Oxford University Cave Club

Expedition to the Picos de Europa, Spain, 1994

"La Verdelluenga"


What Light From Yonder Window Breaks?

"A great story needs a good beginning," I said grinning but out of breath as I finally caught up with Wlodek and Snablet at the entrance to C8. Seventy metres below there were two openings in a large shaft to investigate. For me, caving in the Picos was still new and the passion for discovery was growing stronger. After twenty minutes work however, the windows both closed down so I abseiled to the bottom of the 100 metre deep cave. "We start digging here" Wlodek said, pointing at a small choked streamway. Two hours later we'd made two metres of passage. Bored, disappointed, angry we gave up and left. At the entrance Wlodek walked away muttering, "I'm going to find bypass." Before long a shout was heard across the barren rocky landscape. "Six seconds." Snablet and I looked at each other then ran over to where Wlodek was frantically throwing rocks down a gaping hole. Boom. Boom. I took my watch off. Six seconds he'd said. 1,2,3, crash, 4,5,6, the large rock kept thundering down, 9, 10, the soft rumble rose up, wrapping us in a moment of timelessness, 11, 12, boom. Twelve seconds we'd got. yes, we had our bypass our beginning.

I woke at 7 o'clock the next morning, rubbing my hands together. Boom. The word captured the image, the image conjured the excitement. As the camp slept we made our way across the ridges in the early morning sunlight. Snablet and Wlodek derigged C8 while I set to work hammering in my second bolt at the entrance to "C9". Fully armed with over 300 metres of rope and rows of bolts Wlodek posed for a photo and set off down.

Eventually Snablet's faint cry of "rope free," echoed upwards. How deep was it? What was at the bottom? The black unknown chasm beckoned. Attaching myself to the thin rope I descended down and down. I finally saw a dim light below me. Lost for words, I followed the other two down the draughting rift that led further into the cave. Good, the bottom wasn't choked. Through a squeeze, down a short pitch we went until we reached the top of a large shaft. I was overjoyed, but Snablet was visibly down hearted. Our 200 metre entrance pitch was seventy metres. And someone had been here before. A rusted bolt gave it away. Unbelieving I still felt elated as I abseiled down the next pitch. A further short descent then reached the floor of a large chamber. Footprints. Damn. But the chamber was huge. Perhaps there would be a way.

On the far side of the chamber a small choked crawl had a strong draught blowing into it. we spent half-an-hour digging out loose boulders and sand until it was just possible to squeeze through. Taking off our harnesses and rope work we inched forward as the sharp popcorn looking sides of the squeeze shredded our oversuits. If we can just get through this bit. The wind was so strong it kept blowing our carbide lights out. This has to be called the "Vacuum Cleaner," I thought. Something must lie beyond. Suddenly the crawl broke out into large passage. To the right was a large smooth shaft and the sound of water babbling below. Ahead lay another white aven and another shaft. The cave was big, and we were the first to marvel at her hidden vaults. Before we had luck and then disillusionment. Persistence had made it ours.

For the next few days I set about carrying supplies up to Top Camp, collecting snow, fixing my oversuit, with one pervading thought always in mind. In the evening the cry of "It Goes," came bellowing across the valleys as other teams returned victorious. Smiles broke out on peoples face as I danced about. Wild exaggerations came back but we all knew OUCC were going down. Vino Tinto. Cheap red Wine. The snow pole turned depthometer moved up to 250 metres.

As the cave became deeper the trips became 24 hours long. We'd routinely wake up at seven, go to the loo, fry some eggs and onions, wait fifty minutes for the tea to boil and then set off. At the top of the last ridge before C3 we rested and contemplated the trip ahead. Scanning the valley below we speculated on the direction of the cave. Xitu? Impossible. Upstream 2/7? A third system? With work to be done we'd then walk to the cave, get changed, fill our tackle bags and leave the easy comfort of daylight behind. For most of the way down our only contact would be the shout "rope free." Beyond the "Vacuum Cleaner" two well decorated pitches led to an exposed traverse 70 metres above a stream floor. A further pitch led down to the "Moose Hole" a mouse shaped hole where (as became custom) I'd let go, make my hands into antlers and cry "Mooooose." The cave was huge. Never before had I descended pitch after pitch in such a manner as this, the glow of my acetylene lamp illuminating the grand scale of the cave around me. Two small pitches "Don't Drink" and "Didn't Drive" were followed to the start of another rift, the "65p Streamway". The thoughts of my return would start to creep persistently into my mind. I'd never been this deep before.

Beyond the "65p Streamway" there were three awe-inspiring shafts. At the bottom the water disappeared into a choked floor. The only way on was up the opposite wall. I started to yawn. It was eleven o'clock. I began to lifeline Wlodek while he slowly bolted himself up. As soon as I sat down however, my head seemed to become heavier and heavier and my eyelids kept dropping. I struggled to keep awake, Wlodek could fall at any moment. After ages of fading in and out the call came to follow. I was wet and the cold cruel draught had chilled me to the bone. Fighting the gentle hand of sleep, clenching my teeth together to prevent them from chattering, I slowly prussiked up the rope, till I reached the large boulder choke 30 metres above the floor of the chamber. This we decided was "Night Games". Enthusiasm drained out of me as I huddled, shivering in a survival bag while Paul hammered bolts in. All I wanted was sleep. I didn't know anymore. Didn't care.

Exhausted, I decide to head out before hypothermia set in. Our call-out time approached. I inched my way laboriously up the three pitches, not seeing the bottom, the top rarely in sight. I could make it out, come on James. In the "65p Streamway" I stumbled about. Was it this way? or up there? I was lost. My mind kept playing tricks. Voices, but it was just the flow of the water. Or had the others passed me, leaving me? "Beep, beep", "Beep, beep," My alarm went off. Seven o'clock. I'd been going for 24 hours.

Getting a grip I went back to the last pitch and waited for the others. When they caught up the worst was over. "Vamoose, let's go". I kept moving, doing everything rigidly by the book. Two hours to go, come on. "Mooooose", the Vacuum Cleaner. Up the final pitch and out to the morning sun. Smiling, happy, we changed and strode back to camp for breakfast. One minute late.

I slept late, muttering, "Am I in C9" and then staggered down the mountain. The next day I carried food up, rested my aching muscles, read some trashy paperback, and prepared for another journey into the deep, naming the next bits of passage. I knew I could get out now, and the cave, the adventure, the story went on, binding us closer together. More and more people made it down C9. Michele, Alex and others kept the surveying up to date. Our "45 metre" pitches were found to be rigged on 40 metre ropes, but the cave caught up with our crazy estimations. Steve Phipps took photos. Orders went out for more bolts and hangers. The club kept going down until we knew we had only one pushing trip left.

At the end of the previous trip I had pushed along a tight squeeze "The Crunchy Frog", and found "The Klingon", the next pitch. Alex hadn't been near the bottom before and had decided that his birthday was the day to do it. Yes, I was going back. "let's name a passage 'N,N,N,19'". I went ahead down the cave and moved swiftly to the "Entertainer". To increase the amount of spare rope, I spent an hour rerigging the 30 metre traverse and dramatic 60 metre pitch. As Wlodek and Alex completed a missing part of the survey, I brewed some tea on a stove I'd brought down, put on warm clothes and sorted out our last lengths of rope.

Slowly, slowly we passed the "Meat Cleaver", a precariously balanced boulder that threatened to fall down, crushing us without a hope of escape. I then abseiled 90 metres down the "Defenestrator". "What the...." loose rocks came flying down from above. "be careful". Struggling with a full tackle bag I made my way along the next horrific rift. After some hammering and undressing we squeezed through "Crunchy Frog". Time was running out. Alex and I fettled our carbides and surveyed the cave while Wlodek rigged the Klingon. At the bottom it was a stream... and a rift that closed down. Damn. Wlodek had already gone for a window. I derigged, investigated a large inlet and then sat down with Alex and waited.

Eventually we heard a muffled cry. "I have no light." His electric had broken, his carbide ran out. Precious time was slipping away. Using my light we pushed ahead in the rift. After a squeeze, the passage widened, On the right was a chamber with a smooth sandy floor. An ante-chamber had a small glistening waterfall. On the last trip we had found the much sought after campsite for next year, "No More Heroes". Ahead the rift continued open, "N,N,N,19".

We turned back as Alex's light failed as well. This could be serious. He started to stumble about, exhausted, lost. I called it the time between times. "Come on we can get out". Ever so slowly we made it up the Defenestrator and back to the brew kit on my one working light. There was no way we'd make our call out. Wlodek and Alex coaxed their headlamps back into action. It was decided that I would head out while they cooked a meal, and followed out in their own time. "Take care, I'll see you on the surface". I went out as fast as I could, on automatic, ignoring the silent voices crying "rope free". At the entrance I shouted to the rising sun, "It goes!", and prayed that the others would be alright. They made it out exhausted a few hours later.

In a bare three week romance we had used over one hundred bolts and 750 metres of rope. From the entrance "bypass", through the Moose Hole to the bottom of the Klingon, C3 and I had grown together. The depthometer rested at 485 metres. Vino Tinto. Depth through thought. The end is still to come, far, far, away.

James Hooper