Beneath the Mountains

Exploring the deep caves of Asturias

David Rose and Richard Gregson

Beneath the Mountains

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Learning to Crawl


It was the afternoon of my twenty-first birthday. I was dangling on a rope above a pit of unknown depth, and I was scared.

From below came the sound of falling water. Above, the roof was invisible, but I knew that beyond it was rather more than 300 metres of solid rock. As I worried and fretted about how to get down this hole, my friend Kevin offered encouragement. " Can't you get a move on? I'm freezing." It was all right for him, he was on a comfy ledge. I mumbled an apology and carried on with my work, the driving of a steel expansion bolt into the rock to provide an anchor for a safe descent. The principle was similar to putting a rawl plug into plaster. The execution was more difficult.

At last I tapped the bolt home and clipped in the rope. "OK, Kev, I'm off." Weak cheers. I wound the line through may descender and set off. I didn't know what was at the bottom of this shaft. This had been my first bolt, and as the blackness unfolded between my feet I felt the intoxicating lurch of high- grade adrenalin.

There were boulders, big ones, coming into view. Twenty-five metres down I touched bottom. Reassuringly confined at the top, the shaft had belled out: I was standing in a large cavern, curved strata stretching beyond vision in stacks against the walls. A little waterfall flowed into a pool and began a streamlet, flowing away into the high corridor beyond. I filled my lungs and shouted, testing the echo: "Kev! Rope free! It's enormous..."

Kev joined me, warm again with his own excitement. Together we rushed into the tunnel carrying the stream, clambering over boulders, down a small cascade, turning sideways to edge past places where the passage narrowed. We came to a longer drop which looked too hard to free climb: hastily we knocked up a rig made of knotted lengths of nylon tape and shinned down. Kev was first. He disappeared round the corner.

A few yards further I caught up with him on the edge of a further fall of 4 metres. He looked mesmerised. We leaned over the edge, looking into a small chamber with a slot at the far end. Kev picked up a rock. "Just listen to this," he said. He tossed the rock through the slot. I expected to hear it land. but there was silence. After a long age of seconds a stupefying, far-off boom rumbled below. We climbed down into the chamber and threw more rocks, hiding our terror with hysterical laughter.

"Six seconds before they hit the bottom, Kev. That makes it 180 metres deep. The height of the Post Office Tower. God's Holy Trousers!"


The idea of a caving expedition to Spain began in 1960 with some Oxford archaeologists, and their hopes of finding cave paintings like those in the famous cave of Altamira. The archaeologists soon dropped out, but their idea had taken root among the members of the university caving club. They scoured the geographical and topographical map collections in the Bodleian Library for promising country. The place they eventually found was on a map made by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. About halfway along Spain's north coast were the limestone mountains of the Picos de Europa. In the western massif of the Picos, the Macizo de Cornion, there was a track leading up into the mountains from a village called Covadonga to a couple of lakes. This place, Los Lagos, was to be a base camp used from the 'sixties onwards.

Covadonga was not quite unknown to the world. Although it is now a tiny village, it was the site of a crucial battle in the eighth century, when the local Visigothic tribe, led by their chief, Pelayo, defeated the army of the Moors. Covadonga and all of the remote mountains around it were never conquered by Islam, and it was from this village that the 'reconquista' is said to have begun. Today there is a large basilica and a shrine on this spot, and people drive out to pray there from Cangas de Onis, the nearest town. Poor Cangas was once the capital of all Christian Spain, but now is a provincial market town where the peasant farmers who make a tough living on the limestone mountains come to buy what they need.

The track that was marked on the map snaked upwards from Covadonga into the mountains proper, to an altitude of 1,000 metres. It was built, in fact, by an Englishman. Earlier in the century there had been an iron mine at Los Lagos, and the British mining engineer constructed the track to supply it. He had also constructed the mine, and when it collapsed, killing some local miners, the survivors of the accident lynched him. There is nothing at Los Lagos today. Nothing, that is, save for a couple of bars, an ice-cream seller and a campsite for tourists. In 1961, when the Oxford undergraduates left for Spain, there was not even that.

There were many Oxford expeditions to Spain after 1961. They explored caves very much like those in Britain, in low-lying hills around Los Lagos and other areas along the northern coast, where subterranean streams had cut out mainly horizontal cave systems. The early expeditions didn't have the technical capability to cope with caves of a more vertical nature, with many large underground drops; overhanging, smooth and wet. The largest drop they could manage was about 120 metres, roughly the size of Gaping Gill Main Shaft in Yorkshire.

The second method of descending these large underground drops was by lowering the explorer on a rope and hauling him out whilst he steadied himself on a rope ladder. This was the way Edouard Martel had first descended Gaping Gill, the largest shaft in Britain, in 1895. The earlier method was simply to hurl the poor chap down and forget about him, this being the way that Dominic Noon first explored the cave in Ireland which now bears his name.

The first expedition to crack the magic 1,000 metres and explore a cave over a kilometre deep was led by Jean Cadoux in the Alps in 1956. The stream they followed underground at the Gouffre Berger finally slid into a pool, 1,148 metres below the entrance. To get to that spot Cadoux had left one or sometimes several men at the head of every underground drop to help haul up cavers of the return. It was a siege approach that required huge resources. Little wonder that by 1970 only two caves had been discovered over 1,000 metres deep, the Gouffre Berger and Pierre St Martin in the Pyrenees. In 1970, however, the caving world was on the brink of a technological revolution.

Climbers who intend to fall into crevasses have long since used a method of climbing up the rope which has, we hope, broken their fall, by means of knots which will slide up the rope but not down. The knots, called prusik knots after their American inventor, are attached to the climber's feet, and to his body harness. Standing up and sitting down alternately while moving each knot up in turn enables the climber to ascend. The process is quicker with metal camming devices; these will similarly slide up if no weight is on them but jam when loaded from below, like rachets. It is quicker still if both feet are used instead of the traditional one. Climbers seem to think the use of both feet together is unethical, preferring instead to hang horizontally, so that an enormous amount of strength is required to make each step. Cavers, as ever more practical, keep themselves held vertically into the rope by means of a chest harness, so that all their stepping is converted into upward motion. Suffice it to say that the record for climbing 100 feet at the annual British Cave Research Association conference stands at 32.1 seconds. The caver is at the top while our crevassed climber is still undoing his shoelaces.

Gone was the idea of climbing up and down ladders. Instead you simply hung a single nylon rope down the underground drop, abseiled down it and prusiked up. This 'Single Rope Technique', or SRT caught on very slowly. One group planned to put Britain back into the deep caving spotlight: Dave Judson and his friends decided to find a completely new cave, in a completely new caving area, which would, they hoped, be the world's deepest. They decided to look away from the Alps and the Pyrenees, and Dave Judson himself came to eye up the Picos de Europa where Oxford had been enjoying themselves year after year.

He came to Los Lagos, but instead of staying there he walked up the mountain behind to look at the higher country, before dismissing the mountains as being too shattered to be of much promise and turning instead to Iran. There the British team explored a cave called Ghar Parau, in 1972, returning the following year to finish the promising cave off, only to find that it ended one pitch further in an impassable sump. At 720 metres deep it was the deepest cave explored by British cavers up to that time, yet still failed to make it into the big league.

Oxford, too, were 'Ghar Parau-ed'. Their expedition in 1976 was supposed to explore a cave that lay just above Lago Enol. It had been found and partly explored by a Barcelona caving group to 360 metres deep; they had given up there and now gave the Oxford team a free hand to finish the cave. This should have been the start of a new era for Oxford - for the first time a sustained effort was being planned on a cave high in the mountains, and using SRT. By July 6 all the tackle arrived at Los Lagos; by July 8 the end of the cave had been discovered, only a few metres further on from the limit of exploration. The British cavers re-surveyed the cave and found that the Barcelona team had found another way to get into the big league. The Oxford journal recorded: "below the sixth pitch the depth of the system is consistently and greatly exaggerated" - the cave was only 258 metres deep in all.

Dave Judson had written the Picos off, but one of the 1976 Oxford Expedition members refused to do so. He was Martin Laverty, a man of great vision and massive beard. Late in the summer of 1976 he walked up a path that led from Lago Ercina, the higher of the twin lakes. Some 7 kilometres away it led to a high alp called Ario. As Dave Judson had said, much of the landscape at this higher altitude was frost-shattered, but Martin persuaded himself that this was the place deep caves might exist. Ario was a purer, more rugged landscape than Los Lagos. It was above the cloud for much of the time, with soaring limestone edges and staggering views across the Cares Gorge - a 1,800-metre deep gash cut right through the whole of the Picos massif. From the top of Jultayu, a peak quite close to Ario, one could look almost vertically down on the village of Cain, a hamlet nestling in a crook of the gorge, as if from an aeroplane. At Ario itself there were few people; a small colony of shepherds and the guardian of a mountain refuge hut built for passing walkers. Gazing at this beautiful spot, Martin planned another expedition.

The winter of 1978-9 was one of the coldest in living memory. Martin had arranged for the cave club to stay in a ramshackle farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales over the New Year, and as I arrived at the foot of the steep hill that led up to the ruin there was a lonely figure hitch-hiking in the blizzard. I stopped, and wound down the window of my ancient Triumph Herald to be greeted with, " I say, aren't you OUCC?"

I knew who it was - William Stead, a figure you could never forget. Like me he had joined the Oxford University Cave Club a few months earlier, and had been pleased to find, probably for the first time in his life, a group of people who were as odd as himself. He had left Eton a year earlier. I told him to get in, and together we drive up the hill towards the ancient ruin Martin had selected for our new year meet.

Next morning after a greasy breakfast we marched down from the farm across a field on a compass bearing which led us to the spot where the minibus was parked in the valley below. The minibus conveyed us to a car park where, in the icy grip of winter, we stripped off naked and put on our wetsuits, which were stiff with the cold. Halfway through this torment, I noticed that William and I were standing alone on the frozen gravel. Where were the experienced men? Where was Martin, our 'leader'? The question was soon answered. They had changed inside the public toilets and had been taking turns directing the hot-air hand-drier down their trousers. It was obvious that we had a lot to learn.

Later, as we trudged up to the caves we passed a sign on the edge of the open moor: 'What the Well- Dressed Walker Should Wear'. There was a picture of a merry chap striding along in his big boots, with an anorak, a rucksack, a map and a compass. Inside his rucksack were extra clothes and some food. I looked at this picture. Why, I asked myself, was I wearing a neoprene wetsuit and wellingtons?

In fact, I was one of the best-dressed in the party. Quite unlike climbing, where the better you are the more flash and poncy your gear is, caving kudos can only be gained by putting up with gear that is constantly about to fail. The more holes in your wetsuit the tougher you are, the dimmer your light the obviously more vast your experience. Sometimes in a popular cave you come across a party of potholers who are blundering along dressed in rags and with only one yellow glow from their leader's lamp for them all to see by. In your bright new wetsuit and with your bright new light shining down the passage you press yourself against the rock and let them pass, in awe.

Martin was admired by everyone in the cave club because his gear was so absolutely dreadful. When term began again he was there on the Wednesday night meetings in Brasenose College bar, sitting in the corner stroking his beard, and watching the new recruits to the cave club. Of the dozens who had signed up the term before, only four of us had returned after the ordeal in Yorkshire; myself and William, and two physicists, John Singleton and Graham Naylor.

These two were as unlike each other as it is possible to be. John was large and square, and seemingly impervious to pain or discomfort. He looked rather like the product of spare part surgery, and perhaps what had happened was that they had left out the pain centre. Graham, by contrast, was small, shy and exceptionally strong. He was very good at getting through the tighter sections in caves, and he did this by intelligent wrigglings, whereas John made his way by battering his body against the rock until it gave way. In the contest between John's flesh and the age-old hardened limestone, John invariably won.

As we talked, Martin eyed us up. If these four could come back for more after the ordeal by snow in Yorkshire, they could take anything. He bided his time, as ever saying little, waiting for the moment when our heads were dulled with beer.

"How do you feel about a caving expedition to Spain?"

Our minds filled with images of wine, flamencos, cheap restaurants and no snow. It seemed a wonderful idea. Martin also said that there would be the chance of discovering a cave system that would be amongst the world's deepest. We pressed him - would our bums be frozen off again? There was a long pause. Probably not, he answered slowly. We didn't know then that it would be the sort of trip where you could have margarine on your bread, or jam, but not both.

Martin's SRT gear was as old as his wetsuit; nevertheless he organised a series of sessions in an Oxford gymnasium to show us how it was done. We dangled ropes down from a girder in the roof, and Martin climbed up, using his 'ropewalking' system. Unlike the 'frog' or sit-stand system, which is roughly what the crevassed climber uses, the rope walking system used three jammers - one for each foot ad another attached to the chest - and it was much more difficult to use. There was no one else in the club, however, who had had any experience of SRT at all, and we had followed our leader in purchasing the gear he recommended.

Working each foot independently, Martin climbed the rope in a series of ungainly spasms until his head hit the roof. As he lay there panting, he explained that SRT was an exceptionally safe technique, because it was almost impossible to detach oneself from the rope. He proved his point by having considerable difficulty in getting down again. What he was trying to do was a 'changeover', an essential manoeuvre in SRT. He had to get his weight off each jammer in turn, and then finally transfer it onto his abseiling device. At the critical moment the descender kept slipping before he could unclip the last jammer, and again and again he ended up hanging from the descender with one foot high above his head still fixed to the rope, well beyond his reach. We got out the vaulting horse and he climbed down onto Simon's shoulders.

"Normally you don't have to do this underground," he said, "you can just step off the rope at the top of the pitch."

Just as well, I thought. There are no vaulting horses underground.

The other change we would have to make for our equipment in Spain was our lamps. In England we used the traditional helmet-mounted electric miners' light, powered by batteries carried on a belt. Without mains electricity at our campsite, we shouldn't be able to re-charge them in Spain, and instead we had to use carbide lamps, or 'stinkies'. These produce acetylene gas from water dripping onto calcium carbide, and the gas burns to give a sooty bunsen burner issuing from our foreheads. They tend to break down a great deal, but can be mended underground, and the length of time they provide light is limited only by how much carbide you carry with you.

On July 8, 1979, the team left for Spain, seventeen strong. After all my preparation, I could not get the time to go, nor could some other members of the club. So Martin invited two cavers from Birmingham, chiefly because they could provide a Land-Rover. 'Skunk' and 'Skippy' had also done a lot more caving than any of the students from Oxford, and they lived in the real world: Skunk was a tester at British Steel, and Skippy was a radiographer.

"Only a few miles from the Picos we stopped at a town called San Vincente," the expedition log-book recalls, "to have a last lunch. There are to be no lunches on this caving expedition."

Not only was there to be no lunch, there was to be nowhere to wash. It rained for three days continuously after their arrival at Los Lagos, and the campsite became a quagmire, with mud creeping into everything. It was possible to wash in Lago Ercina, except that the Spanish tourists tended to use it as a latrine. The other lake, Lago Enol, was about half an hour's stiff walk away and ice-cold. Some of the cavers washed in Lago Enol and some washed in the ice-cold spring. Martin decided not to wash at all for the duration of the expedition, earning himself the nickname 'the thing in Martin's tent'. This abstinence meant that it was easy to get to the counter at one of the two bars. The nearest bar is nothing more than a hole in a wall and some tarpaulins, but at the top of a steep and muddy hill is the Refugio Entelagos, a much more substantial building, whose owner, Amador, soon became great friends with the English cavers. Whenever it was misty, and the camp by the lakeside became a misery, the cavers would retire to his bar. It is almost always misty at Los Lagos, and the expedition might have floundered were it not for the fact that there was another bar, or rather a mountain refuge which occasionally sold alcohol, 600 metres higher, at Ario. The extra height meant better weather.

Three of the team went up to Ario. For once the ascent did not bring them out of the mist, and without the yellow paint blobs on the path they would have become lost. Simon Fowler recorded the trip in the log-book:

"A hole at the edge of the mist looked interesting - we tossed a stone down to judge its depth: it obviously wasn't deep.

Continuing along the path, we soon reached the solid comforts of the Ario refugio. With the thick mist we could do little else that evening, so we took our single caving ladder and returned to the small shaft we had found. We had decided to call Ario 'Area 5', so this cave should be 1/5.

The shaft was an easy free-climb, but a narrow rift which led off needed our ladder; at the bottom there was a small chamber with a smelly Alpine choughs' nest, and no exit except a narrow and unpromising slot that continued the trend of our entrance. It looked uninviting, but what the hell."

Simon went into the rift, and found that a few feet in, the floor dropped away. To stop himself falling down and becoming stuck in the narrow part below he had to wedge himself high up in the roof.

"The clean white walls reminded me that I was the first person to disturb the peace of this cave. I lost contact with the others as the rift got more serious. Reversing out would have been very hard, but I could see that the passage ended at a small alcove just ahead. It would be possible to turn around there.

With a feeling of relief I squeezed through the last, tightest section, letting gravity pull me into the cleft below.

As my head popped out into the alcove I got an unexpected shock. Instead of standing in a convenient turning place, I was perched above an impressive shaft. Roof and floor were out of sight. There was a fortuitously positioned by tiny ledge, which provided a vital foothold, and I could see by the dim light of my carbide flame that there was a large ledge perhaps 15 feet further down. Without much thought for the return journey, I climbed down a difficult flake to the standing room of the ledge. The 30-foot drop that followed looked too wide for me to attempt, but by throwing stones, I estimated that there was another drop beyond of 60 feet or more."

Getting back up and into the rift severely taxed Simon's climbing ability, and getting back along the rift itself was extremely tricky. When he got back to the others though, he had only one comment to make: "Yes, this is the deepest cave in the world."

Jim Sheppard, a veteran of several expeditions of the early 'seventies, was the only one with much experience at rigging a shaft system for SRT, so he went up to Ario to do this with Skunk. They rigged shaft after shaft in Simon's new cave, until the last and biggest drop ended in a miserable slit too small even for Skunk. Halfway down the 40-metre drop Skunk had noticed a horizontal tunnel leading off, and he ma aged to gain this by swinging across on the rope. From a shingly ledge an old, dry passage led into the mountain and down to a roomy chamber which the pair christened 'Customs Hall'.

Now it was possible to make downward progress without having to rig more pitches - real caving. There were climbs in a dry passage, and at last Jim and Skunk made a real breakthrough: a winding, lofty stream passage. Skunk wrote: "Looking like Oxo. Black limestone with calcite bands. Very impressive. A short cascade was free climbed. Were finally halted by a short, annoying pitch. A memorable trip, the epitome of cave exploration."

Skunk's economical style conveys nothing of the excitement with which this news was greeted by the rest of the expedition. Rather than a mere number, the cave was given a name now. As it was right next to the viewpoint, one suggestion was 'Viewpoint Cave'. A Spanish caving group was also at the refugio, and they insisted on this name being translated; the cave that Simon had found in the mist thus became 'Pozu del Xitu'.

These Spanish cavers, the Barcelona SIE, were sceptical about the prospects for the Oxford cave. The cave they had come to explore was called Cabeza Muxa, a gigantic shaft. It was already 500 metres deep, with vast pitches that made Xitu look Lilliputian. Whilst Jim and Skunk were 'crabwalking' sideways along the narrow Xitu streamway, the SIE cavers were bolting their way down the walls of a shaft they called 'El Gran Abisu'; a shaft 247 metres deep. They believed that these big shafts were essential for big caves, but on the day after finding the streamway Skunk was joined on his second push by Francisco, a member of the SIE.

Francisco was dead keen, but fat. The rift gave him a lot of trouble. In a series of attempts to get through he removed his harness, his SRT gear, his oversuit and finally everything before he could manage the squeeze into the alcove. Further down, Xitu carried on like a Yorkshire pothole, writ large; Francisco, though, was dismissive.

"It will never go," he said, "as it's much too small. Quite an interesting cave, but you can be sure that it will be no deeper than 250 metres."

Five days later, when the Oxford expedition left to return to Britain, Xitu was 354 metres deep, nearly a kilometre in length, and it hadn't ended.

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