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.

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