South Wales Caving Club have been active in Northern Spain since the late 1990’s, including a number of joint trips with SUSS. A key part of this is their Easter trips – a week of sport caving in the region around Ramales de la Victoria. On the 2005 expedition, we were introduced to a recently discovered cave, Sistema Gandara. First entered in 2001, this system now reaches 106 km in length, and is still relatively unknown. The original explorers were from 2 French clubs, and were initially fairly secretive with the survey data. For the last 8 years SWCC have been exploring the system with the aim of completing the major through trip – a traverse of roughly 10km, and a vertical drop of 600m. Last year, the bottom end of the river passage joining the two ends of the system was reached for the first time. This year, completing the through trip was the major aim.
Arriving in Spain on 13th April, we made a quick trip into the bottom entrance to rig the 32m pitch into the main system. Despite heavy rain in the preceding week, the forecast was good, and water levels underground seemed quite reasonable. The following day we headed up to the top entrance – a drive of 45 mins from the bottom entrance, and ascending to a height of 1388m. We discovered the winter snow still lying – drifts of up to 15ft blocked the final approach to the usual parking space, and the 45 min walk to the entrance became a rather exciting Alpine traverse along snow slopes, avoiding avalanche debris and trying desperately to ignore the large snow field above us. The major SWCC trips into the top entrance were in 2011, when I was on the party that got to within a few hundred metres of the Rio Viscoso – the key river passage. Water levels this year were high, and we got very wet on the trip in. However, armed with a better copy of the survey, and a lot of determination, we pushed in through some obscure route finding to the boulder choke into the river. We were a bit short of time to attempt the big trip, so we headed out to the snowy walk back to the car. Unfortunately we arrived as the sun was going down, and a thunderstorm just starting. The walk off was somewhat more rapid as the appeal of being the tallest metal carrying object on the hillside was rather limited.
3 days later, a party of 3 attempted the traverse. A brisk start and walk up saw us heading underground at 1000am. The first hour of the system is a 10 degree inclined crawling/stooping passage, with a small stream flowing in at various points. The water was significantly down than on the previous trip. This finishes in a wet grovel into a bigger area of rift passage, with numerous boulder falls, before a snug squeeze leads into a bouldery aven. An easy crawl at the base takes you into the Rio de Conjugacion – a 2-3m wide stream passage, complete with cascades, little climbs, and walking passage! After 30 minutes, the streamway is left and you begin winding through a series of dry passages interspersed with short spells in streamways. The dry passage is anything from 2 to 5m wide, and often 10-15m high. We arrived at the large chambers above the Rio Viscoso after 3 hours – chambers the size of the entrance passage to Peak Cavern, but only visited by a handful of cavers.
The boulder choke in the floor is a bit tight and awkward, a little loose and the route not entirely obvious, but we got down into the river below without too much trouble. The improved survey proved invaluable, as the most obvious way on was not the correct one, and we soon found ourselves heading off into the unknown. The main river is between 5 and 15m wide, and a large amount sees you climbing, crawling and traversing on a higher level as the main water crashes down below. The water levels were very reasonable, but as the catchment is huge, and this is one of the main drains for the region, it would be very different in wet weather. Putting the thoughts of melting snow out of our heads, we carried on – passing some beautiful formations, a few ducks under boulders in the stream, and finally a dry bypass to the bedding plane crawls in the water – which looked miserable. The final obstacle in the stream was an up pitch on expedition rigged 8mm rope onto a loose boulder slope, and then a traverse over a particularly loose section of breakdown floor, all in the knowledge we were 15m above the proper floor!
After this, you soon leave the river, and head into large dry meandering passages, with a 60m up pitch to gain the higher levels. This was as far as I had come from the other direction, whist on a camping trip in September, so psychologically I was now nearly out, despite the further 4 hours + of caving. The route out is dry, and combines boulder hopping in large bouldery passages, desperately avoiding stunning gypsum flowers and cotton wool formations in vast galleries, and some intricate route finding in a maze or interconnecting multi-level passages. Eventually you pop out at one of the original expedition camps – where we stayed in September. From here, 30 minutes of large trunk passage liberally scattered with boulders takes you to Salle Angel – a vast cavern with a waterfall crashing out of the roof, which makes the main chamber in Gaping Gill look quite small. It is also home to some of the most impressive helictites I have ever seen, although these have suffered significant damage even in the few years the cave has been known. At this point I shot off ahead to arrange a lift to pick us up, as the car we had left at the top was a good 3 hours walk away. I exited after a total underground time of 10 hours 20 mins. Aside from the original French explorers, and despite extensive research, we do not believe that any other caving groups have successfully completed the traverse, and almost certainly no British cavers. Not only was this one of the finest through trips I have done (complete with winter mountaineering!), but it was in all probability a British first, and the first tourist traverse if a little-known world-ranking system, and the culmination of 8 years hard graft by the SWCC/SUSS (me and Ben Stevens).
It was really quite good. Also, we got out in time for food and beer.