Oxford University Cave Club

"Ario 2000" Expedition Final Report

Picos de Europa, Spain

3rd July - 22nd August 2000

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The Nervous Novice

Chris Rogers

It wasn't just that I hadn't been on an expedition before, or that I had only been on four caving trips ever; it wasn't even my dislike of heights or that I had never done any SRT in a cave; it was all these things that made me quake in my wellies as I stood at the top of the entrance pitch in 2/7, staring down into a black abyss. And when Pip told me to lean out onto the rope, above what she claimed was 'only' a ten-metre drop, I was petrified.

Why had I let her talk me into this? How had I ended up here, thousands of kilometres away from home, hours away from the nearest car park (and hence hospital), clinging to a rope in some cold, damp, drippy cave halfway up the side of a mountain? I gradually let my weight rest on my Stop, clinging to the rope for dear life, praying that it would hold...and it did.

My first descent was a jerky one, but fortunately a short one; the pitch was, after all, only ten metres. My second was not quite so smooth; after waiting for me to pass a rebelay for five minutes, Pip called down to ask if the rope was free. 'Just a minute, almost done'. Five minutes later, and a now shivering Pip repeated the question. '****. I'm ****ing fine' came the reply. Five minutes after that, and Pip decides to come down and have a look, to find me unattaching myself from the wrong rope, and reattaching myself to the other wrong rope. Again.

Eventually I made it to the bottom of Paradise Rift, and then turned around. I made it back through Paradise squeeze okay, and slowly progressed to the top of 7th Heaven. After about five minutes of trying to push my way through, Pip made it to the rebelay below me. After another five minutes of desperately trying to push my way through, I began to curse and remove gear. After another twenty minutes, I made it through. But that half hour mini-epic wasn't the longest time I spent at the top of 7th Heaven. That would come six weeks later...

We had left derigging too late, and were now facing a mammoth task- 800 metres of depth and a kilometre of rope between six people and seven days. So I was persuaded to enter 2/7 for the last time, with the aim of moving as much gear as far up the cave as possible. When we reached the point where the previous team had stopped, we realised just how much rope there was to deal with. A huge pile lay in front of us, with as much again hanging half way down the pitch in a giant knot. Hils, my partner, began to make her way down the pitch while I began to pack the rope into tacklesacks.

Four hours later the rope was untangled and packed, allowing us to move. Our first task was to move the tackle up along the Streamway, a section of passage with various small pots and two short pitches. I climbed up the first pot so that Hils could throw the tacklesacks up to me. After 6 came flying past I called down to her "is that all?" She replied with the immortal words "No, there's another twelve". And so it went on, for ten hours.

As dawn broke on the surface, we faced shifting twenty tackle sacks through a large boulder choke. Dogged by persistent light failure, I began to pass the sacks up to Hils, and we shifted them through the choke, five at a time. I grew particularly attached to a pair of sacks dubbed 'the twins' - the rope within was too long to fit in one sack and so had been placed in two, rope running between them.

I began to make my way out with Hils following behind. After twenty-five hours of caving, Paradise Rift almost broke me. I couldn't fathom how to climb it, even though I'd done it at least ten times before; I would try to thrust my way up one section, make two or three feet in height, slip down again, and then repeat the process further along the rift. It wasn't until Hils talked me through it that I managed to make it out.

At the bottom of Seventh Heaven, Hils and I had our first argument. She had taken three tacklesacks most of the way out of the cave, and insisted on taking them right to the surface, when it was clear that harness rub had made her unable to do so. After a short argument I persuaded her to leave two behind, which I took myself. One was moderately heavy, containing the remains of the camping equipment we'd used underground, the other was full of metalwork; together they were an unpleasant prospect. By the time I reached seventh heaven squeeze, I was exhausted. I was lucky enough to meet another team coming down, to whom I passed the tacklesacks, after twenty minutes of struggling. More vicious swearing followed as I tried to push myself through for another twenty minutes.

And so, exhausted, I clawed my way off the top of the first pitch, into the rays of the setting sun. Again I asked myself; why had I let her talk me into this? This time, as I collapsed into the 2/7 shakehole, the deep red of the sun gleaming off the huge mountains to the East as the sun dropped below the horizon, the answer was obvious. It wasn't just that I had gone on a world class expedition, and gained superb experience in caving; it wasn't even the gorgeous mountains of the Picos and the unparalleled experience of living there; it was all these things, and many more that made me determined to come back next year.