"Damn! It just seems to end'' shouted Gavin.
I abseiled down to where Gavin was standing. Sure enough, our potential `Very Deep Cave' just seemed to end in a solid wall, 150m from the surface.
Gavin Lowe and I had discovered `Cueva del Arco' a couple of days previously. The enormous entrance and huge draught suggested a deep cave. Gavin and Steve Roberts had put in 200m of rope on the first trip. However here we were, two days later, at a solid wall with no obvious way on.
It was my fifth week on expedition to the Picos de Europa, thanks to a grant awarded by the Alex Pitcher Trust: the trust awards a grant to a young caver to travel on an expedition or to participate in a training course; receiving the award meant that I was able to stay for the whole expedition.
The expedition had started well with high hopes for a cave discovered the previous year, Pozu Cabeza Julagua. Seeing the cave for the first time was enjoyable: although only a two hour trip to reach the surveyed limit, the cave had its fair share of squeezes, awkward rift, large walking passages, and the obligatory boulder choke.
I took part in the early pushing trips from the previous year's limit. We were all hopeful that a big shaft series might take the cave really deep. However, hope began to fade when we discovered an old sump now filled with mud. It didn't look promising! Subsequent trips failed to discover a way over the top and a surface survey seemed to suggest the cave was resurging close by.
So it was on a rare drizzly day that Gavin, Rob Garrett and I went to look at an entrance 50m above the resurgence. A quick look down and it seemed to be going. Gavin had a proper look. After removing a large boulder he found himself wedged above a large drop. He extricated himself and we rigged a rope. The drop turned out to be 30m deep. Shouts of jubilation came from Gavin as we followed him down. We were standing a few metres from the mud sump we'd discovered a week before. 8/11 was now a system! This proved to be the first of three more entrances into the cave.
All that was left to be done was tie up the few remaining leads in the cave, survey and take some pictures. During one of the more enjoyable evenings in the refugio I volunteered to help Tim Guilford on his photo trips down 8/11. Forty eight hours later I was freezing to death, eight hours into the first of two epic photo trips. However, at least we managed to take some good pictures and avoid a massive thunder storm which destroyed four tents.
The next week was spent at Top Camp which is situated high in the mountains. The area has received hardly any attention since 1986 when snow levels were a lot higher. It still amazed us though when we found a massive going cave so soon. Three days later however Cueva del Arco seemed to end. With time running out we didn't have time to give all the leads the attention they deserved. A return to the cave next year may prove worthwhile.
The rest of the week was spent `shaft-bashing' - in many ways the type of caving I found most enjoyable and exciting. There is the buzz of pushing new cave and always the chance of finding something really big. A number of good leads were discovered which will give next year's expedition plenty to look at.
We were all needed down at Ario in the last week of expedition where there was a great deal of surveying and detackling to be done. I had a couple of trips down Xitu - the cave where it all began - detackling and surveying the new bits that had been discovered. It was an enjoyable end to a fantastic trip which left me longing to return to the Picos and its caves next year.
Thanks must go to the Alex Pitcher Fund and to all the cavers who took part in such a friendly and worthwhile expedition.