Volume 37 Number 4 Article 7
Party: Jim Newton, Jim Stevenson, Eileen Stevenson, Mick Hodgkinson, Mark Hodgkinson.
This expedition was conceived when it was realised the French trip was looking doubtful due to work and domestic commitments for a few of us. Although a date was agreed on, the trip almost died a death a couple of weeks from departure.
One person took on the un-enviable task of booking and paying for all the seven flights and also paying the mini-bus, quite a considerable financial outlay. At this point two persons decided not to go, leaving us with the financial burden of their airfares, their share of the mini-bus, and to crown it all a considerable excess baggage fee had to be paid at check-in due to their tackle allowance being loaded onto us.
Cancelling the trip was considered but it was going to cost £90 per head to cancel and they had no intention of paying that either - we cut our losses and went for it.
As previously mentioned the reduced group had immediate problems at check-in with excess weight. A weight reduction exercise swung into action. Bags were opened and caving gear was strewn about the airport - it was like a scene from a Bangladesh car-boot sale. Soon we had reduced our fee to £70, but we were cutting it neat for gear. We begged, pleaded and even tried to bribe the guy to put the luggage through, but the only way to Crete was to pay up.
The aircraft touched down in Iraklion at 01:00hrs local time where we picked up the 8-seater SEAT complete with air-conditioning, just the job for Crete. Three and a half hours later we were on the Omalos Plateau, in the White Mountains, watching the sunrise on the craggy face of Gingolos at the head of the Samaria Gorge. By 09:00hrs we had found accommodation in Omalos village in a local hotel - £10 for a room.
After a couple of hours sleep we reconvened to plan our attack. It was essential to establish that the lake level was down sufficient to permit us access as it is a 50 metre sump from October to July, and only breaks in the totally dry season.
In October '97 a party of 10 came here, a strong party consisting of RRCPC, Craven PC, the British Alpine Club and a couple of free-lancers with more gear than Inglesport, only to find the first rains had arrived and the lake level had come up 10 metres, totally sealing the way on. This was a severe blow and we were concerned of a repeat situation. (A complete account was written for this expedition and submitted for publication at the time, but for some reason it never reached the Newsletter.)
Feeling keen, the party of five set off down the cave which was only 10 minutes walk from the hotel. Upon rigging the pitches we found new bolts in place. We discovered later that an Austrian team had been here in July. We found our inflated tubings still tied to the wall where we hid them on the '97 trip. The lake was clear so all the tackle-bags were transported to the shore where a shuttle sailing conveyed everything to the far bank. It was here an SRT bag lost on our '93 trip, was found, after it was jettisoned in a sink or swim situation. Photographs were taken between entrance and lake and the tubings were removed for pumping up.
The following day was a rigging trip where it was found that the new bolts prevalent at the start of the cave seemed to fizzle out at the head of the 175ft pitch, the place where they were really necessary, suggesting this was as far as they reached. Absence of footprints in the lower muddy sections confirmed this. Steady progress was made to the pitch before the Great Chamber, and then it was back to the surface exiting after nine hours.
Meanwhile, Jim Newton had been on a reccy up the Gingolos track where he reached the col a few hundred feet below the summit.
Next day was a sort of fester-day where the Stevenson's reached the top of Gingolos, Jim Newton and the Hodgkinson's went to investigate a large sink which is believed to be a major feeder for Omalos Cave, and much sampling of Amstel's in the local watering holes!
Back in '95 we reached a point in the cave which, going by a sketchy description and survey, should have been a sump. Instead we found ourselves peering into a deep shaft with no tackle left - this was our goal for this trip.
Jim Stevenson narrates: "Mick, Mark and myself were kitted up and ready at 09:00hrs on the Friday morning when Mick announced a water valve failure in his lamp, so it was back to the Hotel to borrow Eileen's FX3 complete with the state-of-the-art LED cluster giving 36 hours light. Eileen had declined this trip due to bad blistering after the Gingolos walk. With this lighting arrangement it meant plenty carbide for the other two.
Omalos Cave takes a huge amount of water in the rainy season and when you are beyond the lake it's always in the back of your mind. Even though it's mid dry-season a small shower would probably seal the cave, and when the lake is up it takes many weeks for the water to percolate away to give airspace again.
We made good time down to the point of our previous rigging trip and before long we had reached the start of the ascending phreatic tube that takes us up 150 feet to the Great Chamber. We stopped here to catch our breath and suck a toffee.
Whilst sitting on the tackle-bags discussing the rescue options in the unlikely event of rain, a small passage was observed under a low overhang on the wall. We knew this was a passage not on our survey. I bimbled over to it and was taken aback by the force of the draught issuing from it. When I stooped into it I was even more surprised at the sudden increase in size and the steep angle it descended, bordering on a rigging job. Meanwhile Mark had taken the tackle-bags and was starting on the steep pebbly incline up to Great Chamber. Mick shouted for Mark to hang about as a possible lead was being investigated.
The passage descended in a series of steps at a sixty degree angle for a vertical height of about 60 feet into a wash-out pebbled chamber; it was as if it had come to a dead end except for the obvious draught whistling through a hole in the pebble bank six feet up. Looking up through the hole it was night-sky. A hasty scramble up and I found myself in a passage whose roof was out of sight and the walls were much the same. Dashing back to inform Mick and Mark of this new development, the three of us were soon assembled back in this huge passage again. "Mark, quick give us a compass bearing!" "oops, sorry it's back in the Hotel." It would have been interesting to see how this route was trending, but not much we could do about it now.
The boulder strewn floor descended at thirty degrees for about 75 metres, and as walls and ceiling converged to about 10 feet square the passage took a right- angled turn to the right and a boulder slope descended steeply to a small bedding plane chamber. The draught was stronger than ever in this constricted area as it howled out of the small boulder ruckle straight ahead. A small hole between roof and ruckle was just large enough to allow admittance to the open space beyond. The nature of the choke was that of a pile of stone medicine-balls whose instability was very alarming.
When we set out on this trip, due to our small numbers and zero rescue facilities, we decided on a minimum risk policy. A minor incident underground in this part of the world could have drastic consequences! Well you know what Cavers' are like, once exploration fever kicks in all caution gets booted out, and a quick scurry over the sliding boulders found me in a small chamber with Mick and Mark dodging rolling boulders in the small chamber below. Straight across was a water route coming in down the far wall, although no water was flowing at present, and to my left was a 12 foot deep hole in the floor, with continuing passage, out of which the ever-present draught was howling. Shouting for the Hodgkinsons to follow through with the rope, there were some scuttling sounds followed by rumbley sounds followed by some cursing. "You can bugger-off Stevenson, we ain't coming and you better come back through before you seal yourself in!" What a dilemma, ongoing passage guarded by dodgy boulder choke. A very tense few minutes and the team were re-united again. After a quick pow-wow we decided to leave this for another time and continue with our main objective - the pitch beyond Great Chamber.
Sitting having lunch by candlelight in the Great Chamber felt quite humbling, sitting for too long allows the worries to take root; there is very little evidence of human activity when you go deep in Omalos. The chamber measures 1000 feet by 200 feet and, as much as we would have liked to spend time exploring it thoroughly, we decided to keep that for "the next time" also.
The 30 foot drop out of the chamber was soon rigged and we were moving again. A nice clean washed passage with various climbs down led firstly to a waist deep pool, then to a neck deep cling-to-the-wall flooded section of passage. It was here things appeared to go pear-shaped. Mark had had enough and refused to cross the lake, no amount of pleading or persuading would make him change his mind. Mick and I continued with the gear and carbide, leaving Mark on the far bank. Fifteen minutes later we were standing looking into the gloomiest place in the world. "Well Jim," piped up Mick cheerily, "you've been waiting five years for this moment, and I'm glad it's you going down and not me!" As he tossed a large stone over - grinning as a loud crash reverberated out of the blackness a few seconds later. "Gulp!" Mick rigged. I got ready.
I could see a sizeable ledge sixty feet down followed by blackness. From the ledge I could now see the muddy stones of the dried sump about forty feet below, a few seconds later I was there. Was this the end of the line? Ducking under a limestone curtain I was standing in a parallel aven, which would be sealed off by a few feet of water in the sump. In contrast this aven was clean water washed whereas the one I just descended was mud veneered. Climbing up 10 feet a large circular pool was perched on a ledge, and looking up revealed open night-sky after a 20 foot climb. A distinctive draught could be felt descending from above. Again the same dilemma - something not on the survey, a route to pastures new, over 3000 feet of limestone between us and sea-level and our small fragmented party now totally out of communication with each other. We stuck to our minimum risk policy this time.
Mark was glad to see us back, just as much as we were glad to see him still holding his lakeside vigil. A quick snack back in the Great Chamber and six hours later, complete with mounds of tackle bags, we were welcomed at the entrance by Jim and Eileen with cans of ice-cold pop. We emerged into a lovely warm evening after an eleven hour trip.
Back at the Hotel it was food and drink and more drink. Discussions, theories, plans were ricocheting about - what could have been achieved with more bodies, an hours work would stabilise the boulder choke, someone to offer back-up in the twin aven, accurate surveys, sectional drawings of the system etc. etc. - but at the end of the day it boiled down to the fact it is too big an undertaking for too small a party in too short a timeframe.
This has been our third trip beyond the lake in Omalos and instead of coming up with answers, we've only uncovered more questions.
Next year, same time - how about it Red Rose - a full blown expedition complete with survey gear, the place is crying out for us!
Jim Newton & Jim Stevenson