1995 Expedition: Boca del Joon
Picos de Europa, Spain
On a rigging trip down C3 a tackle bag containing paraffin and carbide that was being carried by Alex Harding mysteriously became detached from Alex's belt and fell down the pitch beneath, narrowly missing the person beneath. The chamber rapidly filled with fumes and the cavers had to beat a hasty retreat. How did the bag fall from Alex's belt? We will probably never know.
After an uneventful trip down to camp and a good night's sleep the cavers set off to push the passage lower down the cave. The rifts were passed efficiently, but on descending the 50m deep 'Walter's not coming' an incident occurred which was to change the course of the entire camp. Alex descended the pitch first carrying a tackle bag of assorted equipment, including a zip-lock bag of carbide. As the bag reached the bottom of the pitch it splashed into a large pool of water. Alex, unaware of this looked down to see what was causing the strange bubbling sound and, being the proud possessor of a working carbide light, complete with helmet-mounted flame, promptly exploded. The ensuing conflagration destroyed the tackle bag and all of Alex's ascending gear, leaving him stranded in a chamber rapidly filling with lethal fumes.
The first news of this to reach the surface was a confused account of huge explosions and first degree burns with the possibility of loss of vision. A full scale rescue was set up and a pair of cavers despatched to begin the rescue. They were somewhat surprised to discover Alex at camp and in a better state of fitness than themselves.
How did Alex get up a 50m pitch with no ascending gear and an unbreathable atmosphere? Was the explosion caused by forces beyond human control? Did the message get intercepted by an alien agent on its way out of the cave? The answers lie in a small pile of charred remnants deep under the Spanish mountains.
As part of the derigging of F64 the rope was rigged as a pull-through to retrieve it from the top of the M6 bypass. Unfortunately when it was pulled down the end somehow got stuck at the top of the pitch. Alex put his weight on the rope and bounced up and down, but to no avail. Deciding that he had left a knot in the end of the rope, he started prussiking back up to release it. He was just in sight of the top when he discovered that, far from a reasonably secure knot holding him in place, it was actually a short piece of deviation string wrapped around the belay and the rope, and it was only friction keeping him up. At this point gravity reasserted itself and the rope finally pulled through, taking Alex with it.
The distance from Alex to the ground was about 16m and he had no hope of avoiding it. So he fell, bouncing on a ledge after 13m. At the bottom Alex stood up, dusted himself off and complained that he had bruised his elbow. But at least he had retrieved the rope!
Was Alex protected by a guardian angel? Or is he, as some have suggested, immortal? Only one man has the answer and he will never tell.