The Year of the Dosser

Eastern Massif caving expeditions

by Paul Ibberson (Originally appeared in Caves and Caving No. 31)

On the face of it, 1984 had been a bad year. Six weeks of toil and tears in 56 had yielded little; the myth of a sump bypass dispelled and the link to the Cueva del Agua as elusive as ever. However, Dossers Delight had provided some consolation. Little by little it had been extended, so that by the end of the expedition it was 500m deep. Back in Britain, we began to realise we were onto something big. With the next pitch in sight and a howling draught, Dossers was the best going lead for years.

And so it came to pass that the LUSS hordes journeyed south in 1985. This year we were joined by representatives of UBSS, SWCC, MUSS, and ICCC, plus 4 itinerant Aussies. Lancaster University Speleological Society provided the remaining two-thirds of a 30 strong team which exhibited a fine blend of experience and youth- many were veterans of 56 and the Aussies added another dimension with their techniques, work rate and early starts. With a good team, almost 3km of rope, enough food to sink a ship and plenty to go at, it promised to be a good expedition. It only took us 2 days to realise we’d left half the maillons in Lancaster. The one lead in Dossers was abandoned until the rest of the maillons arrived and we concentrated on the half dozen or so leads in 56.

The first cave to be visited though was Torca Labarga, first bottomed by SUSS in 1977. We were returning partly to effect a dye trace and partly to look at a lead in the main streamway. The dye trace was a bit of a fiasco since the canal from the Cueva del Agua to the Urdon H.E.P. station was drained for maintenance, thus lowering the level of the Agua resurgence pool by 6 feet and leaving our detectors high and dry! The lead in the streamway didn’t go either, but La Barga is a fine cave and well worth a visit since it is one of the few caves in the Picos which isn’t intent on destroying gear and bodies.

So back to 56. Many happy hours were spent enlarging the take-off to an undescended pitch off the Maze. This turned out to be 35m to a streamway and a 30m pitch. More streamway followed and beyond a ‘confluence’ was another pitch. Ian wanted to rig it from the in situ blot, but Jes realised they had rejoined the Far Canal route. Elsewhere it was the same old story- as in ’84, every highway and byway led us back to square one. The one success story was the recovery of the tablets and dosimeters left by Pete Smart in 1984 as part of his limestone erosion/solubility studies. These were situated between the Crumbles and Dripping Blood Passage, but a few marathon trips saw them safely back at the White House.

Whilst 56 was giving us the usual heartache, 55 gave us new hope. This shaft had been descended 180m in 1977 to a snow plug. Return visits in 1980 and 1984 had made no further progress, but the absence of snow this year convinced us it would be worth another look. It was cold and wet at the bottom, but sure enough, the cave continued. Just as we began to get excited about the possibility of a higher entrance to 56, the way on choked with boulders -250m down, there was still a good draught, but no way on.

By this stage, Dossers was well underway. After the false start, the cave was quickly rigged to -250m and the start of the rope left in 1984. From this point, pushing and re-rigging trips took place simultaneously. The cave went well- while improvements were made to the abysmal rigging of 1981/84(and the muddiest and most frayed ropes were replaced periodically), Dossers continued to unfold its secrets. The first push trip was a bit of an abortion, but the next dropped the undescended pitch. ‘One Step Beyond‘ was 26m into a large (by Dossers standards) chamber where we met the first active streamway. ‘The River‘ led onto ‘Glory Days‘, a split pitch into a large fault-controlled canyon and more pitches. A couple of trips floundered in the really nasty section of the cave (-250m to -500m), before Dave and Bunt(?) returned from a 24 hour epic with tales of even bigger streamways, wet pitches and an 80m undescended drop.

We were flying high, everyone jostled for position, the queue for pushing trips -700m down with another huge pitch to come, we fully expected the Master Cave and the Main Drain that was to carry us beyond 1000m and on to the Cueva del Agua and immortality. The plan was drawn up. We had at least another week before detackling and our precious time was allotted carefully to ensure none would be wasted. Camping gear was packed and the siege began. Mark and Carey were next on the list and went down to push the big lead. Four cavers took down and set up the camp for them while another two re-rigged some of the problem pitches in the mid-sections.

Twenty-four hours after the six exited, Mark and Carey returned with news of the sump. Our dreams were shattered. We drank the rest of the beer and vino to compensate, but depression set in. Fortunately, a previously arranged meal at the Casa la Gallega on Sotres restored morale and a diving/science/tourist trip to the Cueva del Agua almost provoked some enthusiasm. After a couple of survey and photo trips, all that remained was detackling. La Barga and 55 were already detackled and 56 was well underway.

On Sunday 18th August, the last caves and the last of the gear exited from Sima 56– perhaps for the last time? With 10 days until the ferry sailed, only Dossers was left- 1100m of rope, a hundred odd maillons and hangers, tapes, wires, camp gear, a ladder, two cuddly toys and the sink. By 6.00 a.m. on Saturday 24th, after a fantastic effort by all concerned, everything was out.

So what of the future? After Rob Parker’s dive, the sump at the end of the Road to Certain Death in Cueva del Agua is still wide open and the return next year will almost certainly be rewarded with the discovery of a major piece of the Tresviso jigsaw.

Surface prospecting this year was hampered by poor weather (Mike and Chris spent 3 hours looking for Oh What Pot in the mist before realising that they had lost each other and the way back to the White House).

However, more work and better weather should result in more discoveries next year. Dossers has leads at -600m and -700m and will be the major objective of Tresviso ’86 and another strong LUSS team led by Eddie Daw. At 831m deep, Dossers (ed. as of 1985) is already the second deepest in the Eastern Picos and the prospects for further extensions are good. It is a fitting testimony to a superb team.

I would like to thank everyone who helped make Tresviso ’85 a success, in particular Pete Iles, without whom none of this would have been possible.