Beneath the Mountains

Exploring the deep caves of Asturias

David Rose and Richard Gregson

The Big Shaft Men

On a series of subsequent trips, the scale of the physical and psychological barrier which the big pitch posed became apparent. The first part was easy: 15 metres of rope hung from two bolts took us to a spacious ledge. But that was only 15 metres: beyond, the vast black pit yawned, chilled by an icy wind. For some way below the ledge, the wall sloped gently outwards, making it impossible to rig a rope free of the walls. Abrasion points guarded by rope protectors, rubber sleeves sealed with velcro tape, were all very well on short drops like Graham's Balls-Up. But to use them on a shaft that might be 100 metres deep was out of the question. You could never be sure that the rope protectors were in the right place, and one person climbing a pitch of this length would be easily enough to sever the line. Different parties tried several angles of attack, but failed to make much impact. On one excursion, Graham and I poured fluorescein dye into the stream at the top of the pitch, and watched everything turn vivid green - the idea was to put charcoal dye detectors in a series of springs around the Cares Gorge to discover where the water came out. We penduled and dangled in the green cascade, and at last found a tiny ledge ten metres below the first where we placed two bolts, one in the floor of the ledge itself. I proved that even then it would be necessary to rebelay a little further down by dropping the bolt hammer when the task was finished. Like everything else, it hit the jutting wall before plunging free with a sickening whistle.

Down at Lagos, Amador was impressed. "Pozu del Xitu is now 500 metres deep or more," he told the baffled drinkers gathered in his bar, "and these English have found on of the deepest shafts in the Picos." "Hombres!" came the ritual response. Cider bottles were thrust upon us, as we tried and failed to perform the Asturian ritual of pouring the local scrumpy into unusually thin glasses from a great height without spilling a drop. Gradually it was dawning on us that Xitu might be very deep indeed.

The SIE, a Catalan group from Barcelona, had arrived at Ario, to renew their campaign in Cabez Muxa. This year, they were determined to reach the bottom of their entrance series shaft that made ours look puny - El Gran Abisu, 247 metres deep, albeit with ledges. But they too were impressed. We had stuck the original 1979 survey of Xitu on the wall by the refugio stairs, adding pieces of graph paper as each new discovery made it expand. Already, we were several steps down, with a huge question mark below the big pitch ripe for removal.

Skunk's advent from Birmingham finally put an end to the unproductive, wittering terror that had marked our attempts on the shaft thus far. He marched up the hill with Keith to retrieve our longest rope from Pozu Vayeya, a surface pothole Keith had been dabbling in on his days off. The rope was a monster: 200 metres of new, 11 mm Bluewater III. Next day, the pair spent half an hour laboriously plaiting it into an eight strand chain - it was about twice as much as the maximum capacity of any of the tackle bags. Pausing to gather Skippy and John, they posed for photographs and set off for the entrance.

As John was to remark later, it took only four hours to reach the top of the pitch with the giant rope, but another three to untangle it, crouched uncomfortably on the freezing, wet and windy ledge. At about midnight, John and Skippy had had enough, and left the work to the hard men. They used my bolts on the micro ledge and continued down to the jutting rub point, where they dangled free in space to place two more. One gets used to spinning above very large drops with nothing to attach oneself to the walls, but the first time, it is intimidating and strenuous. At last Skunk was ready to descend. There was still an awesome black pit but now it had a rope running down it: just another pitch, he said. Three hundred feet below Keith he touched land again. A big boulder ledge, with the stream landing splashily to one side. But it was only a balcony in the shaft. A few paces from the bottom of the rope, the drop continued, stones falling for another two seconds. "Actually," Skunk said next morning on his return from what had turned out to be a 21 hour trip, "it's quite boring."

He christened the shaft Flat Iron, not after the famous landmark on the Eiger nordwand, but through a circuitous piece of reasoning. Everyone had told him how fucking enormous the pitch was, which made it Fe - the chemical symbol for iron. But the descent kept close to an uninspiring muddy wall, so it was Flat. As a steelworker, he found that satisfying.

Kev and I were very grateful to Skunk: he had set us up for what promised to be a trip as good as our last. And so it proved. The last drop from the balcony, another 30 metres, landed in the biggest chamber yet. At the back, atop a high boulder slope, was a black space we didn't bother investigating: instead, we found a way down through a maze of blocks into further chambers in dark, unreflective rock. We descended steadily, the depth clocking up. In one cavern, an array of old, white stalactites festooned the roof. From there we climbed down into the finest stream passage we had ever seen. The volume of water was considerable, and we stepped delicately around swirling pools in a corridor two or three metres wide, the roof far out of sight. There were extraordinary helectite formations, horizontal stalactite deposits like strings of spaghetti 30 centimetres long, and at one point a circular, dark green pothole in the stream, filled with water that looked about seven metres deep. The rock was amber-orange now, and still we advanced, down cascades, beneath a drenching inlet, traversing over a section of deep canal. At last the roar of another waterfall grew louder as we rounded a series of bends, and we stood once more at the top of a pitch.

We had left the tackle at the bottom of Flat Iron, but had no hesitation at retracing our steps to fetch it. The pitch looked easy to rig: no need for bolts, with large natural flakes offering what appeared to be a free but damp descent. We got lost on our way back, and again on returning to the shaft. "Bags I first" said Kev. Grudgingly I concurred. Kev's light slowly diminished. Another pitch lay immediately beyond.

Martin, meanwhile, had been gathering up his dye detectors. Next morning, he demonstrated the technique: to 'activate' the charcoal left in balls of nylon tights with alcohol. If the dye had passed out of the spring where they had been left, the theory went, the solution would turn green. The results seemed unequivocal and depressing. The detectors left at the bottom of the gorge by the valley system Cueva Culiembro stayed clear. But those collected from a small spring at the Canal de Trea, a precipitous gully joining Ario with the Cares, turned green as pea soup. The spring was only 700 metres below Xitu's entrance: if the test were accurate, that was the maximum depth we could hope to achieve. Once 700 metres had seemed an impossible goal. But now, we were all not very secretly hoping that Xitu would pass the kilometre mark - the first British-explored cave to do so. Martin's experience carried weight, and gloom returned. Only Keith and Skunk seemed unaffected: "Let's just have a bloody look, eh?" they said.

My reaction to all this was to go cave-hunting in the sun with Dave Thwaites. If Xitu were about to end, as Martin's test suggested, we would have to find another hole to explore. Simon pointed us in the direction of the Vega Aliseda, a vale high above the Ario plateau, below the main ridge of rocky peaks. I was tired from my efforts the previous afternoon and evening, and took little notice of our exact path. I had also forgotten the compass, with which we had planned to take sightings on peaks in order to fix the position of any promising entrances. After several hours, we had found very little. We had climbed a long way, over difficult terrain, but all the shafts were blocked with snow or scree close to the surface. We had run out of water, and today was a day of unremitting heat. By the time we toiled up yet another slope of boulder scree, I was exhausted.

But at the top, just below what I believed to be the main ridge of the massif, a snow patch provided a welcome drink. Behind it was a cave - not another vertical shaft, but a proper, walk-in, horizontal passage. We squeezed past the snow plug, alert again, and by the light of a single torch walked down a sandy slope. Soon a pitch blocked our way, but on the opposite side from where we stood a small stream spattered into the drop. Both of us were aware of the potential: a cave high above Ario, perhaps as much as 2000 metres above sea level, with a stream. "Dave," I said, "this really could be the deepest cave in the world." It was a shame about the compass, but being so close to the ridge, the hole should be easy to find again. We painted a sign above the snow at the entrance, arbitrarily designating the region Area 6: 'OUCC 1980 1/6.' Clambering onto the ridge, a magnificent view of the rocky triangle of Pena Santa de Enol rose above a new field of bleak limestone pitted with shafts. There was one almost at the top of the ridge, a circular tube ten metres across. It sounded deep, and we called it 2/6. One day, I thought, these caves would provide OUCC with some happy times.

Unlike British limestone, the rock in the Picos contains large quantities of razor-sharp authigenic quartz needles, and the sand through which one often had to crawl in Xitu would have made a good grinding paste. We all wore rubber gloves to protect our hands, but many of us were developing painful septic sores on the fingers caused by the needles working their way under the skin - the 'Ario Festers'. This highly abrasive material was also taking a heavy toll on the equipment. On some of the heavily-used abseils in the entrance series, each descent was marked by the extrusion of a grey sludge from our descender - ground up aluminium. The ropes were also wearing out. The sheath of the penultimate rope before Customs Hall was disintegrating: bits of nylon flying off every time it was used. We should have replaced it, but now we were running alarmingly short of gear. Every length of rope available had already been carried deep into the cave, ready for pushing, but it amounted to no more than a couple of bags full. The manufacturers claimed that even the bare core of the ropes had a breaking strain above 3000 kilos: crossing our fingers, we tried to believe them and left the worn line in place.

Keith and Skunk went down the pitch discovered by Kev and named it and its wet predecessor the Samaritans, after Skunk's act of generosity in providing Kev and me with such a pleasant trip two days before. Beyond, the cave was much less hospitable: a tortuous, awkward and narrow route over stalactite blockages in a winding rift. At the end, four steep climbs, the Marble Steps, brought a widening of the passage. But the stream was now a powerful torrent exceeding all but the wettest of British caves in volume, and it was impossible to deep dry. The entrance rift and the other narrow sections had long ago worn away most of the waterproofing from their oversuits, and opened up many tears which, like the rest of the team, they tried with increasing futility to repair with patches and glue.

Keith wrote up their trip in the log: "We didn't give a shit about getting wet. We came to the edge of the last climb, a drop of about 30 feet. I said we ought to tackle this with a rope. Skunk agreed, and then we both half climbed, half slid down without one, right in the middle of the stream. We were intoxicated by our discoveries - it was superb. Every corner we rounded we feared the end, but it continued, and we were stopped not by the end of the cave, as the others at camp predicted, but by a pitch. It's about 45 feet deep, and there's little in the way of belays. We were both dying to rig and descend it, but a sober appreciation of the situation made us agree to return. We were both thoroughly wet, we'd spent a long time at the head of the previous pitch, and the only food below Flat Iron was half a bar of choc in Skunk's prusik bag. (All my chocolate had fallen out through the holes in my bag.) At the entrance, I couldn't believe it: daylight yet again. Another 21 hour trip."

Slowly, the psychological limits of what was considered a reasonable trip and time to spend underground were being extended. Once, a journey to the top of Flat Iron had seemed long and serious. Now, after the marathon prusik up that shaft, in all 138 metres, it seemed as if one was 'nearly out' - four hours from the entrance, in itself a quite respectable caving tip in Britain.

As exploration progressed, Martin's theory was beginning to appear less convincing. The depth reached at the top of the undescended shaft must be, we thought, close to 700 metres, and there was no sign that an end was imminent. It was also clear that the lower reaches of the cave carried rather more water than that emerging in the spring in the Canal de Trea. The obvious explanation was that the dye test result had, for some reason, been false. Martin chose another, more tortuous analysis. "Maybe the water falling down the big pitch doesn't flow on into the rest of the cave," he said. "Maybe some or all of it goes off in the direction of that black space no one's looked at at the back of the chamber below it, and then comes out at Trea."

That chamber, easily the biggest in the system - so big that sometimes it took a while to find the end of the Flat Iron rope before climbing out - was now known as Eton Palais, after a spirited rendition from William of his old school Boating Song during a surveying trip with John. Measuring the pitch had been time-consuming and difficult. Our longest tape measure was only 30 metres, much shorter that the shaft, and they had been forced to resort to string. William recorded their antics in his diary:

I overtook John on the big ledge, making a survey station there. Next, I went down to the mid-air bolts on the rub point. It's quite interesting making notes, hanging from bolts with nothing to grab hold of. I tied one end of the string to one of the bolts and abseiled down the main pitch, paying out the string as I went. After some distance, I ran out of string, and had to tie a second ball on, which in its turn also ran out. I tried to tie a third ball on, but it got tangled, so I broke it and tied the end of the tape on as I could see the floor so presumably I was less than 30 metres above it. Reached the floor after what had seemed like ages to John and he abseiled down, getting the string tangled round the rope as he did so. I reckon we must have spent the next four hours untangling the string as both our lights ran out of carbide. We talked, sang, and finally just untangled, or more exactly, I held the string while John untangled. In the end we cut it. I'd got very cold, although I'd been artificially shaking to stop myself getting exposure.

Climbing up, William continued on above the ledge while John began the ascent of the main pitch. "This was a big mistake. The rope I was on dislodged a couple of large rocks which whizzed horribly close to John four or five seconds later. 'Below, my God, below, BELOW' I cried." Not that there was anything John could have done if the rocks had not missed him.

Rigging the pitch beyond the Marble Steps was as difficult as Keith had predicted. At about 2 a.m. on August 1st, Graham finished the job, with two bolts in poor rock. Although only 20 metres deep, it was the wettest shaft yet -'Dampturation'. Not only did Xitu's stream tumble on top of the caver, there was a very large inlet crashing down from a huge aven above; one of the largest inlets anywhere in the cave. At the bottom, Graham wrote, they set off along a wide passage into virgin territory:

Our spirits were aroused with exploration fever, as always on arrival at the sharp end. We strode out boldly, hoping that we were about to enjoy a long stretch of this grand streamway, but it suddenly took a sharp turn to the left and down a steep slope: another pitch. Keith eagerly scrambled down to the edge to estimate the size of the shaft, but the noise of the water obscured the sound of the rocks he dropped. "Could you go up the passage and get a bigger one?" he asked.

There was only one rock that would do: so large that I couldn't lift it. Instead I rolled it gingerly to the top of the slope above Keith. He told me to roll it down to the small ledge where he sat, but as soon as I had eased the thing over, the boulder began trundling towards him with unstoppable acceleration. It hit the ledge, bounced up and flew towards Keith's chest. It was all he could do to jump up onto small handholds as the block whizzed beneath him and over the lip, to be engulfed in the darkness. The two of us were frozen, exchanging horrified glances as we realised that we still hadn't heard it land. Finally there was a distant boom of its impact on the floor of the shaft. Keith smiled, and so did I. The depth of this pitch made Xitu without doubt the deepest cave ever explored by a British group.

The two traversed above the divide where the water poured down, to reach a balcony ledge looking out into the impressive shaft. They had two ropes left, neither long enough to reach the bottom: they tied them together, and Keith tried to remember the awkward procedure needed to pass a knot during an abseil. His Petzl bobbin descender was worn away by the quartz, and he had had to borrow Martin's rack device for this trip. This too was now etched with deep grooves, so he borrowed Graham's descender, promising to tie it on the end of the rope for Graham to pull up and follow. The line of the rope ran down a right angle buttress in the wall, and hence the name they chose: Pythagoras Pitch. Graham went on:

Sometime later there was a distant call from below, indicating he had reached the bottom. Looking down, I could see his light moving and flickering in what was obviously another enormous chamber. Spurred on by the intoxication of discovery, he neglected to tie my descender on the end of the rope. He chimneyed down past two large waterfalls, and on via a loose boulder slope. Eventually he reached a stream passage again, and followed it a long way past numerous cascades, finally arriving at another pitch, where he turned back.

To me, this seemed an eternity, stranded as I was in a wetsuit at the top of Pythagoras. I fell asleep for a while, which only made me still colder. An exuberant Keith returned to a subdued reception. He insisted I shouldn't wait for him on the way out, as moving independently would speed up the eight hour journey to the surface. Finding a way back through unfamiliar passages kept giving me the nagging doubt that I was going up a blind inlet, and I tried to suppress the feeling of being lost, even though I could rarely remember where I was going. Starting off on the 200 foot Samaritan pitches, my light went out. Carbide lamps do not function when doused by water tumbling 200 feet. My electric back-up wasn't working, so I was plunged into darkness. To add to this minor trauma, my foot ropewalker was jamming on the rope and I couldn't see why. Being in total darkness does not mean you are without sensations: swinging on the end of a 200 foot rope alternately bashing against an unseen wall and then beneath the full force of the waterfall made me a little unwell. I suppressed panic by swearing at my ropewalker. Eventually it came free and I carried on in the dark. I knew when I was at the top because the water was coming at me horizontally, not vertically. There I was able to relight my lamp and carry on.

After nearly 24 hours in wetsuits, Graham and Keith were suffering from agonising groin sores when the regained the surface at last. Keith emerged, clutching his genitalia, just as John and I appeared over the hill from Los Lagos. He bent down and kissed the rock: "Xitu, I love you."

Little now remained but hard work. We had only one length of rope left, and that had to be cut from the end of the line rigged into Eton Palais. Dutifully, on another trip well over 20 hours, John and I carried it to the limit reached by Keith. I was surprised and impressed by the passage beyond Pythagoras: it was one of the most difficult in the cave, but Keith had explored it alone. A section of meandering corridor with helectites like bonsai trees led to an overhanging, smooth drop of twelve feet. Descending was easy, but a large flake that refused to detach itself when we hit it with a hammer made climbing up again wet and strenuous. Near the top, with the stream pouring in through his open collar, John stuck on his harness, suspended painfully and aquatically. I rescued him with a strong pull from above, but the ordeal gave him haemorrhoids. The climb was christened PAFS Pot - Piles Arising From Suspension.

Below was a pool deeper than any yet encountered. The stream flowed now in a vicious diagonal rift, sharp projections tearing at what little was left of our oversuits. A chamber beyond led to Keith's pitch, which we rigged badly from jammed chockstones. Another 20 metre descent; and a short length of more comfortable passage; we stood at the top of yet another drop. It looked quite big, 40 metres or more. We had used every scrap of rope we had, including the strapping used on Dudley's roof-rack. It was the end for the season.

There remained surveying, photography and detackling. Kev, Simon and Keith polished off the former all the way from the Samaritans to the limit in one 24 hour extravaganza, keeping going with the aid of hot soup. It was midnight before they began their labour, starting at the bottom: a nightshift, as Kev remarked. He described the trip:

We decided to try and measure the undescended last pitch so I climb down to a ledge which will allow me to lower the tape without it catching. I tie my rack on the end because it will make a good clatter when it hits the bottom, then slowly lower it down the hole. Carefully I haul it back up.

There's a risk of it catching and if it does I lose my descender and some of the tape but it comes up OK. I start rewinding the tape back into its case but suddenly the winder comes away in my hand. This is bad enough but then the spindle in the tape case falls out and disappears down the pitch. "Oh well. We'll just have to carry the tape in loops over our shoulders," I suggest. I mark where I am sitting with a paper tissue under some stones. This will be our first station of the survey and the tape is stretched between me and Keith, who is at station two. "Two point eight metres," he says. He starts to take a compass bearing. It's taking him ages. What's he doing? Eventually, "nine five degrees." Another long pause while he gets out and reads the 'clino. "Come on," I think to myself, "at this rate we'll be down here all week." It's getting to Simon too. "Is there something wrong with the instruments?" he asks. "Well I can't see the dial very well," says Keith. "Hang on...which scale should I be reading?" We struggle on and build up a rhythm at last. The tape snags and we lose ten centimetres off the end. A little later it snags again and now we have to subtract a metre from each measurement.

There are only a few legs to go now, but Simon has run out of paper. The only sheet left is muddy and soaking. He tries to dry it out over the flame of his light. This is quite simply ridiculous. Here we are, more than 600 metres down, 10 hours from the surface, drying tracing paper over a carbide light so we can measure a few more metres of passage. It's so stupid I begin to feel really good for the first time on this trip.

It's six am, and the job is finished. The survey notes are safely cached in a bag and we're huddled round a gaz stove waiting for the soup to boil. If I had to choose between ensuring that Simon, Keith, myself or the survey notes got safely out of the cave at the moment I think I might just go for the notes.

The surveyers gathered at the top of the entrance series and met Skunk and me just before the rift, on the way down. Our trip, in which we removed the ropes and hauled them up as far as Eton Palais, was even longer: 28 hours. On the way in, Skunk took our only photographs of the deeper regions of the cave, coaxing his increasingly chilly model while he shot off three rolls of film. After turning round, the trip became steadily more arduous, as we collected rope after rope, prusiking up the shafts with bags dangling from our harnesses. But I was beginning to feel more at ease deep within the cave. Below the big pitch, Xitu had a dark, exhilarating splendour, a grandeur which only we and our few friends had seen. The effort of the trip was its own reward, and we seemed - like the rest of the expedition - to be working instinctively as a team. The days when Simon had had to draw up detailed 'masterplans' of who should be doing what and when had long gone: decisions were being taken automatically, without need for leadership or discussion. We had attained that rare level of oneness described by Doug Scott as the apotheosis of Himalayan climbing: what we were doing was right, felt right. The caving was the finest we had ever done or were ever likely to do, but the way in which we were doing it gave it an almost spiritual, transcendental satisfaction.

Reaching the upper streamway above the Trench Pitches at teatime of the second day, we met Martin and a party on the way in to continue with the derig. We were exhausted, but their tidings restored our vigour: the wall survey had almost reached the floor of the refugio, and according to rough calculations, Xitu was 910 metres deep - number 20 in the world. And it was still going, 'Rape B'Rape' Pitch - its maidenhead breached by rope and tape, according to the peculiar workings of Keith's system of nomenclature - the first of many shafts left for 1981. Back in England, we found that Simon had done his sums wrong: the furthest point reached was actually only 829 metres below the surface, while the passage length was some four kilometres. But that still made us second deepest in Spain, the deepest in the Picos and the deepest ever British team.

Nevertheless, none of us was going to rest easy until the last pitch was detackled, and the last trip had made its exit from the cave. I felt sharply aware of the cave's continuing dangers, now that we were pulling out and concentration was less intense: it was with some relief that I replaced the chewed-up rope in the entrance series with one retrieved from further down. But there were no mishaps. On August 8, the last bags were ferried through the rift into daylight. We headed for Amador's for a feast.

We ate and drank long into the small hours. Amador provided champagne on hearing of Kev and Kathy's impending marriage: just another beverage to add to the complex and evil melange of alcoholic fluids blending inside our stomachs. At 3 a.m., ignoring the large number of family tents pitched at the Lakes for the fine holiday weekend, we headed back to camp, armed with brandy and liqueurs, for a raucous session of blues, caving songs and anything to which at least one person knew the words. At five thirty, the last revellers finally bedded down, heads reeling.

An hour and a half later we were woken by the painful and deafening sound of the Spanish equivalent of Terry Wogan blaring from what sounded like a public address system. We had scarcely absorbed the shock before our tents began to shake, and then to collapse. A posse of the other campsite residents, enraged by our antics during the night, were wreaking an awful revenge. I emerged from my sleeping-bag in my underpants: there were about 40 of them, and they looked mean. "Silencio!" I tried weakly. It was not a good line. The fattest and ugliest of the assembled matriarchs, backed by several strong and ugly sons, slapped her face in derision: "Silencio? Silencio? Silencio la noche!" I couldn't catch the rest, but "los conos Ingleses" stood out.

We were a long way from the nearest British consul.

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