A week of Spanish Caving

Every Easter, South Wales Caving Club go for a week to Northern Spain, for a week of sport caving in some of the excellent systems in the region around Ramales de la Victoria. While people have often heard of Cueto-Coventosa, one of the classic through trips in the region, there are a great many more epic trips to be had, and several very significant systems that are barely known. After being thwarted by an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano last year, I was super keen for some serious caving action

17th April

Rubicera – Mortero de Astrana – a warm up through trip in the Ason Gorge. After a 30 minute walk and steep climb down into the upper beddings at the head of the Ason, you find a large tunnel heading into the hillside. We followed this to a route down through boulders which drops into a series of rifts leading, via a 30m pitch, to a very pleasant streamway, of a similar size to the OFD stream. After 30 mins or so the water cuts down into a rift, before tumbling down two 90m pitches to the lower reaches. Instead of this, we followed a bolted traverse over the head of the pitch, and through some rifty climbs to the Mortero streamway – slightly bigger, and, when wet, a lot wilder. Downstream leads to a 180mj pitch down; upstream to a high level rope traverse, 8m above the stream – testament to the water levels in winter. After the acrobatics, the passage gently rises to some 30m high hading rifts, which you climb to the base of a pothole similar to Eldon Hole, except about 20 times the size. The base of the pot is a huge heap of goatsh!t, and rather loose. After ascending a 30m pitch, you climb out of the shakehole to gain a fantastic view of the Gandara valley. 5 ½ hours, not a bad first day.

18th April

The Gandara river rises on the opposite side of the col from the Ason, and until the early 2000’s had no cave known behind it. That is now somewhat different – 100km+ of passage mapped over the last 7 years, and still going. Unfortunately, due to local politics, the survey has not been published, and we have been working off a survey on 2 A4 sheets, and descriptions form the club websites, translated from French. This make accurate route-finding a liitle tricky in places.

The lower entrance is just off the road, and I had been in there a few times 2 years previously, in part exploring a side passage heading perpendicular to the main cave. Our trip that year had been terminated 4 hours in by a rock sliding ominously towards the pitch we were about to descend, and then sitting ominously above the rope, refusing to budge. As the trip there is fairly serious caving, what with the high level traverses, false floors, several kilometres of passage, and us being the only people other than the original explorers to have been there, we were a little un-nerved. Anyway, we went back, with a crowbar, decided that the rock looked okay, dropped the pitch, and found some massive trunk passage which headed down to a very cold and deep canal/sump. I then carried the crowbar back out. A return visit is planned, with the survey seeming to show another several hundred metres of stream. 10 hours

19th April

A trip to the top entrance of Gandara. The entrance series consists of a 10-15 degree angled passage, varying between crawling and uncomfortable stooping height, for an hour. This eventually finishes, and is replaced by traversing in rift passage, similar in places to the OFD 3 traverses. After another 30mins, you gain a streamway, and after a wriggle through a boulder choke, the streamway gets significantly bigger. The boulder choke was the limit of the SWCC trip last year, so we were into new ground. We rapidly found way markers, but as all the passages at this point are huge (10x30m) and draught, finding ‘the’ way on is not always as easy as you may think. However, we made good progress into the system, along huge tunnels well decorated with gypsum, and planned on a return later in the week. 7 hours

20th April

Cueva Vallina is a 35km system on the edge of the Matienzo region. Initially the upper series was the majority of the known cave, but a push through a boulder choke in the lower streamway sections opened up a huge new area in the late 1990s. 2 years previously I had been on the SWCC trip that had seen us get past this choke, and our aim was to get to the end of the survey. 1 hour of entrance passage – initially crawls before opening up into proper continental galleries. A 40m pitch down, into an inlet, then a major streamway (again, OFD like, with beautiful dark limestone). Over the sump bypass, through the boulder choke, and into the second, separate, and even larger streamway. Upsteam, to the Nipple Freezer, where photos were taken (my nipples stayed dry – either the water was lower, or I am taller than the original explorers). Up another inlet, into huge roof tunnels, full of stal and boulders, leading to a massive chasm, with a traverse into another large passage, 20m wide and 5m high, again well decorated. Through the Helictite Maze, with its amusing route finding onto a series of dodgy loose rock pinnacles. And finally, into Crystal River passage. Imagine the White River in Peak, but twice as wide, 30m high, longer, and in the condition it was found in. This is one of the most beautiful places I have been underground. The route out took us along a different feeder stream, and under the Novadome, a 30m diameter aven, with no visible roof. This cave is a spectacular place. 12 hours

21st April

Another classic through trip – Sima Tonio to Cueva Canuela (or Cayuela). After a climb up the hill, the small entrance doesn’t look amazing, but the draught draws you on. Tonio consists of 21 pitches, all pull-through or permanently rigged, with a maximum distance off the rope of about 10m. The final pitch drops into the massive Salle Guillaume, at the far end of Canuela, and 280m lower than the entrance. Canuela is a vast tunnel in the hillside, and you walk out the 2km to the entrance in 30m wide, 60m high passage, well decorated by massive ancient stalactites. 5 hours

22nd April

A return to the upper entrance of Gandara. The entrance series zipped by (sadly not the case on the return!) We soon reached the turn-around point from the earlier trip, and pushed on into the hillside. The passages continued to be huge, with ‘little’ side passage the kind of thing you would call master cave in the UK. Outside the exploration teams, we were probably the first group to have got this far into the system. Certainly, other than the occasional way markers and bolts, there was often little sign of previous cavers. We passed the first campsite, established to help in the exploration, and pressed onwards. The key to the through trip is the Rio Viscoso, where the maze of passages slims down to a single tunnel. We got very close, but were frustrated in the boulder chokes guarding it. After some fruitless poking into various holes, we retreated. However, to get to this point, knowing the way, takes about 3 hours, and so a return next year is certainly planned, and with it, the elusive through trip. 8 hours

A week caving in Cantabria is an excellent way to relax from work. 47 ½ hours underground over 6 days, in some of the most spectacular caves I have visited. Homecooked food (including paella), hot showers, comfortable beds, beer (okay, not ale, but a cold San Miguel goes down a treat after 12 hours in the dark), wine, good company. No wonder I am planning on a return visit!