OUCC Proceedings 12 (1986)

How it all Began

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by John Wilcock  

See also: OUCC Proc 1: Northern Cavern_& Mine Society Newsletter; CRG Publication 14: 1961 Pictures

The first moves towards British cave exploration of the Picos de Europa began during the summer of 1960. The ideas had been there before, swimming around in private, but they surfaced in OUCC towards the end of the 1959/60 season.

How different things were then, at the beginning of the swinging sixties! In Oxford University there were no mixed colleges. In the men's colleges, it was officially necessary to get permission to entertain a young lady in one's room, and the gates closed at 11pm (there were many "climbing-in" routes which improved rock climbing abilities). There was a secret "Bath Club" with male undergraduate members who had bathed within a women's college, successful bathers being awarded a tie with silver tap motifs, or with gold tap motifs if the taps themselves had been removed at the time of the bath.

Scholastic gowns were supposed to be worn at all lectures, though the scientists never bothered. Caving activities were hampered by the fact that no undergraduate could keep a car within the City of Oxford, and most caving meets required the arranging of coach transport. Moreover, there were few motorways, and the Severn Bridge, which was later to become such a boon to cavers of the south engaged in new explorations in the South Wales limestone, did not exist. Caving equipment and exploration techniques were quite primitive - wetsuits were unknown, and the days of rope ladders were not long gone (home-made steel wire ladders with magnesium alloy rungs were considered by members of OUCC to be the very latest thing).

It was Mike Walker who started things off by bringing an interest in archaeological carvings from his native Yorkshire. Outline planning rapidly produced a scheme for a team of four archaeologists with a back-up team of eight cavers. Plans for road transport, a search for sponsorship, and a target date of August / September 1961 soon appeared. But where to go? Galicia would undoubtedly be the target for the archaeologists, but that province did not look at all promising for six weeks of cave exploration. The geographical and topographical map collections of the Bodleian Library map room were scoured for more promising country within hailing distance of Galicia, in case the rescue services there were required.

Further east along the northern coast of Spain there was no shortage of limestone country, formed by the westward extension of the Carboniferous limestones of the Pyrenees. But the true Pyrenean limestones, already famous through the explorations of Norbert Casteret and others, were too far away, and there was a definite shortage of maps portraying the high relief we sought. Halfway between Santander and Oviedo, however, the Picos de Europa looked promising; and it was the discovery of sheets of a German topographical survey that first revealed to us the western massif - the Macizo Occidental - and in particular a track leading up into the mountains, which pinpointed what was to be our chosen base camp. So the selection of this now important caving area owes its origin to the survival of maps undoubtedly produced by Nazi Germany's involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Beyond that, OUCC's choice was purely fortuitous - yet how fortunate it has proved to be!

The personnel now began to be finalised. As the year passed, Ken Mills, Ian Gordon and John Wilcock undertook the job of seeking sponsorship in kind, and Ken's rooms in University College began to resemble Aladdin's Cave as letter after letter bore the fruits of Complan, Tuf boots and the statutory Kendal Mint Cake. Dave Hukin's management of transport arrangements led to the purchase of two ex-army Bedford lorries. Mike Austin saw to the arrangements for chemical analysis of cave waters and photography; John Crompton and John Wilcock drew up programmes of geomorphological and cave survey. The latter involved ground resistivity measurements which were in their infancy at the time, and this required visits to the late Professor Palmer at Wells, and tests of the equipment at Bull Pot Farm. The strength of the caving team was improved by recruiting assistants from MUSS - Mike Holroyd, Jim Morgan and Tony Delany - and by carrying out training meets on Ingleborough and Casterton Fell. Finally, Martin Trump joined the archaeological team from London.

What little there was in print about Spanish limestones and caves was painstakingly studied (in Spanish), including a small paperback "Nociones de Espeleogia" which gave some very general information on our chosen area. Mike Walker and Martin Cummins wrote endless letters in the rather flowery official Spanish to obtain the necessary temporary import licences, and to smooth our passage and arrival. To fend off boredom towards the summer, most of us took our final degree examinations....

Once the academic year had drawn to a close with its welcome May balls and celebrations, the last-minute preparations could begin in earnest. The old Scout and Guide club meeting room became our HQ, where 1100' of lightweight caving ladder was constructed from donated components before being whisked up to Worksop for professional finishing of the eye splices. The three-ton lorry visited London for sets of UniRoyal retreads for both vehicles, and the construction of a Dexion rack over and behind the cab, both provided through the sponsorship of the companies concerned.

Towards the end of July preparations became even more frantic, but at last 31st July 1961 arrived and we set off down the High, stopping outside the Mitre for press photographs. After a relatively uneventful journey across the Channel, the results of buying third hand vehicles became apparent - a seized brake cylinder pitted beyond repair, but the stop on a rubbish dump near Rouen did not prove disasterous since we were in northern France, where spares for Bedford army lorries seemed to be very readily obtainable, because of the legacy of the war. (This was even more fortunate on the return trip, when the effects of 62-octane petrol from Galicia had taken its toll on the one-ton vehicle and turned its exhaust valves into split mushrooms.) A stop to see the famous painted caves of Lascaux, then still open to the public, was enlivened by a complete refit of the three-ton lorry brake master cylinder.

France behind us, we had to spend all night at the Spanish border post at Hendaye/Irun, sleeping in, under and on top of the lorries until officers of sufficient seniority arrived in the morning to clear our import certificates. A well-deserved beach stop preceded a night descent into Bilbao, and a disconcerting meal of squidlets cooked in their own ink. After a further night and a journey along the unmetalled tortuous coast road we reached at last Cangas de Onis, the local town in whose mayorality lay our destination. Letters of introduction to "El Alcalde" produced a response from the whole township, and we were welcomed with great kindness and friendship throughout our stay.

After stocking up with local groceries we pointed our vehicles at the long steep mountain road. Up into the clouds we went, stopping from time to time to rest bottom gears and to admire the limestone shakeholes by the side of the unmetalled track. In thick cloud we came to the Vega de Enol, and with visibility reduced to a few yards the Refugio loomed up before us. In such weather it seemed churlish to forsake the warm and dry buildings for tents and lorries, and after two days of torrential rain the Refugio began to feel like home. At last, on the evening of the third day, the cloud began to move. Spellbound, we saw the valley floor; then the wooded slopes beyond - then the bare limestone hills above; ...and, at last, that fantastic row of pointed peaks, glowing pink in an alpine sunset, which haunts the memories of all who have followed the first expedition in 1961 to the Picos de Europa.