Beneath the Mountains

Exploring the deep caves of Asturias

David Rose and Richard Gregson

Depth in the Afternoon

David

Between Chesterfield and the M1 there is a fine dual carriageway 6 miles long, which takes no more than a few minutes by car. I was walking up it on the evening of December 27, 1979 and my hands were very cold.

A thin winter fog muffled the distant lamps of the town. Jim Sheppard was swearing: "Bloody geology department. Grr, God, bloody geology department, grr disgraceful, geology department pederasts." Said department had hired us its van and the alternator had fallen out. The AA had towed it to a garage which might have a spare next day but we had to walk. Graham lived in Chesterfield and we could spend the night on his mother's floor. This was my third trip with OUCC, and I was beginning to be underwhelmed: on the second, a beginner's visit to the Mendips, we had had to call the rescue when a chilled medic refused to climb a waterfall.

Simon Fowler was trudging up the road next to me and seemed to feel a vague responsibility for the setback. Like me, he was a member of Magdalen College; as an historian I was apparently the first arts student potholer for many years and he seemed anxious that I shouldn't be put off. He kept on and on about a cave called Xitu in Spain and seemed to be urging me to sign away six weeks of my summer vacation there and then. Surely he must be joking? Could this lot be seriously planning to explore deep holes in Spain when they couldn't even get to Yorkshire?

Simon was irrepressible. "Virgin passage. It's incredible. It could easily be up to 500 metres deep and there are already two ways on." Simon, I soon gathered, was leading this jaunt. I had learnt to be wary of students trying to persuade other students to join things. Now, I was in my second year: but I had been lucky not to have been bludgeoned into joining several choirs, the darts circle and the Monday Club before the end of my first week at Oxford.

At last we made it to Yorkshire and took up residence at Bull Pot Farm, high on the slopes of Casterton Fell, surrounded by the many entrances of Britain's longest cave, the Easegill Caverns- Pippikin Pot system. The single track lane leading to the cottage was covered in ice, making driving impossible: each day we visited parts of the underground network to emerge after dark, jogging four miles down the hill to the pub and slogging tipsy back to bed through snow that sparkled with starlight. One day I tried my first abseil, into the 35-metre entrance shaft of Lancaster Hole. I had a makeshift harness made of nylon tape that squeezed my groin. But 6 metres down the pitch belled out into a beautiful cavern and the rope fed smoothly through the descender: I thought I was flying.

I was becoming keen: soon, obsessive. Another new recruit matched my enthusiasm, Keith Potter: a medical student brought up in the heart of the Mendip caving area. On our last day we undertook what seemed to us a trip of sheer magnificence: a descent of Lancaster Hole followed by a long traverse of the Easegill master cave, all the way to its furthest entrance, Top Sink. A few bends from daylight we climbed Walrus Pot, and 18-metre shaft in the full force of the stream. The water battered our helmets and we gasped for breath, clinging blind to the narrow rungs of the ladder. The water was at freezing point but at the top we basked in the warmth of exhilaration. I was beginning to come round to Simon's idea.

We met each Wednesday in the cellar bar of Brasenose College, and most weekends went caving. Some people remember their student days by parties and punting. For me, the highlights were changing into a wetsuit still damp from the excursion of the previous week by the faint shelter of drystone walls, and trips underground that progressively became harder. I began to love the remoteness of the more challenging caves. On a Monday I would look around at my fellow students in the libraries with a certain smugness. Twenty-four hours earlier they had probably been having lunch in a pub: I had been five hours from daylight at the bottom of a deep pothole.

I knew very little about caving gear, but one day Simon came to see me: "Congratulations. You're the expedition tackle-master." I had no idea what this meant, but nor did anyone else, and so I pretended to be in control by going to the shed where we kept our equipment and seeing how much rope we had. There wasn't much: a few hundred metres of old-fashioned terylene Marlow, developed not for caving but for yachts, and a couple of lengths of precious American Bluewater. We would obviously need a lot more to push Xitu properly. We looked at our accounts and bought one more reel of the Bluewater, knowing that we still had barely enough.

1979 had been the most successful Oxford expedition to date, but it had not added much to the club's reputation. In the elite circles of the caving bureaucracy responsible for doling out Sports Council grants, we were still seen as effete, southern tyros playing with fire. Simon managed to secure a small grant by promising to collect bugs in the caves, and developed a trap based on raw meat bait. He never caught many bugs, although the baits filled the caves with the distinctive smell of rotting hamburgers.

Fortunately Martin Laverty knew Ben Lyon, the main importer of Petzl equipment through his business, Lyon Ladders. He agreed to give us a hefty discount, and on an Easter visit to Yorkshire we went to his shop in Dent and picked out SRT systems, talking in loud voices about our plans to be the deepest men in Spain to impress Ben and the other customers. He smiled at me benignly as I asked his advice on the best model of descender for negotiating vast unknown shafts. He was also the warden of the Whernside Manor training centre, and a fortnight earlier I had attended an SRT course for absolute beginners. So far I had prusiked up precisely four vertical drops.

Spring gave way to a golden, magic summer. A trip was organised to Otter Hole, a beautiful stalactite cave on the banks of the Wye near Chepstow. Not far from the entrance there is a tidal sump, allowing access to the galleries beyond for only a few hours in each tidal cycle: to reach the end we had to be underground for a full twelve hours, the longest trip any of us had done in Britain. We came well prepared with pork pies, sandwiches, cans of coke, cake and many bars of chocolate, bloating ourselves on the banquet we thought necessary for the trip. John Singleton warned that this sort of thing wasn't on in Spain: "It'll be cooking chocolate if you're lucky."

We were due to leave on July 1, immediately after the end of the third years' final exams. By now our excitement was boundless. On the eve of departure we convened in a curry house for a farewell meal. Simon had got hold of a Spanish guide to the country's deepest caves, and we pored over it, speculating on our chances of making the top 10 or top 50: 500 metres seemed a cert. Only Martin sounded a note of caution. "Xitu's heading for a massive surface depression. It'll be choked."

By noon next day our transport had not arrived. Seven of us were supposed to be travelling overland with most of the tackle in a Volkswagen bus owned by Dudley Page. We waited impatiently at the gear shed: only five hours to go before sailing time. By two we knew we had missed the boat. Half an hour after it left Newhaven Dudley turned up at last in Oxford.

Dudley's van was most impressive, lined entirely with brown synthetic fur. It was, however, prone to faults. It was with some trepidation that we set off for Southampton.

Not far beyond Rouen we suffered the first of a series of breakdowns. We were in a wood and it was raining. It was comfortable if cramped in the bus, but Dudley insisted we had to get out to watch him mend it. Collectively we willed it to get better and set off again, sticking to toll-less non-motorways. At dawn John insisted we should not stop for breakfast: he said it would be good training. By 8 a.m. he had been overruled.

Late that night we snaked along the north coast of Spain, hungry again: those who were making decisions had ruled out dinner. I dozed: after some hours becoming aware that we were going more slowly, lurching about a lot as if we were climbing a steep hill with many bends. Then we stopped. Another breakdown: again we had to get out to watch Dudley mend it. "I think there's something wrong with the alternator," he said. I had heard something like that before. It was a black, foggy night, the visibility down to 20 feet. We were on a wet, rocky hillside, in clinging rain: all our waterproofs were packed tightly on the roof rack.

Simon said: "I think we're at Lago Enol. There's only a mile to go." I had almost given up hope that we would ever arrive: his works should have cheered me. Dudley bared high tension cables with his teeth and restarted the van. Five more minutes and we bumped off the end of the road onto what appeared to be a flat, boggy field. Our tents and sleeping bags were also on the roof rack: wet. With Simon I struggled with one of the piles of damp canvas. It was 4 a.m. I stumbled off into the dark and relieved myself, holding a torch in my mouth. When I returned Simon was already ensconced in his sleeping-bag. "Welcome to home for the next six weeks," he said.

After far too brief an interval I awoke. The orange tent was warmer now: it seemed to have dried. There were sounds of clanking enamel mugs and plates outside. We were being urged to get up. I struggled out and gasped. The mist had cleared: the broad green meadow gleamed. It ran down to a lake, beyond which gentle slopes planted with conifers gave way to screes, crags and snowfields, dominated by the towering bulk of two huge peaks. Already people were sorting gear for the walk to Ario. I had never been to the Alps: these were the biggest mountains I had seen. Simon observed my wonder. "Pretty impressive, eh?" He pointed, tracing a high line over ridges towards the far horizon. "Ario is up there." His finger moved round, and came to rest in the direction of a vertical cliff on the opposite side of the Lagos meadow. "The path begins right there."

Over the following three days I got to know that path well, as we slogged up with load after lad of rope, tents, stoves, food and finally personal caving equipment. I figured that I would probably get in the way less if I left the rigging of the entrance series pitches to those who knew them, and decided - rightly - that a spell lugging gear would improve my fitness no end. The route began gently, skirting the shore of Lago Ercina, rising slowly to the steep incline I soon came to know as Sod One. Beyond its summit, the lake disappeared from view, replaced by a sterner prospect of tumbling crags and grassy rakes. The hard work of Sod One was wasted on a gentle descent to Las Bobias, the head of a green blind valley with summer shepherd huts and a cool fountain spurting from a dome-shaped rock. After another up and down was Sod Two: a viciously steep and sweaty climb on muddy scree, with only a short respite before the shorter Sod Three. Still the ground rose, the path following a long dry valley. On its other side bleached bare limestone soared to 2,000-metre peaks, and everywhere dark holes and depressions bespoke the existence of caves.

One last climb gained the valley's head, a sloping plateau - Ario at last. Again, I had been unprepared for the magnificence of the surroundings. Straight ahead, across the Cares Gorge, the towers of the central massif stood in a serrated row like the teeth of a giant animal. On our side, the nearby peak of Jultayo began the main ridge of the Macizo de Cornion, a jagged, diagonal spine. Looking back that first morning, cloud had come from the sea, filling the lower valleys, leaving the massif floating free in the sunlit air. Fifty metres away Xitu's entrance opened in a fold in the ground. We threw a rock in and a sound of startled cawing echoed from below: a mother crow flapped her wings and emerged briefly from the shaft. It seemed unlikely that the birds would be able to put up with the intrusion from cavers for long.

The Ario refuge was ten minutes away across ground with even more cave entrances than the slopes below. Most had been painted with signs and numbers indicating their logging the year before, but we found another which had not, a descending fissure under a small cliff. Before returning to Los Lagos we squirmed in, rigging a ladder on the short pitch we soon encountered. Simon was blase, but I could hardly believe it: a going new cave on our first walk up the hill! The pitch led to a narrow rift passage, and careless of the projections that were tearing my sweatshirt to shreds I squeezed in. Ten metres further on progress was impossible. I was going to have to learn the hard way that the proportion of entrances which lead to worthwhile systems is depressingly low.

Ario was becoming a colony. Eduardo, a student from Oviedo, was doing the job of warden, and in licentious French he indicated that we could camp next to the water supply - the first spring since Bobias, ninety minutes' walk away. A cast iron pipe poking from a pile of stones carried a brackish trickle, slowing to a steady drip on dry days. All other liquids save the wine Eduardo sold in plastic bottles were underground. Washing, it was clear, would be an irregular pastime.

We were not an efficient team in the early days of the expedition. Merely to retrace our steps of 1979 down the pitches of the entrance series took three days. Some of the bolts placed in haste the year before needed to be redrilled, and some of those new to Spain were beginning to find out the SRT systems which worked perfectly in trees or gymnasiums were more awkward underground. On the third day I got my chance to enter Xitu at last, on a rigging trip with John and Graham. Each drop led inexorably to the next: a fall from one pitch would have carried one bouncing to the bottom of the entire group. I was itching to get to the real cave beyond, the chambers and cascading streamway. But after leaving the rope rigged on the last shaft, in sight of the passage leading off below, we turned tail and made our way to the entrance. Climbing the long succession of shafts I began to grasp the remoteness and commitment of caving in Spain. We hoped that these pitches would be merely a preliminary to a great underground system. But a rescue even from here would be an undertaking of utmost seriousness: the rift a virtually impassable obstacle for an injured caver.

The division of the ways Simon had referred to began two thirds of the way down, where the stream poured over a series of waterfalls, the Trench Pitches. Beyond, the cave became harder. Many of the pitches were very wet, and the passage dividing them was narrow and full of loose rock. We assumed that this unpleasant route held the key to the deeper reaches of the system. The other route had been only cursorily examined by John and Mike Busheri while the cave was being detackled the previous year. The Trench Pitches doubled back beneath the streamway above: the alternative appeared to be a dry continuation of the previous line. Mike, a chemist from Lancashire known for his orgasmic grunts while negotiating tight passages like the Xitu rift, was vague about what he had found. When he explored it he had been very cold, having waited for several hours at the top of the Trench Pitches for the first detackling party to emerge from the depths. "I think we sort of traversed on ledges above a deep hole. After a while we got to a place where the passage became very wide and the ledges gave out, a sort of bold step. We didn't fancy going any further but it seemed to continue."

On July 6, the day after my first trip, John and Keith designated themselves hard men and decided to push the streamway, taking enough tackle in heavy, PVC bags to reach the 1979 limit and explore the cave beyond. Mike and I were not up to this but wanted to go caving. Simon thought hard: "Well, there are a couple of climbs between the entrance pitches and the streamway which you could put a rope on for safety. And if you have time, look at this famous bold step."

This time, with a little foreknowledge, the entrance series passed quickly. We carried only two short lengths of line, and the threading of rope onto descender and swift abseil descent was beginning to seem familiar. In less than an hour we reached the head of the last pitch where I had stopped the day before. Unlike those above, a short way down it belled out into a sizeable cavern, and I turned up the flame on my carbide lamp to get a better look. Vertical strata of sandy-coloured limestone soared upwards to form a broken arch at the top of the pitch where Mike sat. Behind and below me, a ledge extended towards a beckoning tunnel. Swinging out from the rock with my boots I landed on it: "Rope free!"

Below the ledge the shaft continued for a further 40 metres. Skunk and Jim had pushed on down this route in 1979, but found only an impenetrable fissure. Without an accident of geological serendipity, the cave would have been at an end. It appeared that the entrance shafts, including the last drop below the ledge, were recent creations in geological time. By chance, as the water that formed them cut downwards on its way to impassability, it had cut through the roof and floor of a much older, horizontal passage. Mike joined me on the ledge and we stowed away our SRT gear in bags dangling from our harnesses.

The way led over boulders and a greasy slope, beneath cracked and dry stalactites into a comfortable room: Customs Hall. It had been well named: the anteroom to Xitu's further secrets. Cutting a swathe through its floor was a black, vertical fissure. We held our breath and ceased movement: faintly, from far below, the fissure emitted the sound of a tumbling stream.

To reach it direct would have entailed rigging a long pitch, but to one side a complex maze of dry canyon passages enabled the main drop to be bypassed. Here we rigged our ropes on two vertical sections for use as handlines. The first hardly needed it: a simple chimney climbed by pushing against the opposite walls with back and feet. But the second, even with the rope, remained strenuous and dangerous: an overhanging cliff twenty feet high poised above a further drop. Without a rope at all it would have been reckless: and there had been no rope throughout the 1979 expedition.

The streamway was now close. We popped out of a window a few feet above it and climbed down. The rock changed from golden sand to black marble streaked with white and we charged along, hardly pausing at a short ladder pitch. In one section, the walls were decorated with blood-red stalactites, the result of some chemical impurity. To make progress, we turned sideways, until a short climb up led us into a high chamber with a flat floor - an aven, where it appeared that an inlet pothole entering from the roof had widened the cave. Round the corner the passage narrowed again. We had reached the parting of the ways. Keith and John had gone on ahead and were already somewhere below us, rigging the streamway series, which began most uninvitingly with a waterfall in black, sombre rock. "Well, Mike," I said, "you know the way."

Our advance was more tentative now. Soon the hole between our feet was frighteningly deep. The floor was out of sight and rocks we knocked from our footholds took uneasy seconds to clatter to a halt. We reached an awkward move, between a boulder jammed in the passage and a fragile-looking platform. Stuck to the walls were banks of cemented pebbles, legacy of the time when they had formed the bed of a stream which had long ceased to flow. "Is this the bold step, Mike?" I asked. Mike didn't know, but thought not. We continued.

We had stopped chatting and concentrated hard. There was nothing very difficult about what we were doing, but the silence of the dry cave was oppressive. At last we came to another pit which seemed to fit Mike's description. The rocks we dropped fell free without hitting the sides, suggesting we were above an open shaft. But Mike insisted: "No, this isn't it. We're not there yet." To my horror and amazement he started traversing round the hole on the cemented pebbles, which I had already found to be untrustworthy and friable. "For fuck's sake be careful..." He made it to the other side and seemed to be standing on solid rock. I looked around and discovered an easier way to cross the hole, climbing on good limestone.

Surely, I said, that must have been the bold step.

"No, I don't think so. I think it was harder than that, we're not there yet." We examined our surroundings. The fissure had gone: a short flat passage led to a wall of boulders. There was an obvious route through, reached by climbing high and squeezing through a narrow gap between the rocks. On the far side we climbed down again, into a much bigger, winding gallery, with more of the pebbles on both walls and floor.

"Mike, there's nothing below us now. We must be into new stuff."

"Oh I don't know. I think I may have been here before. There might be another bold step round the corner."

It was a beautiful, striding passage of the kind cavers dream about, but Mike had successfully convinced me that we might still be poised above a black drop, the pebbles in the floor merely another unstable cemented bank which might give way at any moment. I could have run along it but instead teetered gingerly, seeking handholds in the wall lest the 'false floor' should collapse and plunge me into the abyss.

We carried on for a few hundred metres. Where was this bloody bold step? I was impatient to get a chance to explore virgin passage. "Look Mike, are you really sure you've been here before?"

"Yes, I think so. There's still a way to go yet."

The passage carried a strong, cold draught: always a good sign underground, suggesting that the cave leads on to something big. A long way from the boulder choke, roof and walls closed in. I was in front, and the only way on was on my belly, squeezing through a gap no more than 10 inches high. The floor was now sand, covered with a brittle, green patina. Still Mike insisted that the bold step lay beyond. After the squeeze the passage stayed low, following an upslope. There were no handholds on the wall here: if this lot gives we're done for, I thought.

Finally the truth sank in. Beyond the slope, the tunnel descended gently again, larger now, with a floor of indisputable solid rock, broken by shining crystal pools. "Mike, you are a twit. You can't possibly have got this far."

"No, I suppose you're right." Seizing on his mistake, I demanded the right to name the new cave. My heart beat faster as I always thought it should when exploring galleries never seen before: I felt irritated and angry that Mike's poor memory had denied me this pleasure during the preceding section. I had promised my friend Tess to name something after her: to Mike's weak protests I declared the Teresa Series officially open. Had I foreseen the ribaldry which would later accrue from the rest of the expedition and from other cavers for years to come I would have chosen an alternative. But the name stuck.

There was still more: another sandy crawl, some fine, rocky tubes and wide, high rifts. More than half a kilometre from what we now knew to be the bold step, we came to a stop. So far, the passage had been rising and falling but keeping to the same mean level. It was clearly an example of a phreatic cave, that is one formed without airspace under hydraulic pressure, which meant water could cut a path upwards as easily as down.

We came to a halt where its character appeared to change to vadose - a passage formed with airspace above. The cave was still dry, but now it was beginning to descend more emphatically. Once, perhaps several million years before, the Teresa Series had been a long, flooded sump, and here, where the floor fell away in a 10-metre drop, the water would have emerged and begun a new series of cascades. The drop didn't look very hard, but no one knew where we were: a lot further from known territory than we had ever dared to hope. With a little more boldness and experience we would have freeclimbed down but chose to return, the magnitude of our discovery slowly sinking in. Not far from the drop we found a bank of dry sand, dotted with tiny white pebbles. Looking closely, we saw that the peddles were the shells of albino snails. It was obvious that there had been no water in this spot for a very long time. Our snail corpses must be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years old, a realisation that added to a powerful sense of eeriness as we made our way back to the familiar streamway.

John and Keith were just emerging from the Trench Pitches, and at last our excitement found vent. They were not in a mood to listen: their trip had been plagued by bad bolts and Keith dropping a number of essential items down the third pitch. They had been forced to turn back a long way from the 1979 limit. "Dave and Mike babbled incoherently about 'miles' of extension with rifts, shafts, chambers, etc" John wrote dourly in the log. Simon was little more impressed at our account back in the refugio: "Look, the way on is with the water, this is probably just a short side passage." Bets were laid on the real length of our claimed 500-metre extension, with a distance one fifth of that emerging as the consensus view. I wasn't bothered. Soon the doubters could see for themselves.

We were well settled at Ario now. Around the water supply was a circle of six or seven tents, sheltered from the wind by the slopes of Cabeza Forma. There we climbed to a shoulder in the evenings to watch the sun setting into the sea of white cloud that still covered the lower slopes; earlier in the day, we went a little higher and used deep cracks in the bare limestone as one of the world's most spectacular open air lavatories. The centrepiece of the campsite, next to the powerful camping gas stove, was a vast plastic sack of grey-green granules. Dehydrated, unflavoured vegetable protein: the only sponsorship we had managed to con from food manufacturers. John insisted it was very nutritious: against all evidence, he claimed that with enough onions, peppers and tomatoes, it was edible. He even tried it for breakfast: with powdered mild and water, as a cereal. Arguments soon broke out over the polythene bag: "But we are supposed to be on holiday," I said one evening in exasperation at the latest offering: protoveg risotto cooked with short-grain pudding rice set into a salty, solid lump.

John looked horrified. "It's not a holiday, it's an expedition." We were very lucky, he went on: this year we usually had two meals a day. In 1979, with Martin Laverty doing the catering, that had been a rare event.

While John and Keith continued their struggle with the streamway, Mike and I showed Simon our extension and began surveying the Teresa Series. I was shown how to use the compass and clinometer, and Mike read the tape measure between each marked survey station on the wall. Simon did the hard bit, drawing up the notes and making a sketch to fill out the line survey into a proper map of the cave. After forty-one 'legs' we were 300 metres into the new passage and nowhere near our furthest point. Simon began to be impressed.

The climb which had stopped us was very easy indeed. Below, the passage became a rift, and the roof vanished from sight. Holes in the floor afforded a glimpse of deeper galleries below, where pools glistened, reflecting our lights. Another climb, and then a junction: one way led to an aven, the other appeared to be the way on. Time was getting short, and once again we turned round. Mike wrote in the log that night: "Xitu now looks like a much more complex and lengthy system than was expected only a few days ago." In the entrance chamber beyond the rift, Simon heard the plaintive sound of a motherless crow, abandoned in its nest. The disturbance of our passage had driven its parent away. His zoological and maternal instincts got the better of him and he scooped up the bird in his helmet, resolving to look after it in our shared tent.

Overnight, the chilling cloud moved further up the hill, welling up from the gorge and spilling over the fringe of the Ario plateau. Only Colin Nicholls and Mike Boase expressed any enthusiasm for caving next morning, and the rest of us left them to it. As the cloud still crept in, we inched further up the hill, hoping to prolong the sunbathing as long as possible. Mike and Colin left at 1 p.m.: slowly everybody was starting later and later. Usually I got the blame, allegedly taking longer than anyone else to put in contact lenses, brush teeth, check SRT gear and eat another piece of dried out Spanish bread and mysterious green jam. It was becoming clear that any depth gained in Xitu was bound to be achieved in the afternoon.

By 3 o'clock the struggle was lost, and we retreated to tents as drizzle began to fall. An hour later it had turned to steady rain, and the temperature was down many degrees. Si on and I lay on our stomachs, trying desultorily to read and ignore the frequent squawks from our voluble crow. We had put it in an open billycan in the hope that most of its impressive lime production would miss the groundsheet. Cooking was no fun that night. Now there was wind as well as rain. I thought of Colin and Mike. Down there it would be wet, the Trench stream swelled in volume. They had not returned by midnight, and we discussed plans of action. The conversation took a course which was to be echoed many times in the years to come.

"They might be in real trouble! The pitches might be impassable," I said.

"Perhaps we should send an advance rescues party down to look for them immediately," said Keith, "although I'd rather not go myself because my furry suit is still a little damp."

"I ought to stay here to act as controller!", Simon said.

"I suppose there's not much we can do if they are trapped by water right now," Keith mused.

We all came to the same conclusion: "Might as well wait to see if they're not back by morning."

The wind beat noisily at the canvas and I snuggled deep inside my sleeping bag. Tomorrow might be a good day to go down to the bar.

I awoke at six, pressed by a cold, heavy weight. Snow. It is not supposed to snow in Spain in July, but it had, and was. We had caught it just in time to prevent the accumulation from crushing the tent. I heaved it off and unzipped the door to peer out into a blizzard. Through the virtual white-out I could see that Colin and Mike's tents had collapsed: they probably weren't back. This time we really would have to go and look for them. I returned back into the tent to pull on as many tee shirts as I could fine. The crow was squawking more loudly than usual, and was craning its neck in a highly agitated fashion. "Simon," I said, " I think there is something wrong with this crow." As I got into my only (thin) sweater it retched, sending a powerful stream of green vomit across the top of my sleeping-bag. For five minutes it threw up continuously, spattering walls, floor and Simon's beard. I marvelled that such a tiny thing was capable of holding and regurgitating so much. Then it died. Someone, we later discovered, had fed it a poisonous slug.

With the rescue on the point of leaving, Colin and Mike returned. They were a sorry sight: soaked to the skin and badly exposed. Their trip had been a grim struggle with wet pitches, friable rock and bad bolts: they had reached the 1979 limit, but failed to go further. They had regained the entrance in zero visibility hours earlier and spent the intervening period getting lost in the half-mile distance between Xitu and the campsite. Mike complained of severe depression.

Keith put their ordeal in perspective. "It's a good thing you did get back when you did. If you'd still been lost and we'd missed you and gone down the cave, we'd have been really puzzled not to find you down there."

We moved into the refugio that day and took up residence. It did seem a great deal more sensible to cook on a solid table with solid chairs and benches to sit on, a bright gas lantern at night and beds with mattresses upstairs. The tents stayed up, but were seldom occupied. In a fit of poor commercial sense, Eduardo announced that we could be 'federados'. That meant that sleeping in the refugio cost about 20 pence per person per night. Eduardo had the services of a donkey, which impressed us each afternoon when the shepherds from the huts across the plateau dropped in with their own burro. Eduardo's beast suddenly sprouted a thick, black, four-foot penis, which would, after the invariable rebuff, subside once more to invisibility.

By lunchtime the snow was melting rapidly. Warmed by a few bottles of the burro's burden, a rather sharp vino tinto, we packed and left for Los Lagos. Graham and Keith remained, determined to push into new ground next day. As the rest of us sat in Amador's restaurant above the bar, they were in our thoughts. The menu was limited but well-cooked: trout, steak, menestra stew and fabada, the Asturian delicacy made with beans, chorizo sausage and morcilla black pudding. The range of drinks was broader: barrel-sized ginebras y tonicas, oaky Rioja wines and a long list of slippery digestives: ponche, anis and cuaranta y tres, a brown liqueur served in balloons filled to the brim. Thus emboldened, I took out a harmonica and played the blues. The others put up with it for about five minutes until I realised I had lost my audience. I resolved to keep my talents for underground, as a way of keeping warm while waiting to climb the big pitch which we had now decided must lie around the next corner. Sure it would be wet: there was a lot of water in that streamway. But Colin and Mike, thoroughly recovered, were quite certain: there was a way on below the last pitch, and they had heard the sound of falling water.

Back at Ario the following evening there was an air of expectancy. Keith and Graham were due back, and had lugged down still more tackle, enough to rig half a dozen new pitches. No one was prepared for Keith's glum face when they staggered in towards midnight.

"It's finished. A sump."

Colin and Mike - and the terminus reached in 1979 - had been almost in spitting distance of the end of the cave. One short crawl through boulders led, as Graham put it, "to the plopping sounds of a large sump pool thirty feet down." Black walls plunged uniformly below the surface of the water, thick mud everywhere suggesting that the water backed up a long way in times of high water. We had been 'Ghar Parau-ed' with a vengeance. Ever hopeful, Keith had abseiled into the water and swum delicately around the walls, testing with his feet to see if he could feel any continuation which might 'go' with a short free-dive. But the rock was as vertical below the surface ass above: a proper flooded shaft. The old hands recalled the Forcau expedition of 1976: that too had ended with an underwater drop at a very disappointing depth. I tried to inject a cheerful note: "There's still the Teresa Series, don't forget! That might lead to anything." My alternative route was more promising than ever, its long horizontal distance taking the passage well away from the flooded zone and offering every chance of leading to an entirely separate system of shafts. But caving expeditions tend to exhibit a remarkable group psychology, with all participants swinging erratically from euphoria to depression. Today was a depressive day and no mistake.

But the Teresa Series did carry on, although the lack of faith still shown by the team meant that the next two trips were notably unproductive. The first carried no tackle at all, but discovered a pitch. Trevor Neathaway urinated over its edge and christened it Servicio, the Spanish for lavatory. The next group down brought a ladder and descended, but failed to carry additional tackle. A hundred metres further on was another drop. Those hundred metres were enough to lift the prevailing mood of pessimism. The draught was as strong as ever, and blew now along a passage many times the size of the constricted galleries above. To one side, a towering black aven introduced a small stream, although the water sank into a tiny fissure at its base.

The new mood of enthusiasm was not, however, shared by absolutely everyone. A young couple from Southampton owned an all important car which, whilst Dudley's vehicle was in need of yet another repair, was our only transport to the shops at Cangas. It was clear that they were not attuned to the spartan expedition ethos so typified by John's attitude to the protoveg. Eventually, with the cave survey lagging behind the exploration limit, the husband was asked to help on a surveying trip.

"I can't go today," he said, "my wetsuit needs mending."

John examined the item: there were a few microscopic holes around the crutch. Its owner promised to repair it by sticking on a large new patch, and left the thing lying on a rock outside the refugio.

That afternoon it rained. Neoprene won't stick when it's wet, and the wetsuit was getting wetter by the minute. John, irate, picked it up and without a second thought unzipped the couple's tent and flung the cold black rubber suit inside - realising too late his terrible mistake: the wet wetsuit had effected a coitus interruptus. There was a terrified scream as John hurried off. Two days later the couple left, taking their car with them, denying themselves a great place in the annals of potholing history, and forcing the rest of us to rent a SEAT Mirafiore.

It fell to Keith and William to rig the pitch beyond Servicio. It began in an area of loose and shattered rock, and as they searched for hours for a suitable belay in a maze of stacked boulders, the pair felt the insidious effects of Xitu's cold. The air temperature varied between four and seven degrees centigrade: coupled with dampness and a draught, it made the cave feel much colder than those in Britain. William described the first attempt at rigging a descent in his diary:

Inching round a huge rock - 10 feet high, and 6 feet wide - we came to a ledge covered in rocks. There was a horrible takeoff for a ladder pitch. Particularly close to the edge was a rock six feet long, two feet wide and one foot thick. We kicked this over the edge, finding on our return that Trevor had meant using it as a belay point for the ladder. After a bit of effort, we rigged the pitch and Keith set off into the unknown. Some time later, he returned. He was still 25 feet from the floor at the bottom of the ladder. We abandoned the attempt and looked for somewhere to hang a rope from.

They found it at a higher level, where a little round chamber contained an inviting slot in the floor through which rocks fell freely. Keith bolted it and called it The Gap, after the term which Etonian Bill used to describe his year between school and university - most people were happy with 'year off'. William continued:

I was getting amazingly cold, sitting doing nothing, counting off the hours by the refills of water I had to put in my carbide. When Keith had found the other hang for the pitch, he told me to put the gear away, which I did thankfully, as it was warming. We could just see the floor with our lights, but as we were tired and fed up, amazingly decided not to descend the pitch, as it would have meant putting on SRT gear again. My wetsuit was also rubbing painfully. A slow trip out, as my carbide was burning very low. Self-lining in the entrance series, I had the rope going through my Croll ascender on my chest, and as it was slack pulled it through - it jerked the stinkie off my helmet, leaving me in total darkness in the middle of a pitch.

I was very tired indeed and panting hard when I finally got out. One of the nasty features of this cave is that the rift and the top two ladders require brute strength when one is at one's tiredest. We both got out about 2.30 a.m. My carbide wouldn't stay alight in the wind, and we had a slow walk back. I was walking bow-legged, because my wetsuit was causing me agonies around the groin. I was all for going to bed at once, but Keith had just about persuaded me to eat some food when, as I was starting to change, I heard a scrabbling noise from within my tent. Colin's head shot out and he emptied the entire contents of his stomach onto the grass. I still ate some supper in spite of this. During the night I kept dreaming I was still down the cave and waking up all tense. Not very restful.

Mike Busheri and Graham descended The Gap. The hole in the floor of the chamber dropped into the middle of a cavern of breathtaking dimensions, with a landing after 25 metres on a floor of giant boulders. A short ladder drop followed, and still the floor of the chamber fell away. Graham rigged a rope from a large flake, disobeying all rules about free-hangs and so earning the name of the shaft: Graham's Balls-Up. Out of reach, above an overhanging wall on the far side of the cavern, it appeared that a wide rift passage continued in the line of the Teresa series above. At the bottom of the pitch, Graham's worst fear was confirmed. He wrote: "The bottom half of the pitch was drippy. At the bottom, the chamber extended a little further. But despite all our efforts, it appeared to choke completely. We pissed off out on the off chance it would still be light when we got out."

John and I did not believe Graham when he returned that night. "Get the bloody thing surveyed, photographed and derigged as soon as possible," he said. To hell with that. Surely, we said, there must be a way through the 'impenetrable' boulder choke. Graham said he had noticed one possibility: a climb up the loose wall at the far end of the chamber had appeared to lead to a hole between the rocks. But he insisted that it was far too dangerous to attempt.

A little after lunchtime on the following day John and I stood at the top of the Balls-Up. The truly appalling rigging convinced us that Graham had already been filled with pessimism before going down - a thin wire with no back-up was no way to attach a rope for an exposed descent of 25 metres. John banged in a couple of bolts. The rope touched the sides in a series of abrasion points all the way down, but at least it was securely anchored. The size of the chamber filled us with awe.

At the bottom we ferreted about in the choke, descending a few blind tunnels in the floor. There was no way through: the trickle watering Graham's Balls-Up disappeared through microscopic cracks. Everything was made of boulders: roof, walls and floor. In British caves, the passage of potholers has tended to stabilise such areas of collapse. Here, huge rocks were balanced on impacted mud. A climb up to a possible way on looked loose, but there were no other options.

Seized with determination, I scrambled up without telling John, who was still furtling in the interstices below. The climb was easy, the only risk being pebbles and sand on its capacious holds. At the top, I clambered over a watershed into a rift. Solid rock again. I held my breath. It looked as if the choke had succumbed without a fight. Seven metres further I poked my head through a window in the wall. "Aaarghh!!! Ni ni ni!!!" I later wrote in the log, "a wide shaft with roaring water at the bottom!" I called John euphorically, and he joined me at once. We cursed that we had brought no tackle, lobbing boulders into the pit. They echoed back, suggesting that Xitu was about to resume the dimensions of the Gap.

We munched a piece of cooking chocolate and glowed. We had not been underground long, and resolved to make our exit as fast as possible in order to return next day. Back at the climb John went first.

There was a scrunching sound, a strangled yelp, and John was tipping backwards, head first. He bounced once at the bottom of the climb and slid on, down to the bottom of the boulder pile: in all, a fall of more than seven metres. His light was out. Leaning out from the lip of the climb, I saw him staggering blindly, trying to find somewhere to sit down. There was blood on his face.

My emotions flipped from joy to terror. I climbed down delicately, thinking, "Please God, let him be OK." I reached him and dabbed at his face: relief and gratitude flooded in. He was shaken, but largely unhurt: he had a small cut near his nose which was producing an impressive amount of gore, diluted with sweat, but his helmet had saved him from more serious injury. We sat on the boulders and recovered our breath, and then a light appeared on the rope on the Balls-Up. William. His distinctive tones echoed down to us: "I say! Is this the master cave?" We took out the tension of the preceding minutes and slandered him mercilessly.

John's accident on the climb - which had now been named after his birthplace, The Pilling Slip - led him to take the uncharacteristic action of asking for a day off. Kev Senior and his fiancée Kathy had just turned up from Southampton, greeted warmly by everyone. John had phoned him from Cangas the day before his departure:

"Hello, it's John here. I'm in Spain."

"How are you?"

"It's sumped about five metres deeper than last year."

"What? What did you say?"

"But it's still going. We found a route over the Trench Pitches. Listen. Not much time. We've run out of porridge. Can you bring some out? We can't buy any anywhere in Spain."

"Yes, I suppose so. How much do you need?"

"As much as you can carry."

Next day Kev and Kathy struggled towards the Brittany Ferries terminal with bulging rucksacks and a hold-all full of oats. A few minutes after his arrival at Ario, I had signed Kev up for pushing next day. He recorded events in his diary:

Dave obviously enjoys showing me the Teresa Series. I feel like a tourist, on a guided tour.

The Gap stuns me. Dave is a tiny patch of light among the boulders far below. I catch up with him above the climb where John fell off. The rocks we throw down make ambiguous noises as they come to rest. Dave wants to go first: keen. I am happy to let him as he thrutches through the hole to the top of the pitch, the rope belayed to some stalagmites. I look down after him but can't see him, because he has moved away along a ledge.

"Are you down?"

The reply comes back in short bursts. He is obviously preoccupied.

"No. There's a big ledge but the pitch continues. I'm going to have to put a bolt in. You can't come down. It's too loose everywhere and I want to stay on the rope."

The tiny sound of hammer blows filter up as I wait and wait and wait. I think Dave is taking an incredibly long time over this bolt. I could put a bolt in much faster than this. I occupy myself checking my gear and flexing muscles to deep warm. I remember my dream of discovering a big lake in Xitu, but we are much more likely to find a pile of boulders than a lake. The hammering has stopped!

"Kev! I'm going down. Hey, it's a lovely pitch...Kev, it's fucking enormous. Rope Free! You're not going to believe this but there's a lake at the bottom."

About time, I think. A lake, though. I want to see this.

It was late in the afternoon of my twenty-first birthday, and now the fear had gone. Twenty minutes later we reached that little chamber described at the start of chapter one and dropped our rocks, listening to them land after five or six seconds. Kev again:

Addicted to the silence of the falling rocks, we select another each and traverse out along the rift to see if we can get an even longer fall. Dave throws his out but the interval is still no more than five and a half seconds. He points to the slot below us, where we sit braced across with our backs and feet.

"How far is it down there?"

"Only about 15 metres, I think. The lip of the main pitch must be in front of us somewhere." I drop my rock to prove the point. It hits something very soon and makes no more sound until ...boooommmm!!!

"Oh God. We're over the pitch here as well." We brace ourselves more firmly and traverse very carefully back to the boulder chamber. We have been sitting nonchalantly over 500 feet of nothing. In fact the boulders we have been picking up from the floor of this chamber are just a blockage in a narrow part of the shaft. We decide not to remove any more rocks from the floor. To think only two days ago the cave was believed to be finished. The hard bit is only now beginning.

We 'wake up' outside, under stars. A breeze blows away the stale smells of carbide and the sardines we have been munching underground. We want to run but are far too tired, so settle for a brisk walk back to the refugio. Dave sings an inane lyric to a tune by a group called Tuxedo Moon. It has two notes and goes: "Two hundred metres (pause) in one pitch...thousand metres...in one cave." I join in with this tuneless rubbish as we crash up the stairs into a bedroom filled with sleeping cavers. It is six a.m. but Dave wastes no time: "We've found a fucking enormous pitch. Six seconds!" "Oh God," says John, sleepily. "Shit," says someone else. We descend for a breakfast of cold hash and a bottle of wine. Breakfast first, then a wash; then at last, disturbed sleep.

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