9th-13th April 2015 – As part of the Buttered Badger Potholing Club I travelled to Northern Spain to assist in laser scanning the Torca del Carlista, one of the largest underground caverns in the world…
I had always assumed the flight was in the afternoon but after a proper check the day beforehand I realised it was at 6am, oh joy. The two Marks and I converged at Manchester airport in the wee hours and checked in for our dogleg of a trip to Bilbao.
We were mildly delayed in Frankfurt but this simply allowed the second flight to be in the air after noon and so an in-flight beer was fine. We landed in what seemed a deserted Bilbao airport mid afternoon and grabbed ourself a hire car for our 1 hour jaunt up to our digs in the small village of Ramales de la Victoria, which of course wasn’t in the satnav but was only around 10 minutes from the Carlista car park.
We did try to grab a few supplies on the way up the mountain but sadly Spanish shops are on siesta except for the hours of 11am-11:05am. This did however allow us to arrive first at the house (Casa Rural de Marta Ateca) and so get first pick on the bedroom. Team Verna were hot on our tails and slowly joined us at the house less than a hour after we had arrived.
Eventually the shops opened and we could grab supplies, which totalled two trolleys of beers, peanuts, and crisps more or less. We briefly delayed ourselves at the bar and then headed back to be well fed by our host Matra, who turned out to be a caving enthusiast herself. We had something in the region of 400m of rope to both cut into sensible sizes and then pack into bags that sadly had to be carried uphill. Pete from Spanset had kindly donated the rope for the trip (which I believe is going to end up as a prize on ukcaving.com). Food was eaten and beer was drunk and then it was time to catch up on last night’s sleep.
The morning was a bit of a slow start despite a relatively early wakeup of 8am. I’m not entirely sure where the time went but I feel it was around 10:30 by the time we got to the car park. My worst fear then hit me, there were no freshers around and so I would have to carry some bags, two in fact as it turned out, bugger! With pretty much everyone on the trip trained in some form of rope access rigging was set to be a doddle. Mark W took the rigging baton and Mark R and myself following behind with the extra rope that would be needed along the way.
The pitch through the rift was broken up into 26, 25, and 17m pitches culminating in a 84m free hang of certain doom. We had left a selection of todays none cavers on the surface doing a 3d scan of the entrance whilst we made our descent, hopefully with the system fully cooperating. The Marks rigged two freehang ropes down the 84m pitch to assist with speed on the way out and then they were off, sinking into the blackness as I casually swung around over a hole I could neither see the bottom or sides of.
I was mildly relieved when I finally reached the bottom, ignoring the fact that I had to climb out, that was a problem for future TomTom. Eventually today’s compliment of 7 cavers were at the bottom with today’s aim being to explore the chamber to get a grasp of how best to scan it, and also to find what would be worthy of photography by Carsten. The survey could be described as fairly vague but given the size of the chamber it would have been impracticable to show too much detail. We knew roughly what we had to do and so we set off via the floors highest point, really taking in the size of the place.
It quickly became apparent that our radios were a good plan as we managed to string ourselves out as we tackled the boulder floor. The place really had a bit of all sorts, from house sized boulders to gravelly scree slopes, sloppy mud which then merged to coral looking floor formations, 10m high stalagmites and flow stone towers formed into parallel columns.
From afar the constriction between the left and right parts of the Carlista seemed fairly tight, but as we approached we could tell that the floor dropped away quite rapidly leaving a maybe 20m tall gap as a ‘constriction’. The bottom of the chamber was some 200m below the top of the chamber and about 400m laterally, a reasonable slog but given the ever changing surroundings fairly interesting.Eventually we reached the end of the Carlista with a proper constriction, we almost had to stoop to get through it. Given how much it closed up here this would mark our limit of where we would 3d scan tomorrow. There is all sorts of arguments for defining the start and ends of a chamber, and if a chamber is in fact a passage but that’s more of a 3am gin induced discussion topic.
Since we were here we thought we might as well explore and so moved onto the section which seems to be called ‘Sala M. Iradier’ on the survey. This was the only place we wandered off course but it did allow us to see some very pretty formations, as well as the enjoyment of Mark W squirming up a muddy bank. After a 10 minute detour we were back on course and heading down a handline into the lowest chamber of our day, 225 metres below the top of the chamber and 375m from daylight, wonderful! Whilst I was route finding I accidentally led us through a squeeze into a very prettily decorated small chamber. With no red and white tape in sight it was nice to admire the formations in what was totally natural surroundings for a change, this sort of thing would be behind an armour plated door in certain parts of the UK!
It was time to about turn and we made break for the pitch. Despite worries about this cave being freezing it was certainly not, Mark R briefly joined Carsten as some sort of topless duet whilst the rest of us were down to t-shirts and sweat. The walk back uphill didn’t help the warmth situation and we all kind of wandered off in various directions to make sure nothing was missed on the way back up the hill. Carsten was obviously eying up shots as I was sent to the pinnacle of the chamber and passed messages over the radio of who I could see as people swarmed around the chamber below me. This was by far the best view of the chamber as I looked down on the ants with lights from my vantage point, very cool indeed!
Eventually we were all back at the pitch and ready to head out, I left my little survival daren drum at the bottom of the pitch for the rest of the weekend and given that most things carried up the hill were staying in the cave overnight it meant we could all climb out with almost nothing in our bags, bliss. We had a quick photoshoot with Mark W on the rope (the term quick being relative) and then actually made our way out. We seemed to go out in the same order we came in and so I was third up the ropes towards the sunshine. The climb wasn’t actually that bad once you got into it and after an amount of effort I can tolerate I had completed the 84m pitch. Was quite the view with the selection of people still at the bottom. From here on the rope was mostly against a wall and so rope walking was pretty easy and 32 minutes after I left the chamber floor I was into daylight. I perched myself on the comfiest rock I could find and relaxed as the others followed on. I have no idea how long we were in the cave for but I feel like saying 7 hours so I’ll go with that.
Eventually we were all back on the surface and heading back for the cars below. The hill is much easier going down and probably less than 10 minutes when you’re loadless. There were traditional mentions of ‘pub?’ but in the end we headed straight back to the house to say hello to team surface scan and team ill. The evening was spent drinking drinks and eating the feast Matra put on. We discussed our thoughts on how the scanning should go over the next two days and then drank some more. Eventually we decided that tomorrow was going to be a long day and so went to bed.
We were once again up at 8am and slightly more proactive than the previous morning. Andy and Chris would be joining us today as we got down to the proper laser scanning and photography. The walk up was a bit more pleasant with just a single bag but it was still a bit of a shame to leave the glorious sunshine. In a turn up for the books I faffed the least at the top and so I headed down into the cave first. Was a very cool experience with the headlight turned down low on the main pitch, all you could see was your orange rope disappearing into darkness both above and below you, total darkness in all directions.
Andy, Mark R, Pete and myself were due to help with the scanning work and so once we were all down we headed for the pinnacle of the rubble pile for our first scan of the chamber. Mark was given the honour of carrying around the scanner, Pete had the batteries and we fought over who would have to carry the bracket made of something along the lines of Osmium. I lost the battle but fortunately I would be called away later and therefore escape the task for the rest of the trip (mwah ha ha). The vague plan was to scan the Carlista in an approximate figure of eight pattern and hopefully catch every nook and cranny of the place. It was clearly going to be a long day as we wanted to get over half of the work done today so that the de-rigging day tomorrow didn’t end up a late one.
We scanned several positions down the boulder slope before I was called off to assist with the photography. This didn’t go amazingly to start with as my strobe didn’t seem to want to link up with the firing system but after several test runs it seemed my headtorch did the job sufficiently. Carsten was photographing some of the large stals at the central point of the Carlista, I look forward to seeing the results, hopefully a bit better than a screen grab from my GoPro! After about an hour of photography assistance I was released to return to the scanning guys, reuniting Mark with his lunch.
The floor was getting pretty messy with limited lines of sight and so I often found myself sent off ahead looking for vantage points to scan from. It’s a good way to see the place really, especially when the distance is getting lit up by Carstens strobes as he continued his photography work with the others.
Lunch was called when we hit the bottom of the lowest chamber, doing our best to stay out of the way of Carsten who was also down there taking some snaps. I definitely walked into one of his shots mid take though so apologies there! Sadly our position meant that from now on we’d be heading uphill with the scanner, starting off with a very muddy bank which needed scaling. The south west part of the Carlista was covered in huge shattered formations, they’d obviously toppled over many years ago and despite the carnage they still made for an impressive view.
The top of the lowest chamber was a very abrupt peak, falling away steeply at the back and with a fairly substantial crevasse running down its centre. We had planned to call it a day here as time was really getting on but it seemed one more scan turned into about six. The good news at least was that we had done over half the Carlista now and our figure of eight journey had brought us pack to the ‘constriction’ between the two chambers. It was a 150m slog uphill back to the rope where the very well timed photography party had begun their climb out. I can’t really remember what time it had now gotten to but I feel like saying 9pm wouldn’t be too far out.
I got to sit around for a while to recoup as I was due to be one of the last ones out. As it turned out I ended up as the last one out and began my climb up away from the total darkness, attempting to chase the others. The climb out really isn’t too bad if you’re not heavily laden, just a bit of a slog really. Eventually I popped out onto the surface and we made our dash back to the cars, getting home just just just before midnight.
Given the long day once the food was devoured the drinking didn’t last too long. We did however realise that in our haste to buy all sorts of beers we had picked up a few low alcohol ones, oops!
Again we were up bright and early fully aware of what was needed today. Given how sweaty yesterday had been I decided to dump the oversuit all together, wearing just my undersuit and my rather fetching pair of shorts over the top (you’re all just jealous!). This made the walk up the hill a bit more bearable but it was still stupid attire for marching up a hill in sunshine. We shot down the pitches and headed off to find where we had left the scanner, wanting to get started as soon as possible. Everyone was pretty well drilled with their respective jobs from yesterday as so we were soon bombing along again, although we did quickly realise that the eastern part of the main chamber did drop away more than we first thought. I went off to find a route down and see how much was down there whilst the other three carried on scanning above. Whilst waiting I came across a rather nice grotto in a little aven, the place really does have all sorts.
The bottom part of this chamber was very flat and so we were able to carry the scanner around a little without packing it away. This made for much quicker scanning but we did have to be very careful given how easy it would be to do the scanner some harm. The contours of the chamber around here gave some issues for lines of sight and so we would have to zig-zag our way back up towards the rope, this wasn’t a massive problem but did add a bit more work to the day. On our way back up the hill we came across a bit of a dump of old cans and carbide dust. It’s understandable to leave it in a pile like this, after all an empty can and some dust must weight many tonnes, far too much to carry out…
The day seemed to go very smoothly and as such we seemed to be back at the ropes before we knew it. A few hours had passed but still it seemed like no time at all. For completion we wanted to mount the scanner on its vertical bracket so that we could get several looks at the ceiling and the rift that led into the place. Everyone else was also returning at the point and so there are probably people all over the place in these last few scans.
Our work was finally done and it was looking like time to leave. We put some effort into using up our brew kit with several cups of coffee appearing but then sadly it was time to leave. There was a fair amount of gear to be lugged out which meant this wasn’t going to be a rapid exit. We decided we’d haul the two 100m ropes up from the surface with Mark W on de-rigging duties and Chris and Mark R waiting at various points on the way up to help guide the ropes past. I carried up our 70m ‘offcut’ which we could used to haul the two hundreds from the surface and once we had the pulley’s in place it was time to pull.
With several of us up there to pull it was actually far easier that I expected and in a matter of minutes we had 270m of rope up at the surface. Chris and Mark x2 soon joined us and it was time to head back to the cars for around 8pm, the Carlista well and truly done.
With no caving to be done tomorrow the night was filled with the task of polishing off the drink which I think was a task well done. We had to be off at 9am ourselves to catch a flight so there was at least some mild holding back.
The day was filled mostly with ‘would you rather’ questions and flying, with a brief pause in Munich along the way. We arrived back at Manchester for 5pm and headed our separate ways after a fabulous long weekend away.
Many thanks to those who organised the trip and then helped in many ways along the way. It was a fascinating experience with enjoyable times both above and below the surface. I look forward to seeing you all again and seeing the outcomes of the scanning and photography.
Descent video –
Various names I’ve seen on the survey’s, mostly to assist Google:
– Gran Sala Jon Arana
– Gran Sala Gev
– Gran Sala G.E. Vizcaino
– Torca del Carlista