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1. First trip; 14th August 1973.
The entrance is in a steep sided shakehe 60' in diameter, located just below the track on the west side of the valley running down the French side of Uthuroudinetako Portilloua. The cave began to interest CUCC early in the expedition as a refuge from the ever-looser horrors of Betzula, 2 km to the West.
First to descend were Nick Reckert and Julian Griffiths. The entrance, a high collapsed arch in the thin 45° bedding, leads straight into a large boulder-strewn chamber where the obvious way on was a wriggle over boulders on the right to drop into a walking passage walled in dead stal, which after eighty feet hit an inclined rift, an important feature met elsewhere in the cave.
100' on the rift ran out above the floor of a high aven, a simple free climb. A sparse shower fell from the roof, probably directly from an obvious sink on the surface. On the far side Nick followed the rift a short distance to a 20' pitch, which he left, not having any ladder, but which was clearly known. A way on was found at floor level in the aven, an awkward grovel down into a low and even more awkward rift, though after a squeeze it expanded to allow easier progress, now in a series of short drops reminiscent of, though larger than, the Primrose Path in that notable Mendip hole, Eastwater. The descent followed the 45° bedding for some 200' to a second small hole, on the other side of which two six foot drops began a short section of vertical rift. A pitch, estimated at 30' halted progress for the day and the party surfaced, convinced that from the foot of the aven they were into new ground, because on most of the climbs all the obvious holds fell off together with the first person to use them.
2. First push: 16th August.
Nick returned with three fresh Anglo-Basques; Andrew Nichols, Steve Perry and Guy Talbot, still undergoing the delicate changeover from G.K. Abbot to vino. Half an hour's deliberation at the pitch failed to produce a safe belay, but it was eventually rigged, descended and found to be 30'. The landing was in a larger rift, immediately blocked by a massive flake, all but a grovel over a boulder on the left, emerging at the top of an easy 15' climb down to the floor beyond. The passage descended in another series of small drops, swinging to the left and now ??' high and 3' wide. Soon it returned to the original line and ran out at roof level into a larger version of the angled rift found above the shower aven. An easy climb to the floor landed in a meagre stream: upstream it was followed for over 200' of crawl by Steve, who reported that it still went. Andy continued downstream on the floor of the rift, but the series of shallow pools was soon blocked by a massive fallen flake.
The true way on was 15' up the rift, on a narrow ledge, which ran straight for some distance. Gradually the rift returned to the vertical, increasing the number of slabs, some very large, that we dislodged as we passed, but decreasing the distance they fell. At 250' a large boulder forced an ascent, beyond which it was possible to climb down to the now negotiable floor level. 200' feet further a second boulder blockage left an exciting black hole and on the far side was, if not an alternative universe at least the largest piece of cave so far. In front, a very loose boulder slope fell away to the lip of a pitch, in an aven 40' wide and as high as the limit of our lights, at least 100ft. A reluctant Reckert found himself on the end of a rope and pushed by his companions down what turned out to be a scree slope, dammit, which continued to pour over the drop minutes after he reached the edge of it. He reported, whispering, a 40' pitch down a wall of boulders before returning in a state of Great Anxiety. At once the party forgot its 150' of ladder back at the first pitch and decided to leave the problem for a larger - ie. different - group to deal with. On the way out a crawl was noticed at the foot of the climb 200' back. It ran for 150', over sand and shingle, descending gently to a dried mud choke and had absolutely no importance.
3. Second Push: 17th August.
Zealous efforts the previous evening failed to produce anyone else willing to go instead. CUCC to a man, had more interesting, promising and stable places to go, particularly one nameless hero who had chewed his way through a dozen senna pods to provide himself with an excuse. So it was Nick, Andy, Steve and Guy who again found themselves at the second pitch. Half an hour later they established that there was no possible belay on the boulder slope or at the pitch-head. The looseness of the walls ruled out a bolt, so a flake 20' back in the rift was selected, 60' of ladder rigged from the top of the slope and Nick sent down.
The pitch, of 40', hung inches away from the rubble wall - "And little rocks have bigger rocks upon their backs to hit me!" - and landed on a shingle floor washed by a shower originating high out of sight on the far side. The rift continued, to provide the only way out, over 15' high, but soon narrowing to a six inch slot through which could be glimpsed a tantalising pool. Artificial aids were required, so Andy descended in a shower of rubble with a peg hammer, and after ten minutes the squeeze was enlarged sufficiently to allow Nick to pass, through into the Great Beyond. On his way he trod on a slab at the end of the pool, which sank with a thirsty gurgle; by the time he returned to report a further pitch, Andy had done enough navvying to get even his portly person through, inflating his ego so much that he had doubts about his return.
The remainder of the cave consisted of a high, upright rift, initially 50' by 15', floored with massive fallen blocks and descending rapidly. The largest block necessitated a 15' pitch from its left hand end and, 100' further on a similar drop could be free-climbed with care. Gradually the roof lowered, or rather the debris filled more of the passage, until, some 300' from and 90' below the squeeze, the rift came to an abrupt end. Here the boulders had disappeared below dry sand and caked mud covered the bottom six feet of the walls, a conclusive blockage. Various holes in the boulders were looked at but all proved to be inconsequential and dangerous. The water from the aven now simply filtered away, so the party de-rigged and made its way out.
On the way to the surface Andy and Steve descended the pitch reached by Nick on the first trip. A 20' ladder landed on a mud slope which spiralled to the left to the top of a greasy 15' freeclimb. Below, a narrow stooping passage on the left soon ran out into the roof of a rift, a short and simple descent. On the right, a small stream entered via a roomy tube, possibly from the shower aven for no water is seen in the earlier part of the main way down.
The water flowed out on the left in a clean hands and knees crawl. This was followed for 200 feet of meandering and steady descent to the top of yet another characteristic angled rift, thirty feet high. At the bottom a small inlet crawl was noted on the right but not entered, while the rift to the left was blocked at once by fallen rock. There seemed no way on, but returning to the top, Andy found a body-tight tube opposite the point of entry, which emerged 15' beyond the blockage and above a climbable shute that would have been negotiable had he not been the wrong way round. Still having his head where his feet should have been, he was at least able to see that the bottom five feet dropped into a passage of at least walking size.
Time pressed so he and Steve made their way out to join the other two.
This unpleasant task was undertaken by Julian Griffiths, Steve Perry and Nick Reckert, who surveyed rapidly from the entrance chamber to the first pitch, which a premonition prompted them to double belay. One belay point crashed to the floor as soon as Steve descended, narrowly missing him, to discover, when he climbed back up, that the second belay had been hit and sheared through for all but two threads. This was too much for that stalwart, so the party decided that the Gods were against them, spat briefly over their left shoulders, and went out. The cave was not visited again on the expedition.
5. The Progress Made.
The main way down from the shower aven has taken the depth of the cave to some 400'. It is undoubtedly new ground but its end is undiggable. There are only two points of extension: the inlet at the start of the rift before the second pitch, which may well connect with the second way down; or an extremely exposed traverse at roof level over the second pitch to the stream which apparently enters down a gulley, at least 100' up on the far side. The second way down reaches a depth of perhaps 200' and is probably known at least as far as the 200' crawl. That is no real obstacle but French cavers are unaccountably deterred by small or damp places and it is likely that no-one has been beyond the tube in the roof at the bottom. That continuation of the rift is the most promising point of attack in the cave. The two inlets further up, though open, are unlikely to be significant.
The second place worth investigating is a small hole at the opposite side of the entrance chamber to the rest of the cave, where an apparent drop into a roomy passage was reserved for later but never revisited.
Baratchegagnako Harpia could expand into a considerable system, if the thinly bedded and dangerous rock will allow it to descend another 200' or so. Nearby are two short single-pitch shafts and three small sinks taking a little water even in summer. The valley below Uthuroudinetake Portilloua is some 2km long and 0.75km wide, dotted with shakeholes and, bar the occasional rapidly sinking stream, devoid of surface water, At its lower end it falls away in a cliff at the foot of which is a powerful resurgence, The Cascade du Pista, over 700', lower than the entrance to Baratchegagnako Harpia.
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