The times they are a changin’

Eastern Massif, Picos de Europa, Northern Spain

The times they are a changin’

by Howard Jones

Brief history

In the 1970’s LUSS were caving in Northern Spain, inland from Santander. They learned about a village where cheese was made and matured in caves. Nearby a resurgence cave fed a hydroelectricity scheme. Add in some high mountains in the vicinity and it was Xmas for cave explorers. Tresviso was first visited in 1974 and cavers from LUSS and other clubs, both UK and foreign, have been visiting ever since. The resurgence cave (Agua ) has been surveyed in excess of 15km and Sima 56 was pushed to a depth of 1169m. Vertically they have over lapped, horizontally they are 4km apart. If joined they would establish a world class system, and maybe through trip!

The Village

Tresviso is a lovely village of some 25 houses sat at the top of the Urdon gorge. The families used to be subsistence farmers living off the proceeds of goats and cheese. When we first arrived in vast numbers and camped just outside the village, we must have swamped their existence. Yet we were absorbed into their company without rancour and have been so ever since.

When the track from Sotres was improved to a road village life changed and nowadays many villagers leave in the winter a return in the summer. There are far more visitors than before and life in the village has changed for ever.


In the 70’s there were two ways to Tresviso. A track came in from the village of Sotres some 10k away which could usually be passed by a land rover, though was sometimes blocked by rock fall. The other way in was up from the Urdon gorge, a 6k march with 900m of ascent. The bus from Santander would drop us at the bottom and the nightmare ascent would begin. For many of us this was our introduction to Tresviso expeditions and it was brutal, staggering up this donkey track in the mid-day heat with your caving gear on your back. As a way of making you cave fit it was ideal. Hopefully the expedition land rover had made its way in via Sotres and you could unpack your tent, home for the next 9 weeks.

10 years ago, the track from Sotres was engineered into a metalled road and saloon cars can now drive to Tresviso. This has changed a lot of aspects of Tresviso life, not least cavers can drive to Tresviso and no longer sweat up the track!


In the 70’ we would camp in a field just above the village in a sloping field which had been harvested early. Water was gained from a trough and flies were a problem. A big communal cooking tent was used to store food, you slept in your own. Life was pretty basic and there was little incentive to hang around camp all day. Evenings were spent in the bar, a red wine often lasting all evening for an impoverished student.

Nowadays we stay in a hostel in the village. Bunk beds, electricity, hot water, an oven all make life a lot more comfortable. A store room downstairs is used to leave gear in from year to year which makes logistics much easier. Some things have not changed though, evenings are still spent in the bar.


Caving in the 70’s meant wet suits, carbides (stinkies) and texolex helmets was all we knew. Over suits were proofed cotton which ripped to bits in rifts, under suits bought second hand from the air force which for some reason had short arms and legs. Harnesses were homemade or the dreaded Whillans which rearranged genetalia. In short caving gear was a mixture of home made or adapted from other uses.

Petzl changed all that and LED and battery technology has made life underground much safer and pleasant. Cave photography and surveying can now be undertaken for hours without the risk of imminent exposure, with better results to boot.


Snow fall has decreased remarkably over the 40 years. The days of digging out the White house door and cave and mine entrances are largely gone. In May 2019 there was little snow at Andara (top camp area) and by September there was none. A few shafts are still snow plugged, but this must be yearlong. The river caves of Agua and Marnioasa are thus drier and safer and the tracks and roads keep in better condition.

Cave names

One of the joys of exploring caves is you get to name them and the passages within. In the 70’s Bob Dylan songs were popular and a quick glance at the Agua survey proves this to be the case. As time moved on other influences have been reflected.

I was always surprised that the Spanish caving authorities allowed us ( and other foreigners) to come and explore their prime areas, surely in years to come the next generation would be appalled that so many of the world class Spanish caves had been explored by non-Spanish teams, and yet despite changes to the permission rules we are still allowed to keep control of “our area” 40 years on.

However, the Spanish cavers have got their own back by renaming our caves! The Cueva del Agua is now Nacimiento, which is very confusing to us old timers.