Oxford University Cave Club

1985 Expedition: "Jultayu"

Picos de Europa, Spain

"Caves and Caving" article

1985 Reports

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Steve Roberts

Collectors of caving ephemera might have perused the 'prospectus' that we sent round to sponsors and anybody else who might be interested. In it, instead of our usual claim to be on the brink of finding the 'deepest cave in the world' (please send money / food / gear), we claimed to be looking for a new system (please send....). Did we find the mysterious third system? Well... possibly. Was it where we thought it was? Well.... Did we find anything else? YES! Now read on...

OUCCophiles will no doubt know of the epic tales of Xitu, followed by the discovery of 'possibly the deepest cave in the world' (Pozu Jorcada Blanca) that unfortunately justified the support of the Ghar Parau foundation by turning a few corners and getting terminally wet, followed by the linking of two fine long and deep new entrances into these. In between the two systems... a big gap. Despite a lot of shaft-bashing this year, the gap still remains. The largest entrance in the 'missing' area, Tras la Jayada, a 300+ metre shaft, was rigged to find the way on that must exist at the bottom, and provided a few fun but fruitless trips (including one of our bolder chaps' intro to underground SRT) before the ropes were needed elsewhere. Down at Base Camp, uphill pushing trips in the resurgence caves of Hoyo la Madre and Culiembro found no new cave, though had amusing times, finding topofil string in some very obscure places. To boldly go where no man has been before... (must have been Mr. Spock beaming in).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, objective no. 2 was well on its way. The 'fil rouge' of Ario, Cueva 3/5, was this year going to be pushed to its conclusion (the entrance is directly above part of Xitu). William Stead, our token Etonian, who has seen 3/5 from every angle since conception to ultimate conclusion, started off this year by describing it as 'the Hammer Pot of the Picos'. Soon it became 'the Quaking Pot of the Picos', as rifts were battered into submission. Excitement reached fever pitch (i.e. wine purchases from the Refugio reached a new high) when a big pitch was found. The way on seemed open - surely Xitu was not far away. 'Last' pushing trips multiplied as more vile rift was found, until finally the cave dropped, twisted and spun back to emerge half-way down 'Graham's Balls-up'. Quote Fred: "We were in Xitu. We found some truly appalling bolts, put into calcite veins, and sticking out a bit.... we headed back and made it out in 2 1/2 hours. Phil took a picture of me emerging, muddy, grinning, ripped to shreds and knackered." Gruelling surveying and detackling followed, and the rope was immediately ferried up the hill to the top camp near Pozu Jorcada Blanca.

By now, astute readers will have realised that something was going on up the hill. Not just something, but three things. Last year left us with 'F20' as a going concern, an entrance pitch to a snow-covered ledge with two ways down, one of which dropped plumb down for some way. A trip to the limit of exploration landed on a ledge that proved not just to be snow covered, but to be the top of a 100 foot high tower of snow. The ledge was attained only after a certain amount of difficulty with a knot, during which my companion threatened to be sick on my head. The cave looked like 'the most concentrated vertical maze in the Picos', to use dalespeak... and was given over to our knitting expert, Ian Houghton, who poured tape, rope, wire, maillons and krabs into it at a rate of knots. Several thousand changeovers and pendules later, always following the tried and true maxim that the way on is up and across, the long-awaited stream was found at about -250m. Here, though, I am getting ahead of the true story, which can only be expressed in the inimitable words of our media expert, Dave Rose.

"Today, before going back to TlJ for more gear, I carried a 150m rope for Richard and Sara to use in F20. We found the Roberts cairns and continued up too far, right to the top of the so-called brown gully. At the top we met.., the ridge. Bells whirred and lightbulbs flashed in my brain. Area 6 (see OUCC proc. 10) and its lost caves, found by Dave 5 years before while walking in the mist and never since, by now as legendary as Camelot, were found again.

The first push had four people and all the gear they could carry- "A Bold Statement", as Richard put it. The entrance, a tube heading into the hill, where one can conveniently change, leads via two short pitches to the fine 'Dancing in the Dark'. Lots of varied caving followed, via squeezes, loose climbs, sizeable pitches and the rest to a pitch, later named 'Barney Rubble'. This was about 210m down, via 11 pitches, and 270m in from the entrance, an amazing effort (no, I wasn't on the trip!). Ridge cave was on its way with a bang. The cave felt warm and friendly compared to the cold dark drippy F20, which immediately got somewhat neglected. The next few trips found a vertical section ('Fred Flintstone'), ending in what appeared to be a rift pitch. On descent, one wall vanished, leaving the trepid explorer dangling against the wall of a huge boulder-filled chamber, whose size was only emphasised by the occasional dripping in the silence.

This chamber ('Dinosaur Beach') was the first of three. Beneath the floor, a devious route down through some very nasty boulders led to a rift descent into a narrow stream, choked at both ends after a few unnerving squeezes. Both chokes are beneath big chambers, so it would seem the boulder fill is about 100m deep... and quite unstable. The second chamber, the Big Crunch, had a way on: - 100 feet up one of the walls. Dedicated loonies bolted and climbed up this, showering rocks and rubble. "Above the last bolt ... I managed to climb up about 12' then a large handhold went. Suddenly I was flying past the bolt, wondering how far I had to go before the rope caught me. Then I hit a knob of rock ... I abbed down, had a bite to eat and set off up again ... I got to the top under an overhang, and decided that more gardening was necessary. By the way, all this time I was scared absolutely shitless". Fred again. Mere mortals returned to F20.

Here, the streamway had got worse and worse. Progress was only possible by traversing at various levels, hindered somewhat by the walls coming to bits. Occasionally a pitch provided relief as the passage widened out to at least a couple of feet. In the later sections of the rift, getting lost between levels and finding pitches by-passed or not by bizarre routes plagued follow-up teams. The cave ends, for now, with another pitch into the unknown, probably another horrible rift. 380m and still going.

Back in Ridge Cave, the bolt climb, Fred's Folly, had gone... two scrawled pages in the log book sketch progress, with bits labelled 'Nasty slippery slope', 'Nasty pitch', 'Traverse', 'Shit loose', to 'Another F***ing Big Chamber'. "Got to a ledge. No more rope. It is hard to tell how far it is to the bottom." Stirring stuff, eh? A later survey trip found a strongly draughting climb down from the base of the chamber ('The Big Beluga'); this is the current limit of exploration, at -450m.

By this time, trips were getting pretty long. Time for detackling was short, and some of those who turned up for the last few weeks of the expedition found themselves straight off the ferry and committed to deep survey and detackling trips lasting 25-30 hours. All the gear was ferried down the hill at the last possible minute and the Yellow Van's springs sagged again as it lurched off to Santander.

On the recreational side, some fine 'sessions' were enjoyed, including the ever-popular beach trip and meal in Cangas, during which (I am told) I made a speech. No-one caught any unpleasant diseases. The Yellow Van spent all night getting up the hill once, owing to a spectacular radiator leak. Some fine sunsets were enjoyed and the wind (external) destroyed its usual quota of tents. We had sunshine, fog, snow, sleet and looked at clouds from both sides. Even those who were swearing they were going to hang up their expedition boots are raring to go back next year.

What are the prospects? We thought the surveys would show where we could link F20 to Ridge Cave.., but instead they are heading diametrically away from each other. F20 seems set to become part of the Jorcada Blanca system, possibly even higher up the 'Hot Tub' than Pozu las Perdices - the water must come from somewhere - or, if we're lucky, maybe beyond the sump. Dye traces indicate that the water from this area might not come out in the Cares gorge, as we first thought, but at Hoyo la Madre, a long long way away; this has yet to be confirmed (dye has been put in again this year). Where Ridge cave is going we don't know... but we're going to find out - next year

We would like to thank our sponsors, without whose considerable generosity the expedition would not have been possible:

The University of Oxford
The A.C. Irvine Fund
The Alexander Allen Paton Fund
The Sports Council
The Ghar Parau Foundation
The Royal Geographical Society (approval)
Federacion Espanola de Espeleologia
Federacion Noroeste de Espeleologia
Instituto Nacional de la Conservacion de la Naturaleza

Dunlop Footwear
Touchwood Sports 
John West Foods
Morning Foods
Rowntree Mackintosh
Ringtons Tea
Colmans Products
St. Ivel.
Rabone Chesterman
Newbold & Bulford
Caving Supplies
Brittany Ferries
Kenco Coffee
Symbol Biscuits
Supreme Plastics
Walkers Crisps
UB Biscuits
Brooke Bond Oxo

I'd also like to plug THE BOOK - coming soon, a history of OUCC's 25 years in the Picos de Europa. Probably entitled 'Depth in the Afternoon', it's by Dave Rose and Richard Gregson and on sale near you next year. Buy it