So here we were in the bar on day 4 of the CUCC Total Fester Trip To Majorca supping our beers (& ridiculously cheap cocktails) and the fateful words areheard: 'Wot about the Gorge Trip then boys?'... an unnatural silence descends... hard cavers pale visibly.
So that was it then - we were going to do The Gorge again. After a serious NDE (Near Death Experience) last time we tried it, in a ten hour epic described in vivid technoscream in last year's CUCC Journal, we had decided to try again in that dangerous drunken period in which most of the worlds really silly trips are formulated.
This time, in an attempt to improve our chances of survival we decided on a team of four rather than six so as to move faster, had brought flotation for our tacklebags with us from England, remembered the prusiking gear this time, resolved to rig only the pitches that were really necessary, and had neoprene balaclavas to keep our thick heads warm.
Despite these preparations a year's serious bullshitting about how much we nearly died, how badly Tina & I had hypothermia, how utterly awful it was and how crap all the belays were, was too much for our intrepid loonies. We had also had a look at the bottom end of the Gorge the day before & had found a large (2m decp) pool at the end, whereas last year it had been dry. We also wondered what effect the serious flooding that the island had experienced over the summer had had. Our mental states varied from slightly worried to scared shitless.
Jeremy, Julian & I had done it the year before & thus were obviously very dim but William had missed out after we had had such a hard time & was keen to have a go. By the end of the evening, after all 'The Gorge' stories had been recounted yet again & survival techniques discussed in detail we were all getting worried.
Julian & William got very little sleep as they were talking about it all night (well William was mostly) and got themselves into a really impressive state of highly strung panic, and Jeremy was decidedly unhappy about the whole thing & was convinced that at the very least we were all going to die, whilst I was assuming an air of tranquility & assuring myself that it couldn't possibly be any worse than last year & really ought to be somewhat nicer:- most of the problems were psychological so a healthy mental attitude was all that was required to turn a nightmare into a reasonable (if not actually pleasant) trip.
Unfortunately, by the time we had sorted out the gear, just barely resisted the very serious temptation to jack (mostly due to me failing to keep my gob shut & insisting that all would be fine) & driven across the island to Escorca, my mental fortress had crumbled quite badly and I was all for going straight back to the hotel thank you very much. But by now the others (especially William) had gone all keen and dedicated so I was stuffed - Gorge here we come.
After all this palaver the trip did in fact turn out to be a complete piece of piss & I don't know what all the fuss was about. We set off down the easy, dry(ish) start section at midday and after an hour or so came to the 1st pitch - the point of no return. Jeremy started to whinge about the slightly dodgy-looking belay but William (who is world famous for his whinges about dodgy belays) suddenly entered caving mode and told him it was fine - 'stop moaning and get going'. After nearly falling down the pitch in shock at this amazing change of attitude we got going.
At this point I must mention the BCRA Grade Digital Watch survey. After our last trip the estimates of the number of pitches varied from 15 to 50. We decided to try and improve on this but given the amount of swimming involved the only thing we could write on was a waterproof databank watch. We had two on the trip with 50 records each - more than enough. Jeremy has one because he has no brain, & I had one because I have very little brain & am a gear/gadget freak.
In order to keep the pitches in order they were named A,B,C...continuing ZA,ZB,ZC after I ran out of alphabet. The letters P,H,C,J,T & W were used to indicate Pitch, Handline, Climb, Jump, Traverse & Water-at-the-bottom respectively, and the height of each pitch was recorded (estimated either visually or from the amount of rope left at the bottom on the longer pitches).
The (translated) results are summarized here:
|2||Pitch or slimy Climb to Jump into Water||9|
|5||Handline into Water||4|
|6||Handline into Water||3|
|7||Jump or Handline||4|
|8||Climb into Water||3|
|9||Climb into Water||4|
|10||Climb into Water||3|
|11||Jump or Handline into Water||4|
|12||Jump into Water||3|
|13||Pitch into Water||8|
|14||Pitch into Water||7|
|15||Jump into Water||4|
|16||Pitch into Water||6|
|21||Pitch into Water||5|
|22||Handline into Water||12|
|24||Jump or Pitch into Water||4|
|26||Pitch or Handline Climb into Water||7|
|27||Traverse and Climb into Water||3|
|28||Climb or Handline||5|
|31||Handline into Water||3|
|33||Pitch into Water or Climb||5|
Even this list is not really the whole story as there are quite a few drops (especially in the 4th section (see below)) which are debatably large enough to qualify for the list above but I had to draw the line somewhere so basically anything less than 3m didn't count. As can be seen from the pitch list many of the 'pitches' only require a doubled handline or can simply be jumped down into the pool at the bottom or can be freeclimbed. The less 'real' rigging you do the quicker you can travel, but it depends on the party members exactly what they are prepared to leap off/climb down.
When it says 'into water' there are only a couple where you actually have to tread water whilst removing your descender. On most you can use ledges either just above or just below the water before going swimming. This is a good reason for doing as much as possible on a doubled handline and not actually abseiling.
The Gorge can be divided into 3 nominal sections:
1) The start - which consists of dry clambering over boulders & some straight walking, and one swim through a really nasty looking pool containing lots of something that smelt like fly spray - the 'insecticide pool', followed by the first 3 big pitches where the sun disappears, the walls close in & you get to practice trading water whilst removing your rack/stop.
2) The crap bit - consisting of pitch after pitch after climb after jump - almost all into water & with plenty of 25m swims & a couple of 50m ones. Just to add to your delectation and delight there is a brisk breeze blowing through this part so with all the leaping in & out of pools it's bloody cold. I was rapidly coming round to the opinion that it was, in fact going to be indescribably awful again & I was going to be mildly hypothermic again for most of the trip when we reached 'The Beach' - a place of great relief where you get out the water for the first time in half an hour and it is wide enough to reduce the wind, allow running around for warming-up purposes and chocy eating to make you feel slightly better about the whole thing.
From here on it slowly improves as the walls narrow allowing more traversing and the ducking frequency passes the critical point at which you can warm up again about as fast as you are cooled by each ducking. Eventually as you stagger out of your latest bath wrestling with floating tree trunks you come across a 3cm thick rope coming about 7m down the right hand wall - we presume that this is an escape route as it looks as if it might just be free-climbable & a later surface investigation shows a tributary gorgette coming in at about the right place.
After this a few bigger pitches provide some variety (especially the 14m handline) until you reach another wider area where the canyon does an abrupt 90 degree left turn and up to the right is a signing-in book in a placcy bag! We had missed this on the first trip so we signed up twice. We were stunned to discover that there was someone coming down here every 2-3 days and someone had signed in only an hour ahead of us, on his... wait for it... 22nd trip! Wot a nutter. At this point our hero status was in tatters - if the Majorcans were down here every five minutes when they had nothing better to do then there wasn't much point in us crowing about how mind-bogglingly hard we were. Ah well, never mind.
3) The cavey bit - From about halfway down the next pitch the whole thing becomes a cave to all intents and purposes - it's dark, there is occasional evidence of old stal growth & it is consistently narrow enough to traverse so you can dramatically reduce your wetting frequency. Also the water starts to sit around in deep pools & there are no nasty green slimy bits, until right at the end when as soon as you start to fall over you know that you only have about 200m to go. We were surprised to find that the pool we had seen at the end the day before had totally dried up overnight.
All in all this is a really good grade 5 so long as you are competent and take the right gear. You need - floating tacklebags (plastic containers tied into bottom), wetsuits all round (preferably with hoods) and one long rope and two short ones (45m, 18m, 18m). We took a 35m for our long one which was a bit of a pain as several of the pitches required that we tie two together in order to facilitate the pull-through (but it does save weight). It helps if you are all reasonable swimmers although Mike the Animal is a crap swimmer and has done it twice now. If everyone has racks it speeds things up as all the pull-throughs can be rigged simply as double ropes. The fewer people you have the better as you can keep moving more - we found 6 was too slow but 4 was OK. As we saw a couple of belays about 10cm above the water & one about 30cm below we assume that the water level is quite variable (especially at the lower end where the scum marks can be seen high up the walls). We don't know what happens when it starts raining but suspect that it isn't very pleasant.
So, if you happen to be in Majorca with all your caving gear (having joined the ever-increasing hordes of sweaty English cavers that bugger off there every year) and fancy a really good trip then go and 'do the gorge'. It starts about a mile down the road from the Escorca cafe, heading away from the Lluc monastery. There is a bridge over the gorge (which is all of 7m deep at this point & full of brambles) on a sharp right bend. A path leads down on the uphill side of the bridge and there you are - you're off:- have fun.