1995 Expedition: Boca del Joon
Picos de Europa, Spain
I'd only seen her once and then I played the waiting game. For 11 months I planned, agonised and dreamed. What lay at the bottom of C3? I'd told no-one about the Klingon sump, found on the last trip the year before. Would we really find the way on? But then the tents were pitched again, our mountain home installed. The flag was raised and the intervening period faded away.
For two weeks my Polish friend, Wlodek, and I rigged C3 while Anita, Mike and others got used to deep caving. It took a while for most of us to readjust to the size and splendour of the place, the fine pitches and airy traverses. Before long I had the luck to join William at the entrance - surrounded by gun-firing shepherds hunting a wolf - for the first pushing trip. We moved fluidly down to T3, the huge boulder choke beyond the Entertainer. While Holst's Planets played loudly on an old stereo of mine, we set up a bivvy site and continued down. Hammering in the constricted Crunchy Frog led to the next squeeze where William passed me his bag. "I've got it." The words had barely left my lips when it slipped out of sight. It was William's nightmare. Stuck down a cave with no ascending gear. I felt awful. Fortune was with me though. A frantic combination of willpower and civil engineering found the bag and bypassed the squeeze. At No More Heroes I dwelt on past trips and hoped this year would be as successful. We then dropped a pitch to a dead end. I spotted a window, however. A traverse led to another rift, The Next Degeneration. We hammered and squeezed to a phreatic tube and a sump. I shouted and jumped about in fits, rubbing my hands together. The Klingon exit sump, the draught, the stream, the elusive way on. The Oxford were back in action. Excited, we explored downstream past large crystals and wide meanders till time ran out. Knackered but jubilant, we returned to T3, got some sleep, and headed on out. The snow pole turned Depthometer moved up. We were going down.
My next trip left as the moon rose but after that my mind is blank. I got cold, Will got very cold and Paul took photographs. Staggering in to T3 at 9a.m., I was greeted with hot soup by a cheery Pauline, Olly, and Tim. The club had decided to timeshare sleeping bags or "hotbed" so as we collapsed the other team set off for the frontier. "Oh, and you'll never believe it." Olly had managed to tune in to radio 4. It was bizarre. 300 metres underground and even MW channels were received clearly. The next 24 hours were spent route finding, surveying, rerigging and looking for a way over the dire rifts. The thrill came on our third "morning" with news that a wide 45 metre shaft had been bottomed with an unexplored pitch beyond.... Within three hours we were there. Discoveries were certain but you can never get used to peering over an unknown drop, taking a deep breath and wondering how to get down. I quickly got impatient, decried bolting on loose rock, tied the rope to a natural and encouraged Will to abseil down. Yes. The cave went on, further into the mountain, breaking out into a large chamber, a few cascades and a deep shaft. Will was smiling, we all were, and this pitch, Thunderbolt, was mine. Stifling tiredness, I hammered in two bolts and descended to a ledge. Paul continued down Lightning, the following pitch. "What happens?" we kept shouting. An unpromising reply came back. A low, wet streamway almost certainly led to a sump, Very, Very, Frightening. We returned to camp and slept before rising to greet our third dark dawn. By this time, time itself had little meaning. Our days were the other team's nights, but their nights were now really days. Body clocks and functions were also defunct. For 98 hours I had steadfastly refused to go to the toilet in a plastic bag. Now fearing the end described in "Medicine For Mountaineering," I headed on out.
Hungover, the cowbells at base were annoying me more than usual when Bill came running. "There's been an accident." We'd been planning a trip to the beach. Not any more. "What happened?" Deep underground the carbide in Alex's tacklebag had exploded as it landed in water. The cave lit up like daylight as he struggled away from an eight foot fireball, burning himself in the process. Suddenly the fumes got bad. Alex yelled for some prussik gear, his being engulfed in flames. Tins, survey instruments, a hammer were all destroyed in the fury. On the surface however, we were kept in the dark over Alex's condition while a rescue team went down. Will and I sweated up to Top Camp in the hot sun and waited for news. I couldn't help contemplating the worst but tried to rest ready for a long night. Plan and rest. 28 hours after the explosion a cry came from the ridge, Alex was fine and on his way back. Relief was immense but I made a wig just in case. "Wine all round?" A signed copy of "The Incredible Melting Man," was waiting at base.
After much grunting in rifts and cursing on hanging rebelays the camp was moved to No More Heroes. Real food, loads of meat, a decent alcohol cupboard, Pink Floyd and a sleeping bag better than my own made it too easy to fester in bed in this homely, candlelit chamber. That is until Chris and Will woke me to tell how two big shafts had been pushed, bypassing the sump. They left an undescended pitch with the sound of a stream below. My heart rate soared. The expression in people's eyes showed vividly what it's all about. Wlodek and I packed everything we thought we'd need and set off down. Taking turns bolting we descended the new pitch, landing in a streamway that flowed off to somewhere. Yes. This was Underground Overdrive, I thought, our predetermined name for the main drain. We slapped hands together and bombed on downstream to a junction. A junction and a wide green streamway. The full realisation took a while to sink in. We had arrived via a mere inlet. THIS was Underground Overdrive. We stormed on and on down cave. The passage was huge with water entering all over the place. Wlodek was ecstatic. The third system of legend and yore.
I stopped as the walls opened out. The floor was sandy but all I could see was a black void ahead. I swore profusely before shouting, "Long Legs," (thinking of the survey) and ran onward. After twenty metres my feet started sinking in the sand. Whoa. Before me lay a lake that stretched out as far as I could see. The sides were sheer, the roof couldn't be seen. I was speechless. We had forgotten the boat.
Sensing a quest, John and I became the "Knights of the Water Table" and left the Picos in search of a "barco inflado." A week later I finally returned with Rob, half excited, half nervous. With no one to hotbed us we were alone, 640 metres underground with three days to our callout. We slowly inflated the Speleo Ship Enterprise and got ready. I always like to shake people's hands on occasions such as these. With some trepidation Rob then stepped into the children's boat and paddled off into uncharted waters. I'll never forget that moment, the atmosphere, the unknown, the glow of his light floating off down our deep emerald lake. We're living in a strange land. We're standing on a strange shore. We're sailing on a strange sea. Lines from the Waterboys kept filling my mind. After seventy metres Rob vanished round a corner and shouted, "It doesn't go." Sceptical, I pulled him back and rowed across myself. It didn't go. I was shocked, my mind mixed up, No, It couldn't be. But it was indeed a sump. "Right, I'm going to find bypass," I asserted and smiled, remembering the discovery of the cave itself. We needed a lead for the following year. Getting soaked up to my waist I pushed a wet passage to no avail. We searched and searched, but as nothing was found, disappointment grew stronger and I snapped at Rob, irritated with myself. Time ticked by. Rob talked me up a nasty climb that broke into a large upper level. A pitch, a brief hope, and then boulders and frustration. I'm still sure there's a way on, after all, the water drops another 900m to the resurgence. But we didn't see it, the curtain was closed. I quietly packed a tacklebag and followed Rob back to camp.
We slept, had breakfast in bed, and went back to sleep again. Finally, the time came to write up my last logbook entry and say goodbye to No More Heroes. I didn't look back. Well, maybe once. The trip wasn't over though. As we stopped for noodles at T3, the water seemed louder than usual. Prussiking up the Entertainer, I became sure. Droplets filled the air. The water roared to a crescendo. Up on the surface storm clouds erupted. I left my tacklebag at the next pitch. The streamway had increased twenty fold. "Rob," I yelled. Nothing. "Rob." He was waiting at Night Games. It was awesome and fearsome. Waterfalls crashing down on three sides. Surreal too. Huddled round my emergency candle we could see nothing further than a metre. Singing songs and wondering if insects had hearts we waited shivering for four hours till the water died down. "Come on, let's get out." But we couldn't. I shook my head in disbelief. Rob's carbide light needed water, we were stuck in a flood, and none was in easy reach. Too cold to care, we stood back to back and I filled his generator with the only liquid available.
Once again we had shed on a Spanish cave the first light it had ever seen. Now we were returning her to darkness. Above us the storm clouds rolled away and a full-arc rainbow framed our beloved limestone hills. In a two summer romance C3 and I had shared each others' secrets, discovering more than I'd ever imagined. The cave was derigged, the flag taken down but something will remain. I've seen her only twice and now I'll play the waiting game. What lies at the bottom of C3?