OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

Spanish Exploration

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2/7 Rediscovered

Dan Mace

In the beginning...

In 1986, a large, experienced team from OUCC bottomed the top camp caves. Exploration of Ridge Cave and F20 had kept the club occupied for three years. By the end of 1986, the two caves had been explored, surveyed, and photographed. This meant that there were no going caves for the '87 expedition to return to.

Hence the winter and spring before the summer of '87 were spent making up stories of the golden "Third Sistema" that we hoped must lie beneath Jultayu. I don't think anyone really believed the stories; according to the '85 expedition log book, the slopes of Jultayu had been very well scoured and the possibility of finding a major cave there seemed remote. However, I recounted the story of the Third Sistema so many times that I even managed to believe it myself. As a back up to this we applied for permission to reconnoitre Peņa Urbina, an area due south of Oviedo. We were denied permission because Spanish cavers were going to visit the area that year. Had we applied a year earlier we would have been granted permission and might not have made the discoveries that we did.

After a year of persuading people to go to Spain again, eleven of us set off for an expedition of shaft bashing. Typically, when we left the U.K. was in the grip of a heatwave and a couple of days later we were driving up the road from Covadonga in a steady drizzle and near zero visibility. The first night at Los Lagos was miserable. The large gas cylinders ran out of gas almost immediately and an unappetizing meal was cooked on bleuets. The kitchen tent leaked like a sieve. We were then accosted by the inevitable ICONA guard and were unable to persuade him to cancel the annual trip to Oviedo to get a camping permit. This meant another day in the yellow van for myself and Jonathan.

The next morning was just as miserable. Jonathan and I spent the whole day driving around the one way system of Oviedo whilst the remaining nine people carried up seventeen loads from base to Ario camp. Jonathan and I arrived back from Oviedo as the sun was setting and set off for Ario to bring the total number of loads to nineteen. It rained for most of the walk up. We then got hopelessly lost at the top of Sod 4 (neither of us had been there before) and spent nearly two hours attempting to find the Refugio. After yellow dot hopping in the mist and dark we finally reached the Refugio doors and headed down to the camp. It was great to be back in the high Picos.

The weather then took a turn for the better. This didn't exactly help with the shaft bashing. The rocks roasted and everyone fried in the heat. The days seemed to run to a formula. Someone would find a cave of great promise, be it a higher entrance to Xitu, an insignificant crawl on the slopes of Jultayu or a high entrance near the summit of Cuvicente. The discoverers would return to camp jubilant, and write enthusiastic descriptions in the log book. Inevitably the second team down would find that the cave ended at the next corner, or that to pass the "boulder choke that might be diggable" would involve shifting car sized boulders that supported other car sized boulders. People became desperate. Graham used a length of tape to suspend a boulder above the hole he had removed it from. Needless to say the cave did not warrant the effort.

One cave that appeared promising was 9/7. The entrance was a narrow cleft on the slopes of Cuvicente. Stones dropped down it crashed for several seconds _ it seemed to be bottomless. Martin May rigged down to the bottom of the entrance shaft, a fine 100m drop. At the foot of the shaft, beyond a boulder slope, he saw a dark rift leading off tantalisingly into the mountain. Unfortunately the rift proved to be a dark stain down one side of the shaft. The bottom of the shaft was a rocky floor, with no potential for digging. This did not prevent a further two pushing trips down the cave that tried to climb up to a passage that didn't exist.

Shaft-bashing continued. 4/7 was typical. Two descriptions were available from previous log books. Steve Roberts ('85 log book) described the cave as "a promising cave with potential dig". However Richard Gregson in '87 was more pessimistic and called it a "grotty hole full of dead sheep and slime". The latter description was by far the most accurate.

Just as I was expecting morale on the expedition to decline the weather turned again. A couple of Picos thunder storms turned to several days of prolonged drizzle. My diary says it all:- "It is still raining. Nine of us crouch in the mud that is now the floor of the Ario tent. The rain drums continuously on the canvas of the tent and drips down the poles. It is all too much for Jonathan and he heads back to base, although it won't be any better there. Muriel appears looking like a drowned rat. We thrust a soggy loaf in her direction and she accepts it gratefully. Paul staggers in. Eleven of us are now crammed into the small tent. I am crushed between a hot stove and a cold Lynn and am sitting on a pile of damp rope. The water boils again and we all have yet another choc-a-mint".

In spite of the rain, this was the period of most intense shaft-bashing. We also did some surveying. 23/5 was a horizontal cave that was reported to be 100m long. We surveyed it to complement our 100m vertical cave but unfortunately it turned out to be only 40m long. It did mean however that we had some surveyed cave to show at the B.C.R.A. conference. Whilst 23/5 was being surveyed, a few people were making clandestine trips into area Four, beyond the ridge behind Ario, away from 2/7. During the height of the rain 1/4 was discovered. Finally we had a proper cave to push, a cave where one could truly escape from daylight and which it was essential to get changed into caving gear to descend. It was both horizontal and vertical. It was also bloody frustrating to explore. In typical Picos style there was a ramp leading upwards at the bottom of the pitch, to almost the height one had just descended from. The ramps and pitches became increasingly tortuous, the most notorious being named Oh No Not Again as the cave was reminiscent of F20. 1/4 was initially pushed continuously with overnight trips following day trips. Enthusiasm tailed off as 1/4 became ever tighter. People began to look elsewhere.

La Jayada was entered, extensions past the snow plug were explored for the first time and the slopes of Jultayu were scoured yet again. A few people had been digging in a cave called 2/7. This had been discovered in 1981, bottomed and crossed out. The log book description mentioned "a boulder choke for suicidal midgets." I had included it in the shaft bashing kit for completeness and was surprised when Graham and Neil had descended it. They had however found a strongly draughting slot and had started to dig in the boulders below it. Unfortunately the rain had washed most of the soil back into the dig but this encouraged a further two bashing trips to hammer at the slot itself.

Finally Lynn, Jonathan and I, fed up with 1/4, decided to have a look. To be honest we fancied a day off. For some reason we were under the assumption that the slot was just inside the entrance and we envisaged a day spent lying in the sun, popping into the cave for a bit of rock bashing and generally enjoying the scenery. Hence we were a bit put off by the fact that the slot was two pitches down. We were more surprised to find that we could wriggle through it after about an hour of hammering. Below the slot the trip became more serious, and the cave was fantastic. We pushed on through a tortuous rift. Whilst I attempted to place bolts at the head of a pitch in a tight part of the rift, Jonathan free climbed through the rift to the head of the Flying Rébellés pitch. We named the rift Paradise as we did not want to put people off the cave by naming it with yet more grisly reminders of F20. We rigged Flying Rébellés with the last of the tackle and pushed onto Gripper Pitch. Now the expedition had two going caves, or at least that is what we thought.

Whilst we were being favoured by the gods of speleogenesis, Graham and JT were having a tougher time. They were trying to force the impossibly tight rifts at the bottom of 1/4. In the end they gave up. We returned to camp to find that 1/4 had been bottomed. Yet again we were left with one going cave. A surveying and detackling team were despatched down 1/4 and the bottom of the cave was re-examined. One possible route was found although forcing this would involve smashing a curtain to pass into a passage that looked as if it closed down almost immediately beyond.

2/7 was pushed with a vengeance and yielded more rifts and a succession of short pitches. Hence the story that a deep pot, "at least 40m", had been reached was greeted with some disbelief. Jonathan had descended it on a 40m rope and had failed to reach the bottom. Until this point the cave had been narrow and descended in small unimpressive pots. 40m was exceptional. In fact the cave had broken into a shaft system. Pessimists' Pot was found to be 70m deep.

Pessimists' was just the start of a 400m deep shaft system. Pushing trips left Ario armed with as much rope as they could carry. This they rigged on down the shafts until they ran out of rope and were faced with the inevitable three second drop. The cave was going like a train. Surveying and photographic trips followed the exploration.

Meanwhile, at Base Camp, a group of Poles had arrived and were camping at Lago Enol. I first met Wlodek staggering into base camp looking exhausted. He collapsed onto the ground whilst Martin rather smugly explained that he had taken him on a walk to show him the area. From the Polish Base Camp they had walked to the Polish Top Camp, on to our Top Camp and then back to Maria Rosa via La Verdelluenga and Ario. They had then run back from Ario. In spite of this relations between the two groups flourished although Martin became known as "Killer" to the Poles. We invited them to visit Oxford and do some caving in the UK and this lead to the successful exchange between Polish and British cavers which is reported elsewhere.

By now 2/7 had been pushed down to the First False Floor and beyond. After some frantic surveying the cave was found to be 620m deep. There was time for one more pushing trip before detackling. The trip almost didn't happen. Martin managed to cut himself badly on a Mornflakes tin, and Steve was feeling ill. Dave lost enthusiasm whilst Jonathan slashed his finger with a knife and Harry managed to repeat the Mornflakes tin trick. Finally the trip left mid-afternoon. Steve was persuaded to go with William, Mike and Harry. Steve was by far the most important member of this trip as he had never reached the bottom of a Spanish cave. Hence his presence would ensure that we would have a going cave to return to in 1988.

That night Ario camp was attacked by cows. This was unusual as they rarely venture high into the mountains. However they mounted a concerted attack for two hours. We spent the night dashing in and out of the tents, chasing the cows away, only to have them return fifteen minutes later. In the morning the full extent of the damage was revealed. The camp had been turned upside down. Cups and plates were scattered everywhere. A stack of pans had been knocked over and several small ones had been crushed. The cows had found the salt box and scattered salt around the camp. Worse however, was the cowshit. It was liberally distributed throughout the camp. We spent some time shoveling it away but were unable to save a pan of soaking beans that had been rendered inedible by a particularly skilful shot.

We were ready to leave camp for the first detackling trip when the last pushing trip returned. Steve's magic had let him down and he had finally reached the end of a Spanish cave. 2/7 had bottomed out at about the same altitude as the Top Camp cave sumps. However there was no fine sump at the base of the shaft system. The stream funnelled into a 3cm slot fifteen metres below the previous limit of exploration. It draughted tantalisingly strongly but was impossibly tight. There was no time for further investigating and detackling began immediately.

The expedition came closest to having an accident on the last detackling trip. Sylvia was clipping bags onto the hauling rope on Flying Rébellés when I took over the hauling. I stood on the large natural belay from which the pitch was rigged and lurched off it almost immediately as it detached itself from the wall. I looked down and saw the large boss caught in the rigging a few metres below me. We yelled to Sylvia who retreated far around the corner. The rock was then shaken free and went crashing down to the foot of the pitch where Sylvia had been standing. Curiously a number of people claimed that they thought that the belay had moved whilst they descended onto the rope but had put it down to over-active imaginations. We were lucky that the boss had not crashed down onto someone as they prussicked up the pitch. Rescue through Paradise would not be fun. We jury-rigged the pitch to enable Sylvia to ascend and carried on the detackling. 2/7 was left for another year.

Before we left Spain, a few people went caving with the Poles and there was of course the end of expedition party which was given an international flavour with Poles, Germans and Spanish joining in. It had been a fine expedition. In spite of noting sixty new caves, only three of them exceeded 100m in depth. The deep caves of the Picos were not yielding their secrets easily. 2/7 had appeared to end although the last pitches were complicated and several possible leads were noted. We had discovered a fine cave and had left the 1988 expedition with a gamble to take. Would it be worth redescending 2/7?