OUCC Proceedings 12 (1986)

Cabeza Muxa

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A hybrid account by Fred Wickham and Ursula Collie

Ursula: 'There are perhaps a few little difficulties' said Josep Victoria in his garbled Catalan French. 'But you are so experienced, you will have no problems. Perhaps the rope will be rubbed a bit, hmm? So you will just pull it up a little bit, yes? It is a very easy cave.'

We knew, of course, that the S.I.E. were not above a little sly testing of these English cavers. But we were too polite (or flattered) to enquire further...

Fred: I almost bumped into Dave and Victoria, looked up from my compass, and found myself standing on the edge of a huge steep dolin with the great dark gash of a massive shaft disappearing into the hillside on the other side.

We picked our way gingerly down the steep slope covered in loose rubble that led down to the entrance, and changed on a ledge. Victoria watched with almost paternal glee as we started down the first pitch.

Ursula: Dave was the first to tiptoe round the loose pitch-head and disappear down, crying joyfully as he went 'Pas d'étroitures!'. We had been promised that there were no tight bits or even small passages in this cave (Dave is larger than any of us and had not always enjoyed the entrance squeeze and little scrofulous rifts of La Cistra).

So far, so good. It was at the second pitch-head that we first came to grips with true Catalan rigging. One bolt, slightly dubious. No back-up. Hmm. We carried on down, but our progress became slower and slower as Dave in front checked every bolt and hanger he came to, some of which seemed to have been in place for ten years and were now rusted solid. We were all a bit cautious on the 9mm rope, too: it was fine rope, but took a bit of getting used to after our sturdy 11mm Marlow.

The first section of Cabeza Muxa descends a steep bouldery slope, interspersed with pitches of various lengths. Then the cave empties you onto the head of El Gran Abysu, a 247m pitch in a huge shaft. About five feet below the belay was a rub point, festooned in loops of tatty rope. We now found how the the Catalans dealt with these minor problems; when a rub point became too much for even the nerves of the S.I.E.; they simply pulled the rope up and tied it in a loop at the top. They had lots of rope.

The 105m of the last pitch were followed by a short drop on comfortingly familiar Marlow down to a gravelly floor.

Fred: At the bottom is a river passage which leads 2km along and another 300m down to the sump. 30 litres per second of water - sometimes flowing sedately through wide high passageway, sometimes crashing down sporting pitches, sometimes meandering through exquisite crystal pools.

We started off, up to our waists in water, until we got to a small bypass with a short climb and the only squeeze in the cave (and that a far cry from the excruciations of La Cistra).

Back in the river passage we made our way down a series of sporting pitches, made all the more sporting by being rigged with 8mm bootlace tied with bowlines round bits of choss with no backup. The pitches were wet and the rock incredibly slippery, so we would descend the pitches clinging and grappling in vain with the ice-like rock, and swinging inexorably back into waterfalls.

Ursula: After a rather hairy unlined traverse a rope descended straight down into a pool of unknown depth. Each of us in turn reached the bottom of the rope and then desperately tried to swing to the edge of the pool and cling on to a rock there. Each of us ended up sitting in the water at the edge of the pool with our feet on dry land, but with the rest of us in the water. At last some reckless spirit the rim of his stinky base so that it was unusable. He decided he'd better go out; Ian with his wobbly bowels thought it might be an idea if he went too; and Sara went with them to light Dave. Fred and I carried on to the sump.

The first sump is easily bypassed with a scrambly climb on the right. The pitches after that are some of the wettest in the cave. Fred had an invigorating experience on one of these.

Fred: In an effort to save the amount of 8mm rope that they needed the S.I.E. had decided to rig two pitches on one rope. But instead of having a rebelay at the top of the second pitch they simply wound it round a convenient projection a couple of times. I glanced at this, assumed that it was a rebelay and set off down the second pitch.

Suddenly the rope gave way, the water put my light out and I was tumbling through the darkness down a waterfall of unknown depth. I assumed that the rope had rubbed through somewhere, and wondered how high the pitch was. Then the rope ran out of slack and suddenly came taut again, yanking Ursula away from the wall as she descended the first pitch, and leaving me shaken and bewildered on a ledge near the bottom of the second pitch.

After a lot of rather confused shouting up and down the pitch we recovered from the shock and pushed on.

Ursula: As we approached the bottom of the cave the river became more and more beautiful. The water became bluer and bluer in the deep pools and the moonmilk on the walls shaded from a pure white near the water through beige to a deeper chocolate brown. The sump, when we reached it, was clear, peaceful and deep. The walls of the round chamber reached up into the dusk above us and the white walls reached down beneath the water, shading into the blue depths. We sat there for a while.

Then we headed out. We made fairly good speed, apart from when we got lost in the boulder choke. The way out was further enlivened by Fred's incendiary tendencies.

Fred: As we reached the carbide dump on the way out we thought that we might as well fill up. As I opened the lid of the container there was a loud bang and a blinding flash as a cloud of acetylene exploded in my face. I threw the carbide to a dry spot and soaked my blackened face in some water.

We both managed to get totally soaked by falling down a short climb that we didn't need to do anyway, but arrived safely to catch up with the others at the bottom of the entrance shaft.

Four hours of solid prusiking later we emerged at the bottom of the first pitch to the sound of Dave singing James Brown.

It gradually got lighter as we stumbled around looking for splodges of red paint on the rock. We soon met Victoria who had come to see if we were OK and he led us back to camp where we drank a lot of brandy and fell asleep.

Afterword: We were very impressed by the trouble the S.I.E. had gone to to keep the cave clean. They'd taken all the rubbish and carbide out, and there was not a sign of muddy hands or feet on the white formations.