Last time I was in the Ason valley was for the truly fabulous Gandara traverse (see the original Commitment in Cantabria blog). Now, here I was again for yet another classic through trip, Cueto-Coventosa. Cueto is a series of pitches to -581m where it intersects a series of very large galleries. These take you to an extensive series of intermediate level passages eventually connecting to trunk route in Cueva Coventosa. The sting in the tail is the three deep and very cold lakes which must be safely crossed before you exit some 800m below the Cueto entrance.
When it was first suggested that we did this trip I was rather unsure. I know a few people who have had epics of various magnitudes, either in the vertical section, which commences with a 300m shaft, and is traditionally pulled through (e.g see here). Or at the lakes near the end which require careful thought (e.g. see here). So learning from these lessons we decided to fix rig the first 200m of the shaft to “the ledge” and swim the lakes with neoprene and floatation rather than try and pull boats back with string. We hoped that both these measures would reduce our trip time below the described 16 hours and also reduce the chances of screwing up on the pull through.
But first, we did some training. As is common, we warmed up by doing the nearby Tibia-Fresca through trip. This includes the pull through of two 85m shafts with intermediate bolts leaving the largest hangs at 55m and 60m respectively. This trip was supposed to be honing our rope technique and giving us confidence but actually resulting in us getting the 60m rope stuck on pull down on the first 85m shaft. At this point I was quite pleased we had taken four ropes with us for both efficiency (we were a large party of eight people) and contingency. This meant we could double the remaining 50m rope on the top of the second 85m shaft and hope that the two 55m ropes would somehow reach for the subsequent 60m hang…… Luckily my 55m rope had only been cut to a pre-shrinkage length of 63m one week before and appeared not to have fully shrunk yet. This just allowed Rick to get to the ground. Then, Beardy put in the pull down rope, which although shorter could just be reached by Sandy climbing up to grab it. Phew.
The next day our plan for a Cueto rigging team and a Coventosa preparation team had to split further to include a rope retrieval team. We were sharing resources with the Wessex CC and additionally taking some of their rope permitted Julia (ably assisted by Aileen and Sandy) to boldly rig the whole of the 300m first pitch. Meanwhile Rick and Beardy went back in Tibia to retrieve our stuck rope and Pete, Avelina and myself went swimming in Coventosa. We had three huge tackle sacs each full of car inner tubes, wetsuits and spare food and water. Our journey in was slow as we needed to route find, plus had such heavy loads. However this gave ample time to admire the majestic galleries and canyon passage that form the cave. Once at the lakes we spent some more time inflating all the tubes before changing into our neoprene. Using a tube each to support us and another for each bag (plus a couple of spares) we set off. The water was very very cold indeed, but we made steady progress, crossing the two boulder piles between the three lakes before arriving on the far shore. Here we emptied daren drums of spare food, drybags of neoprene and left the tubes. We then used the air filled drums and drybags to float ourselves back. Now freezing and lightly loaded we raced for the exit. What had taken us three or fours hours on the way in took merely 100 minutes on the way out.
Now we were all set and allowed ourselves a rest day and early night before beginning the adventure. However, as ever with this sort of things I was nervous and did not sleep well. Up early, as one of the drivers I shuttled the first (and fast) team up to the top to begin their walk to the cave before returning for the second team. The walk in was stunning scenery and nicely distracted me from my fears of the huge shaft. But, eventually there was no getting away from it; the pitch had to be descended. Aileen sportingly went first, then I grasped the mettle and decided to get it over with. I hesitated terribly as I got on the rope, but after the first ten metres of abseiling relaxed nicely and sailed on downwards. Four rebelays and five hangs to “the ledge” (merely a few square metres in size, but bliss to put your feet on the floor) then a further three hangs to -300m. That is the height of the Eiffel Tower pretty much straight down. This latter section was rigged on the WCC’s 8.5mm rope and as it passed over numerous rub points on the penultimate pitch I felt that I was now truly committed.
We were expecting the next shaft of 55m to be permanently rigged, which it was. But we had not expected so many of the next pitches to be fixed rigged too. The plan had been for the first team to take in their three pull through ropes plus ours and to put our ropes in situ on the first pull through pitches to save both them and us time. In the end, there were only two pitches to pull through on the way down – the P46 Pozu de la Muleta and the final P20 into Galerie Juhue. This meant that the first team carried three 50m ropes all the way through for no need (other than perhaps to slow Becka down). With so little pulling through we were down the shaft series in only 2.5 hours and feeling very pleased with our progress.
Next was “Draenen on steroids” as we stomped through the large galleries mainly watching our feet over the slippy boulders. We stopped on route for a hot lunch at the Oasis, one of the few places on the trip with a reliable source of water. Then it was more boulders before Pozu Navidad took us down to the smaller intermediate network of passages. These were really beautiful, with glistening gypsum crystals and lovely phreatic tubes. Our English translation of the description left a lot to be desired but the whole route is well marked by either reflectors, cairns or carbide arrows so getting lost was not an issue. It was just hard to judge progress at times although the Union Pitch were the systems were connected was obvious by the huge and unnecessary cave graffiti.
Eventually the passages got smaller and the draught got stronger as we approached the large Coventosa galleries. A final narrow pitch howled as we dropped into the trunk passages beneath. Then finally we returned to the far side of the lakes and our stash of tubes, neoprene and food. I was very grateful for the WCC for taking my neofleece back in when they set their boats for their own through trip and changed into this as we packed up the sacks for the exit. Now things seemed to slow down as we had lots of stuff – why had we taken in so much spare food? – and soon to be wet stuff to carry out. It took us half a lake to get our tackle swimming technique sorted then things improved. By the time we had crossed the lakes we were very cold though and this combined with the load and the now lateness of the hour meant we slowed down a lot. Still, physiologically we were almost there. After entering at 10am we were out by 12.30am. Not a speedy time given the fixed rigging, but perfectly respectable. Our fast team meanwhile had made it in a cracking 10 hours.
The next days was spent lazing around while the speedy ones paid the price for their pace and got the job of pulling the ropes out of Cueto. Our main objective of the week achieved we were now free to engage in some shorter but no lesser quality through trips in the region, including ticking of both Cuivo-Mortero de Astrana and Tonio-Canuela.
Thanks to Julia and Beardy for the organisational effort.
Team 1 (speedy): Beardy, Julia, Rick, Becka. Team 2 (hot stuff): Sandy, Aileen, Pete & Me. Team Wessex defector: Avelina