1986 Expedition: "Conjurtao"
Picos de Europa, Spain
The aim of this year's expedition was to continue the exploration, surveying and photography of the three caves discovered and partly explored in 1985, these being F20, Sima Conjurtao and 2/6 which were explored to depths of 380, 450 and 90 metres respectively.
The expedition got off to an interesting start with the expedition transport, a yellow Bedford van, blowing its engine in Newbury. A few hectic phone calls and a couple of hours later we were on our way again but in a hired van, The expedition van was to be towed away by a club member's Landrover the next day. This enabled us to get as far as Plymouth and the ferry terminal where we were able to get all the gear loaded onto pallets, then forklifted onto the ferry. On arrival in Spain, after much haggling with some local haulers, we managed to hire a luxury coach to take us to base camp. Surprisingly this worked out cheaper than hiring a self drive van. The return journey at the end of the expedition was made using a lorry for the gear and public transport for expedition members. In England a self drive hire van was once again used.
This year our efforts were to concentrate solely around the top camp area, so only one advanced camp was set up on a site below Pico Verdelluenga. Initially exploration proceeded slowly because it was necessary to carry enough equipment up the mountain to enable us to rig in to the extent of last year's exploration. Early work concentrated on Sima Conjurtao as this was much less inhospitable than F20 and also seemed to have better prospects.
Last year's limit was a large chamber - the Big, or Great Beluga - which had a steeply-inclined boulder slope descending from one corner. This was rigged in a number of hangs and traverses in an attempt to prevent loose boulders being dislodged and rolling on down the slope. This soon became known as Thunder Road. The end of Thunder Road dropped into a small wet chamber, Crystal Chamber, which offered two ways on. A climb up the waterfall led to a high level passage which was eventually found to drop back down into the second route out of the chamber. The second way on was a squeeze through some boulders which led into a small streamway. The descent of two waterfall pitches revealed a steeply descending vadose stream passage, the 'Master Cave'. Although quite tortuous in places this provided easy going for a few hundred metres then the ceiling broke down and the stream soaked away through boulders at sump one. Two bypasses were found to this obstacle: one an abandoned passage found in an upstream inlet, the other an interesting squeeze through the boulder choke.
Both these routes gave access to a large mud filled passage which unfortunately sumped after thirty metres. The terminal sump was an impressive deep green pool, with an obvious passage descending steeply below the surface; this was the furthest we were to reach. Around the edge of the pool we could gain access to further passage that led up to a large wet aven. The stream coming out of this aven, comparable in size to the Sima Conjurtao stream, suggests that there is further potential to find cave in that system.
Meanwhile exploration in the other two caves was proceeding slowly: whilst the faithful few carried on pushing F20 - a tight, unforgiving cave - our main effort was concentrated on 2/6. The entrance to this cave was an impressive 120m deep shaft sited on the very top of a large ridge. It proved a great pleasure to be able to ascend/descend this shaft in the light of day. The cave continued in the same, but darker, vein with pitch after pitch quickly following on from one another. As was expected, 2/6 proved to be a higher entrance to Sima Conjurtao when, after a long section of rift, it dropped into Dinosaur Beach. We now had a Sistema. This higher entrance to Sistema Conjurtao gave us a total depth of 655 metres and a much easier route through which we could detackle the cave.
Now we had to go all out on our last remaining objective, F20. Earlier teams had carried in a mass of equipment so we had a firm base for fast pushing trips. Once again the F20 rifts gave us some of our most strenuous caving but to our relief, after descending an interesting spray blasted pitch, the rifts subsided and we were into more open passage. By climbing up and over we managed to by-pass some excruciatingly tight rift sections and also find a large phreatic passage, Bronco Lane.
By this time we were finding that the trips were getting excessively long so a camp was set up in a small inlet to Bronco Lane. Water could be obtained by continuing up the main passage to a large, finely-decorated inlet down which a small stream ran. The lower end of this dropped away into a series of short pitches which landed in a much larger passage. Further down, the main F20 stream dropped out of one wall. At last we were getting somewhere; F20, after being horrible for most of its length, had improved - surely it must now go deep.
Unfortunately the next series of pitches dropped into a canal passage that sumped after 300m. We were expecting this cave to link in with the Sistema Jorcada Blanca but it appears to have missed by only fifty metres. With F20 sumping at 585m it appears to confirm the theory of a raised water table in the area; both the other sumps in the area occur at approximately the same vertical height.
A number of surface shafts were discovered in the area and of these F40 appeared to be the most promising. It was hoped that this would be our cave for next year as it was in the same situation as 2/6. Some rapid exploration near the end of the expedition saw it end at 100m deep in a sand choke.
Part of our effort this year was directed towards getting a reliable set of surface survey data. To this end we had Marcus Wandinger, a student at Techn. University of Munich, carry out a theodolite survey of major (and some minor) cave entrances, the cairns and mountain tops in the top camp area and a few selected points convenient to take sightings from. We hope to use this data to increase the accuracy with which we tie in the various cave systems.
This year our hydrological work was severely hampered by our lack of transport. Dye tracing experiments were carried out in both F20 and Sistema Conjurtao but we could not place detectors in all of the resurgences. Those detectors which were placed are now being analysed to try to gain information on where the two caves resurge.
1986, OUCC's 25th anniversary of caving in Spain, has given us some of the toughest caving the club has so far encountered. Unfortunately it also provided us with our first two underground injuries on record. In these cases a full rescue procedure was not carried through, as on both occasions the injured members left the caves under their own steam. Overall, however, the expedition was a great success, with a lot being gained by all those members taking part and all our objectives being completed.
We would like to thank all our sponsors whose invaluable help made the expedition possible.
The University of Oxford
The Technical University of Munich
The A.C. Irvine Fund
The Alexander Patton Fund
The Sports Council
The Ghar Parau Foundation
The Royal Geographical Society (approval) in conjunction with Rio Tinto Zinc
The British Cave Research Association (approval)
The Instituto Nacional de La Concervacion de la Naturaleza
The Federacion Noroeste de Espeleologica
H&T Marlow Ropes
John West Foods
Lea & Perrins
Plastics By Post
Brooke Bond Oxo
Prof. Schnadelbach of the Faculty for Surveying and Geodesy of the Tech. University of Munich for arranging the survey equipment and Marcus Wandinger for doing all the footwork.
Special thanks to Brittany Ferries for their fast and efficient help, at both of their terminals, in coping with our vanless, and heavily laden, expedition.