Xitu 2001

A Spanish Odyssey

Going on an OUCC expedition is an addiction; few people go only once. Some cavers have been known to give up their jobs because they don't have enough holiday to be able to go.

I have been on three previous expeditions, and each year I have decided that during the next summer I will go climbing instead, but I always get pulled back to the depths in Spain.

Some things about expedition never change, like the huge amount of gear that must be transported to Spain and carried up to our top camp at Ario. The path never gets any shorter or more interesting and most walks will either be done in the blazing midday sun or in the cloud that condenses onto your hair and clothing.

Expedition is about extremes: the physical exhaustion of a long deep caving trip and the laziness of a day off on the surface; the loneliness of a carry and the intensely social atmosphere of the campsite. Each night I am kept awake by the cold, but in the morning I cannot sleep in because the Sun turns my tent into an oven.

The people change each year and my role has evolved as my experience has grown. I rarely have time to go caving in England so my development as a caver has occurred almost exclusively on expedition. During Jultayu'98 I was a novice getting used to being underground and learning the basic techniques of moving myself through a cave. Extremero'99 saw me going on deeper trips, a student studying the techniques of camping underground and the ideas behind the discovery and exploration of new caves. By Ario2000 I was exploring in my own right.

This year was my last as an undergraduate and I really do believe that I won't be returning next year. Xitu2001 was about closure and an opportunity to give something back to my club. The main aims of the expedition didn't inspire me this year, but there were still plenty of opportunities for fulfilling roles without actual exploration.

Our mountains are divided, fairly logically, into areas to allow the cave entrances to be logged. The col near Ario is area 5 and the original entrance to Xitu, 1/5, was the first cave to be found here. 3/5 and 12/5 also lead into the Xitu system, but 3/5 is tight and so unpleasant that it is unlikely that anyone will ever go down it again. 12/5 takes the quickest route to the leads in the depths of Xitu. 1/5 is a friendlier and more horizontal cave, with leads only a couple of hours from the surface. Pushing this cave was going to be quite different from the five-day camping trips necessary to push 2/7 in the last three years.

The first phase of caving on expedition is taken up by rigging the routes to the pushing fronts with 10mm static rope. This rope is our lifeline and only method of getting in and out of the vertical caves. It must be rigged carefully because even a small rub-point could cause the rope to snap.

My first trip underground this year was to rig 1/5. It had been raining all morning so the cave was very wet. The rigging was slow as the original route now followed the water. This was a problem that continued to haunt the expedition. During the original exploration of both 12/5 and 1/5 it had been much drier. Now the routes were unpleasant and cold, and time had to be spent adding rebelays and deviations to keep the rope out of the worst of the water.

My second trip down 1/5 was longer. JC, Brendan and I went in search of the aven at the upstream limit. In Customs Hall I re-rigged a rope while JC and Brendan went running off down the rifts to find the best traverse level and rig a line along some of it. Eventually they came back and we carried the drill and other kit along the rifts.

In the aven we focused on the climb. It was a fairly flat wall without much to climb on. We chose a line and I placed the first bolt. Bolt climbing is an extremely slow process. With no natural handholds, the caver must attach himself to his last bolt and try to reach up as high as he can to place the next. The greater the distance between the bolts, the quicker you reach the top. To help us gain extra height between bolts we had brought with us a piece of equipment used by aid climbers. It is called an Upit and is basically just a metal bar that you clip into the bolt and helps you to gain a little height and keep your body close to the wall. No-one in OUCC had ever used one of these before, so we just had to work it out as we went along. We didn't have enough oval karabiners with us, but JC improvised with maillons and snap-links in order to place successfully a second bolt a reasonable distance from the first. Brendan got the opportunity to move between bolts, which is harder than it sounds, and placed a third. As he was coming down he realised that JC's bolt was loose, so he removed the hanger and tapped the bolt into the wall.

I didn't get very far down 12/5. A couple of pitches into the cave there is an infamous squeeze called The Newt. I had no particular desire to go down 12/5, but Paul and Brendan were very keen to practice it, so I went along to keep an eye on them. They managed, with difficulty, to get down and back up through The Newt. I tried, but found myself suspended in mid-air. Having seen how much harder it was to come back up I decided that I wasn't going to try very hard to get down. The boys continued on into the cave without me and I arranged to meet them back at the squeeze later that evening. We were all very aware that just because you had done the squeeze before didn't mean that you were going to be able to do it again. Earlier in the week our other novice, Andy, had been stranded the wrong side of The Newt for nearly twelve hours. It had been the first rescue within my time in the club and I wanted to make sure that Brendan and Paul weren't going to be the second.

They returned to the surface as I was changing back into my damp caving gear and we had just enough time to run up the ridge behind camp to watch a beautiful sunset.

The next day I was informed that there was around 500m of rope sitting at the bottom of Flying Rebelles pitch in 2/7. Last year's expedition had run out of time during the de-rig and had to leave it in a neat pile. If you find a dry spot, caves are actually an ideal place to store rope, but it was a lot of money to be sitting out of our reach.

It was a perfect project for Brendan and me. He had never done any rigging, so it was now time for me to take on the role of teacher. He needed little instruction and we moved pretty fast, even through Seventh Heaven and Paradise squeezes. We had been advised, by more experience members of the club, that we would need several more people to actually paella (pull an extremely long length altogether) the rope out of the cave so we turned round when we reached the rope and headed out. This time we had been far too efficient to see the sunset, so we strolled gently, unburdened by rucksacks, up to the Witch's Eye, a hole in the ridge through which you can look almost vertically down to the village of Cain, over 1000m below. We continued along the ridge and up to the summit of Jultayu. Beneath us we could see the impressive sight of cloud billowing across Ario towards us and for the rest of the walk we were shrouded in mist.

In the morning we got promises from Pip and Chris that they would help us pull up the rope. We set off ahead of them with the intention of sorting out the rope before they joined us. It took no time at all to reach the rope and we started tying it together, creating a very large pile. I had aggravated an old shoulder injury in Paradise so Brendan volunteered to do most of the hauling. My job was to stop it tangling or snagging as he pulled it up. The first pitch was completed quickly and we started to tackle Paradise. Brendan went through the rift and the far squeeze while I hung from the top of the ladder, pulling the rope up and stopping it from catching on the way in.

Last year they had needed four people and a pulley jammer system to paella up the next pitch. We had expected to meet the others by now, but there was no sign of them, not even a rumble in the distance. Brendan prussiked up to a ledge near the top and hauled the rope by hand. I followed with a heavy tackle-sack of gear. By the time I reached the rebelay Brendan had got the rope up the rest of the pitch and through the squeeze.

Just as I was emerging from Seventh Heaven Chris arrived with Harvey not far behind. We continued to paella the rope, this time I hauled up the longer pitch and the others derigged our rope. Between us we managed to carry all our kit and most of the filthy rope back to Ario.

My last trip of the expedition was to visit The Gap in 1/5. There were rumours of a passage leading off that we wanted to have a look at. We made good time down the shafts and moved quickly along the friendly rifts. We had to stop to rig a pitch and re-rig another. Brendan placed a bolt while I tried to keep warm by the time-honoured method of cuddling his carbide generator. I have recently converted to using LEDs in my lighting system, which are less hassle to use, but lack the warming capability of a carbide lightset.

The entrance to the gap was a small hole in a rubble floor. We crouched round it to place another bolt and eventually Brendan was able to wriggle through and abseil into The Gap.
'Wow… this is huge!' came the voice from below me. I suddenly realised that I wasn't standing on very much, just a few chock stones wedged above a vast chamber.

We found a climb but not the previously spotted phreatic tube that we were searching for. Back on the surface we discovered that this was because we were still a pitch too high.

That night I was woken up by returning cavers to be told that the bolt climb that I had started had finally reached passageway and was still going. I was able to leave expedition on a high, wanting to stay longer but with my family waiting for me at base camp.