LUSS Journal 4, 1987

Eastern Massif, Picos de Europa, Northern Spain

Downloadable pdf version (76mb) of LUSS 4 from BCRA archives


In Pursuit of a Dream

After several forays to other limestone areas of Northern Spain, the first L.U.S.S. expedition to Tresviso in the Picos de Europa took place in 1975. Since then, each summer has seen more of the speleological secrets of the area revealed.

This exploration has been well documented , culminating in the publication of ‘Sima 56’, the story of the record-breaking expedition of 1983.

The last three summers have seen the continuation of the the Tresviso saga, a perennial tale of triumphs and tragedies. Time and again the caves of Tresviso have raised our hopes only to dash them once more. So it was with 56 and on several occasions in Dossers Delight, but each year there were the question marks to go back to.

At the time of writing, the link from one of the Top Camp caves to the Cueva del Agua resurgence remains elusive, but the gap is still narrowing. Expeditions are returning in 1987 to Sara, the active main drain for the area and never fully worked out; and to the Cueva del Agua, where in 1986 a team found what may be the main way on into the heart of the mountains.

For those who return to Tresviso in the future, the dream of a 1500m deep through trip may well become a reality. The following accounts describe how the members of the 1984, 1985 and 1986 expeditions went in pursuit of that dream.

Exploration of 56, 1984-1985 

Explored over the years to a depth of 1169m, 56 was our big hope in 1984. A number of question marks gave us cause for optimism in our search for a sump bypass and a way on to the Cueva del Agua.

A good team had been assembled, together with 2.5km of rope and lots of enthusiasm. Underground camps were necessary within a week 56 is a big, bad cave that doesn’t take too kindly to intruders, as many of our debutantes were about to find out.

Almost immediately the epics began as we slowly heaved all the rope, bolts, maillons, sleeping bags, food etc. through the Slasher. It took us a week to reach Dripping Blood Passage, site of the second underground camp, and a further week to reach the bottom ramp FUZ2. But then we were back in business, at least 5 good leads and a superb camp from which to explore them. The hard men had arrived to give us added impetus and things began to roll. Steve started a bolt climb towards the large gallery visible from below the Pozo Rojo and DB found a lead above AberfanFUZ2 soared upwards and the continuation of Dripping Blood beckoned.

One camp saw the two Petes, Eddie and Andrea explore the superb Betelgeuse series, only to find it eventually dropping back into known passage near the Rib Tickler. A similar fate was to befall Tony in the gallery above Pozo Rojo, and Tony and Simon when they followed the roof above the Pozo Rojo itself.

One by one the leads were all dropping back into the 1983 discoveries and by week 4, morale was beginning to ebb. Paul and Piers bolted across from the end of Dripping Blood towards the huge continuation passage…alcove! Clutching at straws, the two Petes went for it with a trip straight in to trace the water on FUZ2. This yielded the Frogstar B Series, but after that, it seemed the story was over – except of course for detackling.

Many long trips and a few heroics later: Eddie had destroyed another complete set of caving gear; Pete Iles had been awarded the O.M.D. (Order of Merit for Detackling) and about 2km of rope had been re-introduced to daylight. 56 was dead. We even left a Visitors book at the entrance in case anyone was ever stupid enough to go back.

Of course on our return to Britain, it soon became apparent that the 56 story was far from over. Although we were confident that no leads remained depp in the cave (except the sump!), a number of question marks were left in the region between the Slasher and the Crumbles. Dye-tracing the sump below the Far Canal had proved that this streamway did not appear lower down the cave, though it did give a positive trace to the Cueva del Agua. This obviously posed the question of what happened in the intervening 5km of horizontal and 1000m of vetical development.

To begin with, enthusiasm for a return to 56 was not found to be in great abundance, but by July 1985, a team of 30 had been recruited. With renewed optimism, we once more set forth to connect 56 to Agua by dropping into the gap from one of the remaining leads and following the lost streamway to the Urdon Gorge. Simple!

The first lead to be examined was a tight slot in a chamber below the Maze. This prevented access to a pitch which appeared to be 30m deep. We had high hopes for this pitch because the survey seemed to indicate that it was sufficiently far removed from the Far Canal/Big Pitch area to give us a reasonable chance of finding a bypass to the sump at -492m. So, many happy hours were spent smashing away what happened to be the false floor of the chamber!

Eventually the orifice was large enough to be of use to those inclined to investigate the pitch below. This led to a streamway and initial exploration was halted at another pitch. Jes and Ian dropped this -35m to a streamway and a ‘Confluence’. The bolts at the head of the Pink Pitch confirmed they had rejoined the 1979 route, so they detackled and turned their attention to following the water out of Humbug Hall. A tortuous streamway led to the lip of a large shaft. Jes, being older and perhaps a little more worldly-wise, waited here while Ian, being young and gullible, returned to Humbug and carried on to the 60m pitch beyond camp. Scientific loud hailing and carbide tracing convinced them that they were both in the same shaft. Thus another lead was crossed off, though not without incident. Returning through the wriggly bit, Jes discovered he had acquired a “rock corset” (tighter than others he’d worn recently!). The removal of this was only effected with the aid of a bolting hammer, taking care, of course, not to get any of the vital bits in the way!

It was turning out to be the same old story once again – one by one all the leads were falling by the wayside. Further examination of the 60m pitch reinforced the 1980 view that our time would be better spent in limestone, especially as the continuing rift was heading under the main cave and seemed to be little more than a collecting bin for loose rubbish from above. We concluded that the section of the cave between Humbug Hall and the Crumbles, was all part of the same development, albeit on several levels. However, though the chances of us having missed the way on are small, we cannot claim to have exhaustively examined every inch of this area and should anyone ever return, this would be one place to look. A healthy indifference to loose boulders would be an asset to anyone contemplating such a trip!

Once we had written off the final leads in the rubble heap, we were once more faced with the task of detackling. This was made less onerous by the fact that we had only rigged to Dripping Blood Passage. Nonetheless, the Slasher gave us the usual problems and we still hadn’t learned how to haul up Tiggers. But eventually it was all out and Mike Plimmer became the last person to exit from Sima 56. The Visitors’ Book was re-opened and we all proceeded to get very drunk. This time 56 was definitely dead.

Eight years of exploration were at an end; thousands of man-hours, hundreds of trips and a vast cross-section of British and Spanish cavers. Tears of joy, tears of anger and frustration. An ocean of sweat and not a little blood. The personal trials and tribulations could fill a volume, but only the individuals concerned can adequately describe what it’s like to fall off a climb at -l000m, to dangle over 122m of free space with your harness undone or to see the ledge you’re perched on disappear down the next pitch.  

Betelgeuse Series, Sima 56

Pete Iles

The Betelgeuse series in Sima 56 is entered by climbing up to the left from the bottom of the Rio Rojo pitches, up some loose fill and around an awkward step to the left onto some choked boulders. This leads onto a steeply descending passage, the Hyperspace Corridor, between the wall on the left and huge, square cut boulders on the right. It is possible to crawl over the top of these boulders up a sloping slot until you get frightened… Following the corridor down you pass down a straight sided passage and then enter a more irregular passage with boulders on the floor. At the end of this passage are 3 bolts on the left, giving a good hang onto a pitch, 29m to a ledge with an incised canyon and another 12m pitch. Part way down the pl2 is a large wedged boulder that resisted efforts to move it, but still seemed a little daunting. It was named the Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster. Past the ‘Hrung‘ the next pitch is again belayed on the left to give a terrific free hang for 13m. As you near the floor on the 13m pitch there is a hole in the calcite wall in front of you, which leads into a sharp calcite rift passage with choked boulders. From this rift it is possible to climb down with care to a beautiful calcite chamber, the Evildrome Boozarama from which it is possible to rejoin the main route. From the bottom of the 13m pitch a rift leads right, which merely provides an alternative to the pitch below.

The way on is down the calcite slope on the left, by two pitches of 10m and 13m respectively. Near the bottom of this pl3 is a bolt change, next to a 3m long straw, of such colour and thickness that it was called PMI for obvious reasons. From here it is possible to go left and up a slippery climb of 1.5m into the Evildrome Boozarama, which is well worth a visit and is very entertaining to get out of safely. The calcite floored chamber at the foot of the second pl3 slopes muddily to a rift on the right, which was too slippery to get into but did not appear to go anywhere. To the right of the rift a pl7 was belayed to two bolts to the left of the drop, and a tether on a spike to the right. This was not a very good arrangement, but seemed the only one possible. From the base of the pl7 a traverse to the left descends a muddy pl0 and p7, using small stal belays. There then follows a rather muddy section with p20 and p9 on muddy slopes into the large chamber before the Rib Tickler, using rather suspect stals as belays. This chamber is also entered by the 17m pitch from The Forest, and so is the junction with the old 1983 route.  

Frogstar “B” Series, Sima 56

Pete Iles

The Frogstar B Series is entered by ascending the ramp at the end of the Rib Tickler. This ramp, F.U.Z.2 on its downward section, was named Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. After about 60m of climbing up the ramp (which needs a rope to descend safely) a ledge and a blind pot, The Total Perspective Vortex, is reached. Water enters from two inaccessible holes in the ceiling. To the left is the Frogstar B Series.

The series was not surveyed but it is on the same plane as the Wowbagger – F.U.Z.2 ramp, and is a similar sort of rock. However, it has developed pitches and pots and is covered in the mud which is seen at the sides of the ramp. It also has quantities of the odd white pebbles which litter the scallops in the ramp. A series of pitches and chambers proceed down, on the same general plane as the ramp, and become smaller and trend back towards the ramp. They probably join up with it again, but we were not able to determine this due to lack of time.

Sima 55

Exploration of Dossers Delight, 1984-1985.

Found in 1980 and explored to -294m in 1981, Dossers Delight nestles in a hollow below the Cueto de Calabreros, with a perfect view down the Valdediezma towards Tresviso and the Cueva del Agua, some 1300m below. The cave itself is a strange place – down 3 pitches, up a bolt climb; down 6 more pitches and another bolt climb. Huge shafts are separated by tight rifts, usually reached by an ascending traverse on ramps where the base of the pitch has been cut back.

In 1984, we were returning to Dossers’ to check out the ‘too tight’ slot above the second bolt climb, but with most of our attention being focused on 56, exploration was a bit slow off the mark. After a couple of false starts (when we couldn’t find the entrance), the Dossers’ bandwagon began to roll – particularly when Paul W. rearranged the entrance boulder slope, giving Paul I. palpitations on the climb down to the second pitch!

A bit of re-rigging and a safety line made this section much more acceptable – this was to prove the case on a number of occasions some of the anchors placed in 1981 were found to be rusty and unusable, or badly placed, or simply not found at all!

Despite the pleasant nature of the cave (compared to 56), it wasn’t until week 3 of the expedition and the arrival of Tony White that Dossers’ was ‘bottomed’. Tony repeated Colin’s climb and pushed through Dossers Despair, the squeeze beyond it. This dropped directly onto the head of a 9m pitch, below which was the now familiar ascending ramp to another pitch. The game was on again although the cave no longer lived up to its name.

Tony’s subsequent solo overnight trip set the precedent for silly trips and while he was distracted by 56, John and Alex did a couple of long slow all-nighters which took the depth to -387m where there was no passable way on.

Back from 56, Tony took a lumphammer and our leader to the tight rift below Murder Most Foul (so named after an unfortunate incident where 20m of rope was left hanging down a 44m pitch – fortunately with a knot in it!).

The way on was opened up, so at the end of week 5, Tony, Alex and Paul went in for ‘The Last Push’. Tony went on to rig while we surveyed in from Murder Most Foul. After 2 hours surveying and getting stuck in the most abominable bit of cave so far the cold dejected survey team ran out of enthusiasm and carbide and decided to call it a day. However, the spare carbide was in Tony’s tackle bag, so the chase was on.

Below Mutiny pitch, we were suddenly in a descending canyon – a dramatic departure from the accepted Dossers’ pattern, but where was Tony? Marching on towards Agua? Our exitement was short-lived – below the next pitch we were back to the ascending ramps. At the next pitch, Tony was disconsolate. This was the end, a tight rift with no way on. Cold tired and disappointed, we began the long slog back to the surface.

Exiting from Dossers’ is depressing – the tight rifts, muddy ropes and double jammer failures take their toll, but the ramps are the worst; prusik up 30m then drop down 10m; up 40m, then down 20m; up 15m, down 20m and so on. And on top of that, there are the two bolt climbs to descend. We used 650m of rope to get down to 500m! Suddenly Tony had caught us up. Above the last pitch, he’d traversed on to find another pitch, a biggie too, just sitting there waiting to be descended.

That was where the story ended for 1984 or so we thought, but we’d reckoned without the ‘Unstoppable’ White. Scorning the need to detackle 56, Tony did another epic solo trip and dropped the undescended pitch. It turned out to be 62m “the best in the cave” and beyond was more rift and …yes, another pitch!

With 20% of our manpower spending detackling week in Madrid, detackling of Dossers’ was left until we’d emptied 56 (which we believed to be finished). Since this took longer than expected, we only managed to detackle the top 7 pitches in Dossers’, leaving the rest of the rope in situ until our return in 1985.

Back in the U.K., it slowly began to dawn on us that Dossers’ wasn’t just an interesting sideline to the real caving to be done in Andara. At 500m deep with a strong draught and the way on wide open, it became the major objective of Tresviso ’85.

However, on arrival at the White House we discovered that half the maillons had been left in Lancaster and had to delay going for the big lead in Dossers’ until we had enough gear to rig both 56 and Dossers’. A few days and a few red faces later, we returned to our Delight. The cave was quickly rigged to the start of the rope left in 1984 and two of our more gullible members were sent down to test it (“of course it will still be O.K., Ian”). The rope survived the first test, but to ensure it would last until replaced, the bulkier Expedition Leader went in to give it a more severe test (and get in the first push trip – chortle, chortle).

The first new pitch dropped us into a chamber which led not to a ramp/rift but to another pitch down into a streamway. At last the cave relented. Beyond ‘The River‘, 2 pitches dropped into a sizeable canyon. Inlets swelled the stream and the way on was open.

Unfortunately, the 4 people who knew the cave were now weary and the next couple of trips had a hard time in the mid-sections thrutching about in the search of the way on. Two of our Antipodean members made a bee-line for Oz and thus found the way on to ever greater glories – their limit was the top of a pitch estimated to be 80m deep.

Re-rigging trips had been going on at the same time as pushing trips and now we redoubled our efforts to make the rigging as near perfect as possible to set up the camp at -500m. Eight people entered the cave: 2 to rerig; 4 to set up camp; and 2 to push. As always happens at a time this, the 125m Pozo de los Picos led to a U-turn and the cave obligingly sumped.

The Dame Edna Everage Memorial (or Fool Aussie) Sump was later passed to a series of small phreatic tubes and a real sump, but no way on was found to carry us deeper, until the surveying and photography trips had used up what was left of our allotted pushing time. Detackling went smoothly, with all the remaining expedition members contributing, and after 5 days labour, we all bade farewell to Dossers Delight – all that is except Rich Broughton, who is now given the opportunity to convince us his decision to return didn’t merit a straitjacket and a paddled cell…

Exploration of Dossers, 1986. 

Rich Broughton

An initial slow start was primarily due to man-power problems – only 7 members at the outset, only 9 left to detackle! Our tackling problems were resolved in part by the arrival of a team of Czechs and Neil Montgomery who subsequently did carrying trips into our ‘nice cave’ (what a con!). But without their help we could not have rigged the cave down to the first lead (-600m) in such good time. Thanks to all. The team, with guests, celebrated as Anna and Maria served up a scrumptious meal in Sotres.

Back to business with new arrival Howie, and Dinny setting up underground camp for the pushing team, Dave H. and Rich B.. The underground camp which then ensued resulted in the discovery of the most beautifully decorated section of the cave, in fact, the only beautifully decorated section of the cave! Rough brilliantly white calcite covered the walls, ceiling and floor for a couple of hundred feet of high level abondoned passage. The initial excitement was dashed, however, as ‘Marco’s lead’ promptly dropped back into known passage – the head of Thunder Down Under.

A further long bivvying trip by Mark and Howie resulted in the exploration of the lower leads and grovelling about at the sump for the way on. The ‘inevitable’ conclusion was realised – Dossers’ was dead.

Tim, Dave W. and Paul took photo gear deep into the system amid torrents of water cascading down previously ‘dry’ pitches – worrying! Back on the surface, in the squalor of the White House and with Landrover problems (you must learn Spanish, Dunc!), it was hard to find motivation to detackle a cave which at the outset had promised so much, the route to Agua and all that, but had only succeeded in savaging our gear. Nevertheless we patched our oversuits and gave the cave one last trip each. Nine members detackled 831m depth of cave in 290 man-hours – a considerable feat for such a small scale expedition. Notable in detackling was Dinny’s overnight solo derigging of the Indelible Escalator, and Dave W’s 50m regurgitation down The Bus!

Dossers’ was now empty. The constant swearing at Ariane generators and profanities in the rifts were over. We turned our attentions to nicer projects – but the main objective of the expedition had been completed the pushing and exploration of Dossers’. We showed just what a small scale expedition could achieve.


Despite failing to live up to its full potential (or name!), Dossers’ gave us some memorable moments of exploration. At -831m, it is the second deepest cave in the Andara massif (ed. in 1987) and will provide an entertaining challenge for future visitors. Those who persevere through the muddy and arduous rifts will be rewarded with same of the finest pitches any of us have ever descended. Though the potential for further extension is limited, Dossers’ is well worth a visit. Should tourist tripping ever hit the Picos Dossers Delight will rank as one of the classics.

Torca La Barga.

Mark Bown

Torca La Barga is located in a large depression below the Sotres – Tresviso track at Invernales de la Cabellar and was explored by SUSS in 1975 and 1977. It was revisited in 1985, a decade after its original discovery, to attempt to establish a positive dye-trace to help determine the catchment area of the Cueva del Agua. The question of a possible lead over the downstream sump also remained unanswered.

It was with these noble objectives in mind that the delegated members of the expedition set off to rig the cave. Despite the initial setback of discovering that all the rope had been packed into bags more suited to the use by a contorted dwarf for carrying shopping, than caving, the cave was swiftly rigged to the bottom of the entrance series of shafts – albeit initially via the top entrance by our over zealous ‘Bahamia blue eyed boy’.

The cave from here on changes character entirely, from a system of vertical shafts to a series of fine dry horizontal galleries. The promise of fine formations was understated – literally every surface was covered in delicate spirals and mirabilite in such close proximity that we hardly dared breathe, for fear they would come crashing down. This consciousness was soon abandoned as it became apparent that the larger ones made excellent hand-holds and the smaller ones made a pleasing crunch under foot.

The Aussies had a fine time rigging the lower sections of the cave using bongs, rurps, mashies, bashies, trashies and whatever other bits of junk they could find as main belays.

With the splendour of the cave recorded on celluloid and our dye detectors of finest Boots Enrico bandage in place at Agua we set off to dump optical brightener into the downstream sump. On arrival at stream level we were assured by our Antipodean fellows that the water level was such that it would be possible to effect a doubling of the flow rate into the sump by the simple act of urination. In the first event this made little difference to the outcome since the detectors we had painstakingly placed in the pool at Agua were left 6 feet out of the water when the canal at Urdon was drained for maintenance. The lead over the sump was investigated but found to quickly close down. Despite an ‘encouraging draught’ and the low water levels of the downstream sump, the tales of ‘the Great White Hope’ having frozen his balls off in it some years earlier were sufficient to dispel such foolish ideas as plunging ones body into the water.

The cave was swiftly derigged and efforts focussed elsewhere. Torca La Barga is atypical of the Picos caves for one specific reason – it’s pleasant!

Agua 86 – Brief Summary

In 1986 a cave-diving expedition returned to la Cueva del Agua under the name of Agua ’86 led by Julian Walker and Rob Parker. Below is a short summary of their acheivements.

In Agua the Road to Certain Death sump was dived to a depth of -64m at 210m from base, at which point an ascending shaft was encountered but could not be followed due to decompression restrictions. The sump at the end of Road to Wigan Pier was passed after a distance of 180m, to 300m of stream passage culminating in another sump, whilst the Main Upstream sump was dived for 170m in a large passage to a depth of -28m still continuing. The streamway at the Back End Downstream was followed for 300m in superb style to a magnificent chamber and another sump.

Probably the most important find in Agua was the Teeth of Satan. This consists of a steep and draughting series of ramps above The Bloody Lake which were followed for 200m to a point well above and beyond the previous reaches of the cave. Further climbing of the ramp series is a major project on its own, and is believed to be the main way on towards the caves of the higher plateau.

Outside Agua, The Cueva de la Marniosa Main Downstream sump was dived for 45m, where it surfaced into open stream passage. This was followed for 650m to a pitch into sump 2. A bypass was soon found and a further 750m of passage followed towards Agua, ending at another sump. In The Cueva del Rio Chico, Sump 2 was dived to a depth of -62m (ed. 2012 tied off at -37m) in a vertical shaft, still descending.

An entirely new system called Ogof Pen Buwch (ed. Cowshead Cavern) was discovered. This stream resurgence cave was followed upstream for 500m to a sump. This was dived for 100m to 110m of open stream passage. A 3m sump then surfaced into 500m of streamway, leading to sump 3 and a further 250m of side passages.