"Are you going to go on expedition this year?''
"I don't know,'' I replied smiling politely, "What is it?'' I was still struggling to settle in at Oxford with its overwhelming multitude of societies, not to mention the work, but already people at the Cave Club were encouraging me to make plans for the summer.
"It's really good, you should go.'' This did not really answer my question and outlandish conversations about 2/7, 8/11, Cabeza Julagua and Xitu offered little enlightenment. Nevertheless, by February I'd been persuaded that this really would be a good way to spend my Summer and started making arrangements.
Having been on only a few previous caving trips with the club I now had to manage the gear order! Not really knowing what I needed, I was relying heavily on advice. Fortunately this was plentiful although frequently contradictory: should I get a furry or fleece? Which type of sit harness? How many snaplinks and krabs? etc. (Don't mention the expenses!)
With that all sorted and a sack full of caving gear sitting in my college room, I just had to pass my Mods and wait for the Summer. I had decided to travel with the expedition, thinking this would be less stressful. Then I found out I was needed as the fourth driver for getting across France to the Picos (apparently they are in the north of Spain somewhere). Moreover, those travelling with the expedition get to load and unload the minibus and trailer, as well as carry all the equipment the two hours between Los Lagos and Ario, not to mention the car batteries and radios. This would have been less of a problem had the continuous rain and fog cleared a week earlier.
There are a few ways to help oneself up and down the mountainside. These include listening to your personal stereo, remembering that you only get a steak sandwich if you arrive before the bar closes, smiling politely at the Spanish while they babble at you before you explain that you only speak English (this also works with Americans); and reciting from The Complete Works of Shakespeare for the benefit of the sheep.
Food was another surprise as, having never before been restricted to a vegetarian diet, I knew not what to expect. As it turned out vegetable stew is quite good ... in moderation! Thanks to our sponsors there was a plentiful supply of the versatile Mornflakes and fudge - also excellent in moderation.
With its preoccupation with all conceivable forms of rift passage, the caving itself was unlike anything in Britain. Once the rigging trips had been completed pushing new cave could begin. 8/11 turned out to be lacking the classical vertical development found in the Picos, although my one trip down Xitu showed me what I was missing. However, pushing in caves with horizontal development does mean less time spent sitting around while someone rigs a pitch as everything is free climbable! Finding new passage does have its own set of problems, due to the abundance of loose rocks; so remember, when rocks are dislodged from above you, ducking is a waste of time.
Pushing new passage is perhaps best summarised by a quote from the Beatles' song Everybody's got something to hide except me and my monkey:
"The deeper you go the higher you fly
And the higher you fly the deeper you go.''
After pushing comes surveying - I am told it can be fun but every trip I went on involved tight and technically awkward rift passages. We only dropped the tape once though, and it was later recovered.
The most notable thing about these caves is best appreciated on photographic trips, and that is not their beauty but their temperature. They are very cold, especially with the strong draughts that circulate through them. This contrasts with the surface temperatures which are best appreciated either when carrying food uphill or when shaft-bashing, the latter being the more rewarding on account of the views and new caves which are still to be found. This is particularly true around the Top Camp area, were I spent a few days which culminated in us finding F64: an entrance shaft down which stones rattled for more than eight seconds. Unfortunately there was no time to descend as derigging had to begin early due to an accounting problem that left us with two fewer minibus drivers.
The journey back was punctuated by a day at the beach which provided a much needed opportunity for washing before catching the ferry, all the better because it did not involve walking for half a kilometre to fetch water. Just as one of the best things about caving is the emerging from cold darkness into warm sunlight, so too with the expedition is the realisation after your first bath for eight weeks how great it is to be clean and to have your own comfortable bed again.