2019 Summary

A distinct lack of enthusiasm from people for writing up the expedition….. A post trip summary follows:

The Tresviso expedition returned back to the UK last week and the following is a brief summary:

Cueva del Nacimiento – Parting Friends

In the entrance series of Nacimiento is an area called the Road to Wigan Pier and at the end if a waterfall climb to the Parting Friends sump.  This was originally discovered in the late 80’s and later dived by Gavin Newman / Phil Short, during the filming of ‘Extreme Lives – Road to Certain Death’.  Unfortunately, no survey exists, but the sump was described as around 150m, still continuing and, unlike a lot of the other sumps in Nacimiento, was not at depth.

It took nearly 4 days to rig the stream ready for the dive.  The grade 2 survey of the approaching passage proved to be misleading… 9m up pitches, were actually preceded by 60m of steep ramps, aid traverses and bolt climbs, all while stood next to (or under) a raging torrent of water. 

Cueva del Nacimiento – Cascade Inlet, Joe Daniels (2019)

Eventually, all was set up and the divers, Rob Middleton and Joe Daniels, could attack the sump.

Dive 1 – passed after 25m (at -6m depth) to 30m of streamway and climbs.  Second sump, 4m diameter passage, 115m line laid

Dive 2 – sump 2 to -165m

Dive 3 – way on found, passing believed previous limit to large airbell.  Sump continues in typical Nacimiento ramp style passage to another large airbell.  Fourth sump found and way on in open sump passage.

Total length of passage 439m.

Cueva del Nacimiento, Parting Friends Sump 1, Arwel Roberts (2019)

The day after the final dive, the rain came in and flooded us out of the cave for 3 days.  A lot of equipment lost and the crucial dinghy to get across the entrance lake washed away, probably now wrapped round a turbine at the hydro-electric plant.

Cueva del Nacimiento entrance (post flood), Derek Cousins (2019)

Cueva de la Marniosa – Free Willy

In the upper series of Marniosa, before the streamway is encountered, is a section of cave called Extra Caverns.  Discovered in the late 70’s a number of leads and unclimbed avens exist.  Phil and Howard attacked the avens over a number of trips.  At the very far end, two small 5m avens lead to the same connection at the top (subsequently bypassed without the need for any climbing) leading to a tight rift and a draughting immature streamway.  2 further avens  (approx.. 10m) were found at the end but not attempted. 

Further back in the main passage, an obvious wet aven was scaled for 10m to where it split into 3 further ‘avens’.  The left hand route led up for a further 20m to a narrowing rift, with limited potential.  The first right hand route led, after another 5m, to a tight upwards squeeze, passed by Leo to around 5m of passage and another 15m aven.  The final route from the junction leads back out of the main aven, but was only scaled for another 2-3m in poor rock, before time ran out.  This remains the most promising lead, with an obvious lip a further 5m up.

Cueva del la Marniosa – new discoveries

On a final surveying trip, Phil and Alastair ‘stumbled’ upon two exciting new discoveries in the upstream Marniosa streamway.  Although not shown in the 70’s survey an obvious bend in the streamway has a dark space above.  A 3m climb up lead to a huge new chamber, 50m x 20m x 20m, with a large 35m aven at one end and a high level route at the other. 

Just at the bottom of the same climb up to the chamber, was a large boulder hiding a second streamway / inlet, entering the main stream.  This was pushed for around 50m and still continues.  The high level route in the chamber was revisited and extended for another 50m in large passage to a ramp down, probably into the same new streamway.

Silvestre Pot – Marniosa – First through trip

The first through trip from Silvestre Pot to Marniosa was complete by 2 teams during the expedition, before the Silvestre section was derigged – see early post for a write up.

Silvestre Pot – Sumps

Two sumps in the upper levels of Silvestre were dived.  Bob’s Crusade sump was dived for 32m (-6m depth) to an airbell, tight continuation possible but not appealing.  The Wet Willy sump was passed after 3m to a second sump aftetr 40m of passage.  Sump 2 is largely ‘organic’ and was abandoned after 2m.

Andara, Lisa Boore (2019)

The times they are a changin’

by Howard Jones

Brief history

In the 1970’s LUSS were caving in Northern Spain, inland from Santander. They learned about a village where cheese was made and matured in caves. Nearby a resurgence cave fed a hydroelectricity scheme. Add in some high mountains in the vicinity and it was Xmas for cave explorers. Tresviso was first visited in 1974 and cavers from LUSS and other clubs, both UK and foreign, have been visiting ever since. The resurgence cave (Agua ) has been surveyed in excess of 15km and Sima 56 was pushed to a depth of 1169m. Vertically they have over lapped, horizontally they are 4km apart. If joined they would establish a world class system, and maybe through trip!

The Village

Tresviso is a lovely village of some 25 houses sat at the top of the Urdon gorge. The families used to be subsistence farmers living off the proceeds of goats and cheese. When we first arrived in vast numbers and camped just outside the village, we must have swamped their existence. Yet we were absorbed into their company without rancour and have been so ever since.

When the track from Sores was improved to a road village life changed and nowadays many villagers leave in the winter a return in the summer. There are far more visitors than before and life in the village has changed for ever.

Arrival

In the 70’s there were two ways to Tresviso. A track came in from the village of Sotres some 10k away which could usually be passed by a land rover, though was sometimes blocked by rock fall. The other way in was up from the Urdon gorge, a 6k march with 900m of ascent. The bus from Santander would drop us at the bottom and the nightmare ascent would begin. For many of us this was our introduction to Tresviso expeditions and it was brutal, staggering up this donkey track in the mid-day heat with your caving gear on your back. As a way of making you cave fit it was ideal. Hopefully the expedition land rover had made its way in via Sotres and you could unpack your tent, home for the next 9 weeks.

10 years ago, the track from Sotres was engineered into a metalled road and saloon cars can now drive to Tresviso. This has changed a lot of aspects of Tresviso life, not least cavers can drive to Tresviso and no longer sweat up the track!

Accommodation

In the 70’ we would camp in a field just above the village in a sloping field which had been harvested early. Water was gained from a trough and flies were a problem. A big communal cooking tent was used to store food, you slept in your own. Life was pretty basic and there was little incentive to hang around camp all day. Evenings were spent in the bar, a red wine often lasting all evening for an impoverished student.

Nowadays we stay in a hostel in the village. Bunk beds, electricity, hot water, an oven all make life a lot more comfortable. A store room downstairs is used to leave gear in from year to year which makes logistics much easier. Some things have not changed though, evenings are still spent in the bar.

Technology

Caving in the 70’s meant wet suits, carbides (stinkies) and texolex helmets was all we knew. Over suits were proofed cotton which ripped to bits in rifts, under suits bought second hand from the air force which for some reason had short arms and legs. Harnesses were homemade or the dreaded Whillans which rearranged genetalia. In short caving gear was a mixture of home made or adapted from other uses.

Petzl changed all that and LED and battery technology has made life underground much safer and pleasant. Cave photography and surveying can now be undertaken for hours without the risk of imminent exposure, with better results to boot.

Weather

Snow fall has decreased remarkably over the 40 years. The days of digging out the White house door and cave and mine entrances are largely gone. In May 2019 there was little snow at Andara (top camp area) and by September there was none. A few shafts are still snow plugged, but this must be yearlong. The river caves of Agua and Marnioasa are thus drier and safer and the tracks and roads keep in better condition.

Cave names

One of the joys of exploring caves is you get to name them and the passages within. In the 70’s Bob Dylan songs were popular and a quick glance at the Agua survey proves this to be the case. As time moved on other influences have been reflected.

I was always surprised that the Spanish caving authorities allowed us ( and other foreigners) to come and explore their prime areas, surely in years to come the next generation would be appalled that so many of the world class Spanish caves had been explored by non-Spanish teams, and yet despite changes to the permission rules we are still allowed to keep control of “our area” 40 years on.

However, the Spanish cavers have got their own back by renaming our caves! The Cueva del Agua is now Nacimiento, which is very confusing to us old timers.

Tresviso 2019

Andara (Eastern Massif) viewed from Tresadura (looking South) (Phil Walker)

The 2019 expedition is only 5 weeks away. Hopefully some interesting blog posts will be created, but firstly, as per previous years, a bit of a brief overview of expedition:

Overview & brief history:
The Picos de Europa is a range of mountains 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, forming a westerly extension of the Cantabrian Mountains. It consists of three main areas, the Western, Central and Eastern Massifs.

  • The Western Massif is to the west of the Rio Cares and has been explored by a selection of clubs including Oxford University Caving Club (OUCC), Seccion de Espeleologia Ingenieros Industriales (SEII), York University Cave and Pothole Club (YUCPC), Sociedad de Espeleologia Geologicas (SEG) and Speleo Club de Paris (SCP). This now includes the area under exploration as part of the Ario Caves Project.
  • The Central Massif is between the Cares Gorge and the Rio Duje and has been mainly explored by the Speleo Club de Seine (SCS).
  • The Eastern Massif is to the East of the Rio Duje. Lancaster University Speleological Society (LUSS) were exploring the Eastern Massif from the early seventies to 1987 with the help of SEII.

It was the Eastern Massif (or Andara) that drew the attention of LUSS in the early 1970s. In the early years exploration was mounted from the mountain village of Tresviso and exploration was dominated by the resurgence cave Cueva del Nacimiento (Cueva del Agua) located at the foot of the mountain range. The resurgence flows into a canal that contours the Urdon gorge with an average flow of 2 m3/s and the cave behind the resurgence leads to >12 km of surveyed passage and a height gain of over +534m.

The catchment is some 40 km3 and includes caves such as Torca Jou Sin Tierre (CS-9) at -1203m deep and Torca del Cueto de Los Senderos (Sima 56) at -1169m deep.

Morning Chamber, Cueva de La Marniosa (Joe Daniels)


In the late 70’s LUSS pushed Cueva del Nacimiento to around the 11km and +300m mark, but after several years the cave was abandoned as all the major routes sumped and no continuation could be found. LUSS then turned their attention to the Andara region higher up the mountain range and sought caves that would drop into the Nacimiento system and hopefully create a record-breaking >1500m traverse. They found a number of deep caves around this ‘top camp’ area; Sara, Tere, Flowerpot, Dosser’s Delight and Sima 56 were all pushed to respectable depths but a
connection remained elusive.


The discovery of newer and deeper systems, plus improved GPS, have changed the figures slightly but a connection between the deep potholes and resurgence would create; a cave in the top 10 worlds’ deepest, deepest in Spain and potentially one of the the deepest underground traverses in the world.

Top EntranceAreaAlt(m)Current Depth (m)Vertical Range (m)
S-33 Torca de la Hendida Samelar2100-4521620
CS-9 Torca Jou Sin Tierre Cueto Senderos 2074 -12031594
Sima 56 Cueto de Los Senderos Cueto Senderos 1975 -11691495
T82 Karen – 2.6 Sara Grajal (Sara depression) 1880 -5911400
T145 – Pozo Castillo Mazarassa 1870 -3091390
2.24 Tere Grajal (Sara depression) 1820-7921340
FT39 Compromisso Mazarassa 1820-3131340
T169 Flowerpot Pico Boro 1785-7231305
T173 Dossers Delight Pico Boro 1706-8311226
T190 Septrin Pico Boro 1696-1801216
3.2 Torca Branarredonda (Fallen Bear) Samelar 1589-4561109
T510 Cueva Entre Cuetos Sierra del a Corta 1305-117825
T69 – Pozo Motilla Sierra del a Corta 1248-70768

Table: Potential depth if connected to Cueva del Nacimiento (2017).

Note: There are at > 70 sites at higher altitude than CS-9 that would surpass -1600m deep through trip, with some close to -1800m depth.

Survex – Mountain range looking E-W

Expedition Dates
• 31 st August 2019 to 14th September 2019 – main expedition dates

Objectives
The expedition has several goals. The following are a few primary objectives:

Cueva del Nacimiento

  • Jurassic World – The Sandy dig, draughting lead, now only an hour from camp
  • Pina Colada Bypass – calcite aven to climb
  • Joe’s Crack – continuing shaft behind Death Race camp.
  • Teeth of Satan – Wet Aven – +30m aven with draft and calcite squeeze, requires enlarging.
  • Dan’s Big Room – unexplored section of maze in area of Dan’s Big Room, Peanut Chamber and Winter Gardens
  • Parting Friends – a dive of the Parting Friends sump is planned.
Pena Coloada Sump (CUeva del Nacmiento) (Rob MIddleton)

Cueva de la Marniosa

  • Beyond Sump 2 – undescended 6m pitch
  • T20A Silvestre – Marniosa – first through trip to be completed
  • T20A Silvestre – upstream leads, heading toward the Valdelafuente

Secondary Objectives:
Time and resources permitting there are several secondary objectives that will be attempted:

Downstream Marniosa (Joe Daniels)


Sistema Castillo
A large mine and natural cave complex in the Minas de Mazarrasa area. Pozo del Castillo series was explored to – 292m depth in 1983, with either a howling draft or roaring waterfall beyond a constriction at the limit. The potential of the cave is significant but currently a collapse prevents getting to the end. Pozo Natacha series ends at -309m depth and is close to the same point in Castillo.

  • Pozo Del Castillo – shoring and bypass of rock collapse Castillo remains a major lead, if we can get past the blockage! In 2018 the snow level had dropped and possible to get into the next section.
  • Pozo del Castillo – other entrances. FT16 entrance snow plug would appear to be the same blockage in lower Castillo passage. Snow plugs are reported further into the cave, so another entrance must exist!
  • Pozo del Castillo – surveying of Natacha upper series and locating possible surface entrance,


Valdelafuente / Sobra Valley

  • Re-locate draughting surface entrance on Valdelafuente, close to 80m aven beyond Sump 1 in Cueva del Marniosa,
  • Yorkshire Inlet in Cueva del Marniosa. Exploration of col above aven

Sierra del a Corta

Above the furthest reaches in Nacimiento is the Sierra del Corta. A heavily wooded area with a number of promising leads, that could potentially drop into Nacimiento and provide an easier route into the back-end to aid exploration at the far reaches.

  • T554 – large 100m shaft on the Sierra del a Corta, this requires some digging at the bottom,
  • Al2 – a drafting shaft not yet bottomed. Jurassic World in Nacimiento appears to be heading directly towards this site,
  • T294 Oh What Pot (La Gobia) – continuing passage,
  • Surface prospecting close to vicinity of Terror Firma in Nacimiento. Terror Firma is only 40m vertically and 200m horizontally from some parts of the surface in the Sierra del a Corta region.

Other

  • Locate and descend FT43, this draughts strongly. It is almost directly above Boulder Chamber in T87 Mazarrasa and would provide bypass to collapse at T87 entrance.
  • Prospecting on Hoyo Oscuro and Hoyo Evangalista. Highest entrances on the mountain range.
  • Mine 2.32a – there is large unexplored level (with tram lines) leading to unexplored passage.
M6 Toll Bypass, Cueva del Nacimiento (Arwel Roberts)

Article on recent expeditions published

The 2018 expedition is now only 4 weeks away. A few red tape problems have now been resolved and everything is set, including last minute equipment orders, turning over the shed looking for old equipment and herding everyone into position.

The latest edition of Descent (No 263 – Aug/Sep 2018) includes an article on Tresviso exploration, giving an overview of the recent work by the team, and is well worth seeking out a copy. Available from 4th August.

https://www.wildplaces.co.uk/

Tresviso 2018

Prospecting for caves (Sam Deeley)

Expedition Dates

  • 1st September to 15th September 2018 – main expedition dates

Objectives

The expedition has a number of goals.  The following are a few primary objectives:

Cueva del Nacimiento

  • Jurassic World – Terror Firma – multiple avens and climbs,
  • Pina Colada Bypass – a 3-10m rift leads off from the Pina Colada sump.
  • Joe’s Crack – un-descended shaft behind Death Race camp.
  • Teeth of Satan – Wet Aven – +30m aven with draft and calcite squeeze, requires enlarging.
  • Dan’s Big Room – unexplored section of maze in area of Dan’s Big Room and Winter Gardens
  • Parting Friends – a dive of the Parting Friends sump is planned.

DR traverse (Chris Jones)

Cueva de la Marniosa

  • Beyond Sump 2 – a dive of sump 2 and exploration beyond is planned

Pico Boro (SUSS)

SUSS are also involved and will take on responsibility for exploring either  Flowerpot on the Pico Boro area.

  • FlowerPot – re-rigging and exploration of leads
  • Surface sweep and logging of entrances in Sara Depression (around camp)
  • Surface sweep and logging of entrances in Pico Boro area


Secondary Objectives:

Time and resources permitting there are a number of secondary objectives that will be attempted:

Sistema Castillo

A large mine and natural cave complex in the Minas de Mazarrasa area.  Pozo del Castillo series was explored to -292m depth in 1983, with either a howling draft or roaring waterfall beyond a constriction at the limit.  The potential of the cave is significant but currently a collapse prevents getting to the end. Pozo Natacha series ends at -309m depth and is close to the same point in Castillo.

  • Pozo Del Castillo shoring and bypass of rock collapse Castillo remains a major lead, if we can get past the blockage!
  • Pozo del Castillo – other entrances. FT16 entrance snow plug would appear to be the same blockage in lower Castillo passage.  Snow plugs are reported further into the cave, so another entrance must exist!
  • Pozo del Castillo – surveying of Natacha upper series and locating possible surface entrance,
  • Pozo del Castillo Natacha 1983 series. Attempt to get small, skinny person through current limit, otherwise derig and survey.

Pozo Castillo (Chris Jones)

Valdelafuente / Sobra Valley

  • Re-locate draughting surface entrance on Valdelafuente, close to 80m aven beyond Sump 1 in Cueva del Marniosa,
  • T20 (Sobra Valley) – sandstone sink above Hall of the Mountain King in Cueva del Marniosa,
  • Yorkshire Inlet in Cueva del Marniosa. Exploration of col above aven (also close to T20),
  • Upstream series in Cueva del Marniosa. Large black voids above the streamway,  if leads head to the South this is up the Valdelafuente

Sierra del a Corta

Above the furthest reaches in Nacimiento is the Sierra del Corta.  A heavily wooded area with a number of promising leads, that could potentially drop into Nacimiento and provide an easier route into the back-end to aid exploration at the far reaches.

  • T554large 100m shaft on the Sierra del a Corta, this requires some digging at the bottom,
  • Al2a drafting shaft not yet bottomed.  Jurassic World in Nacimiento appears to be heading directly towards this site,
  • T294 Oh What Pot (La Gobia) – continuing passage,
  • Surface prospecting close to vicinity of Terror Firma in NacimientoTerror Firma is only 40m vertically and 200m horizontally from some parts of the surface in the Sierra del a Corta region.

Other

  • Locate and survey General This may be another way into T87 Mazarrasa, bypassing entrance collapse. (most likely T88 Suerte or T89.  T88 draughts strongly at junction inside)
  • Locate and descend FT43, this draughts strongly. It is almost directly above Boulder Chamber in T87 Mazarrasa and would provide bypass to collapse at T87 entrance.
  • Surveying of Nacimiento top entrance series. There are a number of unsurveyed and minor leads in the area,
  • Prospecting on Hoyo Oscuro and Hoyo Evangalista. Highest entrances on the mountain range.
  • Mine 2.32a – there is large unexplored level (with tram lines) leading to unexplored passage.

2017 Summary

Cueva del Nacimiento – Jurassic World – Terror Firma

The ‘final’ aven at the end of the cave was climbed to over 40m, a split in the aven was followed to a new height of 534m above the entrance, but closed down.  The second aven remains unclimbed and is ongoing 

Cueva del Nacimiento – Jurassic World – Pterodactyl Crumble

Another aven at the end of the cave was explored upwards before reaching horizontal passage for another 60m, then finally closing down. 

Cueva del Nacimiento – Death Race 2000 – Joe’s Crack

Initial constriction was passed and the passage continues down another 35m, to head of undescended 12m pitch.  The passage heads under the Death Race chamber, toward the Death Race pitches.

Cueva del Nacimiento – Teeth of Satan – Wet Aven

The Wet Aven was not attempted on this trip, in part due to 2 trips getting lost on the way to the far end and running out of time to climb.

Cueva del Nacimiento – Other

180m of passage found near Death Race passage.

A new aven (+30m) found near P Chamber in Death Race passage, continues.

Cueva del La Marniosa

Sump 1 was dived and the 80m aven beyond was climbed to approx. 47m.  The rock is extremely poor and no obvious continuations could be seen at the top of the aven, using powerful lights.

The Marniosa team diverted attention to trying to dive Sump 2,  an undived sump, discovered in 1987 and unvisited since.  A rather ambitious trip saw two cavers reach sump 2 and allowed one diver to pass sump 2 (30m long t 5m depth) to surface in stream passages.  A further 40m of cave was explored and still continues, before safety concerns forced a retreat.

 Pozo Del Castillo.

Pozo Castillo continues to be surveyed (2km +) and leads explored, attempting to bypass the 1987 snow collapse.  The rediscovery of FT16 and the lower snow levels, allowed further progress in the system, but a sump was encountered at -110m.

Pozo Natacha (a series of pitches in Castillo, rather than a separate cave) was pushed past it’s 1983 limit, down a tight right to the head of a tight 20m pitch.  This pitch head would need serious enlargement before further exploration can continue.

Other exploration

Torca del Carneros was (re)discovered and surveyed.  This lies on La Mesa, above Tresviso, and probably would be connected to caves draining away from Tresviso toward the San Esteban valley.

Fallen Bear was also rigged ready for further exploration in 2018.  The bulk of the cave is a steeply descending ramp, similar to Nacimiento, and contains a number of leads of potential.

Summary:

In total over 2km of cave was surveyed in 2017.  Exploration of Nacimiento continues and has now pushed the height to over 534m from the entrance.  A logistical challenge that is not proving to get any easier, despite fixed camps toward the end of the cave.  Trips to the far end require 4-5 nights of camping, and advanced camps at the far (far) end now need to be considered.  Passing the second sump in Marniosa is a major achievement and unexpectedly has surfaced in passage heading away from Nacimiento and into the mountain, possible towards a hypotheses trunk route that may also feed the upstream sump in Nacimiento.  The rigging of Fallen Bear, and discovery of some new leads, opens up further possibilities of closer deeper systems lying between Nacimiento and the deep potholes high on the mountain.

Quick Updates

More details to follow but a quick taster

Cueva del Nacimiento – new height reached at back end of cave

Fallen Bear – new leads discovered

Torca de la Carneros – possible leads on hill above Tresviso

Cueva de la Marniosa – Sump 2 (previously undived) passed last night…

 

Oh and Pozo Castillo – still collapsed

 

My first trip to Andara.. (Part One)

I first visited the Eastern Massif (or Andara) region of the Picos de Europa in 1996, as part of a small Lancaster University Speleological Society (LUSS) expedition. LUSS’s heyday had long since waned, but a very small contingent of students (and ex-students) were keeping the club going during term time and trying desperately to kick start the Tresviso expeditions in the summer.

70's caving
70’s caving

The last large scale LUSS expedition had occurred in 1987, but since that time the majority of LUSS cavers had moved onto bigger and greater things, so due to lack of information and resources, these 90’s expeditions concentrated on smaller scale objectives, without the manpower or time to embark on anything of the size of the 70’s and 80’s LUSS expedition (where 50+ cavers descended on the mountain for up to 3 months!).

For me, relatively new to caving, an expedition of any size was a grand undertaken and I would bore anyone who would listen about the great adventures I was sure to have, and the dangers I was sure to face. The reality was slightly different.

This of course was the 90’s, so although caving attire was not much different, the obligatory floppy haircuts and lumberjack shirts were the travel clothes of choice and crammed into our very own minibus, with the club name on the bus changed to Wancaster by some wag in Inglesport we embarked on what seems a journey of epic proportions. The minibus was long bench style with 1km of rope piled up in the middle and 2 people half sat, half lying down on the benches, the rest of the team in the front. Not the most comfortable of journeys and the initial travel down to Portsmouth must have taken a good 12 hours, sat in various stress positions, with a broken heater and no radio. However, as a newbie to the expedition scene, the talk of huge resurgence caves and unexplored passage was more than exciting and I couldn’t wait to get out to Spain!

The ferry crossing was then, as it is now, pretty horrible. I personally suffer from really bad sea sickness, that can only appear to be cured by far too much drinking, presumably ‘scientifically’ correcting the imbalance in my head caused by the motion, to one caused by alcohol. Needless to say the journey passed in a haze of stumbling stupor…. for 24 hours. One positive was that at some point during the journey I ended up in a posh cabin, next to the captain’s quarter, a fine upgrade from sleeping on reclining seats. To this day I’m still not sure how I ended up there.

The following day the ferry slowly docked in Santander, the motion sickness and hangover now no longer working together and I just needed to get off that boat! Eventually I staggered back to the minibus and the other expedition members and finally we landed on Spanish soil. A times round the first roundabout before Sean (as designated Spanish driver) got the hang of driving on the wrong side and we headed off South towards the Picos.

The drive up through the Picos is always a fantastic view, the mountains getting larger and larger until you are driving up through huge gorges, with very large drops on either side. The roads are a lot safer now but even in 1996, a lot of the side barriers were made of wood and missing large sections where the snow had taken them off down the side. In a few places, far below, you could see often see cars that had been taken over the edge as well!

At Poncebos and the Cares Gorge (for those more interested in the Ario Caves Project) we turned off to the East and continued to climb up into the mountains, along further windy roads until the mountains level out on an obvious plateau and the village of Sotres (highest village in the Picos). Above the village the main mountain range of Andara reaches around 2200-2300m high and it’s only a few miles further that the ‘crossroads’ is reached. (The crossroads now, is actually a parking space for tourists and mountaineers, but at the time it was a mud turning circle, marking the junction between a dirt track to Tresviso, a dirt track to Bejes or a rocky track to the higher mountains.

The 1996 expedition was not actually based in Tresviso. A small camp site a couple of km’s up the mountain track and down into a meadow was the best site for pitching tents and having a suitable water source. The amount of equipment in the minibus meant 3 trips back and forth back were required and by the time tents were pitched and bags unpacked it was getting quite late. A quick meal (can’t remember what) and off to bed with the exciting promise of caving the next day!

Map to camp, still used today
Map to camp, still used today

The next day I had my first taste of expedition caving. The Cheese Cave, as it was called, was about 200m down the valley in a wooded clearing. First discovered in the mid 1980’s, it was a -120m deep cave with a drafting rift at the very end. The cave sat in the middle area between the resurgence cave, Cueva del Agua and the notorious higher altitude deep pot hold caves, such as Sima 56 (at that time the deepest in the Andara region at -1169m). That was pretty much all I knew about it, apart from a notorious squeeze near the start of the cave, called The Constriction of Doom, followed by the Corkscrew (probably of Doom as well). I’m not sure why cavers need to name parts of the cave with such hyperbole, maybe too much Harry Potter reading, or in the 90’s too much Xena, but it usually sets my mind racing about how bad it must actually be to earn such a name.

The passage of time (not another part of the cave…) has dulled what I can remember of that constriction and it has long since been widened by later expeditions, but it was pretty tight, think the Blowhole in Gaping Gill or Birthday Squeeze in Swildons, but 5m long, lying flat out on one side, starting in a puddle of water.

Constriction of Doom, Cheese Cave (1995)
Constriction of Doom, Cheese Cave (1995)

The Corkscrew (of certain death) was actually more intimidating than the constriction, starting in a small chamber full of shattered rocks, that appeared to be the only thing holding the entire roof up. In the centre a tight vertical drop requires an acrobatic sit / squat / twist combination, turning onto ones back and then rolling sideways to face the front, all of this with no space to turn head and look below.

The Corkscrew, Cheese Cave (1995)
The Corkscrew, Cheese Cave (1995)

A further 5m crawl then leads to the first pitch and the start of some ‘easier’ caving. A team was already in the cave from earlier in the morning, so all pitches were rigged. This was before easy access to drills andthrough bolts so all the pitches had a generous amount of natural rigging from any available rock, and in some cases mud, that provide a good anchor point.

The first couple of pitches are typical of the type of potholes in the area, being rather tight and rifty, with a lot of old decayed rock and calcite hanging precariously all over the place. In particular, the 3rd pitch Sword Pitch, starts for the first 5m over a hanging curtain of old calcite that rings with every touch. Even now the pitch requires a generous amount of rope protectors to rig with any sense of safety. Further pitches follow, but now an obvious draft is encountered, coming from lower down in the cave. At the Waiting Room, a low crawl leads off, which requires removal of all equipment, before popping out into a keyhole shaped passage with a cold breeze coming through a tight, impassable rift. It is at this rift that the previous expedition had spent many hours hammering away with a lump hammer and again this year the intended focus of our effort.

Out team of three spent a few hours hammering away, until the smallest member could just squeeze the top part of her body through the rift, tiredness and coldness prevented much further work and we exited the cave.

As my first taste of expedition caving, it was a nice gentle introduction. My second lesson was immediately after exiting the cave. Bearing in mind the cave was only 200m from the camp, the next 24 hours were spent lost in the mountains with no water and only a handful of alpine strawberries for food…..

Sword Pitch, Cheese Cave (1995)
Sword Pitch, Cheese Cave (1995)