Ario 2000 - Pieces of 22

Above the Cave Entrance

This was my third year in the Picos and my third camping trip in 2/7. The previous trips had all be essential to my training and to the set-up of the camp at Echo Beach, but I had yet to experience the much-hyped thrill of finding new cave.

As Hilary and I set off from underground camp on our first pushing day I wondered whether it was all going to be worthwhile. Was the time I had put into organizing the equipment, driving through France, carrying up to Ario and the previous camping trip to set up the campsite going to be rewarded? I was beginning to have doubts that anything I did that day was going to live up to the expectation caused by the amount of effort I’d put in to be there. Why was I so keen to spend six days away from light, warmth and dry clothes?

Once we had overcome the barrier of actually getting out of our warm sleeping bags we set off in high spirits to the end of the known cave. The aim of our trip was to try and find a way around the sump that had been found by the previous team. We knew that on the other side was Sistema Verdelluenga, another OUCC cave system that had been explored 5 years previously and found to end in a large lake.

Next to the Sump

We paused at the sump to have lunch and then started to look for the dry bypass. The ceiling came down to meet the water, no chance of a way on immediately by the sump. We followed the water downstream until I found a nice little climb up an inlet. A well-protected traverse led to a little chamber. My excitement grew as I climbed up ~3m to another chamber. The way on was another climb. The first few metres were easy, but then there was a difficult move. It began to dawn on me that I was quite high up and a long way down and that I really didn’t want to fall from this crux move. The climb would need a bolt, which I placed while Hils shivered in a survival bag. Eventually it was done and I clipped my long cowstail into it. The move went well, much better for the confidence of the length of dynamic rope protecting me. Along a little rifty bit I reached a chamber with a high blank wall.

I rigged a rope so that Hilary could prusik up after me, it was now her turn to bolt. I crawled into the survival bag and listened to her progress. Tap, tap, tap, tap, whooooah, tap, tap, tap, whooooah …. She put in one bolt, then another while I got very cold. I cuddled my carbide generator and tried to stop the bag melting over the flame that was the only thing that was stopping me from becoming hypothermic.


Eventually Hilary announced that she would come down, but in order to do so she had to put in a bolt. We left the climb still going and headed back for bed.

Day 2 - this time we went prepared. We packed a tacklebag with Hils’ foil tent kit as well as the survival bag and took the one working stove and plenty of food and hot chocolate. It was my turn to bolt, so as I retraced Hilary’s steps, she set about making a tent from foil blankets. We had planned a system of protection using cowstails and shockcords (the only dynamic rope we had) as well as using the static rope like a conventional lead rope. My resolve ‘not to lead climb on static rope’ was clearly not going to last very long. The extended cowstail idea didn’t work. We set up the static rope with a long stretch of rope beneath me so that any Fall Factor would be extremely small.

While I bolted, Hilary started to build her tent. When I shouted down to her that it would soon be her turn, she replied saying that she was just warming up! Humph She went on to explain that she meant that she was still working on the tent and it would be worth my while to put in another bolt. Then I would have a nice shelter to come down to.

So Hilary paused in her constructions to belay me to my next bolting point. There was a ledge not too far from me that would provide the best place to bolt from - so I went for it.
Crash - simultaneous handhold and light failure. I fell onto my previous bolt in the dark. Well, falling on static rope seems to be okay then.
I got my light working and tried again. A drip of water on my aceto forced me back down in darkness. Now I was determined that this ledge wasn’t going to get the better of me. With my backup light on I finally managed to mantelshelf onto the ledge. I secured myself to a natural and Hilary tied off my belay and went back to her tent.

By the time I had finished the bolt Hils was curled up in her hammock. She claimed it was cosy, but I wasn’t so impressed and immediately crawled into the survival bag.

After one bolt I adjusted Hilary’s belay and went back to the tent. Apparently I was supposed to give it time to warm up once I was in it. I snacked on some food as I waited for it to warm up, but in the end I sat on the hammock in the orange bag clutching two candles.

The climb continued to tease us. Each ‘top’ we saw was just another ledge with another climb above it. We stopped on one of the nastier ledges to cook dinner. It was small and drippy with a deep puddle covering most of the floor. As Hils cooked I got to try the most comic move of the climb. Standing below the last bolt I made some etriers and clipped them in. With Hils belaying me from our dinner ledge I was able to stand in the etriers and thrutch through a squeeze in the roof. I popped out into a lovely chamber. Unexposed, dry and almost warm.

Ahead was yet another climb, which Hilary found an ingenious way around by climbing up the wrong side of the chamber and traversing. This was as far as we got. By now we had been caving for about 24hrs and were getting pretty tired. We left our climb unfinished and draughting upwards, and surveyed our way back to the sump.

Our two ‘days’ actually took us 96 hours. My hands were trashed (again), Hilary had bad harness rub and I was popping pink smarties (ibuprofen) so that I could ignore my shoulder. The journey out was made more pleasurable for me by knowing that I had made my peace with 2/7. I had finally found some new cave and I didn’t have to put myself through this again – well, until next year …

It was an excellent trip and worth the effort, even though we didn’t find the sump-bypass.