NPC Newsletter 24, April 1989



Tilting at Windmills and Still Learning Nothing

by Pasmedos San Miguels

Readers of the publications of that august body of speleologists, heretoforth known as the Northern Pennine Club or NPC, cannot but have noticed, over the last year or four, the sporadic appearance of articles extolling the karst lands of Spain. Well, here is another dose of Iberian underworld adventure guaranteed to send you scurrying for your bedsocks.

The 1988 team was 19 strong. It included a liberal sprinkling of non-members and probationers to do the heavy graft. Of the 19, only three were veterans of the 1985-86-87 expeditions. They were Dani "When I first came to Spain (yawn)" lewicz, Dave "I don't think I feel well" Francis and Rick "I am NOT going to Spain next year" Stanton.

They were tolerated by:-

From the N.P.C.:- Paul "Fiesta"; warp factor 9 Eastwood and Dave "Avoid sunlight" Hetherington.

From I.C.C.C.:- Chris "Brighouse Bruiser" Birkhead, Richard "Burn-out" Colcott and 'arry "Know what I mean?" Lock.

From others:- Bert "Deep determination" Evans, Kath "Killer Calories" Force, Steve "Al Bosch" Foster, Simon "f5.6 under a waterfall" Fowler, Steve "ARGHH" Joyce (veteran of '86 and '87), Neil "If I were you lot" Kemp with support spiritual and temporal from Sylvia "went further" Hummel and Dave "The lodger" Livesley, Charlotte "At least Dave is older than me" Roberts, Kev "Grand old man of the Picos" Senior and Angus "Man Turnip" Tillotson.

Our aim was to dive a sump which had not been dived before ("Very noble", I hear you all cry with one voice). The sump in question is at the very bottom of a cave 906 metres deep ("Very Stupid" I hear you all cry). The entrance is 1500 metres above sea level ("Get the Strait Jacket!" I hear etc.) and ten kilometres from the nearest road ("Stop!! Wake me from this nightmare") and bar ("They cannot be serious").

Let me explain how such a ridiculous undertaking came about. In 1986 we looked at Cueva Culiembro in the Cares Gorge. Culiembro is the resurgence for Pozo del Xitu whose entrance is 1200 metres higher up the mountain. Everything looked good, so we returned in 1987 with the naïve notion of linking the two caves. We were thwarted. We joked about trying to get the connection from the top end, but the prospect of diving downstream Xitu (-1135 metres deep, 6km long at 1652 asl) was clearly out of the question. We also joked about trying downstream Cabeza Muxa (-906 metres deep, 2.6 km long at 1504 asl). Reasoning that neither undertaking would be attempted by any sane person, I laughed at this notion with the others.

At the 1987 BCRA Conference, Steve Foster approached me with the words "Rick Stanton tells that you are organising an expedition to Cabeza Muxa".

"Really?" I replied, trying to sound non-committal.

"Yes, I'm interested in joining you", he said.

"O.K." I agreed. So there I was, leader of an expedition to dive the terminal sump of Cabeza Muxa. Not only am I stupid, but I actually show it sometimes.

Our plan was simple. We would all meet in Spain, carry all the gear up the mountain, rig the cave, carry in the swag, dive the sump and either find the way out at the bottom or derig the cave and carry everything back down the mountain. The reality is always a little more sobering (not a good thing in the Pennine). We did actually get to Spain with all the gear despite:-

i. The attempts of the perfidious French to smash Rick's Daihatsu with the back of a Renault.

ii. an exploding trailer tyre, and

iii. a severe attack of gregarious malaria.

Perhaps I ought to expand on the gear side of life. Some of our more stately members may well remember the days of taking rope ladders to Long Kin West on horseback. The more stately members of the Cabeza Muxa expedition now have an indelible memory of taking ropes to Cabeza Muxa on probationer-back. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. However, not only did we move over 1600 metres (a mile) of rope but there was also the little matter of a frame tent, eight smaller tents, stoves, drills, 900 club biscuits, 120 Springlow ready meals, 48 tins of Mornflake Oats, 250 bolts, hangers and maillons, 3 x 47 cu.ft. cylinders, 3 demand valves, 19 sets of SRT gear, 19 helmets, 19 lamps, 19 oversuits, undersuits, sleeping bags and mats, food, fuel, batteries, etc. etc. etc.. This was done in two days.

Our next problem was finding the cave. No member of the expedition had ever been to it. However, by closely following the instructions on a tin of tripe and allowing for snow on the points at Didcot, we found a sign in red paint on a rock. It said "Pozo Cabeza Muxa, -906m". We did not see the actual entrance because there was a cloud in it! When the cloud cleared we were confronted with a shakehole the size of Arcow Quarry! Finding this prospect rather daunting, we retired to top camp at Ario, building a cairn every two metres to ensure we would not lose our way in the moonscape wilderness of the high Picos.

Rigging commenced on the day the entrance was found. We soon realised that our generously estimated rope requirement was not a folly. Cabeza Muxa drops to -600 metres in very short order. Several pitches of between five and thirty metres lead to a steep rubble slope, the aptly named Rocodromo, which funnels down to a canyon and, after several more pitches, to the head of El Gran Abisu; a magnificent pitch of 247 metres. From the foot of El Gran Abisu a pitch of three metres leads to a pitch of 102 metres which marks the end of the entrance series. A wide, limpid river indicates the way on. Over the next kilometre or so it crashes down waterfalls and cascades, flows through large clear lakes of indeterminate depth and generally creates a series of obstacles which outclass even the most sadistic assault course designer. A total of thirty pitches required rigging in the streamway, including a 15 metre ascent in a boulder choke!

The first caving gear was carried in on 30th July. Several pitches still required rigging so this trip became an epic rigging / portering / diving trip as the diving team caught up with porters caught up with riggers. Eventually seven cavers gathered at the terminal sump to watch Rick assemble his swag. DISASTER. The tap on one of the bottles had been damaged on the way in and was useless. Nevertheless, Rick dived in a short way on a single set. He confirmed that the sump was big and going. Once Rick had dekitted, the whole group set off out. Several of the dodgier pitches were rerigged on the way but everyone was out by midday on the 31st. On the 1st August a large group went to the seaside. Others went caving. However, both groups would have done better to build an Ark; for on the 2nd the heavens opened. They stayed that way for some twenty hours. Needless to say the cave flooded drastically and was unenterable until the fifth. We were very fortunate not to lose all our gear or, more importantly, to have anyone underground at the time, for our supposed safe and dry underground bivi site was washed away.

On the sixth, a third bottle was carried in and Rick dived again. Much to everyone's chagrin, the sump, instead of surfacing, dropped to -33 metres and could be clearly seen to carry on down steeply. There was no way on!!! Detackling commenced.

The cave was finally cleared in the early hours of the 9th. A sterling effort by he last detackling team had removed the kilometre of rope from the entrance series as one continuous length. Gear was carried from the entrance to Ario and down to Lagos throughout the day. One stalwart chap managed to carry down three loads during that one day! The last of our gear was carried down during the morning of the 10th. The vehicles were loaded up and the trek home began.

Although we came home a little disappointed by the lack of new cave found we were all more than pleased with the trip. Cabeza Muxa is a truly magnificent cave in a splendid setting. It deserves to become one of the classic caving trips in the world. If anyone is interested in a return visit I know of at least one person who will be more than glad not to lead it.

> Previous trips to Spain:
---> Spain 1985
---> Spain 1986 - the Return Trip
---> Spain 1987 - return to Culiembro
> Out of print publications list
> Indices to NPC explorations:
---> Listings by date
---> Alphabetical listing by cave
---> Author index to exploration and other articles
> Northern Pennine Club Home page