2011 Expedition: Xitu
Picos de Europa, Spain
2011 was the 50th anniversary of the first Oxford expedition to the Picos and the 30th anniversary of the exploration of Xitu to its terminal sump.
The long term goal of these expeditions has been to unite these deep caves into one giant system, a task much more complex than merely descending deep caves. In 2010 a team of cave divers forged an underwater connection between Cueva Culiembro, the major resurgence cave in the Cares Gorge, with the bottom of Xitu, bringing this goal one tantalising step closer to becoming a reality. Several leads close to the bottom of Xitu have remained unexplored.
It was fitting that on this major
anniversary we returned to this most significant of caves and
with many generations of OUCC cavers celebrated the club's long
history in these mountains on an expedition with potential to
greatly increase our understanding of this fascinating area.
Sorry there has been no contact from the field for a while, but after
arriving in Spain on Saturday, I was required to pretty much head straight
Unfortunately the weather has continued to be awful which has severely hindered rigging in the cave and therefore also the possibility of the divers conducting the traverse. The 48 hours of storms last week apparently led to a 20m increase in water levels at the resurgence and the washing away of hundreds of many pounds worth of diving equipment. There was a further storm on Monday night which caused another flood pulse to pass through the cave and the resurgence. Thankfully the Nicola phone has been working really well, and web access at the refugio (!) has allowed us to keep teams underground informed of weather forecast updates and to plan trips going forward. It was due to these two pieces of technology that Ben, Callum and I went for a voluntary flood in following the last rigging trip. This went pretty much according to plan, but lead to a very very wet exit up Flat Iron and some of the smaller pitches that take water. More inlets come in below camp and we are being very wary about the conditions of Pythagorous and Dampturian before sending any further cavers down there.
However, we are still not yet at Chunder Pot and time is marching on. We are now half way through the expedition and derigging is an important question. We have had a long chat about tactics for this year and next amongst the team here this morning. We are all very much of the opinion that we should return to Xitu again next year as there are many areas which need a proper inspection with modern lights and bolt climbing techniques. This will allow us to leave ropes in the cave this year, extend the time we have to explore in the next week or ten days and also speed up rigging next year. As was mentioned in my last email, more rigging has been required that was estimated, even allowing ropes for every climb or pool described in Proc 10. Essentially we think that having done a lot of the hard work this year in working out the rigging, the flood responses and the nature of the cave, it would be a waste to start pulling all the ropes out again at the next available weather window.
Since the ropes belong to the club, and we have the means of communications it seems only fair to make these suggestions to the wider membership. If you have any thoughts on the above strategy for next year’s expedition please let us know asap as we are at a crunch time in the expedition. In other news, (although I think perhaps told by Dave already) the high level lead has unfortunately reconnected to the Customs Hall area, but it is so complex here and in the Teresa Series that it all requires further attention. This is something we can do if we continue to have problems with the weather. Also on our agenda is 29\5 – Dickon, Ross and Pete have gone there today to give it a good hammering. We think there also maybe an opportunity to confirm or disprove whether Chapa is really dead.
I think that is all for now. The sun is finally out for the first time in weeks, people’s clothes are getting dry and we are hoping the rain forecast for tonight will be sufficiently light to allow a team to go deep in Xitu tomorrow. Morale is good despite the ongoing rain and everyone has been having an excellent time enjoying a fine cave.
Back from Xitu last night. Had a really great time - terrific bunch of
people out there. I was especially impressed with the undergrads - they all
seemed so capable and mature and incredibly keen. The weather, it has to be
said, was often appalling - the worst I have seen in the Picos by some way.
Sunny days were the exception, not the rule, and there were some really
huge, long downpours. Fortunately Ignacio and Laura, the current refugio
tenants, are very welcoming and hospitable. The rain meant Xitu was far
wetter than in the '80s and made the rigging go much more slowly than hoped.
I got five trips down it which were all excellent, though the entrance rift
gets no easier - or at least it didn't until it was equipped with some
stemples on the crux bit at the far end.
When I left a team was just setting off for a two night camp (the camp is in Hall of thre Mountain Dwarf at -600m, a much nicer spot than the old, wet wind tunnel below Pythagoras) with hopes of getting to the sump. Beardie and Rich from the CDG were going on this trip but have more or less given up hopes of the traverse due to lack of time and terrible viz. Jason lost £600 of gear when it got washed away by a flood pulse in Culiembro. Alas, I didn't get the chance to push the Chunder Pot lead. But even as I write, someone maybe is...
Other news: Dickon has been pushing 29/5, a promising shaft with a tree growing out of it that lies at the head of a line of otherwise blocked dolines on the ridge "downstream" of the Huerta del Rey/Egbert choke between that and the Canal de Trea path. His hope is that it might provide a route to the 2/7 streamway below Egbert.
When I left yesterday he and others had bashed off some corners in the rift below pitches of 15 and 30m and were one more squeeze away from another echoing pitch with the sound of a stream at the bottom. This cave has been looked at intermittently since 19812 as it evidently has potential. Maybe it is finally about to be realised.
We all got excited about Pendulamus Passage, a new phreas reached through a window two pitches above the bottom of the Xitu entrance series. Unfortunately both of two ways on led down by circuitous means to the already-known first Xitu stream upstream of Customs Hall.
Some words for those not on Twitter, and cos there is only so much you can
say in 140 characters or less.........
Had a longish chat with Dave Rose and Chris Densham as they and Callum Braithwaite were getting some lunch in the Puente Romano in Cangas. The new lead sounds really exciting. Chris Densham was looking for the way on into Customs Hall and swung into a window on the wrong side of the shaft. A crawl followed but, following a fork in the passage this soon gets rather big. One way looks like it will probably reconnect back to the known high level, but the other ways is going off into the blank mountain. Clearly an old fossil level with lots of potential.
However, we are working from bottom up and so rigging has continued, leaving the high level glory for now (how restrained! but totally necessary if we are to enable the system traverse). Today Paul Mackrill and Tony Seddon should be coming out from rigging Flat Iron. Jamie, Andrew and Vicky are going in to rig the passages beyond and take camping equipment in. The plan this year is to use a camp higher up - at Hall of the Mountain Dwarf - to try and avoid the misery of the old camp site. Tomorrow Chris and Dave will go in with the aim of rigging Pythagoras and then coming back and spending a night at the camp.
It sounds like there has been a lot more rigging than in previous years, and perhaps we are using a little more gear and rope than anticipated, but there was enough spare in the plan that this should be all ok. The new drill and the solar charging system are also working well. Chris et al encountered a mini flood pulse on Graham's ballup which turned out to be "useful" as it pointed as to whether not to rig the rope........
Think that is all for now. There will be a meal in the refugio on Saturday night so I just hope my plane is on time so I can make it up the hill in time to join in.
Yours to the not so terminal sump, Fleur.