Oxford University Cave Club

El Regallón 1997

Expedition Final Report  

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Expedition Leader's Report

OUCC began its 36th year of exploration in the Picos facing something of a conundrum. The 1994-6 expeditions had been largely concerned with the exploration of Sistema de la Verdelluenga, firstly via the -640m C3, and latterly via the C4 entrance. The system was clearly a key element in the overall picture of the Ario drainage, situated as it was in an area between the Xitu and Jultayu systems otherwise devoid of major caves, and with at least one other important cave, F64, feeding the streamway. Was it a contributor to the large streamway in 2/7? Consultation with veterans of the age of heroes suggested that it was unlikely to feed Xitu above the terminal sump. Unfortunately neither the 1995 or 1996 teams had had the time or the resources to devote to an exhaustive examination of leads at the bottom of the Verdelluenga system, leaving the intriguing possibility that a way on existed in the high rift above the lake at the downstream limit, or that the elusive draft might be traced to a bypass further upstream.

Ben Lovett, The Ice Castle in F41 
(Tim Guilford)
Thus, after a certain amount of soul-searching, the decision was made to return to C4 and to resolve the uncertainties of this fascinating system, with the help of another dinghy and a bright light to help to identify possible leads. The hope was that as the system lay close to the hypothetical edge of the water table, a breakthrough might bring us into another shaft series. Failing that, extrapolating the line of the streamway brought it into the vicinity of the two Canalizos caves explored by SIE between 1979-82; we obtained permission to look at these caves in the hope of extending them to make a connection with the Verdelluenga streamway. Given that of all the major caves explored since 1994, only F64 was a completely new discovery, this was an entirely reasonable and very exciting proposition. 

Meanwhile, exciting advance were being made in other departments, particularly those of training and technology. A weekend in Mendip, incorporating a medical course and a full-scale mock rescue, has been an integral part of preparations for expedition for some time, and this year a well-attended rescue took place in Rod's Pot, although the 'casualty' was so traumatised by the whole experience that he has hardly been seen since...! In addition, a considerable amount of time was spent in Oxford both in the gym and dangling from the ring road bridge above the river practising SRT rescue technique, whilst a number members benefited from a course in the Ingleton gym under the guidance of Paul Ramsden, an experiment which is certain to be repeated. On the technological side, the usual radios and GPS at Top Camp were supplemented for the first time by a computer. Less glorious, it must be noted, was the club's record with more humble surface equipment, as the usual Picos storms were joined this year by herds of aggressive cows at Top Camp, with the result that camp was actually destroyed and evacuated in mid August. 

So began what was once billed, in an inspired flight of fancy before the AC Irvine committee, as a pivotal expedition, and which turned out more as a catalogue of small successes and missed opportunities. 'We wuz robbed', the cavers cried. The advance team gained invaluable experience of deep caving by rigging into C4, but a close examination of the downstream limit revealed no ways on over the sump. The draft was traced up a phreatic ramp some distance back upstream and was revealed to be funnelled up the aven, A Hard Day's Night, which had been found in 1994, whilst a climb up near the lake connected into the same aven. Disappointment put aside, the opportunity was seized to carry out flow measurements in the streamway as part of a wider project co-ordinated by Ian Benson to collate information on the various watercourses of the area (see elsewhere). For a while, as SIE extended Asopladeru la Texa above Ario, it was hoped in discussion with them, that they would be able to carry out similar measurements in the Cabeza Muxa streamway, and several nights were spent in a spirit of speleological camaraderie between the two clubs in the refugio as we contemplated the interesting possibility of taking flow measurements in the gorge, Sistema de la Verdelluenga and this other major system all in the space of a few days of settled weather. This would have provided some fascinating data in terms of the overall picture of the proportions of water that we can identify in the resurgence in the Cares, but it eventually became apparent that Asopladeru was unlikely to meet the main Muxa stream before the end of 1997 expeditions.

In the shattered karst of area F, early interest was based around F41 (left unfinished in 1992), and F88, high on the slopes of La Verdelluenga. A huge ice plug halted progress in F88 at -171m whilst F41 appeared to be going in fine style before stopping equally abruptly. Deep cave clearly exists under the green tongue, perhaps connected with upstream 2/7 and/or Sil de Oliseda on the Leon side of the ridge, and both these caves may reward another visit in future years as snow levels continue to fall. Meanwhile, on the far side of Gustuteru, those exploring the Canalizos caves were having more success. The 'impenetrable rift' at the bottom of Canalizos #1 was passed with ease, only to lead, apparently, to a sump. For the second consecutive year, however, the sump disappeared on closer inspection, this one being a temporary one caused by high rainfall flooding a phreatic area of the cave, but negotiating this obstacle led only to a strongly drafting boulder choke. Despite sterling efforts to break through this, spearheaded by our visiting Welsh contingent, its position on the far side of a flood-prone area meant that the dig was eventually abandoned on safety grounds.

Extensive finds were also made in the parallel shaft of this cave and a connection was made to the new areas of Canalizos #3, establishing the link eighteen years after the initial exploration of the system. Nevertheless, this remains another clearly important site which frustrated our attempts to place it in a wider context. The result of a dye trace, which might have allowed us to establish where the Canalizos water resurges, was unfortunately inconclusive. However, the possibility remains that the downstream Tortellini streamway may be a completely independent watercourse rather than the upstream continuation of the main Canalizos #3 stream as was first thought, which provides another intriguing potential lead.

Extensive surface work was also carried out, the most interesting minor finds being D7 and E14. D7 may well prove to provide another entrance into Torca del Vasco, whilst E14 represents potential for another deep cave in the area of F64. Most surface work was again carried out with the aid of GPS, and we are now in a position to plot most of the major caves in the Top Camp area on a large scale map of the area, which will help to focus the search for important 'missing' elements of the Ario catchment, as will the hydrological work carried out this year. Whilst the main aim of the 1998 expedition at the time of writing is a long-overdue return to Pozu Jultayu, there clearly remain several lines of inquiry opened in 1997 to be pursued. An expedition, in short, that answered fewer questions than it posed.

Nathaniel Mumford December 1997