Depth through thought

OUCC News 25th January 2012

Volume 22, Number 2

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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I caved, I saw, I conquered: OUCC Xitu 2011 Expedition

Part 1.

Vicky Lim

"Come on expedition!" they told me. "The weather and the mountains are beautiful; we'll rig down to the bottom of one of the deepest caves in Europe; you can find virgin passages, untouched caverns, unseen wonders; and we'll all have a great time together."

They lied. It rained about eighty percent of the time and the view, while pretty, was a rare sight due to almost constant, impenetrable clagg. We never got to the bottom of Xitu, nature and circumstance seemingly bent on denying us even the -1000m mark. The leads we had we either killed all too quickly, managed to lose without trace, or ran out of time to push. And we didn't have a great time. We had an absolutely incredible time. Because despite the fact that I spent a month getting rained on, enduring setbacks, and being horribly harassed by cows, it was one of the best months of my life, and next year, when we plan to do it all over again, I hope to be there even longer.

As it turns out, expedition isn't about the sun and vistas, or the impressiveness of the cave, or even about the exploration. It's the experience of being on a mountain with an amazing group of people, caving with them through frequently unpleasant, sometimes scary, usually knackering times, and emerging from it all wanting nothing more than to do it again. I only started caving last October when, as an unsuspecting Fresher, I signed up for a trip to South Wales with OUCC. One weekend of splashing down sunless streamways, clambering up jagged climbs, and squeezing through muddy boulder chokes, and I was hooked. I started to go on as many club weekends as I could, including a memorable Yorkshire weekend during which we all camped in -7, two of us got temporarily trapped in Alum Pot when our ropes got iced over, and I got my hair trapped in my descender leading to a fifteen minute epic hanging in a very cold waterfall. None of it put me off. I had the caving bug and all the discomfort in the world could not dissuade me from the conviction that I had finally found a sport which I really loved.

It was around February that going on expedition became a serious goal for me. Previously, out of the three regular student cavers in the club (including myself), none had planned to go. But then a friend, Ben, from my college started caving, with enthusiasm to rival my own, and a timely talk from Fleur, who would become our de facto expedition leader, and the infectiously excitable Dave Rose, one of the original explorers of Xitu, convinced all four of us that this was a cave, well worth seeing.

In fits of anticipation we ordered our gear, arranged our travels, and trained, anywhere and everywhere, for the forthcoming trip. The crawl spaces under our college have probably never seen such heavy traffic, nor have the free climbs on the roof experienced such unrelenting traversing, and even the staircase we used for SRT practice seemed unused to such treatment. On less clandestine ventures we did a rescue weekend where we learnt how to create potentially awkward situations by abseiling into someone's face, and discovered what "being the turtle" in a cave stretcher operation meant.

At last, July rolled around. Heaving under a 20kg rucksack which threatened to literally bring me to my knees every time I put it on, and with what seemed like far too few clothes and far too much gear, I staggered to the airport, met some of the others on the same flight, and we headed to Spain. The first major test of my somewhat dubious fitness was the walk from Los Lagos to Ario. I'd been told of the path, of its steepness and length, of the sodiness of the sods, but had decided that it would just be a good way to get myself in shape before the real challenge began. By the time we reached the top of it for the first time, I felt about as in shape as a triangle might at a convention for quadrangles. Where the others had raced ahead, carrying all their gear, some food, and a fair portion of my stuff, I had lagged behind, bemoaning my stumpy legs, and underdeveloped muscles, and desiring nothing more in life than a strategically placed ski lift.

The clagg, which would remain our tediously persistent companion for much of the next month, swallowed the breath-taking panoramas of the Picos, and by the time we got to camp, was engaged in blotting out any stars of the encroaching night. Welcomed warmly to the shelter by the vanguard of the expedition, Ben, Chris and Callum, we pitched our tents, caught up with the toilet-less toileting procedure (find somewhere out of sight and then cover it with a rock), and headed to bed.

A couple of days later and I had got somewhat used to the clagg, the cows, and the cooking, and was anticipating my first trip down Xitu with nervous excitement. The entrance series was mostly rigged so our plan was to acclimatise to the cave by descending the first couple of hundred metres, gaining Customs Hall, and seeing how far on we could get from there. The way into Customs Hall was described as a swing from the main route down, which ended in a blind pot, into a window on the right. Chris Densham, who was at the head of the party duly went along, looking for obvious passages going off the side of shafts. A few pitches down we thus ended up in a likely looking enclave that sloped off in a different direction, forking to the left and right after about twenty metres. Dave, our supposed guide, regaled us along the passage about the names and stories of various protruding stal, all of which turned out later to be fabrication, for in fact what we had found was brand new passage, just a hundred metres from the surface, and entirely unsurveyed or explored. It gradually dawned on us what had happened when the route stopped even vaguely fitting the description and Dave owned up that he had no clue where we were. After leaving an undescended pitch in the right hand passage, exploration fever then led us to a couple more pitches on the left hand passage. Untouched mud formations confirmed no one had ever been here, and a huge rift, opening out above and below us, defied belief when a stone thrown down took six or seven seconds to land.

It was unbelievable. My first ever trip on expedition and we had found a pitch which was potentially deeper than any I'd ever descended. It was with a great exertion of will that we tore ourselves away from the site to continue with our rigging mission. There would be time later to explore the upper passages, it was reasoned, but the descent to the bottom would suffer horribly if we got distracted from that aim. We found our way on, and after a few more pitches, decided to head out, get some rest, and continue the next day with more gear and more time. It was later discovered that the rift was impassable and led back to the known streamway but that is another story.

Continued next week.