Oxford University Cave Club

"Ario 2000" Expedition Final Report

Picos de Europa, Spain

3rd July - 22nd August 2000

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Pieces of 22

Hilary Greaves and Lynn Mullely

Lynn: This was my third year in the Picos and my third camping trip in 2/7. The previous trips had all been essential to my training and to the set-up of the camp at Echo Beach, but I had yet to experience the much-hyped thrill of finding new cave. As Hilary and I set off from underground camp on our first pushing day, I wondered whether it was all going to be worthwhile. Was the time I had put into organizing the equipment, driving through France, carrying up to Ario and the previous camping trip to set up the campsite going to be rewarded? I was beginning to have doubts that anything I did that day was going to live up to the expectation caused by the amount of effort I'd put in to be there. Why was I so keen to spend six days away from light, warmth and dry clothes?

Hilary: Our mission: to connect the upstream limit of the cave we were in, "Pozu Jultayu", with the downstream limit of a neighbouring system, Sistema Verdelluenga. Satisfyingly, this had been the official "major aim" of the previous year's expedition; now, with the finds of the first half of the 2000 expedition, we knew we were tantalisingly close. "Sistema Verdelluenga" ("C3/C4" in the OUCC entrance cataloguing) had been explored 5 years previously and found to end in a sump. We had the survey data from the C3/C4 exploration and by plotting the survey of what we had already found this year, we knew that the separation between the downstream C3 sump and the upstream 2/7 sump was just 30 horizontal metres, give or take the inevitable surveying inaccuracy. We had clearly found the other end of the same sump. Lynn and I mandated ourselves to find a dry bypass above the sump level. Neither of us had been in C3 - a cave of a previous generation of Oxford explorers - but we knew an inflatable boat had been left on the C3 lake. We wanted to play in that boat. So, we made our way up to the 2/7 sump, turned round and walked slowly downstream, searching the walls and ceiling for possible routes. After 20m we found what we were looking for: a rift in the left wall. Lynn climbed up and into it. "I've found a chamber!" My hopes soared. Already my mind was composing a song about connecting the two caves: It's a long way, to Verdelluenga, It's a long way, to cave...

Lynn: My excitement grew as I climbed up ~3m to another chamber. The way on was another climb. The first few metres were easy, but then there was a difficult move. It began to dawn on me that I was quite high up and a long way down and that I really didn't want to fall from this crux move. The climb would need a bolt, which I placed while Hils shivered in a survival bag. Eventually it was done and I clipped my long cowstail into it. The move went well, much better for the confidence of the length of dynamic rope protecting me. Along a little rifty bit I reached a chamber with a high blank wall.

Hilary: Lynn rerigged the rope and I followed. There were two ways on, both 8m above us. Straight ahead was a climb. Had we had a top-rope, or decent running protection, or had we been on the surface, either of us would have climbed it in an instant. But we were 700m underground and 3 hours' healthy-person caving from underground camp, let alone the surface, and we both knew the untouched rock was untrustworthy - as one quickly discovers in the Picos, "handholds" had a tendency to become "pieces of rock you were holding in your hand", with no warning. A fall could have had exceedingly dire consequences and neither of us were prepared to risk it. We could have bolted up the climb, but progress would have been slow, so we chose the second route, up to the right and round a corner to a just-visible hole. The first part was easy - I threw a sling around a sizeable projection above me, tied knots to create footholds and was soon standing on said projection. A couple of bolts saw me round the corner. Another sling-throwing move, scarier than the first but actually safer since I now had a decent running belay and was high enough off the floor not to hit it, got me to the top so that I could walk into the higher passage that would carry us over the top of the C4 sump. The "top". Another ledge. We called it a day and headed back to camp, arriving 21 hours after we'd left, and slept for 16 hours.

Lynn: Day 2 - this time we went prepared. We packed a tacklebag with Hils' foil tent kit as well as the survival bag and took the one working stove and plenty of food and hot chocolate. It was my turn to bolt, so as I retraced Hilary's steps, she set about making a tent from foil blankets. We had planned a system of protection using cowstails and shockcords (the only dynamic rope we had) as well as using the static rope like a conventional lead rope. My resolve 'not to lead climb on static rope' was clearly not going to last very long. The extended cowstail idea didn't work. We set up the static rope with a long stretch of rope beneath me so that any Fall Factor would be extremely small.

Hilary: Lynn started tackling the 5m up to the new top of the climb while I attempted to construct a cosy shelter. The idea was one that Lev, another expeditioner, had dug out of a book back in Oxford. Rig hammock, construct foil "tent" around it, lie in hammock with candles lit underneath. The original plan had been to get the system good enough to replace sleeping bags for underground use; however, the need of the non-bolting partner on a bolt climb, sitting still, probably in wet clothes, in 4C air, was equally great. I found myself an alcove, hung the hammock from a rock spike, unfolded my flimsy foil sheets and got to work. Almost two bolts later I had my result. I climbed inside, lit the candles and tried to relax in the hammock. Hmm, meagre points for comfort (cheap hammock), but definitely warmer than outside. I was more than happy for a first trial. Delicately, I climbed outside again, taking care not to rip or melt the blankets, and photographed my silver beast. "Can we call this chamber 'my tent's so f*****g cool?!?'" I didn't bother interrupting Lynn's serious endeavours with this inane remark, but I was Proud Of My Tent. The constant hammering stopped for a minute... ten more "tings"... I knew what was happening above me. "Hils, I'm done, time to swap?" I was unimpressed. I had finished my tent 30 seconds earlier, I was Proud and I wanted to try it out Properly. "Don't suppose you want to do another one, I'm just starting to warm up - ?" "Erm... Okay...?!" I could understand Lynn's surprise: of all the reasons I had ever wanted someone not to finish putting in a bolt, being too warm and cosy was a new one on me too. Frozen solid and unable to face moving out of a semi-functional plastic survival bag yes, too comfortable no.

Lynn: So Hilary paused in her constructions to belay me to my next bolting point. There was a ledge not too far from me that would provide the best place to bolt from - so I went for it. Crash - simultaneous handhold and light failure. I fell onto my previous bolt in the dark. Well, falling on static rope seems to be okay then.

Hilary: One bolt later we did swap places, and I was climbing again. Here I was between two walls, so I could bridge across the gap, one foot on each wall, and make relatively easy progress upwards. I climbed perhaps 4m before the exposure started to scare me (static rope...) and I felt it was bolt time again.

Lynn: The climb continued to tease us. Each 'top' we saw was just another ledge with another climb above it. We stopped on one of the nastier ledges to cook dinner. It was small and drippy with a deep puddle covering most of the floor. As Hils cooked I got to try the most comic move of the climb. Standing below the last bolt I made some etriers and clipped them in. With Hils belaying me from our dinner ledge I was able to stand in the etriers and thrutch through a squeeze in the roof. I popped out into a lovely chamber - unexposed, dry and almost warm. Ahead was yet another climb, which Hilary found an ingenious way around by climbing up the wrong side of the chamber and traversing. This was as far as we got. By now we had been caving for about 24hrs and were getting pretty tired. We left our climb unfinished and draughting upwards, and surveyed our way back to the sump.

Hilary: At the end of this second trip upstream, 28 hours this time, we had climbed and surveyed 46m of height and reached a chamber with not even any false summits for 10m or so up the wall. I recalled the concluding line of a story about Greek gods that had for some reason stuck in my mind since childhood: "He had been defeated, but he had not been disgraced." Well, we certainly hadn't been disgraced, and although we hadn't achieved our noble ambition of playing in a boat, we hadn't exactly been defeated either - the climb was still going and dangled its prize for any would-be returners.

Lynn: Our two 'days' actually took us 96 hours. My hands were trashed (again), Hilary had bad harness rub and I was popping pink smarties (ibuprofen) so that I could ignore my shoulder. The journey out was made more pleasurable for me by knowing that I had made my peace with 2/7. I had finally found some new cave and I didn't have to put myself through this again - well, until next year ...