by Dave Checkley (Originally appeared in Caves and Caving No. 19)
The faint grey appearing over the lip of the rocky depression told us that dawn was on its way. It was time to give up our efforts at detackling the cave. Enough was enough and 56 – the name of the cave – had kept us engrossed all the previous day and the best part of the night. Twenty four heavy tackle bags set 120 metres below at the bottom of the entrance shaft. The worst part was over, no more sweat and tears dragging the sods through all those tight rift traverses. No more slow, gear-laden prussiking. How on earth, or below earth, we managed to fill 24 bags I’ll never know. The system was only just over -800 metres deep. Must have been all the camp gear and waste carbide that filled them up.
56 is the sort of cave system that you don’t forget in a hurry. But once you have forgotten it a little, it seems more friendly. A year is just about long enough to persuade yourself that it really was pretty much OK and well worth returning to. Unfortunately it has always been well worth pushing further, but it’s never been easy progress.
The entrance series sets the pace for the rest of the cave. The big entrance pitch wakes you up and gets the adrenaline going early, which is probably just as well since the cave continues with climbs, crawls and ‘interesting’ traverses. The Slasher is a long section of tight rift with no footholds and no bottom. Just jam your body in between sharp walls and wiggle forwards. Easy without equipment, but with a couple of bags, falling and jamming down the rift, it can also be a slow and painful task. Gradually it gets better. Very tight rift gives way to slightly less tight rifts and even 50 metres of walking just before the camp site. Solid floors are rare and the camp was placed on one such short section of delightfully flat mud. Looking towards the hammocks, with your backside on the lip of a 60 metres pitch, you could almost feel at home. On the way down we looked enviously at those hammocks knowing full well that it would be many long hours before we returned to their delicious warmth and comfort. We had a good idea of what was to come.
So many pitches and a dozen tight rifts in crumbling rock. Each pitch would be familiar on the return journey, but not quite familiar enough to put in order below the camp. There were plenty of places where you could catch the spray if you hung around too long and one passage where we raised great false hopes. We thought it had sumped, but found only the wet awkward crawl and a way on. We were disappointed, but not for long since beyond was Dripping Blood Passage the pleasantest section of the cave. Unheard of luxury with flat, dry sandy floor, beautiful stalactites and attractive chamber. The site for future camps, conveniently placed at a depth of 650 metres. It was a good break, but out dreams of easy passage all the way to 1,500 metres, the caves potential, were soon dashed. We were back there in those loose rifts again. We were once again struggling for a good solid section of rock to put a bolt in and had as many as five belay points on some pitches. Rifts went to different places at different levels. We followed one down and gave up at 820 metres, with a tight rift below us and the distant roar of water. It’s that distant roaring noise and the thought of cracking 1000 metres that will take me back again in ’83 and as the memories fade I can almost feel a sense of affection for the place.
After the detackling some of the Lancaster University team moved across to the Eastern Massif, the other side of the Picos, to join the Spanish SEII cavers from Madrid in the cave Cembavieya. A fine cave. No rifts at all and every inch in solid rock. Pitch after pitch led finally down to a 150 metres drop with water cascading down it. Like spiders we crawled across the walls, trying to keep out of the water. At the bottom we explored walking-sized passage, to further pitches and unfortunately a sump at -700 metres depth. Still, the area is wade open and hopefully we will be back there in the future, amongst dazzling white limestone peaks, exploring equally exciting cave systems.