MCG expedition to Southern Spain, 2010
(based on articles in MCG News Number 364 November 2010, by Miguel Tome and Ed Waters,
and MCG News Number 365 February 2011, by Kev Speight)
Almost since he first joined the MCG, Miguel Tome waxed lyrical about caving 'back home'. Whilst up to our eyeballs in mud and freezing water digging away in Battery Swallet he could be heard to exclaim, 'There is no mud in the caves of Andalucia..' Finally in September 2010, he managed to cajole a group of MCG cavers over to Spain for two weeks to sample the delights of his caves.
A group of seven drove down to Andalucia in Biff's minibus, taking the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander. The crossing takes 24 hours, followed by about 12 hours driving to reach Villaluenga del Rosario on the Sierra Grazalema.
The first week of the expedition was to be based at the Escuela de Espeleologia in Villaluenga del Rosario. We arrived in the minibus at about 11pm, to meet Chris, Russ and Kev who had flown to Malaga and hired a car. Having arrived the night before, they had planned to stay in the Motel at Venta el Navasillo where we were to be based in the second week. Unfortunately the Motel was locked and they could raise no answer. Unable to get into their accommodation, they drove down the road to the only 'establishment' with signs of life, the Portobello. Realising that alcohol was not the only pleasure on offer, and that the rooms came partially occupied they had decided to try their luck in Villaluenga!
Our arrival coincided with the local Fiesta. Though this meant that the road up to the caving school was blocked by the fire brigade, it brought compensations. The village square was alive with music and dancing, with beer and tapas too it was quite a welcome.
Our accommodation at the Centro de Tecnificacion Deportiva de Espeleologia (Centre of sport technical training of caving) was simply superb. The building simply does not compare to a British caving hut. It is a four-storey affair, with a number of bunkrooms, classrooms, dining area and best of all an internal SRT practice area up the central stairwell. Add in that breakfast and dinner are cooked for you, and a good picnic lunch can be provided it is almost perfect for under €30 a day. Added to this, most of the caves are accessible with only a short drive, and/or walk.
Sima Pozuelo I
This cave, and the nearby Pozuelo II, both lie in a closed valley not far from Montejacque. Due to their proximity and relative simplicity they provided an ideal introduction to Andalucian caving, with one major caveat. This is due to recent intensive farming in the closed valley, leading to large quantities of organic matter entering the two caves. This manifests itself in a layer of brown slime on all rock surfaces, which makes the caves incredibly slippery. This unfortunate state of affairs severely detracts from what would otherwise be highly enjoyable trips.
Sima de Pozuelo I has a very scenic entrance, followed by a series of small pitches (up to about 20m deep) reaching a chamber at about 140m depth. This chamber shows obvious signs of floodwater backing up to some depth. A little up the wall of this chamber a squeeze leads to a steeply descending passage leading to further pitches. However, as this was very much a warm up trip, we did not descend beyond the squeeze.
Sima Pozuelo II
The entrance to this cave is far less impressive than its near neighbour. A short vertical constriction drops into a small chamber where the pitches begin. Essentially the entire trip is on rope, with 10 pitches to a depth of 160m. The largest pitch being 25m.
The only real obstacle being the tight and awkward top of the 3rd pitch that caused some entertainment for the larger members of the party. The end of the cave is supposed to be a sump, but Tim managed to push a tight crawl for some distance at the bottom without finding the sump or a definite end.
Sima de Villaluenga
This enormous chasm lies only a few minutes walk from the caving school where we stayed in Villaluenga. The huge open pot was visible from the school, and is quite clearly the main drain for the entire closed valley of Villaluenga. A footpath leads along the stream to the entrance, where there are various information boards about the cave.
A few yards inside the vast entrance arch the floor drops away into an awe-inspiring pitch of some 50m+. Not only is it deep, but the walls on the far side are only just visible. The cave is permanently rigged by the caving club Alta Ruta from Jerez who are pushing the cave at present1, however the traverse line to the main hang is not rigged to prevent the curious from placing themselves in danger.
We were told that 15m of rope would suffice for this traverse line, in fact 25m is closer to the mark. We decided to use our own ropes instead of the schools. Care also has to be taken to prevent tangling the rope with the large power cable currently rigged down the cave in order to run pumps for draining the sumps.
We rigged two routes down the initial part of the cave. From the top of the entrance pitch we rebelayed about 30m down at a ridge of rock. This is known as “The Horse” as it is necessary to sit astride the rock to pass the rebelay. From here two routes diverge, meeting up in a large chamber about 50m below.
The 'normal' route follows a traverse out to the left, to drop down a corner of the shaft via a series of rebelays. Alternatively, clambering over the horse leads to a fine free hanging 50m pitch.
From the large chamber a further series of pitches drops to the sump. At the time of our visit this sump had recently been passed to find another sump that local cavers were in the process of pumping out. We were advised not to pass through the first sump due to the risk of bad air. Above the sump a series of fixed ropes ascend to some recently discovered passages and avens. Tim pursued these to the bitter end, only to discover himself on the surface, halfway up a cliff and upstream of the main entrance!
This cave is another example of a drain for a closed valley. It lies in the closed valley between Villaluenga and that at Montejacque (containing the two Pozuelo caves). In order to get to the cave it is necessary to drive a considerable distance off road.
The entrance lies at the end of the obvious stream. Care needs to be taken when traversing over the entrance to Sima Cabito that lies in the streambed. A fixed chain is provided for this. For our visit the cave was fully equipped by local cavers, with the exception of the entrance pitch. This was a major relief, since the cave is steep rather than vertical and requires a huge amount of tackle to rig the many traverses and short pitches. There are also a substantial number of wire traverses for which steel cowstail karabiners are essential.
This is a fantastic cave, both visually and as a sporting challenge. The cave slopes steeply down to a deep sump at almost 200m depth. This involves a large number of small pitches and traverses over deep water in an environment of superbly sculpted rock.
Recently a new series of passages have been discovered by traversing over the pitch leading down to the sump. These passages are well decorated and very wet in places, including several ducks.
Sima de Cacao
This cave lies high on the mountainside above Villaluenga, about an hour's steep walk up a small footpath leaving the town near the bullring. The entrance is easily identified by the stainless steel memorial plaque to a caver killed by incorrectly threading their descender.
The descent route starts with a squeeze though boulders that must be done on the rope as it opens directly onto an 85m pitch. Note that the rebelay bolts just inside are installed onto a loose boulder and should not be used! Instead we used a deviation followed by two rebelays and a pendulum to reach the large gallery leading off the shaft at about 60m below the surface.
From the pendulum a sloping pitch drops down into a huge gallery that slopes down steeply to a further pitch and more large passage. Finally a well-broken pitch/handline drops into the final chamber.
It should be noted that the entire passage from the pendulum down is superbly decorated with enormous sparkling formations and great care should be taken to avoid further damage.
As stunning as the main passage is, the final chamber is simply awe-inspiring. The chamber is huge, and formations of every kind can be found in all sorts of odd corners around it. A photographer could spend years in here!
At the bottom of the terminal chamber is a narrow drafting passage that would be a very worthwhile dig site. This will be an objective for future visits.
Cueva de la Pileta
A small group visited this show cave on our day off. The cave is famous for its prehistoric paintings and well worth a visit. We were somewhat pleasantly surprised to find a very old MCG sticker amongst a large collection of caving club badges behind the ticket desk. This was the only UK club so represented. I wonder who left this and when? Was it from the previous MCG Sima GESM trip in 1988?
Sima CES 1
This cave lies another half hour's walk up the hill from Sima de Cacao. The cave consists of a series of small pitches in an active streamway. The cave has recently been extended beyond the survey shown, and includes a few squeezes and ducks. As well as being a fine sporting trip, the cave has considerable potential in both length and depth for further exploration.
Sumidero del Guante
This cave is formed at an active sink at an altitude of over 1600m above sea level. This sink is the only drainage for a large closed valley surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the area. As such it holds considerable potential for new discoveries.
The cave was first explored by IXODES la Linea (including our own Miguel) who dug open a 4- inch diameter hole at the sink leading to a passage formed in a huge boulder choke down to a depth of 45m. Subsequently another entrance was engineered providing a vertical descent to the end of the cave.
This year the sink entrance was found to have collapsed, barring access to the cave. The pitch entrance was found to be open however. Below the well-decorated pitch, the upstream passage (leading towards the sink) was found to be blocked with boulders up to 3m in diameter.
At the lowest point of the cave is a boulder choke piled against one solid wall. This obstacle has thwarted all previous attempts to pass it. It was hoped that by using some 'advanced Mendip digging techniques' that a breakthrough could be achieved. Though a breakthrough was not achieved, about 15m of progress was made down through the choke. Prospects at this cave are very good indeed, and our Spanish friends were very impressed with the digging techniques demonstrated here. Equipment has been provided to the Spanish cavers to allow them to continue to dig this site, and hopes are high for significant extension here next year.
Cueva de Hundidero - Cueva del Gato
This classic traverse is a must for any caver visiting the Grazalema area. The trip involves following the river all the way from the sink at Cueva de Hundidero to the resurgence at Cueva del Gato. In total this comprises about 4.8km of generally aqueous fun, involving a number of short pitches, jumps into deep water and lots of swimming.
As well as the sporting fun, there is much of interest to the industrial archaeologist due to the remains of futile attempts to harness the river to make electricity (including the huge dam outside the sink). These efforts included building a walkway for donkeys through almost the entire cave!
On top of all this fun and archaeology, the trip also includes some huge passages and chambers, and the odd formation or two as well. Combine this with a very salubrious restaurant and bar at the Cueva del Gato end, it is almost the perfect caving trip!
It should be noted that this trip should not be underestimated. Though it is immense fun, the swims in particular are very serious for anyone but very strong swimmers. Wetsuits and buoyancy aids are highly recommended. At the time of our visit, some of the pitches were equipped with ropes of dubious vintage. A couple of 30m ropes are sufficient to rig for pull-through from the in-situ resin anchors. All of the traverses are well equipped with robust chains for protection.
Sierra de las Nieves
At the end of the first week we relocated from Villaluenga to the motel at Navacillo on the Sierra de las Nieves range. The motel provided twin rooms along with breakfast and evening meal. During the relocation we met up with local cavers to pick up the various permits and sort out activities for the week.
Most of the caves visited lie high up in the mountains, and a long drive (about an hour) up the winding track to the top of the mountain, through two locked gates was required. The wardens for the national park take their job very seriously indeed, and we were challenged by them on every trip up and down the mountain.
Sima de las Lepiotas
This was to be our introduction to caving in the Sierra de las Nieves. The cave was discovered by the club Ixodes la Linea in 1999, a certain Miguel Tome being the first into the cave! The cave is named after the striking mushroom-like formations that adorn the walls of the second pitch.
The cave lies only a few hundred metres from the car park at the top of Sierra de las Nieves, the entrance being a narrow shaft with a small spiky shrub growing from it.
(This shrub, a type of fir called the Pinsapo is native to Morocco and the only places it can be found in Europe is in the Sierra Grazalema and Sierra de las Nieves.)
This 10m shaft lands in a tiny chamber with a small window leading out onto the second pitch, which lands on a wide well decorated ledge at the top of the third pitch. This lands in a pleasant chamber with well calcited boulder blockages preventing further progress.
An 8m climb was made up the wall of the terminal chamber to what appeared to be further passage, but this turned out to be nothing more than an alcove.
Close to Sima de las Lepiotas is another narrow shaft. This was descended to about 12m depth, where an earth choke and the skeleton of a goat prevent further progress.
The cave was supposed to be about 45 minutes walk from the car park at the top of Sierra de las Nieves.....
.....in fact it took our group almost 3 hours to reach the cave in the hottest part of the day. The entrance to the cave lies on top of a ridge, and is marked by a conspicuous gendarme that lies close enough to the entrance to have the hang bolts in it.
The rather fine 27m entrance pitch lands in a small chamber. The route we were expecting lies down a narrow crawl, with a very awkward 3m pitch. We failed to find sensible belays for this pitch, possibly due to an attack of apathy brought on by the epic walk in. However, there was another obvious way on not shown on the survey immediately at the bottom of the entrance pitch. This was descended to a narrow and very sharp series of pitches festooned with small calcite formations, and probably reached a similar depth to the bottom of the 53m pitch on the traditional route
Sima de las Perlas
This cave lies about 1 hour's walk from the road a couple of kilometres away from the motel at Navacillo. The entrance is conveniently located in the shade of the only tree for several kilometres.
The top of the entrance pitch is sloping and provided with liberal quantities of ammunition. Much care is required to minimise the amount of debris dislodged, and to ensure that people below are well out of harms way
Below this pitch is a series of well decorated chambers separated by short, narrow pitches and squeezes. At the base of the 21m Pozo de las Perlas the cave changes character radically. From here the decoration ends and the rock becomes extremely friable. Due to the distinct unpleasantness of this, our trip was curtailed here.
One of the primary objectives of the expedition had been to aid local cavers with exploration work in Sima GESM. This is the most famous cave in Andalucia, as well as being both the deepest (1,101m) and longest (currently about 12km explored) cave in the region.
A trip to the bottom of the cave takes 3 days (there and back) with the cave pre-rigged.
We had met with Manu Guerrero who coordinates all exploration activities in the cave. He explained that he needed a permanent survey station installing at -996m at Lago Ere, and some equipment retrieving from one of the deep camps. Due to the limited space at the camps, the trip was limited to three people.
John Crowsley, Tim Francis and Kev Speight held the group's end up by volunteering to carry out this work.
The trip took them below the magic 1km depth over three days. The trip involved visiting passages only recently found, and it is fair to say that exploration potential is still fantastic, though the logistics of pushing trips have become horrendous. With three days required just to get to/from the interesting parts of the cave, realistically a week underground is required to achieve significant discoveries. As a consequence there are currently few pushing trips into this cave each season.
The cave includes a bit of everything, squeezes, big pitches and formations and is highly recommended as a sporting trip, if the correct permissions can be obtained.
To the bottom of Sima GESM
(MCG News Number 365 February 2011, by Kev Speight)
One of my main personal objectives for our Spanish expedition, was the goal of bottoming Sima Gesm. My motivation being the chance to push my boundaries and, if I'm honest, the bragging rights of having been to -1000m! I genuinely wasn't sure quite whether this was a realistic ambition or not. On paper, my experience levels said no, but something in the back of my mind told me that I had the minerals for it. I determined to keep an open mind as we racked up the trips and decided to play it by ear.
Miguel Tome deserves a medal for organising the caving itinerary he put together for the expedition. The quality of the caving was never less than superb and our accommodation brilliant. I don't know if he planned it that way, but, leaving Sima Gesm until last was an absolute master stroke, as the 11 trips in the run up served to toughen the sinews, expand the lungs and prepare the mind for the challenge of a 1000m deep cave.
Three of us elected to have a go at the 1km mark; myself, Tim Francis and John Crowsley. This gave me a huge confidence boost: Tim and John's combined level of experience mean't that I'd be in extremely good company! The other (More sensible!) members of the expedition planned to visit other caves and do a little digging during our first two days underground, with some of them planning to drop in to Sima Gesm and meet us on our way out on our third day. Miguel had volunteered our services in whatever capacity the local cavers pushing Sima Gesm could use them. In the event, we were lucky to be given what amounted to a more or less free ride. We would take in and fix a plaque to mark the survey station at -996m on the shore of Lago ERE, then attempt to bring out as many sleeping bags from the 1000m bivouac as possible for washing. This in itself worried me a bit. We would be using those sleeping bags. How long had they been there? How badly did they need washing!?! I decided that I would probably be too minging and knackered to care and resolved to MTFU.
After the 11 lead up trips, I was delighted to find that I felt good. The caving had been hard, but I was ready to give it a bash. I had hoped to get a good, solid night's kip prior to going in, but was thwarted by two of the local hounds, Satan (If you could see him, you'd understand!) and Ralph (As named by Russ Porter, who calls pretty much any quadruped Ralph!). The pair decided to have a barking competition at some ungodly hour of the morning.
This simply wouldn't do, so after enduring their cacophony for half an hour or so, I took action! Clad in my finest boxers and flip flops, I bravely donned my trusty Scurion and set about scouring the undergrowth for the pesky canines. Spotting Satan first, I 'persuaded' him to bugger off with a well aimed rock (Not too big a rock you understand, I'm a dog lover really!) and set out to give Ralph a taste of the same medicine. Unfortunately, the Guarda Civil chose that very moment to drive slowly past the hotel. Exactly what they made of a half naked bloke stalking around a hotel in the wee small hours, armed with rocks and wearing a helmet with an attached bright light will go unrecorded, but even with the language barrier, I couldn't help but notice that the first guy out of the car seemed just a teensy bit concerned. My Spanglish, combined with enthusiastic sign language, clearly wasn't helping my case, judging by his pre-occupation with the handcuffs! Thankfully, his partner emerged and seemed more inclined to simply pity the specimen before him, no doubt planning to bundle me straight back to whatever institution I'd escaped from. Lucky for me though, he'd heard of Sima Gesm and put two and two together when I showed him our gear store. They drove into the night, leaving me to salvage as much sleep as possible.
Our departure day dawned with yet another full Spanish breakfast (Same ingredients as a full English, only drowned in lashings of Castrol 10w 40), which went down surprisingly well, considering the knot in my stomach. I was genuinely nervous about what I'd committed myself to and worried that I might let John and Tim down. Trying to banish the negativity, I busied myself packing gear and food for three days underground, Tim and John providing sound advice as I tried to strike the balance between taking enough to be comfortable, whilst not overburdening myself with too much weight.
At this point, I was provided with what proved to be absolute godsends. A Meander undersuit from Ed Waters, a furry balaclava from Biff Frith and a Petzl Myo headtorch from Russ Porter. My clothing strategy was to take in two sets of light thermals for caving in, and to wear the Meander undersuit and Balaclava in camp, with the headtorch for camp use and as a second backup light. Food wise, I took six ready to eat pasta salads, a sack of cereal bars and enough chocolate for two bars per day. Tim and I had bought some pasta in powdered cheese sauce for hot meals, which he carried in his kit. Water would come from the stream-way, which we were assured was better than any bottled water you can buy. Additionally, I carried a spare Scurion battery (cheers Hatstand!), contact lenses and glasses, wet wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, camera and some survival kit. All this was deposited in a dry bag, which was packed in a large tackle-sack.
Biff once again did a sterling job in successfully coaxing his long suffering minibus up the torturously steep, switchback and rubble strewn track to our parking area, high in Sierra de Las Nieves. As views from car parks go, this one is hard to beat, stretching across the mountains and out as far as Gibraltar in the distance. Truly spectacular.
Accompanying us on the trip were three Spanish cavers, Agustine, Marion and Smokey Joe. (Who we were soon to discover had a certain fondness for very odd smelling tobacco!) At this point, we discovered that the Spaniards had pulled a bit of a flanker and were basically piggybacking on our permit. This led to a few minutes of diplomatic negotiations over which vehicle should contain what paperwork, but things were soon sorted and we said our goodbyes to the rest of the team, who had scheduled a day gawping at the delights of Sima Erotica.
Our walk in was over relatively gentle ground, but Smokey Joe set a blistering pace, no doubt fueled by whatever was in his roll ups! The 40 minute walk we were expecting was significantly reduced in duration as a result and we soon found ourselves at the unremarkable entrance depression, where we wasted no time in getting kitted up. The swarms of infuriating, but thankfully non-biting insects, provided ample motivation to get underground and out of their reach as soon as possible. With the benefit of hindsight, I now know I should perhaps have restrained myself a little, rather than rushing headlong into the entrance series, where a minor epic was to unfold less than five minutes into a three day trip! Allow me to elaborate...
The entrance to the cave consists of a short, daylit pitch, (At the bottom of which we stashed our surface gear and some food and drinks should we exit at an unsociable hour) followed almost immediately by a tight section known by the Spanish as literally, 'The f***ing squeeze'. All of this was liberally blanketed with the aforementioned insects, which when disturbed, were almost impossible not to inhale or keep out of eyes and ears. The resulting urgency with which I attempted to pass the squeeze led me to get firmly wedged by the metalwork of my SRT kit, which I had neglected to remove in my haste. I was stuck at a point where I had tried to slither sideways into a lower, wider section, which in turn opened out over a pitch.
Any attempt to move forwards simply made the situation worse and the pressure on my pelvis to increase. I was making a complete balls up of the whole thing and we weren't even at -10m yet! Luckily, John had gone in ahead of me and was able to provide assistance and re-assurance, which was good, as I was rapidly losing my cool and wondering if I had bitten off a lot more than I could chew.
After John loosened my harness and removed my descender, I found I was able to wriggle upwards, where the passage became more open, but had the drawback of emerging fully 1.5m above the Y hang of an 8m pitch, leaving me with an awkward, exposed climb down. Again, John made it all better by rigging a safety line to protect me as I clambered down to safety. What an utter 'mare! Rescued within spitting distance of daylight! I was not alone in my tribulations however, as Marion discovered that she had forgotten her descender and Agustine's light was faltering due to a loose connection. Was this mean't to be? It almost seemed that the cave was issuing the challenge; 'Are you sure you're up to this? I'll chew you up and spit you out!'
Despite the knock to my confidence, I was eager to push on, hoping that we'd got all the Gremlins out of the way early. While Marion dashed off to try and scare up a spare descender and Smokey Joe waited for her, we plucky Brits, together with Agustine and his intermittently functioning light, forged on into the depths, leaving behind the bugs and quickly arriving at the head of a 115m pitch, La Gran Pozo, the first of two 100m + pitches we would descend that day. This being by far the largest pitch I'd tackled to date, and still rattled from my entrance series epic, I was obviously a little on edge. I made sure that all my movements getting on to the rope were considered and deliberate, and began to gingerly abseil down. Despite it's obvious vastness, the pitch had quite a friendly feel, being nicely broken with re-belays every 20-30m or so and mostly close enough to the wall to avoid feeling over-exposed. After a couple of rebelays, I had recovered some of my mojo and felt my confidence returning. I tried not to think about how I'd be feeling on the way back up.
After La Gran Pozo, we descended a few more small pitches before meeting another team of Spanish cavers on their way out. I hoped their expressions of exhaustion were at least partly exaggerated for our benefit! Stopping occasionally to refill our bottles, we settled in to a rhythmic cycle of getting on and off short pitches, broken occasionally by the odd meander or free climbable slope. Every now and again, Agustine would halt proceedings to query the route. It seemed that the numerous signs posted at junctions, directing us along the 'Via Classico' (Our chosen route), were escaping his attention. Being the bastion of patience that he is, this didn't even slightly annoy John.
Our next milestone was a biggie, quite literally. Pozo Paco de la Torro is, at 145m, the biggest pitch in the cave and obviously a major psychological hurdle. What we wanted was an unhurried, no pressure atmosphere so we could all descend at our own pace.
What we got was the arrival of Marion and Smokey Joe, who, true to form, had a spliff the size of a baby's arm in his mouth and was whooping and hollering his way down the ropes above us like Tarzan! Not ideal when there's 100m+ plus of fresh air between your backside and terra firma, and all you want to do is focus on passing each re-belay in turn, and study intently the wall in front of you! Luckily, the pitch was nicely broken by re-belays, meaning that any feelings of exposure, or irritation from drug addled Spaniards, were mitigated by the calming influence of John and Tim's proximity.
We made it down in spite of the dope head's antics and enjoyed our first substantial stop of the trip thus far, taking the opportunity to cram in some calories and re-hydrate, while marveling at the scale of sheer face which we had just negotiated. We were at -700m and pretty tired, but still had quite a way to go yet. Facing us now was our first taste of horizontal caving so far, La Gran Via, accessed by prussiking upslope, directly opposite the main face of Paco de la Torro, for about 30m, before abseiling down the other side of a knife edge ridge.
La Gran Via proved to be a welcome change after hours of on-rope caving. It is a desiccated and ancient looking fossil passage, liberally encrusted with botryoidal formations, which in places were almost impossible not to damage. Occasionally, the floor would drop away, leaving us to negotiate our way around yawning pitch heads. Some of these were protected with in situ traverse lines, but on a couple of occasions, we were forced to bridge out with our legs and gingerly shuffle across, or for those with shorter legs (John!), to climb higher to find better holds for traversing. Despite these occasional doses of adrenaline, it really was very pleasant caving.
Eventually, the passage opened out to reveal a couple of short pitches into the chamber which contained the main camp. Being the last to descend, I had a little more time to survey the impressive scene below. The bivouac itself was constructed from a shocking pink and yellow parachute, around which was stored enough rope and metalwork to rig the cave twice. As I waited for Tim to complete his descent, it occurred to me that we still had 200m+ of further descent to go! Banishing this thought, I dropped down to join the others for a refuel and a rest. Despite our fatigue, we were keen to press on, ostensibly to get to the -1000m camp with plenty of time in hand for food and sleep, but also to get out of range of smokey Joe's funny fags! So, with -1000m almost in our grasp, Tim, John, Agustine and I left the drugs mule behind for the night.
After a couple of short pitches, we found ourselves in the absolutely stunning Gallery of the Gours. For me, this part of the cave was by far the most visually striking. The passage was impressive enough in terms of it's sheer size, but the stunning floor, with it's myriad of pristine, dried gours, was truly a sight for sore eyes. With no conservation path marked, we had no option but to pick our way through as best we could, but felt like utter vandals as we tiptoed our way across.
Pozo Pangea (21m) and Pozo del Infierno (80m) marked our final two descents of the day. At the bottom of Pozo del Infierno, our goal was reached and we stood on the shore of Lago E.R.E. After handshakes all round, we set to the task of fixing the permanent survey station plaque at the -996m mark. John was delighted that he'd lugged a lump hammer down from the -750m camp; particularly as we could have just as easily knocked home the securing pin with a bar of partially melted chocolate. Once Agustine had joined us, we did a symbolic walk down from the - 996m plaque to the significantly lower water level of Lago E.R.E. Whilst none of us had surveying gear on us, we were all quite satisfied that we were comfortably below the all important -1000m mark, although it seemed to take Agustine a while to twig the significance of the location.
Once we'd paused for the obligatory handshakes and photos, we dusted off the ascenders and made our way up a couple of short pitches to our campsite, which was perched on a ledge above the streamway feeding Laga E.R.E. As we wandered up the stream, our noses alerted us to the location of the loo; an extremely unpleasant puddle, over which we had to traverse to reach the camp. At least we now knew where it was.
The camp itself, while smaller than the -750m camp, was quite nicely appointed and we soon set about getting some hot food and drink on board. Agustine, however, had seemingly decided that he would fuel himself on chocolate alone, leaving Tim and I to our cheesy pasta, and John to his pilfered military ration packs.
Surprisingly, we all managed a reasonable amount of sleep that night, despite initial fears that Agustine might turn out to be a snorer, and awoke at least semi-refreshed.
After enduring a prolonged olfactory assault from John (I blame the ration packs!), we forced him out to try out the 'facilities' while we began to ready ourselves for the first leg of our exit. As well as lugging out sleeping bags for washing, we'd also been asked to make an inventory of the food and other sundries stored in the camp.
As well as the expected assortment of dried and tinned food, the Spanish explorers had also seen fit to stash some 'reading' material to while away the long hours in camp.
Despite the long slog now facing us, we wanted to do a little exploring for ourselves, so after packing the gear and returning the camp to a (semi) habitable condition, we set out to rendezvous once again with Smokey Joe and Marion. After the short descent back down to Lago E.R.E. our first of many climbs was Pozo del Infierno. At 80m, it wasn't exactly a gentle reintroduction! Once I was on the rope, I soon discovered that carrying loads on your back makes life considerably more strenuous! On all subsequent pitches, I hung my bag off my central maillon.
Before too long, we arrived at the -750m camp. Tim and I were profoundly moved on witnessing the emotional re-union of John and Smokey Joe, who are now undoubtedly making plans to get together and reminisce in the New Year. Meanwhile, Agustine seemed mesmerized by the sight of Marion in her extremely tight fitting thermal baselayer.
It soon emerged that Marion and Smokey had enjoyed a full scale, slap-up meal of paella the night before. No wonder Agustine had dolefully refused our offers of dried pasta and boil in the bag. These Spaniards are clearly used to a higher class of cave cuisine.
Having generated so much washing up, Smokey was concerned that the water supply was getting low in the camp, and asked for someone to help him fetch water. 'Ten minutes', he said. 'Walking', he said. Fair play to him, he even kept a straight face! Being a compulsive volunteer, I got kitted up while he stuffed two rope bags full of empty 1.5L water bottles. The thought crossed my mind that these would be fairly hefty once full, but banished any concerns with the reassuring knowledge that 'ten minutes walking' shouldn't pose too much of a problem. Obviously, the 'Herbal Cigarettes' have altered Smokey's perception of time, because what followed was at the very least, twenty minutes of flat out sand swims, squeezes and traversing.
On the plus side, our destination was a glorious little sump pool, from which a crystal clear stream issued and tumbled off down a fabulously sculpted passage. Smokey told me we were near Via Glaciar, although we were in unsurveyed territory, and the sump (Which was sizeable and looked to be wide open) had not yet been dived. From what I could pick out of Smokey's Spanglish, no-one is really sure where it goes. All too quickly, the bottles were full and we began to wrestle our truculent loads back to camp, where we were disappointed to discover that Marion was now fully dressed in her caving gear.
After a brief pause to replace lost fluids, we set off down Paso de la Gran Evasion, with Smokey pointing out scores of side passages which have yet to be pushed. Again, this passage was railway tunnel sized and completely dry, with sandbanks on either side. These banks got progressively higher as we walked, until they met the roof at a point which had once barred the way on. Fortunately for us, three seasons of digging had seen the Spanish break through only weeks before our arrival.
Unfortunately for me, I was still feeling the effects of the water carry and didn't particularly fancy the squeeze at the far end of the excavated sandy crawl. I elected to wait while the others pushed on to explore, as did Agustine. Our conversation, being limited to what we could communicate via the medium of mime, was somewhat stilted, and the minutes soon began to drag as we awaited the return of the others. After what seemed like ages, return they did, telling tales of colossal passage and crystal clear, expansive lakes. I cursed my decision to conserve energy and glared at Smokey Joe.
Our focus was now firmly on regaining the surface. As we headed for the -750m camp, Tim, John and I discussed our exit strategy. Essentially, we wanted to try and break up the ascent into two parts, camping at the -500m bivouac along the way. The main advantage would be psychological, in that we'd only have one 100m+ pitch to do on each day. The problem with this plan was lack of sleeping space at -500m. Somehow, we had to persuade poor Agustine to remain at -750m, leaving him with a marathon final day accompanied by Smokey's potent fumes! Thankfully, John's pitching of this idea left very little wriggle room for the Spaniards, and almost before they had time to object, we'd shaken hands and were swarming up the pitch leading us back to La Gran Via.
Our caving was more businesslike now, the thought of Pozo Paco de la Torro looming large in our minds. Once we reached it's base, I asked John if, despite his level of experience, he still felt a bit nervous at the bottom of a big pitch. His answer of, 'Not nervous, f***ing terrified!' was music to my ears, my trepidation now not seeming like such a burden after all.
Tim started on up first, followed by John, with me bringing up the rear. Once off the ground, my nerves evaporated as I settled in to a steady rhythm. If anything, the purity of purpose in hauling oneself up such a huge pitch is actually somewhat therapeutic!
Once at the top, we paused to re-hydrate, then struck out for the refuge of the -500m bivouac. With the big pitch having occupied such a large part of my mind for much of the day, my subconscious had persuaded itself that the distance from the top to the camp was insignificant.
In fact, there was a further 100m of vertical distance, incorporating a 60m pitch, as well as a punishing series of meanders, where the bag seemed to snag at every turn. This part of the trip really tested my energy reserves, but the promise of some hot food saw me through and I eventually stumbled, hungry and exhausted, into the -500m camp.
After sorting out our kit and hoovering up as much carbohydrate as we could hold, we settled down for our final night underground. The -500m camp was certainly a more cramped affair, but was also somewhat chillier, so the prospect of sharing body heat wasn't as unappealing as it otherwise might have been! I can't speak for the others, but I certainly slept like a log. So deep was my slumber that even the metal fork upon which I'd inadvertently led didn't wake me.
The following morning found us in a pretty jovial mood, despite our aching limbs. We were on the final leg! Okay, so the final leg involved over 20 pitches, including one of 115m and 500m of vertical ascent, but the prospect of natural sunlight and a cold beer or three reduced these statistics to mere trivialities! We packed for the final time and headed off up the nylon highway.
In the camps, the Meander undersuit, loaned to me by Ed Waters, had served brilliantly as comfy and warm pyjamas, but having depleted my stock of kit, I was now wearing it to cave in. Unfortunately, it's warmth was now causing my body temperature to soar and I was forced to stop regularly, just to stay hydrated. The short pitches just kept coming and coming, but we made steady progress as we clawed our way back up the Via Classico. Eventually, we reached the base of the 115m, Gran Pozo. We were all pretty gone by this stage, but were heartened by the thought that we may soon bump into some of the other MCG'ers on their way in to the cave. Sure enough, as I was around two thirds of the way up, I could hear Tim and John laughing above me. Unless they'd completely lost their marbles, I reasoned that they must have met the others.
The others turned out to be Chris Binding and Russ Porter. The lads very kindly offered to take out our bags after their trip, but having lugged them this far, we all felt, on principle, that we should finish the job ourselves! Brief congratulatory handshakes were exchanged with Chris and Russ, then we left them to continue their trip and headed up the last couple of pitches. Pretty soon, we began to see the odd insect here and there and got that slight whiff in the air that told us the surface was near. Arriving at 'The F***ing Squeeze', I elected to remove my SRT kit this time and passed it with much less drama than on the way in.
One final, short pitch, bathed in rays of warm sunshine and that was it. We'd successfully bottomed Sima Gesm! Waiting to welcome us on the surface were Ed Waters, Hayley Clark and Biff Frith. Being the all round good eggs that they are, they'd even brought us beer, which was swiftly and enthusiastically imbibed!
Physically and mentally, this caving trip was one of the most challenging things I've done, but for those reasons, as well as the fantastic company I was in, it will always be memorable. I sincerely hope we can return in the near future to push some of those open leads...don't tell Smokey Joe though!
Sumidero de Rascayu. (Brother's dig)
This cave is a long-standing dig of IXODES and is located at the major stream sink of a closed depression a couple of kilometres from the Motel at Navacillo.
The entrance to the cave is located in a 15m diameter depression, and a 6m abseil down a cascade is required to reach it. The cave is active for most of the year, but was completely dry at the time of our visit in September this year.
Once inside the cave there is a choice of routes. The first a series of tight vertical squeezes, the second a pitch. Both descend into the main chamber, where the water disappears into the final rift.
Once again 'advanced Mendip digging techniques' were applied to boulders in this rift. This rift yielded a tight 4m descent, meeting an important inlet. More digging at this point opened up about 10m more passage that unfortunately looped back to the chamber before the 'Final Rift'.
In total the cave was extended by about 25m, including a new 'round trip'. However, a breakthrough is confidently expected at the next opportunity to dig at this site.
Expedition Members / Club afiliation
Some Notes on Caving in Andalucia
Firstly caving is a controlled activity in Spain. Failure to obtain the correct permits for tourist caving trips or exploration could land you in serious trouble. Luckily Miguel sorted all of this out for us. Be warned, our permits were checked more than once on this trip!
Most of the caves we visited were well equipped with bolt belays for SRT. A few of these were resin type anchors and old style 8mm spits. However the vast majority were 10mm stainless steel stud anchors (through bolts) which leave a male thread sticking out of the rock. Some of these had hangers fitted, but more often than not we had to install them. This requires a good number of 10mm bolt hangars and the nuts required to secure them. In turn this requires a 17mm spanner to tighten the nuts.
The caves tended to be very warm. Most of us wore thermal underwear rather than full weight furry suits, and lightweight oversuits. For some of the caves a cotton boiler suit would be more comfortable.
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.