We were a small team this year, a happy little family keen on finding new cave. Jo and JC were the experienced parents with Lev and I as older siblings looking after our young novices Pip, Hils and Rich. The delay in getting out to Spain only fuelled our desire to be efficient and to get underground.

Leaving Oxford

My first caving trip of 99 was such a contrast to last year's. I was no longer an inexperienced novice. It was my turn to lead, introducing Pippa to the depths of 2/7. We did not actually get very deep, however it was a relaxed trip and we spent some time above Paradise Squeeze experimenting with different lighting conditions with my camera. Pip described the trip in the logbook afterwards as "fairly non-eventful", but it meant a lot to me. It was the first time that I had taken responsibility for leading a trip underground in Spain or England. This change in role from last year felt good and set a precedent for the rest of the expedition.

Pippa in Paradise

After a couple of days on the surface I managed to get myself onto a rigging trip. This was also a very satisfying experience. Lev treated me as a competent caver rather than a novice, which was appreciated. As he started to descend the first pitch he said that he would see me in Paradise rift. This startled me a little, as Paradise seemed quite a long way into the cave to me. Last year I had people waiting for me at the top and bottom of every pitch. Meeting Lev in Paradise meant going through Seventh Heaven squeeze on my own. But I knew I could do this. I had got through it many times last year and had positively slipped through it this year already. So off we set. We reached the end of the rifts in 1/3 of the time that it took me last year. It was a really pleasant trip; the rifts seemed friendlier and so much shorter than last year. We carried on into the shaft series down the infamous Pessimist's Pot. It was incredible. I began to get some idea of how big 2/7 really is, that it isn't just a lot of nasty rifts. Lev rigged a couple of pitches amazingly quickly. I had expected to be hanging around for ages getting cold, but it seemed to take no time at all. I even got to do some rigging myself when Lev missed out bolt on a traverse. The way out started off well, but after prusiking back up to the rifts I was tired and had an asthma attack at the bottom of Gripper pitch. I rested a bit while Lev went up and then followed very slowly trying not to make my breathing any worse. I was quite keen to make my way out but Lev made me rest and put on thermals for a while. This was definitely a good idea and the rest of the trip was better, if a little slow.

On the way out

I am not keen on tight caves; in fact that is definitely an understatement. However, in order to stop Lev going on a pushing trip with the Hilti-capping system on his own, I agreed to go down "the best lead in the Picos" 10/9. The cave was much nicer than I had expected although the 'Lev shaped hole' was just that. The squeeze was vertical with a short drop on the other side. This makes it easier to go down than up. I started to go through it and then decided that actually I wasn't very happy about it and so tried to get out. I appeared to be completely stuck, the vicious walls biting at my oversuit. After letting me struggle for a while on my own Lev tried pulling at me. I started to slip though so the best thing to do seemed to be to continue. Lev managed to undo my belay belt and I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of a squeeze I knew I couldn't reverse! I always swore that I would never ever ever put myself in a position remotely like this. However, I knew that Lev was on the right side of the squeeze with the Hilti-capping gear if necessary. Between us we managed to hammer off the more offensive bits of rock until I was happy that I could get back up though it. So now I am sorry to say that the cave is a little less exclusive with now only a 'Lynn shaped hole'. At this point time was getting on and I didn't fancy trying the next squeeze. Lev continued on and climbed down to the undescended pitch-head for another look before heading out. Despite thinking that I hated tight caves I actually enjoyed the trip and it didn't take long for that tantalisingly echoey pitch to draw me into the cave again.

Lev next to the 10/9 entrance

On the next trip we descended the pitch, which turned out to be about 20m or so deep. At the bottom we found two loose climbs followed by another drop, with a potentially longer one round the corner. The quality of the rock was very bad and we decided to leave these descents for someone with more experience at rigging.

2/7 was now rigged and camping trips were being planned. After much discussion it was decided that JC and Hils should go on the first camp and Lev and I on the second. The first trip was delayed a day, for which I was thankful because it gave me extra time to consider the prospect of being underground for four days. The asthma attack had really worried me and I needed time to think about being so far from help. I found a discussion with Tim and Lou inspirational and I soon decided that I wasn't going to miss this chance to push 2/7. If I did have another attack underground I would just have to rest and sit it out.

Lev trusted me enough to leave me to plan and pack for our camp. I spent a delightful afternoon packing lots and lots of food. We had both had bad experiences last year purely due to not eating enough and we weren't going to make the same mistakes this year.

My desires to go on a 2/7 camping trip had matured somewhat into actually wanting to do some pushing at the bottom, but basically I just wanted to go down such a deep and legendary cave. Unfortunately pushing new cave was not to be, but the novelty of camping underground kept at least me entertained.

Camping on The Big Ledge

Our passage through the familiar rifts was slow, hampered by the four tackle sacks, one of which was Satan's own. Eventually we were beyond the cave I knew and pitch followed pitch followed pitch until I arrived in a heap on the Big Ledge. Camping underground was not nearly as unpleasant as Lev had led me to believe. As Hilary said I've been camping and I've been underground - just stick the two together. Okay you do go to bed expecting everything to be brighter and warmer in the morning, but the food is actually better than on the surface and you couldn't wish for snugger, warmer pits.

Refilling my generator on Echo Beach

JC and Hilary woke us up with tea in bed before they left us all alone in the cave. After eating lots for breakfast we started the journey upstream and after three hours got as far as Echo Beach. Several hours and several lunches later we had still not been able to find the way on and had to return to camp hoping that Tim and Lou had arrived to share the responsibility of the next day's route finding.

Alas no visitors - we would have to face Echo Beach without reinforcements. We worked systematically around Echo Beach in search of the Dead Sea or a reasonable 'bold step' and eventually found a route that led through the boulders. The static pool was much further than we had expected and the 'bold step' was not so bold, especially compared to the extremely scary leap that Lev had been contemplating the day before.

The rest of the route finding was slow, but eventually we managed to reach the end of the cave. Well nearly the end, as neither of us had the energy or desire to confirm by sight that the roar we could hear was indeed Viagra Falls. Lev climbed Stairway to Heaven while I tried to avoid the rocks and rope that he kept throwing at me. After he had descended the rope that he had rigged we decided that was quite enough caving for one day and started back for camp.

Lev above Echo Beach

Deep Waters was deeper than advertised but the return route finding was not too bad, and Tim and Lou had the kettle on when we arrived at camp. The next morning we tried to talk them through our route finding mistakes in the hope that they might have a more productive camp and started to prusik our way out of the cave. By the time we reached Gusamo Grovel my shoulders were too painful to move and I had to dose myself with painkillers and fail to help Lev with the tackle bag from hell. He found that just because you managed to get a tackle bag through the first squeeze in Paradise Rift it doesn't mean that it will fit through the second. He had to go headfirst halfway back through the second squeeze to unpack it and bring out each item individually. After repacking it and getting himself through the Seventh Heaven squeeze he got it completely stuck in the squeeze. It wouldn't even go back down when he kicked it. By employing a pulley he managed to hook up a system that would pull the tackle bag out while he jumped off the edge of a pit several times.

Despite not finding any new cave (except perhaps one beautiful little descent to the stream at the second inlet in the Dead Sea Strolls) I really enjoyed the trip and look forward to actually pushing deep caves in the future.

The Witch's Eye

While the last camping trips were underground there was still stuff to be achieved on the surface. Lev and I spent an evening in the Jou del Jultayu with an aerial to test Systeme Nicola cave radio. We started listening at 7.30 pm at the bottom of the bowl, which gave the shortest distance through the rock to the underground set. The rendezvous time was 8pm, by quarter past we had made no contact and so we started to wander around. After about half an hour we started to pick up signals from Jo at underground camp. These were fairly clear but not far above the background noise and so we switched from the portable magnetic dipole loop antenna to the earth current injection system. We ran wires of around 40m out in approximately perpendicular directions and connected to pegs which were hammered about 15cm into the most convenient patch of vegetation and watered with about 250ml of water. As soon as the first pair was connected immediate 2-way communication was achieved. It was amazingly clear and intelligible in both directions.

My last trip underground was to introduce one of the new arrivals to 10/9. It was an enjoyable experience leading Alison through a cave that I knew and she didn't. She had taken me on my novice trip two years ago and the role reversal was complete. At the bottom of the climbs that I had been down with Lev the further drops had been rigged while we were camping in 2/7. Now I was leading through cave that neither of us had been through before. We came to an awkward squirm above a drop. As we had no-one with us who knew how easy it was going down or up I rigged a line through it to catch us if we fell. On the other side of this was a small chamber and a squeeze. We knew that Pip had got through it, and also Rich with a lot of difficulty, and our job was to try and hammer it open a bit. Another new experience for the both of us. It had seemed easy when Lev and I had hacked at rock previously weakened by Hilti-capping. On good rock it was extremely difficult and the area around the squeeze cramped. After a while of getting practically nowhere we decided to turn around and head back to the surface. We could probably both have got through, but without an experienced member in our team we decided it was better to be cautious.

Back on the surface there had been a thunderstorm and all our clothes were soaked through. On returning to camp we found Ario covered in hail the size of maltezers and all our clothes in the tent also wet through. We all cuddled together in the kitchen shelter in furry undersuits and thermal underwear listening to the rain pounding down on the tarpaulin roof. Spain wasn't supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be hot and sunny.