by Mike Perryman
Although Spain contains some of the largest karst areas to be found in Europe, its caves are still relatively poorly known. The British expeditions launched there in recent years have been directed almost without exception to the Cantabrian Mountains in the north, a region centred between Santander on the coast and Burgos, some 80 miles inland. To the east the Cantabrians merge into the Pyrenees, and throughout the north of the peninsula numerous magnificent systems are to be found: Gouffre Juhué has a 300m underground pitch; Carlista contains the chamber generally cited as the largest in the world (400m x 300m x 100m high); and near Burgos is the Cueva de Ojo Guareña with 70km of surveyed passage and the longest cave presently known in Spain.
University parties from Lancaster, Oxford, Manchester and others have visited Northern Spain numerous times in the past 20 years with some spectacular results (see, for example, any of the above club journals). Perhaps the focal point of this area is the highest part of the Cantabrian Mountains, the; range known as the Picos de Europa. Reaching nearly 3000m, the peaks are spectacularly beautiful, and there is still much being found in this area (ref. 1).
This article is a short introduction to the systems located further south, ir the Serranía de Cuenca. This is an area in which I have been caving with a group from the University of Madrid since being exiled to Spain. Many of the caves in this region are situated in the province of Cuenca, whose location is shown it the accompanying map. (In the following description, the name accompanying the cave is the 'municipio', and the number shows its location on the map). The province itself is centred on the old town of Cuenca; the Serranía range, at a altitude of between 1000-2000m, lies between the rich Levant plains and the Castillian Meseta; and the limestone (like much of that in the Cantabrians t the north) is Cretaceous.
Of especial interest to the student of karst phenomena are the spectacular 'torcas' found in the region - huge circular, water filled depressions reminiscent of the poljes of western Jugoslavia. There are two clusters of these torcas, one near the village of Cañada del Hoyo (1) on the road to Valdemoro de la Sierra, where the depressions average 50-100m in diameter. The collection at Palancares (2) consists of 20-30 torcas, up to 700m in diameter (Torca de las Mellizas) and up to 80m in depth (Torca de la Honda). A detailed (70 page!) study of these curious phenomena has recently been published (ref. 2). Of the numerous theories proposed over the years to explain their formation, the currently accepted view is of the collapse of overlying strata following the underground solution of cavities, although von Daniken has attributed their presence to impact by meteor shower!
The caves themselves are naturally not as spectacular as those of Northern Spain, but there would be sufficient to satisfy a modest tourist expedition. Being only an afternoon's drive from Santander, an expedition could even take in a bash or two from there. There are numerous significant shafts known in the region. Sima del Palancar (El Tobar, 3) has a 60m pitch landing in a pool; Sima de la Sierra (Olmeda del Rey, 4) is also 60m; Sima del Bancal de la Nevera (Tragacete, 5), Sima Torca de los Altos (Las Majadas, 6) and Sima de Tio Seis Dedos (Cuenca, 7) each have biggies of about 80m, and La Quebrada I (Fuentes, 8) tops the bill at 100m, although it is developed in a fault and is rather narrow all the way. These systems lack any major horizontal development, although Sima del Campo (El Pozuelo, 9) consists of a series of shafts with lakes and has a depth of 110m and a total length of 300m. The Cueva de Don Quijote (Beteta, 10) there had to be one! - has a chamber 60m long with splendid gour pools. Sima de Mata Asnos (Beteta, 11) is said to be 'long with huge passages and lakes' but I have no quantitative description of it.
Amongst the caves I have not yet visited are the longest in the province Cueva de la Solana (Valdecabras, 12) with 4km of sandy-floored passage averaging about 70cm in height; and the deepest in the province - Sima de Juan Herranz II (Valsalobre, 13). The latter region is densely wooded and contains numerous caves. The third pitch of Juan Herranz II is 55m and leads to several hundred metres of active streamway reaching the respectable depth of 175m.
To the north of Cuenca province there are other caves of comparable importance. We spent one beautiful weekend in the area of Cifuentes (literally 'One Hundred Springs') and visited the Majadillas de Sacecorbo, a few kilometres from the village of Sacecorbo. The system has about 5km of surveyed passage, including some splendid formations, big galleries, and an active streamway including a fairly constricted duck with a few centimetres of airspace. Wetsuits are virtually unknown locally, and this type of passage is the territory of hard-men only. I have very pleasant memories of our exit from Sacecorbo at about ten in the evening, having a spendid meal around a camp fire, and washing it down with the local sweet wine in a glorious setting.
My most recent excursion with the group did not see us underground, although the weekend was the most memorable that I have spent for some time. Our objective was the Cueva del Tornero which has over 10km of surveyed passage, and is one of the most important caves in central Spain. We had arranged to meet at 10am at Adolfo's house in the centre of Madrid. I can't remember now whether this had been arranged before, or at, the epic party they held the night before, but I do know that I arrived about an hour before the main hungover contingent. In accordance with their easy-going attitude to life, it wasn't until about 12.30pm that we emerged from the café opposite Adolfo's house (cavers are really the same everywhere), and with the cars blocking the flow of traffic, casually loaded the ropes, ladders, tents and the dinghy (the what??). We had to pick someone up on the way out of the city, and this seemed an opportune moment for them to flood out of the cars and into the appointed café, to indulge in a leisurely beer, coffee, or carajillo whilst they contemplated the weather - snow was now falling gently outside and the villages to the north were rumoured to be cut off by deep drifts.
200km and numerous carajillos later, and armed with snow chains for the cars, we found ourselves at the foot of the road up to the village of Chequilla just as darkness was falling. The chains were put on, and about an hour later we were comfortably ensconced in the village cafe, putting away carajillos and chatting with the locals: 'How did you get here, the roads are impassable?...' It was such an old-world, isolated, desperatly poor village, that I would not have been surprised to find that I was the first English person to visit the place since Borrow came to hand out guide-books. Unfortunatly, no one in our party had been to Tornero before, and it turned out that we were not in the best place to establish our base camp, since it would have been a very long walk in from the village, so off we went down the snow slope that passed for a road. It was certainly the most desperate drive I have ever done with the car sliding treacherously as I tried to keep up some speed. The drop to our left didn1t seen to worry my passengers - 'Rally!' they exclaimed, beaming as they exercised their English vocabulary and, I believe, enjoying every minute of it.
We stayed at Checa for the night; a picturesque village almost buried in snow. The villagers were exceptionally friendly: despite being offered beds for the night we put a tent up and slept there, disturbed only occasionally by the cold, the Guarda, or the wild boars that still roam the region. The following morning, after a late breakfast and a few carajillos to keep out the cold, we abandoned the cars and started walking to the cave entrance. The trudge of 12km in deep snow with poor visibility was beyond our stamina and enthusiasm. It was beautiful scenery (when the snow cleared for long enough for us to see anything) but we turned back with only about 6km behind us. A return visit is planned for the end of March.
So much for the caves of Cuenca. I am extremely grateful to the group from the University of Madrid for their hospitality during my stay, especially Adolfo Eraso, Jose Vicente Navarro and Jesus Ribelles for adopting me, and Teresa, Julia, Maria Teresa Lourdes, Felix, Antonio Joaquin, and Pepe for some splendid sessions, both above and below ground.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to cave with the group. Not only was their technical expertise of great pedagogical interest (I used their adopted rig for the prusik out of the massive Sima de Fraile, and found that the crossing of rebelays need not be quite as traumatic as I once thought), but also the climate can make caving through the winter months distinctly salubrious.
Finally, any article attempting to expose the lesser known caves of Spain must mention the caves of Mãlaga in the south. The above group had just returned from a New Year's Meet bashing the Sima del Republicano - a series of shafts, cascades and lakes reaching a depth of 202m. Not deep by continental standards, but, they claim, an excellent sporting trip. And there is a rumour, which doesn't seem to have leaked out of Spain until now, that the depth of the massive Sima GESM in the Sierra de las Nieves now stands at over 980mX. Exploration has been going on for years, although the Spaniards themselves are viewing the figure with a certain amount of reserve until the current detailed survey is completed. It is interesting to note that this depth, if substantiated (and if my figures are still up-to-date), displaces the Italian Splugas, Abissos and Antros from their places in the world depth records, and brings Spain into a new era of cave exploration.
Armchair boys, or those planning an expedition to the country, will be pleased to learn that cataloguing and classification of caves is a serious business, and an atlas of the big Spanish systems is to be published in the near future.
1 McKee, Descent 44, p 21, 1980
2 Eraso Romero, A. et al. Boletín 9, Grupo Espeleolõgico Viscaino, 1979
3 Recuerdosdel Futuro, 1973
X Sima GESM now stands at -1074 metres [editor]
Gouffre Juhué is the entrance to Sima de la Peña Blanca [editor]