To Sara or Bust?

Eastern Massif, Picos de Europa, Northern Spain

by Tim Nichols (Originally appeared in Caves and Caving No. 39)

Sara, a 600m deep cave explored in 1978 down a sporting streamway to sump well short of its potential. Were there high level routes to take us to greater depths, that existed in caves like 56? Much surface exploration over recent years had revealed little. Although a few mines led to deep systems, like Sara, hundreds didn’t go anywhere. Surface and mine exploration was becoming increasingly harder and more demoralising. Was Sara the only big lead in Andara and if so would she carry us on towards Agua?

This year enthusiasm was slow to kindle. Tresviso ’86, whilst being a small team, had worked so hard in Dossers to find so little. There were some surface finds to return to, but not enough to warrant a siege expedition. By the time the decision had been taken to return to Sara our source of experienced ‘Picos’ cavers had subsequently dwindled. By July, however, a team of 12 had been conned into venturing beneath the mountains of Andara.

The aging Landrover, after having been brought out of retirement once more, eventually arrived at the White House at the end of July. Our Belgian friends who had been working down in Sara in 1986, were approaching the last week of their expedition. Notes were compared and plans drawn up. The first week however, was partly spent working the ‘shallow’ caves in the Mazarrasa mine area.

Pozo del Castillo, a 300m deep system leading off a mine was explored in 1981 to a choke. The cave has much potential and was thought to be a likely feeder to the postulated system taking most of the Lake Depression water. The first trip down was to rig to the previous limit of a shingle choked crawl, with a strong draught. Alas, on reaching a point some 90m down, an aven made up entirely of snow was found to have partially collapsed blocking the exit from the chamber. The cave was left rigged with the explorers exiting with a bad dose of ‘snow-phobia’. Meanwhile, Clockwork Pot, found in 1986, was being rigged to the previous limit at -150m. The cave was thought to be part of the Castillo system, which was confirmed when the next pitch dropped straight into Pozo Natacha, explored in 1981. Clockwork did however provide a natural entrance and contains a superb 83m pitch.

At this point the first rigging trips were descending Sara and coming out again suitably impressed with the vastness of the 180m Heinous Shaft, made more exciting by the 3m pendulum at the top of it! A visit was made to the first part of the Belgian extension, ‘Rio Mancondiu‘. This small team had found this part of Sara in 1986 below the P24 at -300m. It was explored this year to a depth of -558m from Sara 2 and extends some 1.5km. Starting as a narrow rift it climbs up for approximately 30m before continuing down as a narrow rift. The extension is interesting as although it collects many inlets and has many fossil passages leading off, it never acts as a main drain as the waters quickly exit through the floor. The extension ends in a sump. This appears to be 20m directly above the Sara 2 sump. There may be a bypass but this may just drop into Sara 2, 1988 will no doubt tell us the answer.

The cave was rigged further down the main streamway, the old duck which having been bypassed the year previous made exploration subsequently drier. Two further pitches down, we were into ’87 extension. Starting as a climb from a chamber, it led over large holes in the floor to a large, loose abandoned passage. Exploration was hampered by loose rock which coined names like Lepers Lament (because everything you touched dropped off) and Poltergeist passage. The end came in the form of a superb 46m pitch back into the ’78 streamway. Two tests immediately confirmed our location. Firstly, dye put in the streamway higher up the cave had turned the water beautifully green, and secondly, the finding of a ladder dropped on a deep detackle by a notable duo in 1978!

Further down the cave a number of high level oxbows were explored, but all were found to drop back into the streamway. Photography and surveying often accompanied rigging trips. Much more passage was found in the sump area. An inlet just before the sump provided excitement as the explorers descended a pitch into a separate streamway- leading straight into the other side of the Sara sump! Another series led in a giant loop via several climbs and pitches and was by far the prettiest bit we had yet discovered in the cave. Meanwhile, exploration in the mine network resulted in the discovery of Sara 4 a short length of natural passage dropping into Sara 1 at the bottom of the first pitch. The last 3 days then saw the derigging of the cave in as many trips, a superb effort by all those involved.

Whilst all this was going on the Sara survey was drawn up, the first ever plan and grade 5 survey. The cave was found to head north west and then west to arrive directly under the sump at the end of ‘Rio Mancondiu’! The depth had somewhat shrunk since 1978 to -578m below Sara 2. Sara 3 comes in 13m higher up the Heinous Shaft and is a great cure for constipation, not that this was an expedition problem!.

Dave returned to Castillo only to find the snow had collapsed even further trapping the rope left there three weeks previous! Jess went off for many happy, solo hours in 55, rigging, rerigging and eventually detackling to get no further than the 1985 limit! Work was carried out in the Sierra de la Corta, proving again what again an important area this is. There is a distinct possibility of a route existing from this area in to the far reaches of Agua.

Sara has still tremendous potential. The high level development below -400m is very complex and much more time would be needed to unravel its complexity. It is however a superb sporting cave by any standard and hopefully future visits will find a new way on.

Next year should see the sorting out of various loose ends and exploration further away from the White House, higher up the mountains of Andara, and almost certainly a link will be found from the caves in the Sierra de la Corta into la Cueva del Agua.

Many thanks are extended to all those who helped with the expedition.

In particular to:
Sports Council of Great Britain, Ghar Parau, Troll, Inglesport, Sunwheel Foods, Mattersons, Ringtons, AB Optimus, Pasta Foods, Tate and Lyle, Phoenix Mountaineering, Camera Care Systems, Cheshire Wholefoods, Lyons Bakery, Vango (Scotland) Ltd. Mountain Equipment, Kodak

and to:

Fee, Pete Iles, Colin Boothroyd, Dave Checkley, Jos and all out Belgian friends, LUSS, MUSS and SUCPC.