Cablista, Northern Spain


The most memorable caving trips are not always the hardest, and for me a trip down Carlista in Northern Spain must rank highly on the value-for-energy-expended scale.

Four of us from the Lancaster University group exploring the eastern massif of the Picas de Europa & six Spaniards from S.E.I.I. (Madrid) who were caving there with us, had decided to take a few days off and do a tourist trip for a change. We left camp in the Picos mid morning and made our way eastwards along the coast, stopping frequently to admire the architecture and decor of the many bars along the way, before arriving at the seaside town of Loredo around teatime. A swim in the ocean was most welcome, especially after the many sweaty days spent in the high peaks, where the temperature of the melt water (1-2 °C) did not encourage frequent washing. Afterwards we went to a nearby open-air eatery to indulge in freshly barbecued squid & sardines with fresh bread & salad, washed down with copious quantities of wine. From there we continued driving to our destination, a disused miners, house now used as a cavers hut. The Spanish certainly know how to enjoy life. Instead of retiring at the unsociable hour of 1a.m, we (Los Ingleses) were treated by our hosts to an endless supply of Spanish delicacies washed down with an even more endless supply of booze. We crawled bloatedly into our pits at about 4 a.m. with little thought for tomorrows trip.

The following day, I leapt out of bed at the crack of noon to find that three of the Spaniards had already left to go and tackle up the system. After a large breakfast which was basically a continuation of the previous evenings extravaganza, the rest of us followed suit, me bringing up the rear with an overly full gut and an excessive amount of photographic gear. After half an hour of trudging uphill in bright sunshine, I arrived at the top to find the others getting changed around a none too grand looking shaft, unnecessarily bespattered with half a dozen bolts from previous caving groups.
This is the only known entrance to the cave, a two hundred foot twisting shaft which opens out into the roof of the main chamber. At two thousand feet long and a thousand feet across and with a height difference of nearly a thousand feet, this chamber is one of the largest, if not the largest in the world, and an abseil into it is not easily forgotten. One by one we descended & and for once the end of the queue was the best place to be. With five sets of bolts to cross over the procession of lights down the shaft gave a real impression of depth, with the Spanish carbides giving off far more light than our feeble cap lamps. At last I arrived at the final set of bolts where the Spaniards had hung two separate ropes all the way to the floor. Clipped into one of the bolts I could see the others, three to four hundred feet below spread out over the floor of the chamber, small circles of light each with the tiny red figure of a Spaniard in his Petzl suit in the centre. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the caver dangling from the other bolt beside me, we began the final abseil. After some twenty or thirty feet the shaft opened out and the roof dropped away on all sides. It was an exhilarating feeling hanging in the middle of nowhere yet chatting to someone four feet away. Once on the ground we began to make our way downwards, clambering over & around house-sized blocks which make up most of the chamber floor. Finally we reached the wall at an alcove filled with ten feet high stals and covered with flowstone. Hurriedly I un-slung my ammo box, full or photo gear, but one of the Spaniards put up his hand.                            .                                                                                                                            “No, no photo!”.                               .                                                                                                              In spite of the language barrier, the disdainful look and waving of arms was enough to tell us that these formations were small & grotty compared with what was beyond and not worth wasting film on. We carried on down, following the wall round to the lowest point in the chamber, past masses of crystal & helictites and a never ending number of stalagmites, one of which must have been over eighty feet high. Here near the bottom, the roof comes down quite close to the floor and we even had to duck our heads occasionally.

After a couple of hours of looking around, some began to make their way back to the rope while a few of us finished photographing before following. Route finding wasn’t as easy as you might think, as one large block starts to look much like another after a while. We plodded on uphill until eventually we saw a light in the distance. You could tell it was someone on a rope by the way it bobbed up and down in a slow, continuous fashion. We sat and watched as one by one the Spaniards prussiked the three hundred feet, to the first set of bolts. When one caver reached the half way mark on one rope, someone would start at the bottom of the second. It was an impressive sight following the progress of the two spider like figures illuminated only by their carbides and apparently suspended in thin air. As each caver neared the bolts his light would cast a huge shadow over the roof of a pair of hands pushing up an ascender. A LUSS caver and myself were the last up, removing the bolts & hangers and hauling up the gear as we went. The others who were waiting at the top hauled out the tackle and we made our way back downhill in pouring rain; a rarity in an otherwise glorious Spanish summer.
At the bottom of the hill, where the track starts to climb up to Carlista is the entrance to a small tourist cave which runs quite close to the bottom of the huge Carlista chamber. We were told that the authorities were planning to connect the two and turn Carlista into a show cave as well. This done they would then gate or seal the current entrance. So, if you get the chance to do a trip down what must be one of the finest caves in the world – take it! It may be your last.

M. Sefton.


Cryptic letter accompanying Mark’s article:- “You won’t hear from me for about ten weeks, I’m leaving for Nepal tonight to do some walking in the Himalayas”. Lucky bloke!


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