I’d been caving for perhaps nine hours. We’d been going slowly, carrying a lot of equipment and I was tired. Very tired. Now I was shivering in a storm shelter at the foot of a draughty waterfall with so much flow that you could barely see where the pitch rope was. In any other circumstance I might have protested it was too wet to continue. But in this case the choice was between ascending these 25m and being a stone’s throw from a nice warm cosy sleeping bag at underground camp, or else ascending 650m back to the surface. There was no choice but to grit my teeth and carry on.
What is it that makes me keep doing these things? These exhausting scary things a long way from home. Over and over again. Do I not learn?
I am of course talking about expedition caving, but also specifically about expedition caving in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain.This year marked twenty years since, beneath these very Picos mountains, I first dipped my toe in the vast sea of expedition caving. The intervening years have seen me participate in and lead expeditions all over the world including nine more times to the Picos plus multiple trips to Austria, China, Myanmar and in between forays to the mountains of Croatia, New Zealand, Yemen and Timor-Leste. I’ve also squeezed in “weekend” cave exploration in France, Bulgaria and even Australia! All these trips have been challenging in their own way, but this summer’s return to the Picos felt particular tough.
It was my tenth visit to the Picos, but my first for five years. As I drove up to the road head all sorts of positive emotions had raced through me. I passed the holy site of Covadonga and felt the parallels of my own religious experience returning to such a formative place; where I had really learnt vertical caving, where I had experienced my first true depths, and where I had formed some of the strongest and longest lasting friendships of my life.
Joy turned to pain as I packed and then shouldered my 80 litre rucksack filled with my gear for the next ten days and no doubt weighing more than 25kg. I knew the walk to our base in the mountains at Refugio at Vega Ario well, so was under no illusion how far I still had to go when everything first started hurting. Passing some expedition members on their way down for some shopping cheered me up; as did overtaking another hiker later on. As I made the last rise the weather, which had been threatening for most of the previous three hours, finally closed in and I tried to run the last few hundred metres to avoid a soaking.
And with that I saw no more of these amazing mountains for two days. It rained for 48 hours solid. The next day a team of us went back down to the road head to help carry up the cave diving equipment. One of the objectives of the expedition was to facilitate Tony in diving the downstream sump in Sistema Verduallenga (C4 for short) and hopefully connect it another known cave, Pozu Jultayu (2/7 for short). This is just one of the missing links we have been trying to forge with the aim of connecting the highest peaks to the resurgence cave 1800m below.
My second full day on the expedition I was supposed to take a team to start carrying the diving equipment down the cave and then stay down for a few days to support the dive. However, as the rain kept falling I decided that discretion was the better part of valour – it would take us almost two hours to walk to the entrance; while the cave might not be impassable it would be very wet and being soaking wet in deep alpine caves which are cold and hostile environments at the best of times, is to be avoided if at all possible. We just hoped that those already in the cave, pushing the upstream leads were ok.
On the third day it didn’t exactly dawn bright but it had stopped raining. Me, Reuben, Eoghan and Paul set off for the entrance, accompanied by some porters to help us get the necessary gear up there. Paul, from Hot Aches Productions, was making a film about the Ario Caves Project and had camera equipment in addition to the dive gear and food for the trip we needed to bring.
While I had been a short way down C4 before in 1997, I have to say I remembered very little. The cave was not especially difficult, but the pitches were interspersed with some areas that required more thought and/or effort, and it certainly didn’t feel like a total nylon highway. The first big milestone came at The Monster, a 115m deep shaft. Having read the description from the 1990’s I had not been looking forward to the 70m free hang down the last section and was pleased so see that it had been more recently re-bolted into a much more friendly series of shorter abseils. However, it was still rather wet. Not far into the cave we had met the exiting underground campers who were a tad damp to say the least. They thought we should be fine going down, but I still managed a decent soaking. Up until this point our team had been moving largely together to enable Paul to get some filming shots of the upper part of this cave. From the top of the Monster, we agreed to press on and regroup at the old camp in Bugger Bognor where it would be less draughty for waiting.
Going first I set off down the boulder slopes from the base of The Monster and easily found the next pitches. A swing across reached a phreatic tube at the top of a rift which required some crawl traversing to the next pitch head. Easy enough caving, but strenuous with a 13kg dive cylinder. A couple of awkward angled pitches and another pitch or two led to the old camp, where I took advantage of the in situ tent to keep warm while waiting for the others.
At least four decent sized shafts followed, interspersed with smaller drops and a few bits of rift and some climbing. Before we eventually arrive at “THE rift”, leading to Maria Celeste, the last pitch down to the main streamway. Another classic of the “it’s not really tight but getting tackle through is awkward” type. We spent a bit of time here ferrying the 6 bags of gear through as well as Paul tacking some more footage for the film. When Eoghan and I had managed to stack all the tackle at the end of the rift, the next task was to get it all down the ladder, used here as the rock was not so good for bolting. I don’t climb many ladders anymore and the 15m descent with the cylinder definitely blew my arms out.
Then there was just a bit of thrutching and squeezing the gear through the last sections of the C4 inlet before we emerged in the main drain. A few minutes upstream and we were staring at the upstream waterfall wondering about the assurances from the others that they had re-rigged the pitch away from the water. To be fair, they had done a good job in challenging circumstances but it was still wet. By the time I got up the pitch I was very tired and the traversing above the stream that followed was challenging me. But we made it into camp and were very relieved to collapse into our beds. The dive team (Tony, Steph, Mike & Mark) arrived soon afterwards having caught us up at the rift and Marie Celeste.
The next day was a good one. It was a fairly inefficient start, but eventually we all got away down to the downstream sump bringing with us the filming gear and all the diving equipment. Tony and Paul were left to do their respective stuff, with Steph, Mike & Eogahn looking for a sump bypass not too far away in case of issues. Mark, Reuben and I went back upstream to do some pushing and surveying in the various leads there. We spent a while trying to locate the inlet pushed by Jock and others earlier in the trip before Reuben and I started to survey, leaving Mark to ascend high into the roof to push the big aven. I confess that we didn’t survey very far before I was too cold to continue. I had not dried out from the trip in and a certain amount of hanging around at the sump earlier had not helped. So we retreated back to the camp, which was found to have its own hazards as mud from the bolting in the aven above fell on the roof repeatedly! Mark, realising what was happening, put an end to his work and came back down to join us. We then made a good job of attempting to burn the tent down instead with the petrol stove.
I was tucked up in bed by the time the others came back from the sump with the good news. Tony had passed the sump, not far beyond last year’s limit and in so doing had connected downstream C4 to 2/7. On the other side he had even found a survey note from OUCC cavers Lynn and Hils in 2000 which was a great touch and irrefutably proved the destination.
Happy cavers sleep well and the next day Mark and I vacated camp to allow others to come in, leaving Tony to dive again in search of a sump bypass and the others to support and keep surveying/pushing upstream. I had not been looking forward to the prussic out. Family challenges in the previous months meant I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked, but knowing I was losing condition all the time underground I was also happy to leave again too. Mark kindly let me go first, since I knew he would be much faster than me and I didn’t want to get left hours behind. We made steady progress, not carrying too much stuff, before meeting Jock and Aileen coming in at the top of The Monster. It always somehow makes you feel less far from home when you just happen to meet your friends on your underground journeys. We also met Martin taking some photos higher up, another friendly face in the darkness. In all we were out in about 6.5 hours which I was fairly pleased with all in all. But most importantly the sun was shining for the first time in days and the view of the western and central massifs were stunning.
The days that followed were quieter as I took a deserved rest before embarking on a small project to look at a shorter cave with Mark. 27/9 was pushed in 1998 originally and has tantalised cavers since due to its strong draught and good location above 2/7. It was good fun to look at a Yorkshire pothole sized cave after the three days in C4. We managed to mostly re-use the old spits, just having to rebolt two of the pitches were we wanted a better hang or didn’t fancy the naturals. The draught was up to the reputation of the cave, but then so was the size of the way on. Very small indeed and would definitely require a lot of work. But still, the prizes are so big around here that it could well be worth it.
And so my time in the Picos came to a close for another year. On the one hand it had been a lot harder than I remembered, but I was pleased that after 20 years I could still make a useful contribution. I was especially pleased to have helped old friend Tony make the connecting dive. The mountains were still as captivatingly beautiful as when I first saw them. And just like in the past, you needed to enjoy that view while you could before the mist closed in. Also, like in 1997 I made some excellent new friendships. I hope these will prove to last just as long. There were also some great innovations in those twenty years: particularly the crazy bolt climbing that was accomplished using good light weight drills and (of course) the availability of beer on tap at the Refugio.
I have no doubt I will return sometime, I just don’t seem to be able to keep away.
Or why not come along and see it on the big screen at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival special screening in aid of the Cave Rescue Organisation.
The 2017 Ario Caves Project expedition would like to thank Alpkit for making underground camp so snuggly with their sleeping bags, mats and jackets; DMM and Bosch for supplying all the gear we needed for the epic bolt climbing upstream. Not to forget the Ghar Parau Foundation and Starless River for their ongoing support.
We were also sponsored by Yorkshire Tea / Taylors of Harrogate, Munchy Seeds, Tunnocks, Battle Oats, Cave Link, Scurion, Lyon equipment, Heightec, YSS
Bradford Pothole Club, Craven Pothole Club, Expedition Foods, Extreme Foods, Refugio Vega de ario and Aventure Verticale.