Volume 46 Number 1 Article 9
I can’t remember when I first learned about the existence of the BU56, an arduous, sometimes wet and difficult cave, to be found in the Spanish Pyrenees. However, for years I felt safe in the knowledge that I would never have to visit the place, as the cave is in a National Park and access is notoriously difficult to arrange. Early in 2008, I was shaken out of my comfortable state of complacency, when Beardy excitedly announced that the YSS were organising a trip there, and that we were going too!
My initial feeling was one of panic, but gradually this was coupled with curiosity and a desire to know if I had it in me to do it. Mostly though, I was scared. Over the next few weeks, I read several articles about the cave which served to allay some fears, but the spectre of the wet and tricky nature of the cave still remained.
So, at the end of March, I found myself at the Old Schoolhouse, along with representatives of the great, good and drunk of British caving, to hatch a plan for the trip. The main objective was for Jason Mallison to undertake a diving project. To enable this to happen, a re-breather, diving bottles, diving kit, camping equipment etc, would have to be transported to the sump and back. This is no mean feat, when you consider that the cave is over 1300m deep and that the distance between entrance and sump is some 9km. Secondary objectives involved re-rigging the lower sections of the cave (ie taking lots of rope, metalwork and a drill deep into the cave) and removing rubbish and old rope from the cave (heavy!). Finally, as a trip to the sump and back involves spending 2 nights underground, sleeping bags, mats, stoves etc would have to be taken into the cave to establish an 8-berth communal camp. It was all most intimidating, but luckily the meeting adjourned to the Helwith Bridge, so for a while at least, things didn’t seem so bad.
Over the next 5 months, the team lost the odd member and gained a few more, there were a few more meetings, rescue practices, t-shirts designed, food and equipment bought and a considerable amount of behind the scenes organisation, co-ordinated by expedition organiser extraordinaire, Colin Gray. Finally, each person wishing to go to the bottom of the cave was allocated a place on a team, and a schedule produced showing when each team would be underground and using the communal camp etc. This would ensure that all personnel and equipment would get to the bottom and back again within the time available. Beardy was co-opted onto an early trip, to carry all of the heavy diving equipment to the bottom. For some unfathomable reason, other than it must have seemed logical at the time, I was allocated a place on the final bottoming trip, to help pull out all of the gear!
During the week leading up to the trip, we received regular ‘newsflashes’ from the advance party, reporting that the (notoriously difficult to find) entrance had been found, that the entrance series had been rigged…etc etc
On Saturday 30th August, Beardy, Dave Ottewell, Marcus Evans and I found ourselves at Camping Zuriza, where we soon spotted the party of British cavers. Within minutes, the contents of a fully-loaded car were distributed around the campsite, before being sorted ready for our first excursion to the entrance. We were warned that this would be a hideous experience, with steep slopes, a terrifying gully and treacherous, razor-like lapiaz. So, off we went to the bar to prepare the following day. What a mistake that was for some members of the party (mentioning no names, Beardy). Anyway, early the next morning we set off, to avoid the worst of the heat. The walk took about three hours, and was actually very enjoyable (for those of us without hangovers), save for the leg-buckling weight of the rucksacks. (During the week I saw/heard a variety of wildlife en route, including large birds, marmots and snakes). We were efficiently guided to the entrance by some old hands, and the route was extremely well marked with stripey tape and reflective markers, thanks to the brilliant efforts of Team Wessex. Finally, we arrived at the entrance – marked with a yellow flag on a telescopic flagpole.
And what an entrance! It was located on a large ledge, with fine views over to France and the PSM. The chasm was next to the wall, where the painted name “BU56” could be faintly seen. I stashed my caving gear (my bottoming trip wasn’t for another week, so I was bringing up my gear in stages) and watched as Beardy, Dave et al disappeared into the cave, to get a feel for the entrance series.
The following evening (Monday), I toiled up the hill, with more of my gear, so that I could spend the night at the entrance, and wish the second bottoming team, consisting of Beardy, Dave O, Jason Mallinson, Keith Mason and Lee Langdon ‘buen viaje’ for their trip. We spent the night bivvying at the entrance and it was a truly magnificent place to sleep; the view of the Milky Way was spectacular. Their mood was certainly more subdued than two days before. Then I had a jolly trundle down the hill, to find that our friends David Magdalena, Nuria Martinez and baby Ariadna had arrived from Barcelona.
On Thursday, David M, Lisa Wooton (Lee’s girlfriend) and I sallied forth up the hill once more, taking up more equipment, and in the hope of greeting Beardy’s team when they exited the cave. Shortly after starting, we encountered George North! He reported that he’d been unable to get to the very bottom as there hadn’t been enough equipment to rig right to the bottom at that stage. He’d begun his walk down in the dark, got lost and benighted. He seemed pretty cheerful though, although a little bit vague!!!
After waiting at the entrance for an hour or two, David and I decided to retreat, so that we would be able to walk back in daylight and be home in time for tea. Lisa waited at the entrance and promised to send a text when the others emerged. It rained reasonably heavily for about an hour, but we soon dried off when the sun came out. We were nearly at the car, when we caught sight of a very tall figure, scampering down the hill with a particularly large rucksack (or was it two?). It was none other than Mike Bottomley. He’d stayed an extra night underground (thanks to ULSA lads Slim and Tom, who’d zipped two sleeping bags together for the three of them to share!), so that he could reach the bottom of the cave. Beardy’s team finally made it to the bar at about 10.30pm. It was a relief to see them safe and well, but they were extremely tired and emotional and all had that wide-eyed look. If this is what the cave would do to the hard men, what would it do to the likes of me?
So, still I was waiting, as I was scheduled to go on the last bottoming trip, planned for Sunday morning. The idea was to walk up on Saturday evening and bivvy at the entrance. However, rain stopped play, and the collective feeling of the team (Chris Jewell, George North (making his second attempt), Simon Cornhill, David Magdalena and me) was that it would be better to walk up the following morning. This was a hard decision for me, as it seemed to prolong the agony and increase the number of sleepless nights and frequency of nervous trips to the lavatory. Although we planned for an early start on the Sunday, the faff monster took over, so by the time we had walked up the hill etc, it was about 1pm before we were underground.
The entrance series of the cave mainly consists of shortish pitches (max about 70m), until one reaches a depth of 400m or so. However, there are several challenges along the way, especially for the more ample caver or one carrying a heavy bag. The first of these is Meander N. This is a narrow rift section with a couple of slippy climbs; it is particularly awkward on the return. This obstacle was passed fairly easily, using good teamwork to enable the tackle to progress. However, this part was quite a psychological challenge for David, the largest (but by no means large) team member, who was less used to the ‘British-style’ of that piece of passage. There are also two squeezes. The first of these is a circular hole, that gave David some trouble, but he eventually passed ok. The next one, a window from one shaft, to a pitchead in another, was more of a problem. Even if you are not intimidated as such by the squeeze, it is still awkward as the situation is a bit precarious; you need to keep your SRT kit on, and remain clipped to the rope. After several attempts, David realised that he couldn’t fit through, and that this was where the BU56 would end for him. He was bitterly disappointed, as he had been looking forward to this trip all year (if not even longer). As David reluctantly prepared to exit the cave, Simon offered to go with him, and see us later, at the Roncal camp. George, Chris and I continued down the final pitch, to the start of Meander Oprimido.
Meander Oprimido is another notorious section of the cave (Oprimido literally means ‘oppressed’). However, I actually found that it was quite enjoyable. Initially, the passage was dry and broken, becoming more rift-like towards the end. The main difficulty is choosing the correct level through, but previous teams had marked the way well and there is a telephone wire that seems to mostly follow the correct route. There are a couple of pitches/climbs, but all in all, it is pretty straightforward.
After Oprimido, the cave opens up, and you join the river. In my mind, I’d had visions of romping streamway, all the way to the camp at Sala Roncal. However, previous teams had dispelled this myth. The caving is interesting, with short sections in the stream, interspersed with slippery climbs, awkward crawls, short traverses and the odd pitch. None of the obstacles are exactly difficult in isolation, but the effort is sustained, without any easy-going passage. However, I felt that I was making good progress and was looking forward to reaching the camp. Shortly after a pitch, I was traversing on easy ledges as the stream cut down. George was ahead of me, and he made it to the stream level without difficulty. The stretch across became too wide for my little legs, so I shifted position so that I could put my feet on one wall and bum on the other. This way, I would easily be able to climb down. Splash! I suddenly found myself sitting/lying in the stream. Whilst shifting position, the bag had banged into the wall and swung off to one side, pulling me with it, and we had both fallen about five feet into the stream. Luckily, I was only bruised (and my pride particularly so). However, I was rather shaken, and it was sobering to think about what could have happened had I sustained even a slight injury, such as a twisted ankle. The BU56 is not the place to come unstuck.
Eventually, we left the river, for the final part of the journey to Sala Roncal, where we would spend the night. This consisted of toiling 80m up a huge boulder pile (complete with a scrambly crawl near the bottom – nothing is ever a walk in the park in the BU56). Then it was a 110m descent down the other side to the camp. From the top of the boulders we could smell soup being cooked in the camp. As we got even closer, some of the aromas were less pleasant.
This was to be my first underground camp, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. At the bottom of the boulder slope, was a flat area with a tent, where the Dutch members of the expedition were sleeping. Outside of the tent I spied Ian ‘sleeping’. Around this area, there were various stoves etc and a ‘washing line’ where various damp garments were supposedly drying. The way on, was partially blocked by a huge boulder. Beyond this, you literally followed your nose to the toilet area. Back in the camp proper, there were various bivvy sites leading up the boulder slope. I picked the nearest one to the communal area and next to this I found a plastic bag containing chocolate bars, that Beardy had left for me. (Good job, as I had none; my chocolate stash had been in David’s tackle-bag).
I quickly changed out of my caving gear, into the dry clothes that I had brought, to keep warm. I put my caving gear ‘to dry’. Tea consisted of an Expedition Foods bag of vegetable tikka. This was reasonably tasty, but I found that it was rather too bulky and I struggled to eat it all, despite needing the calories. I also had a pudding of custard and berries, which was very nice, but I gave most of it to Chris, as at the time I couldn’t really manage it. This was a bit of a problem, as I couldn’t really get enough calories down. In the future, I would opt for the little and often approach.
I slept pretty well, in a pertex bag liner, inside one of the communal sleeping bags. I also used a goretex bivvy bag. On the occasions when I did wake up though, I was momentarily very confused to discover that it was light. This seemed very wrong inside a cave, until I realised that there were some candles burning through the night.
Morning came all too soon. We made an early start because we wanted to reach the sump as soon as possible, to give us plenty of time to ferry the diving equipment etc from the sump. Breakfast was hard work (overly sweet, gunky porridge that just seemed to lodge in the throat). Luckily, putting on the wet caving gear wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
The cave beyond the camp became more and more spectacular. The streamway was very atmospheric and there were pools to negotiate, some with traverse lines or Tarzan rope swings. There was a reasonably long, wet section where tensioned ropes had been rigged to keep you out of the water as much as possible. However, it was still neck deep! We spent a few minutes after this, removing cobbles etc, thereby semi-draining the pool and lowering the water level. Beautiful sections of passage followed, festooned with long straws, glitters and gours, it was really magical.
Soon we reached a grovelly crawl; this section sumps off in wet weather. Just after is one of the most exciting/scary sections of the cave – the Balcony Traverse (Canyon Belagua). As the river continues to cut down, one follows a pitch up to gain the traverse, some 20m or so above the raging river. The traverse is particularly acrobatic in places, with negligible footholds. Just beyond this is the next obstacle – a deep pool negotiated via a Tyrolean traverse. With hindsight, as I was already soaked through, the easiest thing would have been to swim this. However, I went for the traverse. It was really difficult to get on to it, as it was quite high. In an attempt to keep my body out of the water, I tried to clip into the rope with a krab attached to my d-ring. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach, so in the end I just looped over my cowstail….how stupid! Within seconds, I realised the error of my ways, as the cowstail wore through, due to the friction on the tensioned rope. Luckily, just beyond the traverse was a short pitch up, rigged with an excess of rope, that I was able to fashion into a new cowstail.
It was here that we met Jason and Madphil. They seemed very pleased to see us at first, but it seemed as though they were constantly looking over our shoulders, in the hope that the rest of the party would soon show themselves. They had been expecting a team of a least half a dozen strapping cavers, and there were just four of us, and one of them was me! It was indeed fortunate that Simon, Chris, George, Phil and Jason each contain a mixture of strength and obstinacy that enabled the mound of equipment to be conveyed up the cave. Anyway, we still had to reach the sump, so we bid our farewells, and agreed to bring as much of the tackle back to Roncal as possible. The rest of the way was reasonably easy, and once past the enormous pile of equipment, we were soon at the sump. And what a sump! It was large, round and a bright blue-green colour. Whilst the lads were happy to frolic around there, peeing in it, just because they could, I was pretty keen to begin the journey back to camp.
All too soon we arrived at the mound of tackle that had to be taken back to Roncal. There was considerable re-packing to be done, to ensure that it could be distributed between the four of us. I would love to say that I took my fair share, but that would be a lie. I really did have the bare minimum, and struggled with even that. How the other three managed to carry their bags I’ll never know. Simon even managed to help me with my bag as we went along the Balcony Traverse! (This obstacle was utterly exhausting with a bag).
Soon (well, it’s all relative on a 3-day caving trip) we were back at the pool that we had partially drained on the way in. The water level was indeed much lower, but this meant that I could no longer reach the tensioned rope, so I still ended up wet up to the neck! Never mind.
Finally, when I thought that it wasn’t possible to clamber up and down any more boulders etc, I could smell the unmistakable stink of pee and poo. This was such a relief (ha ha), as it signalled to me that we were nearly home (well, Roncal Camp, anyway). It brought to mind the part of Touching the Void, where Joe Simpson realises that he has made it back to the camp when he finds that he has crawled into the latrine!
Once back at camp, all I could think about was having tea and going to bed. However, Jason, Phil and Simon were keen to get as much of the equipment up the cave as possible, so they set off for an evening excursion with several heavy bags. This would make the detackle easier the following day. After more vegetable tikka etc, I settled down for the night. I was hoping to get a good night’s sleep, but alas, the reality was a night of insomnia.
Morning arrived, and with it the task of clearing the camp completely, thereby producing even more stuff to transport out of the cave. Lack of sleep and nerves about the day’s activity ensured that I was in a terrible mood. The gunky porridge was awful and it was such an effort to swallow it…each mouthful was making me gag. I began to get very worried that I wouldn’t be able to eat enough to give me sufficient energy to get out. I was feeling sick, I was cold, my hands were tingling, I had the shits (the ‘bulk’ in the dried food just seemed to go straight through) and I was light headed. I needed a bit of tea and sympathy, but as there was work to be done to break up camp, and everyone was worried about getting the equipment out of the cave, it was not forthcoming. I wanted to have a good cry, but instead I had a bit of a rant, a poo and a few mugs of sweet coffee, which seemed to revive me fairly well.
Pretty soon, we were ready for the off. I think we left camp at about 10am. The amount of stuff that people were carrying was incredible. I got off rather lightly, as my extras (in addition to clothes and camping stuff) were mainly just rubbish – it’s amazing how heavy a bag full of used tea bags can be though!
Three quarters of the way up the boulder pile, I needed to stop for a pee. I think that people were actually quite pleased, as it meant they could have a bit of a break. It really is quite a performance though, what with harness, oversuit, undersuit etc etc…blokes really don’t realise how easy their life is, being able to pee willy-nilly, whenever the urge may strike.
On we went, making reasonable progress. Getting the bags etc through the crawls was good fun, as we had to work together and I felt useful again. The difficult parts were the climbs. For me, if a climb is a bit awkward, I find it easier to pass the bag, so that I can make the climb unencumbered. This usually works very well, particularly when caving with people of similar strength and stature – by working together it is possible to be quite efficient. However, this method wasn’t very helpful for the others, as they were so overburdened it wasn’t practical to keep taking their bags on and off, so they just climbed with bags on their backs. Eventually, my bag was taken off me for a spell, because it was easier for someone to carry it, rather than to endure the stop-start of passing my bag up the climb etc. This was very kind, and I did appreciate it, but my pride and self-confidence took another knock.
I was beginning to feel pretty tired, I was battered and bruised, my hands were cut and bleeding. I couldn’t wait to reach the stash point (area between the streamway and Oprimido, where equipment was being piled up for the final push out of the cave). Once up the pitch (near where I had tumbled on the way in), we encountered Tom and Slim (Simon Jepps). Seeing Slim’s friendly face was quite a moment… I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and I think that I probably did a bit of both…I was certainly very pleased to see him!
The final slog to the ‘stash point’ passed without incident, but it seemed to take forever. After a brief rest, I set off out through Oprimido with Jason. He was carrying an incredibly large and heavy bag, and sometimes it was a bit of a puzzle as to how best to get it through the passage. Shortly into Oprimido, I heard Beardy’s familiar voice shouting “Is that Helen Blyth?”. This was a real boost, and although we were literally like ships passing in the night, it really was wonderful to see him. A bit further on we met Dave and Emma. Once again, I really enjoyed the Oprimido section.
Pretty soon we were at the start of the pitches. Psychologically speaking, it felt as though I was home and dry! Some might say that my optimism was a little misplaced. Jason went up the first pitch and I followed. When I reached the ‘window’ (the squeeze that had thwarted Mr Magdalena), there was a bag containing a diving bottle, which I agreed to take as far as I could. And so the seemingly endless prussiking began. It’s funny, but on the way in, the pitch series seemed to go by in a blur. Not so on the way out – pitches of which I had no memory just seemed to keep appearing. I reached the point where I would do 5 prussiks and then stop for a rest (a rest considerably longer than the 5 prussiks!). It was awful, I felt like I was suffering from altitude sickness or something. Little by little, my energy, optimism and confidence faded. I was rubbish, the cave was rubbish, caving was rubbish…It was only afterwards that I learned that Beardy and Dave had the same ‘5 prussiks and a rest’ technique on their way out…that did make me feel a bit better!
Just before Meander N, I felt that I could lift the bottle no more. Then, I heard Stuart Weston’s voice above – he had entered the cave, to relieve me of the bottle. I was so glad. Perfect timing! Meander N was much more awkward than on the way in. We worked together to get the bag (and in one place me!) through. There is no way that I’d have been able to get the bag through myself, not in the state that I was in, anyway.
A few more pitches and then I saw it – daylight! I hurried (?) on best as I could, eager to get a proper look at the outside world. All an observer would have seen though was me inching my way, painfully slowly upwards and uttering the words “fuck me” over and over and vowing never to go caving again. Keith was on the surface, and when I saw him, I started to cry!
Then the mission was on, to get changed, pack up and walk down the hill. Obviously we (Stuart Weston, Keith Mason, Ben ‘not the bigot’ Shaw and I) wanted to make the most of the remaining daylight and if we were lucky we might get back in time for a drink in the bar! Initially, things went well, despite the huge rucksacks. There was still some light when we cleared the lapiaz area, and before long we were descending the slippery gully. It was beginning to spit with rain, but I think that we all thought it would be nothing more sinister than a brief shower – how wrong we were! For the rest of the walk, there was thunder and lightening, it was dark, very windy and the rain was absolutely torrential. I have never experienced rain like it; it was literally as though someone was constantly pouring a huge bucket of freezing water into your face. The visibility was appalling, but luckily Stuart navigated the route perfectly – thank you! We were all absolutely drenched and the ‘path’ had become a river and everywhere was slick with mud, but the person not to fall over was Ben – the only one of us without walking poles!
I can’t remember a time in my life where I have walked with such a sense of determination and purpose (I made it down the mountain in my quickest ever time). The fact that I was cold, wet, tired, hungry and falling over in the mud didn’t seem to matter much; all I was focussing on was keeping going and reaching the carpark at Refugio de Linza, where (hopefully) Colin would be waiting with the Transit van.
Then, I saw it! The light from Colin’s van – in a few minutes everything would be alright. I was in the carpark, with Colin taking my rucksack off me. Instantly I felt as though I was floating and the world seemed very spongy. I sat in the van (I was lucky enough to be given the front seat, while the poor lads had to rough it in the back). I’m afraid that I must have made the seats rather muddy – sorry Colin. I was given a can of beer, of which I am ashamed to say I only managed a few sips. During the journey back to the campsite, the road was covered in frogs, and Colin was carefully trying to avoid running them over. For the entire ride he was talking about frogs and the ones he’d seen on the journey up there etc etc, it was very surreal, but I think that he was trying in vain to keep me awake and with it!
Upon reaching the campsite, we were ushered into the marquee, where Colin’s wife was waiting with a huge vat of stew. It wasn’t exactly a vegetarian’s delight, but in such circumstances it’s advisable to just eat if you can. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I was so cold and shaking so much and I hadn’t really the strength to raise a spoon to my mouth. While everyone else was polishing off their second or third bowlful, I was sinking into some kind of stupor. I could hear the voices around me, but I couldn’t move at all. I was vaguely aware of the Dutch girl putting her coat around me. I desperately wanted to go to bed, but I didn’t know where the cabin was where I was staying (Beardy, David and Nuria had changed cabin while I was underground). I was dragged/half-carried (I couldn’t walk) to the van and driven to my new house. I stood inside, shivering and dripping on the floor, when the kind faces of Nuria and David appeared. I must have looked a sight; they certainly looked as though they had seen a ghost. Quickly, David put some broth onto the stove while Nuria helped me to get out of my wet clothes and found some dry things. It was amazing what a difference just being dry made!
Sitting in bed, with a cup of broth, I could slowly feel my self reviving – it was a fantastic feeling! That night, while many people were shivering under a tarpaulin near the entrance, I dreamt of a vast salad, the kind that you only ever seem to get in Spain, with lots of lettuce, tomatoes, olives etc, liberally sprinkled with salt and literally dripping in oil!!
The next day dawned hot and sunny, as if the awful weather of the previous night had never happened. I was finally reunited with Beardy that afternoon, and I managed to break into a run for a Hollywood-style embrace (a big shock for anyone that had seen me the previous evening).
That night we all gathered in the campsite restaurant for a celebratory meal. It was a fine end to a wonderful trip. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something that has required so much sustained team effort, and it was amazing to be a very small part of that. Everyone involved deserves a big pat on the back. I’d like to say a special thank you to everyone who helped me, whether that was by lightening my load, offering a kind word, hug or smile…I couldn’t have done it without you.