Matienzo Expedition 1988

In search of even damper places to send the summer holidays a mixed group of six CCC tigers and KOF's (KOF = knackered old fart (whatever they are. Ed)) Tony Fifield, Chris Fry, Carl Gibbs, Guy Jackson, Mike Latham and Paul Stacey narrowed the list of possible venues, never long down to one - Matienzo. The research carried out, permits applied for and the trip meticulously planned, Wednesday 10th August duly saw them bound for Northern Spain. As it turned out, it rained rather less than it could have done, though more than it should. A goodly amount of caving was undertaken, even by the KOF's, and the group were party to some fairly significant discoveries in some of the many caves in the area that are still "going". A considerable amount of surface reconnaissance work was carried out with some possible new leads established for the future. Also the deepest cave in the area, Azilicueta, was entered with the objective of pushing a hitherto unexplored section to some sort of conclusion. This particular venture, as will shortly be explained, came to an inglorious and sticky end perhaps before it should. To mitigate against the daily round of arduous toil underground, the group allowed itself an occasional visit to the beach. These excursions were, however, restricted to a minimum (honest).

Matienzo is located in an enclosed depression approximately 30km south-east of Santander in the province of Cantabria. Two MUSS cavers "discovered" the valley one morning in 1973, while travelling home from the Picos de Europa. Full of mist at the time, the valley was clearly reminiscent of the poljes of Yugoslavia and their enthusiasm aroused, the two carried out a short reconnaissance of the area. A number of caves were discovered; most of them already known but many bearing the promise of fresh discoveries. On returning to the UK the description of the valley, suitably embellished, generated considerable enthusiasm amongst the other club members and the wheels were set in motion for a return the following year.

The expedition of 1974 succeeded in extending and surveying a number of the known caves in the valley but more significantly, several new caves were explored. In the southern extremity of the valley known as La Vega, Cubio de la Refiada was pushed and surveyed to a len9th of approximately 43skm. Attention was not confined to Matienzo alone. A search of the valley of Riaflo to the north-west revealed two new caves which were labelled imaginatively Riañnos 1 and 2. Riaño 2, later renamed Uzueka, was to provide the inspiration for explorations culminating in the third longest cave on the peninsula. On returning to the system in 1975, a dismally wet crawl was pushed to an inlet series which, by good fortune, bypassed the sump that had halted progress the previous year. This obstacle overcome, successive exploration teams extended the length of the cave to 12km, often surveying in excess of 2km per day. As the length of the cave increased however, exploration became increasingly more arduous and in the years that followed, only 5km or so was added to this initial bonanza. Enthusiasm continued unabated however, due to another significant find to the north of Matienzo in the valley of Llueva. 'Biggo" was extended and proved to be a significant link in what had become known humorously as the Four Valley System. The water in Uzueka had been dye traced to Secadura 7km to the north of Matienzo, as had the main river sink of Matienzo known as Carcavueszo. In between lay the valley of Llueva in which little of si9nificance was known until 1976 when Biggo was discovered. Like Uzueka, Biggo was not ready to reveal all its secrets at once, and it was not until 1985/86 that Uzueka, Carcavueszo and Biggo were finally connected. The system was further extended when Riaño 1 and Uzueka were joined, producing a cave with a total length in excess of 33km.

The years between 1976 and 1985 were not ones of inertia and fresh discoveries continued to made elsewhere in the area. It was a bad years caving that failed to "bag" less than 5km of passage explored and surveyed. In La Vega, Coteron de Beralta was discovered in 1981, high up above Cubio de la Reñada to which the system was eventually connected in 1982. Further south, Azpilicueta was discovered and also connected to Reñada, providing Matienzo in the process with its deepest cave system. Further discoveries in this part of the valley have combined to produce a complex with a length in excess of 20km.

Also in 1981, Toad in the Hole was discovered on the other side of La Vega. Such new discoveries, far from rendering the task of understanding the hydrology of Matienzo easier, merely succeeded in clouding the issue. Many evenings were wiled away in the bar as one theory after another was advanced to explain the part fossil systems such as Toad and Coteron might have played in the genesis of Matienzo's complicated hydrology. One fact always stood out at the conclusion of these discussions - much remains to be accomplished before the story can be said to have fully unfolded.

Returning to the adventures of the Croydon 6, the first cracks in our military style planning began to appear when on reaching Plymouth, it was discovered that the group was blessed with only one Primus stove of dubious function. The ensuing foray into a branch of Blacks succeeded in obtaining a petrol stove but contrived to mislay Carl who was eventually found with little more than half an hour to spare before the embarkation of the Quiberon, our boat to Santander. Carl's continuing maverick behaviour culminated in a staggering display of projectile vomiting on the event of his birthday, half way through the holiday.

On reaching Spain, Paul's car, our only transport, was used to shuttle the bodies and gear to Matienzo. Under the guidance of Chris, order was restored and a corner of the campsite was annexed for Croydon's use. The tents pitched and equipment set in order, we retired for a hard evenings sitting in the bar to consider which cave to explore the following day. Juan (Ju-Ju) Corrin, member of MUSS and long standing expedition leader, suggested that we might start by limbering up in Azpilicueta where an undescended pitch held the promise of further extensions. As already mentioned, Azpilicueta is Matienzo's deepest pothole and at the prospect of a descent, the group found itself overtaken by a fit of extreme enthusiasm. Even the KOF's experienced vague flutterings in their frail arteries, though this sensation was not to last.

Azpilicueta is situated quite high up above La Vega and the slog up to it with all the gear proved quite wearing, especially for the more elderly of the group. In the event, only Guy, Paul, Mike and Carl made the descent after the KOF's, rueing the rash promises made in the bar the night before, realised that the earlier visceral excitement had owed its origins more to flatulence rather than any real feeling of enthusiasm. The undescended pitch did not prove as straightforward as Ju-Ju's description indicated. The head of the pitch was liberally covered in glutinous mud and the initial attempts to rig a rope met with failure as satisfactory bolt emplacements proved hard to find. Assaults made on the shaft during subsequent trips met with a similar fate, and the cave was finally detackled with the intrepid team never to descend it again.

Substantial numbers of Croydon man-hours were spent exploring and extending Toad in the Hole, a cave whose tortuous meanderings through the hills to the south of Matienzo defy integration into the area's hydrological scheme of things. Until this year, Toad had remained a relatively minor system, interesting in that it occupies an area with little other cave development, but not very significant in its own right. However, just before the Croydon team arrived in Matienzo, the insane acrobatics of another expedition member succeeded in negotiating a particularly awkward climb which set the scene for about 2½kni of fresh exploration. Carl and Guy were the first of the Croydon team to venture into the system, accompanied by Jim Davies (the caver with the suicidal perchant for reckless climbs), and one or two others. The team succeeded in pushing and surveying an additional 1400 metres of the care before time forced a return. Very little of the cave is actually horizontal, often degenerating into a three-dimensional maze involving sustained periods of traversing. Thus although the overall length of the cave is not very great, surveying trips to the end could take anything up to twelve hours to complete.

Mike & Paul joined the next trip into Toad as did Tony, who was eventually bludgeoned into putting aside his zimmer frame having manfully kept up his KOF image for only a few days. This, the last pushing trip of the expedition, succeeded in surveying an additional 700 metres. The prospects for Toad are still very good as there are numerous unpushed leads awaiting attention. There is little doubt that with plenty of effort in the future, this enigmatic system will yield yet more surprises and the prospects are good for linking into Cubio do la Reñada and other caves in the area.

Little remains to be said with regard to the caving front. Toad and Azpilicueta were detackled and a number of tourist/photographic trips were organised. Surface work was carried out on Beralta and Muella, two areas where very little is known by way of cave development, and one or two trips were made up to the pass of Alisas just south of Matienzo in the hope that a back entrance into Toad might be found. The prospects for fresh discovery are excellent, and cavers keen to explore "new stuff" could do worse than spend two or three weeks in Matienzo.

Before finishing off, it would be worth saying a few words about our camp site. The field, pleasantly shaded by oak trees though it was, was shared with a variety of noisy quadrapeds which, together with the faecal exudations from a recently constructed cowshed right at its centre, combined to render the facility less than perfect. A particularly unsavoury feature of our stay was the conspiracy perpetrated by the more anti-social of the village's dogs. These animals, with acres of open land available to them, clearly thought it would be a jolly good weaze to use our small corner as a latrine. Paul's rucksack and Mike's helmet were frequent sites for their attention, as was any spot where an unwary camper was likely to put his foot. The camp sank to even 9reater depths of unspeakableness following Carl's fire extinguisher impersonation brought about by too much birthday plonk, but that's another story.

In conclusion, the reader might regard this article as being unduly frivolous and feel that more attention could have been given to the caving. All true - however no apology is made for this as some excellent accounts have been pub ii shed elsewhere on the explorations in Matienzo and, with my memory going, I cannot remember very much of what we did anyway.

Tony Fifield