Preparing for the Expedition to Spain was quite difficult. I had no idea what to expect there and all of my new caving gear hadn't arrived yet. I packed what I considered to be a sparse amount of clothing, hoping that I was leaving enough room for all my kit that I would collect en route. As it turned out I packed far too many clothes, but because I spent at least a week packing I didn't forget anything.
I arrived in Oxford to find a bag full of shiny new gear, with everything individually wrapped in little plastic bags. I was early, at least with respect to most of the other cavers, so I spent a pleasant time examining all my gear and carefully labelling it with electrical tape.
The long journey out to Los Lagos gave me the opportunity to get to know the other cavers better and to listen to stories of previous expeditions. I got some idea of how big the cave we were going to was by reading through the survey. It was full of intriguing names such as Seventh Heaven and Paradise. I wondered if these were literal or ironic descriptions of the parts of the cave.
There was much to be done in Spain before we could go caving. Base camp had to be established at Los Lagos and then all the gear had to be taken up the mountain to Ario were we set up a top camp closer to the Cave.
On the forth day we were actually ready to begin rigging the cave. I was able to go on the very first trip, which gave me a nice introduction to this amazing cave. Fleur and I chatted on the surface while Lev and Paul rigged the first two pitches: a 10m followed by a choosy slope then a 40m pitch. It was a thrill attaching myself to my first underground SRT pitch, hoping that all the gear would live up to Petzl's guarantees. Descending the rope was slow because my Stop was so new, but I found it much easier than the training that we had done back in Oxford. I was even able to carry rigging gear down without even noticing it was there. I began to feel more confident that I would be able to contribute to this expedition, rather than just be a trainee.
When I reached the bottom of the pitch I climbed into a pit with Lev. Paul was just coming out of Seventh Heaven Squeeze. He had had to abandon the rigging because his carbide generator had fallen apart and left him relying on his back up for light. The base had fallen off and luckily landed on the only ledge on the pitch below him. Lev went down to finish rigging that pitch and Fleur followed him through the squeeze to take some tackle bags down for the next rigging trip. While they were doing this I decided to try to squeeze myself. It wasn't too bad, it just took time wriggling and breathing in the right places. I think I probably annoyed some of the others by being able to go through so easily with full kit on. A lot of them had to struggle even after removing SRT gear. Below this vertical squeeze was a tight 2m climb to a rebelay where it opened out into a shaft. I turned round here and climbed back up to the squeeze. I was very glad I had done it because otherwise I would have been dreading it on my next trip. Now I knew that not only could I get down through the squeeze, but more importantly that I could get back up through it.
My carbide generator gave out on me at the top of the 40m pitch, mainly due to my lack of experience in how to coax it back to life. The back-up worked reassuringly well, although was dimmer than the flame had been. We managed to make it back to camp just as the others were putting out Thumper. Thumper is an orange flashing light which cavers can head for if they come out of the cave in the dark, which seems to happen fairly frequently.
I spent the next few days doing my duties on the surface. I guarded top camp, then I guarded base camp and then I went on a shopping trip to Cangas de Onis. I was amazed at how much food we bought. I would collect what I thought was a large number of whatever item, double it and take it back to Paul, who would just tell me to get twice as much as that.
My next caving trip was not down 2/7. It was shaft-bashing. JC, Keith and I set out from camp in search of new caves. Our intention was to find some entrances that had been spotted but not bottomed. We didn't find these, but we did find a collection of new shafts. We had split up a little to comb to countryside and ended up converging together at this group of new cave entrances. JC rigged the entrance to one of them and I descended my first virgin pitch. It was about 15m ending in a boulder choke with a large lump of snow on it. I took some pictures of it, but they are of no interest to anyone but myself, this cave was not going to go. We dropped a rock down one of the bigger shafts, which fell for about 3.5 seconds, which makes it about 45m deep. The rope we had brought was only 40m so we were not able to descend it on this trip. I think some of the others were going to go back to it at a later date.
I was surprised at how exhausting shaft-bashing was. You spend most of the day walking in the hot Spanish sun and get quite dehydrated, but after a rehydrat and some food I felt much better. I went on two more shaft-bashing excursions while in Spain. One cave Alison and I found looked like it might go, well at least to connect to another nearby entrance. Due to light failure I had to abandon exploring it and we wandered back to camp to read through the shaft-bashing guide. To our disappointment we found a perfect description of our cave. It did indeed meet up with the nearby entrance as I had suspected and had not been tag ged by the original discovers.
Each trip down 2/7 became easier and more enjoyable, and each time I got further into this legendary cave. I was really pleased that I was able to be useful on these trips by portering gear into the cave for those harder people heading down to the bottom. By the end of my time out there I was able to help lead newcomers through the rifts. I was even able to take my camera into underground. I couldn't photograph much of the actual cave, but the photographs of people worked well (see front cover and previous page). It was slightly disappointing that I didn't get to descend the shaft series to do some pushing, but it was a wonderful learning experience. Next year I will be prepared and capable of full contribution to the exploration activities rather than just taking a supporting role. I learnt a lot on the expedition and enjoyed it immensely. I feel like a fully-fledged member of OUCC and am looking forward to introducing new novices to the caving experience.