OUCC Proceedings 12 (1986)

Cave 3/5 : A Personal History

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by William Stead

Cave 3/5 or Sima de los Caracoles holds the dubious honour of being the cave which OUCC have taken longest to explore, and the present description is the fourth, to say nothing of an SIE survey which must exist somewhere (I've been told that it stops at Wingnut's Rift and calls the cave something totally different). The main reason for this is that while the cave required considerable quantities of tackle, it remained small and grotty enough only to be looked at when we had run out of decent caves to explore.

When OUCC visited Ario for the first time in 1979, they logged about thirty entrances in the area, which was given the symbol "5" by John Singleton (The exact location of Areas 1 to 4 was obscure even in 1980 when I first came out). Cave 1/5 was Pozu del Xitu, 2/5 was a promising-looking 15m shaft with a snow plug in the bottom on one side of the Ario to Trea path, and 3/5 was a small unpromising pit about ten metres away on the other side. Both entrances had been previously marked by the SIE. The shaft-bashing party reached the head of the first pitch, saw that the passage at the bottom was very small and probably choked, and decided not to come back with a ladder. The description in Proc. 9 reads "a very tight hole appears to lead off for a few metres".

In 1980 OUCC returned to Ario, this time with Xitu as the main priority. One afternoon, Mike Busheri and I were sent out shaft-bashing with the secondary task of matching the cave numbers with the entrances since someone had randomised them in the Proc (!). Our equipment comprised: a 5m ladder, a wire belay and a single Premier carbide lamp. The entrance pitch of 2/5 proved too long for us, but the ladder could just be made to stretch down the first pitch in 3/5. As there was only one light, Mike stayed on the surface while I descended. At the bottom, the rift was narrow but I could just squeeze through under a large boulder and down a 2m drop to where the cave opened out, then down a climb to a pitch! At this point, my Premier ran out of water, and I had to get back with very little light. As I squeezed back under the boulder, I felt it move, so I kicked it down the climb. This was the only trip there in 1980 as Xitu soon absorbed every article of club tackle.

Near the start of the 1981 Expedition, Skippy (Chris Ankcorn) and I were again sent to explore small caves near Ario, armed with a bag of tackle and the knowledge that the entrances to 2/5 and 3/5 were directly above the Teresa series in Pozu del Xitu. 2/5 looked the more promising, but ended after two pitches, so we surveyed it and set about exploring 3/5. To our surprise, 3/5 proved not to be a back way in to 2/5 but "carried on in a scrotty sort of way" until we ran out of tackle at The Parting of the Ways. The rig on Non Deficiam was entertaining: a single 10m ladder with 2m of tape on the end belayed to a bit of choss with a single 4m length of 10mm tubular tape and no lifeline. I also descended the climbs into Spectacle Series to the pitch-head; this pitch was not rigged until 1985! Anyway, we survived and as the cave obviously needed more time and tackle than we could spare from Xitu, we detackled it. That evening in the Refugio, Skippy asked the Spanish for a snail and named the cave after it because it looked as if there were snail shells in the entrance.

After a few weeks, Xitu was bottomed and attention turned elsewhere. Skippy had invited out some friends from WMCEG, and since Xitu was finished, they looked down 3/5. What they actually found down there was unclear, since I had already gone home and their write-up was hard to make out. At any rate, they appeared to have found the bottom. Thus my description in Proc. 10 is largely fiction since I describe the same bit of cave twice!

3/5 was not explored in 1982 for two reasons. First, the Brummies from WMCEG appeared to have found the bottom, and second, the entrance was 30m below Pozu del Xitu and with a depth potential of less than 1139m it was not worth exploring anyway. 1983 started similarly with FU56 (Pozu Jorcada Blanca) going strong. When this sumped, two soldiers of Dani's named Ray and Wingnut (Mike England) were dispatched with me to 3/5 a few days before the end of the Expedition to have a final look. This time, the cave had a used appearance; a trail of SIE bolts, bits of inner tube, etc., led down the main route as far as Wingnut's Rift. Spectacle Series, however, looked untouched. Ray and Wingnut had to go early, but not before Wingnut, using a hammer, had pushed through the squeeze at the bottom. He was the only one who did get through that year as we ran out of time and I stopped the survey at the chamber before the rift. The SIE had obviously done a survey too: there was a trail of black spots along the walls, but when I tried to use them as survey stations, I found that it was just not quite possible to see from one to the next. They must have been using a Topofil. The detackling trip was the last Spanish trip to date for John Singleton; I don't know whether this is significant.

In 1984 the cave was not explored. This may have been due to my absence, the discovery of Perdices and Cistra, or the fact that one member of the Expedition had seen the SIE survey which went through Wingnut's Rift then stopped.

When OUCC again went to Ario in 1985, a mysterious enthusiasm for 3/5 gripped the party. There was no major cave going, and with the linking of Pozu la Cistra to Xitu, here was a chance of finding a third entrance. Phil Rose and I started by rigging down Spectacle Series, on the way giving the infamous SIE bolt on Non Deficiam a clean bill of health. The pitch was still obviously undescended in spite of the SIE exploration, and the cave appeared to be going again. Our enthusiasm, however, was soon dampened by the discovery of Birthday Rift where Sue, aged just 20, was introduced to Spanish caving.

Two days later, a party went down each route. While Geoff and Sean found Birthday Rift still impenetrable, Dave Horsley talked me into going through both halves of Wingnut's Rift. All then became clear: both the SIE and the Brummies had got through the first squeeze but had turned back at the second one. At the bottom of the climb was a crawl containing a fragment of a a Planter's packet (Wingnut's) and a flake that, after hammering, revealed the head of a sizeable pitch (Penultimate Pitch). After going back to derig the Spectacle Series, it was too late to push further and it was Sue and Geoff who rigged it the following day. The next trip is best forgotten, and it was a day later that Phil, Fred and I set off to make the final connection to CBW series in Xitu at the foot of The Big Pitch.

Since I had started the cave, it was suggested that I should finish it. According to Phil, my comments as I reached the bottom were: "We're in the Teresa Series, I can see Servicio... er... No it's not... Oh God... it looks exactly like it... I must be going mad... I've never been here before... this rift looks awful."

After this, Fred spent the next half hour shredding his oversuit while Phil and I listened to the steady Clink, Clink of hammer on rock. Our reward for pushing it was to come back for tackle bags; this was No Picnic. After two more ladder pitches, we finally ran out of tackle and so the privilege of making the connection was left to Phil (again) and Fred. As one of the only three people on the expedition who knew Xitu, I was called in on the detackling trip as Official Verifier. The aven where 3/5 enters Xitu is totally un-noticeable, high up in the left hand wall in the chamber below The Gap. As I climbed up the Pilling Slip for the first time in four years, I realised that I was still wearing some of the same gear.

Well, was it worth it, you may ask? It may look a short cut to Xitu on the survey, but it's no easier, starting off tight and awkward and remaining so right until the bitter end. The entrance is 30m below Xitu, so it doesn't add any depth either. The mystery as to why Graham's Balls Up is so wet and miserable is now solved, but the huge aven in CBW series where it was supposed to come in remains one. I've now been down this a total of eleven times and I don't intend to go there again. On the other hand, there's a huge phreatic passage on the far side of the chamber opposite the head of GBU, totally inaccessible from Xitu. It might just be possible to pendule over from the bottom of 3/5....