Volume 36 Number 3 Article 4
Haunted by Juan Lombrero
Cave exploration can be by turns fascinating, exciting, frustrating and scary. Here is the story so far of the discovery and exploration of a cave in my caving Mecca, Matienzo in Northern Spain.
I've been involved in a lot of graft looking for new entrances over the years in the Matienzo valley and I've seen new, winner entrances found a couple of times by other people not necessarily far from the beaten track of other, less fruitful finds. Could this new cave be my lucky find? I'll leave you to judge.
For a couple of years, my interest has been directed at a large, shallow hollow in the South Vega branch of the Matienzo depression directly above the resurgence to Reñada, Comediante. Reñada is a very large and complex system dominating this side of the valley. There is only one cave of any size in this part of the hillside above Reñada, a truncated remnant called Dofrades, and with such a big catchment, I figured that there must be more to discover.
So, last summer, I persuaded Ali Neill to go shaft-bashing with me in that area on the day I arrived in Matienzo, and lo and behold, at the end of the afternoon we saw a well-defined but apparently unmarked entrance with a good draught high up above the main bowl of the valley. I went in to have a look. I didn't venture in very far, but got to a drop after about 20m. We decided to go back to camp to check if this really was a new site before progressing any further.
Sure enough, there was no mention of the site in the records and a couple of days later, we were back to find two large chambers, but frustratingly, with a major draught, no way on except a tiny slot in the back wall of the lower chamber. Despite the small amount of passage found, the cave had already made its mark on the expedition when Adam Spillane was climbing down from investigating a roof-pocket and his handhold gave way. Miraculously, he didn't bounce off the ledge he landed on six feet below him to the chamber floor another ten feet below, but this escapade still gave him a sore back for the rest of the expedition. Was the cave trying to tell us something?
Service was resumed in the cave with a keen new team a few days later. Ali returned with Phil Papard and Pedro of the Cuenca Caving Club and climbing up the back wall of the chamber, they found a pitch. This seemed to connect with a fist-sized hole near the bottom of the chamber wall, but frustratingly led us no nearer to a proper way on.
Eventually we resorted to hilti-capping the narrow, draughting slot in the back wall of the chamber and inserted our thin man, Pete Eagan into a two body-length, tight, vertical squeeze. He managed solo to explore a 20m pitch with ladders fed to him by us fatties and then to crawl through another constriction to an apparently similar pitch. Looking for a better connection to the going cave for the dimensionally challenged, he climbed up above the top pitch and stuck his arm through a hole in the chamber wall about 3m above our heads. Time had taken its toll by now, the expedition ended and the haunting began. Where did the next pitch go? Why aren't we all 8st 7lb etc. etc?
Easter of this year saw our return - I couldn't wait to get started on finding a way to where Pete had got to. If we could tackle up these two pitches, then in the summer we would have a winning lead going. Pete was running the Everest Marathon, so we wouldn't be grabbing the glory yet, but getting it ready to grab.
First we lugged maypoles up the hill and Toby got up to the hole in the chamber wall, declaring it unworkable with a hammer and chisel, but possibly cappable. Then we lugged drill, battery, rope, ladder, caps, rods and Uncle Tom Cobley and all up the hill. At the entrance a niggling doubt assailed me. "Toby, did you bring the lead that connects the drill to the battery?" I enquired as casually as I could. A pale face and no eye contact quickly told the story.
The next day, aided and abetted by Pete Smith, we returned and Toby bolted up to the hole. The second bolt was placed and then the drill bit broke. Was the cave trying to tell us something? I thought again. Back to hand bolting. Next the hilti capping. The hole in the wall is behind a flake of rock which hangs down from above it. If you want excitement, try hilti capping standing on a ladder with nowhere to dodge rock fly because there's a large flake behind your head. Pete Smith and I sat and watched an impressive firework display as sparks cascaded between the wellington-booted legs which were all we could see of Toby. We listened to the crack of rock and the occasional expletive as a piece came too close for comfort. At the end of the day we had a passable hole and an entrance to Pete's 20m pitch.
Next day Toby's back was too sore to go caving, so he gave me a crash course in rigging a pitch with studs before Pete Smith and I set off into the (more or less) unknown. We had some 6mm studs on site which Toby thought were safe if not placed singly, so armed with these we set off. I rigged the pitch and looked for Pete's way on. I remembered him saying that the base of the pitch was back up and through a crawl. Sure enough 3m back up from the bottom of the pitch was a hole leading to a short crawl into a chamber. In I crawled and got stuck by my harness and Kroll. Out I reversed and did a delicate manoeuvre to remove SRT kit whilst perched on a 6 inch wide ledge above a 12 foot drop onto boulders of dubious stability.
Success, nevertheless, and I found myself in a small, phreatic chamber with a tempting-looking pitch at the far end. Pete came down to me with much cursing of SRT. He lives in Spain but doesn't cave much except when the Brits come out and definitely prefers ladders. We chucked rocks off the pitch head, which obligingly boomed and echoed below us. Tantalisingly we couldn't see down it properly because the sides were sloping ledges that were too steep to crawl onto for a look. Also they raised the problem of my minimal bolting experience. Could I rig this pitch for SRT? I thought not. We guesstimated it at about 20m and thought that ladders would do the trick.
Next day we came back with two more recruits, Andy Quin and Terry Whitaker, four ladders (just in case), three 8mm studs, the drill, 6mm studs a handbolting kit for spits (the drill bit was broken, remember?) a 50m rope etc. etc. Terry took one look at my previously rigged pitch and went into frenzy about the unsafeness of 6mm studs.
"But you brought them out to Matienzo, Terry!"
"Yes, but not for rigging pitches on!"
Was the cave trying to tell us something again? So we rigged the ladders on our three 8mm studs and I went over the edge to find a ledge about 4m down, and beyond that, a large black hole with about a two and a half second drop. It was at this point it became obvious that we wouldn't have enough ladders! Everyone went down for a look and Pete Smith put on all the ladders and went down, coming back up to report that we were about 15m short. Foiled again!
Yet again we'd run out of time. What happens next? Dreams of black spaces haunt me until the summer holidays. By this time the place has a name - it's called Juan Lombrero because that is the name of the field it's in and that's the traditional way of naming caves around Matienzo - simple, isn't it? By this time I could have called it a few other, well-chosen but mainly unrepeatable names as well.
Summer finally arrives and back we go with Pete Eagan who's finished running down Everest. We take a rope and rig the pitch for SRT. It is 31m deep. We emerge in a fine, large passage which goes for exactly 40m to the left and 40m to the right before shutting down. Foiled again! Dave finds a small crawl under a boulder choke at the left-hand end leading to a pitch. To the right is a large chamber up a steep climb. Next trip we photograph our disappointingly short new discovery and explore the upper chamber which turns out to be a dead end. We run out of time and go out. Ali, Pete, Paul, Dave and John return in a few days time and drop the pitch under the choke into a large chamber with a funnel of boulders going down to another pitch. Pete and John force a way through a crawl above the 31m pitch into a passage which leads to a pitch above a chamber.
The next trip, I go too. We take the route over the 31m pitch which has bee called Abandoned Passage. Pete and Dave push on whilst Paul and I survey. After a nice but short section of phreatic tunnel we drop into a large chamber down an 11m pitch. This looks like an American scrap yard full of tottering car-sized blocks but less stable. It's hard to see what is the chamber wall and what is passage going off, it is so broken up. The way on is at the lowest point. You climb cautiously down a 4m block on top of which someone has negligently dumped half a dry-stone wall at a sixty-degree angle. Having got away with this, you squeeze under a chockstone holding up more hanging death and emerge in a phreatic tube. To the left is a broken pitch down which stones boom and rattle a long way maybe over 50m. To the right is one which sounds about 11m deep.
And that's it, folks! On the way out the team de-rigged the cave as they had other commitments to a shaft that's higher up the hillside. The shaft in the lower chamber was dropped as a 45m pitch into a suicidally loose area not far from the Breakdown Chamber in Reñada.
The surveyed traverse length of the cave is now 970m - almost a kilometre. The cave almost connects with Reñada at its lowest point and almost connects with Torca de Cabaña at the level of the top of the second pitch. It is almost a good discovery but not quite. It is almost nasty enough to put off floods of willing volunteer explorers. It won't stop being a haunting trip and it won't give up its secrets easily. But what happens down the two undescended pitches? Who knows? I found the climb down in the chamber before these almost too scary, but I am sure that by next year common sense will not prevail and I'll be back.