Profile of an Expedition to Northern Spain

Tim Nichols

Good afternoon everybody,

My name is Tim Nichols. I have been involved in cave exploration in Northern Spain from 1986, rather a latecomer in the scheme of things, but I have been fortunate to be involved in both organising well established expeditions where all the preliminary research and exploration had been done, and also organising pioneering ones to virgin territory.

I am going to present to you a profile of organising an expedition to Northern Spain. Many of you are familiar with the some of the work that has been carried out here particularly by groups such as LUSS, MUSS, York, Oxford and more recently a small group of cavers from several of these clubs going under the guise of Proyecto Llambrion.

There are several major caving areas in Northern Spain and this talk is generic to all of them but does take into account some of the more harsher terrain such as is found for example in the Picos de Europa.

All of the topics covered today are equally applicable to many areas in Europe and I would like to concentrate on these four major areas:

  1. Research & Permission
  2. Planning & Training
  3. Fieldwork
  4. Reports

Whatever your objectives are it is essential that at an early stage you make contact with the Spanish Caving Federation, even if you have not planned to the detail where to go they will be helpful in advising. Talk to other groups that have worked in or near the area proposed. Old veterans will be more than happy to help and will probably go on about it for hours ..... Contact any French/Polish groups who have also done much work in the area, and do research through the BCRA library. Do contact the local or provincial Spanish Federation -at a minimum they have libraries full of all expedition reports to their area, and the Spanish journals tend to be of very good quality.

If you already have contact with Spanish cavers ask them to help you. They again will be only to glad to help. Bear in mind that it is unlikely that the Spanish Federation will grant autonomy to your expedition to work in an area unless either the area has never been worked or the club currently with permission has not been active for 3 years or more.

If you can tie up with a Spanish team so much the better. The whole problem of permission just disappears, they are great fun to work with and they can often source cheaper gear and the best restaurants, etc.....

Every year a different part of Spain obtains the status of a national park and in these areas not only is permission for cave exploration required but also permission to camp outside of designated camping sites. Beware you could be turfed off the mountain side if you don't have suitable proof.

Caving permission for "tourist" trips is generally no problem whatsoever, but the local Guardia Civil will checkup, believe me!

The route to obtaining permission has certainly become more streamlined although don't expect anything to happen overnight or even manana. So do allow time.

Look at your objectives carefully: How well do you know the area; What is the terrain like, What are the caves like. What is the weather likely to be.

These points are very important. If we take the Picos as an example most of the deep caves lie at 1 800m altitude and above so the air is thinner. Often long walks are necessitated from the nearest point of access or even the nearest suitable base camp. Water supply can be a problem. It can be unbearably hot during the day and very cold at night. Violent thunderstorms occur regularly throughout the summer months. Below 2000m altitude mist comes down for days obscuring virtually all vision. In winter the whole landscape is under metres of snow.

As for the caves, these are nearly all vertical with sections of tight horizontal passages, loose rock, difficult rigging and some very big drops. The grading system of English caves simply does not apply .....

So be realistic with the team experience and the numbers required. A reconnaissance or preliminary exploration trip is probably best achieved with a small group of experienced cavers. A larger established expedition must consist of a suitable ratio in numbers between experience cavers, those that know the caves and area and those with little experience or their first expedition.

Work with people you know and can trust. Teamwork is vital and the popular guy in the pub is often the worst companion you could wish to have on a 3 day underground camp. To ensure that you all come home friends make the choice right before you go out!

Take someone that has a reasonable grasp of the Spanish language. Most Spanish do not speak English! Besides it is another measure of courtesy.

Do not underestimate the amount of gear required. As an example the Proyecto Llambrion expedition last year used over 3km of rope and carried an estimated 3 tonnes of equipment and food up (and down) the mountain. The combined overall cost was not far short of £20k most of which was spent on equipment and food. In this case we still ran out of rope ....

What additional equipment might we otherwise overlook that is required. I list a few examples.

Water bottle both for above ground and for below ground (water is rarely met before 300 to 400m depth).

A toothbrush for cleaning jammers to help stop them slipping on muddy ropes, which occur however good the rigging.

Third jammer for rope walking/frog hybrid or in case of muddy ropes.

Cycling shorts to protect against groin rub.

Gloves. Muddy ropes normally end up cutting hands.

Carbide pigs (car tyre inner tubes to carry carbide)

Obviously don't over do the amount of gear needed. Here experience does help and it is best to talk to a previous expeditioner that has been in this situation.

Camping equipment is also important. A good surface tent is required for the kitchen/communal area. Storms will blow large frame tents down so use an alternative type of tent or improvise, for example tying a large tarpaulin sheets over a big rock crevice. What else do you need for the underground? Do you have containers to collect snow or water? What fuel will you use -paraffin for example is unobtainable in Spain.

Make sure that there is equipment to allow "brew stops" in the cave -typically a stove, fuel, water bottle, billy tin, sugar, sugar/salt mixture, soup, tea, coffee, noodle, chocolate.

Don't forget either medical arrangements nor suitable insurance. If you are a member of the Spanish caving federation the free insurance on home ground applies as it does in the UK and there is never a problem with logistics in times of a claim -a helicopter will be straight out!

Food and many small items are best bought in Spain. This saves on carting vast amounts of gear which could easily be bought over there. A perfect example of this is carbide -very easily obtainable in most Northern Spanish villages it is both cheap and good.

How will the team get there? This depends very much on personal budgets. Individual ways to get there include, and these do vary in frequency with the season:

Ferry: Plymouth -Santander or Portsmouth -Bilbao twice per week
Bus: 24 hour service operating from Victoria, London to Santander twice per week
Plane: Direct flights from Heathrow to Bilbao, twice daily
Car: Either direct to Spain or through France.

The latter option is probably essential for much of the equipment that is being transported from the UK. Don't under estimate the costs here. A flight in the summer months is between £230 and £290. To take just one car will cost £240 on the ferry/chunnel, £120 in tolls and £230 in petrol.

I have discussed the rigors of caving out in Spain. Do not underestimate a good training programme. If you have team members that have no SRT experience then get them trained and to practice changing over without a light on a muddy rope in a tight rift -it happens .... If you have plenty of experience still get fit. The altitude, high temperature and terrain take it out of the system before you have even got underground. Yes we have all been on expeditions when we haven't been fit to start with but achieved fitness by the end -but why waste valuable time in the field when you can be raring to go before hand.

All of these points involve cost. If you have to buy some equipment as well as your insurance, contribution to the expedition funds, food and travel, plus some money for beer, you will be looking at a personal cost of between £600 and £1000.

In the field make sure that you spend initial time setting a good base camp. Make it a second home -it is worth it. Ensure that people who are not caving organise the shopping, cook food, clear up the kitchen area, collect water, take rubbish away, etc. and rota this regularly so that the burden is not on one particular person or group.

Prospecting -work hard. Research the geology of the area. For example in the Picos concentrate on the ridges as most holes in the depression are choked. You will have to "shaft bash", i.e. go down many holes only to find that 90% of them are choked with boulders and snow. But caves will "go" and you'll have a much greater chance of finding a deep cave than winning the lottery!

Keep the size of the pushing/surveying team relatively small between 2 and 4 is an ideal number.

Keep a daily record of all events relating to the expedition, even down to weather. It is impossible to recall these after the event, it is actually good fun writing up discoveries after a trip prospecting or underground, and it makes the task of writing the final expedition reports so very much easier. Write up all trips whether prospecting, exploration, rigging or detacking, whether successful or not. Others will learn from the experience.

The same applies to survey information. Survey what you find, calculate it and draw it up as soon as possible thereafter. Its exiting to see how far you have gone or how deep the cave is...

Plan photographic trips carefully. To photograph the upper half of a cave the team can afford extra trips, but at depth photography is likely to be included with pushing, surveying and possibly derigging.

Also take a note of the rigging information -length of rope, belays, etc. It helps when preparing an installation guide and is of tremendous benefit to the next year's team in rerigging the cave.

Do review objectives. Things do not always go to plan. Rearrange programmes if need be for the benefit of all. As an example one of the 1995 Llambrion objectives was a "fast going" cave at 130m which looked set to connect with the main system at 600m or below. This ended on the first trip at -150m. The team picked themselves up, spent a week with little success on the prospecting side and then found a total of over 900m of new vertical cave including a major system explored to 540m and still going! The other half of the team reached a depth goal in the main system but in comparison only explored 350m of new vertical cave!

It is all teamwork. Help out, share tasks, discuss problems, sort out disputes and most of all have fun. Expedition comradeship is second to none.

Reports are absolutely vital. Remember that the discoveries of today are the tourist trips of tomorrow. Caves that once took years to be explored are now some of the world classics. Even some of the deep caves explored in the Picos a decade ago are being frequented by sport cavers now.

By providing the Spanish authorities with a timely and comprehensive report you will ensure continued and protected permission and rights to the area, easing the process for others in future years.

That ends my presentation. Please do ask me further questions over a pint later. I will gladly help with anyone requiring further details, addresses, etc. and will translate sensible amounts of Spanish literature if you feed me with enough beer. Cave exploration in Northern Spain is superb. But beware it is very much like a drug -it does become addictive! Go for it!

Thanks for you attention and Hasta la Vista.

Tim Nichols

10 February 1996

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