It is with regret that I have to announce that Giles Barker died on 10th August whilst caving during this years expedition to Matienzo, Northern Spain. Giles was an experienced caver and climber, and was known by a wide group of cavers in South Wales and the Yorkshire Dales; he had established a reputation for both original exploration and (award winning) photographic studies. Since I moved to Edinburgh, I have caved in the Dales more frequently and over the last few years I had built a growing friendship with him, meeting him often underground and on the surface.
I have attempted below to relate the circumstances of his tragic death, the subsequent recovery of his body, and my participation in the rescue.
We returned to the Bar unexpectedly late (about 1:00am) after concluding the push on Simon (I) followed by a complete de-rig of the cave. As soon as my car had arrived a number of the expedition came over and were obviously relieved to see us. We were then told that Giles had gone missing whilst on a trip with two other Red Rose members. The three of them had descended Torca de Azpilicueta (263m deep) and had intended to complete a through trip, exiting the Renada entrance about a mile from the base of the last Azpilicueta pitch via the South Vega System; Giles had been photographing on the way through. We were informed that a search and find team had already been dispatched to Azpilicueta and a provisional rescue plan to get him out was being formulated. Because I had been underground all day it was suggested that I go and get something to eat and then straight to sleep in case I was needed early in the morning. This I did.
Going for a wash before I went to bed I met the other two from Giles' team and so was able to establish exactly the circumstances of his disappearance. All had gone well until they neared the bottom of Azpilicueta and a pitch with a very tight section at the top had prevented Giles from descending it with his camera gear. Because the other two had already descended and were unhappy at having to re-ascend it, they gave Giles details of a by-pass nearby that landed just up the passage. The by-pass was less tight but usually ignored due to more caving being involved. Giles agreed that he would meet them at the bottom and that was the last they saw of him. After about an hour or more of waiting, the two Red Rose were getting very concerned that Giles had not re-appeared and tried to make a vocal connection with him to no avail. As they weren't intimately knowledgeable about the Renada/Vega complex and there was only the two of them, they decided that the best course of action was to get to the surface and initiate a rescue. Before they departed, they left Giles a note explaining what they had done and also some spare carbide for him in case he had just got lost.
After hearing their story, the three of us concurred that Giles was not the sort of person to wander off like some others, and the fact that he hadn't answered their calls was a cause for great concern.
I was awoken at 3:30am by Juan Corrin (Expedition Leader) who stated that Giles had been found dead by the Azpilicueta search team. No more details of the accident were known apart from that he had fallen about 60ft and had died instantly from a massive fracture of his neck and skull. As part of my job as expedition Treasurer I try, with various degrees of success, to get people to give me their next of kin details. Thankfully, Giles was one of the few that had bothered. This in itself showed the responsible sort of person he was. I didn't get much sleep that night being troubled by strong memories and occasional nightmares.
Matienzo is thankfully blessed by a relatively high number of well experienced cavers and also more importantly has a number of CRO co-ordinators from the Clapham Depot. The whole organisation of the rescue and the recovery itself, apart from a couple of minor points, went without a hitch.
Originally the intention had been for me to be in the team that would enter the cave at 7:00am, but due to the tragic news during the night the rescue became less urgent. Early in the morning the Guardia Civil had been informed and they in turn had then called out the Spanish Civil Defence people to initiate a rescue. The Civil Defence controller was so impressed with our progress and organisation that his black brief-case containing his instructions had been thrown back into his jeep almost as soon as he had arrived. He was extremely helpful and his perfect English made dealing with the bureaucratic and slow-going Guardia easier than it might have been. The Guardia supplied us with hand held radios and these were manned at each of the entrances as well as the rescue base, the Bar. The make-up of the teams proved a problem for in each team there had to be a reasonable mix of rescue and caving experience, an adequate English/Spanish speaker and a "politically" correct balance of Spanish cavers. Any rescues held in Spain generally have to include local cavers; this obviously presents difficulties due the language barrier and also possible in-experience of the volunteer local rescuers. Five teams were formed; these were assigned the following tasks and sent in at the appropriate times:
Team 1: Descend Azpilicueta, which was already rigged, and place the body into the stretcher. One half of the team would then rig the drop and Giles body would be raised from the pit into the by-pass into Renada. The stretcher would then proceed. When relieved just after the 50ft rift (before a long crawl) they would exit Azpilicueta and de-rig.
Team 2: Enter Renada and mark the way with arrows (pointing out). Half the team would meet with team 1 and assist. Those left would rig the 50ft high rift for a haul up into Sanatogen Crawl. Team 2 would then carry the stretcher out to meet later teams.
Team 3: Rig all other drops that may be considered necessary and then assist later teams carrying out the stretcher.
Team 4: Send runner to end of cave and back to report progress, ETA and any extra materials or people needed. Rest of team to sit at end of Sanatogen and start of Stuffed Monk Gallery (a very large phreatic section) to carry stretcher out.
Team 5: To standby if extra manpower needed and also to possibly dig out obstructions such as low cobbly crawls and the Blow Hole (a tight muddy slot with something like a hurricane draught blowing through it).
I awoke at about 8:30am. I quickly had breakfast and cleaned my kit so as to be ready if called. By lunchtime the press in Madrid had phoned wanting to know details of the accident and as Giles' parents hadn't yet been informed, we all felt unhappy at the slowness shown by the British Consulate. Because of the vagueness of press reports and the possible worry caused to other parents, one of the "camp followers" got as many of the parents' telephone numbers together as possible and called the UK to put minds at rest. Juan came over to me late morning to find out how fit I felt and seemed satisfied with the way things were going. As I thought that I had recovered enough from the exertions the day before, he decided to put me in Team 4. I am known in certain circles for being reasonably fast underground, when need be, and so despite my total lack of knowledge of Renada it was decided that as the way had already been marked I would be the best choice for the "Runner" to the end. A bit daunted I agreed.
I was deposited at the entrance of Renada and, partly due to sun blindness in the large entrance and lack of markers, promptly got lost. After ten minutes I found the way on and bumped into the back of Team 4 who had set off after me. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, I followed them after being told that they knew the route; several minutes later they also couldn't find the way on! We all agreed that the so called idiot proof markers were far from idiot proof. Even more daunted than before I accelerated ahead of them again and shot off into Renada. Missing the way on several times due to ambiguous or missing way markers, I finally reached some of Team 3 rigging a climb. Informing them of what was happening on the surface I left them and eventually seeing a carbide glow ahead reached the other half of that team. Arriving breathless and with sweat pouring off me, the two Spanish cavers in the group looked at me in awe and immediately opened their tackle bags and said "Aqua?". This I gladly accepted. They had been unable to find the way on to where Team 2 had gone, again due to way markers not being placed.
Waiting for about fifteen minutes, Team 3 finally made contact with Team 2 and I hurried to the front where I met the stretcher being handled up through a particularly awkward climb. Patiently I waited and helped with the movement of tackle bags until most of the team and the stretcher arrived just before the 50ft rift. Giles' body had been strapped into the stretcher with some survival bags covering his torso and head so that only his feet showed. Liasing with the CRO co-ordinator I was given an ETA of midnight. The progress report was that although the recovery was slower than expected the worst part had now been done and a reasonable exit should be able to be achieved. Taking my leave I shot out of the cave in about half the time it took me to come in, the way markers seeming to be more obvious on the outwards journey. Passing Team 4 who had reached their position and were huddled in survival blankets I gave them the news from the front and exited finally into bright sunlight around mid-afternoon.
Stumbling down the track I received a warm welcome from the group near the entrance and my report was forwarded over radio to the Bar. I then got changed and drove the few miles to give my report in person. By early evening it became evident after Team 2 had exited that the stretcher was now coming out very fast and that there might not be a need for Team 5 to go in. Unfortunately, because a group of Spanish cavers from Asturia had arrived after a long car journey, we had to involve them in some way. I had sufficiently recovered after several hours rest from my "run" into Renada to agree to help Team 5 in and also act as runner again. Depositing the Spanish plus a couple of watchful Brits at the Blow Hole with digging tools to make it wider, I travelled into the cave with a companion (placing more way markers) to obtain another status report and also to give Teams 3 and 4 food and water if needed.
After only about ten minutes I ran into them and was informed that they would not need any more food, manpower or the Blow Hole to be widened! Because they were now very close to the entrance they did however need to know what the Guardia wanted to them to do with the body. Racing back to the Blow Hole I informed the extremely reluctant Spanish that they would have to go out because of the inevitable people choke that would happen if they stayed where they were. Returning to the surface once again I met one of our surface controllers with an attending Guardia and was told that they wanted the body brought right out. Entering Renada for the third time that day (I was getting to know it quite well) I was annoyed to find that the Spanish had not exited as requested and after a "discussion" with Team 3/4 had been told to exit immediately. Keeping just ahead of the stretcher I helped lead the way and exited just before it came to the surface. Having my name ticked off as out I changed and waited for the stretcher to emerge.
In some respects the most regrettable incidences of the rescue happened once the recovery had been achieved. Not only was body loaded into a glass sided herse (that had previously hung around the Bar all day as a grim constant reminder) instead of an ambulance, but also despite repeated pleas the Guardia had failed to clear the crowds of locals, children and vultures (ie. press) from the area.
Giles Barker's remains were taken to Larado and statements were taken the following day from Giles' two accompanying cavers on the ill fated trip plus the person who had found his body first. A large meal was held in the evening for everybody that participated in the rescue and a de-briefing meeting was held the following day. The general feeling was that the rescue had gone very well but some minor criticisms came out mainly with regard to the lack of way markers and food for the teams. Some concern was also expressed that the Spanish cavers seemed to use their muscle in situations where their brain would have been more appropriate, hence preventing secondary accidents from occuring.
We will never know exactly how Giles died but the following scenarios are probably the closest we will get to the truth. The place where Giles fell is at the bottom of a short ladder pitch that lands on a large boulder. To one side is the continuation of the by-pass into a passage and the other is a 60ft pit into which Giles fell. Either he fell off the ladder and then into the pit, or he slipped after his camera gear got stuck or maybe threw him off balance. Carbides have a habit of going out when banged and so maybe being by himself he was unable to save himself in time. What ever the cause of the accident it seems that a number of factors came regrettably together to cause this tragic loss.
There will be a wake for Giles at Bull Pot Farm some time in October to which all of his friends are invited. If anybody needs to know more details of the wake or any other information about the rescue then please contact me.