1998 Expedition: "Jultayu"
Picos de Europa, Spain
|1998 Expedition Report - Contents
Rebecca Lawson joined the expedition in preference to the (soft) Cambridge University expedition to Austria.
We've had outright defections before (Steve Roberts, Ursula Collie, Chris Densham) but I just fancied a quick and dirty dalliance with Oxford in the Picos before plodding back to the CUCC fold before I was absolutely too old and past it. So last summer I gave Bad Aussee a miss and took the 24 hour coach down to the top end of Spain to go caving in the Picos de Europa. Bit worrying, this caving-with-strangers lark. So beforehand I swam a bit and even trotted off to the gym a few times. A few times too many for my crumbling body to take, as it turned out. After the fifth bout, my shoulder was aching and I couldn't clench my hand properly. Not a good start.
I arrived to the mist-bound squalor that is Lago de la Ercina (a surreal carpark-cum-cattlepen with a single bar and a thousand picnicking Spaniards soaking up the ever-present grass-hugging fog. The clank of cowbells, hoot of car-horns and traffic-jam chaos is punctuated only by the occasional wail of a poor innocent finding his tent shredded by beef in search of biscuits). Then onwards, upwards, with my unfeasibly large rucksack and a photocopied "map" with a squiggly line and the bare minimum of mystic symbols. Chris had said " you can't go wrong, you just keep following the path until you get there". What path? Where's there? Deadly destructions, I'd say.
Sweat-stained hours later, I emerged to the sun-baked rock bowl and scatter of faded scout tents that was Ario. And a fine spot it is too, with a sunset backdrop of the Central Massif and far off the long ridge with a deep cave entrance just visible, hooked below the edge. I asked if this was Oxford and got a grunted yes, so I sat down and felt a bit conspicuous, so hot and smelly and not knowing anybody in all that emptiness. I failed a few chat-ups lines, trying to recall people who gently told me that actually they were random Irish cavers who I could not possibly have met before. So I sat a bit more. I was told which trip I was scheduled for and on what date and with whom and what our objectives were which felt a bit odd. And people kept pottering around camp, hammering their carbide into bite-sized chunks, eating four breakfasts in quick succession after 72 hour pushing trips, flashing their muscles. Dear oh dear, it all looked like a proper Expo rather than CUCC's caving-for-softies.
Then Neil Pacey turned up after a spectacular sesh with the lads in the bar the night before and was keen on caving. This was a good thing as it was still several days off my timetabled entry to 2/7 (yes, ironically, the CUCC nerd-nurturers give their caves warm, cuddly and syllabically extravagant German names whilst the OUCC nerd-free-zone call theirs by succinct but entirely cryptic numeral-slash-numeral combinations that I could never get my head around).
My it was hot and dry out there. Not so many big, swallow-you-up-and-never-see-you-again holes and you could mostly track a straight line, unlike the Totes Gebirge. We popped down an entrance fresh this year, all rigged and ready to go. We did a bit of hammering in a skinny rift at the bottom and then came out again. It was almost Yorkshire so that was alright. Next, I did a practise trip down 2/7 with one of the Irish lads and it was fun but I was still (of course) worriting to myself about not being up to it, and being too fat and too feeble and too scared and it all being too deep and too cold, like you do when you are not sure.
Then all four of us trundled off on our big, bad, bottoming trip, -835m or bust. Actually, it was a photo trip. Now don't laugh, camera gear, very heavy stuff. And all that posing for photos in terribly, awkward exposed situations. Well, OK, it was all jolly and fun and civilised and it is the best way to see the sights (only bettered by surveying, which is taking things to unnecessary extremes).
The cave starts with some irritating, thrutchy rifts then lots and lots of big and beautiful shafts followed by a bit of scrabbling around. Then you pop out into a huge chamber. This has a clear, fresh, babbling brook running past the upper campsite. The stream then runs around the corner and drops down a spectacular waterfall whilst you watch it as you abseil from the huge ledge down the far wall of the chamber. The whole thing is magnificent. The stream then apparently grovels along under lots of collapses, but the usual "I'm glad some loon free-climbed up this and put a rope on it" pitch leads the cavers up to huge fossil passage at the height of the upper campsite. This trundles on forever until finally you get to a grotty pitch series and drop back to the stream. The second campsite is scenically situated on its sandy shores. The route then follows either besides or above the stream until it hits the final, as yet unpassed boulder collapse: Choke Egbert. This is just as warm, dry, stable and friendly-looking as you would expect in the circumstances - i.e. not. There were several digs burrowing into the wet and miserable gunnels of this beast. I was thwarted from further exploration by having to model enjoyment of a bar of Thornton's sponsorship fudge. Shucks. There was some upstream from the upper camp too. This was on a more human scale than the lower passage, but still beautiful, with clear, coloured pools of water and smooth-washed canyon walls. Actually, it was all lovely, except for the entrance rifts, which were plain tedious in the way that caves can be.
We came out on the fourth day and the rest of the Expo was just drowning in rope. Off we went, plod up to the top of the ridge, through the rifts, then whizz down, down, down the shafts, and pull, pull, pull on a big, stiff, brown pile of the stuff. Then up a wee bit and haul, haul, haul. Repeat ad nauseum, until you are well nested-in on your ledge, waist-deep in rope. Actually, this was the first time I had played this particular paella game. It involves a sneaky trompe l'oeil effect which (perhaps because I spend my spare time looking at visual illusions) failed to take me in. Take four bits of rope (or, in this case, forty plus). Looks like a lot doesn't it? Here's the clever bit. Tie them all together and - ha! - a single length of rope: a near-instantaneous reduction in the amount of transportation work subsequently required. Not. We played this game for hours. Many, many hours. Probably more hours than was strictly necessary as nobody let on to me that the sneaky trip relies on the right knot to tie the ropes together. They spotted all my granny knots eventually. On the final trip, the rifts were awash with every last caver. Each was just out of sight of the next. Unintelligible shouts echoed past, so that we thought that we knew that we were not alone. Each stood stoically but feebly, bowed over for hour after shivering hour, listlessly holding their own short, limp lifeline of rope, and musing on the meaning of life and the many and varied turns of fate that had led them to this particular time and place.
All the rope came out and all the tacklesacks of knickknacks and some rather gruesome BDHs of plastic bagged excrement. It all went down the hill and all the camp was taken away too and people were really organised and did their fair share and more and all that sort of thing. Very wholesome. My knees got knackered. It is a long way down that hill with a big sack, especially having to barge through the gawping daytrippers. Not once but twice, I accidentally opened one of those gruesome BDHs to check on contents. Not too painful, you might think, having seen the natural and gradual decay of the stuff out there in the field. You try leaving it in plastic bags in a black container in the sun of a Spanish summer.
At some point most of us who had not already left got down to the hell that is Lago de la Ercina. We managed to pick up some Polish cavers and some Spanish cavers and some people who weren't even cavers at all and I got fiendishly drunk (like you do. Well, like I do anyhow). Then all the rope got washed and the van got packed and everyone went to Oxford and unpacked the van and dried the rope and checked it and marked it and ye gods that is inhumanely efficient. They only had two working sets of survey gear though, so at least they are not perfect. Except that apparently that was all Wookey's fault anyhow. Anyway, I'm going to Austria this year, to cook my bunions and waddle my way into old age. Thanks for a great trip to Spain, to Chris Densham who invited me, Jonathon Cooper who led the Expo, and all the many other bods I met out there (many non-OUCC too) for letting me tag along. Any heap of muscle fancy a go at Austria instead?
Food - OUCC wins hands-down, veggy heaven, big slops with real, live,
Water - you might snigger, but yes, there are places in the world which don't have an excess of water. Austria is not one of them. But Oxford have to wander around Ario with damn big plastic containers, getting dribbles out of the bottom of slurry-filled cattle troughs, so CUCC wins this.
Alcohol - I am afraid CUCC has to win this too. There is good, cheap Vino Tinto in Spain but since you have to walk up the hill with it, people don't seem to bother much. And the bars and beer are better in Austria. Not that I can actually remember very much about drinking in the Bar Maria Rosa at Lagos.
Caves - they are definitely different. OUCC have more deep caves and 2/7 was more attractive than those I have seen in Austria. But I felt there was more potential in Austria (fewer groups working nearby patches, more entrances around). A draw here.
Scientific Endeavour - OUCC goes in for regular dye-testing, so definitely scores over CUCC, who haven't done this in my memory's lifetime. However, OUCC were restricted to a single, portable computer, so there were no instant printouts to draw up surveys. Probably another draw. If we allow the Austria website into the equation though, then CUCC has to win on documentation.
Organisation - OUCC definitely has more of it.... so is that a good thing? Actually, that's unfair on both clubs because rigging a deep cave and setting up a couple of underground camps forces more organisation than does a bumble-fest. I'm sure CUCC could be organised if it wanted to.... well, maybe .... well, we could always have a go...