Oxford University Cave Club

"Ario 2000" Expedition Final Report

Picos de Europa, Spain

3rd July - 22nd August 2000

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A Caving Convalescence

Rob Garrett

Things were not going well on expedition. My last two trips had seen me sitting around at the top of Tumbling Dice getting cold while the pitch had refused to be rigged. Since then, I'd been ill. Not very ill, just enough to make me not want to go caving - especially as I'd lie in bed of a morning listening to the sound of rain on canvas. Just as it looked like things might be picking up, with waves of camping trips meticulously planned in the back of the log book, things had gone even more pear-shaped. Nobody was fit to camp.

Pip, our enthusiastic leader, was laid low with a persistent fever. Erin, our even more enthusiastic guest caver was busily sewing her oversuit. Gavin was surface-locked with harness sores while Lev was similarly hampered by the untimely demise of his harness - an incident that had left Dick wanting a holiday to recover! Lynn wanted another day or two to prepare for a camp, Jo wanted a couple more and Chris, our novice, wanted far longer. Only Rich showed any interest in camping and we'd already had to let schedules slip by a day as proposed camps were being successively cancelled.

I knew that I should really go caving but the thought of prussiking out from The Big Ledge just didn't appeal, especially if I really was ill. I looked in a mirror and immediately identified the problem, as my tonsils were a hideous swollen technicolour of pus. Tonsillitis, I guessed. I went to the first aid kit in search of treatment. Nestling in a corner under a mountain of rehidrats, I found a small plastic bottle with a 7 day course of amoxycillin. That should do the trick. But, wait a minute, that would mean no alcohol for a week - a plan began to form in my mind...

Ideally, we wanted an advance party to go in and camp the next day at The Big Ledge - that would have to be me and Rich. The next day we would move camp to Primula Point while the second wave took over The Big Ledge - that would be Lynn, Dick and Erin who all wanted to explore upstream. They would need four people to set up the upstream camp, so on day three I would join them (neatly avoiding the laborious ascent from The Big Ledge to the surface) while Rich would head out. Meanwhile, Gavin and Lev by now would be ready for the first downstream digging camp. The upstream team would then have one full day of pushing before heading out to be replaced immediately by Jo and Rich (again). It was efficiency itself - what could possibly go wrong? (The wise money was on at 2:1 for a clusterfuck).

The next day Rich and I set off, arriving at The Big Ledge in good time and setting up camp. The plan was to rig a bolt traverse across Just Awesome as this would make further exploration downstream much easier. The view behind us as we bolted was amazing although our lights didn't do it justice. After four bolts and a couple of scary bold steps, I'd had enough - it was way past midnight and we'd not eaten yet. The remaining separation would require several bolts to rig as a traverse. Much quicker would be a simple penduling abseil-and-prussic arrangement and I could see the ideal place for a bolt to facilitate this. An hour later and it was finished. I rejoined Rich where he'd prepared dinner. "Dos mas bolts!" I announced. Although we were both very pleased with our achievement, it still needed a couple more bolts to become a sensible trade route.

The next morning we set off with three heavy tackle sacks and 70 metres of rope to go and rig Zasadka Way. Notoriously hard to rig, we were not helped by the fact that several bolts had been previously removed leaving unusable holes. On top of this we had a shortage of rigging gear and no guide as to which order would be best for using our ropes - if we were too inefficient we might not have enough. Light failure rounded off our problems with my back-up battery failing just as I reached the main streamway.

Our second night's camping proved less enjoyable than it might have owing to another minor misunderstanding. We had assumed that pans had been stored at Primula Point when, in fact, we'd been supposed to bring them with us from The Big Ledge. We had everything except something to actually cook in. For dinner we found the cleanest Daren drum and filled it with water. To this we added all the custard powder we could lay our hands on and agitated the solution. This, together with small handfuls of nuts, raisins and fudge served as dinner and breakfast.

Our slow progress so far meant that by the time we awoke I was already late for my appointed meeting with the second wave. I rushed along the London Underground only to find the three of them had not made much progress, encumbered as they were with 12 tacklebags!

Installing an upstream camp was even harder work than Primula Point and it soon became obvious that it was gong to take a long time to reach Fear and Loathing in Las Brujas - the proposed campsite. I'd never been upstream before so it was a pleasant change to see the new and spectacular streamway. I was particularly impressed by Echo Beach with its little sandy cave and sump pools rising and sinking. In fact, I was so impressed that I suggested we camp there - a suggestion gratefully seized upon by the others who were all as tired as I was. It was by far the best underground campsite I've ever encountered, and noticeably warmer and less draughty than my accommodation of the previous two nights. The food was considerably better too, thanks to my more culinary-minded companions.

The next day dawned, and finally we were to go pushing. I was unenthusiastic about prospects, as reports of the leads had not sounded encouraging. I was firmly convinced that the main lead would sump around the next corner. To everyone's surprise (even Dick's who had been there before), the way on was nothing like we expected. We had with us a goon suit, which Lynn had volunteered to wear so she could be the first to cross Catheter Canal. Instead of a passage about to sump, we found an easy traverse into a draughting passage with the way on wide open.

Erin and I accepted the challenge of Vanilla Inlet, leaving Dick and Lynn to go in search of glory in Alien Changes - the name given to the main continuation in honour of the aliens who, it seemed, had once again been playing games with our minds. Vanilla Inlet proved to be horrible. We found about 70m of new passage there- it was a shame that no one would ever force their way back to survey it. Finding our way back to the others was hard enough....

The others hadn't had a good time. Lynn had fallen in the water at the start of the traverse and Dick had turned back at a point where he now insisted that a goon suit would be essential. We told them what we'd done and the passage was renamed "A Savage Journey (into the heart of the American dream)". Although we were still keen to explore, multiple carbide failure meant that a return to camp was the more prudent option.

One disadvantage of having such a pleasant campsite is that nobody wants to get up. It's not clear for how long we would have stayed in bed, but fortunately the next wave of explorers came to our rescue, in the shape of Jo and Rich. Such was our enthusiasm for exploration that we all wanted to go pushing again. However, we had a callout to meet so at least two people needed to head out. Pulling rank, Dick and I grabbed the glory trip. Dick was keen to spend another night camping but I, expecting to be cold and wet, was keen that we should head straight out after pushing. It wasn't until Lynn and Erin suggested the possibility of a beach trip the next day that I was able to persuade him.

It worked like a dream. Surveying as we went, we passed the limit - again without recourse to the goon suit - and discovered an enormous chamber! Up the predicted boulder ramp for around 50m to a hole down to - we dropped a stone... sploosh - deep water! We shone our lights down - could it really be the sump-lake? Dick rigged the pitch and went down. "Rob," he called, "put on the goon suit and come down". I did this with some difficulty, failing to get my wellies on properly over the goon suit.

It wasn't C3 but it was a canal disappearing as far as the eye could see. There was nothing for it but to explore it on my own. The passage was beautiful. Deep, blue-green water with a sandy floor that you'd sink into if you stood still. I kept looking out for sumps to the side that might lead to C3 but saw nothing. It just kept going. At one point I thought it was going to get too deep as the water rose up my chest but then it got shallow. Eventually I reached a wide meander but no sign of an end. About 500m of new passage and still wide open. I turned around and immediately got lost. A minute later and I had rediscovered my footprints, which led me back to the canals where Dick was waiting, shivering.

As we headed out, I suggested as an aside that we "just take a look at that black space over there." We climbed up a boulder slope, which was reminiscent of the Gouffre Berger, as first the roof, then the walls and finally the floor disappeared! This was a very big chamber. At first we couldn't see any way out of it, but as I was looking around the lowest point I thought I could feel a draught. Dick felt nothing but then he'd not just been up to his neck in freezing cold water. I looked around and spotted what looked like a rift heading off above. At my encouragement, Dick climbed up to it and, to our surprise, found another 20m pitch. Not enough time to rig it, but we'd already done enough for one day. We'd leave this lead for Rich and Jo.

Back at camp, we woke them up to tell them the news and eat some food. They had been planning to visit Holier Than Thou but we persuaded them our lead was rather more promising. From here we exited the cave, stopping only to sleep at the occasional rebelay whilst we waited for each other. We finally emerged to a glorious midday: expedition was finally in full swing.