Jim, Chris, Jon, Rob, Sam, Joe, Luke, Dylan
Following an eventful journey to Matienzo, via almost-Bilbao and ultimately Santander, that being the wrong airport in terms of intended destination but the right one in terms of the pilot actually being able to get the plane on the ground in one piece due to falling-out-of-the-sky levels of turbulence due to wind, rapid action from Joe and Chris who hired fresh cars before we’d even discovered if we’d be able to get off the plane, an excited Team Awesome headed to do a recce of the route and drop some kit at the end of the exploration objective for the week, Torca De Pena Encaramada
After a fun time changing in glorious sunshine surrounded by eucalyptus trees and some kind of giant hornet that we preferred to not inspect too closely, the team dropped the 30m entrance pitch and assembled in a chamber seemingly made for calibration of Distos. After the usual interminable sequence of turning and pressing we pressed on.
Bits of stomping interspersed with the odd squeeze led us to a 300m crabwalk in and above water more akin to a Derbyshire cave and not what I came to Spain for, but the whole time was joyous, I felt fully switched on and we were all bubbling away having loads of fun.
A lovely stroll along the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ took us further into the system, past a stunning aven in the Long Road to Ruin that we eyed up as a possible climb, and eventually everyone paused at the I Want it All boulder choke, where the way on appeared to be in a low, squalid crawl under a boulder and into a tight looking squeeze. I preferred to let Rob, Joe and Dylan take the plunge first but once they were through and confirmed the way was on, decided that delaying the inevitable would only make it worse so grovelled my way through the muddy water and to the hole. The water wasn’t as bad as it looked, but the squeeze didn’t look great. I poked an arm and head in and it didn’t feel great, so I popped back out and had a better look at the shape of the hole and pushed in again. Back and forth four times with increasing insertion but ultimately and increasing feeling of getting closer to total stuckness led me to reluctantly back out for what I thought would be the final time and the end to my aspirations of pushing the end of the cave onwards to glory….
Cue the return of a calm and encouraging Joe at the other side of the hole, bringing assurances and kind words that I’d most certainly have no problem reaching the hallowed other side if I only applied the right fortitude.
Reinsertion commenced and immediately I felt better with Joe’s soothing tones coaxing me gently ahead. A bit of vigorous pushing and wriggling and through I popped with an elated whoop! I headed forward to meet Rob and Dyl at the bottom of a dark drippy aven full of fallen pillars of rock and the place felt ominous and immediately remote compared to the preceding friendly metres.
I decided to go and check on Chris’ progress as I knew he’d be having similar thoughts to mine and found him having a similar experience. Maybe my bedside manner is not what it should be but no amount of coaxing would get him to commit so I called on a no-longer-soulless, but now rather Gentle Joe. Chris is a tad broader than me and unfortunately even Joe’s powers couldn’t make him achieve the impossible in this case.
In spite of my elation at getting where I was in the first place, I’d had a slightly perturbed feeling that the feat may not be quite so easy in reverse, and not wanting to find out at the end of a grueller, and not wanting to abandon Chris to cave out on his own, I decided to go back the way I’d come. I decide to go with my preferred right arm forward like I had on the way through and the shape of the hole looked good for it. I got inside and applied some power like I had done on the way through and kept moving right up to the point that my hip bones ground to a halt on the rock. My ribs were a tad pinched too but the immovability of my pelvis was the primary cause for concern. Not a problem, I’ll just reverse out a try a slightly different position. At this point I realised that my earlier slight perturbance had a sound base.
Literally nothing I did helped, I couldn’t move backwards, nor forwards, up, down, nothing. I felt a panic rise but decided to supress it as a panicked caver is a bigger and more tired caver. Relaxing didn’t really help however so I had a little panic again, and then a bigger one that gave way to shame and sorrow as the realisation dawned that I’d really messed up on day one of the expedition and I’d been having such a great time and I wouldn’t be able to go caving again and wondered how long I’d take to starve to death as the cave didn’t even seem cold enough for hypothermia to take me away that quickly.
Gentle Joe had clearly sensed something was up, possibly because he’d heard my repeated cries of ‘oh fuck I’ve fucked it this time’ or words to that effect. He came and grabbed hold of my legs to try to lift my hips out of the narrowing at the bottom but it didn’t do much to relieve matters. Unfortunately for Sam he turned up at my head end and asked if I could move, so feelings turned to rage as a screamed that if I could fucking move I’d not be stuck in this fucking squeeze and if he didn’t have anything constructive to say he’d better shut the fuck up. I immediately apologised and asked him to grab my head to take the strain off my tiring neck. His presence did however have a calming effect as I calmed down and took stock the situation. I couldn’t bend my torso forward, but reaching my arm behind revealed a massive space behind my arse…. Unusable space due to the fact that my hips were being pressurised into the rock in front but it was space. Maybe I wasn’t trapped in the choke forever after all. For now though I wasn’t moving. The L shaped boulder above me and the narrowing below me had me held fast.
I managed to get an arm down to reach my belt and thankfully the buckle was right where I needed it so I wiggled it and millimetre by millimetre the buckle came undone and I pulled it off and out of the way. A few mm hip wiggle forward made me feel better until I got more stuck, however at that point Sam realised that my oversuit was rucked up behind my arse. I shifted a shoulder and felt material slip a few mm up my back. ‘Sam, grab my collar and fucking pull!’ cordura sliding up my back gave me the impetus to push as hard as I could and I shouted ‘Sam! Keep fucking pulling and don’t stop!’ As the fabric slid I went with it and forgot about the fact that it felt like my pelvis was being abraded against the rock. The next moment I shot out of the squeeze like a cork out of a bottle with an even bigger whoop than the entry whoop and dragged myself through the puddle before collapsing at the feet of Luke and Chris with looks of genuine concern on their faces. They rallied round and shoved some food and drink into me and I sat for a moment saying ‘fucking hell I really thought I’d fucked it’… Quick hug for Sam before he headed through the newly christened ‘Pug Trap’ and it was time to get the hell out of there.
The return trip felt great in the circumstances with no lasting trauma evident. 300m of flat out wet crawling felt a lot harder than on the way in and it was only after about 200m that I realised that it hadn’t been flat out crawling on the way in and stood up.
Chris and I lost Luke and Jon in the Disto chamber and had a little detour down the wrong direction until the lack of footprints highlighted our folly and we retraced our route and back to the entrance shaft.
As Chris prusiked up I sat in the dark and felt glad to be with such a mega team and pondered whether I felt fast and fit for the ascent. Just as I started to feel the cold Chris boomed out ‘rope free!’ and I stuck on my jammers and bolted for freedom. I was fast and fit and in short order was inhaling the amazing smell of a eucalyptus scented surface air in the utter darkness of the Cantabrian night.