Monday 22 April 2024

5-12th April 2024 Mike's Cantabrian Recipe & Tony's film

 Cantabria Caving Cake – for ‘feeding the rat’ – Spring 2024, Al, Tony, Mike


 2 Deep Shafts; Sima Tonio at 282m was a suitable starter for focusing the mind and honing

pull through skills, we soon got our routine sorted; Sima del Cueto was quite the step up,

with 8 big pitches off vertical stances in eerie stillness and unfathomable depth to the half

way window and a further intricate series of pitches, fixed ropes, narrow connections and

the final ‘tail tube’ through to the base of the Juhue Well at 581 meters.

 1 Vast Chamber; Popping through the roof of the Sala Olivier Guillaume in the Cueva

Canuela on a thin thread of rope defies superlatives; the depth, silence and huge chamber

making us feel like miniscule specks in both time and space.

 1 Spectacular Streamway; A through trip linking the streamways of Cuivo, Cubieja and

Leolorna proved to be an excellent, entertaining, sporting experience. A short entrance pitch

led to a developing streamway with occasional obstacles to the stunning ‘Caramel

Meanders’, calcited pools of contoured browns; a hilariously muddy bypass section scrubbed

clean in the ‘Wash Room’; followed by 10 varied wet pitches to the depths of Sala del Arco

(225m); perfect strolling downstream passage to the confluence with the Leolorna, then

upstream through the bucket shaped pools of the ‘Marmite Gallery’ and back up to the

previous day’s exit pitches. Quality!

 1 Long Trip; Cueto to Coventosa; 6 hours down the pitches, a couple of hours scrambling

into the mountain before turning at the Pozo Navidad towards the Coventosa cave where

we’d stashed inflatable, neoprene and cake for the way out. Best part of 17 hours

underground. What a trip! Took the whole of the next day to even begin to digest the


 1 Squeaky Bum Moment; Despite my best attempts at maintaining a cool head on the first

pitch of the Cueto, I managed to completely miss the first hanging bolted stance, abseiled

the full 65 meters of rope and had to reascend about 25 meters of what at that point looked

like a very thin and stretchy thread up into the ceiling with utter blackness below. I apologise

for my heavy breathing!

 Many stunning formations; Karst and Calcite in abundance; stal the size of buildings in

length and girth at every turn; Coventosa Christmas gallery sparkling in our lights; gour pools

to swim across; Brachiopod events all around; chambers, canyons, galleries, narrow

entrances and atmospheric exits.


 2 Scurion Lamps; Tony and Al’s lamps cast incredible light in the huge chambers and

galleries we experienced, making my Duo look utterly insignificant by comparison;

particularly useful for spotting reflective markers at a distance, though not for me on the

really big silent pitches, I’d prefer it if we didn’t wake the locals.

 1 Layer of Neoprene; will suffice for the cave streamways and the lakes of the Rio

Coventosa, though if you’d like to hire some more there’s a lovely Spanish chap in Ramales

and you can carry it around with you all day.

 1 Flotation Device; the Rio Coventosa has 3 lakes to cross; I was recommended a ‘boat’,

there was talk of a ‘craft’, Tony went and did his high level paddling leader assessments in

Scotland: but Lidl middle aisle has it all – no-expense-spared kids inflatable rings in a variety

of colours for your choice, just sit down in it and away you go; the perfect addition to any

continental caver’s kit list.

 2 Cameras; thanks so much to Al and Tony for the memorable photos and film; I’m the worst

model, always mooching off downstream, round the corner or down the pitch before the

camera’s even warmed up.

 1 AI translated Spanish guidebook; a few amusing translations aside, the guides, surveys

and pitch topos were excellent enabling us to make the most of our time in Cantabria and be

confident of the pull through commitment. A good bit of homework was done on the ferry

journey and evenings before trips, checking our equipment and annotating and laminating

the necessary paperwork.

 1 Quality Accommodation; we stayed at the Ramales campsite, couldn’t be more perfect for

our needs, a simple apartment meant beds for the night, cooking and showering, kit

preparation and relaxation in the afternoon sun. A brilliant bar with cheap local beer and

food, log burner, reminiscent of our usual haunt at the Barn in Kirkby Lonsdale, even sold

locally brewed real ale


Take 3 middle aged experienced cavers (2 with significant birthdays!) with a likeminded attitude to

caving (have a go at anything as long as its not too too tight) and essential apres-caving activities

(that’s having a beer or 2 after the cave!), a common despair in Tory politics, liberally sprinkled with

wit, humour and abundant trivia. Add 8 days of gorgeous Spanish spring sunshine in a stunningly

quiet mountain area. Prepare your equipment thoroughly before hand and combine the ingredients

with care and delight. ‘Rooope freeee’!

Tony's film

Monday 15 April 2024

11 - 12th April 2024 - OMG - Cueto to Coventosa traverse

It wasn't a great night's sleep and the end of the dawn chorus that signalled 7.30 am seemed to come all too soon. There wasn't a great deal of chat either as we breakfasted and threw the last pieces of kit into tackle sacks. The drive to Val de Ason was quiet too and it took a donkey standing in our usual parking spot to illicit a bit of conversation. Stripping down for the climb ahead was complicated by also having to keep the donkey out of the car but a good forehead scratch seemed to be ample substitute for a lift.

The parking attendant donkey loves a good forehead scratch

It was then onwards and upwards, the concrete track soon turning into a narrower and more ancient feeling path that headed straight up the hill side. The distant sound of bells and frequent cow pats on the track worried us that at any point a herd of cows could come charging down towards us but a final barn signalled the end of our confined path and the start of the open fell. The zig zag path we had spied on Google's satellite imagery wasn't quite as well defined on the ground as we thought it would be but there was no chance of going the wrong way - it was just up!

Having endured the brutal climb in solitary torment we regrouped at a small col through which a marked path threaded and I turned on the GPS. To my astonishment it indicated that the cave was just 75m away and down hill along the path. That couldn't be right could it? Had we finally completed our 800m of ascent? The arrow on the GPS needs a bit of movement before it points in the right direction so I set off and yes, it was down hill and the metres began rapidly ticking down. A trod dropped down from the main path and after just a couple more metres the GPS read 0m and I was stood in front of a small doorway in the rock. Could this be it? A bolt at the entrance signalled it could be and Mike taking a slightly different route from the path pointed out a painted arrow pointing at the opening with the word Cueto above. We were there!

A lone mountain goat kept us well and truly in its sights as we feasted on egg mayonnaise sarnies and began to kit up. It was then out of the sunshine and into the gently sloping passage. Derigging the traverse line that Mike had rigged and progressing just a few metres I joined them at the pitch head. My brain just couldn't comprehend that under Mike's feet was a 300m drop. The "coward"* krab was in place signifying that this was a "proper" pitch in Mike's eyes but he set off as ever smoothly down the rope. *[Editor's note: This is the term Mike had coined for the krab clipping the stopper knot, preventing the rope pulling through, to one of the bolts. Suppose it's catchier than "sensible precaution krab"] 

Our standard operating procedure over countless pitches up to this point had been: Mike setting up the ab rope and descending before a couple of metallic clanking sounds as he clipped in preceded by a cheery and melodic, "Rope free". On this occasion however there was just silence. We shouted down. Silence. A string of expletives and the word, "Knot". We shouted again. Silence. Then the rhythmic, deep breathing of someone climbing back up a long and bouncy rope. After what seemed an age a slightly more muted than usual "Rope free" echoed up the shaft. Tony questioned whether he should descend, an "All good" was returned and he too descended into the dark.

Coward krab removed and the knot checked for smooth running I finally followed the other two. Just above them I could see that they were both dangling from a pair of bolts connected by a chain holding the pull through ring. This was going to be cosy. I asked where they wanted me and was given the instruction, "on the left". While this was to the left of Mike it ended up being on top of Tony and I don't think my added weight helped his legs which were already going dead. With everyone secure, in a matter of fact way Mike explained that he hadn't seen the belay and had ab'ed until the knot at the end of the rope was in his hand. Thoughts were kept to ourselves and I don't think there was any further discussion, the ropes were just pulled, everyone now understanding that we were committed.

We had plenty of time to settle into our routine, each of us concentrating on our individual tasks and the small pool of light that we had to complete them in. The only regular reminder of the vastness of the shaft that we were in being on retrieval of the rope. A hefty tug was occasionally needed to overcome the stretch in the rope and release the knot from the ring before the regular hauling commenced.  The end of the ascending rope was checked for knots and as it disappeared into the gloom the force required on the down rope decreased until it stopped. A moment of silence then preceded a whistling sound that kept increasing in volume until a violent clattering sound accompanied by the rope assaulting us. It wasn't always over at this point as the falling end of the rope could then pull the rope entangled round us taut before the silence began again. On one occasion a crack like thunder was heard as the rope completed its fall and on retrieval the neat end label had been replaced by raggedy strands of mantle and core. Looking back I realise now that throughout the whole of Cueto descent my head torch was on its dimmest setting, only my immediate surroundings being important and perhaps the vastness of the shaft being kept out of mind.

After five pitches we arrived at a "repisa", a ledge that allowed us to unweight our harnesses for the first time. It wasn't a big ledge. It wasn't even really in a helpful place but it was a ledge and it signalled a land mark in the otherwise unrelenting verticality of the shaft. Just three more pitches and finally we arrived at a the end of pitches in the Pozo Juhue and could finally stand up. Here the mighty Juhue finishes at a rubble slope and our way on was through a window into the Pozo del Algodon, the Cotton pitch. While the general direction of travel was still downwards the following pitches were interspersed with prerigged traverses and climbs making you feel like you were making real progress. Finally we found ourselves free hanging from a small hole in the roof of a gallery and, on touch down, the main vertical part of the cave was complete. We were now standing 581 metres below the entrance in the Galeria Juhue. While this marked the end of nearly 600m of descent, it marked the beginning of nearly 6000m of horizontal cave between us and the Coventosa entrance. Definitely time to crack open the cake.

All our trips prior to this one had been fuelled solely by cake but, as this was a "big" trip, we'd also taken 3 chocolate bars each. Unfortunately the Continent is a much healthier place than the UK so, instead of a solid Mars or Snickers bar, these were more like lightly chocolate coated rice krispies so offered a change in taste from cake rather than lots of extra calories. By this point in the trip two of Sam's (Mike's wife) cakes had become inseparable and now boasted an upper stratum of flapjack (with chocolate chips) and a lower layer of ginger bread. "Ginger jack" stops were now eagerly awaited, though unfortunately infrequent, moments on trips.                                                                                   

Water is dense and the approach to the Cueto chasm hot and steep. We'd therefore only taken half a litre of water each with us and had drunk most of this before we started the descent. The description promised litres of fresh water from numerous containers at the point where we had entered the Juhue gallery but sadly this was not the case and it was just a few mouthfuls of gravely water that we added to our diminishing supplies.                                                                                                                                                                    
After our brief break it was time to move on. Not only though did our path now lead uphill, it lead in the wrong direction, into the hill side and would do for the next couple of kilometres or so. After 100m of vertical ascent up a boulder pile following reflectors and cairns Tony pointed out a large arched gallery off to one side and about 60m below us. No obvious path led down to it so I continued up the boulder slope. The reflectors seemed to disappear so we carried on until off to one side we caught a line of them glinting in our head torch beams. Happy to be following them again we moved quickly to a point that we had visited shortly before. Description and compass out we realised that the large, vaulted gallery that Tony had seen previously was the way on and we descended down into the Gran Pedrera (Big quarry). It was at this point that Mike remembered why the Room of Eleven Hours that we had been circling in was so called, the original explorers having spent 11 hours in it looking for a way on.

Without the reflective markers we'd have wallowed in the boulder strewn Galeria del Chicarron that followed but, due to their presence, we were able to follow the line of least resistance towards the Oasis. As we walked we discussed what we thought the Oasis would be like. While deep down we knew that palm trees, camels and dancing girls were unlikely, a crystal clear flowing stream to allow us to replenish our water bottles didn't seem too unrealistic. While it might have more water than other areas, it was not the idyllic spot we were expecting, huge gaps between boulders posing a health and safety nightmare and once again the only water being from drip and grit filled containers. We didn't linger and after a climb up between boulders did as the description said, "follow the Canyon for 1km". While the walls of the canyon ran true, our path once again lay over and round various boulder obstacles until we arrived at a sign reading "P18", the Pozo de Navidad. This marks a key point in the traverse as from this point on we would no longer be heading into the mountain but out towards the Coventosa.

The next section of cave was full of interest, regular obstacles, lots of fixed equipment and constantly changing passage causing time to fly by and it seemed like we were making good progress. I was a little concerned about the description of the Galeria de las Pequenas Inglesas (The gallery of the little English Girls!) as it sounded like it would be hard caving, but in fact it was just interesting caving, the enjoyment coming as much from moving through the cave as from the surroundings. 

It was now well past my bedtime and aware that I needed to keep my concentration levels up I looked at the description for a suitable break point. It indicated that once we were past the Turbine room it would be too windy to stop for a while and that one of the pitches was tight. I'd definitely need my wits about me for that so I suggested we stop in the Sala de la Turbina. Once there Mike distributed cake and we quaffed the last of our water. Our next planned cake stop was at the start of the lakes where we had cached our "craft" and food the day before.

While we had felt a draft in the previous galleries approaching the Turbine room it now became much stronger, leading  us on to the 17m pitch of Agujero Soplador, a blow hole. Tight is a relative term and once again while my mind had gone to Pippikin, the pitch was more like Link. The only issue was dealing with a damaged section of rope that had been knotted out and the strange increasing thickness of rope towards the end that made progress on a stop virtually impossible.

At the bottom of the pitch I breathed a sigh of relief, the blow hole was the final "difficult" obstacle between us and known cave at the lakes and we were now on the last page of the survey. After descending mud slopes and crossing another rocky floor we arrived at where the zip line should be. There was definitely a 15m drop and lake ahead but no rope. Fortunately there is an alternative on the other side of the chamber and, despite a fairly well worn fixed rope, we were soon on the beach after the Lago de la Tirolina. A cluster of rusty bolts marked the where the end of the tyrolean had once been but I don't think it's been there for years.

A final boulder pile lay between us and an 11m pitch down to the lakes and soon Tony caught a glimpse of the rope between the rocks. Following an arrow I somehow ended up at the pitch opposite the fixed 
traverse line to it and I had a quiet word with myself to keep it together as we neared journey's end. I'd just set off on the pitch when an incongruous inflatable beach ring caught my eye, we'd linked with our previous day's exploration!

While this was a planned cake stop my digestive system had shut down and instead of eating I began the task of getting into the neoprene we had left with our rings. Suitably attired we then carried our rings and dry bagged kit down to the lake. The crossing of the lakes is probably the most easily won ground in the whole traverse, the fixed lines allowing you to glide over their surface. Only the portage between the second and third lake causing any real difficulty in nearly half a kilometre.

Passage always seems to pass quicker when you've been there before and it helps when the passage varies so much too. First the Grand Canyon, then into the pools of the Marmites before climbing up the White Mountain and down to "the block". With each passing of the big block by the river fewer of us had been going over the top and on this occasion all of us bypassed it by the short wade and swim around its right edge. Up and over the boulders before the short up pitch to the balcony above the beach.

Descending the fixed rope onto the beach the exit seemed very close now and I forced myself to keep concentrating as we passed through the next section of passage with its large holes in the floor. Finally the gours and the last crossing of the river before our ascent to the outside world began.

A short pitch up to the steel cable, the stunning formations of the Bivouac gallery and then more fixed ropes before the short descent into the Metro gallery. Mike was well on his way up the final pitch on the other side of the gallery as I waited to descend into it and I deliberately slowed things down. It's not often you're in such stunning surroundings and having rattled through the last sections, I now didn't want things to end.

Mike had derigged our rope when I arrived at the final climb and I ascended using another in situ rope and entered the vastness of the entrance chamber. Gently ascending this final slope with Tony and Mike, now heavily laden with two tackle sacks, ahead of me my mind cast back to the start of the journey the previous day. This is such a stunning trip and I'd been so fortunate to share it with two such amazing people.

A final Agujero Soplador now lay between me and the outside world and it was definitely blowing as I emerged into the fresh smelling air. While it was still dark the pin prick lights of a few stars signalled that we'd left the starless world and completed, what for me, is the best caving trip I've ever been on. You just can't beat a through trip and this has to be one of the best going.

As we walked past the farms and their barking dogs we wondered how often they were disturbed by tired cavers trudging the last few metres back to their cars at all hours of day and night. Though the farmer was up with his cows, the donkey had given up waiting and we were uninterrupted as we changed.

Back at the campsite we were unsure what to do. It was 6 in the morning and we could probably do with a bit of breakfast, but it was also the end of an incredible trip so surely it was time for a beer? Both Mike and Tony looked slightly jealous of each others choices so I decided to join them both.

It's 6am in the morning. We've just finished a 15 hour caving trip.
What's it to be? Beer or muesli?

Epilogue. Concerned about my circadian rhythm I dragged myself out of bed a few hours later and actually enjoyed emptying the car and spreading our wet gear across the bench in front of our apartment. The warming sun even making up from next doors yappy little dog with Napoleon syndrome that was constantly trying to thwart my efforts by snapping at my heels. The campsite bar provided excellent pan au chocolat and croissants and my having drunk the last of coffee necessitated us having to enjoy a couple of cups on their veranda. It felt just like the evening after the last day of term when the whole holiday is stretching out before you. 

Today was for enjoying. 

A wander into town to return some neoprene and have a chat with Kike, the excellent proprietor of Nor3 and neoprene dealer par excellance. A beer (or two) with lunch at our favourite caf. in the square. An amble back home. A bit of light packing and then a truly slap up dinner back at the campsite bar.  The only reason for getting up from our chairs at dinner to choose our digestifs courtesy of Christian our barman for the week. As the sun set we moved inside to finish our bottle of wine, trips don't come much better than this. Cheers Cantabria, you've played a blinder.

10th April 2024 - We are sailing!

Car packed and ready to go

We were hoping that the culmination of our trip would be the classic Cueto-Coventosa traverse. The last part of the traverse however requires an ascent up a pitch and the crossing of three long and cold lakes. It's therefore necessary to go into Coventosa to pre-rig the pitch and to depot the required equipment for crossing the lakes. This requires a bit of thought as you need twice the number of floatation devices/neoprene. One set for the way in and one for the way out. (See Mike's later "recipe" post for the tale of the neoprene) We also needed to think about dry bags for the ropes we would be carrying on the way out and food we may want for the last couple of hours of the through trip. It was therefore a pretty full car that we departed with and headed towards Val de Ason.

The Coventosa is the Valley entrance of the Ason valley and about 5 minutes after leaving the car we were in its gaping maw. The coolness of the entrance meant I didn't feel quite as daft wearing my neoprene and the draft through the blowing hole as we exited the daylight entrance helped with the cooling too.

One of the big differences with continental caving compared to Yorkshire is the ability to get lost in one particular chamber, they're huge! I'd begun to feel like a boy scout with my compass round my neck, but a quick glance it saw us heading in the right direction and we soon arrived at a pre-rigged rope. Not knowing if this was permanently rigged or whether it was for a group on their way through we rigged underneath it and set off down the slope/pitch.

Again a brief navigational moment in the vastness of the Metro gallery saw us finally almost back where we started and the way on up a fixed rope. More tuned into the description we began to tick features off and soon found ourselves in the well decorated Bivouac gallery.

Photos. I like the challenge of taking photos, but do find it challenging. It can therefore take me quite a while which I know isn't popular as for others caving is about the joy of flowing through the cave. With Tony now having a bright light too I'd tried to simplify things, going for a 2 torch set up rather than a 2 or 3 flash setup. I'd also found that if I forewarn about my intention to take photos models are likely to be compliant, so as we passed through the formations I proposed taking a picture or two on the way back.

Moving on from the fine decorations in the vast gallery the cave began to close down until we arrived at a sandy and muddy slope at the bottom of which lay a still pool of water, the Coventosa river. From here the trip was to become properly aqueous so it was time to top up the neoprene. I'm always a sweating mess by the time I've finally dressed myself in a wetsuit and it was a relief to slip into the cool water and following the guideline, cross the river. We weren't out of the water long before we came to the first of the gour pools. Wow! Once again I said to the others that we'd be stopping on the way back for photos.

While there weren't many options for taking the wrong route, our excellent description kept us on the optimum path and reassured us that we were on course. There was absolutely no doubt though when in front of us lay a flooded gallery, the first of the lakes. Of all the obstacles on the trip this was probably the one that had seen most pints drunk while we sat in the pub deciding how we were going to cross. In the end after watching a couple of videos of continental cavers doing the trip our plans were scaled back to a couple of brightly coloured inflatable rings each. One to see us across the lakes and back on this trip and one to leave for the planned pull through on the following day. 

Tony inflating his craft prior to the first of the lakes

Half of my family have been for asthma assessments recently and I felt like I should be joining them as I struggled to inflate my ring and accepted a much lower final pressure than the others. Mike was the first to brave the stygian depths, his bright ring contrasting with the dark and sombre surroundings. I've a strong feeling though that he was enjoying himself as he glided out of view along the guide line.

Mike wading into the inky blackness

Cruising across the first lake

One lake down we carefully transported our craft over the portage to the second lake, the jaggerdy rocks making me glad there was a big roll of gaffer tape in my bag in case the worst should happen. The lakes increase in length as you head deeper into the mountain  so take slightly longer to cross each time. The portages too grow in length, that between the second and third lakes verging on the annoying.

At the end of the final lake we located the bottom of the pitch rope that we'd hopefully be using the following day to descend from the gallery above and stashed our rings, neoprene, dry bags and cake. The journey back out was significantly more pleasant with lighter loads and with not having to worry about navigation we could just enjoy the passage. 

Back at the Gour pools it was time to persuade Mike to jump in and then take his time traversing the pool so that I could get a couple of shots. The water really wasn't that warm so I'm very grateful to him as the azure pool (and the model!) was very photogenic.

The beautiful first gour pool

Enjoying the crystal clear waters

A couple more shots on arrival back at the Bivouac gallery and then it was back out into the sunshine. The evening was spent recharging lights and packing tackle sacs as everything was now in place for the finale of our Cantabrian trip. What would the morning bring?

Wonderful formations in the Bivouac gallery

Bivouac gallery stalagmites


9th April 2024 - Like Yorkshire, but turned up to 11

Mike rigging the opening pitch of the Cuivo

The higher peaks had received a light dusting of snow in the night

Entering the Caramel meanders

In the pools of the stunning Caramel meanders

Come on Royal Barn - this is how to do it!


7th April - Tony's magic cave navigation shoes to the rescue

The open shaft of the Mortera. Don't want to know what the huge pile of stuff Tony is standing in is made of.

Finally the survey starts to make sense!

 Mortera rigging trip

6th April 2024 - Time for a big trip

The zigzag track up the amphitheatre behind the village of Socueva

Kitting up above the Sima Tonio doline

Mike rigging the first pull through

Tony about to descend the first pitch

The descent down the Tonio continues

Mike doing what he does best

Stopping for a break and feeling small in the vastness of the Salle Olivier Gillaume

Stalactite adorned galleries

Mike amongst the formations

Traversing the final obstacle with daylight visible

The stunning entrance to Canuela

Post trip drinks on the campsite bar's terrace

5th April 2024 - Let the caving commence...

At the exit of the Vallina - Nospotentra traverse