by Howard Jones (Originally appeared in Caves and Caving No 23)
If it takes 5 people 8 days to tackle up to -630m establishing a 4 man camp there, and it takes 12 people 16 days to extend the cave 1km to a depth of 1169m, how long will it take 8 people to get all the gear out? Bear in mind that the cave has 52 pitches totalling 921m and rift passages which wouldn’t be out of place in a hard Dales cave.
We were returning to Tresviso and 56, a cave over 800m deep and still going. If we could add another 300m to its depth and 5km horizontally we’d have a link with Cueva del Agua, the areas major resurgence cave. A connection would give a through trip of over 1500m.
Surprisingly, getting a team together was not easy. Of the 14 cavers who went only 5 had been to 56 before, only 7 were Lancaster University Speleological Society members and we ended up with a strong Manchester U.S.S. and South Wales Caving Club contingent. The most we had at any time was 12 cavers. Not a lot for a big cave fortunately they were all good by the end. To add insult to injury only 5 were present during the tackling up.
We planned to explore the system from a camp in Dripping Blood Passage at – 630m. Four people would camp for three or more nights, taking in food, petrol, tackle etc. and push in groups of two. The campsite had to be draught free with water nearby and the camp comfortable enough to be a psychological reassurance when below 1000m. If you could not relax, eat and sleep at camp then it was a waste of time. The camp was the secret of success and although the extra 10 tackle bags of gear were cursed throughout the carry down, the resulting camp meant that people were really able to push the cave. On returning to camp it was possible to change into dry fibrepile suits, don wooly hats, socks and silk gloves and eventually retire to a hammock, 2 sleeping bags and a Goretex bag. Food was mainly dehydrated, and sometimes rehydrated before eating, whilst spices and sweeties livened up the flavour. More organised teams even took petrol and toilet paper.
Boootlaces broke. Two hundred bolts, anchors, hangers (steel very cheap and very heavy maillons, etc were carried, dragged, kicked and abused down the cave. Marker arrows were made to help in the confusing bits, but were orange/brown in colour and really only useful when the toilet paper ran out. All the camp gear was double wrapped and put into specially designed tackle bags which had optional straps. After 200m they had no straps, which proved slightly trying. The designer showed amazing forethought by not turning up on the expedition probably because his life assurance wasn’t up to it. We were joined by 4 Spanish cavers from SEII who have known us for 6 years now and have still not learned.
After not being allowed on the ferry in Plymouth and being treated as freight we finally reached the White House, our base. Our first trip to 56 found an almost snow filled shakehole, and a resultingly wet 122m entrance pitch. A few epic introductory trips saw us at Dripping Blood snug and warm. After following last years lead to where it became too tight we traversed over a 38m pitch at 710m. The Nylon Highway traverse led to a series of awkward rift climbs finally breaking out into a more spacious passage. A 10m pitch led into some heavily decorated passage – blood red stal and white aragonite abounded. This same feature has occured in two other deep caves in the area, Sara and Tere.
A spectacular 39m pitch, the Pozo Rojo, with one entire wall blood red led to a fine, decorated streamway, the floors consisting of red calcite pools. Not only was this the most beautiful part of the cave but it was also the only section not intent on ripping cavers and gear to shreds. A spectacular series of 10 short pitches led through a heavily decorated section to some very muddy rifts. The way on was open but the likelihood of a sump seemed great. The next pushing camp took nearly 300m of rope. Excitement rose at the White House when 4 days later they returned; the cave continued and they’d run out of rope! Several more pitches had led to a low crawl, the Rib Tickler, with a howling draught. A climb up in a narrow rift led out onto a 70m ramp dipping at 60m. With water crashing down it this was the most exciting part of the cave. The last pushing group went down with only 14 days of the expedition left. Three short pitches led to a conclusive sump at -1169m. The Oxford By-Pass had let us down.
It took eight people eight days to detackle 56; some did 7 days caving, others a 6 day camp. Whoever you were you worked hard and knew about it, for many it was some of the hardest and finest caving they’d ever done. At 15.30 on the day we were due to leave the last weary caver and the last of the tackle reached the White House. Nineteen eighty three the best years caving and the worst years weather was over. We had the 10th deepest cave in the world, 3rd in Spain; it was hard with only one entrance and its all British (except for the Spanish bits). A journal of 56 will be produce jointly by LUSS and SEII and will be available shortly.
Next year sees a planned return to 56 to look at leads at 800m and 950m; we’ve overlapped the top of the resurgence cave, Agua, by about 65m vertically. We need some major horizontal development to fill in the missing link to Agua and a 1500m deep through trip.
We would like to thank the following: The Sports Council, Tate and Lyle, Quaker Oats, Scotts Porridge Oats, Ringtons, Lyon Ladders, Mountain Equipment, Troll Products, McGhee, J Storry, S Hurd and our mums.