OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

Spanish Exploration

Proc. 13 Contents.

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Hammering in the Skull

(47/7 survey)

Tony Seddon

By the third week of the 1990 expedition the surface of the Western Massif was pretty dehydrated. As Dave Lacey and I traipsed up the Jultayu green ridge we were the most concentrated source of liquid between Bobbias and the river Cares. Dave especially: he was suffering from the most copiously fluid bout of hayfever from which I have ever felt obliged to stand well back.

Still, I mused, he's a skinny bugger and the rifts in 2/7 are no problem for him. It's only right that he should suffer somehow.

We were looking for an unexplored walking-size passage which Iestyn had found in 1989, high on the ridge. According to his description, it was in the base of a small cliff, and the Ario Refugio can be seen from the entrance. This is no surprise: nearly all the caves which Iestyn has found are within sight of the Refugio, proof positive that the mere thought of alcohol may promote psychospeleogenesis.

The far side of the Ario bowl can only be seen from high up on Jultayu, so we were resigned to a long haul. Three cliffs and as many hours later the stoic resignation was becoming threadbare, as was Dave's shirt, which he was using as a handkerchief. We agreed that shaft-bashing in such conditions is definitely a form of self-abuse.

Being lazy, I stuck close to the easier tourist path towards the top of the mountain, until I nearly walked into a pothole. It is at an unlikely spot; a four foot diameter pot near the top of a grassy, pebble-strewn slope. Not in the karst at all, and with a bush growing from the side of the hole. A decent-sized rock fell with a bounce and a bang for perhaps four seconds. Eventually tiring of playing hooligans, I rejoined Dave, who wrung himself out and set out for the hole with the enthusiasm of one who wants a cool, dark and perfectly pollen-free environment.

The upper parts of the hole being distinctly rotten, Dave rigged two ladders from a wire round a boulder well away from the entrance. I went down first, landing on a loose bouldery slope some 10m down. Upslope was a small, pretty moonmilk chamber containing the bones of a largeish rodent. Downslope was the type of yawning void which makes the unlined caver say "fuck" and retreat for the reassurance of the ladder.

Thinking positive, we fed down a 70m rope and looped it over a perfectly located rock nose. A few metres down a slight rub was overcome by an unlikely deviation off a tiny spike, leaving the remainder of the 31m pitch as a free hang. Moving out of the road of any flying rubble, I gave the "rope free" and looked for a way on.

The light of two lamps revealed a chamber of perhaps 8m by 15m. Where the walls were not concealed by huge, clean flowstone cascades, the limestone gleamed a gun-metal green. Most remarkable was the floor, a knackers-yard abandoned long ago; ribs, femurs and vertebrae were strewn across the level, cobbley floor. The skulls of sheep and rebeccos were most obvious; everywhere was the unfocussed gaze of sockets. The cave practically shouted its name.

The name did not seem to be needed, however, because the cave finished here. The undercuts around the base of the chamber went nowhere, and no draught could be felt. I had already suggested that we go out and derig when Dave asked

"What about this hole here? It looks like it might go".

The hole was a drop of about a bodylength, the first part being a small squeeze between the walls and a cemented boulder. The carbide flames did not splutter, but they certainly wavered. A bout of hammering removed a particularly galling lump of boulder, and then Dave posted himself through the slot with no problems. I followed him; I grunted, I screamed, I jammed. Pigs. I thrutched out and tried a different position; ah yes, this looks more like it. Much easier this time. I grunted, I screamed, I didn't just jam, my balls got trapped and I cammed. Unprintables.

Ten minutes frenzied demolition saw me hunched up next to Dave in a small chamber, staring through a two-inch crack into a larger but otherwise undefined space. Further hammering was feasible, although the size of the poised boulders which formed the walls of the chamber inspired circumspection. Encouragingly, this small chamber was much cooler than the larger one, and the air did not become stale.

The exit was uneventful, apart from Dave's near-death. I got off at the head of the pitch and shouted "rope free". Observant readers will note that both Dave and I had forgotten about the exciting chossy slope above the pitch. In one perfectly choreographed sequence of moves, I put my foot down and dislodged some lumps while Dave strode up to the end of the rope with the speed of one who now wants a warm, sunny and food-rich environment. The unsuspecting caver bent to put his Croll on the rope as assorted bits and pieces whispered towards him at close to their terminal velocity. The idiot at the pitch head had just finished screaming "Below!" when a chunk slightly smaller than a golf ball connected with the back of the idiot at the pitch's base. The shouts and gurgles of the latter interlaced with the guilt and doom-laden thoughts of the former.

In response to some fairly frantic questioning, Dave replied that he could make his own way up. Quarter of an hour later he emerged into the milky sunlight of a Picos evening with what turned out to be no more than a big red welt between the shoulder blades. The pitch was immediately christened Spinal Tap.

Our find did not inspire the rush up the mountain which we had expected. It must have been sheer bloody-mindedness which took us back up the green ridge with compass, clino, hammer and crowbar. Joan Arthur came with us to provide at least one trustworthy member of the surveying team. After taking the cave's vital statistics, Dave shrugged through the squeeze and I followed, doing my usual impersonation of a case of severe constipation. When the thrashing about was done with, a slightly muffled voice said

"There's a 20m pitch here".

"Great. Don't fall down it. How do I get to you?"

The solution was provided by a devious slither along one block and between two others into a small aven chamber. The pitch was through there, Dave said, gesturing at a circular hole which might have been passable by a suicidally insane dachshund. Dropped stones rattled, paused for around two seconds, boomed, paused and boomed again. The strong outward draught and hollow sound of the rock indicated at least a fair-sized chamber on the other side of the constriction.

While I dug away at the consolidated mud in the hole, Dave headed back to fetch the hammer and bars and implements of destruction. In passing, he demolished the previous squeeze by undermining the boulder and kicking it down into the chamber. Not having to worry about it on the way out made sustained work more pleasant.

The walls of the aperture were mud and calcite, although the roof was limestone. The basic tools worked pretty well, but slowly, and the three of us agreed that our shiny new Bosch was called for. When the going gets tight, the wimps get drilling. The only problem was that it was still in the lower reaches of 2/7, being used in some dodgy aid-climbing.

It was a few weeks before the next trip. It fell to David Monaghan and myself to drag assorted photographic gear, drills, batteries, bolt kits and more crowbars up to the entrance. Having completed the photo session, the breach was entered once again. After three hours of constructively destructive caving, I gave the squeeze a try but my arse didn't come close to fitting.

The last jaunt down Skull Pot was also the last caving of the expedition. Dirk was staggering heroically after an epic drinking session: I shouldn't think that the sustained hammering and drilling did his hangover much good, but perhaps Tasmanians are unusually alcohol-resistant; anyway, he didn't even look like throwing up.

Which is what I wished I had done when I forced myself back into the hole; even the smallest decrease in volume would have been useful. I was wearing no gear, only a rope looped around the waist just in case the tight stuff opened directly onto the pitch, and the helmet and generator were left behind to be passed through later. Getting down was a bit of a problem; the short section of body-sized tube was overcome by breathing out and relaxing as many muscles as could hygenically be managed, but unfortunately it enters a restricted rift at an angle which makes it necessary to bend the body backwards while dropping round a gentle corner.

Oh bugger, I thought, as Dirk passed the carbide through.

"It's gonna be a bit of a pig to get out again. If you give me the hammer, can you carry on walloping the hole with the crowbar?"

"Yeah, sure." A great thing about Dirk is that if you're in trouble, he never sounds bothered. It's very soothing.

I took a look around. The rift's pebbly floor gave way to a five inch slot which draughted enough to put out a carbide flame. Beyond the cleft a large space echoed. I noticed that both walls of the rift were heavily calcited, and would rapidly repay brute strength and ignorance. But not this year; time to bow out, if I could. The first couple of attempts were half-hearted and failed miserably. A jutting triangle of rock was blocking a particularly vital bit of knee movement, so I hammered it unmercifully. The problem was, getting a decent sideways swing involved standing with my face about three inches from the point of impact. The only thing to do was to keep the eyes closed and try not to imagine splintering bone and gouts of blood and gristle.... Of course, all I got was a couple of cuts from stone shards.

The next attempt, I got one arm and my head through. With no obvious method of approaching the squeeze so that both arms could go in simultaneously, there was no alternative to the time-honoured device of breathing out and thrutching while someone else drags on the available bits of your anatomy. The extraction lasted about twenty minutes and on my part required remarkably little energy, although when it was finished Dirk seemed, inexplicably, knackered.

That's how the story ends. The entrance to Skull Pot (47/7) was tied in to a surface survey along with such features as 2/7. It is located directly over the London Underground just before Marble Arch, which the optimists whisper (so as not to tempt fate) is far enough downstream in 2/7 to drop into the streamway or some other passage beyond choke Egbert. If no lower entry into the system is found, Skull Pot might yet provide a substantially easier way in, simply by bypassing the rifts, although it might be argued that the tight section at the present end will prevent it from becoming an easy cave in its own right.

The squeeze was called the Eft in the tradition of naming tight pitch heads after amphibians. The eft is a close relative of the newt; the original Newt in 12/5 was so named because it was "really hammered". By a happy coincidence, the name of this latest squeeze also perfectly expresses a caver's feelings upon leaving it. But it can't be ignored; the draught indicates that all that stands between OUCC and a lot more cave is a little more hammering.