by Richard M Carey
(click images to enlarge)
The 5th visit of the MCG to Argentina and definitely the most successful so far. This year's MCG were Peat Bennett, Tim Francis and myself. The task in hand was to finish off the exploration of Poti Malal and complete the survey of Cueva Miranda, which was discovered on the last day of our expedition last year. As I had already been in Argentina for 5 months I had prepared an itinerary of other visits but as usual in Argentina nothing goes to plan. Although this time we met with outstanding success: a whole new region discovered and 12 caves so far. There were no delays, no accidents this time although Tim did get held hostage for a while by the police.
This was the earliest that we had come to Argentina and I met Peat and Tim at Mendoza airport with my faithful Renault 12 and drove back to Malargüe in time to celebrate the New Year with our friends and a barbecued goat. We hadn't planned to do anything on New Year's day but since the English contingent weren't feeling too jet lagged we decided to go fetch Rubén and visit Las Salinillas. Normally Tigre would be our introductory trip but this year no lava tubes were visited. We had a general rummage with Peat and Tim sticking their heads in every nook and cranny. Peat even shoved his camera into a sump pool to see if it went. Rubén had surveyed the cave but Tim managed to persuade him that just because you use a theodolite doesn't make it a grade 6, downgraded and with north moved by 180° everyone was happy.
A four day expedition to the Poti Malal valley in conjunction with INAE. INAE members were Ariel Benedetto, Rubén Cepeda, Héctor Sevillano, Matias and Lucas Oliva from Cordoba who we had met on the SRT training in San Luis. Provisions were bought and we set off in mini convoy only being delayed at the border post for a complete check of our papers. We set up camp and kitted up. Rubén took the others to explore San Agustin while Peat and Ariel went to see if they could push more in Miranda leaving Tim and myself to begin the survey. 4 hours of surveying got us to the first junction while Peat and Ariel had pushed on to the bitter end.
All our knees were feeling battered so we decided to walk the next day. It was a typically scorching day and while Tim and Ariel were rummaging in gypsum Peat and I went off for a massive hike. I followed a stream and lo and behold a resurgence. Oh God not another Miranda was my first thought. It had a low entrance with the way on blocked by a boulder but forcing a way through on the right I managed to enter a small chamber with water entering through a hole in the roof with no way on. Disappointment and relief in the same instant. Ariel and Tim caught up and duly entered for a look. We decided to call it Cueva Scorchio and then Peat arrived and took the GPs. We had a look to see if there was a fossil entrance but everything we found was choked.
The next day I decided to go with the others leaving Peat and Tim to survey Miranda to the final chamber. We went down to the kiosco and Lucas and I followed a stream that went round the back of Poti Malal. Rubén, Hector and Matias would concentrate on the road and found a pot that would need some rope to continue. Meanwhile Lucas and I walked a very scenic valley but found nothing, so we climbed up to the top and found a couple of likely looking holes. Although you could get a body in they choked almost immediately.
We had had enough for the time being and headed back to Malargüe. This is probably the best time of year to visit as it is their summer holiday and there was a festival to celebrate goats, not much fun for the goats mind you. There were regional dances and handicrafts of all types and we gorged ourselves at an "all you can eat" restaurant. Basically barbecued goat, beef and chicken in abundance, with salad at a fixed price.
We had been told that Valle Hermoso (Beautiful Valley) was well worth a visit so Peat, Rubén Tim and myself set off. It is reached via Las Leñas and the first half is on tarmac roads with the remainder on dirt roads through a mountain pass that is probably only open for 2 to 3 months of the year. The trusty Renault 12 made it without any problems and the valley certainly deserves its name. It defies description but I can only say that it would be a geologist's dream.
We had been told that, yes, there are caves at Las Leñas but they are only small and not really worth the effort. On the way to Valle Hermoso we spotted a few resurgences which were investigated but would have been long-term projects. We also spotted a cave entrance just outside Las Leñas so we stopped to investigate. We asked permission at a local farm and went off to explore. It had once been a show cave and still had fixed iron ladders in it. It was only about 30m long. We found out that it was called Cueva de Los Tunduques (apparently some sort of toothless rodent). We sent Rubén off to enquire if the farmer knew of any other caves in the vicinity and was told that if we followed the stream up valley we would find some resurgences. On the way back to Malargüe we were stopped by the police at a control point. Security had been increased because of the festival. Unfortunately Peat didn't have his passport with him and the policeman, despite my protestations, was convinced that he was an illegal immigrant. Holding Rubén and Tim as hostages he allowed Peat and myself to go and fetch it. The sight of Peat's passport soon secured the release of the hostages and we went home.
We returned to the farm at Las Leñas and set off up valley. Within 10 minutes we found our first resurgence. It was a low tunnel and the water was very cold. Las Leñas is a ski resort and so is quite high in the mountains at about 2,500m. We decided not to enter. As Peat was taking the GPS a group of ponytrekkers was passing by and the guide told us of another cave further up. We carried on up valley and spotted a huge collapse feature with a stream issuing out of boulders. We had a look around for an entrance but the only possible one was high up a slippery cliff that would need specialist climbing gear to enter. Nearby Peat dug open a short draughting cave that might gain access with a bit of digging. Carrying on upstream we spotted a resurgence high on the right hand side that was absolutely gushing water but before this we found a small cave beside the stream that we entered. It was a bedding plane but didn't feel very stable so we didn't spend much time there. After lunch we climbed up to the resurgence and although beginning at stooping height it soon lowered to what would have been a flat out crawl in the stream. There was a lot of ochreous mud in this cave and it soon turned the stream orange, therefore Orange River Cave. We declined the stream and climbed up above to discover a fossil entrance. This had a large entrance chamber complete with a guano stalagmite. Pushing through a constriction we gained a continuation of the cave complete with banded gypsum and some large crystals. There was ochre in abundance here too so Orange Cave. We decided to return over the top of Cerro Yesero (Gypsum Mountain) and Tim found that there were a lot of potholes but all were choked. I returned to the car leaving the intrepid three to continue searching. On their way back they encountered a couple more potential sites.
Caverna de las Brujas
Access to Caverna de las Brujas is a very sore point with INAE and although we had no real objectives in visiting it we obtained permission to enter. So it was Carlos Benedetto, Peat, Tim, Rubén and myself who presented our permit to the Park Rangers only to be told that we couldn't enter between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Carlos went ballistic and after a few threats of denunciation to the authorities, press etc. the Ranger relented and allowed us access but he would come with us to ensure that we did not interfere with the tourists. Tim wanted to descend a pitch rumoured to only have been half descended by the Croats in 2002 so we dragged a couple of bags of kit with us. After a little faffing around with the route we were on target. Unfortunately Carlos decided to stay high when he should have descended and fell 2m with a crash, whoomph, in plain sight of the Ranger. This did not bode well but fortunately apart from being winded and bruised only his pride was seriously injured. If INAE had had to be rescued I imagine access would become practically impossible. He decided not to continue and Rubén assisted him to leave the cave. The Ranger was unfazed by all of this and in full video mode carried on with our exploration. The passageway we were following had some spectacular formations including a gour pool that looked like those rows of Chinese soldiers. We mistook our route and we could hear a tourist group below us. The survey obviously needs some revision. When the Ranger caught up with us he warned the guides by radio that he would be descending into the Tourist Route. He agreed to take our tackle with him and we returned the way we had come in, only stopping on route for Tim to examine the "pitch". He found several bolts and it was evident that it had been descended.
The next day we left Rubén to rest, with the festival he had been partying till 5 in the morning and then going caving with us at 9am and we were beginning to worry about his fits of narcolepsy. We returned to finish of the survey in the streamway passage of Miranda and Peat and Tim did the honours bringing the total to 560m. Not the longest gypsum cave in South America as bandied around by the press. To cover themselves they now say that it has 560m surveyed so far! I suppose the terminal choke could be dug but it is way beyond the two week time slots that we allow ourselves each year.
Back to Las Leñas
We returned to Las Leñas to carry on with the unpushed leads and while Peat and Rubén explored, Tim and I started the survey. A stooping entrance soon had us on our knees but it widened out to over 5m. It was nice and straight giving us our first 15m leg. We soon arrived a bouldery area where the stream went to the right with an overflow passage on the left. We opted to survey the drier way first but soon returned to the streamway, which was very low. We still hadn't found Peat and Rubén so it was beginning to look promising. From the streamway I was looking for a way not to be in the stream and spotted a window. I could hear Peat and Rubén. I left the survey station temporarily and looked through the window into the beckoning darkness. It was huge. The passage was over 5m wide, 5m high and about 60m long. Peat and Rubén had been looking for a way on in the inevitable collapse. We completed the survey to 190m. At the exit I spotted something moving in the stream. On closer inspection I saw that it was a crayfish. There is already a cave named crayfish (Cueva de Los Cangrejos) so we decided to call it Lobster Cave (Cueva Langosta).
Next we returned to survey Orange Cave while Peat and Rubén went to explore a collapse feature. The survey was duly bagged at 60m and potential dig sites were noted although the best potential is probably to push the resurgence 10m below (Orange River Cave). On exiting we found ourselves with an approaching thunderstorm so we decide to get off the mountain as quick as possible. On our way back we ran in to Peat who was trying to keep well away from Rubén as he was carrying a iron crowbar. He didn't want to get struck by ever-approaching lightning. They had discovered a 30m cave completely coated with white gypsum crystals and had named it Snow Cave (Cueva de la Nieve). Beaten by the weather we returned home via the café in Las Leñas.
No sooner had the Goat Festival ended was Malargüe Rock, a festival of local and not so local pop groups organised by Ariel Benedetto. A few good covers of Oasis and a stomp with some traditional Argentine Rock went down very well although the piece de resistance was an extremely professional couple from Buenos Aires.
An extremely active and rewarding expedition. Poti Malal completed. Miranda Cave surveyed. (560m). It was shame that we didn't beat the record but at least it was our find. However the real crown in the jewel was the exploration of Las Leñas which we have really only just begun to explore. So far we have found 12 caves, entered five and surveyed two. We have spotted potential sites already for our next visit and hope to return next year. Not worth bothering with? How wrong they were!
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.