Oxford University Cave Club

Expedition: "Gustuteru 1996"


The Vasco Fiasco

Alex Harding

In the early eighties a Spanish cave club, Polifemo, explored Torca del Vasco to a depth of -174m before reaching an impenetrable rift. The cave was abandoned and Polifemo moved on to other areas.

The cave was accidentally rediscovered in an old Spanish caving magazine. After translating the description James decided that OUCC were harder than any impenetrable rift and suggested we had a look. So, once top camp had been lugged up to the snow pole, the cave was hunted down. The entrance to Torca del Vasco was a large shaft with an equally large temperature gradient, at the top it was sun blasted and shade free descending to a tottering snow plug. Despite such minor inconveniences the cave was rigged to the limit of exploration in two days, during which the first fiasco occurred.

On the second day the rigging team went down in two waves, with the second wave taking over after the sixth pitch. The seventh pitch was rigged before it was realised that the rest of the gear they needed was rapidly leaving the cave with the first wave. A chase through the cave eventually caught up with the tackle on the fourth pitch.

The second wave carried on to the limit of exploration and verified that the rift was indeed impenetrable, but there was a ledge part way down the last pitch which led into a small rift. At this point a large number of people decided that C4 was more their size.

The rift had been pushed through several squeezes to one which needed hammering, so Olly and I set off with hammers and a freshly purchased chisel. On the way down I became separated from my prusik gear without noticing. When we reached the squeezes Olly discovered that he couldn't get through the second squeeze, so he started hammering it whilst I attacked the third squeeze. After a couple of hours I'd lost the chisel and Olly had had enough of hammering so he went off to recheck a lead found by Anita on the last trip. The lead went but instead of getting me so we could push it, Olly settled down for a kip to ensure that I did a proper job of hammering the squeeze. Eventually the squeeze yielded, revealing a fourth squeeze, and I headed back to Olly. After a quick look at Olly's discovery, a pitch later named The Big Sleep, we headed out and I discovered just how slow prusik knots are. (Allow an extra hour per hundred metres or you will miss your callout).

The next trip carried on, through more small passage, before finding a pitch which dropped through the floor into a wide passage. The passage then immediately disappeared through another tight rift under a huge rock called Alcatraz (because only one person ever escaped from under it).

My next trip was a virtual replay of the last one. We started hammering the squeeze below Alcatraz and then Nobby dropped the chisel. He went off to recheck another lead and emerged in sight on the far side of the squeeze. The Vasco fiasco was striking with a vengeance. Since Vasco was obviously going we started surveying the cave and began the saga of the ever decreasing cave. Polifemo's survey had put the depth of the cave at 272m but by the time we had surveyed to The Big Sleep we hadn't even reached 200m. An epic survey trip through the rifts to The Marge Tub finally passed the 200m mark but we still worried that we might be going back with a smaller cave than we started with.

The next survey trip managed to lose Geoff when he took a wrong turn and ended up in the squeezes beneath Anita's Hole. When he failed to show up with the survey instruments the rest of the team felt obliged to push the newly discovered shaft series instead of surveying! On the way out a case of prussiking too close resulted in Geoff dislodging a fair amount of rubble on top of Martin. This produced some spectacular cuts and splattered the pitch in red gore. The pitch was promptly dubbed Red for Danger.

The shaft series finally took the cave down below Polifemo's depth only for the stream to disappear through a tight rift. A fossil passage led onward and eventually joined a smaller stream. After several uneventful trips we were at the end of a phreatic passage with another stream in sight below.

At this point C4 connected into C9 and Vasco had to be put aside whilst C4 was derigged, after which the majority of the expedition went home. However, we were saved from the perils of a three man expedition by three reinforcements eager to help push Vasco.

It was just as well they arrived as Vasco split into a variety of endings, one for every taste. The final lead reached a pair of sumps marking the lowest point of the cave. This left just enough time to do a quick 68 legs to finish the survey and derig before fleeing our misty, rainswept camp for England's pleasant weather.