OUCC Proceedings 12 (1986)

Ridge Cave: The Long Search for Conjurtao

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by Dave Rose

Late July or early August 1980, and I was but a lad. No job, no mortgage, not many cares. Xitu was about 700 metres deep and still going: Keith and Skunk had just pushed down the vile and narrow streamway below the Samaritan pitches and found the Marble Steps, a set of wet and dangerous climbs. Exploring the cave was hard work. I was knackered and prone to memory lapse. When I set off on a brilliant, broiling morning to look for new caves with Dave Thwaites I had forgotten the compas - fixing the co-ordinates of anything we found would be impossible.

Simon Fowler had told us of the promise of the Vega Aliseda, a vale hidden between our camp at Ario and the high peaks. It was "over there" he said, pointing at a big blank hill. It was surely stuffed with caves.

Hours passed and we stumbled around, deeply lost. I didn't know then where we went, and I don't know now. But at last, we toiled up a steep slope towards a ridge. Near the top was a bank of snow, and I walked around to where it met the cliff above to gather mouthfulls and to wash my face. "Dave! It's a cave!" An opening between ice and rock formed a rift, and we fished out a torch from our pack. Ten yards in the snow gave out: we were in a large, sloping phreatic tube. A Picos cave which didn't begin with a shaft! And hundreds of metres above Ario. The potential was vast.

The battery wasn't very good, and we teetered gingerly down the slope. Turning back I could just glimpse the snow and sunshine. Ahead was a pit: not very deep, but requiring tackle. On the opposite side, a trickle splashed into the shaft. We departed. Above the snow bank at the entrance, I solemnly painted a sign on the rock: "OUCC 1980 1/6" - cave number one in our new highland area six.

We reached the crest of the ridge and gazed upon a new view: a magnificent pyramidal summit, and a vast area of karren. Round the corner was a deep, booming shaft - 2/6. We were both exhausted, probably suffering from sunstroke. But it ought to be easy to find these caves of ultrapromise again: after all, they were right on what seemed to be the main ridge of the massif.

Xitu kept us very busy in 1981, and I never had the chance to revisit our discovery. A couple of times John Singleton and Simon Fowler tried to find "Ridge Cave", and I tried to point them in the right direction from Ario. "You can see the ridge from here...no maybe it's that one...well it can't be far because it only took us two hours to get back to Ario." They failed to locate it.

The legend was growing, in proportion to the decline in my own credibility. Nevertheless, in 1982 we managed to screw a tidy sum from sponsoring authorities by announcing plans to explore the high altitude caves of the Picos ridge. Chief among them was the extremely promising entrance found in 1980 by D. Rose, the prospectus said.

I was a fortnight late for that trip. I met the advance party, who smelled strongly, in Cangas. "Find Ridge Cave" Graham growled. Next morning George Hostford and I tried. We walked up Jultayu, Cuvicente, la Verdelluenga and other fine peaks. I was rather unfit and by evening the muscles of my thighs were burning. We did not find the cave. It was extremely frustrating. Everywhere I looked for scree slopes and toiled up them, expecting to see it just over the top. There are a great many scree slopes in the Picos de Cornion. Soon we had Optimistu, and then FU56 to keep us busy. "Keep your eyes open for Ridge Cave" I told everyone. By now, such instructions were beginning to arouse only laughter.

1983 was the great missed opportunity for finding Ridge Cave. The expedition was very large, and after a fortnight its main objective, FU56, had ended beyond reasonable doubt. But the weather, after fourteen days of heatwave, turned wet and misty. One attempt to search ended with a lost party 100 metres from Top Camp stumbling among the depressions, calling hopefully for directions. Another time I spent the entire day combing the ground between Gregoriana and la Verdelluenga. It still refused to turn up.

Next year I spent little time higher than Ario, where Pozu la Cistra was absorbing hammer blows and explorers. I didn't look for Ridge Cave at all. But during the following winter, its memory began to prey on me again. For the first time since 1982, we had no specific lead to investigate beyond a vague intention to find a "Third System" between Top Camp and Ario. I had looked at every ridge and spur visible from Aliseda save one: the crag on the far side of the Jorcada gap. I had always ruled it out because I couldn't remember walking so far. But then I couldn't remember much else. It was that one or nothing. Wisely, I kept my growing conviction to myself.

A week into "Jultayu 85" had turned up only the 3/5 route into Xitu and an absence of significant cavities where the third system was supposed to exist. And F20, which Steve Roberts and other sensible cavers found unenjoyable. Richard, Sara, Steve Mayers and I set off for Top Camp, determined to rig this obstinate shaft.

A lovely hot afternoon, just like that one five years before. We were old lags now, weighed down with jobs and owner occupation. I was also weighed down with a very long rope. Richard and Sara had their caving gear. Down a slope from Top Camp into a depression, we found some cairns and followed them up a steep gully. We were heading towards my last chance ridge. When I thought the way to F20 branched to the left, I kept quiet.

Soon Richard was swearing. We had reached the top of the gully and were on the ridge, and F20 was nowhere to be seen. Across a vast plain of karren was a magnificent pyramidal summit.

"Richard". My pulse was rapid.
"I think we're very close to Ridge Cave. This is definitely the ridge."
"God don't you ever give up. You know very well you've said that half a dozen times before over the years".
"Give me five minutes".

I raced across the slopes. Soon we stood at the gaping tube of 2/6. Richard was still impatient as five minutes became twenty and I dived in and out of gullies, convinced that Ridge Cave was really here at last. He had stopped looking and so I came upon it alone: an oddly moving moment. My sign was as fresh as the day I painted it.

Richard and Sara agreed to do a "cheap and nasty trip" while I fetched more tackle from the failed Third System at La Jayada. As the sun dipped towards the horizon I heard a yell and left the cooking: they were standing at the entrance - visible from Top Camp all this time - and waved.

"Does...it...go?" I screamed across the mountains.
"Yeeeeees!": They watched me tolerantly as I did a furious and excited little jig above the grikes used as latrines.

Next day all four of us went down. The trip had its problems: finding a way on through the confusing area above Borborygmi pitch, getting somewhere to bolt the Weather Station. But demon Mayers was whacking in the anchors in five minutes flat and we carried the Picos secret weapon, copious supplies of smoked jamon.

Next morning Steve Roberts arrived.

"What happened?"
"Well, we rigged ten pitches with some nice horizontal stuff and left it at the top of a big one well over 200 metres down."
"You mean you got to the bottom of the entrance shaft?"
"Oh we didn't go to F20. We're talking about Ridge Cave."
"Fuck off Dave, don't mess about.": The usual Roberts early morning charm.

He was convinced eventually. The name I gave to the first big pitch expressed my feelings precisely: Dancing in the Dark.