As early as my second week in OUCC, I was being enthusiastically told about the expedition which would be happening that summer, and persuaded to join its ranks. In many of these conversations the name F64 featured prominently, an undescended entrance, found on the last day of the previous expedition. Stones rattling off into the dark crevice in the side of the La Verdelluenga peak, for almost eight seconds.
It was enough to convince me and eight months later, my exams over, I was standing at the new Top Camp looking out towards the mountain after which our expedition was named.
It was nine p.m., and Chris Densham and Anette were just emerging from the F64 entrance, two dots against the grey limestone. We shouted up, "Does it go?"
"We've run out of ROPE!" the reply came back.
While they were getting changed on the ledge conveniently situated next to the entrance, Tim, James and I were packing our gear. Tim had decided to leave straight away on a late trip to survey the new discoveries, and I was eager to get on my first trip. As we got the surveying gear together, Tim added a bolting kit, and a 50m rope.
It was about 11.30 by the time we had climbed up to the entrance and quickly changed into our caving gear. James and Tim started the surveying of the first pitch, while I played with my brand new carbide lightset. Soon the rope was free, and I was descending into my first Spanish cave.
At the bottom of the entrance pitch I had my first opportunity to help with the surveying as we continued, on down the second pitch which Chris had rigged. Here, almost at the end of the known cave, we stopped surveying. In front of us was a climb over a large boulder with a drop down through a slit the other side. Not too difficult, until you consider the rather large spear shaped rock past which you had to squeeze on the way down. It seemed unlikely enough that it was balanced there in the first place, and the fact that it would rock at the slightest touch didn't inspire confidence.
We squeezed past "Spearmince" one by one, and came out at the top of an undescended pitch. This was my first taste of exploration, and as Tim belayed the rope to an unmoveable rock, all three of us were beginning to get excited.
Tim chose a place to put a bolt into the rock and started to hammer away. He was hanging out above the drop, held only by the rope, with an unknown drop beneath him. It took only 15 minutes to drill the bolt hole, but it seems as if it was for much longer that James and I sat above shouting encouragement, and hearing his replies of, "I've got the FEAR."
Finally, Tim descended what we had decided to call "They Come at Night." It turned out to be a 40m drop, larger than any pitch I had ever done before. I followed him down, and at the bottom we turned the next corner to find ourselves at the top of another pitch. We threw stones down, they dropped for almost 4 seconds. It looked as if we'd hit a big shaft series.
James started out as Tim and I made our way up the newly rigged rope. We were soon back on the surface, and headed back towards the campsite to finally crawl into our tents at 4.00 am.
It was two days later that we returned, this time with Snablet. A trip had been down the day before in which Paul Mann had rigged the traverse line to the pitch-head, and then dropped all his bolts down the pitch. So Snablet had only one more bolt to place before we were going down. At the bottom Tim and Snablet decided to let James and me have a go at leading the exploration. James went on first and F64 immediately turned into a tight rift. We slid down this to come out at the top of a small pitch - "Harmless". I was the first to descend this pitch and found at the bottom a tight rift leading off. I stuck myself as far as I could into this, only to come to a right-angled corner which was physically impossible to negotiate. Tim however noticed that half way up the 10m pitch a way lead off, and the first of the "Fierce ladies of Cannock" had been discovered.
Over the course of the next few trips, the first lady, a technical right-angled squeeze, and the second lady, a long tight rift squeeze were pushed. The cave's open shafts had become tight rifts and small pitches. After "Hlegless", an 8m pitch, there were two more squeezes, "The Sisters". The second of these had even Alex beat, and Tim and Chris were on the verge of starting the derigging when Tim spotted a possible climb. It looked totally without promise, but saved them carrying rope back through the fierce ladies, so they left it to be checked.
The next day while Chris and Richard Barnes checked a traverse - a possible bypass to the Fierce ladies - at the top of They Come at Night, James and I wanted to see the other side of the squeezes and decided to try the climb. After I had my first tussle with the Fierce Ladies, we reached the bottom of "Bad Habits". There hadn't been any available bolting kits, so James had to start the climb armed only with a handful of tapes and slings.
There was a convenient flake which stretched up about half of the height of the climb. Bit by bit James managed to make his way up, using slings looped in cracks in the flake to manufacture footholds where needed. After he'd spent a fair time at one particular spot, he asked me to lower him down on the rope I was belaying him on. At first I thought he'd given up, but he started to root around in the stream below, and soon stood up to show me the selection of small rocks he'd chosen.
He considered these carefully before finally choosing one, which he tied a tape around. With this clipped to his harness, he started back up the climb. When he'd got as far as in his last attempt, he got out his chockstone and started to try to wiggle it into the crevice. Finding a position where it would jam firmly, enabling him to stand in the sling, and get up to the next ledge.
He called down when he thought he'd got it in the best possible position, and after assuring me several times that it was perfectly safe, stepped up into its loop. From his new position, the remainder of the climb was straight forward, and soon he was standing on a tiny ledge, eight metres above. As he looked about him he gave a shout, "It goes, John. It Goes!"
There was a tube of significant size leading of from his head height, however it would be a squeeze to get into, and need a bolt putting in for protection. So, elated by the fact that the cave was still going, we called it a day and turned around.
Ascending They Come at Night, we noticed some strange loops of rope, heading off across the chamber and up towards the roof. This was the fruits of Chris's trip, and was to become known as the "Tagliatelle". It led across the top of pitch and, since no one else went across to check its leads, a few weeks later it was derigged to provide more rope.
The next day a bolt was put in and "Bazdmeg's Holiday", a large passage was entered. So called after Pivo (one of our Hungarian expedition members) who spent a long time struggling in the squeeze just before it, shouting "Bazdmeg" at the top of his voice. This had many good looking leads, but after a few trips most of them had dried up. Tim had made a long climb "Old Bores Hill", which lead to a large boulder choke, and the passage of the stream had become too tight. On top of this, the discovery of C9 a bigger cave, going like the clappers, and without any severe squeezes, meant fewer people were eager to spend time on the unpromising boulder choke.
Not quite everyone however. Over the course of the next week, Tony at least continued to retain his interest in the cave, making solo trips when volunteers were lacking, he continued to check the leads, and explore the boulder choke. This eventually paid off as he managed to dig a way down through the boulder choke and came out at another pitch. F64 was not dead yet.
Up until this time Rob, one of the people who had found the entrance almost a year ago, had not been further than the bottom of "Harmless". Now the cave looked promising again he wanted to see the rest of it himself, and joined Gavin and myself on a trip to survey the section through the boulder choke.
The first challenge was the Fierce Ladies, It took a lot of effort from Rob, and the removal of his wellies, to get through. While Gavin went on to rig the pitches that he and Dave Lacey had climbed the day before, Rob and I started our surveying. Neither of us had been through the choke before, so weren't quite sure of the way. Adding this on top of the trouble it was to survey the tight sections of the choke, it took us quite some time to get through.
The pitch which Tony had found led out into a very large rift. As Rob and I surveyed down the 25m pitch into this rift, and could see Gavin's light as he worked further on down, we got the impression that this would take the cave to a significant depth. The rift was making its descent in a series of small pitches a few metres at a time, some could be climbed, but most warranted a rope.
By this point on the expedition, however manpower was short. A lot of people had gone home, and with two caves to explore there were not enough people prepared to do long pushing trips. So the pace of exploration slowed down. Whenever Gavin could find a partner he went, and with various people he kept the cave creeping deeper, down past 250m, . . 300m, . . 350m. . .
I joined him on several occasions. We would head down to the squeezes separately, and then head together to the end of the rift. In the few hours we got before we had to turn around, we would rig a couple more of the 13 pitches which made up "Zodiac rift". I enjoyed the chance to practice putting bolts in, and it helped to drive off the cold which invaded when we slowly surveyed. After a tin of peaches as refreshment, we would head out, meeting up only at the squeezes, and usually arriving back on the surface well after dark.
By the middle of August we were at the bottom of the rift. Gavin and I had come to a chamber, which had a wall of rocks across it. When we threw stones into the blackness over the top, they dropped for three seconds, the cave was already about 400m deep.
Time however had almost run out, there was only one more days caving before we had to start derigging. As I sat at top camp the night before, I tried to persuade someone to come with me and rig this last pitch. Gavin had gone down to base camp, and everyone else wanted to do a trip down C9, which in the end I decided to join. Just as we were about to have an early night, a group of people arrived from base camp in the last light. Among them was Wookey, a latecomer to the expedition from Cambridge University Cave Club. He welcomed the chance to push some Spanish cave before the derigging began. I'd soon signed him up for F64 promising a cave with character. I excused myself from the C9 trip.
The next morning, while team C9 got up at seven o'clock for an early start, Wookey and I had a lie in and left camp in the early afternoon. We had a good trip down to the end of the surveyed section. Wookey enjoyed his first Picos cave, and had fun with the Fierce Ladies of Cannock. Within three hours of the entrance, we were at work.
We soon finished off the few survey legs needed, and were at the last pitch. Wookey did the rigging, backed the rope up to a large boulder, and disappearing over the piled up rocks. He said that we must be in a very large chamber, as he couldn't see any far wall. I sat and waited while he put in some bolts, and then descended the pitch.
When I followed, the pitch turned out to have a nice hang of about 35m into a huge chamber, the biggest I'd seen that expedition. As is so often the case in cave exploration however, this didn't mean a big way on. The chamber was half filled with a sloping choke of sand. Wookey had climbed up this, and it didn't look like there was a way on. We'd set out earlier that day to extend F64 to an even deeper lead for next year, and ended up killing the cave.
Disappointed, we headed out. It was a long prussic to the surface. This was the deepest point I'd ever been in a cave, and by the time we clambered off the top of the last pitch it was almost four in the morning.
As I got changed on the cold limestone, wet after recent rain, I thought back to the last time I'd been at the entrance that early in the morning. That had been my first pushing trip of the expedition, and this was my last. I'd seen the cave go from a crack in the side of the mountain, to an important piece of the Picos jigsaw, almost 450m deep. We walked back to the campsite beneath a clear starry night, electrical storms lighting up the horizon, my first expedition was drawing to a close.
But the story isn't over. Later when the survey had been drawn up, it turned out that Zodiac rift has a marked change in direction half way down. This corresponds to a point where the draft in the rift diminishes, and there are a number of leads in that area which were rushed past as the way lead on down. I for one will be back...