Just Another Day in Matienzo

During the Summer of '94 I took the opportunity, with other members of Croydon CC, y to participate in the Matienzo'94 expedition. Six years had passed since my previous I visit. What follows is, at worst, a personalised account of one expedition day. At best, perhaps, it might tempt others to become involved...

The sun burns through the mist hanging in the enclosed valley forming the Matienzo basin. The tent warms to the point of discomfort. The sound of a gas stove nearby gives a welcome suggestion of tea to assist rehydration after another night at Pablo's bar.

Rising stiffly, I flex the limbs that are gradually becoming used once more to the rigours of regular caving trips. Paul is already preparing breakfast as, little by little, the expedition camp crawls delicately to life. Sam and Adrian join us and we quietly force down as much muesli and powdered milk as we can stomach. As a special breakfast treat we cook a large quantity of eggy bread - much admired by other camp members passing to and from the expedition wash-house.

More tea follows and the daily ritual of kit maintenance begins. My new (!) oversuit already sports numerous rips, tears and gaping rents - virtually beyond sensible repair with the limited resources available. My backup suit is marginally worse. We slowly motivate ourselves for another trip into Colmenas - a flood resurgence first noted in 1982, which has kept us occupied since our arrival almost a week ago.

As other parties prepare for their own trips I vainly attempt to keep track of the tackle. Who has taken what kit underground to rig which pitches? How long until a new drum of carbide will be needed? Has the drill been charged overnight? Where are the new drill-bits that everybody swears were purchased before the expedition started? Somehow I had found myself co-opted as expedition tackle-master on the first night in camp. One of penalties perhaps of being the first carload to arrive. Still at least there is a proper tackle store now, complete with electric points for battery charging. An array of multiway adapters and extension leads testifies how electric lighting has overtaken carbide in popularity.

It was only at Easter '94, during a reconnaissance trip, that Paul Stacey and Sam Liebnitz had checked a small choke, previously dug by Lane Mills and Pedro in 1986, and forced a way through to a constricted canal. At that time the canal was half full of water, and being constricted in nature the duo opted to turn around when they reached a boulder requiring the minimising effects of a lump hammer. This was, after all, a reconnaissance trip and had yielded just the sort of lead needed for the Summer expedition. On just our first caving day the rock was passed by Sam and Adrian as Paul and I followed up, surveying as we went. Juan Corrin, the expedition leader, had sceptically promised us free beer if the cave went more than 100m...

Arriving at a small field we change and prepare to re-enter the cave. We are now well into the mid-morning sun and a strong, cool, draught emanates from the cave entrance some 10m above the valley floor. Rob Murgatroyd from Chelsea 88 has joined us today and we intend to split into 2 exploratory parties. As quickly as the awkward nature of the cave allows, we pass numerous squeezes as we follow the sharp walled canal. Soon we have passed the 100m point celebrated after just our first trip along "Free Beer Passage". Was it just a week since we first passed this point? It seems much longer! A very awkward s-bend is passed, followed by a further squeeze, and then we are in slightly larger passage with some reasonable formations. Ducking under some roof pendants we are able to make forward progress and are soon confronted by an eyehole that we pass on our sides. On the other side we approach a short drop into a periodically flooded pot. When full this is just passable by wading.

The nature of the passage changes again as we have to thrutch up and along some oversuit shredding rifts. I have to remove my lamp and helmet yet again. This Section seems to have become the crux to me - the bastard bit that must be passed to access the greater part of the cave. Several clean wet crawls must now be negotiated until we are well underway along some fine streamway. Clean black limestone walls are punctuated by striking white lines of marbled veins. Indeed the going now is rather pleasant - following the gentle flow upstream until passing beneath a large poised block - "The Hangover" - we arrive at the muster point - an opportunity to re-distribute kit and compose oneself having completed what is now considered just the entrance series!

Today Sam, Adrian and Rob arc attempting to push Westward, at the far reaches of "White Mischief" in the hope that eventually a connection with the furthest reaches of the maze-like Torca de Calleja Rebollo (Toad-in-the-Hole) can be made. Meanwhile Paul and I are to re-enter a high-level canyon - so far only explored to a greasy calcite climb below a window at roof level in "The Play School Series.'

The canyon averages some 6m in height and is 1-2m wide. Draughting well it soon chills our sodden undersuits. We quickly survey up to the base of the climb. Although free-climbable it is clear that this will become very slippery with use, so Paul rigs from a natural belay in the form of a large stal boss and lowers a second ladder beyond. With some excitement I join him, ready to push on into virgin territory. The cave here is forgiving and reveals some fine formations including a superb single stalactite hanging like the sword of Damocles. Strangely, because we are surveying as we explore, the thrill of exploration seems to be dampened by the task. A small price to pay.

Following the draught and surveying as we go, Paul ferrets out the way on whilst I pause to painstakingly update the vital survey notes. Making business-like progress there seems little chance to wonder at the form of the cave passage. There is work to be done! Soon an area of blood-red stal is encountered and a peculiarly formed piece is found lying in the stream-bed. I jest that it looks like an elongated smoked mackerel and it is reverently laid upon a sandbank - immortalised as the dweller of "Mackerel Passage"!

The passage opens wider and a steep calcite ramp with the appearance of toffee flows down the left wall. The cave gives the impression of getting bigger! However this quickly degenerates and further ferreting is necessitated. The draught is less easily detected but a bedding passage soon yields progress high on our right. Pushing forward - still surveying as we go we must take care to minimise damage to the maze of pristine straws, columns and helictites.

The passage eventually degenerates yet has the feel and smell of being close to the surface. Indeed roots are seen acknowledging just how close we are. No sign of daylight or easy dig to the surface can be found however. We have been underground for almost 7 hours as we finally seal the precious notes into a watertight container. Shivering in the draught we conclude that perhaps subsequent radio-location and digging will provide a welcome 2nd entrance.

As we return at a normal caving pace we are at last able to enjoy the newly explored passages as though already on a tourist trip. We pause near the calcite flow and locate another draughting window - another magnet to draw us back on a subsequent trip.

Without further event we methodically make our way back through the entrance series. I am pleased to negotiate further obstacles without having to remove helmet, lamp and belt. Perhaps I will eventually manage to negotiate the whole entrance series without making these annoying adjustments. Is it my imagination or is the cave getting easier - perhaps I am just getting fitter, leaner and more used to the ways of caves once more. Certainly the sharp calcite protrusions seem less able to catch me. With some relief we
reach surface and the discoveries of the day already seeni remote.

Having showered, over dinner we compare notes with the other 3 and look forward to processing the data in the bar. Indeed when Juan finally arrives we move straight through to the expedition office at the back of Pablo's new restaurant. We gather expectantly around his computer loaded with his own survey-data processing software. This machine - known by some as "Juan's Bullshit Generator" - and the data collected over the last 20+ years really are the lynch-pin of the whole expedition.

Gathered reverently around the computer the atmosphere is intense. The best seats are reserved for the surveyors as the data is read out, station by station, and fingers flash across the keyboard. With each survey leg a comment on the passage section or other notable feature is included - an invaluable aid to future explorers wishing to tie in to the existing survey. Spectators are tolerated though are shamed into silence if they cause interruptions. In no time our soggy mud and pencil notes are upon the screen -converted into a clear centre line survey increasing the extent of the known cave. This is soon rotated, expanded, sectioned and plotted during the course of great debate. The caves nearby are retrieved from disk and their relation with Colmenas checked - again from all angles and elevations. Finally the newly surveyed sections are plotted on plain paper. This will later be aligned by cross-hairs with the main survey transparency and the passage detail added by hand.

Clues to further exploration are hotly debated as we retire once more to the bar. The objectives for the next trip are already being compiled. Other expedition members take interest in the days finds but avoid committing themselves to a subsequent trip. Still, Steve and Helen will be here soon - perhaps they can be persuaded to assist.

And so another Matienzo day draws to a close. Perhaps a day off is warranted, to relax a little, draw up the survey, re-mend the oversuit again and prepare oneself physically and spiritually for another push into the unknown.

Epilogue: During the 1994 Summer Expedition Colmenas was pushed to just over 2.2 kilometres and linked to Fuente el Escalon by Paul Stacey, Steve and Helen Wray when they pushed a further leg of the Play School Series to encounter a dive line. The sump had previously been passed in 1981 to the constricted draughting passage. The survey was closed and the Sistema Colmenas-Escalon realised. Elsewhere several avens were noted and 2 side passages left unsurveyed. A big choke at a right angle bend was inspected which might yet yield a high-level extension, though Paul was unable to find a route up around this formidable obstacle. A single trip in Summer 1995 was made and one of the side passages pushed for 90m and is still going. Whilst no major easy leads appear to remain there is still further work to do in this cave, Just 1 of 1000 known speieological sites investigated over the last 25 years. Colmenas provided the longest surveyed cave extension during the 1994 expedition.

References: Matienzo '94, Juan Corrin, Caves and Caving, Issue 66.

Chris Fry