The Stuff that Potholers’ Dreams are Made Of.
Cueva de Valline, Arredondo, Cantabria,
Mondays Team: John “Big Nose” Palmer, Pete Hall, Sarah Hall, Ali Neal,
Simeon Warner, Phil Collett,
Wednesdays Team: Big Nose, Simeon, Toby, Pete, All, Phil
Friday’s Team: Big Nose, Pete, Simeon, Ali, Duncan, Ian.
1989 British cavers from the Matienzo expedition got permission to have a trip
into the short but pretty Cueva de Valline. At the end of the cave they found a
draughting squeeze which had been overlooked and in the next few days and weeks
explored over 10km of dry high level passages. Near the end pitches of 5m and
35m dropped into a lower series of river passages, the Rio Tinto, and was
explored to several sumps and a large boulder choke emitting a very strong
findings were published in the expedition journal and when the Spanish Caving
Federation read it they banned the Matienzo expedition from caving for a year,
spoiling many peoples’ summer holidays. Caution caused the cave to be left
alone for a couple of years before joint trips were again organised with the
Tortosa Caving Club who hold the permit for the cave. Whilst teams dived some
of the sumps and pushed various leads, one team started a dig at the terminal
boulder choke. In 1993 after several digging trips, a narrow, muddy way was
forced through. Pete Eagan and I explored fifty metres of passage to a 30m
diameter chamber with a strong draught whipping through it whilst other larger
members of the team waited behind. I was all for steaming off ahead and
romping into all the glory, but Pete Eagan with memories of the recent ban
foremost in his mind restrained me and we left it still going. Since then, Big
Nose and I have tried several times to organise joint trips with the Catalans
through our contact man Pete Smith, who lives in
first week of Matienzo ‘94 was filled with political umming and ahhing as
various people, who didn’t trust my word or the word of Adolpho told me we shouldn’t
go. By Friday, I had decided that we should just go and do it and bollocks to
all the politicians. On Sunday Big Nose arrived and he agreed with my point of
view as did Juan Corrin, the Matienzo expedition’s head honcho, so on Monday
8th August we set off on the big trip. The entrance was easily located, but
Phil had forgotten his lamp. It was a good excuse but not good enough for Ian
who lent him a Petzl Gloom and told him to get on with it. After sliding down
the narrow tube where the draught blows dust in your face, we walked through
fine dry galleries interspersed with occasional climbs, thrutches and crawls.
It was a good job we had waited for Big Nose before we went in, as none of the
rest of us would have found the complicated route. After an hour or so we came
to the end of the high level series and rigged the two pitches down to the
stream. Five minutes downstream we popped out of an inlet into the wider Rio
Tinto, easy walking with occasional pools. The streamway sumped but a dry
crossover passage led to another similar streamway and another sump. This too
was bypassed by handline climbs up and down through an oxbow and presently we
came to the terminal boulder choke. After a couple of climbs up and down
through the boulders we came to the dig. The hammer and chisel weren’t
necessary and we all slipped through with ease and assembled in the small
chamber on the other side. We were in unsurveyed territory.
Nose, the self-confessed, grabbing bastard leapt at the first draughting lead
he saw and went off to survey 20Cm of grotty side passage with Ian and Phil.
The rest of us set off in the direction of the draughting chamber and the end
of the known cave. The five of us spread out and explored the extremities of
the chamber and Sarah and All shouted that they had found the way on. We romped
through a wide, sand-floored, stooping passage and climbed down a boulder slope
into a large stream passage. We set off upstream marking the way with
The water was very beautiful as it cascaded in a spout into the middle of the plunge pool. Whilst some of us examined an inlet, demon climber Simeon was assessing the climbing potential of the pitch. Being steeply overhanging with no handholds low down, there was no chance of free-climbing, but he deemed the rock to be good enough to take bolts and a return was planned.
five of us we formed an efficient survey team with two people taking notes and
Simeon pushing any small leads that needed looking at, Soon Big Nose’s team
turned up having followed our cairns and were as thrilled as we were with the
We rolled into German’s Bar at midnight after a 12 hour trip and as we rapidly got pissed, we entered the survey data into Juan Corrin’s super survey computer which plots the survey on the screen. The passage had gone west from the dig before turning north, closing the gap between Valline and Renada only slightly. The conversation raged as various well-known bullshitters pontificated about the odds of a link up. But the fact remained that the only real way of finding out was by going and having a look. So on Wednesday we divided into two teams. Big Nose, Toby and Simeon went to bolt up the climb at Thornton Force and continue exploring the main upstream lead, whilst All, Phil and I were to explore the inlets left on Monday. It was another early start as we had to be back at Matienzo to go to a barbecue in the evening. We were underground by 11am in spite of a run in with the farmer, who wanted 5000 ptas (25 quid) for parking in his yard. By 1pm we were into the new extension and the teams split.
started by pushing and surveying a couple of short grotty side passages before
we came to the Rio Blanco, an inlet on the right hand side. We decided to
explore to the end and survey back. All and I steamed on ahead along a level,
walking-sized passage with an unusual flat, white calcite floor, occasionally
waiting for Phil to catch up with his ApexGloom, which was dimmer than the lamp
he borrowed off Ian. We came to a junction and opted for the left-hand passage
which was carrying the most water. We left another draughting, walking-sized
passage heading North. After another 500m or so, it was starting to degenerate
Just as we were thinking of turning round Au said:
“I’ll just have a look round this next corner.” Scrabble
“What’s it look like?”
“Fookinell!” echoed back the reply.
We had broken into the side of a cavern very similar to Thornton Force, at first we thought it was Thornton Force, except that the water was coming down in a shower from 25m up in the roof, the chamber was bigger with a bigger pool on the floor and the passage up on the other side could be entered by a free climb or a walk around a ledge on the right-hand side of the chamber.
wandering round in dismay for a few minutes we carried on up a much grander
passage heading North. But it soon started to divide and narrow and we decided
to start surveying back. Phil, in his own inimitable style gave a running
commentary on how he was placing the tape and setting the stations. However, he
didn’t complain about the cold as we had expected after he had left his jumper
at the 3Cm pitch and only had an oversuit on! All and I quietly got on with the
instruments and notebook.
In an hour and a half we were back at the main stream with the first 95 survey legs completed. We continued upstream until we came to the next major inlet, with a 4m cascade a short way up it. Before starting we made sure we could climb the cascade and, exploration fever having abated somewhat, we decided to survey in. However a short way up we came to a 7m cascade we couldn’t climb so we left it, surveying a dry oxbow on the way back. It was six o’clock and the barbecue deadline was upon us, not to mention that all the survey paper was either soggy or used up, so we left a note for the others and set off out. Back at the barby we were well on the way to being pissed by the time the others got back and they had more good news. They had succeeded in getting up Thornton Force and a couple of other cascades immediately above and they had followed a narrower streamway for another 70Cm. Once again they found themselves in a slot in the floor of a large high level passage. Time had run out on them too and they left the high level still going in two directions, one of which was a passage 7m x 5m high and the streamway still going upstream. We were all very tired but not too tired to enjoy the annual Matienzo Anglo-Spanish barbecue/piss-up which continued until dawn.
was another rest day for drawing up surveys, washing gear and calming down
girlfriends but on Friday we were back down Valline again. There were six of us
and as soon as the first four were ready we set off to the entrance. Simeon and
Duncan were being gripless at the campsite so they got left behind to make
their own way. This time we parked on the road so as not to annoy the farmer
and walked up to the entrance a different way but we found it easily enough.
We set off down in two groups of two to save time. Big Nose and Ian had to go back about half an hour in, as Ian wasn’t feeling well. They were just heading back to the entrance, thinking they would have to abandon the trip when they bumped into the late team of Simeon and Duncan who were lost in the entrance series. Using his rather sinister powers of persuasion Big Nose actually managed to get
Expecting them to catch us up any minute, Ali and I had continued to Thornton Force to replace the climbing rope on it with a ladder and a length of Bluewater. When the rigging was done and they still hadn’t turned up, we continued to the limit of exploration and started to survey. Big Nose and Simeon finally got there soon after we started. Rather than two teams of two we opted for a team of four, three surveying and one pushing ahead and looking at side passages. Just as we thought the cave couldn’t get any better, a large, dry phreatic passage stretched out in front of us. The floor was sandy with a crunchy surface reassuring us that no-one had been there before. The walls were adorned with stal and crystals abounded. As the passage increased in size, the tape changed from being an instrument for measuring survey legs to a device for telling Big Nose when to stop and mark the next station. Soon we came to a long crystal river flowing along the floor and found a way to traverse round it so as not to trample it. After another couple of hundred metres we came to a junction and after following the smaller right hand branch for a small way, we decided to keep left where the draught was. A few steps further on we emerged in an opening in the wall of a huge chamber 60m in diameter and higher than we could see.
rest of us were still doing the survey, the terrier-featured Simeon, panting
and with his tail wagging was climbing down the steep mud slope 60 foot to the
floor and while we were thinking we didn’t like the look of it, he had already
climbed up an exposed and soapy climb 60 foot up the other side of the chamber.
Would nothing stop this human climbing machine? It was truly one of the most
memorable cave views I have ever seen. We were standing in the middle of a
large passage looking across sixty metres of void at Simeon his lamp
illuminating an identical passage on the other side. It was very weird, rather
like looking in a giant mirror! The climb down was not too hard and we were
rewarded with a beautiful gour pool at the bottom. But the soapy climb up the
other side was bloody awful. All bottled out and decided to have a look round
the chamber instead. The rest of us continued on along a large sandy-floored,
elliptical passage. The surveying was easy with every leg 3Cm long. Again we
passed two or three walking-sized side passages still going, but we left them
There were more formations in this area but very few rocks to build
Big Nose suggested that we should turn back and leave it still going for the Catalans, but Simeon and I wanted to carry on as it was our last day. After another hundred metres the decision was made for us when we came to the edge of a large chamber, similar to the last one. But this time a couple of rocks lobbed down showed that it was very much more vertical and although Simeon the Spider Man insisted on scrambling down to the edge it was obvious there was a pitch of about 25m. A way on could be seen across but that would need a bolt traverse to get into it.
On our way
back we decided to investigate a side passage leading off from the start of
Galeria Walkie-Talkie in the hope it might be an oxbow avoiding the hole at the
end. But unfortunately it ended in boulders after only 150 metres or so.
It was now getting quite late so we decided to go on out. It took us about three and a half hours of caving to reach the entrance and by midnight we were back at German’s having a couple of San Miguels.
The following day I set off home, but fresh teams in the form of Adolpho, Carlos and friends from Tortosa CC and a couple of lads from Cambridge joined Big Nose and Ali. In two more trips they brought the total explored during the week to about 7km with more leads than ever left open. I was sick as a parrot. Most interestingly, Carlos and Adoipho explored a passage quite near the start of the new extension that we had ignored on the first day. It led northwards for quite a long way ending only about 3COm from a cave associated with the Renada system in Matienzo, a very exciting prospect, with potential for a 40-50km system.
From promising to be a good trip it turned out to be the best weeks caving I’ve ever had. Never again will I scorn those boring old bastards that all they ever do is go to Matienzo every summer.
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