56 and the Year of the Dosser

Eastern Massif caving expeditions

by Howard Jones (Originally appeared in Caves and Caving No. 28)

Soon after returning from the 56 sump in 1983 we realised the potential of sump by-passes to take us over 1200m of depth and to achieve the much dreamed of through-trip connection to the Cueva Del Agua resurgence cave. Arguments ensued over which was the best choice and at least 6 leads were noted below the Dripping Blood campsite. Unfortunately we failed to learn our lessons from 1983 and didn’t get any new tackle bags or refine our camping techniques, actions which could or saved us a lot of blood, sweat and tears later on. Instead of taking good, light gear we took lots of crap, heavy stuff to compensate for its inadequacy. research into 8mm and 6mm ropes and thinsulate material would have made the job of re-tackling and exploring the system more acceptable.

The team was bigger, but less experienced than in 1983. We lost our Bahamian blue eyed boys who returned to their Zodiacs. Dave Checkley went off to organise famine relief in Borneo for Dick Willis’ tummy and Avison went to the Himalayas to persuade a New Zealander with cerebral oedema that he only had a mild headache and that ought to go higher as the weather was good.

Fortunately a few stalwarts remained and a group of first time expedition students joined in, to add greatly to the food and vino bill and to create a lot of problems in the sexual stakes, of which more later. After getting onto the ferry, the land rover wheel fell off whilst the advance party reached the White House to find it full of sheep shit and to find the water supply broken. Such minor setbacks never stopped Foster who set off to tackle up 56 almost single handed, proving yet again what a good motivator and rigger he is. Leaving behind the Elliott/Lawson bolting bible at the entrance, half of the cave went on natural anchors and several pegs, chocks and even ladders were used (horses for courses, as the Spaniards say). Two weeks later the end was in sight with several already vowing not to go anywhere near the place again.

Thankfully, relief arrived in the form of Tony White, in the role of the great white hope who spent the next 3 weeks trying to avoid daylight with the celerity of a miser avoiding a charity collector. Pete Smart turned up to try to unravel more of the complexities of the local geology and Colin Boothroyd came out as his rock sample boy, a role that was to change.

Following these 2 down the cave was good fun not only because Pete is the slowest of all cavers but also to listen to their conversations:

Pete:Hey Col, do you think this is preplasticine dendritic rock?
Col:No, looks like limestone to me. Anyway, look at that virgin passage over there.
Pete:Obviously an abandoned inlet; now come back here Col and pick up your enormous bags full of stal and follow me, or I won’t pay for your fare home.

The 6 leads were now checked out with varying success. The ramp was climbed to trace the water source. This led to a new rift series that eventually trended back towards known passage.

Climbs around the camp are didn’t go well and enthusiasm was beginning to cool until Pete Hartley led a climb into the Betelgeuse series. A climb above Aberfan led into the obvious main line. This continued at a 50 degree dip for nearly a kilometre of superbly decorated passage. More red stal and gour pools led from chamber to chamber and all in big passage – a contrast to the rest of 56 at that depth. Four days were spent in these big halls with exploration fever at high pitch. The Betelgeuse series series (named by Pete Isles after the Spanish petrol company) did the normal Tresviso trick on us and dropped back into old passage at the Rib Tickler. A major development had turned into a major disappointment but some of the best passage in Tresviso was ours.

Other leads were followed though none were to turn out to be as good and so the laborious detackling began with Eddie complaining that he had reduced so much of his gear to rubble that he could not afford to cave any more.

Pete Smart and others had carried out a scientific programme of dye tests and solubility tests which gave a positive trace from 56 to Agua at last. Other details will appear shortly in Transactions of Pete’s incredible work-rate in the times he has been with us even though his ‘big’ expedition ethos caused a few raised eyebrows and voices at times.

Colin did 2 dives – one at Cueva del Rio Chico extending it to a second sump; and the second at the Road to Certain Death in Agua. This massive stream-way has a perched sump on top of a 50 foot waterfall and has stopped the efforts of aid climbing by Jones and Seed, Davis’ big rock drill and Whitaker’s diving. Col dived to -20m depth in crystal vis. before pulling out. A considerable achievement so far from any help. Col would like to thank the 9 people who loaned him gear; and his mum would like to thank the 14 who wouldn’t.

Around this time a group of 6 went to the coast and fiestas and tried every combination of sleeping companion possible. This was later to cause traumas organising underground camps in such a way as to let everyone get their fair share of virgin exploration. Two of these heroes then went to Madrid in search of a greater challange (and some penicillin) only to miss all the detackling and so become extremely unpopular with their colleagues.

Attention meanwhile had turned to Dossers Delight. A superb series of 40m to 50m pitches including the Bus and Pittsburgh had led in 1981 to a huge calcite flow blocking the way on. Col climbed this on bolts occasionally putting them in more than a third or their length and even going to the extravagance of wedges on occasion. Tony and Steve negotiated the squeeze and rigged the pitch.

This was soon dropped to reveal a further series of pitches in the same vein as before. The cave became a routine, drop a 40m pitch in a huge shaft with good free hangs, climb up a rift/ramp into a breakdown area of squeeze or thrutch to the next shaft. The pitches were superb. The breakdowns were a pain but little by little it kept going. Being on a direct line to Agua and having a strong draught it still has 1200m+ potential and is right on top of the Sierra de la Corta: in every sense a prime sight.

At about 400m depth Tony lumphammered through a hole in a crawl to a superb 45m pitch and the way on. Several solo trips later he ran out of tackle with the way on wide open and still going. A surface survey also established its position relative to 56.

With it steadily picking up water and with a superb campsite at about -400m Dossers is the number 1 objective for 1985, with another strong Lancaster team returning under the capable leadership of Paul Ibberson.

1984 was a better year than Orwell predicted with another km. of passage added to 56 and yet another promising deep hole opened up in just the right place. 1985 should turn out to be the year of the Dosser.

We would like to thank all our sponsors past present and future for their support in this continuing project, especially the Sports Council of G.B., cavers in Lancaster and Steve Foster’s mum.