Oxford University Cave Club
Huerta del Rey Expedition 1992
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While waiting for dinner during the derigging camp on the Big Ledge at the end of the 1991 expedition I decided to have a brief wander upstream. I found the previous limit of exploration, a waterfall with a large rock blocking the rift above it, without any difficulty. However the passage before the waterfall looked sufficiently bouldery and complicated to make a way over the top quite likely. Within fifteen minutes I had found a route over boulders along the left hand wall and was standing in a narrow rift above the waterfall with a fast-flowing stream at my feet. I had found the way on. Throughout the expedition upstream exploration had been discouraged so as not to reduce manpower at the Egbert end, so I named this section of the cave The Forbidden Zone.
The following morning I managed to find half an hour to spare after breakfast, so Pauline Rigby and I returned to The Forbidden Zone. Following the rift upstream soon led us to another waterfall. Fortunately the walls of the rift were close enough to make this an easy climb, and we went up about fifteen metres to the foot of another short cascade. This looked equally easy to climb, but we were running short of time, so we retreated, leaving the end wide open for a return in 1992.
The first camp of the Huerta del Rey expedition was actually our second attempt to send a camping team down, the first one having being forced to return to the surface, and it consisted of Tony Seddon, Paul Mann, Richard Barnes and me. Tony and Paul wanted to explore downstream, so that left just the two of us to push The Forbidden Zone. The terminal waterfall that had looked easy to climb in 1991 turned out to be a bit more tricky in 1992 because higher water levels meant that it was completely obscured by spray.
Doubling back in the rift led to a sloping ledge which zigzagged up the right hand wall and ended at a slight pinching in of the walls about ten metres above the floor. This climb was particularly unpleasant because not only was the left hand wall too far away to provide any assistance, but the rock was extremely fragile and handholds had a disturbing tendency to become hand sized rocks. Despite this I forced the squeeze at the top of the ledge and called Richard up to join me.
At the top was a wider section with the water gushing down a hole in the floor, but looking more placid upstream. Becoming excited now we pushed on through a short crawl, along a section of rift with the stream flowing deep and ominous at our feet, and into another short area of large boulders. The route through these boulders turned out to be an easy squeeze under the left hand wall and this led to a huge black space.
This black space extended up as far as we could see, the walls were at least ten metres apart, and the passage appeared to continue back over the boulders we had just come through, but most importantly it carried tantalisingly on in front of us. The sound of rushing water that had been with us since we came out of Gusamo Grovel the previous afternoon was now strangely absent and this made the passage seem even larger. We concluded that this was the upstream continuation of The London Underground that Paul Mann had been predicting, so we named it The Paris Metro.
After a short break for food we started walking along the new passage. We soon had rejoined the water, although now it was a wide slow-flowing stream rather than the rushing cataract we had left behind. Stomping new passage it may have been, but we still didn't want to get our feet wet , so we spent the next half hour picking our way carefully along the bank, using fortuitously placed rocks to change bank when one bank got too difficult, until we reached a spot where no dry route was available [If you think that Dave and Richard sound a bit faint hearted in their keenness to avoid the water you should bear in mind that it is barely above freezing and they had no dry clothes to change into during their four days 700m underground. Ed. ]. On subsequent trips rocks were thrown into the stream here for stepping stones, but we had to wade across. We were thus obliged to call the passage Virginia Streamway. A little further on we reached a sump.
This sump was a large pool, roughly semi-circular and 4m across, with a pile of rocks extending from the centre to within about 1m of the right hand wall. At first we thought there was no way over the sump, so we went back a short way and found a window at chest height in the right hand wall. This led to an ascending series of narrow rifts which became uncomfortably tight, and the complete lack of a draught caused us to abandon this line of enquiry and return to the sump.
On a second inspection we discovered a hole about 1.5m above the water, issuing a storm force wind which blew out carbide flames. We named this The Blowhole and the sump The Windy Sump. The water immediately beneath the hole seemed to be about 1.5m deep and the lack of footholds on the wall made it a major obstacle, so for half an hour we repositioned several hundred kilos of boulders in the stream beneath The Blowhole until we could stand in the sump with water only up to our thighs. This enabled us to hammer the hole without drowning, but not, unfortunately, without freezing.
After not very long a combination of optimism and incipient hypothermia made me decide to give it a go. Richard gave me a leg-up and with much difficulty I managed to get through. Unfortunately Richard's shoulders are wider than mine, so without the assistance of a leg-up he had no hope of coming to join me. The obvious solution was to hammer The Blowhole some more, but this turned out to be a long job and before long my wrist had had enough. The next solution involved tying loops in a piece of rope, belaying it above The Blowhole and using it as a ladder. This proved more successful, but several attempts were needed to get the right loop spacing and in the process Richard fell into the sump twice. However he was determined to get up and eventually we were both on the other side.
The other side was short but promising. It ended at the upstream sump pool which was dark, still, and looked very deep (it was later plumbed to a depth of 5m), and we weren't prepared to risk falling into it. So we beat a strategic retreat. Before going back down The Blowhole we had a quick look up an inlet on the right. This soon became a narrow rift reminiscent of the rift on the other side of The Blowhole, but with no apparent connection. Lacking the determination to push tight rifts we abandoned this for a later date.
The return trip was rather more difficult than we expected. We found the hole through boulders at the beginning of The Paris Metro without problem as we had left carbide arrows to show the way. However, on the way in we had not noticed that the squeeze at the top of the zigzagging ledge was not unique. Two or three routes down looted possible, so, rather than forcing a squeeze and finding nothing but black space underneath, we decided to try to find an alternative.
The Forbidden Zone is a very tall rift with regular pinchings of the walls which make easy levels to walk along. We started following one of these levels back towards Just Awesome. This particular level looked rather interesting, so, although we noticed several possible routes down, I decided to stay at this height in the hope of finding a way up into Gusamo Grovel. Soon the passage got a bit wider and I had to traverse on one wall.This traverse was rather hair-raising, so I told Richard to wait, while I looked to see if it was worth carrying on.
Shortly beyond the traverse the passage forked unexpectedly. The left hand fork was a climb down that looked a bit awkward, but the right hand fork suddenly gained a solid floor and looked extremely promising. I went back to the traverse and told Richard what I had found and asked him if he was prepared to attempt the traverse. He said he'd give it a go and started to come across to join me. This was a mistake because Richard hadn't yet got to grips with the friability of Picos limestone, and the words 'Don't trust your right foothold' were on my lips as his foothold snapped off and Richard fell.
Seconds after Richard hit the unbelievably well-placed floor 5m below I was down with him. Luckily he was just a bit cut and bruised, but the rocks all round him were covered in blood which made it look much worse. Most of this blood seemed to be coming out of a tiny cut on his finger (it was only later we found the much deeper cut on his elbow), so I put a plaster on it and by then Richard said he was ready to carry on. Later we named this section of rift Barnes Loop The Loop.
We returned to the most promising of the potential descents that we had seen. Fortunately we had a forty five metre rope that we had left for the descent, but I didn't want to take Richard down a climb, only to find it impossible lower down and have to ask him to climb back up again. So I climbed down the rift until I reached a bit that I recognised and then climbed back up to belay the rope for Richard.
The following day we decided that in view of Richard's condition we should come out of the cave a day early, leaving the surveying of the new finds to the next team.
The second camping team was Dave Bell, Sam Bunting, Sean Houlihane and David Monaghan. Their intentions were to survey all the new passage and find some more.
On the first day Dave and Sam surveyed from the Windy Sump to the Paris Metro while David and Sean collected camping equipment from Primula Point, and on their way discovered IWWI Streamway.
The next day they surveyed from the start of the Forbidden Zone to Paris Metro and then carried on to see if they could find some new passage. On the far side of The Blowhole Sam looked up and saw a black space. He asked David what was up there, to which David replied, 'Go and see'. Sam, lacking things like fear glands or common sense, did just this and found a huge chamber. David has lots of the above, so he sent Sean up to join Sam, and Dave to go and make supper while he waited by the pool.
From the chamber a short climb up led to a 10m pitch. At least now it is a pitch: at the time Sam decided it looked free-climbable and Sean followed him down it. At the bottom they found an even bigger chamber, which they named Echo Beach, because of the large amounts of sand and the amazing echo. The stream flowed out of one corner of this chamber, across to the opposite corner and into the upstream end of the sump pool. From this point they could see David waiting on the other side of the pool, so they told him what they were doing and carried on to find more new passage.
Following the water upstream they soon came to a low arch, where the only way on appeared to involve total immersion. Although the idea of falling thirty feet didn't bother them, neither of them wanted to push a duck 700m underground, so they returned to Echo Beach to find an alternative. Climbing up sandy slopes on the left hand wall, and then down through boulders, led to a large pool. Climbing up over this they found a large ledge on the right hand wall and below this a nice solid-floored section of fossil streamway. This they named The Dead Sea, because of the unusual coral-like formations on the floor. A short distance along this passage they came to a hole, at the bottom of which they could hear the stream. By dropping rocks they estimated the water to be about 20m below although fortunately they decided not to attempt to climb it. Instead they returned to The Blowhole and went back to camp.
Camp Three was a two person camp, owing to lack of available personnel. They were Tony Seddon and Chris Lloyd, a Canadian caver and climber who had come to join us for a few weeks. They only spent one of their three days pushing upstream, preferring to look at the other end of the cave.
Following the vague descriptions in the underground log book they eventually managed, as they put it, 'to rediscover' The Dead Sea and found the pitch down to the stream at the end. Rather than rigging this, Chris traversed along the right hand wall to a continuation of the fossil streamway straight ahead. Tony followed him and they walked into 300m of fossil streamway and bouldery rift, which they named The Dead Sea Strolls. They were eventually stopped by a hole in the floor similar to the one they had started at, but even they didn't try the traverse into the continuation of the fossil level ahead of them.
Camp Four went down in two pairs. Pauline Rigby and I went down first to relieve Chris and Tony, who were intending to stay down either for six days or until they were relieved. David Monaghan and Sean Houlihane joined us the following day.
On our first day Pauline and I intended to bolt our way across to the continuation of the fossil passage that Chris and Tony had seen. However the route out of Echo Beach was so complicated that by the time we reached the end we were running short of light and time, so we left the bolting kit and the rope and returned to camp, where David and Sean were waiting for us.
On the second day all four of us went to the end of The Dead Sea Strolls and surveyed back to The Blowhole.
On the third day David and Sean went downstream, while Pauline and I returned to The Forbidden Zone to look for Barnes Loop The Loop and the interesting fork. We found this without problem, and started pushing. The left hand fork turned out to be blind, but the right fork continued as a narrow rift until it widened and the floor disappeared. Traversing easily along the right hand wall led to a narrow section and then another wide section. I continued ahead while Pauline looked at a climb up on the right. The passage in front of me continued with a solid floor for a while and then suddenly stopped at a black space. With some surprise I realised I was looking out onto Just Awesome and there was a rather large drop beneath me. Throwing a large rock I discovered this drop to be about 125 metres, so I retreated hastily to where I had left Pauline.
While I had been finding frightening black spaces, Pauline had discovered an obscure, but nice and easy, climb. This led up into a nice friendly black space which we soon realised was the downstream continuation of The Paris Metro leading back towards Just Awesome. In the Just Awesome direction was a traverse that we weren't prepared to attempt, so we decided to look in the upstream direction to make sure that it connected with the known Paris Metro. Despite a desperate traverse the connection was made quickly, and we departed to push at the far end of The Dead Sea Strolls.
The traverse over into the possible continuation of the fossil level looked rather intimidating, especially when the only foothold was a lump of rock, about 2m by 1m by 1m, that was just about hanging onto the wall and tooked as though it would fall off at the slightest pressure. Instead we decided to rig the pitch down to the stream. This proved to be shorter than expected, only about 5m, but the stream at the bottom looked very promising. Climbing up a 2m cascade led to a nice flat section of stream with smooth scalloped walls about 2m apart. This looked easy to push, particularly for someone with an exposure suit, but we were short of time, so we left with the end wide open for next year's expedition to enjoy. We named the pitch Oregano Pitch on account of the strong smell issuing from the pot, previously used to carry salad dressing, containing the bolts that we had used.
Camp four proved to be the last real pushing camp, the other camps being used for photography, but one other discovery upstream was made. On the last photography camp Sean Houlihane and Sam Bunting surveyed the passage from The Forbidden Zone to the Just Awesome window and the next day Sean and David Monaghan climbed up into The Paris Metro and crossed the traverse that we had not attempted. This led into more large passage and another window over Just Awesome.