A History of Cave Exploration in Matienzo

Pete Smith


1. Beginnings

The caves of Matienzo have been visited since prehistoric times, and the oldest evidence which has been found dates back to Magdalenian times. Nevertheless, nowhere within Matienzo has there been found a site used as a habitat over a long period of time. But Cueva de los Emboscados and Cueva del Patatal have engravings and a painting, although in neither cases are these too far from the entrance. The bone-arrow point at the end of the Pintó Gallery in Risco would have been taken in through a former entrance, now collapsed, and the stone wall at the end of Cueva del Agua must have been built when an entrance was open there. So we can hardly talk of cave exploration at that time in Matienzo (unlike, for example, in Ramales de la Victoria, with cave paintings over a kilometre inside Cueva Cullalvera).

By the Chalcolithic or Bronze Ages some entrances were being used for human burials; Cueva de Rascavieja is one example.

In the Iron Age several caves were used for burials, rituals, or storage; Cueva de Cofresnedo is the most spectacular case. And here, as pottery has been found about 300m from the entrance, in an obscure alcove at the top of a 2m climb, we can say that the population of the last centuries BC really were exploring caves.

Pottery from the Medieval period has also been found in several caves, especially Cueva Cuatribú, where the jug was apparently associated with a hearth.

The word "Carcavuezo" is used by the poet and novelist Francisco Quevedo in the early 17th century; as he was associated with Santander, it's possible that he visited Matienzo.

The first written record of the caves dates from 1848, in the Madoz dictionary. This says the river of Matienzo rises at Comellantes, crosses the valley and then goes under a mountain, resurges and sinks again in La Secada, to reappear in Secadura (this was nearly 120 years before the first known dye-test).It also mentions the periodic flooding. However there is no description of the caves internally.

In the 19th Century, with the new interest in Geology and Natural History, we can expect that the caves of Matienzo received visits. But there is little evidence for this, and the descriptions in Puig y Larraz's catalogue of Spanish caves (1894) are fairly poor. Comellantes, the source of the river, is said to be not very large. The sink at Agua (called Pozo de Guzmartín) is described as having a steeply descending floor, and the resurgence is called Cobadal de Matienzo. Carcavuezo is called Pozo Nuevo, while there is a mention of several "Cuevas de La Secada", of differing sizes, which act as floodwater sinks. Finally there is Pozo de Mullir, a pothole located in the centre of the depression with an area of 500 square metres to the North of Mullir and the South-west of the Aras valley (Hoyo de Llusa). At the turn of the century caves in Ramales de la Victoria and even Ogarrio (Cueva de Llusa) were visited by archaeologists, but again we have no records that any prospecting was carried out in Matienzo.

Many of the caves have, of course, been visited and used by the inhabitants of Matienzo, but once more this hardly counts as exploration.Goats and sheep are kept in some of the larger entrances, such as Cuatribú; while Cueva de Germán was equipped as a cowshed. Some caves, like Cubio de la Reñada, were used as cold stores for butter, while others, such as Cueva del Pico del Hayal (Llueva), have pools which were a source of water for the farmers working near the cave. Goat excrement was dug from some entrances to be used as fertilizer (eg Cueva del Abono). Many pots have been descended to rescue fallen animals; the most spectacular descent almost certainly being Alpine Chough Pot (-70m). Certain caves were chosen for visits by children, and hundreds of their names can be seen on the walls of Cueva de las Cosas. There is also the story of a madwoman called Ramona who lived in a cave (now called Cueva de la Loca) for about a week, and traversed it - presumably without a light - to re-emerge from a second entrance, since collapsed and covered over. Following the fall of Santander to the Francoist forces in the Civil War a number of local men had to hide in the caves, particularly in La Vega and on Mullir. Cueva de la Calleja Rebollo has large mounds of rubbish left behind by these "maquis".

Caving really took off in Cantabria in the late 1950s with the arrival of cavers from Dijón (France) in the Asón valley. But it seems that the nearest they got to Matienzo was Sima del Cueto, on the ridge between Matienzo and Bustablado. In August 1959 they descended this massive hole; a 110m ladder climb, followed by a boulder slope reaching the base 40m lower.

Also in the 50s the Provincial authorities (Diputación de Santander) trained a team of workmen to explore the caves of the region. These men, whose normal job was to repair the roads and cut the grass at the sides, were given the task of searching for archaeological remains. It's known that they visited Matienzo, and such caves as Patatal, Coburruyo and Peña Cubillones, but they left no written record of their work.

The sport had its beginnings in Matienzo in the early 1960s. Groups of boys spending their long summer holidays in the village had no means of transport for moving around and had to find ways of amusing themselves in Matienzo itself. This, as always, included visiting caves such as Cofresnedo, Cosas, Tiva or Agua. Lights were no problem as it was still common for acetylene lamps to be used as a form of domestic lighting, and carbide could be bought locally. What made these visits different now was that among these boys was Juan Carlos Fernández Gutiérrez, a student of Geology in Madrid, with a real interest in caving. He acquired a caving ladder, and this was put to use in Cueva Coquisera. And when the other boys got tired of going to the same caves, Juan Carlos would set off alone, sometimes causing his family to worry when he was late in returning.

2. The SESS Expeditions (1963-66)

In 1963 Fernández got in touch with Joaquin González Echegaray - a priest who was deputy curator at the Museum of Prehistory in Santander. In turn, Echegaray introduced him to Alfonso Pintó, the leader of SESS - la Sección de Espeleología del Seminario Sautuola. The Seminario Sautuola was an archaeological society based at the Museum and headed by its "director" or curator: Dr Miguel Angel García Guinea. The Sección de Espeleología was a newly-founded (May 1962) team of young enthusiasts who could carry out support work for the archaeologists, such as cave surveys and exploration. Indeed, Pintó was only about 17 years old, a student at the School of Commerce.

In September 1963 Pintó visited Fernández in Matienzo, catching the bus to Lastras and walking the rest of the way. Together they visited a few caves and began planning what turned out to be a series of expeditions through 1964 and 1965. Fernández was interested in carrying out a study as part of the thesis for his Geology degree; SESS were looking for a project involving the study of a group of caves which would be suitable for their club publication. A comprehensive report was eventually published, and this includes a diary-style "Historia de las Exploraciones", which gives a detailed account of their work. It naturally differs from the actual log book written up each day, often adding details, and sometimes omitting incidents.

The first expedition was from 12th to 19th July 1964, with nine members of SESS, two from the caving club belonging to the Francoist youth organization (O.J.E.), two cavers from Ramales de la Victoria, and assistance from locals such as Jesús Aja, and Antonio Santander Setién "Del Pontón", caving companions of Juan Carlos Fernández. The leadership was divided between Pintó, Caving, and Fernández, Geology. They had a grant of 10,000 pesetas from the Patronato de las Cuevas Prehistóricas (an organization linked politically to the Museum of Prehistory), which was quite a large sum, at least equivalent to a month's wages. The army lent them field telephones, and they had plenty of equipment - including as much as 220m of electron ladders - for both caving and scientific work. Although ladders were naturally the usual method of descent they also did some abseiling, using hemp ropes and karabiners.

The usual method of working was to divide into different teams, which often visited one cave in the morning and another in the afternoon. In this way they were able to cover an impressive list of sites. On the first day of caving, for instance, they visited Cueva del Agua, Cueva de Tiva, Sima-Cueva del Risco (i.e. Torca del Sedo), Sima de Andrés, Cueva del Volvo and Cueva de los Emboscados. In Agua they used inflatable dinghies, which punctured, and Antonio couldn't swim, so they had to abandon the cave by climbing along the walls. But that first day also gave them their first success, when in Risco Pintó located the main stream passage.

On following days they explored Sima del Burro (which has probably never been descended again since), Cueva de la Loca, Cuatribú, and Coquisera. In the latter they explored the main passages and dropped the 95m pitch in the upper gallery. Towards the end of the week they visited Rascavieja, Patatal, and Sima del Reguilón, and they returned to Risco, surveying a kilometre along the main passage.

The next expedition was from 27th September to 1st October, which gave the six members of this trip three days' caving. These were spent in Cueva de la Loca, Coquisera and Risco. In the upper gallery of Coquisera they used a step-ladder to climb a large flowstone which took them to the bottom of the daylight shaft. In Risco they continued surveying, and discovered the massive Sala Carballo.

Pintó and Fernández only had the assistance of two cavers and some locals for their third visit, from 2nd to 4th January 1965. They continued exploring Cueva de Tiva, and in Coquisera they traversed round the 95m pitch, using three pitons for protection. They came out of the cave at night, amid heavy snow.

On 18th April (Easter Sunday) Pintó and Fernández, joined by Alberto Alfonso, set out at 4 a.m. on the hopeless task of digging the choked end of Cueva del Concebo. After that they had time to visit other small caves, like Cueva de la Puerta, before attending Mass, and then go on to Sima de la Cabritilla. They surveyed this, obtaining 25.5m depth and 123.7m length. Unfortunately the survey published in Cuadernos II doesn't show much of these passages, although British exploration later confirmed the length.

In July 1965 SESS organised another large-scale expedition, but this time without the collaboration of other clubs. Their main objective was Sima-Cueva del Risco, which was to reach over 3km in length. Progress was hindered by bad weather - despite the season. They had heavy rain and storms, and kept in touch with Santander Meteorological Centre. Most of their work was done in the entrance maze, in the Sala Carballo area, the galería Pintó, and galería Arco. Given the conditions in which they were caving, it's easy to imagine the monotony, and after four days one of them wrote in the log-book, "the team is feeling desperate thinking that tomorrow they have to return to the same cave." After one trip they claimed to have been in "water above our knees" for seven hours.

However, they did visit other caves, briefly: they took photographs in Cofresnedo, Patatal, Agua and Tiva, the survey of Tiva was finished, and they tried scaling above Cuevona, the resurgence of Agua, finding that the visible entrances were choked.

They returned in September, to continue exploring, and to help make a short documentary. This was for NO-DO, the Francoist newsreel shown in cinemas before the main feature. Before filming began, they finished the Risco and Loca surveys. Then, on 24th September they filmed in Coquisera, the following day in Agua and Cofresnedo, and finally at Cuevona. After the filming, they explored Orillón and Selvijo.

By this time their study of Matienzo was almost complete, although Pintó was to return with various companions, "tying loose ends".

Over three days in October they explored Cueva de la Loca I, Jibero II, Gonzalo, Carrasquilla and Tizones. Pintó hurt his right leg on the first day, but recovered miraculously for the village dance on the 12th, a public holiday.

At the end of the month they were back to explore Jibero I, and Anderal I and II. Two friends of Juan Carlos Fernández' were also in Matienzo, and borrowed ladders and a rope to do some caving on their own. The following morning, 1st November, they hadn't returned. The cavers went in search of them, not really knowing where they had gone, and and finally found their rucksacks at the entrance of Cueva Coquisera. Entering the cave, they soon learnt what had happened: the two men had gone down the Chinas pitch and visited the lower passage. When the first man was reclimbing the pitch, unlifelined, he had fallen but fortunately his right foot had caught on a rung of the ladder; he was still there, 14 hours later, hanging upside down, unable to move, with the side wire wrapped around his ankle. By now he was in a terrible state, apart from the damage to his ankle and vomiting, blood had sunk to his head, which was badly swollen. Somehow the rescuers got a rope to him, which the man tied round his waist with a reef knot. As they pulled on the rope, the knot turned over into a slip knot, painfully tightening around his waist when he became trapped below an overhang. The man had to be lowered to the bottom of the pitch, where Pintó used the rope to improvise a harness around his waist and thighs, his chest and his legs, so that the man could be pulled up the pitch again in a more horizontal position. When he was finally at the top, Pintó returned to the village for help, and borrowed a horse to carry him down the hill.

As often happens, the cavers didn't want to give any publicity to the incident, and even in the log book the man is simply described as having hurt his ankle and unable to walk.

Because of the rescue, they didn't have time to explore, as they had planned, Simas del Ciervo.

At a committee meeting on 5th November, SESS accepted that the Matienzo study was finished, and made plans for expeditions to the Busta and Udias areas in the west of Cantabria.

Nevertheless, at the end of December, Fernández and Pintó were back to explore Cueva del Coverón, near Riba, and Selvijo and Anderal II in Matienzo. Once again they aimed to visit Simas del Ciervo, but ran out of time. In fact, this hole was never to be visited, and nothing more is known about it than the references to its name in the log book.

On 7th January 1966, they held the "premiere" of the documentary, called "Imagenes: Estudio de Espeleología" (Images: Speleological Study), in the Museum.

The first scenes of this black and white film are actually of the Museum, and the cavers are seen to be preparing their trip to Matienzo. The location then moves to the village centre, and they all walk up to the entrance of Cueva Coquisera (the only cave identified in the whole documentary). We see them abseiling, and collecting a cave shrimp. Then they descend the Chinas pitch by ladder, to the lower gallery, where they examine the bear skeleton. Without further explanation, the location now moves to Cofresnedo, and its massive formations. Here they carry out surveying and archaeological work before camping (in a tent) over night. In the morning they get out two dinghys and sail down the river (in Cueva del Agua). The final surface shots are of a diver failing to pass the sump in Cuevona, and the futile attempts of scaling above the sump pool. The newsreel therefore shows the variety of caving in Matienzo, but in a rather fictionalized way.

In July a group visited Matienzo to collect fauna. During three days they saw a dozen of the most easily accessible caves. The insects collected were sent to a geologist in Madrid called Ortíz, who later published his conclusions in Cuadernos de Espeleología III.

By this time SESS were struggling to get their own study ready for publication, which seems to have caused a lot of tension between the various people involved.

As it was, Cuadernos de Espeleología II came out with the date of 1966. Its 106 pages include the exploration diary, a description of the geology, hydrology and caves, and notes about archaeology and their food rations. In general Fernández gives accounts of the caves explored by SESS during this period, but survey details were sometimes omitted, as in the case of Sima de la Cabritilla. Other caves they'd visited had no surveys at all, but he does include caves he'd seen alone at some time, such as Cueva del Abono and Cueva-Cubio de la Reñada (the survey is dated 3/10/65).

Fernández also describes the dye-tests which were carried out: see the table below.

DATE DYE PLACED DYE SEEN TIME TAKEN
12 April 1965 Risco Cueva Transformador, Cueva Tiva & Fuente la Lisa 5hours
12 April 1965 Carcavuezo Los Boyones 10 hours
28 September 1965 Loca II Cueva Regato de la Geguera 2 days
10 October 1965 Selvijo Loca I 7 hours
31 October 1965 Orillón Loca I (a light green colour) 8 hours
28 December 1965 Stream in Hoyo del Mortiro Resurgence between Riba and Ogarrio 1 hour

After this publication SESS virtually lost interest in Matienzo, although they were well aware that there was plenty left to be explored. Their surveys are full of question marks, some of which have been examined much later; such as the passage at the end of the galería Arco in Risco, in July 1994. No doubt other question marks still remain unpushed. But they had satisfied their original aim, to produce a study worth publishing. They had never intended to attempt an exhaustive study; as we know, that would take years. At the time many roads in the area had no asphalt, making Matienzo quite remote, especially for young people with no transport of their own. And the province was full of other caves to attract their attention.

Of course, it wasn't quite the end. Pintó returned to Coquisera several times; in December 1973 he traversed around the Chinas pitch and explored about 200 metres of passages on the far side.

3. Cavers from Barcelona (1967)

Cuadernos de Espeleología II drew Matienzo to the attention of other clubs, and the first to visit the area was the Grupo de Exploraciones Subterráneas belonging to the Club Montañés Barcelonés. In summer 1967, a dozen cavers came to Matienzo, under the leadership of Juan Ullastre, with the particular aim of exploring the Vega sector in greater detail.

They returned to many of the caves SESS had published, such as Rascavieja or Patatal, and carried out a survey of Agua, where they also found a mammoth's tooth. They say they visited Cubio de la Reñada, without claiming any new passage, which seems strange as Fernández had left it wide open.

Their report features three new caves. First, Sima de los Rellanos in South Vega was descended to a depth of 120m. But their most important finds were in Cubija: Simas del Picón, and Torcón de Cubija. In the former they surveyed 450m, ending at the choke after the large boulder chamber. The length reached in Torcón was 334m. Local people remember them visiting Cubio de Cubija, but there is no mention of this in their report, which wasn't published until 1975.

The same club doesn't appear to have ever returned to Matienzo, although in 1976 they came to drop a number of shafts near the pass of Alisas. One of these is just within the limits of Matienzo, Sima del Roldán, where they reached -65m. They also descended Sima del Cueto, which had been done once by Speleo-Club de Dijón. This second survey gives it a depth of 126m.

4. 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.

5. The 1974 British Expedition

Lank and J.C.'s tales of kilometres of new passages, including large tunnels, red stal and crystal pools, were at last able to fire enthusiasm in enough people for a large scale expedition in 1974. But of the 32 participants only 12 were members of MUSS. The others were from Bolton Speleo Club, ULSA, and John (Buddha) and Geoff Yeadon from Kendal Caving Club. These brothers were to be key figures in the expedition, among many other reasons, for their survey of Cubio de la Reñada. It's interesting, compared with later years, that not a single metre had been surveyed between 1970 and 1973.

Geoff began the exploration on 28th July by climbing an aven at the end of Cueva Tiva - a lead which was to be followed up in 1975. The first trip into Reñada was halted by heavy rain which sumped the duck at the end of the entrance series. But two days later, on 1st August, the level had gone down and exciting progress was made over the next few days through Castle Hall and Ghost Lake to discover the river passage, pursued upstream to Mega Hall and the sump. Squirrel's Passage was the river's downstream continuation. On 7th August work started on Lank and J.C.'s other great lead, Cueva Riaño, This was surveyed without any new breakthroughs, and in fact the length of 2.2km was less than J.C.'s estimate in 1973.

Other known caves were surveyed - Carcavuezo and Agua. The latter showed that the final sump was near to the resurgence at Cuevona, and on Wed. 14th August Geoff Yeadon made the connection by diving 60m from the resurgence to the cave.

The scaling-pole had been used without success in Cueva del Risco. But on 9th August, while expedition members were on a geological outing with Juan Carlos Fernández, a farmer showed them a new entrance. This turned out to be Cueva Oñite, and 1km was surveyed, at last connecting via a 20m pitch into Sala Carballo in Cueva del Risco. The first through-trip was then done.

On 10th August another farmer pointed out the entrance shaft of Torca de la Cabaña. Over a series of trips the pitches were descended and the large passages explored. Hopes were high for a connection with Reñada but despite dropping several pitches, including one of 60m, this was not to be.

Lank remembered the entrance he'd seen in 1970, and the exploration of Cueva Uzueka began on the 15th August, fiesta day in Riaño. Most of Quadraphenia was run through, halting at the sump beyond Pig's Trotters Chamber. The Flashbulb Hall area was also explored and photographed using large PF100 bulbs.

A final new cave was Cueva de Mortiro. On the 18th August this was explored upstream from its resurgence near the River Asón, through a free-dived 3m sump, to the top entrance in Hoyo de Mortiro. The expedition was a complete success. In less than a month 16km had been surveyed. It had been an enjoyable experience in every way, particularly in the contact with the villagers. A Matienzo v. England football match was played, and a report appeared in "Alerta" newspaper - written by Jesús Aja, who'd taken part in the SESS expeditions. This success was added to by Buddha's rapid production of the expedition report, getting it ready for the BCRA conference in September.

6. Six months in Matienzo (1975)

The consequence of this success was that a number of people wanted to spend more time in Matienzo the following year. For various reasons they decided to give up their jobs and stay in Spain for upto six months. The first to arrive were Lank and Buddha, in March. Unfortunately they were to experience an extremely cold and wet Spring, and in fact 1975 was the wettest year for more than half a century.

Thanks to the longer time available, they were able to programme a complete re-survey of all the caves in the valley, and the caves of Hozana and Cueva del Risco were the first to receive their attention. Each cave was to be situated correctly and, as only large-scale 1:50,000 maps existed at that time, this meant carrying out their own surface surveys. By the end of the expedition these had covered the entire area between Riba and Riaño. One of the first rewards was the discovery of Cueva de Anderal III - its entrance was easily visible through the leafless trees. Later, at the end of April, Anderal II would be extended through galleries running beneath Anderal III. In Risco several new side-passages to the Pintó Gallery were surveyed. The next area to be studied was El Naso. Few new finds could be claimed, but they produced the first surveys of caves like Patatal and Coburruyo, and positioned each cave on the area map. In this area they obtained the help of Antonio el del Pontón, who had once worked with SESS, and he showed them several new entrances, such as Sima de los Hoyos.

The first important finds came on 13th and 14th May, in Cueva Tiva, up the aven climbed by Geoff Yeadon the summer before. By digging through Sandstone Passage, they found the complicated series of passages which connected with Risco. Thus they established the third entrance to the system, which now reached 8km in length.

Reinforcements joined the expedition in the middle of April and early June. Throughout this time they continued revising all the known caves (such as Cuatribú, Subterranea and Concebo, Emboscados and Arenal). In Torcón de Cubija they were able to make a small extension by climbing a calcited aven at the end of the cave. Several shafts were descended for the first time, including Sima de la Chova, Cruz Llorada, Rocabado and Sima Jaime. In the next shakehole to the latter they found Cueva A.B.I., consisting in a large chamber.

About this time they also visited Cueva de Coverón and retraced the main passages described by SESS. In the left-hand series Buddha climbed into a passage and a pitch dropping into the Minimaze. This ended at a blowhole which was dug out, leading to the discovery of the long vadose stream-passage. A little later in the expedition a tree was cut down outside the entrance and used as a scaling pole to reach high-level passages at the end of the right-hand series. In all, over 2km of new passages were added to Coverón.

By early July the full summer expedition was underway. One of the first caves to be visited was Uzueka, and work was centered in the area of Pig's Trotters Chamber, just before the sump. Two series were explored, Sima Baz and Sima Dave. In the former Baz Davies and Wayne dug out a chain of sandy chokes which appeared to by-pass the sump, but which then ended in a solid boulder-choke. Nevertheless, Alan (Starkers) Martin was able to move one large boulder to open the way to the Gorilla Walk and all the important passages of Uzueka. These were explored and surveyed over a number of trips, each one making further progress into the system. The Near and Far Stomps ended at another sump, then Crossover Passage led to the 3rd River. Next the Astradome was found, and finally the boulder choke was passed to enter the chambers of Armageddon.

At the time the trip to the end was considered quite hard going, and six hours was quoted as "motoring to get to the end and back, let alone start exploring anything", so Armageddon was in fact only entered once. As it happened, on the day that it was discovered, 8th August, two people became lost in the system and decided to wait for help. They were eventually found early the next day, 17 hours later, at Obvious Junction.

But even without a dye-test, it seemed certain that the river in Uzueka must join the Matienzo water, and resurge at Secadura. Thus it was already clear that an extensive system had to exist linking those three valleys.

At Riaño other caves were discovered too; Chestnut Hole and the 92m deep Torcón.

But other major finds were being made in other parts of the area. Geoff Yeadon and Stuart Davey dived the final sump in Cubio de la Reñada. After 30m they surfaced at the start of Reñada II, about a kilometre of large active and fossil passages. The divers also examined the Nacimiento del Río Clarín in San Miguel de Aras, passing two short sumps to find several hundred metres of passages.

Other people, including cavers passing through Matienzo on their way to or from Picos de Europa, were involved in the descent of Torca de Llusa, which choked at a depth of about 150m. This was the first attempt at tackling the big shafts on Mullir using single rope techniques.

Many other caves had been looked at; Las Cosas, La Cuvía, Volvo and Seta in Matienzo, and Elegante in Secadura, while other draughting holes were examined at the head of the Llueva Valley.

One of the last caves to be surveyed was Cueva de la Espada in Riaño. With all this activity it isn't surprising that even untrained explorers should make a number of archaeological finds. Lank had found a palaeolithic bone point in Risco, and a Bronze Age skeleton in Rascavieja, and Cueva de la Espada got its name from the bronze sword found there by Dave Linton. This is now on display at Santander Museum of Prehistory.

The expedition concluded as another great success. The finds in Uzueka alone were probably the most dramatic and important ever made in the area. The warm welcome the cavers had received in the village in 1974 had solidified into real friendships. The contacts with Juan Carlos Fernández and Alfonso Pintó were maintained, while other members of SESS had spent a couple of days with the expedition at the start of July. Once again, the report was brought out within a month of returning to Britain, with a great improvement in quality over the 1974 edition.

7. The 1976 and 1977 expeditions

The following year the expedition returned to its more conventional dates of mid-July to end of August. The other great change was that the KCC did not take part. It is clear from reading the log-books that even from the start of the 1974 expedition there was a great deal of rivalry between the different clubs. Although this was generally good-humoured, it is one reason why members of the KCC, including Buddha, wanted to be independent. However members of Derbyshire Caving Club took part for the first time, and were active in most of the new finds. Members of Preston Caving Club joined the expedition too.

Another novelty this year was that for the first time the expedition received a £120 grant from the Sports Council.

As soon as people started to arrive in Matienzo, Lank returned to the draughting holes he'd seen at the head of the Llueva valley. On 23rd July, together with Juan Corrin and Ian Morley, he dug through the sand and shale choking the entrance passage to discover the great tunnel of "Biggo". Here they found the river coming from Carcavuezo in Matienzo, and as a fluorescein dye-test later confirmed, from Uzueka. Hence it was settled that the 4 valleys (Matienzo, Riaño, Llueva and Secadura) were linked by one cave-system. None of the connections could be made in 1976, but Cueva Llueva was 2.6km long, ending at sumps both upstream and downstream.

Due to the activity in Llueva and elsewhere, there was no trip to the end of Uzueka until 12th August. None of the people on this had been through Armageddon boulder-choke the year before. But they succeeding in passing this psychological barrier and continued along the river passage till they were temporarily stopped by another choke. By the time they found a way round this, and returned to the river, it was time to turn back. Five days later they went on to a sump. The dye they had put in the river gave the murky water a green tinge, like engine oil. But even Duckams Sump had a by-pass, and they pushed on to explore Shrimp-Bone Inlet and the start of Rocky Horror. The dye detector was positive in Secadura on 19th August.

Several other new caves were explored. On 26th July Torca del Rayo de Sol was located at the head of the Secadura valley, in an attempt to fill the gap between Llueva and Secadura. Torca del Somo was 77m deep, on the top of the ridge above Cubio de la Reñada. Cueva de la Basura was surveyed in Riaño, and Cueva Elegante in Secadura. Here cavers helped the local plumber install a water supply pipe inside the cave. In addition, 500m of maze-passages were surveyed in Cueva Riaño.

This year there was no separate expedition report. Instead, an 18-page report was included in MUSS Journal No. 8, published in December.

The 1977 expedition logically aimed to push on in Uzueka. As the furthest point reached was estimated at about 200m from the straight line joining Carcavuezo and Cueva Llueva, it was hoped that the three caves would soon be connected. But the first great obstacle found on arrival was the appallingly wet weather, resulting in flood conditions in the valley and caves. For instance, attempts at photography in the downstream part of Cueva Llueva were twice halted by low airspace in the canals, on the 18th and 23rd July. The camp-site became churned into mud, but the expedition was offered the use of a house, into which about half the members moved.

Some of the first caving done was in Cueva de la Canal, at Fuente las Varas, overlooking the Riaño valley; about 100m was surveyed. While helping the plumber at Cueva Elegante again, they were shown other caves in Secadura. One of these was 125, where they amazed the plumber and his deaf and dumb companion by going into one entrance and re-appearing from another. The second cave they were shown was Solviejo, which had already been visited by young cavers from Laredo. Despite its obvious potential, the cave wasn't explored very far that year.

Once more, KCC members didn't form part of the expedition. Instead they had permission for their own area near Seña and Limpias, and for diving various sumps in different parts of Cantabria. But they sometimes took part in the caving in Matienzo. One of these occasions was the trip into Uzueka. A visit on the 1st August had been stopped by high-water blocking the way out of Duckhams Sump. About one week later Geoff Yeadon was able to pass this, but the survey tape had to be used as a guide line for the rest of the party. By keeping up high in the boulders of Rocky Horror, they were able to find large passage, and when that choked they dropped back to the stream, reaching a sump. About half a kilometre had been added, yet it couldn't be surveyed without the tape. And the hoped-for connection remained elusive.

Despite the wet weather, the divers stuck to their objectives in the 4-valleys system. Geoff dived the upstream Llueva sump, Phil Pappard the downstream sump, and both Phil and Bob Emmot dived in Carcavuezo. But in none of these cases could dry passage be found. Equally, the bouldery cave of Los Boyones, above the resurgence at Secadura, was explored for just 100m.

As the number of SRT exponents grew, several big shafts could be descended. These included Alpine Chough Pot (-70m), 129 on the very summit of Muela (-58m), and Sima del Cueto.

On 12th August Cueva de Seis Pozos was explored on the slopes of La Secada. Its name came from the six separate shafts dropping from its one short passage. All these shafts were choked, but the cave has never since been re-located.

A later find was Cueva de Dofrades (Black Crow Cave) in La Vega. Approximately 320m were surveyed, including the discovery of a bottom entrance.

Towards the end of the expedition, the KCC divers returned to Matienzo, and were shown two sumps in Secadura. The first, Surgencia de las Crecidas (presumed to be a flood overflow exit for the 4-valleys system) was explored for about 200m, through one sump and open passage to a second sump, said to be too tight. The second was Cueva del Sifón Claro, where Stuart Davey returned with a spectacular story: "the diver howled along the dead straight passage, in visibility too good to be true." Unfortunately, visits in later years by other divers have shown that description to be a work of fiction.

The 1977 expedition suffered many disappointments, especially the weather. But the next big cave had been located - Solviejo, even if they weren't particularly aware of it at the time. Extensive passages would be found in Alpine Chough Pot too, many years later. But no expedition report was produced at all; in fact the only "Spain '77" report was made by KCC. On the other hand, the caver and geomorphologist, Tony Waltham had visited Matienzo, and he produced scientific papers describing its Karst development.


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