NPC Newsletter (2nd New Series) No. 53 - March 2001

The Spanish Circle

Although it may be difficult to believe, the Pennine have been involved in cave exploration in Spain since 1985. Last year's expedition built on the 1999 trip with the discovery of new passage and the opening of new leads. It is therefore fitting to give a review of last year's work before giving details of this year's plans.

The Past

In September last year, seven Britons departed these islands for North Spain. The party consisted of Dani, Pete Hambly, Dewi Lloyd, Tim Palmer, Martin Holroyd, Abigail and Rick Stanton. The first four arrived in Poncebos (in the heart of the Picos de Europa) and set up camp on the ledge used by the Pennine Crinklies of 15 years since. The ledge had changed little. Upon arrival contact was established with old Spanish friends and a plan was devised. After that the assembly descended into drink and fodder!

On the first day the plan was put into operation and the whole caravan upped tent pegs and drove to Caín at the southern end of the Cares Gorge. Our Spanish friends had assured us that this was an excellent spot in which to establish base camp. The walk to Culiembro was easier from here. However, the nearest shops were about 2 hours away on a horrendous track, the place was heaving with tourists, the camp site was a good 3km away with no water and nowhere to park! We amended the plan and decided to return to the ledge. However, we made the most of the opportunity and portered six loads to the entrance of Culiembro. Half the party then continued down the path to Poncebos whilst the drivers returned to the vehicles and spent a couple of hours driving back round. That night Rick and Abigail arrived.

Age has taken its toll and the tigers of yesteryear (and the youth of today) no longer seemed satisfied with the basic facilities of the ledge. We established good terms at a campsite in Arenas (with showers, washing machines, bar, restaurant etc.) and, after a carry to Culiembro from Poncebos, decamped to the new base. That night Martin arrived from Bilbao.

The first day of caving dawned. All carried to Culiembro and a veritable mountain of swag was then ferried to Sump 1. The intention was for Rick and Dani to dive through to the Square Window Route. Surprisingly, this is what happened! Both divers passed Sump 1 (180m). However Rick, being a little more in practice, had disappeared into Sump 2 before Dani had appeared from Sump 1. Therefore Dani de-kitted, carried his load of extra line to Sump 2 and checked the line going into the static sump which marked the start of the Round Window Series. This being done, there was no point in hanging around and Dani returned to the outside. Rick, meantime, had gone into Sump 3 and extended the line left by him in 1987!

The next trip into Culiembro saw Rick and Martin pass Sump 1. Rick continued into Sump 3 using his patent rebreather system. Martin set off to explore the Round Window System. Both passed the limits of exploration and surfaced in their respective routes. Both found large chambers with water entering from high cascades. Both returned in a state of fulfilled pleasure. The balance of the contingent were taken on a guided tour of the Western Picos via Cangas de Onis, Los Lagos, Pozu del Xitu and Ario; Names which evoke vivid memories amongst those familiar with British exploits in the Picos.

At this point it was realised that the expedition was not equipped for prolonged work at Culiembro. It was decided that a visit to Cueva Negra, in the Sierra de Cuera, should be planned. Dani reconnoitred the approaches, in light of the previous year's fiasco. A Land Rover friendly route to the level of the entrance was found. The next day, Rick deposited Martin, Tim, Dewi, Pete and Dani on a mist shrouded Spanish mountainside before setting off for Blighty. The cavers trekked through the cloud to the vast, dripping, entrance of Negra. Two mini-bottles and valves were packed and carried to Sump 1. The use of natural belays for the 20m pitch gave pause for thought to the youngsters. However, the 1992 and 1999 lines were both still in place and intact in the sump. Dani, Martin and Dewi passed the sump with diving sets being ferried back and forth through the sump. Progress downstream beyond the sump was accompanied with expletives alluding to the size and nature of the passage. Photographs were taken of highly decorated grottoes. Eventually, the 1992 limit was reached. The way on was open and beckoned. A simple shimmy up the rift and a short traverse led to the head of a 7m pitch. The ladder brought for the purpose provided an easy descent into a pool, however the unbreakable rule of cave exploration reasserted itself. Around the corner the explorers were confronted with a pitch of some 25-30m and no tackle for the descent. After a contemplative moment spent filling the void with loose stones, they began a pace and compass survey for the return. This activity was, however, abandoned when Dani climbed up through a boulder choke into a chamber dubbed Greenclose and, whilst acting as a survey station, noticed a rather dark void where the chamber wall should be. Martin dropped the notebook and ran off into the blackness. They had found a huge chamber. It continued for what seemed like forever with all three cavers losing sight of each other in the vastness. Eventually, all returned to the streamway in an incoherent babble of excitement, abandoned the survey completely and headed for the sump. An altogether uneventful, apart from some outstanding re-rigging of the 20m pitch, exit into a misty night was made. The two non-divers had wisely made best use of the little daylight available on their exit and descended to the cars at the foot of the mountain. The diving team followed in their footsteps with no navigation aids in steady drizzle, mist and wind.

The only other caving trip undertaken during the remaining days of the expedition was to Hoyo la Madre by Martin with the Spanish divers. The Spaniards had returned to Hoyo la Madre after being introduced to the cave during the previous year's trip. They had since re-laid the line in Sump 1 and claimed to have passed Sump 2 at shallow depth and a series of short shallow sumps thereafter. The collective memory of the Pennine was that Sump 2 did not continue far at shallow depth but developed into a deep rift. Martin returned to confirm this. The shallow section was only a series of airbells at the top of the rift which Rick had noted in 1986.

The Future

Members of the Pennine are returning to the Picos in September 2001 for about two weeks (8th to 23rd). The major areas of interest are Culiembro (Round Window Series) and Cueva Negra. The expedition will be based at Arenas de Cabrales. All members are welcome; whether to cave, climb, walk or just gawp at the scenery.

Anyone interested should contact Dani


> Previous trips to the Picos:
---> The Trans-Iberian Express (1985)
---> For Whom the Cow-bell Tolls (1986)
---> Pictures in a Spanish Expedition (1987)
---> Tilting at Windmills and Still Learning Nothing (1988)
---> A Brief History of the Pennine Way in Spain (executive summary of the above, plus 1992)
> Out of print publications list
> Indices to NPC explorations:
---> Listings by date
---> Alphabetical listing by cave
---> Index to articles by author
> Northern Pennine Club Home page