MUSS arrives (1969-73)

Members of Manchester University Speleological Society had been visiting Northern Spain since 1963, when they'd joined the Oxford University expedition to the Picos de Europa. In 1965 they organised their own expedition, and spent several weeks near Amieva in Asturias. They returned to the same area in 1967 and 1968. The latter year was quite successful, but in 1969 a small group set out to explore other parts of Spain, before visiting friends they had made in Amieva.

They passed through Ramales de la Victoria, where they met cavers from the camp held there by the Francoist youth organization. These showed them Cueva Cullalvera, and they also witnessed Mass inside the huge entrance. That evening they drove west and reached the Pass of Alisas, where, at 600m above sea level, they decided to camp for the night. The following morning they looked out over the mist-filled Matienzo depression spread below them. The caving potential seemed obvious but, as they were headed for Asturias, they didn't have time to drive round to the village of Matienzo. However, later in same summer, they stopped at Altamira Cave in Santillana del Mar and, among the publications on sale there, they came across Cuadernos de Espeleología II. Fernández's descriptions confirmed their suspicions.

The following summer, 1970, MUSS organised an expedition to Matienzo. Eleven members took part, with Lank Mills acting as leader. A 26 year-old teacher, he had been caving with MUSS since his student days, and had plenty of experience of past expeditions to Spain and Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, after all the preparations they made, there was one thing they forgot to pack: Cuadernos. This markedly limited what they could do, and they spent most of their time visiting caves which were already known. Nevertheless, they had one success. The one glaring omission from all earlier work was exploration at the depression's main sink: Carcavuezo. No sooner had they arrived in Matienzo than they went to inspect the sink, then walked on down the flood channel to discover the cave's draughting entrance. But even here their exploration was frustrated by the first boulder choke. In the next valley to the north, Riaño, they located the entrance to Cueva Uzueka, but it seems they did not explore the cave.

Despite the lack of major finds, it goes without saying that they had a good time, and Lank was still enthusiastic enough to arrange another trip in 1971. This one was blighted by problems with their transport, a Ford Thames van. They set out from Manchester on 31st July, but only reached Matienzo on 16th August. This left them but five days' caving and once again they mostly visited known caves such as Agua and Cofresnedo. But in Carcavuezo they succeeded in passing the boulder choke, and reached the lake and sump which closes the downstream passage. Shortly after their return to England another MUSS member, Rog Graham, set out with friends on an overland journey to South Africa. On the way they stopped in Matienzo and visited Carcavuezo accompanied by a 60-year old local, Alfredo del Río. They swam round the lake but didn't find anything new.

So in 1972 only Lank and wife Hilly returned to Spain. They were travelling to the south, but called in at Matienzo. Lank wanted to look at more depressions in Riaño, the valley to the north of Matienzo. In the first shakehole he discovered the entrance to the future Cueva Riaño.

Despite his tales of the draught blowing out his camping gas light, no expedition could be put together for 1973. Most of the older MUSS members seemed to have lost interest, while some of the younger generation were off to Trou de Glaz in France. So it was that Lank and Hilly headed for the South of Spain again, only joined by one other couple, J.C. (John Cope) and Trish. Once more it was part of their trip to have a few days in Matienzo. Going straight to Cueva Riaño, they explored the entrance passage, turned downstream to the sump, and also ran through much of the upstream passages; 3km in all, they guessed.

By now they had met Juan Carlos Fernández, and on his advice they visited Cubio de la Reñada the next day. They soon passed his limit of exploration and climbed up to the second entrance. As they turned back through the cave they noticed the side-passage leading to the blowhole. The noise of the wind sounded like a river and spurred them to dig away the calcite with a fireman's axe. After ten minutes they were through into the series of passages leading to the duck, which they passed to go on to find the sensational Stuffed Monk Gallery and Blood Alley, where it all started to "get out of hand". A third cave they saw during this brief stay in Matienzo was Torcón de Cubija. This was still unpublished, but they couldn't help seeing the huge survey stations marked by the Barcelona cavers in 1967.

A group of four from University of Leeds Speleological Association came to meet up with Lank in Matienzo from the P.S.M. in France. After being told about the finds in Cubio de la Reñada, they went to see it for themselves (Thursday 9th August). Over two trips, because the first time they weren't sure if they'd found the right way, they reached as far as the duck.

Guy Cox's catalogue of the caves of Northern Spain, published in April 1973, had come to the conclusion that the hills surrounding Matienzo held a tantalizing large amount of cave waiting to be found. Only a few months later, a substantial part had been entered.

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