Volume 34 Number 2 Article 1
Sima del Cueto-Coventosa
The cave is situated in and above the Ason Gorge, near Matienzo in Northern Spain. Mark Madden, John Cooper and I arrived in the Ason Gorge one Saturday in August 1996. The scenery in the Gorge was superb and made up for 13 hours of purgatory from Calais. The closest camping was in Matienzo and here we gleaned lots of inside information about the rigging from Phil Pappard.
Monday morning came all too soon. After a meagre breakfast we slogged up the interminable steep hillside towards the entrance. Three hours (and probably 3 litres of sweat) later we sat outside an uninspiring small rift entrance. Somewhat disappointing after an hour walking through amazing pinnacle karst with shake holes 1/2 km across.
Once changed, we walked 50 ft to the head of the first pitch, 302 m. We doubled a 60 m rope and quickly, before fear could set in, I attached my rack to both sides of the 9 mm rope and plummeted into the abyss. The shaft immediately belled out into impressive proportions, about 20 m in diameter, the walls adorned with moomnilk and calcite. After a couple of minutes the knots in the end of the rope were reached but there was no sign of any belay, dodgy or otherwise.
Unable to descend any further with no belays available and 900 ft of blackness between my legs the only option was to go up. But which side of the doubled rope could I place my jammers on? With my heartbeat racing, John and Mark came up with the bright idea of clipping the knot near the belay into the belay so either side could be ascended. Half an hour later after much faffing it was one very relieved caver who arrived back at the head of the pitch.
I went and gibbered quietly in a corner while John & Mark re-rigged the pitch with two 60 m ropes. When all was set Mark slowly descended into the depths and happily called back up two minutes later that the rope was free. Still not able to move from my gibbering comer I remained shaking while John set off confidently down the rope. All too soon "Rope free" echoed up the shaft. Setting off for the second time apprehension was at an all time high. The rope was dry and fast and as I slid down my friends carbides feebly illuminated the immense shaft. Arriving at the belay I found John & Mark clipped into a chain about a foot long between two sturdy bolts. Four cowstails per person was de-rigeur as there were no footholds, so we all dangled there with an immense void belling out below.
Once all three of us were suspended the moment of truth came: to pull or not to pull the rope down. I was out-voted and the 120 m of rope pulled nicely down. Within seconds I'd left our exposed perch and was descending again. Fifty metres further down was another chain to clip into and again there were no foot holds. Soon all three of us were dangling again and with upwards escape now impossible we quickly started pulling the ropes through. But when we arrived at the half way knot the rope suddenly jammed! No amount of tugging and pulling would budge it.
Serious problems call for serious measures. The fattest and therefore heaviest member of the team attached his jammers to the jammed rope and slowly started prussiking. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife as the rope stretch was taken in and Mark started to ascend. About 1 ft above the belay whatever had trapped the rope gave way and he plummeted back down on to our belay with an almighty jolt followed by 60 m of rope. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
After sorting the tangles out, John descended a further 40 m, his carbide looking feeble by the time he'd reached the belay. In 10 minutes we were all there again suspended in our harnesses no footholds thighs beginning to ache. Pulling through the third abseil, tension mounted. Thankfully the rope fell freely. But a substantial part of the free rope caught around a flake some 15 m above. Frantic rope flicking ensued before the rope began to run slowly from behind the flake.
The fourth abseil was rigged and we were all becoming concerned about the seriousness of our position. Another 40 m abseil to the now familiar belay of a 1 ft chain and no footholds. This time all went smoothly as did the fifth and sixth abseils. The sixth abseil brought us to our first ledge (heaven) at about 650 ft down and it had taken us over four hours to get this far and our aching legs were glad of the brief respite. Another three abseils brought us to the foot of the entrance shaft at -350 m. Five hours of adrenaline was beginning to have its toll.
The rest of the entrance series consisted of a further 1000 ft of pitches, fortunately of smaller dimensions and about a third of them were pre-rigged with tatty in situ ropes. Only two mishaps befell us on this section. The loss of 20 m of rope which was almost a blessing as it meant less to carry for the rest of the trip. The failure of my rack was a little more serious as it entailed me having to learn how to use a stop on rope of a questionable vintage.
The last pitch of the entrance series was a classic. It began in a hading rift that was almost choked with boulders. The rift then hit the roof of an immense passage, 100 ft in diameter; which bored off in both directions deathly silent and dry. Here at -581 m we tucked into a fine meal of sardines and marzipan. We'd been underground for nine hours and all the caving so far had been pitches. (Two weeks earlier Rupert Skorupka et al had done the entire through trip in nine hours by rigging the entrance shaft on 600 ft of 9 mm and 400 ft of 8mm rope).
We shouldered our bags and set off along the huge gallery. From here the way on had reflective markers, leading up enormous boulder piles and then down the other side. The first noticeable feature was the oasis where a few miserable dribbles provided us with the first sight and taste of water in the cave. A few miserable pools and a cunning plastic container quenched the thirst of three tired and parched cavers.
A little further on we reached an 18 m pitch which left the main gallery and we dropped into a more modest sized passage. It was mainly walking but extremely varied caving. Many pitches both up and down all rigged on dubious ropes, climbs up and down, crawls and traverses gave brilliant caving but at 3 am the eyes were beginning to close.
After several hours of fine caving we came to an area called "Los Turbina" (the turbine) and "Los Soplador" (the blowhole) a series of small crawls and a tight pitch where the draught is immense and carbide lamps don't stand a chance. The noise of the draught in the tight pitch can be heard from quite a distance and the pitch wasn't a place to hang around.
Fifteen minutes and once more we were in an immense gallery leading to the final downward pitch through an unpleasant looking choke. This brought us to the highlight of the trip "Los Lagos" - three long cold and deep lakes to be negotiated in the explorer dingy (£9.99 - ASDA - for use only with competent adult supervision). We'd brought the dingy and a pile of goodies in the previous day and it was nice to be in known territory and to tuck into a nice mars bar.
The lakes were superb, three 100 m long lakes 40 ft wide in a passage where we couldn't see the roof. After each lake there was a short portage over a boulder pile and then launch again. The only downside about the dingy was the 40 minutes required to deflate it. From the lakes to the entrance the cave passage is amazing, of enormous dimensions with fine gour pools. Three upward pitches to the surface with most of the passage in this section 30 ft wide and very tall. Well worth a visit.
We surfaced at 9:30 am, 20 hours 30 minutes after going underground. Tired but elated a 30 minute amble made the round trip 24 hours car to car. "By 'eck that Boddingtons tasted good!"
40 Grandes Travesias, Espangne.
Atlas des grands gouffres du monde, Courbon.
The underground atlas, J Middleton & T Waltham 1986.
Spelunca 4, 1979.
Scialet 8, 1979.
L'Echo des Tenebres 8, 1981.
L' Aven 45, 1985. Grottes & Gouffres 94, 1984.
Grottes & Gouffres 99, 1986. 30 annees d' exploration dans Cueto et la Corventosa, Memoire 15, Speleo Club de Paris, 1988.
Boletm Cantabro de Espeleologia no 9 1993.