It was raining. Heavily. And the wind was whipping through between the hills. Andy, Pete and I had on only thin oversuits and thin fleece undersuits beneath. We were fast getting wet and cold, but we were already committed. We were committed from the moment we walked away from Beardy and Mark who had dropped us off on the weather beaten col and had now driven back to our bunkhouse. Ahead of us lay the rest of the hours walk to the cave entrance and more than 10km of caving before we could re-emerge at the location of our hire car 600m hundred metres or so lower down and the other side of the mountain.
We had come to Cantabria to attempt a through trip of Le réseau de la Gandara. This extensive and complicated system, amounting to over 100km of cave passages, has been explored by French cavers. As far as we knew, a through trip, traversing the mountain, has only previously been carried out by these original explorers plus some other British cavers from South Wales Caving Club and Sheffield University Speleological Society. We had come to Spain armed with a cave survey and some tips from our fellow British speleologists, but we knew that the challenge would be tough. Our “Team Beardy” had only 5 or 6 days to work out the route finding and complete the traverse, while it had taken those from SWCC multiple visits over years to figure this out. It must be stressed that SWCC had far less information than us, and no survey, when they first started probing the system, but still our task was not to be underestimated.
We were a team of able cavers and thus could work both ends of the system simultaneously. We needed to find either end of the Rio Viscoso, a supposedly straightforward section of river passage in the centre of the system which bridged two more complex areas at either end. In the end, the upstream end of the system, to the entry into the Rio Viscoso, proved quite straightforward to work out. The downstream end at the Gandara entrance proved much trickier. Pete and I had camped underground for two nights with our Spanish friends Julia and Josito trying to solve the puzzle. This trip saw the full highs and lows that you might experience on an expedition as we lurched from depression thinking we would never work out the way on, to euphoria when the crux problems were solved. Returning to camp late on the second day after finally reaching the downstream exit point of the Rio Viscoso, Pete and I had collapsed exhausted into bed, while Julia and Josito heroically went out, exiting after 2am to spread the word to the rest of the team that the through trip was now on. In fact, as Pete and I exited the following morning we met the first of the through trippers coming into the cave. Holly, Emma and Di were one half of an exchange team, and had drawn the short straw in going uphill. They were exchanging with Noel, Mark and Becka coming down from the top entrance (Calligraphers). We wished them luck and headed out for a slap up lunch and a long siesta.
The teams which had worked out the route finding to either end of the Rio Viscoso had marked the way with temporary reflectors, but the Rio itself had yet to be explored by any of our team. Nevertheless it was expected to be straightforward, although this proved to be far from the case. In the end the two exchange teams managed to miss each other, both being lost in this section of passage at the same time. My slumber that night was later disturbed by a distressed Noel explaining how they had made the mistake of following the water down some slot and then missed the others while they were in the wrong place. He was now really worried that that the other team had still not surfaced. However it later transpired that they were even more lost, the route finding being much harder going upstream direction (see Holly’s write up here).
Armed with additional information our third team of through trippers (Beardy, Emma, Lisa, Julia & Josito) made it through with much less excitement on the following day. This just left me and Pete and Andy to complete the trip on the last day. We had the extra task of removing all the reflectors as we passed through the cave, adding to our commitment by making reversing the route in case of an accident or emergency much harder. The rain that fell the previous night and the morning of our trip did not help either. Soaking wet by the time we reached the entrance (we opted for the slightly shorter through trip via the Bustalveinte entrance) we also found a decent sized stream running in the cave. This added another worry; if water levels were up and the Rio Viscoso was the main collector then would we be able to get through? I had packed a mobile phone in our Darren drum just in case, but with no car at that end of the system and pitiful phone signal, should we need to come out we could be facing a very cold and miserable long walk home.
So we pressed on. The further in we went the larger the stream grew as inlets came in. I was rather concerned about all the water and the sense of commitment was huge and weighty. Eventually we left the water behind and entered some larger dry galleries where I could forget about the potential for flooding for a while. Before long we reached the camp site at Salle de la Sardine a Grosse Tete and we stopped for a bit of food. But soon we were getting cold and so we pressed on. Now we were into a section of the route which none of us had done during the earlier reccie trips as Andy had only been in as far as the camp. This added an extra frisson of excitement to our job of removing the reflectors and I do confess to leaving a couple in-place facing for the way out, just in case we got to the Viscoso only to find we couldn’t get through.
Nevertheless our progress continued without too much difficulty and before we knew it we were at the river. Initially it is actually quite small and I was careful to try and remember the small hole through which we entered the streamway. Gradually the passage enlarged, but still there was a character of multiple wide beddings and we could see why the others had indeed had difficulty when coming upstream. They had, however, left us markers, and combined with carbide arrows from the original explores we managed to avoid all of the potential pitfalls. With the water levels up compared to earlier in the week there was certainly no way we were going down the slot which Noel et al had followed two days earlier. That said, the water levels were not as bad as I had feared, and in fact it did suggest that the hydrogeology is quite complex and there must be other as yet undiscovered streams to take the water we saw in the entrance passages through to the resurgence.
However, when we arrived at the exit marker which Pete and I had placed earlier in the week I was still very relieved. Now the crux was done. We had found the way, we had not been stopped by flooding, and now all that stood between us and the exit was a mere 5 or 6 hours of dry caving. We carried on to camp 3 and had a well-deserved late lunch stop. Then there was a 60m pitch up, a number of grand galleries and within three hours we were back to camp 1 where Pete and I had stayed previously. At our first visit we had struggled to get water here (a real pain when camping underground), but now there were plenty of burbling noises around. In fact when we passed back through Salle de Angel on the way out we found the waterfall that enters there to be really impressive. I had been somewhat impressed on our earlier trip but now it was very spectacular indeed. From Salle de Angel a number of further up pitches followed, the last of which we needed to de-rig. Then we were on the home straight, only an hour to go. Finally we exited to an amazingly sunny and beautiful late evening light after eleven and a half hours underground. There was then just the small matter of the ten minute walk to the car and the short drive back to the bar to celebrate with the rest of the team.
(Cover image from Cuevas del Ason website)