Depth through thought

OUCC News 8th February 2012

Volume 22, Number 4

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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

Part 3.

Vicky Lim

Buoyed by my experience, and now able to confidently place myself on one of the deeper trips, we planned a trip that would be Jamie, Rosa and I going down to underground camp in the morning, sleeping in the afternoon, relinquishing the beds to the team already down there for the night while we went to push leads, and then spending another day at camp sleeping before heading out. Hot-bedding, sharing camp with another set of cavers, was not ideal because it would require us to go to bed at 3pm and cave through the next night, however I was determined to make it work, and what with other calamities with the weather, it seemed unlikely many more opportunities to "go deep" would present themselves. We made it to camp in just two and a half hours, not bad for 650m of descent and a few tacklebags, and I settled into my first ever underground camp. It was bizarre having a tent in a cave, weirder to be cooking down there, and nothing but unpleasantness to have to deal with other...functions, in such circumstances. However, once we were warm and dry in our cave pyjamas, fed and watered to repletion, and snuggled deeply into the many layers of sleeping bags and bivvy bags in the tent, we had a comfortable few hours of peace. I don't think any of us slept, we had, after all, only got up about eight hours ago, but we lay comfortably for about five hours and rested ourselves up for the trip ahead. We were to push a lead at about -900m down the cave, at the top of the Flyer pitch, where unexplored space held promises of new discoveries, and my mind was more than a little over-active in the hopes of what we might find there.

The team ahead of us, who had been pushing during the day, returned to camp that evening and, after they'd eaten and sorted themselves out, chucked us out of bed so they could sleep. They had been to Chunder Pot, the deepest we ever got in the cave, and the site where Dave Rose said he'd seen a passage 30 years ago which was an incredible promising lead in the cave. It had always been one of the major aims of the expedition to rig Chunder Pot and see where this dark space went, but when the guys had gone back there, they had been unable to find what Dave was on about. It was hugely disappointing, especially since timing and weather had already ruled out the possibility of us rigging to the bottom of the cave, another of our major aims, and this was the last pushing trip we would be able to do at that depth. All the same, no lead at Chunder Pot didn't necessarily mean no lead at the Flyer, I reasoned, and at the very least, a chance to get to -900m was not to be sniffed at.

We set off with Jamie as our guide, splashing through the Marble Steps, narrowly avoiding a dipping at Pafs Pot, and gingerly stalking down the never-ending boulder slope of Pythagoras. At the top of the Flyer, we retrieved a drill left by the last team, and skirted around the left of the pitch-head to a rocky outcrop of ledges hovering over rifts, and slanting walls heading into blackness. Struck again at how incredible it was to be some of the first ever explorers of this part of cave, I eagerly started clambering around, looking for anything likely or interesting, or even just pretty. A call sounded for the distance: Jamie had found a small window beyond which was darkness and he wanted me to go through.

Traversing as fast as I could around a large drop, I scrambled up to him and hastily ascertained that this small hole he had found was certainly untouched, looked very exciting, and was all for me. I wriggled through and found myself in another chamber, not that wide, but about six metres tall, and with what looked like passages heading out from it at ceiling level. The climb to these spaces was sketchy and, being particularly short and clumsy, I opted to call Jamie into the hole to try it first. As he headed up, I explored the chamber more thoroughly. It went for a fair way in a perpendicular direction to the rest of the cave, there was flowstone near the roof, and the blackness into which Jamie had disappeared looked deep and mysterious. I waited anxiously for his return but when he came it was with bad news. There was a section leading off but it choked and significant digging would be required to break through. This deep in the cave such an effort would not be justifiable, and with so much else to look at it was likely this little chamber would never be high on the list of priorities.

We climbed back out and headed back to Rosa who had been poking around near the huge rift below us in our absence. We had originally dismissed it as it headed in the same direction as the main way down and so was highly likely to join back up. Nevertheless, wishing to have done a thorough job, and to give me a chance to rig something, we decided to descend it and see what lay further down. My first attempts with the drill were erratic (I had to be reminded to keep my eyes open most of the time) and my efforts with the hammer were somewhat lame, however I inserted a few satisfactory bolts and lassoed a natural so that I could do a Y-hang down the enticing gap. Twenty minutes in the rift reassured us that it was going nowhere interesting and we decided to call it quits and make for camp.

The way back to camp was wet. The rain which had tormented our comrades on the surface was permeating down to punish us, and the Marble Steps and many other pitches became incredibly damp on the way up. Although we were never in danger in the streamway, there were times when we got thoroughly dipped into pools, splashed to the core by engorged waterfalls, and swung in and out of sprays while ascending ropes. We arrived at camp utterly soaked and gleefully evicted the others to claim our beds.

The way out was smooth and surprisingly fast. I had been terrified for a long time that I would be horrifically slow on the ascents, not being very strong, tall or fit, but in fact I kept up a reasonable pace and enjoyed the way out in a way which I hadn't expected. Heading up Flat Iron is an intimidating feat, 120m of rope and rebelays in a shaft where you can't usually see the floor, other walls, or ceiling, and I had thought it would be hell. Usually pitches of about 40m left me gasping and mentally composing letters to stair-lift companies to develop a mechanical aid for rope ascension, but Flat Iron, although at points utterly exhausting, forced me into a state of utter determination and rewarded me with a great sense of accomplishment. When we emerged, forty hours after we last saw daylight, at 1am in the morning, I was exhilarated. It may not have been a very successful trip in terms of fulfilling targets or achieving aims, but I had done it. I, who had been caving for less than a year, who never did any other sports regularly (unless you count dodging cars on my bike), who was five-foot-two-inches tall and built like a sapling, and who had never been on a longer trip than fourteen hours, had done it. I'd camped underground, I'd got to -900m in a cave, I'd found an undiscovered portion of the underworld, I'd drilled and rigged an undescended pitch, I'd negotiated the lower streamway in the worst conditions anyone had ever seen it, and, most importantly, I'd made it back out. The thousands of stars in the cloudless sky were bright above my head, the world stretched out into limitless mountains around me, and below me was a vast and epic cave I felt I'd truly conquered.

In my last week of expedition, I did another deep trip, this time to help de-rig:, carrying many tacklesacks out from underground camp and then caving the last few hours out on my own while the others handled ropes. Ben, also on expedition for the first time and a new caver, had managed similarly deep and impressive feats in his two weeks on the mountain. Old lags, who had been on the first Xitu expeditions and explored it originally had made it back and done some incredibly hard trips to depths that tested their physical strength (or size) to the limits. Everyone had done something of which they were proud, which they had loved, and which would be a story they would tell future generations.

Our expedition didn't do everything it set out to do, it wasn't all fun and games, and the weather was indefinably, abominably, loathsomely, against us. However, if success is measured in terms of enjoyment, of camaraderie, of enthusiasm, of experience, and of future intentions, Xitu 2011 was quite clearly a triumph. Even if I didn't get to shower for over a month.