Depth through thought

OUCC News 19th October 2011

Volume 21, Number 6

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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Hope everyone had a good summer and you are all looking forward to a caving packed term! DTT is hitting the ground running this term, as thanks to Ben and Rob I have enough material for the next few weeks. More articles for DTT are always welcome though, so you have any caving related articles or info please send them on to me.

Expedition Report Part I

Ben Hudson

Well, I have returned safely from Spain (and made it to my mother's wedding on time), finished working to pay off my Don Simon debts and written my grant reports, so now there really is not excuse for not writing something for DTT.

My side of the OUCC Pozo del Xitu story begins on 1st July, only the day after my final Mods paper. More to the point, it was only some nine months after my first taste of real caving, and perhaps six months after I first (literally) learned the ropes of SRT. As far as being dropped in the deep end goes, 1143 metres is very deep.

The decision was made to return in 2011 and finish off Xitu once and for all, surveying and exploring missed leads that were either ignored in the race for depth, or missed in the temperamental gloom of carbide. The ultimate aim? A link along a hypothetical phreatic passage to 2/7 ? bullshit? Perhaps, but the 3D surveys we were shown at the presentation looked pretty persuasive...

And this is where my part of the story begins, meeting the expedition vehicle at the club hut (a slightly worn out car that became increasingly so as the expedition went on), and setting off for Portsmouth ? the climax of several months' anticipation and planning. Having run the gauntlet of getting our knives and petrol stoves past British customs leaving the UK, we spent the night of the 1st on the ferry to Bilbao, and the night of the 2nd in considerably less comfort, enduring a thunderstorm in bivouacs near the Maria Rosa. All around, the cowbells rang constantly, the enduring soundtrack to an otherwise silent mountainous region once we got beyond the touristic lakes. Having heard about the several legendary crashes and breakdowns that beset previous expeditions driving cross-country across France, we were glad to have been able to take the long ferry to Spain instead, and shorten the trip. The car had overheated twice on the way from Bilbao, necessitating careering along the Spanish motorways in a cloud of steam with the windows open and the heating on full, but had completed the task of bringing three cavers and a trailer full of all the gear to the furthest extent of the mountain road.

The vanguard of the expedition consisted of Callum, Chris (getting his money's worth out of the car before selling it) and myself. Two carries of gear on the 3rd set the standard for the most arduous and unpleasant parts of the expedition, carrying as much bulky and heavy kit as we could bear up the Four Sods. On the first carry we took two bags of rope with metalwork each, stocking up to make good headway into the cave and win glory before the next wave of cavers arrived. On my second carry, with all my kit, enough food for camp and a stove, I fell on Sod 4 and bruised my ankle. But that evening, we had the pleasure of a glorious view over the limestone crags of the Central Massif, pink in the sunset, that was to be denied for some time to the cavers who came after us. John Wilcock, veteran of the first OUCC expedition and member of the 2011 expedition, recalled the view exactly the same in the 1960s ? 'that fantastic row of pointed peaks, glowing pink in an alpine sunset, which haunts the memories of all'... This is a region soaked with Cave Club lore.

This pleasant break in our luck did not last. My diary entry for the 4th reads, 'Today should have been the first day of caving, the privilege which we knackered ourselves for yesterday. But [...] while I was going back to camp to fill in the call-out log which we had forgotten, a boulder fell on Callum's toe [...] and ripped the nail off'.

With what Chris described as a sickening squishing noise, a large and pointy boulder had crushed Callum's toe before he had even reached the entrance proper, and seemed to have put an end to his caving for ten days at least. Ironically, this injury had occurred while he and Chris were gardening the entrance climb for safety. (As it happened, with the aid of several boxes of endurance condoms used as anaesthetic non-absorbent dressings, Callum made a miraculous recovery within a few days) Undeterred by his injury, he limped back to camp to bleed profusely and read a book, and Chris and I pressed on. And so I drilled a hole for the first bolt; the first bolt I had ever done, and the first one to be placed in Xitu for years. In keeping with the theme of the day, it transpired that the wrong size drill-bit had been bought, and my 12mm bolt would not fit in the 10mm hole. As penance, Chris ran off down the hill to make his way to the nearest big town for the right bits, while I followed more slowly for yet another carry from the trailer, my third in two days.

After all of that, we were raring to go as soon as we had the right parts, and on the next day Chris and I took turns rigging the first seven or so pitches. But before total darkness was even reached, one of the cave's biggest challenges presented itself ? Climax Rift. Best described as a key-hole shaped rift, it was named after the noises made by one of the first explorers as he battled through it. The steep walls made slipping down easy, and the grippy limestone made getting back up again a nightmare. To complicate the matter even further, a previous expedition had rigged (and then abandoned) a gear line through the rift which served only to get in the way. Within a couple of minutes, it became clear that it was good only as a tightrope to make the tricky bits easier. The rest of the cave is relatively simple to negotiate, but here at the very start was a challenge that seriously taxed several of our cavers until they had the correct knack to move through the rift at the correct level and with the minimum amount of elbow grease. With wooden stemples added later, and a little practice, we soon mastered it.

Our (well, Fleur's) shiny new cordless electric drill avoided the tedium of hand-bolting and we were able to make quick progress, with Chris teaching me rigging as we went. I went to Spain with a solely theoretical knowledge of knots and rigging principles, and came back confident enough to have a go at rigging even quite tricky pitches. But of course, occasionally the cave throws challenges at you that cannot be predicted or avoided. An example of this came half way through the entrance series, when Chris found himself rigging Traverse Pitch with no room for a drill. I sat in a puddle for an hour or three while he, crammed by his elbows and knees above the sheer drop, left-handedly hammered in a bolt by hand, using the side of the hammer because it was too tight to swing it normally. Another two pitches and we ran out of battery, rope and energy ? my first trip on expedition, the longest I'd ever done by about four or five hours. We returned to find that the clag had descended, coinciding with the arrival of Dave, Vicky, Jamie, Andrew and Chris Vernon, who soon became the expedition head chef.

It would be more than a week before the newcomers would properly see the sun, let alone the Central Massif - the thick cloud would envelop the mountaintop without let, a precursor to the weather that would later come with such dramatic effect. In the meantime, Dave had a run-in with Climax Rift - having become a somewhat different shape to his self of the Eighties, he slipped and became irretrievably stuck. After much swearing and wriggling, and with the heroic aid of Callum (who worked his way further down into the rift, and offered his head as a human stemple), he freed himself. The next trip was sent post-haste to insert wooden stemples. Continued in next week's DTT...