The South Wales Caving Club has led a somewhat varied life when it comes to caving overseas. From bold ground- breaking expeditions in the 1960s to Yugoslavia, and in particular Balinka Pit, the drive to continue the trend appears to have faltered. Through the 1970s and early 1980s SWCC members seem to have taken the role of 'also rans' on expeditions substantially run by external bodies and groups. Even in the case of the Berger 75 expedition, an expedition led by an SWCC member, the club only seemed able to muster enough enthusiasm to produce 6 of the 25 participants. The general trend in the club was for small groups of members to participate in an 'annual vacation to the interesting part of the world' type trip or, for even smaller groups of members to participate in a 'really great groundbreaking world class expedition organised by the thingybob society'.
To all intents and purposes, the club seemed to possess the equipment and the manpower resource but for some reason things did not seem to fall into place.
There were exceptions of course. In 1979 what now reads as a very interesting expedition was run to Astraka in Northern Greece. Although the numbers were relatively small, the duration of the trip was an impressive six weeks. Some serious exploratory work seems to have taken place with encouraging results but mysteriously the leads were not followed up in 80 or even 81. Things again fell quiet on the expedition front.
In 1983 Simon Edwards, Julian Walker and Rob Parker embarked on a reconnaissance-come- caving-come-diving excursion to Tresviso, a small village in the Picos de Europa. This trip appears to have rekindled expedition enthusiasm in the club during the 1980's and in 1986 the first Agua expedition ran with some 19 participants, the majority of whom were club members. The flame was burning brightly again with a good cross-section of the club motivated to participate. The following year the club returned, this time with 16 participants and again, as with Astraka 79, the flame seemed to suddenly dwindle.
To a new member of the club in the late 1980s the expeditions could appear modest to say the least. Although extremely popular with the more mature members of the club, the general trend of these excursions was along the lines of holidays with a little bit of caving. They appeared to lack a direction, a purpose around which a team spirit could be focused. More importantly they appeared not to be popular with the more active members of the club who seemed to be exercising their skills and thirst for challenge on expeditions organised by other clubs and bodies.
The general level of skill and experience of overseas caving appeared to be in decline. The club was very inward looking with a small number of members taking an active interest in SRT, and other associated skills. A notable attempt to organise a series of weekends to Yorkshire died away due to lack of interest.
In 1991 a small excursion was made to the Piaggia Bella system in the North East corner of Italy. The trip was extensively proposed to be a run of the mill caving holiday to the Maritime Alps but due to one or two oversights the organisation became more expedition-like day by day. A horrific two hour 'dice with death' track to reach the cave enforced a base camp, top camp set up. Then, complicated route finding and poor information on rope lengths delayed the eventual bottoming of the system till almost the very last possible day. Days spent scouring the mountains for entrances to caves and ferrying water and food between base and camp required planning and organisation. The outcome however was a surge in spirits and enthusiasm and the formation of an embryonic team who could work well with each other and get the job done.
The Piaggia Bella spurred on demand for some sort of follow-up trip, something sporting, a bit of a challenge that club members could get their teeth into. Early in 1992, the club secured a booking to visit the Goufffe Berger in the summer of 1993. Almost overnight the thirty places were snapped up. Suddenly it seemed like everyone wanted to go caving again. Through the second half of 1992 and into 1993, training meets were organised in an attempt to weld together a team and blow the cobwebs out of a few people's SRT techniques.
The atmosphere was infectious, with people almost competing to carry this and de-rig that in their enthusiasm to get fit and prepare for the challenge. The team grew stronger. In August 1993 we were as ready as we could be to face this, one of the worlds most renowned caves. Renowned not only for its size, depth and beauty but also for claiming lives, with its ability to become a watery nightmare and the potential to trap people underground for weeks at a time.
Fortunately the weather was impeccable, and minimal water levels provided ideal conditions to bottom the cave. The system was rigged in just two days and some twenty members of the now thirty-eight strong team bottomed the cave. The de-rigging was accomplished with the same level of oiled efficiency, rope was raised from the depths and returned to camp with the speed of a typical Yorkshire meet. It all seemed too simple, the Gouffre Berger had hardly put up much in the way of resistance.
Upon reflection my singular regret of the 93 Berger expedition was that the full potential of the team had not been pushed. I will never regret the opportunity to have been able to visit such a fine cave under such perfect conditions but I still find myself postulating on the possibilities of 'what if this' and 'could we have done that' if the weather or equipment had been less optimal.
However, the club's current ability to undertake major expeditions was now beyond doubt. The manpower existed, the technology existed, the organisation existed and at last the enthusiasm existed also.
The follow up to the Gouffre Berger expedition was the 1995 expedition to the Pierre St Martin system. Again another world class cave system, but this time offering a variety of through trips as opposed to a distinct bottom target or objective. The cave offered to test the skill and endurance of the participants but again with hindsight it failed to offer the same level of challenge to the assembled team. There was not the same sense of isolation with increasing depth, the sense of remoteness or reliance upon other team members. It could be considered a distant cousin to our own Ffynnon Ddu, where one can happily venture alone, bumping into passing parties undertaking through trips or taking photographs.
As an expedition it was well supported with some thirty participants. Spirits were generally high but the level of drive towards a clear team objective was very much reduced. Individual or sub-group agendas came to the fore, rigging and de-rigging would grind to a halt due to lack of resources and the direction of the team became diffused. In short the task was too indeterminate and too easy. Here was a system potentially every bit the equal of the Gouffre Berger but now destroyed by the opening of a man-made entrance directly into the lower reaches of the system. Without the same level of challenge, the motivation and direction faltered and the expedition took on that weekend in Yorkshire feeling.
Enthusiasm within SWCC for foreign caving however was at what seemed to be an all time high. The Dent de Crolles trip in 1996 bore testament to members' needs to be 'lost in something big'. Again the expedition was extremely popular and enjoyed by all those taking part. The trend in world class caving continued but as with the PSM the team lacked a clearly defined challenge. By 1996 the number of foreign trips was starting to increase. The word 'exploration' was undergoing a revival. Inspired by finds at Ogof Draennen and elsewhere in South Wales there was renewed interest in finding new caves either at home or overseas. Numerous members were talking about exploratory expeditions as opposed to sporting expeditions, and many were suggesting that the time was right to change the emphasis from the established formula, to divert the current levels of experience and enthusiasm into a more speleologically credible venture. Groundwork had also started on studies into hand- held GPS receivers. Early results looked most encouraging and a full overseas expedition test was warranted.
The club appeared to stand at a crossroads, one route would continue along the sporting caving path the other along the road to true scientific exploration. The former had a proven track record of popularity, it would continue to offer enough of a challenge to those members who wished to participate, and if correctly managed could take the club's team spirit from strength to strength. The latter a dark horse, an unknown quantity. On the one hand it could be the next step in the club's development, consolidating the success of the earlier expeditions and blending the enthusiasm for foreign caving with the revived enthusiasm in exploration, or it could be a red herring, a proposition that due to lack of support by those feigning interest would never become a reality.
Of course simply sticking to the same formula is not a recipe for success, rather it is a recipe for stagnation. I for one have always wanted to be involved with an exploratory expedition but due to circumstances was never afforded the right opportunity.
The setting up of an exploratory expedition would face different problems to those facing a sporting expedition. It would not simply be a matter of arranging access to a known system, obtaining a set of dates, finding a camp site and off we go. It would face a whole new set of problems involving a huge diversity of factors. The first problem of course would be where could one go to find the potential for exploration, and yet stay within the budget of the majority of those who might wish to go?
Albania was one suggestion which did not progress too well. Norway maybe held potential, but the most favourable possibility stemmed from a conversation I had with Mike Hasildon one afternoon soon after the PSM trip. Mike had been describing a classic through trip which he had undertaken many years previously and was keen to repeat. He also mentioned that there was the potential for exploration in the same area. The whole thing sounded too good to be true, the possibility of running a sporting expedition alongside an exploratory reconnaissance would be just the ticket, allowing people to pick and choose precisely which aspect they were most interested in. A chance to hedge our bets, and run a serious exploratory expedition but at the same time cling to the formula of recent expeditions to produce a known attraction. The through-trip sounded intriguing, a technical 15 hour traverse which involved huge fossil galleries, large river canyons, deep lakes and a 300m entrance shaft. Purely by chance I had recently overheard a student in the Dragon Caving Gear shop complaining bitterly at having spent the first 10 hours of the trip into the system dangling in his SRT harness!
The exploration potential also sounded good, a large upland area of limestone, deeply dissected by rifts and covered in a formidable layer of bramble and bushes, enough to inhibit all but the most determined of expeditions. I pressed Mike for more details on the area, local maps, reports and contact names. I contacted everyone I could think of who might know something about the area but most leads produced little information. Progress was slow, and letters to Spain seemed to take ages to elicit any response but eventually the pieces began to fall into place. Contact was made with the Agrupacion Espeleologica Rameles, 'AER' the local caving club. They were currently exploring the area in question and seemed guarded against the intervention of a foreign club. Local tourist guides and information were not producing much data.
A reconnaissance was needed. In August 1996 a trip was made to further assess the potential of the area, look into access problems and try to open up a working dialogue with the AER. Rafael Zorrillia, an old acquaintance of Mike's offered to translate at a meeting with the club secretary, Martin Gonzalez Hiero. The meeting went well although Martin seemed surprised that we were asking only for access to do some reconnaissance work. He offered to put our proposal to the members of his club but he was not optimistic as to the outcome. It seemed that there had been some breaches of trust in the past with foreign clubs, and now the AER were generally sceptical with regards the value of involving foreign clubs in the exploration of the area.
It has to be said that Rafael did an excellent job of putting a case forward for the expedition to be accepted. His interest in seeing the two clubs work together was all the more remarkable when you consider that Rafael has little or no interest in caving itself.
Martin was receptive to Rafael's arguments and his disposition towards the proposals became more favourable, such that at the subsequent club meeting it would appear that Martin very much swung the day in favour of permission being granted.
On 19th of November 1996 a permit granting permission to explore the Pico San Vicente was issued by the AER Committee and the Cantabria 97 Expedition became a reality.