OUCC Proceedings 12 (1986)

F20 - a personal history

OUCC Proceedings 12 contents

OUCC Proceedings Index

OUCC Home Page

by Ian Houghton

[In the spirit of "remastered for CD, with previously unreleased tracks", we bring you here an article written in 1985 for Proc. 12. It wasn't used in the published version; events overtook it, as Proc. 12 was not published for a further year, by which time F20 had been bottomed. I have done only minor editing from Ian's original manuscript.]

OUCC have been trying to bottom F20 for two years. This year we failed again. This seems odd when one considers the obstacles that have been passed in other caves. What happened?

The cave was first discovered by Andy Riley in 1983. It has a most arduous walk to the entrance (that is, if you can find the entrance). The main problem with this cave is that people always seem to have a closer or warmer or less vertical or more friendly or otherwise more promising cave to explore. In '83 it was Perdices, and then Caracoles, in '85 it was Ridge Cave.

The first shaft is a flattened bell shape of spacious proportions landing by a large snow pile. A short ladder on the other side of the snow pile leads to a traverse over a large drop to the first pitch. Andy didn't really like the traverse, so called me in. This gave me a fine trip at the end of the expedition, down this shaft, and through a window and the saddle, and down Tonto [P60]. This lands on a snow pile, which looks large, and is actually MEGA. We popped through a window, but had no more rope for the next pitch, so we retreated. Other caves were crying for tackle, so the gear was removed.

In '85, the cave was rigged to the snowplug (2nd one). Since those rigging it were not really in a vertical cave mood, this took rather a long time. The rope didn't reach this year, the snow having melted down some 15 m from the previous year. They couldn't reach the window, so Steve [Roberts] rigged down by the snow - and down, and down. After passing through the third successive snow window, with the rope sawing nicely on the thin ice flutes supporting the massive snow tower, Steve decided he had good reason to be frightened, and exited. They "saved" the cave for me. I followed Steve's rope, and didn't like it. Apart from the snow, which was melting at a tremendous pace, the shaft was littered with loose rocks embedded in the snow all ready to fall down on to the unwitting caver. It was also damn cold! I therefore climbed back up, de-rigged and directed Fred [Wickham] to "climb to that there window". He did this casually, while I mentally ran through a list of the lunatic asylums in the country that might take him. Just as I decided that he'd escape from them all anyway, he beckoned me across (with a fixed rope).

The next pitch I'd identified as a potential problem the previous year, since the rock at the pitch head was severely shattered, and the natural lie of the rope would pull loose rocks out from the stream gully. I therefore contrived one of my speciality rigs, spending about three-quarters of an hour on the rope at the pitch head clearing the gully of rocks to make the pitch safe. The pitch then "went" quite easily, with only three rebelays, staying out of the water and the rockfall line.

The next pitch had a somewhat enormous natural, so Fred used this to rig it. (My helmet electric light had failed). After an hour I was getting rather cold, and had my generator on my abdomen and my feet in tackle bags when Fred gave the call to follow. After the initial flying rebelay, slightly diagonal, the pitch was wonderful, in a large rift, free hanging. After a while it started to get wet, and my feet reached the wall, when Fred appeared 20 yards away in the rift on a pile of jammed boulders, instructing me to pull myself across. As I reached the boulders, I realised that this couldn't possibly have been a pendulum. He mentioned that he'd decided that he preferred to keep the pitches dry, because my electric light was broken! The climb looked exhilarating. Feeling somewhat upstaged, I put most of a bolt in (Fred finished it) and then another (Fred finished it). The pitch was really good. Near the bottom there was a bad rub with a nearby ledge. I put a flying bolt in (Fred finished it, again).

Streamway! Yeehah! I rushed off. No Fred. I rushed back. For some reason he'd lost his manic enthusiasm, just as we were to collect the prize. He was a bit worried about a lack of lighting resources, perhaps overly so because of some previous epics with Ukey [Ursula Collie]. I ran back down the narrow rift, noting many inlets and the increasing stream. After some 150 m the way closed down considerably and I had to crawl in a high level traverse over the stream. Fred still wasn't following, so I shot back, and we make a very speedy exit. The cave, we noted, was desperately cold, and had a powerful draught.

The next day I came down with Steve Mayers and more tackle, to re-rig and push onwards. With gear we took some time to get to my previous day's far point in the rift, despite mind-bendingly fast descent on the ropes. We improved the safety of several rigs on the way down. Moving on in the rift, Steve free climbed a pitch which he is described as "not as bad as it looks". I didn't fancy trying. It looked very wide bridging for Steve, who climbs E6! and is four inches taller than me. He went on to another pitch, but we didn't have the right gear, so exited. I'd decided to try a single footloop instead of my usual double, and was finding the ascent hard going. Steve was so much faster than me, that he managed to put another bolt in on the ascent, without slowing me down! Still, it was my third day on the expedition, and his third week, and final trip for that year.

I then took a break, doing some carrying and some Ridge Cave work. Parties went into F20 every so often. Tackle was short, since three caves were being pushed simultaneously, and there just weren't enough tapes, wires, maillons, bolts and rope to go around. At one stage we were stopped for the absence of a hammer! Gradually the rift was extended - trips came back with tales of narrow rifts, short pitches with obscure pitch heads and exits, and above all, appalling route finding to obtain a wide enough level to progress at.

My last trip down was with Nicola [Dollimore]. By this stage we were both fit and acclimatised. We both took tackle bags of gear down - but not having been to the end, took some six hours to cover the 500 m of rift, managing to find plenty of routes through the rift to pitch heads - but not the ones that the previous groups had decided to rig. There were plenty of pitches by this stage - about eight as I recall, and the rift is quite steep, although at first all progress seems horizontal. At one stage the rift goes through a set of sharp meanders similar to the crabwalk in Giants, except that there is no floor, and to make progress you move round the meanders at a low level, move back round the meanders towards the cave entrance to reach a higher level, moving over a narrow section, and then go back around the meanders again into the cave on a still higher level before dropping back down to the original level. This wouldn't be quite so bad if the cave had decided to make the narrow bits too narrow. Unfortunately the cave has decided to make the narrow bids just wide enough to pass as a squeeze, so you don't know whether the squeeze you are looking at is one you have to go through, or one you can avoid. Of course, you can also spend an age going up and down the rift in the wide bit before you find you do have to squeeze through at some point. Then you've got to choose the right part, or you squeeze for twenty yards instead of two.

This cave has something to put everyone off. If you dislike any aspect of caving, this cave will produce it. Tackle hauling most people dislike intensely. This cave gives you lots of practice.

By the time we reach the unrigged pitch, I was quite tired, and Nicola more so. I put a bolt in, and for the first time in the Picos, found the rock so hard that it took nearly an hour, and broke quite a few teeth (not mine). Nicola was still too tired to carry bags through the rift, and came partway to being pulled down the pitch by the bag. I was a bit worried for her, so decided I'd better not push on far. I dropped down the pitch into an airy chamber - but straight into another rift. I followed it for a while, and returned to Nicola, who was now also cold. We made a slow exit, but didn't get lost, and Nicola staged a rapid recovery as we exited the rift. We climbed the pitches to exit after a 20 hour trip to ... a waterfall of snow melt so cold it took my breath away. By God I prussiked that entrance fast! The sky looked wrong - it was. Although day, the temperature was about 1° C, and it was blowing a sleet blizzard. Our rucksacks were snow caked. So much for lying out in the sun. We staggered back to camp, feeling disappointed about our lack of progress. Fortunately the others were too pissed to notice. They managed an "oh hi!" before collapsing into drunken chaos. I heated some superb food for us (thanks to the anonymous cook) and we dived into a tent. Nicola slept an unbroken 18 hours. I missed the detackling - a good move. It was of truly epic proportions, the difficulties exaggerated by the lack of manpower. Two thirty hour trips were necessary. It's only 433m deep! - it goes!