Sara, Northern Spain

Of all the caves discovered on the LUSS the expeditions to the Picos de Europa, Sara must surely have been the most intimidating. It was first entered towards the end of the 1977 expedition, when the club extended its search to the high peaks. The cave is one ofí two which may be entered via the Sara Mine, situated in the easternmost depression and is sometimes called ďSarah 2Ē. That year the expedition pushed on down three short pitches and through some tight & tortuous passage which opened out into a massive 600 foot shaft. After much effort & some near mishaps (the rock was horribly loose in places.) the bottom of the shaft was reached just a few days before the end of the expedition.

The last pushing party could only gaze down the next pitch before returning to the surface. In
1978, Sara was the main objective of the so called ďTop CampĒ based just below the Sara Depression. The entrance series and the pitch down to the first ledge in the main shaft were tackled up in one trip, but getting to where the í77 expedition had reached wasnít so easy. Water poured down the shaft from three inlets and sitting on the ledge in the spray and a draught strong enough to blow out your carbide while someone spent ages trying to put in bolts somewhere below was no joke, especially as none of us had ever tackled a shaft of this depth before. All the water which ran into the cave came from the melting snow and it was ironical that the sunnier it was above ground, the more cold & wet it was below. It needed several trips before the bottom of the shaft and the undescended pitch were reached.

Itís three weeks later and Sara is now 1600 feet deep with 19 pitches and a twentieth undescended, Enthusiasm for the cave is even higher with the news from ďBottom Camp?? that the dye placed in one of the inlets to the main shaft has appeared in the main streamway of the big resurgence cave, Agua, three miles away and 4500 feet below. Myself & Martin Walters were next to go on the pushing trip list. The previous party (all trips were two man at this stage), had succeeded
in putting bolts et the head of the 20th pitch before cold & tiredness forced a retreat. Iíve been psyching myself up for a couple of days now, going over the sequence of pitches in my mind again & again. This morning I feel distinctly queasy, hopefully Itís just butterflies. After a very large & late breakfast weíre off to the Sara Depression and underground by 1p.m. Five minutes in and the mine passage traverses a hole in the floor, the first pitch and start of the cave. This is quickly followed by two more laddered pitches, a 25 & a 35 footer. Both have tight takeoffs and its easy to get wedged in if youíre not careful. The tight section continues with some awkward thrutchy rift and a couple of squeezes, getting the tackle through is a real pain. The rift finally widens at a six foot climb to where thereís enough room to swing a cat. A traverse line runs out to a pair of bolts 15 feet away where the rift opens out into a black void, the main shaft. We change into our SRT gear &
Martin goes down first. I try out my cigarette lighter while Iím waiting. It sparks but doesnít light ó must be too cold for the butane to vaporize. Tucking it into my wetsuit to warm it up does the trick, this time it gives a feeble flame.

A few minutes Later and three whistle blasts signal that Martin is past the bolts below the first ledge 100 feet down. Now itís my turn. The spray gives me a good shower most of the way down, but thereís not as much water pouring down as a couple of week ago and somehow my carbide stays alight for once. No point hanging about here, itís on & down, half c1imbing, half abseiling to the next bolts 20 feet below, where Iím out of the water & draught, waiting until the net section is free. This is a drop of 100 feet to another, ledge barely wide enough to stand on, followed by an 80 foot abseil to a similar ledge and finally, 300 feet to the floor. ĎItís a good feeling to have your feet firmly on the ground again.

I wander round the boulder strewn floor of the shaft. At one end and up a slope a rope hang between a gap in the boulders, the next pitch and the point where last years exploration ended. A few feet down this pitch and Iím suddenly dangling in a huge rift, I70.feet deep. Thereís a faint light below, Martin is waiting at the bottom.

ď0.K.?††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† . . ď Ď . .†††††††††††††††††††† ďYeah, fine, Whatís next ?††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† .††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ĎThe wet forty.Ē

We climb up & over a boulder slope to the head of the 40 rigged with ladder & lifeline. Itís a lot drier than when it was first descended and this time only gives us a moderate sprinkling At the bottom is another boulder slope and an 80 foot pitch back into the streamway. From here on it will be ladders all the way till the 20th. pitch. This is more like Yorkshire caving now. After much crawling, climbing & traversing, a 25 foot pitch, takes us to a moderate sized chamber. This is to be the future campsite if the system gets much bigger. A 20 foot duck and a climb down some cascades ends at a 35 foot pitch, as far as either of us have been before now.We make our way down the next eight pitches which range from 15 to 50 feet, the stream growing all the time from the numerous inlets, we pass on the way. Finally weíre at the 20th and undescended pitch. The previous party has done a good job of rigging, itís a nasty traverse out to where the bolts are. Time for a break, sardines, peanuts, raisins & Mars bars are greedily devoured. We amuse ourselves by dropping rocks down the pitch, sounds like a three second drop, itís not easy to tell above the roar of the water. An imaginary coin is tossed to see who goes down, I lose.

The psychology of caving is a funny thing. Iíve been thoroughly gripped up all the way down the entrance series and main shaft which Iíve done before, now Iím about to go down a wet pitch of unknown depth, 1600 feet below the surface on my first ever bit of pushing and Iím actually looking forward to it. I shuffle out un my backside along a narrow ledge to the bolts. First, haul up the 200 foot rope to see if thereís a knot in the end, there is. Then clip my whale tail onto the rope and lower myself out over the drop. Two bags of rope, a bolting kit, personal tackle bag & four rope protectors are slung from my waist. I feel like a Christmas tree.

ďGive us three whistles if you want me to come down.Ē††††††††††††††††††††††††††† .††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ďO.K., donít forget the ladders.Ē

In spite of the fact, that the rope is as far from the ledge as is possible at the top, it still rubs against the rock 20 feet below. Horrible stuff, wonít take a bolt, Iíll have to use the rope protectors. Three of them cover the serious rub points but it wouldnít hurt to use the last as well. Sti1l I might need it further down. Another 50 foot below & the main beam of my NiCad can just pick out the floor. Wonít need the last rope protector, its better used with the others. I prussik up and place it just below the third. The spinnaker cord which connects my top ascender to my. foot loops has developed a funny lump in the middle.. Better throw it out at the end of this trip. I change over again & abseil to the bottom of what turns out to be a 140 foot drop landing just out of the water. The spray & turbulence is incredible, its blowing like a winters gale. A mere ten feet away is another pitch of 25í feet which can be done on the end of the rope. No way out of the water on this one, it gives me a real drenching. Thirty feet away the stream drops over another 25 foot pitch. With no natural belays. I give three whistles and Martin reaches me just as I finish putting in the bolt. The pitch is rigged &, down we go. A little further on and we come to yet another pitch, 15 feet with a good belay. Five minutes of walking from the Ďbottom hereís a nice dry, almost warm oxbow out of the draught. A good bivi site should it ever be needed. At the far end, almost inevitably is yet another drop in the streamway, pitch number 24.††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ďWadda ver reckonĒ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† .†††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††ďAbout thirty foot .††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† .†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ĎLooks more like fifty Ďtoí me.Ē††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† A rock is tossed down the pitch to settle the issue. Two seconds, much too far for our one remaining ladder. The spare rope is back at the top of the 21st pitch. Discretion being the better part of valour, we call it a day and head for the surface, 1800 feet above.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

By the time weíve got up two pitches Iím already feeling a little tired and beginning to realise the wisdom of not pushing on. Partway up the rope on the 20th pitch, thereís a sudden jerk which swings me several feet sideways, just missing the water. By using the same rope on the 20 & 21st. pitches without rebe1aying, Iíve pulled it sideways and over an unseen snag. Could have been a nasty rub point. Another lesson is learnt and fortunately not the hard way. Near the top I stop looking around me and focus a little closer. The funny looking lump in my spinnaker cord has goneand so has, the sheath. A brief, moment of panic and then I calm down as I realise Iím still perfectly safe. Repairs are made on the spot with some spare cord from my SRT bag. Itís a great cure for constipation.
While I wait fur Martin thereís plenty of time to contemplate the hours of ladder climbing &. prussiking in front of us. Not a pleasant thought. First the nine successive ladder pitches. We count them off one by one as we go. 45, 15, 50, 15, 30, 15, 35, both of us are pretty sleepy now but the duck solves that problem. Finally the last ladder pitch and then the 80 foot. I feel much happier on the rope, lots of rests whenever I feel like it. Now comes the 40, the last ladder climb until the entrance series.

At the bottom of the 170 foot pitch, we have another break and the last of the raisins & peanuts before I start up. We wonít meet again until the 6 foot climb in the entrance series, 800 feet above.
It doesnít seem so long before Iím at thebottom of the main shaft, having a last look round before the lung haul to the top. The first 300 feet seem to go on forever. Iím on electric now my carbide has given up the ghost half way up, should have checked it at the bottom. Where the hell are those bloody bolts? I have a rest and turn off my light but thereís only total blackness below. A bit more prussiking and hereís the first set of bolts. Another rest and this time thereís just the faintest glimmer of light from Martinís carbide at the bottom of the shaft. Just above me is the first of the three ledges, but I canít stop and rest there as itís littered with loose rock and Martin is directly underneath me. I have to be very careful and keep my weight on the rope the whole time. On & upwards all sense of time is lost now. Only the occasional whistle reminds me that Iím not completely alone in this oppressive place. At last Iím off the rope at the top of the shaft, sitting in a little puddle of water, my SRT gear packed away, my carbide burning, munching my last Mars bar and thinking about whatís for tea. Wonder what the time is, it must be past midnight surely.

No sign of Martin yet. Iím feeling really cold & totally knackered. Must try & stay awake. Itís no good, a few minutes later Iím fast asleep on the floor. Not for long though, itís too bloody cold. I sit shivering in the dark dreaming of warm fires, cosy pubs & a pint of Bellhaven, until the glow from Martinís carbide as he arrives brings me back to reality.

Slowly & unthinkingly we inch along the rift and through the squeezes to the three final pitches. At last the little entrance pitch and for me the final ignominy, I have to rest halfway up. Martin has a bit more in reserve and makes it in one go. We pack our gear away for the last time.

We make our way along the mine passage to the entrance, some warm, dry clothing, a tin of sardines & biscuitsand blinding sunlight. Itís 9a.m. on a warm & sunny morning with crystal clear views of the peaks around us and a luxuriant smell in the air, all the more intensified by the contrast to the murky shadows and smell of carbide that have been our lot for the past 20 hours. In a now thoroughly elated mood we slowly amble the mile and a half back to the campsite where our friends are stirring from their beds, sipping brews and wondering whatís happening down Sara.

M. Sefton


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