It was my last caving trip of the expedition, and what an excellent trip; pushing through the tight pitch head, and then on down the cave, free-climbing all obstacles, searching and eventually finding the outlet stream, and then coming to the head of a teasingly small pitch; beyond I could see the chamber with its rocky floor stretching out. Steve Phipps joined me; we ate a pack of peanuts whilst contemplating our return journey, especially that 25m ladder pitch with its constrictions.
I buzzed with enthusiasm the next day as the FEVE train wove its way along the coast taking Richard on his way to Leeds and me on mine to Africa. It was so irritating to have to leave an expedition so early, especially when so much was going. I'd had a taste of Tantalus, The Paris Metro, and then Tarpaulin Cave, each so brief.
Two months later I arrived back in the UK just in time to attend the BCRA conference. A kilometre of cave from both The Paris Metro and the now so called Pozu Cabeza Julagua, and there hadn't been time to look at Tantalus again! I jumped for the opportunity to lead the 1993 expedition: I wanted to make sure I had my place booked well in advance.
Then came the long winter nights, planning the expedition, writing for permits and for funds, and endless pondering of spreadsheets that never exactly answered any question I had to ask. The days grew, counting down to the summer, and I juggled schedules for study with schedules for expedition.
Departure day came, and we went; a mammoth drive through France with two vehicles and a handful of drivers brought me back at last to the Picos.
Everyone seemed as determined as me to get down to the business of exploration. By the end of our first week I felt ready to drop, but still people went on caving, heroically taking on our Pozu Cabeza Julagua despite the general inexperience of most of our advance team. The appearance of new faces to the expedition as the days went by invigorated all of us, spirits kept high despite the closing in of all the leads at the bottom of the cave.
Finally we came to our full compliment of members, including two stowaways with Chris Densham and Jim Ramsden - they being Tony Seddon and our trusty camp guard Roger the Stegosaurus - and a delayed and reduced team of cavers from Hungary: Moha, Pivo, Kutya and Andi. Alas, to my regret, tensions grew between two factions of the expedition, and the advantages of a two camp expedition were shown as Dave and Sean entrenched in at Los Lagos. It delighted many of us to find Tim, with unconscious foresight, missing out base camp and arriving directly at Ario. The refugio was a much needed sanctuary at Ario, the evenings drinking carton wine in there were a real moral booster, especially when I thought things looked bleak; I was soon made to realise I was alone in that outlook.
Enthusiasm ruled; we found the real Cabeza Julagua, winning me a bet! However, the beauty of Wet Dreaming (Tim's naming!), was prize enough for me. Then came the tying in of several new entrances to the now Systema Sierra Forcada. It was excellent to work on 20/11, finding an easy entrance to the system; it made me happy to derig the 8/11 entrance on the way out, a job well done, first in and last out. Surveying 23/11's lower reaches was an experience; Rob's coolness when lumbered with all my caving gear in the tightest parts of the cave was much appreciated. Then the dropping of the survey tape with only two legs to go would have made most men cry.
Then came Xitu and Optimisto; it was sometimes a shame that I had to try to deflect some of the enthusiasm away from the leading edge of the work, and into the essential chores of guarding camp, and surveying, photographing and derigging finished caves. Because of his expertise, William repeatedly visited Xitu, much against his better wishes, yet those of us who were then able to explore part of this fine system were very grateful to have such a master guide.
Again, I had to control the flow of people to Top Camp. In the end I only had an afternoon's walk there as I felt I ought to know exactly where it was. I too was taken by the breathtaking location amidst the peaks and potholes, and realised for myself why it was that people endured the rocky camp area, the snow melt-water, and the lack of a good refuge. I too wish to be amongst next year's Top Camp expeditioneers.
As expedition drew to its close, the fun of the big derigging trips commenced. Then I ruined the expedition's clean bill of health by picking up a stomach bug, and had to spend two days as a non-cooking camp guard, and missed out on a trip I'd been looking forward to, the derigging of Xitu's entrance series. I consoled myself by spending that day in the sunshine at Xitu's entrance helping with the rope hauling. With that done, our caving was finished and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief as there had been no major incidents to deal with. All that was left to worry about was the drive back through France: too much gear, too many people, too little space and too few drivers.
At the dinner we had at one of Jericho's curry houses upon our return, it seemed as though it were all over. Not so, there were surveys to be drawn, reports to be written, and accounts to be balanced. Then the cycle starts all over again.