews with the stern surgeon I was to work for, the rain lashed the windscreen as hard as any Picos storm.
Later, as I lay in bed, waiting for the phone to go again, I heard the rain lashing against the windows of the NHS flat I had been given to sleep in. I thought how much nicer it would be to wake up at Top Camp, with the bright morning sun and the chilly mountain air, the perfect silence of the wilderness disturbed only by the rebeccos and the soaring of large black birds.
Mr D. G. Ferguson, Drs Residences,
Consultant Surgeon, John Radcliffe Hosp.,
Accident and Emergency Dept.' Oxford.
Royal Hallamshire Hospital,
Dear Mr Ferguson,
Thank you for offering me the job of Casualty Officer, starting on 1.8.84, which I should be glad to accept.
In this job I am allowed 3 1/2 weeks holidays, which includes Bank Holidays, and I wonder if it would be possible to take all this holiday starting on August 1st 1984.
Normally I shouldn't ask a favour such as this, but I have had the great fortune to be invited on a major International Caving Expedition, which is going to discover the deepest cave in the world, in Spain, and is supported by the Royal Geographical Society, the British Cave Research Association, the University of Oxford, the Spanish Government, the Ghar Parau Exploration Foundation, the Sports Council of Great Britain, the West Lancashire Evening Gazette, Dunlop Ltd (Wellington Boot Dept.), Mornflake Porridge Oats Ltd, Rington's Tea Bags and John West's Tinned Foods.
R. M. C. Gregson
I waited for the reply with bated breath.
Dear Dr Gregson,
I have arranged for you to start work on Monday, 25th of August 1984, at 9.00 a.m.
Mr D. G. Ferguson, FRCS (Lond).
Steve Gale organised everything except the van. So once more this was left to Steve Roberts, the Man Who Knew About Engines. With what little money we had he bought a yellow second-hand Luton van, the sort of thing that the bailiffs arrive in to take away your furniture.
It had no windows and a top speed of forty, but one great redeeming feature. It was huge. You could stand in it, lie in it, change in it when it was raining, cook meals in it - you could hold roller-discos in it. If you were so inclined you could play the Eton wall game in it...it was the vehicle we had been searching for for all these years, a travelling caving hut. Unlike 'El Sod' it had lights, a windscreen, gears and started.
The van easily accommodated the huge amount of sponsored supplies that were hurled into it, and off the expedition went, with a whole new bunch of cavers. Most of the old lags from the previous expeditions who had actually managed to go on this trip were, like me, leaving a couple of weeks later. The team who arrived in the big yellow van were not a very experienced bunch. A few had been on the 1983 expedition; several had never been out of the UK before.
Quite unlike the jaded lot who were depressed by the great let-down of the year before, this new team were determined to find a going cave as soon as possible. No sooner had the van arrived than there was a titanic effort to carry the gear up to Top Camp. Phil Rose made the first entry in the 1984 Top Camp log book and brought up his tent, caving gear and enough rope to start the exploration of the new entrance the following morning. His partner was to be Fred Wickham: one of the very keenest.
Phil and Fred went back a long way. They had been at school together, and had hitched through South America at the height of the war between Britain and Argentina, getting into Argentina just before the border was closed to British nationals. Fred had collapsed soon afterwards with appendicitis on a remote hillside and had had to crawl down from the snowline to a rubble track where Phil had managed to hire a donkey from a bewildered villager to take him to hospital. He still bears the scar - a wide vertical one, which is known as the battle incision.
It was Dave who had persuaded his brother to take up caving, and Phil had persuaded Fred, though that hadn't been difficult. Fred had taken to it with ease, and now, only a few months after his first trip below ground in Yorkshire, he found himself rigging a new pitch under a hanging choke of ice some 2,000 metres up in the Picos de Europa. What would happen? There was only one sure fact, and that was that Fred wasn't going to get appendicitis again.
The entrance to Pozu de las Perdices, as F7 was now known, was a huge gash in the mountain which was nearly completely filled with snow. Below the snow plug the cave had a howling gale blowing though it, and a freezing spray as the snow melted onto the heads of the cavers below. The first new pitch was marked by a man-sized block at the top, standing upright like a sentry. This was the 'Obelisk', and it had given the pitch its name the year before. Fred, though, intent on making his mark on the cave right at the start, managed to topple the whole thing off with one touch - it fell 36 metres onto the head of the next pitch. Phil told Fred that he had to get used to this sort of thing.
In the few days that followed the assault team laid siege to the cave. Only three - Phil, Ian Houghton and Ursula (Ukie) Collie - had done any caving in Spain before. All the others were novices, not only to Spain, but also to caving itself. Nicola Dollimore, who had left school only a year before, and had done hardly any outdoor activity previously, now found herself writing accounts in the logbook of the discoveries that she had made:
Obelisk Pitch was brilliant - superb shaft 36 metres down free hanging, then into unknown territory...
Another novice, Sean Hodges:
Then the descent. Phil rushed down shouting inaudible exclamations. I followed with a couple of tackle bags. The pitch goes on for ever! Beautiful smooth fluted walls, opening out on the way down to a large flat chamber. The 80 metre rope was almost exactly the right length. Immediately Phil found another huge drop - 3 to 4 seconds.
The cave was clearly dropping down like one of the wild imaginings from the previous year. It was not very hard to follow, but with every pushing trip the place became more and more of a proposition and less of a simple caving sortie. It also required a lot of new names, and after dinner, at Top Camp, they decided to call the 80-metre pitch which had so excited Sean after its tube-like appearance at the top - The Nostril. Presumably the 3-4 second drop which followed should be called 'the Bogey'! The trouble was, the word 'Bogey' can have more than one meaning, and the joke was very nearly on them.
Andy Riley was about to arrive. He had told me many times that there were three distinct phases you have to pass through when learning any dangerous sport. In the third phase you are safe, because you have so much experience that you understand and appreciate all the dangers. In the first stage you are also safe, because, knowing nothing, you are so absolutely scared rigid that you can't make any dangerous move without checking and re-checking all the things you are supposed to have done before-hand. The dangerous stage, and he would way his finger at this point, the dangerous phase is when you have lost any initial fear that you may have had (pause for sip of beer), but you haven't yet gained mastery of the activity. At the start of the 1984 Expedition, Pozu de las Perdices was being pushed y just this sort of people.
Fred and Ukie descended to the Bogey ad rigged it. It was Ukie's first pushing trip, and she felt a little tentative. Not long after beginning to abseil, she realised that the rope was too short. It also hung for most of the way in the full force of the water. She came up again, and as she did so, a rock fell spontaneously from the roof and hit her hard on her helmet. She sat down on the ledge to recover, while Fred changed the rope to a longer length. He too went part of the way down and fixed a rebelay, hoping thus to avoid the water in the lower part of the shaft.
Ukie's electric back-up light was broken, but she had asked particularly to be the first one to the bottom of the pitch, so Fred climbed up once more. With any luck, the rebelay meant that the water wouldn't extinguish her carbide flame. Below the rebelay, Fred had not taken the rope out of the tackle bag but left it stuffed inside, clipped to the anchor. Ukie went down, passed the rebelay, and attached the heavy sack to her harness. She was now 'spidermanning', feeding the rope out of the bag as she continued the descent. A second bag at her waist held the heavy rigging equipment.
Fred finished spirited renditions of 'House of the Rising Sun' and 'Whiskey in the Jar' and sat alone at the pitch head. Time passed. Then he became aware of shouting from a long way below, with the distant but unmistakable sound of a large volume of water falling on a PVC suit. His rebelay had failed to avoid the water, and now Ukie's light was out. In the blackness she decided to carry on abseiling in the hope of reaching the foot of the shaft where she could get her flame going in more congenial circumstances. Unfortunately, a large tangle pulled out of the bag all at once and jammed itself in her descender, bringing her to an abrupt halt. Her only option was to perform a changeover in the dark: climb up a little way to unload the tangle so she could sort it out.
This too, she now found, was impossible. The loops of her ascending system must somehow have become incorporated in the mess. Isolated in space in a sit harness which was slowly cutting off the blood supply to her legs, Ukie was trapped in pitch blackness with icy water falling on her head. There was no way to escape without a light: even if the water were somehow to stop, her hands were becoming numb with cold.
Caving is not a good solo sport. Fred didn't know exactly what was wrong, nor how he could help Ukie, but as time passed and her cries echoed up the pitch he knew he had to do something. It is impossible to abseil on a rope loaded with another caver's weight below, but Fred still had the shorter rope he had rigged on the drop the first time. With luck it would get him down to Ukie. If it didn't...he would have to think again.
Out of the 45-metre length, he had about fifteen centimetres to spare. With Fred's fading electric illuminating the scene, Ukie was just able to reach the cow's tail he passed her, and use it to clip in above the tangle, stand up and undo the knots with frozen fingers. Exhausted, she prusiked back to the top and lay panting on the ledge, listening to the thud of the stream as it hit the two tackle bags now tied to the end of the rope 45 metres below.
When they made it back to the tents, Phil had a large dinner ready. He was emphatic. Ukie must go down again the next day and conquer the pitch, otherwise she would never get her confidence back. It's an old argument - pilots should take off immediately after a crash in order to stop them being for ever incapable of doing so. Ukie, still rattling the spoon against the side of her bowl through fear, realised that Phil was right. Tomorrow she would go down and 'crack the Bogey'.
Phil went with her. He knew the way to the Bogey pretty well by now, and the two of them made 'swift progress', as he later wrote in his no-nonsense log-book account. "First I went down the pitch and managed successfully to take the two tackle bags from the previous day's epic, and get them to the bottom. Then it was Ukie's turn. All went well until the rebelay, when the dreaded light struck again - a splash put it out, leaving Ukie in total darkness."
Once again Ukie was swinging in icy spray above a huge drop in total darkness. It was rather like waking up from a nightmare only to find that the dream doesn't stop. She had learnt from the day before and brought a spare battery, yes, but could she fit it into her lamp by touch alone without dropping any of the vital parts down the pitch? Much more sensible to move back though the rebelay and prusik up to a dryer, less awful spot. She began to do this, transferring her weight and undoing the vital karabiners by touch, but just as the day before she had become tangled because she had the two great tackle bags, so now she became tangled because of her reluctance to let go of another rope she carried. After quite a lot of kicking and struggling she discovered to her horror that once again she was trussed up, unable to move either up or down, and couldn't see what was holding her in the darkness.
This time Phil began to climb to the rescue. In the course of getting tangled, however, Ukie had dislodged the rope from the small rebelay spike. This meant that he transferred his full weight to Ukie's sit harness, climbing over a series of appalling rub points which the rebelay had avoided. Slowly Ukie felt him strangling her leg, but she had no alternative. She didn't complain.
With the arrival of Phil's light the mess was quickly seen to, and Ukie was released. They headed out. Once again the two bags stayed under the waterfall.
Back at camp, a meal inside her, Ukie made an entry in her diary: "Two mega cock-ups in two days. This is not good going. At the moment I'm being neither hard nor useful; perhaps I'm on some other list. Try looking under liabilities. I'm not very happy with myself."
She took the next tow days off, but the exploration of the cave carried on. Phil and Nicola vanquished the Bogey at last, descending a small pitch beyond. The following day Fred and Graham pushed on further to a great discovery - a very big pitch indeed. They hadn't got the rope to rig it, and reluctantly came out. As chance would have it, the fresh team available were Phil and Ukie again.
In her description of the trip Ukie made no mention of the Bogey at all. She passed it without difficulty - so much for the have-to-get-your-confidence-back-bay-going-straight-down-again nonsense. They had an uneventful trip down, and the account began at the head of the large pitch:
It was difficult to find Graham and Fred's six-second drop, and we spent some time staring out into the blackness and dropping rocks down. "OK Ukie, I'm dropping a rock down now," says Phil. Pause. "Well, go on then, drop it!" thinks Ukie. Pause. "Boom!" goes the rock. "Shit!" go Phil and Ukie. Eventually we decided to get on with it and rig the bugger. At last Phil was ready to go down. "Here I go into the unknown!" he cried, and vanished over the edge.
He seemed to take a very long time to go down. Then the call came - "Rope Free", and I followed; an incredible pitch. It was a straight free hang in the middle of a vast chamber. On my way down, enveloped in a cloud of steam, I had to look at the rope running through my rack to convince myself that I was moving at all: walls, roof and floor were all out of sight. 110 metres below the belay I landed in a bouldery, shafty, sloping chamber and headed off down a little rift, with popcorn stuff all over the walls. A few minutes later Phil stopped in his tracks and said - "Hey! I've been here before...This is FU56!" A piece of peanut wrapping was evidence that we were NOT THE FIRST - the big pitch had landed us in the Hot Tub of Pozu Jorcada Blanca.
We got out at 12.20, after a twelve-hour trip with a strangely historic feel about it...what will happen to the expedition now?
It was an interesting question. The inexperienced bunch of cavers who had arrived to push the new entrance had just re-explored, photographed and surveyed a cave nearly 500 metres deep in only a few days. They were now experienced cavers with the rest of the summer to play around with.
Whilst the frontiers of caving were being pushed back further up the mountain, a great deal had been happening at Los Lagos. The Spanish families who drove there for picnics were greeted by the sight of a khaki-shorted Englishman darting about with a butterfly net.
This was John Hutchinson, the expedition biologist. He was collecting not only butterflies, but also beetles, which he religiously pinned in neat rows on cards and stored in his tent. At night he would lie curled up in his sleeping-bag surrounded by the corpses of dozens of innocent creatures. They didn't call him 'Hutch' for nothing.
Apart from seeing off insects, John (the Impaler) Hutchinson had another function; he was Steve Gale's driver. The only other drivers (Steve couldn't drive were swinging about on ropes in the big pots up the hill, so John was co-opted into driving about on the terrible Picos roads with Steve navigating and giving commands, like a tank commander, except that instead of a Sherman they were driving a yellow bread van.
Together they bounced up the road that followed the valley of the Dobra into the mountains. It was Steve's plan to set some dye-detectors in this rarely visited place, just in case it was from these springs or resurgences that the water form the Jorcada Blanca system re-emerged. The road deteriorated the further they went until after a few miles Steve looked up from the map on his knee and pointed up a disgraceful shambles of a track to one side.
"Up there, John." It was a steep rubble path, fit only for donkeys, which led to a small clump of houses and, beyond them, to a large spring. His not to reason why, John took a run-up and careered up the hill with the engine screaming, then lurched into the tiny village.
Rare as it was for the sleepy hamlet to receive visitors, it was unprecedented for one of the village's own sons to be flying off to America. At that moment, though, one of the young men was packing his bags into his cousin's Land-Rover. The Land-Rover was to take him to Santander, then the train to Bilbao for the late afternoon flight. By morning he would be in the United States!
The lucky chap kissed his mother goodbye, then jumped in - his cousin already had the engine running - and as the Land-Rover rolled off he looked back at the house of his birth and waved. Next stop New York.
Wrong. Just as they turned into the village centre they saw that the way was blocked by a huge yellow van that had tried to get around the corner by the Ramirezes' house. It was wedged across the street with the nose up against the wall on one side, and the square back leaning against the wall on the other. What kind of cretins would bring a van like this here and what could they be delivering? The street was totally blocked!
The two cousins pushed through the crowd that had gathered around the wedged vehicle, and it was only then, when they were quite close, that they saw the sticker 'GB'.
"What's he say, Hutch? - Look, I reckon we need to go back about six inches, then try turning left a little."
"It's something about an aeroplane, I can't catch the rest."
"Well tell him a helicopter would be better, it could lift it out for us. Hey - do you think we've got enough people to lift it out?"
"No, not nearly enough, and anyway they're all old folk. Que Senor?...He says we've got to move the van straightaway."
"Can't he see that we're stuck?"
"He's got to get to Santander, hang on...he's got to get to Santander...to catch a train...then a plane...from Bilbao...this afternoon."
"Well, look, tell him we can't bloody well take him to Santander, because we're bloody well stuck here! Jesus Christ! He'll just have to make his own way to Santander. Do you think they'll let us demolish the wall of this house?"
"We can't demolish a house!"
"Er...Senor...Eso es possible...er...el muro..."
It is a remarkable thing how, if he is sufficiently motivated, one Spaniard can destroy the entire wall of a house single-handedly. It can be difficult to imagine, when you see the Picos villagers sleeping in the sun, just what dynamite they can be. No wonder the Moors never conquered them.
The wall was soon down, and there were cheers as the yellow van lumbered away with a massed helping push, hotly pursued by a Land-Rover.
This use of John Hutch as chauffeur was in keeping with Steve Gale's view that the expedition was his private research group. We had, of course, always tried to foist the idea on grant-giving bodies that our Spanish trips were scientific expeditions, pushing back the limits of knowledge, and not just superb adventures at the limits of human endurance. The grant-giving bodies knew the truth of it, naturally, and we knew they knew, and they knew we knew they knew - it was quite a knowledgeable charade.
This year it was to be different. Steve Gale was in charge. His position as a proto-don had added weight to our begging letters, but the corollary was that we had a whole list of 'projects' to complete while in the Picos. One was to measure the daily rainfall at our three camps, another to make a systematic study of the insect life in the hills. Each camp had a weather station, and detailed meteorological records were expected to be kept. At Los Lagos this soon proved impossible, because the rain-gauge was stolen by someone who no doubt wanted to turn it into a still. At the other two camps there was no one to steal the rain-gauge, but one glance at the log-book reveals that the cavers'' hearts weren't in it:
DATE MM OF PRECIPITATION & COMMENTS
20th July None. Found one fly (dead).
21st July None. One beetle (dead).
22nd July None. Two beetles (one dead, one v. ill).
24th July Rained so hard yesterday no-one left the tents to read the gauge. Overflowing today, with one ant (dead) as well.
Steve Gale spent much of the expedition walking at high speed from one camp to another, exhorting the cavers there to carry on with whatever they were doing and why hadn't they read the weather stations yet? He was discovering, he confided, that it rained more at the foot of the mountain than at the top of the mountain, and this would be the basis of a paper he intended to write. As the reader may be now be well aware, it was generally good, hot weather at our Top Camp, whereas it was reliably foul at Los Lagos. This was the fact that Steve was now purporting to have discovered, namely that the Rain in Spain Fell Mainly on the Plain.
While the newer members of the team had spent the winter speaking of Perdices, I had never been inspired by the idea. I too had been listening to Steve Gale's theories and firmly believed the cave would either end up in FU56 or sump. One February evening Richard and I nursed pints in the New Inn at Clapham, refreshed by a pleasant excursion in the Gaping Gill system. I had a new job, as a reporter for the Guardian: I had to work harder, with daily, not weekly deadlines, and weekends away were more valuable than ever.
"There's one cave at Ario with great potential we haven't really looked at," Richard Said. "Cueva del Near Miss. Remember? It was never looked at after 1981."
I remembered all right. "But how would we break through that four inch slot? Colin Nicholls tried jumping up and down on it and it seemed impenetrable."
"Dave, I know we once scoffed at people who hammered their way through Picos caves. But we've got to move on."
Slowly the concept grew. Steve Roberts was also taken with the plan, and during a pleasant journey by train through France we psyched ourselves up into a lather of anticipation. AS soon as we arrived at Lagos at 7 p.m. we would be off up the hill with a lumphammer. Next day we would set to work, and break through to the booming space into which Colin had thrown rocks in 1981.
We were pre-empted. By the time we arrived, days of work by Ukie, Graham, Dave Horsley, Ian Houghton and Sean had already done the job, and 12/5 - Pozu la Cistra - was 200 metres deep and going.
It had been back-breaking work. Colin's description of jumping up and down had not given a clear idea of what the slot was like. I had imagined a thin flake would be all that blocked the way, and smashing through would be as easy as it had been at the top of The Chair in FU56. But the four-inch slot was in solid rock, and the cave was very constricted, making it very difficult to swing a hammer. I would have taken one look and given up. Sean and Ian were more determined.
At the end of a particularly hard session, Sean tried once more to insert himself into the fissure. This time, he said, he thought he could do it. Rigging a rope through the squeeze, he forced himself down. Squeezes are one thing. Vertical squeezes are another: it is always more difficult to climb up through them than to slither down, aided by gravity. This was a vertical squeeze above a 30-metre drop.
Had there not been a ledge 3 metres below the narrowest part the obstacle would have been more serious still. As it was, it was possible to rest there, sort out normal SRT gear and carry on down; and on the way back up, to remove equipment and free climb up to the daunting hole with an ascender clipped onto the rope for protection. The squeeze was so narrow that even the thinnest members of the team could not pass it wearing harnesses. To descend, Sean wore only a waist belt. He could not have got through with the bulk of a descender in the normal position at his waist: it would have jammed between his chest and the wall. He clipped it on high above his head, joined to his belt with a length of tape.
But the Newt - so called because it had been 'really hammered', - had been passed. Below, the cave was human sized again, with a series of six dry, pleasant pitches. The last landed in a horizontal passage with a stream.
Sean slipped back up through the Newt as easily as he came down. Ian, a bulkier fellow, had more trouble. "He looked like a cork trying to force his way out of a bottle," Sean said later. It was all very well for anorexics, but for others, the Newt was extraordinarily strenuous. Once committed, there was no turning back: the jammer prevented one from going back down for a rest, and if anyone was silly enough to try it without a jammer, they risked falling down the 30-metre shaft. In the early days of its exploration, Cistra was pushed by little people.
Steve and I are big people. Our first trip ended in abject failure. I forced myself in. Thick wedges of rock jammed against my thighs, bottom and groin. There was no way I was going to get through. Put off by the sight of my bursting veins and purple face, Steve didn't bother trying. There was only one thing for it: a whole lot more hammering.
Eventually we got bored. It was still early afternoon: if we made good time, we could get back to Lagos and set off for the shops in Cangas - the expedition was in dire need of restocking with food. Freed from the narrow confines of the cave, we skipped down the hill in glorious sunshine, piloting the big yellow van towards the shops with reckless abandon to the sound of James Brown.
Many big boxes of groceries, tortillas and beers later we turned back onto the road. With only two people on board, the van coped with the bends and inclines of the Lagos road effortlessly. "Steve," I said, "don't go too fast..." It had been a booming day for the bars and restaurants at Lagos, and the downside of the road was crowded with holiday traffic. We had a near miss with a coach not far from Covadonga: the road was not built for two vehicles this size. Then, on a short descent at the point where forest and pasture gives way to mountain limestone and scrubby grass, we saw a large, very new, white Peugeot saloon. There was a bang. We were on the outside: "No worries," said Steve, "no danger of going over the edge, plenty of room."
"Er Steve, don't you think we should stop?"
"Nah. I think it was only their wing mirror. By the time they get to Covadonga they'll have forgotten all about it."
We drove on, at a more leisurely pace. As we pulled onto the Lagos meadow we were in high spirits again. "Yoo hoo! Lots of lovely Rioja, anis, ponche, cuarenta y tres, eggs, bread, jamon, chorizo, tomates, ajos, cebollas, naranjas," I yelled, demonstrating the command of Spanish five years in the Cangas supermercados had given me. I leapt out of the cab: "Come on, you buggers, give us a..."
I had meant to say "hand". Instead I said "Senor?"
The Peugeot had not forgotten about its brush with speleologists. It had turned round very fast indeed, chased us up the hill and had joust screeched to a halt. Its driver, a smart and paunchy man, was standing in front of me and he was angry. His wife and two children sat in the car, visibly seething too. Along one side from end to end we had left our calling card: a yellow groove, with three deeper dents at front, rear and doorpost.
Steve stayed calm: a big mistake. After a pursuit of 3000 feet and seven miles up a mountain, the packs of AA Five Star insurance forms which he coolly attempted to persuade his victim to sign were of no avail.
"No fiamos!" the man kept saying, as Steve pointed hopelessly to the dotted lines. "We don't trust you!" Steve tried again, filling in a graph with a map of the accident, underlining the impressive list of Lloyds underwriters which, his Spanish was in no wise equal to explaining, offered cast iron security. The lady, as angry as her husband and only slightly thinner, got out and joined in the fun. It was she who produced the solution which suddenly seemed to her husband to be the only possible way out:
"Ingleses, no fiamos ustedes. A Covadonga hay una ofgicina de la Guardia Civil."
Either, she went on, we could follow her family down the hill and explain the situation to the officers voluntarily. Or she would go and fetch them. The Guardia Civil, she added, did not like having to disturb their evenings with unnecessary trips into the mountains.
We had no choice, and wearily got back in the van. On the way down I began to feel angry. This was absurd. All the Guardia could do was tell the woman to sign the insurance forms. We had been supposed to go to Ario that night: now it would be too late.
The Guardia post at Covadonga is very small. It normally deals with nothing more serious than elderly people fainting with emotion in the sacred basilica. "What we've got to do is get to them first," Steve said on the way down. Tonight, there was one thin adolescent on duty, chain smoking Winstons. We were beaten: as we pulled into the car park the youth was surrounded by our antagonists.
Steve tried again with his forms. The Senora remained implacable. "No fiamos." Finally I lost my temper, summoning up all reserves of indignation and linguistic skill.
"Hombre! Es una pequena problema!" ("Man it's a small problem.") I pointed at the two sleek kids. "Donde estan los ninos muertes?" ("Where are the dead children?")
As an attempt to soothe matters it was not well-judged. "Assassin!" the woman screamed, clearly interpreting my words as a death-threat to her little ones. This time we really were in a pickle: I could see the callow cadet getting on the blower to Interpol to check me out any minute...
His response was less sensational, though tedious. "We well have to get los trafficos," he said. "They are the specialists for this affair. They must come from Ribadesella." Ribadesella, I remembered glumly, was 40 kilometres away.
In the end - two hours later - the trafficos sorted it out. Six strong, armed to the teeth, they pulled up in a fortified Land-Rover. They inspected the damage. "For this," they said, "for this we have come all this way?" Smiling now, Steve produced his forms once more. "Lady, sign here. And good Night."
There was just one catch. "Senor Roberts. We will require your passport. You may retrieve it after one week from the Palace of Justice in Cangas de Onis."
Seven days later Steve tried to get it back. In Cangas they explained that it was in Covadonga, because the accident had occurred in that jurisdiction. In Covadonga, he was directed to Arriondas. No, they told him, you are mistaken, it is in Cangas. In desperation he tried the ordinary police station, where the men are armed only with joke guns clipped well out of harm's way. The passport was in a drawer.
"Ah, Senor Roberts. Senor Lopez is not going to bring an action, so you are free to go."
"Great," said Steve, reaching for his documents.
"That will be 25,000 pesetas." Steve stopped short.
"Ask him what will happen if I don't pay the bloody fine - it's over a hundred quid!"
"He says that in that case you must go to jail until your insurance company coughs up."
"Do they take travellers cheques? Steve asked.
The entrance to Pozu la Cistra lay on the very rim of the Cares Gorge, at the furthest extremity of the Ario plateau. On one side, the great bulk of Jultayu rose above sweeping lines of strata; below, the sun played many-coloured tricks of lighting in the clouds welling in the canyon. Somehow or other I was going to have to find a way to pass the Newt. The Skinny Team was advancing rapidly: a boulder choke had given way to a fine 60-metre shaft, the Armadillo, and the streamway continued beyond.
After some hours of hammering Steve, who is smaller than I, at last felt ready to go for it. The squeeze was still too narrow for me, but after forcing his body through, he was able to get a better hammer swing from below and widened the slot more rapidly. Not really knowing how I planned to return, I breathed in and followed. We advanced swiftly to the limit of exploration and rigged two short pitches.
Back on the ledge below the Newt, reality sank in. I prided myself on having tackled some of the narrowest Yorkshire caves with impunity, despite my size. But this was different. Steve took ten minutes to get through, ten minutes during which his legs waggled helplessly above 100 feet of space before brute strength won the day. He had taken off his helmet and I passed it through on the rope. Breathless and panting he urged me on: "Come up, Dave. It's not that bad."
Foolishly, I tried without removing any clothing. I handed him my hat and light and struggled in the dark, barely able to insert a shoulder, let alone my chest. The surface was five minutes away beyond this squeeze: an eternity. Desperate and exhausted, I lost the little ground I had made and slid back to the widening, dangling from my single ascender clipped to the rope and my waist belt. Steve passed me my light again: somehow I found footholds and unclipped, climbing unprotected back to the ledge.
I took off my heavy oversuit, and despite the risk, my belt. My only chance was to remove every protuberance. I hung the ascender on the rope with a footloop, hoping that it might give me some purchase for my feet. It had been a long time since I had been really frightened underground, and I was not enjoying the reminder.
Delicately up the chimney; helmet off and up to Steve. Push jammer up as high as possible; lift leg into footloop and push... I gained two feet further than before. The rock compressing my belly thudded with the constriction of my aorta. The jammer was too low to be of use now and I flung an elbow up and across the top of the slot, grinding it into the walls to pull me those last few inches. At last it was over: my chest was free. My buttocks were still stuck fast but now I could push down with both hands: easy.
"Christ, Steve. I've got to do that every bloody trip."
Cistra carried on. There were fine tubular pitches: Camshaft, Geselschaft, Thompson's Gazellshaft, Eddie Shah, all rigged on a glorious push by Steve, Phil Sargent and me next day. Ukie - her epic in Perdices a distant memory now - carried on in a series of trips with my brother, Fred and Phil Duncan down drop after drop, split by winding, marbled streamway and wet, sporting freeclimbs. It was Orwell's year: the last pitch descended was Room 101, and the four-second drop beyond had to be Big Brother. Richard and I went surveying with his fiancee Sara - her sixth caving trip since taking up the sport was a long mapping session down to 400 metres. Each shaft landed in a high, round chamber, with clear pools on the floor. The passage between was nowhere very large: often we had to crabwalk sideways, squeezing past sharp mineral projections and the same blood red stalactites we had seen in Xitu. The weather was hot and settled, and we emerged from long trips into quiet, winless nights lit by more stars than I had ever seen, even in the Picos. Expedition perfection was back; a shared excitement as each push returned and related its discoveries and the promise of more to come.
The only discordant note came from Andy, sparking off an intense debate. When Steve and I widened the Newt to enable ourselves to pass, he said, thinner cavers could already get through. What we had done was therefore unethical.
Caving has never had the developed system of ethics and principles evolved by climbers. Its approach has always been: get down the hole without leaving a mess by whatever means appropriate. Andy argued that as techniques and equipment had made the sport safer and easier, it was high time that ethics were introduced. If the fatties like Steve, Richard and me wanted to go underground, Andy said, he had the perfect hole for us - Andy's Rattler, F20, a deep and barely investigated shaft with a huge snow tower, on the hill behind Top Camp. by widening the squeeze, we had lessened Cistra's challenge. Yes, we retorted, but we've also made it safer, and quicker to widen still further in the event of an accident and rescue. At the time, I contested Andy's point hotly. Now, I am not so sure. Several of us would never have seen Cistra without our action: probably, the thin team was too small to have bottomed it without our help. But undeniably we had changed the cave for all time. Still, the Newt got no easier with practice. It was, and remained, a problem of sheer dimensions.
As Cistra grew - well over 500 metres deep at the top of Big Brother - I began to wonder if it was going to snake on slowly down to the very bottom of the gorge. Its entrance was not far from the line of Xitu, but there was no sign of any connection. It didn't appear to be collecting its own inlet tributaries either: perhaps it was a smaller, but equally deep parallel system.
One morning Ukie and Phil appeared at Ario soon after dawn, the grassy plateau white with frost. Their excitement bubbled over: "We've found a huge master stream passage. Boy oh boy it's really going now. We followed it upstream a little way to what looked like a tricky free climb; the other way there was a 20-metre pitch, seemed very wet..."
Recognition stirred. Stream passage...free climb...wet pitch. It sounded like Xitu: Cistra must be the wet aven above Dampturation where I had shivered in a showerbath while Skunk took pictures on our derigging venture in 1980.
"Don't get carried away, Phil. I think you and Ukie have done it again."
Steve and I confirmed it later that day, entering the main cave via a last, spectacular 60-metre abseil. Round the corner Graham's dreadful bolts still stuck out half an inch where he put them in in 1980. The Xitu stream ran clear and cold, the carbide tipped into it four years earlier having long been washed away. The first person down that pitch was Keith, I thought. Only 500 metres to go to the bottom. To the point of union, Cistra was 610 metres deep.
Up at the refugio, the donkeys bearing ham, casks of wine, wheels of cheese and enough tinned food to keep a supermarket stocked for a week had announced the arrival of the Barcelona caving talent. The SIE were back to push Cabeza Muxa. They had suffered more than their fair share of mishaps over the years we had shared base campsites. In 1979, they had run out of rope halfway down the Gran Abisu, negotiating a final 30 metres on a dynamic climbing rope which bounced them up and down like yo-yos every time they took a step. In 1980, they reached the bottom of the abyss and found another immediately beyond, a mere 120 metres deep. After that, already 600 metres down - and less than 100 metres from the entrance horizontally - they hit a major river. Not a stream, but a river which made the Xitu torrent look puny. It clearly accounted for about nine tenths of the water emerging at Culiembro. Before long they were forced to wade above their waists, and then to take to a rubber dinghy at a 'marmita' - a swirling pothole in the floor. Halfway across the dinghy sank. There remained the possibility of bolting a tyrolean traverse round the obstacle, a kind of aerial ropeway. The work went well at first; then someone dropped the only boltkit into the water. It was swept away.
In 1981, they abandoned the Picos for the Pyrenees. They were back the following year, armed once again with a gastronomic prowess which made us drool and feel glad that we were spending more time at Top Camp, away from the smell and sight of their meals. This time, Muxa ended at a boulder choke not far from the marmita.
In 1983, they arrived as we were on the point of leaving. The weather, which had been vile in the early part of August, turned obscene. The Gran Abisu, normally watered by a few drips, became a raging waterfall 247 metres high. Somehow they passed it, but at the bottom of the succeeding shaft the river level was 10 metres higher than normal. A way was found through the boulders into more river passage which in those conditions was nearly lethal. A member of their party was climbing one of the many short drops when the rope swung him into the full force of the water. This was not like getting caught under a wet pitch in Yorkshire: it was like being hit by a tidal wave. He could not breathe. His companions, endowed with the strength that comes with sheer desperation, pulled him clear. Muxa was left alone again.
We had grown fond of the Catalans; sometimes, when we looked particularly hungry, they would give us a few leftovers. There had been some good sessions shared between the two clubs, which had sometimes benefited from the Barcelona group's familiarity with the increasingly liberal Spanish laws concerning the use of marijuana. A day after Cistra was connected to Xitu, they found the bottom of Cabeza Muxa at last: a beautiful, deep green sup 918 metres down. Tentatively I asked their leader, Giuseppe Victoria, if some of us might have a trip down on their ropes. "Mais bien sur," he said. And afterwards, we agreed, there would be a fiesta. Leonardo, a graphic designer and another of their regulars, pointed surreptitiously at Sara. "Et la blonde?" he said. "Elle va venir a la fiesta tambien?"
We were a large party: Sara, Ian Houghton, Phil Sargent, Fred, Ukie and myself. Giuseppe directed us across the hillside with his umbrella towards the entrance -= a conical depression 50 metres deep and 75 across. The first pitch followed. There were two bolts, sticking out a little too far. I waved goodbye to our guide. "Adios." To retreat now without reaching the bottom would be a national humiliation.
The next pitch followed immediately. There was only one bolt, badly drilled. I took a deep breath: Giuseppe was still seeing off the others, so it would be impossible to jack the trip, lie low for a few hours and return. Oh well. If it's supported all those gourmets it'll support me.
The rigging all the way down did not conform to BSI standards. At the top of the Gran Abisu, the psychological strain was too much for Phil, and he left for the surface, mumbling about responsibilities to his colleagues at work which meant he couldn't afford to die. The SIE's approach to rub points, most noticeably at the top of the last 120-metre pitch, was eccentric. Instead of rebelaying, they rigged a rope too long for the shaft. Each time the abrasion cut it to the core, they simply pulled up a few more yards of line and tied it to the belay. When we got there, there were about twenty loops already in place.
But the Muxa river was the master cave we had always dreamed of. Its scale was continuously and terrifyingly vast. For most of its three kilometre length, the water was like the Colorado, and progress possible only by teetering on tiny ledges. The passage was about ten times as big as Xitu's. The pitches were rigged on old 8 mm rope, often badly frayed. No wonder Giuseppe had said that they wouldn't bother detackling below the entrance series.
Nearly 800 metres down, Ian began to suffer the psychosomatic effects as will: in his case, diarrhoea. At the same spot, I broke my carbide generator trying to fill it too enthusiastically. It was Sara's ninth caving trip, and she felt quite deep. The three of us turned round. Fred and Ukie made it to the bottom, and caught us up at the 247-metre abyss. Giuseppe was waiting for us at the entrance, a little concerned. It was 7 a.m.: he thought we should have been able to finish the trip in ten hours, not sixteen. This, I thought, is what unlimited smoked ham does for you.
Back at Ario, the water supply was worse than ever. There was none at all. Fred said he was dehydrated, and dressed still in his caving suit, consumed half a bottle of brandy by eight o'clock. AS the sun rose and replaced the frost with bleaching heat he collapsed insensible. We began to think the heat might not do him any good and undressed him. His limbs stuck fast in the attitude of rigor mortis as we manipulated them to remove his stiff PVC overalls; later he said he'd been dreaming of nurses in an orthopaedic hospital.
The Muxa excursion had cemented international friendship between speleologists by delayed the detackling of Cistra by several days. Ian was particularly keen to get it over with. After further setbacks with the completion of the survey, he finally managed to get the team in a state of readiness. Then he announced a modification to the original plan.
It wasn't because of any personality disorder that Ian wanted to go alone into a desperately severe cave at six in the morning. It was the challenge of the idea, the physical and mental stamina it required, the total self-sufficiency. Ian had been reading too many climbing books in fact.
Solo caving was not a new concept, or even new to Ario. There had been Steve Worthington's solo 'push' down Xitu in the autumn of 1980. Steve Worthington had bee Ian's guru at the Sheffield University club and his exploits had thrilled the fledgling Houghton when he had been just learning how to screw up his karabiners. Ian remained captivated by the idea of a solo assault on a deep cave. Now, he announced on the eve of the great detackle, he would accomplish his ambition.
The plan was to detackle the entire cave in one push. There were only nine active potholers left: all hands would be needed. Everyone would go down in a series of waves, bringing out all the rope, ladders, belays, tapes and litter in a gradually enlarging group. Ian said he would be wave one: he and no one else. As always on expeditions, the longer the trip, the later it was likely to start. Ian said his departure at 6 a.m. would give us an incentive not to dally. He would begin the detackling of the bottom, meeting up with the next wave some time in the morning. "Then," he said, "by the time we're back at the entrance series it will be only ten at night, and I'll feel completely fresh because it won't be the middle of the night." Yes, we agreed, but you would still have been up since four and underground for sixteen hours. Ian was unshaken.
He rose before dawn, and by six was climbing down the entrance ladders. Well before eight, he had passed the 60-metre Armadillo: this had been a badly rigged pitch, but a few days earlier Ian had rearranged things with a remarkable three-point belay which both avoided loose boulders and gave him considerable aesthetic pleasure. All alone, he moved quickly; there was no one to wait for at the pitches, no one to talk to, no other light to disturb the cave's darkness. There was no need to shout 'rope free' after a descend, no other footsteps to echo from the walls. He adjusted to the noise of falling water, which seemed strangely quiet as it tumbled down the shafts. Did the drips make any noise at all when there was no one there to hear them?
He paused for the first time at the top of Camshaft. It had been one of the trickier rigs in the cave, for there was a rub pointy a short way down which had proved curiously difficult to avoid with rebelays. A few days before, a party found the rope cut to the core, and sensibly they cut it, leaving only just enough for the descent. They arranged a more gymnastic way of getting on the rope which required a shorter length.
Despite the fact that Ian was on a de-rigging trip, he found himself unable to avoid re-rigging this pitch again. He knew that the take-off in this case would be so much simpler and less strenuous if there was an extra back-up from the boulder by the stream, and if the main hang were achieved via a triple belay...he pulled up the rope required and made his adjustments. What he didn't do was to check it there was a knot on the end of the rope. All the ropes on the expedition had knots in the end, even, as was usually the case, if the rope was much longer than required. There was still a knot in the end of the spare rope coiled on the floor. It is tempting to speculate whether a companion would have pointed out to Ian that he should check the rope's end, but Ian didn't have a companion.
What Ian did was to use about fifteen feet of extra rope in his re-rig, so that when he slid down the rope he sailed off the free end and flew bum-first into a serendipitous deep pool of water. It was about nine o'clock in the morning. Back at the camp, above all the pitches, squeezes and across the fell, the other cavers lay dozing in their bags. Not one had started to stir.
Neck-deep in his pool, Ian was far from asleep. His plight was straight out of a caving pub-yarn; at once desperately serious and totally absurd. The rope dangled enticingly above him way out of reach. There were no walls anywhere near to it, nor any movable rocks he could use to build a cairn and get to it. When he recovered from the shock he had a go at climbing up in the downstream passage, where he could bridge with one foot on either wall until he was way, way above the floor, perhaps half the height of the pitch. It wasn't possible to get any higher, and he could see the rope dangling only metres away out of reach. Did it occur to him to leap into space and grab for the rope, or did he accept his fate at once? Whichever, he was marooned.
Underground the only way to keep warm is to move. Ian raced off down the cave to get at least some of the de-rigging done. Soon he was puffing and panting again, and feeling had returned even to his wet behind. Not far from the final shaft he stopped. It was now well past eleven. The first wave of the main party was due down at ten, and they would be well into the cave now. One thing he couldn't allow was for another sucker to come whizzing off the rope end... he had to turn round and race back up the cave.
At Ario, some people were up, cooking breakfast. There was no sign of anyone going caving before lunch. Time passed. Soon the pre-prandial bottle of Ricard anisette was being passed around.
"Hello!" After all these hours of sitting in the dark and the deafening quiet, the sound of another voice came as a shock.
"Don't... come...down... until...you...rig...the...rope...again. It...is...too...short."
"What?" The echoes and falling water made communication of this subtlety very difficult.
"What? Look, we're not coming down till you tell us what's wrong."
Cistra was finally derigged on two trips, not one, although by eight next morning sixteen heavy bags lay poised beneath the entrance pitches. Each pitch got a little harder as the weight of gear increased. Between them, we made a human chain and passed the bags from one end to another, before moving the chain on a few yards and beginning the process again.
Taking a leaf from the SIE's book, I brought copious supplies of ham, tinned fruit, cheese, chocolate, olives and smoked mackerel. The cave seemed almost a merry place, lit by the lamps of the whole expedition remaining, warmed by the exertion of group activity. When we reached the surface, the sun was rising slowly above the mountains' rim, running through the spectrum on the rocks and cloud from red to blinding white.
We sat for a long time, half dozing, half marvelling at the intoxicating beauty of the Picos. Only one person was missing. Ian had gone out early: wet, frozen and traumatised. He huddled alone at Ario, making tea.
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