Cueva del Barbancho, Orbaneja del Castillo, Burgos, Christmas 2012.

Team:- Jason Mallinson, Chris Jewell , Emma Heron, Beardy.

It was barely light, early on a freezing cold Christmas Eve morning. Chris, Jason, Emma and I drove along a deserted Spanish road to the stunningly beautiful village of Orbaneja del Castillo. The village has a show cave, the Cueva del Agua, a large resurgence and its waters cascade down beautiful waterfalls through the village on its way to join the Rio Ebro. Leaving the main road, we drove through the deserted village streets, to the top of the village. Here we parked, and braced ourselves for a chilly change. Wet suits and wellies were donned and cylinders and regulators checked. Soon the four of us were walking along a traversing path to the impressive entrance of the Cueva del Barbancho. This cave is a flood overflow for the Cueva del Agua, and the large entrance soon ends at a lake where the roof gently dips to meet the water.

Inside we readied ourselves, today we weren’t using lead to manage our buoyancy, instead we were using an assortment of rapidly gathered rocks. Once we had loaded up with the correct weight of rocks, final checks were made, masks secured, lights switched on and one by one we each slid into the cold clear water. Once underwater, sound was muffled, and the rhythmical sound of breathing very noticeable. The floor of the sump was a soft moon milk and it became apparent that touching it with anything was not a good idea, as it released a cloud of fine silt to ruin the visibility. After a few minutes of gentle swimming the 130m long sump was passed and surfacing, the tinny sound of normal hearing returned. We each took off one of our two cylinders, turned off the air supply and safely belayed it to the line for later. We then stashed our rocks again to use later on, before crawling over a series of gour dams for five minutes to the next sump. Here we loaded up with rocks again, so that we could sink and move freely in the sump. This sump was 25m long with a rocky floor and was passed easily on a single cylinder.

Beyond was half an hour of nice but hot caving, carrying a small tank and minimal diving equipment we moved through a series of dry galleries, well supplied with entertaining climbs. Eventually we reached a long, wide and deep canal and we had an interesting swim for several hundred metres through crystal clear deep water until we arrived at the final short sump. This was more of a series of short ducks followed by a three metre dive.  On the far side the out of depth canal continued and it was quite an involved process to leave and secure the final tank. Another several hundred metre long swim followed and at the end of the canal we were able to jettison our remaining diving gear, flippers and masks etc.

Now the real work began, the next half an hour of caving was more British in character with a long series of stoops and crawls before emerging at the confluence. Here we met the main river and we headed upstream along a fantastic streamway for a few kilometres. The strongly flowing river bounced down lots of friendly cascades.  Eventually, we arrived at the final survey station from Jason and Emma’s 2011 trip. Chris and I began our survey from here and made our way upstream making steady progress with survey legs regularly measuring around 20m in length. Meanwhile Jason and Emma headed on upstream to find the limit of their exploration and then began to survey back downstream towards us. After a very cold five hours the two teams linked their surveys together having mapped 1.4km of very impressive stream passage, which we called Rio Navidad (The Christmas River). It was now time to head back to the entrance. I was suffering from a bad back, even before we had starting caving, and the exit was purgatory.  The great caving helped with our spirits and even though it was a tough trip out it passed without incident and we surfaced after ten and a half hours. Outside it was a freezing cold night and the team changed quickly before heading off for an impromptu tea with our Spanish friends, David, Nuria and Ariadna.

Boxing Day, Wednesday 26thDecember, and we were back into the fray, and another early start saw us head back into Cueva del Barbancho. With my bad back I hobbled my way through the cave, struggling to walk, but the lure of open on-going unexplored streamway was too great to put me off. After what seemed like a lifetime, Emma and I caught up with Jason and Chris who had been surveying along a 5m wide 30m high streamway. We now temporarily abandoned the survey and ran off together to explore the impressive passage. Unfortunately we soon reached a large breakdown chamber, where the streamway had met a large fault, some of the team were now happy that the streamway had come to a definitive end. However, after much ferreting around Chris and Emma found a likely looking dig and leaving them to it Jason and I surveyed back to the end of the previous survey. Chris and Emma excavated a tight trench and the dig was quickly named Trench Warfare, passing comment of the exploration of this cave as well as the nature of the dig. The dig was soon passed and beyond the rest of the team carried on upstream for a few hundred metres passing a few more chokes finally leaving the streamway wide open for future exploration. Another long slog out was enjoyed by us all and we regained the surface after a eleven and a half hour trip, this must be some of the most enjoyable exploration I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in.

The streamway that we have been exploring drains a vast area of karst known as El Páramo de Bricia y Orbanejadel Castillo. The only obvious sink in this area is the Cueva del Aguanal, and later in our trip Jason passed the final sump in this cave into on-going dry galleries. Aguanal is heading straight towards the Barbancho streamway, but a dye test by the local Spanish caving group from Aguanal to the Cuevadel Agua had a negative result. These details in themselves show that there is much of interest to the passing caver in this little visited region.


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