The Stuff that Potholers’ Dreams are Made Of.

Cueva de Valline,   Arredondo,   Cantabria,   Spain.

Mondays Team:             John “Big Nose” Palmer, Pete Hall, Sarah Hall, Ali Neal, Simeon Warner, Phil Collett, Duncan MUSS, Ian Walton.

Wednesdays                 Team: Big Nose, Simeon, Toby, Pete, All, Phil

Friday’s Team:              Big Nose, Pete, Simeon, Ali, Duncan, Ian.

In 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 draught

The 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 Santander. It was a difficult way to organise a trip: through a middle man by international telephone and it never happened. As Matienzo ‘94 loomed nearer and no prospect of a permit was in sight, Big Nose and I took matters into our own hands and phoned up Adolpho Alguero the Catalan leader and asked them to come over and do a joint trip with us. Adolpho explained that they had problems getting time off to go caving but would we like to have a trip or two in and keep him informed of the results? At last, a permit.

My 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.

Big 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 cairns so the others could follow us. A large streamway similar to Lancaster Hole main drain unfolded before us. Various in lets led off on the right hand side and we followed them for a short way to see if they were still going, before continuing up the main passage. After half a kilometre of easy walking we reached a junction with an inlet on the right which ended at a climbable waterfall. The main passage became lower with large roof pendants and we waded between them up to our chests. We gave another inlet on the right a cursory glance before coming to a boulder choke, apparently blocking the passage. However at second glance we saw an easy way through the boulders into another wide pool beyond. Here the passage divided and narrowed. An inlet continued straight ahead but it had only a slight draught and was full of quick sand. The majority of the water and draught was coming from a high, narrow (four-foot-wide) passage on the right. This continued for 10Cm until it became apparent we were in a trench in the floor of a larger passage. Cascades of 8 foot and 10 foot as well as a few smaller steps brought the stream into the larger passage which we followed upstream for another few hundred metres past a couple of nice stal bosses, the first formations we had seen in the lower series and an indication we were getting back upstairs again. All seemed set for a walk out of Cueva de Renada, a large System on the other side of the hill but no sooner had the thought entered our heads than we came to a cascade we couldn’t get up. And what a cascade it was. It was in a 20m by 3Cm chamber and there was a ledge you could walk on right round the back of the waterfall so we named it Thornton Force.


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.

With 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 find. Duncan went with them to leapfrog us and survey the lower part of the new extension. Whilst we surveyed along the floor slot, Simeon followed the high level roof tube until he reached an inlet after 5Cm. He followed the inlet downstream until he reached the main passage again at the inlet near the boulder choke after a couple of hundred metres. After we had finished our part of the survey, we joined the others at the boulder slope up to the large chamber. Whilst they surveyed back to the choke we surveyed a short inlet to a boulder choke and a downstream section of the main streamway where we made a vocal connection with the others as they surveyed down out of the chamber on the other side. Eventually with about 1.4km of surveyed passage under our belts we squeezed our way wearily out through the dig which was significantly more awkward without the help of gravity and plodded back up to the pitches.

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.

We 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 to crawling.
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.

After 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.

Thursday 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 Duncan to go back with lan while he and Simeon carried on!

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.

While the 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 cairns. At one point the tape got caught on some jagged calcite and we almost severed it trying to get it loose. It was a nuisance because it wouldn’t wind back onto the reel and kept getting in a tangle. After another 40Cm from the chamber the character of the passage changed, becoming 1.5m high 1Cm wide with a sandy floor and huge roof pendants hanging down to within a couple of feet of the floor. Big Nose led on with the tape. When I called to him to stop he shouted back and it sounded just like a walkie-talkie! We hung around for a few minutes shouting to each other and making daft noises before naming the passage Galeria Walkie-Talkie and carrying on. About this time All turned up again, having plucked up the courage to attempt the soapy climb and we were back together as a team of four.
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.

Pete Hall

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