One of the objectives of the 2017 expedition is the aid climb of an 80m aven, in Cueva de la Marniosa. Unfortunately, the aven lies beyond a sump, so divers are required to pass the sump before attempting the climb beyond. The climbing of the aven is more for the desire to connect to any nearby surface sites, as such a connection would allow teams of non-divers to enter beyond the sump and then support divers at the currently undived sump 2, further into the cave and considerably more challenging for divers to work on their own.
Marniosa lies just up valley of Cueva del Nacimiento, and is probably a feeder into the larger system. The entrance is a small 1m high fissure in the side of the hillside, where a cool strong draft emits constantly.
Originally the cave was a cheese cave, typical of the area, and used to store the local cheeses, a particularly strong blue veined variety. However, beyond the old abandoned cheese racks, lies nearly 5km of cave from large dusty chambers in the higher entrance series, to an active streamway at around -230m depth. Marniosa was heavily explored in the late 70’s by Lancaster University Speleological Society (LUSS), but following a tragic accident, visits become less and the neighbouring Nacimiento cave was proving to be giving up its secrets far more easily. It wasn’t until the mid-80’s that a team from the South Wales Caving Club (SWCC) returned to Marniosa with the aim of exploring the undived sumps. This was a highly successful trip that not only dived the first sump, but also discovered nearly a 1km of passage beyond, terminating in a second sump pool.
Initially, we wanted to transport some dive bottles to sump 1, ready for the divers, to dive sump 1 later in the week. A team of 4 assembled with various size bottles attached to their backs and other assorted bits and pieces. Normally a 45 minutes slog down the track to the cave is required, but now, with the benefit of a 4×4, we drove straight to the cave and only a short 5 minute climb to the entrance was required.
After the initial entrance chamber, the cave quickly starts to descend rapidly via a series of initially small pitches to the impressive Morning Chamber, full of old stalagmites and stalactites. As we had all been in Marniosa a few times over the years, we didn’t stop to admire the scenery and we continued onto the next large 20m pitch. The cave had been left rigged from the previous year, so we had no hassle of carrying rope and metalwork to rig the pitches and we all reached this point with ease. From here the cave changes character again, with large fossil galleries and abandoned streamways. This is the nicest section of the cave, with lots of interesting formations and pleasant passage.
All too soon, the cave changes again, with more muddy passage taking over and we knew we would be approaching the drop into the streamway. Papoose Pitch, as it is called, is a very muddy affair, with no real clean rigging possible and just a lot of mud to slip and injure something. At the bottom a series of platform are reached, that lead down via some exposed climbs, into the streamway. The active streamway makes a nice change from the rest of the cave, upstream in particular containing a lot of passage to a terminal chamber with a number of avens to be climbed. However, we were interested in downstream, so we set off again. It’s been a few years since I have been downstream in Marniosa, but I had forgotten how tricky some of the passage is, with high level traverses or exposed climb downs required for most of the 400m between the bottom of Papoose Pitch to Sump 1. There are 3 pitches in the streamway, again rigged last year, and there was a danger that winter floods might have damaged some of the rope, but luckily the first 2 pitches were fine. The third one was different. Not only was it rigged with deviations using maillons (ran out of carabiners), the core was exposed (found this out after I had already reached the bottom of the pitch). This will need re-rigging when we come back.
Not long after this final pitch, the start of a series of swims marks the approaching sump. Gear was stashed here while Gareth took a quick jump into the deeper streamway to check out the sump.
Although he was only gone for 5 minutes, it’s a very chilly place in the stream and we were all starting to get cold. A few jelly beans for energy and we set off back. The original plan had been to look at some leads upstream but as time was getting on, an exit was preferred. Progress was slow coming out, and there was some opportunity for photos while waiting to ascend the pitches
Eventually, we exited after 7 hours underground, but still more ferrying trips required, before a proper dive can be launched.
Just up valley from Agua is Cueva del Marniosa, a 4k + system that is probably hydrologically connected (although never proven) to Agua. A number of pitches and decorated chambers lead to the main streamway. Plans had been made this year to dive the downstream sump (approx. 20m long) with a view to look at an unclimbed aven just beyond the sump. The diving bottles had previously been left near the streamway and a team of myself, Dave Collins and Fernando (President of the A.D.KAMI club and recently arrived from Madrid) had intended to take the bottles further into the cave, ready for a dive. However, plans changed the night before and the dive was cancelled. The trip was altered to bring the bottles out and also take some time to look upstream in the cave.
Although heavily visited by LUSS in the 70’s the description for Marniosa suggest some possibilities for unexplored passage.
Upstream of the ladder pitch …… small inlets enter at the point of many of these falls and often there are large black holes in the roof. Climbs in the roof of these area many be very rewarding.
However, there is some contradictory information between reports, suggesting these leads may have been visited but not always pushed to conclusion. On area we wanted to visit was a unsurveyed section shown on the survey. However, other reports suggest this was surveyed, yet no data seems to exist and not shown on the latest surveys.
The journey up the upstream sump was very entertaining. A very nice section of streamway, with numerous climbs out and back into the streamway. As we went along, I noticed a lot of sections of cave (high in the roof) that are not marked on the survey, supporting the claims in the intial reports. In particular, one section of streamway, had a very large boulder chamber / choke above, possibly 20m high, not marked on the survey. Any SLUGS reading? Drop me an email on any of this 🙂
The upstream continuation was followed to an immense chamber, called The Hall of the Mountain King. It consists of numerous connected avens, some with waterfalls, others dry and could be anything from 150′ high. The floor is littered with sandstone boulders, suggesting that there is a route through to the surface nearby.
We reached the final chamber after a few hours and it was very impressive, at least 3 x 50m avens in the roof, with water coming down and very cold. One small climb / meander leads to an aven marked in the survey, but just to one side was a tight squeeze to a 9m pitch (not descended). Again not shown on the survey.
On the way back I found the passage we wanted to check out and we surveyed the passage. By now it was getting very late and we exitted the cave. On the way we collected the dive bottles but after passing our call out time we left them behind for another trip and exitted at midnight. An enjoyable trip with some new questions raised.
Today (1st August) was Yorkshire Day, celebrating all things Yorkshire including famous Yorkshireman like James Henry Atkinson, the inventor of the Little Nipper mousetrap.
Hence we called the (new) section of cave Yorkshire Inlet and the aven, Bradford Aven.
Yesterday three teams entered Marniosa (2pm) with all three initially helping with the transport of dive cylinders to the top of the short pitch down into the main streamway.
Russ and Nick then headed back towards the entrance photographing the cave. Russ has a proper camera with fancy flash units so has captured some pretty awesome pictures that show off Marniosa.
Emily and David headed upstream with the intention of pushing as far as they could but were soon tharwted by a boulder choke. With a too tight squeeze and sketchy traverse they decided to head back and join up with Russ and Nick to support the photography team.
Bob and Duncan headed downstream to complete the rigging of the instream pitches. With a 33m rope left from the earlier rigging trip and about 6m cut off some unused rope from a higher pitch we travelled downstream rigging the 3 remining pitches.
The Main stream has many chert nodules offering good hand-holds that can break off at any time! There is a steeply descending section with amazing eroded rock and pot-holes providing a very sporting up and down trip, often requiring one to traverse several metres above the stream to continue. We rigged the final pitch, ran out of rope and got to a large pool, which was just upstream of the sump.
Neither of us wanted a swim; we had achieved our primary goals (drag dive cyclinders in and complete rigging) so we returned to the entrance and caught up with the photography team at the big pitch.
When we finally got to the surface (9pm) we were greeted with mist and rolling thunder!
Today after a very late start, Emily, David, Derek and Duncan left for Marniosa. The 40 minute walk from the top of the sobra valley was pleasant, get into the cave was not fighting our way through brambles and gorse…
I (Duncan) had been the only person to have previously visited the cave and thus lead the trip. We planned to rig the entire route to the steam but because of our very late start time and my painfully slow rigging we bailed out on the 4th pitch once we had rigged it, in favour of going home and getting a relatively early night.
Also I learnt a valuable lesson, it’s all very well spending quality time reading the topo guide and getting the ropes ready but not remembering which rope you need for which pitch well…makes for a trip that ain’t gonna go right!
On the big pitch the rope did not touch the floor so David went back to the previous pitch and cut the excess off (because we had used the wrong length rope for a short pitch) and turned that into a traverse line, releasing the main rope for the main pitch.
At this point we all headed out.
Whilst we had only achieved half of our mission it was a good introduction to the system, tomorrow we will head back and complete the rigging ready for the cave divers and do some exploring upstream.
So what has been happening between the last years trip and the imminent new one? The 2011 trip ended on a relative high, despite not being able to get a chance to scale the climbs at the limit of exploration, Cueva del Nacimiento had been rigged to the limit of exploration, a lot harder job than was expected, but as the cave was left rigged, hopefully it meant this year’s trip could get to the back end in under a day and hit the latest exploration immediately. More accurate surveys had been undertaken and the cave rigged safely and more efficiently for future trips. 100m of new cave had been found close to the entrance, showing there was still potential for discovery even close to well-trodden paths. In addition a few conversations with Colin Boothroyd had whetted the appetite for potentially attacking the upstream sump in Nacimiento, a wide open lead heading into the mountain. The scale of the Tresviso expeditions has been gradually increasing over the past couple of years and the feasibility of mounting a serious diving trip to the backend looked a distinct possibility.
Once back in the UK only a couple of days rest were afforded before the various post-trip activities needed to be completed. Finances and various reports for the sponsors were prepared and the annual Hidden Earth conference was attended to give a brief lecture on the trip. Post lecture the serious discussions, stimulated by alcohol, began. Alan had vowed never to return to Spain after spending days underground covered in mud and grit, however, a couple of beers later and he was softening. madPhil was still interested, so that meant continuing the Teeth of Satan climbs was still on. All I needed to do now was convince a diver that we could carry all his kit to the back end. One short dive and history beckoned the lucky person…..
As luck would have it, a diver was keen, and not much alcohol required to convince further. SWCC stalwart and CDG regular, Martin Groves, had expressed general interest in the trip previously, but other expeditions had gotten in the way. This year it looked like a free space in his diary meant no more excuses were allowed.
So the next few months were spent one more pouring over the journals, in particular the last accounts of the 86 SWCC trip to Nacimiento, the last time anyone was at the backend of Nacimiento and the last time a diving trip had been attempted that far into the cave.
The 1986 journal merely states:
Our next aim was the upstream sump itself which appeared to be the only way on. Gear was carried into the cave by Rob, Ian and Howard Jones and the sump was dived on a subsequent trip. Ian supported by Colin was the first to dive. He laid out all of his 120m of line at a depth of -24m in passage varying from 10m to 20m diameter. Rob’s dive followed, and a further 47m of line was added at a depth of -27m until he turned back. No more dives were made at this site.
Various second hand accounts note that the passage was large and on-going, but so big as to cause agoraphobia and the last dive was undertaken at about 3am in the morning, psychological probably not the best time for a dive. Unfortunately Ian Rolland and Rob Parker are no longer with us to tell us more about the dives.
Advancements in lights, equipment and re-breather technology meant that the upstream sump was becoming a more and more an encouraging prospect for us and with Martin suitable enthused, planning got going in earnest. Leaving the logistics of bottles, gas mixtures and rebreathers to Dr’s Groves and Rowsell, I got on with the exciting business of permissions and people!
Permissions in the Eastern Picos have been fairly complicated for a few years, with the area ‘split’ between 3 Spanish groups, with the boundaries of said groups changing and overlapping from year to year. Luckily a good relationship has been set up with the AD KAMI club of Madrid and all our permission requests go via them and we operate as part of their expeditions. Generally working in the area at the same time, it is surprisingly difficult to get together at the same time to meet face to face and help each other out, with KAMI working high up on Andara at CS-9 (Torca Jou Sin Tierre) and the SWCC either in the middle ridges of the area or at the foot of the Urdon Gorge where Nacimiento resurges. However, given that the water from CS-9 probably drains into Nacimiento they always take a keen interest in our activities and even suggested, resources permitting, they would help us with the equipment carry.
Recruiting of a team for the expedition was relatively easily, reaching a peak of 26 interested people at one point. This eventually settled around the 18 marks, as per last year. The core, previously made up of SWCC members, has slowly shifted with the majority of members being drawn from the ranks of the NUCC. An encouraging sign and something we have been keen to cultivate. Potential is still high in the area and the decline in student numbers within LUSS was the beginning of the loss of interest in the area in the late 80’s. Hopefully, a successful trip once more this year might encourage even more interest and before long we will be back down Sima 56…..
Into the start of 2012 and the sponsorship and funding requests started to bear fruit. Lyon Equipment once more generously provided a number of high quality tackle and dry bags for transporting all the dive equipment. More rope was purchased and the previous years dusted off and partly cleaned.
I guess the obvious question is why did LUSS and now the SWCC spend most of their summer, grovelling around in the cold and damp caves of the Picos, covered in mud and grit, tired hungry and generally miserable?
I’m not going to go into the usual arguments around, exploration, adventure, ‘because it’s there’ etc. but the following post briefly details a little bit of the motivation and competition related to the specific exploration in this area.
The main goal of the work, undertaken by LUSS and now by SWCC, is to attempt to find a route through the Eastern Massif mountain range from the deep potholes on top of the range to the resurgence (where all the water draining through the mountain range re-emerges) at Cueva del Nacimiento.
At the time of the original exploration, it was believed that such a cave would be one of the deepest in the world. Around the same time as LUSS was exploring the caves of the Eastern Massif the Oxford University Caving Club (OUCC) was in the neighbouring mountain range looking for a similar deep cave to break the records.
OUCC, centred around the Ario plateau, were looking for a connection between the potholes in the Western Massif and the resurgence, Culiembro. In particular a deep pothole called Xitu on the plateau was the centre of attention.
In 1981 OUCC broke a couple of records, extending Xitu below -1000m, the first British team to achieve such a feat. At the end of the 1981 expedition the cave had reached a depth of -1139m and exploration terminated at a sump.
Within 2 years LUSS, concentrating on Sima 56 (Cueto de los Senderos) surpassed this limit by 30m, reaching a depth of -1169m, with the last few bits of passage referred to as the ‘Oxford By-Pass’ and ‘FUZ2’ (you can work this one out..)
Despite numerous expeditions in the following years these limits in both the caves were not passed.
In 2010 the sumps at the end of Culiembro were finally passed and the divers reached the terminal point reached in 1981 at the bottom of Xitu, making a -1264m traverse a possibility.
This makes it the 3rd deepest traverse and the World’s deepest diving traverse.
The caving world and exploration has moved on since the original exploration and the deepest cave goal is no longer geologically achievable.
However, modern mapping and GPS techniques still provide some exciting reading and recent extensions in another deep cave (Torca Jou Sin Tierre) in the Eastern Massif, still give hope for some records to be broken in the next few years.
Torca Jou Sin Tierre – Cueva del Nacimiento would be a -1530m deep underground traverse. This would make it the 8th deepest cave in the world, 2nd deepest in Spain and the 2nd deepest traverse in the world (I still need to confirm this… any takers?)
It would be a close one but we would just miss out on the deepest cave in Spain which is currently Torca del Cerro del Cuevon-Torca de las Saxifragas at a depth of -1589m.