Depth through thought

OUCC News 26th October 2011

Volume 21, Number 7

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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Expedition Report Part 2 [Part 1]

Ben Hudson

My next trip, after a day to recover, revealed just how under-examined Xitu was. Descending a newly-rigged pitch with a large group, we veered off unknowingly from the correct route, and found ourselves in an ancient, unvisited part of the cave at only some two hundred metres' depth. An obvious lead had been overlooked with poorer lighting, running up to one large undescended pitch, thirty metres or so, and another enormous hole - a stone rattled and boomed down to the distant bottom for an incredibly long time. Astounded by our luck, we named it 'Pendulamus Passage', the result of a chilly discussion on whether 'pendulum' was in fact a real verb, and what 'we pendulum' would be in Latin... Preliminary surveying later on in the expedition revealed that it was not heading towards 2/7 as hoped, but rather eventually linked back into the known cave at Customs Hall, though it is yet to be fully explored to its limits.

Xitu, supposedly killed off in 1981, was still full of surprises - good and bad. The expeditions of the Eighties had been notably dry, whereas 2011 was cursed with what a local pastor declared the worst July weather in living memory. At one point we had over three days of solid rain. During one ferocious downpour, while I sheltered on the surface in a blasted shepherd's hut that formed our kitchen and tried to make the most of a sodden rest day, a waterfall opened up high in the wall near Graham's Balls-Up, and a previously dry part of the cave began to flood. The team made it out through the soaking but passable Entrance Series having learned a great deal of much-needed information about the hydrology of the cave - without this unpleasant but somewhat serendipitous experience, we would have rigged Graham's Balls-Up on the seemingly more straightforward left-hand side which became a river in the deluge.

Armed with this new information, I set out a few days later to carry bags of rope for Tony and Paul. After ten or eleven hours crawling, climbing, abseiling and squeezing through the cave (during which we re-rigged Graham's Balls-Up on the right-hand side to avoid the water even in bad weather), we reached an inauspicious-looking crack with the darkest space imaginable beyond and below. I stood on the precipice and dropped the biggest stone I could lift. My diary reads, 'It fell and fell, catching the air and gliding from side to side, going out of view of the brightest setting on my lamp... and then, an almighty boom, so long after dropping the rock that it seemed almost unrelated, the mountain roaring back.'

This was Flat Iron - some one hundred and twenty metres of free-fall down a perfectly smooth shaft, lined with glistening and soft immature calcite. In the previous expeditions it had been rigged somewhat lazily, giving large teams an extended wait at the bottom for their team-mates to prussik up a ninety-metre free-hang. While I and the other bag-carriers headed out to put an end to our nineteen hour epic, Tony and Paul carried on, reaching as far as Pregnancy Pitch. This use of regular rebelays removed the long wait, and also minimised the exposure to the spray from the enormous waterfall that thundered down the shaft. In the Eighties, this had been a relatively small affair - now, it was much stronger and more dangerous, a lesson that I almost learnt to my expense. My diary entry for my next trip down Xitu captures how I felt at the time much more accurately that I could reconstruct now, so I shall quote at length:

'The weather had been shit again today so by 6 o'clock Dickon, Andrew and I were raring to go and desperate to do some caving, so when volunteers were requested to follow the water down and set up camp, we leapt at it. [This was at the end of three days of rain, which had prevented any caving - we expected the cave to drain quickly] So by 8 we were underground, and it was wet, very wet. The entrance series was sopping but it was no great problem. [...] Flat Iron - none of us had seen it before, and we didn't realise how wet it was. From the top, it seemed ok. So we descended, terrifying rebelay after rebelay, beautifully rigged out of the water until the last hang before the big ledge, where I hung in the freezing spray until Dickon pulled me over and I got off the rope.

'The ledge was Hell; stinging, freezing spray wherever you went, and a howling gale. [We had previously been told that the ledge was always dry in places; this, of course, was based on the Eighties weather] By the time Andrew got down, I was colder than I've ever been. We huddled under a foil blanket while Dickon did the only thing he could do - the quickest thing he could do. He rigged a nasty, rubbing 30m drop from a single bolt, and down we went. I was by then on the brink of hypothermia and not thinking straight - I saw the last rebelay as a hand line traverse, clipped in, and walked to the pitchhead, then slipped over just on the lip, going into the water and nearly being pulled over by the tacklebags.'

This was probably the scariest thing that's ever happened to me, but I was caught by my cowstails and made my way down Pregnancy Pitch more or less by muscle memory. Hovever... we had been forced to descend an unsafe rope that would probably have been severed by the rubbing caused by climbing back up it, and had to wait at camp until the next team down re-rigged it. Though we knew another team would be after us the next day, we had no way of contacting the surface ? the Nicola Phone was not yet set up. (Once established, it was a great aid on a later three-day camping trip when I was relying on accurate and up to date weather forecasts to let me get my flight home to my mother's wedding on time!)

As it happened, the following team had an epic of their own - they had intended to pick up the drill left at the ledge before Pregnancy by Tony and Paul. But the flood had left the drill entirely underwater. And so they came to the lip of Pregnancy and found what seemed like an incredibly negligent and foolhardy bit of rigging. Steph improvised a rope-protector from a tacklebag to prevent the worst of the rub. Callum managed to spot a 1980s bolt over the one side, too rusted for the hanger to screw in more than three turns. Making the best of a bad job, he improvised a rebelay to backup the pitch.

They found us at camp (which we had set up as per our 'mission', the silver lining of our epic) and bollocked us thoroughly before we could persuade them that it was the only viable option in the circumstances. We had a brew, and Dave cheered us all up with his legendary harmonica-playing, as we considered what we should do next. It was a genuine act of heroism on Steph's part that she, as the lightest, volunteered to climb the rope despite the dodgy rebelay anchor, and re-rigged it using the drill we had taken with us. We emerged to bright moonlight after thirty-four hours underground.

The 2011 expedition to Xitu has improved me in more ways than I can describe; caving places you in a situation where you are entirely dependent on your skills and the skills of your companions, an experience that gives you an enormous sense of responsibility and trust in your own abilities and limitations. From the point of view of the expedition as a whole, the visit to Xitu was a qualified success. The hypothesised link to 2/7 was not found, nor was the cave bottomed as a result of the terrible weather which made the cave hazardous for a few days. But all present agreed that it was an utterly fantastic cave, more varied and exciting than any in the region.

There is still a great deal left to find - deep leads from the 1981 expedition still to check out, and new shallow leads to be properly explored. A promising new cave has been found in the nearby mountains which deserves attention (and explosives). It was agreed to return to Xitu next year, and build on the great progress made this year.