Lago Ercina

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 The Battle of
 El Mazuco

Expedition log, Summer 1985

A transcription of the Speleogroup logbook.

La Franca, Fuentica, La Hermida/Bejes, Los Lagos, Llanes etc.

07.08 The expedition gets off to an inauspicious start when Bill’s car is broken into in Milan just before he leaves Italy.  Last-minute shopping expeditions on both side of the Channel manage to replace most of the stolen gear, however, and both arrive at Bilbao on schedule and properly equipped.

Leave the airport about 18:00, drive west (Torrelevega, Santillana, Comillas); arrive at La Franca campsite at approx 21:30 – same proprietor and family as before.  Pitch tents (new one for Bill) and then off to El Horno for dinner at 22:00 (an hour earlier than 1983).  Chorizo, bonito, and some good white Rioja – somehow two bottles are quaffed.  Back to campsite, and a short walk down to the beach before turning in.

08.08 (Surprisingly) up at 08:00(!).  Find coffee at the Purón campsite, then on to Purón village to sort out gear and eventually start up the hill towards the cave at about 10:20. 40 minutes finds us at the entrance to El Cuevón de Pruneda. To delay things, somewhat, we have a look over nearby saddle.  Sure enough there is a small stream and a sink there, and several depressions. Near the edge of the hill, discover a cave developed on a fault line – Bill descends and explores all 20 feet of it (depth and length). Having got a fairly full complement of scratches, etc., return to Pruneda cave entrance to don wetsuits and gear.

All this enthusiasm was due to the excitement of the first day, and assisted by the complete absense of any hangover from the day before. However, to avoid any crawling we entered the cave by the north entrance, at noon.  Progress down the ‘known’ cave (see 1983.07.30 and 1983.08.02) was fairly leisurely with detours to explore side passages.  This time brighter quartz-halogen Speleotechnics lamps allowed us to appreciate the full size of the passage – 5m wide and 10m high.  Wearing the tacklebag as a rucksack was no problem in this kind of walking passage.  However, across the climbs and pools it was sometimes necesssary to pass the tackle.

Below a short 3m ‘ramp’ our gaze lingered over the trivial 1m lip of rock which had caused Bill so much trouble in 1983. With contempt we plunged into the deep pool beyond.  Maybe contempt would have been tempered had we not been wearing wetsuits and had we had to return upstream.

We soon reached our previous limit of exploration at the head of the first pitch.  Unlike 1983 there was water cascading down the pitch itself, as well as the main waterfall to the left.  Bill rigged the 5m pitch with the 30m stretchy nylon rope doubled.  At the bottom of the pitch, as expected, there is a deep pool into which the water thunders.  The continuation forces the unwary traveller directly under the main force of the water! Very exhilarating.  ‘Quite wet.’

After a few score metres the main stream disappears and the passage continues in silence through a narrower section of climbs and stagnant pools.  One of these climbs, 3m, was identified as the second pitch and tackled with the 10m Bluewater rope for safety.

50m downstream one reaches the third pitch which we attempted to rig with a 6mm nylon cord plus slings as a handline.  Prudence dictated that this would not be adequate so Bill returned to pitch 2 to retrieve the Bluewater 10m rope.  Unfortunately although pitch 2 is easily free-climbable down, for safety reasons Bill decided to leave a handline for climbing up (we always needed to be able to retreat and exit from the top entrance should the cave be blocked or there be any other problem).  The only available handline was the slings, so back to the third pitch.  Meanwhile Mike was getting cold.  A second return trip was then made to swap tackle and Mike then abseiled down into the canyon/rift of the third pitch.  Due to the noise of falling water (the main stream re-enters half-way down) we arranged for a series of 5 whistle blasts to indicate that the resurgence entrance had been found and that Bill should return to the first pitch to retrieve the 30m rope (actually it was just possible to shout).

Mike called up the pitch asking for the only remaining tackle, the 5m nylon cord, to rig a short climb below the pitch.  Actually the climb requires no tackle but, again, prudence dictated that all precautions be taken.

Meanwhile Bill was getting cold at the top of the third pitch but Mike soon returned, declaring that the exit had been reached.  He ascended the third pitch/ramp using only a hand-jammer with rapidity and the two set off for pitch 1 to retrieve the 30m rope having confirmed that an exit was definitely possible downstream.

Both cavers returned to the bottom of pitch 1 and the 30m rope was pulled down easily.  Whilst Mike plaited the rope, Bill, hot from the climb up, had a hair wash under the waterfall.  The force of the water on the scalp, or the sound on the helmet, is most exhilarating. Even Mike joined in the fun.

Mike went ahead to rig pitch 3 with the retrieved rope and Bill derigged the pitch 2 handline and descended without aids (now rather easy – it was his fourth time down the pitch during the trip!).  In the stagnant section of the cave a specatular yellow salamander (alive but very dozy) was seen on the rock wall.

The third pitch was then abseiled; it is a smooth ramp at about 70° rather like a slide.  The water enters from the left but no attempt was made to follow it upstream although this was possibly feasible. OUCC reported 200m of dry passage (not surveyed) in this area.  The cave exit is just beyond the third pitch and is quite high up in the valley.

On exiting from the resurgence at 15:00, we climbed out of the little gorge to the left (possibly on the right would have been better). This was probably a mistake – we spent the next hour contouring round very steep and dangerous slopes, covered with bracken, loose rocks, gorse, and brambles.  Very uncomfortable.  A further half hour was spent descending from the field that we eventually reached to the village (Purón).  Very hot, sticky, and THIRSTY work in wetsuits.

Changed, and headed for the bar at Purón campsite.  Immediate thirst assuaged, we survived the drive to Posada, by when more beer was required.  From Posada to Rales (a new bar there, too!) to find a new bridge and a much smaller campsite – floods in 1983 had washed away the old bridge and also a wide slice of campsite.

From Rales the long trek east to Venta de Fresnedo area (over and through roadworks) and to La Fuente to try and meet Spanish cavers (STD) – but the bar was closed (haymaking).  So off to Luey for dinner (1275pts total) at 10pm.  Finally back to La Franca circa midnight.

Quite a day.

09.08 Friday.  Up at 08:00(!).  Coffee hunt took us to Llanes beach, then a stop at the Llanes campsite (El Brao) for more coffee and comparing notes, swapping diskettes, etc.  Then to Acuario in Posada for tortilla and to say hello to Ruperto (market day – very busy).  Then on to Rales to pay our respects to the Garcia family parents Aurelio and Pepita and children María-José and María-Carmen & husband Leopoldo.  Agreed on a trip to La Fuentica cave on Monday 5pm.

Off to Barro beach for a swim and an hour in the sun, followed by bread & cheese for lunch.  Bill insists on getting “5 or 6” toledos (onion + pepper + gerkins + chile on a stick) – with predictable effects the next day.

Time for some more caving, so off up the La Hermida gorge investigating small holes near the side of the road (not requiring too much exertion), then the hot spring at La Hermida, and then the bar in La Hermida (still run by the landlady who was there in 1973, who recognised us).  Stayed in the bar for a while, sampling wine and chicle with visitors from Bejes and watching old Sci-Fi on TV; then on to investigate more of the gorge and view the limestones above Colio – we learn there is to be a fiesta there the next day.

Back to La Hermida → La Fuente.  Bar open this time, but no message from the Spanish cavers.  We learn that they are up at the Torca del Hoyu las Muñecas, about 90 minutes walk.  On to the restaurant at Luey (again) for tasty (but greasy) lamb and merluza.  Back to La Franca around midnight.

10.08 After taking down our tents and paying our respects and cash to the proprietor (also gave him a copy of the Toyu survey), we left La Franca at about 10:30 and made our way to Venta Fresnedo to try and meet the Spanish cavers.  A quick snack of Kas, bread, cheese, and wine at the wayside store at a crossroads on the way.

We started walking briskly up the hill at midday with water and minimal caving equipment (helmets and lamps).  Due to an error in the choice of path at the middle of the Comaria saddle we spent an hour going up the wrong valley, always hoping that the track would verge back to the Latarma valley.  No way (no easy way).  Let it therefore be indelibly inscribed lest future generations also lose their way:

After you have crossed (for the first time) the middle of the Comaria saddle (going south) take a stony track on the right going up, not the main track going slightly downhill (south).  Follow this westward track to La Huerta and beyond.

We had already calculated a bearing of 300° from La Huerta resurgence to the Torca del Hoyu las Muñecas.  The Torca itself was said to be at 635m above sea level.  A futher half hour’s steep walk led us to the doline containing the cave which was correctly identified by its altitude.

The cave entrance some 3m high descends steeply and the Spaniards had tackled the slope with a handline before the first two pitches which were clearly seen descending into a very deep canyon.  The Madrileños were obviously camping below as the path down the cave was unworn! They must have been down there a week and all the clover had re-grown.

Oh bother! We left some notes and surveys at the top of the pitch and proceeded down to Cueva La Huerta (presumed resurgence of the Torca, see brief OUCC report » for Lambert location).  Mike went into the chamber and Bill pottered around in the higher (10m above) complex.  Bill got slightly lost and called to Mike below for directions/direction finding. After 10 minutes or so of no new discoveries we marched off down the hill back to the car.

We then drove to La Fuente bar, which was open, and left three Toyu surveys and explained how we had been unable to contact the Madrileños. Then we drove to Turieno (near Potes) to set up camp in the sunshine. After a nap we returned to Potes for dinner and had the menú del día (600pts): soup, trout, a glass of wine and an apple. Not very good.  We then drove up to nearby Colio at 23:30 to view the fiesta.  Very loud (O que dolor) in the ears.  Both bars were overcharging for beer so we left during a break in the music.

Other caves of the LaTarma valley:  On the way down from the Torca to La Huerta we noticed a small cave 10m long with old dry stal.  A further pot of ~5m is on the north side of the path on the Comaria saddle – very obvious.

11.08 We left Potes in the hot sunshine for the lakes (Los Lagos) and had lunch on the way in Arenas de Cabrales. Thereafter the weather slowly deteriorated and there was very slight drizzle (actually thick mist) on the lakes road; we were passed by literally hundreds of cars coming down from the lakes.

Wandered around in the mist for a while – everything much the same as usual – then found the OUCC encampment, festooned with caving ropes.  All but two (Phil Sargent and Margot Morris) were up at a higher campsite, so we chatted to them for an hour or so before heading for the restaurant for truchas – only to find that the restaurant had closed an hour earlier than advertised, much to our disgust.

Had a bread roll with cheese in the upper bar, then down to the lower bar.  The mist partially cleared at one point – we could see the lake! Joined by the OUCC at about 9, and spent the next couple of hours swapping caving horror stories.

Turns out that Phil knows Mike Gray and Sarah Colley of the IBM UK Scientific Centre.  Small world!

12.08 Down to the lower lake (Enol) for a wash at the fuente, then up to the bar for coffees.  Still drizzly and mist with no prospect of improvement, so retreat down to Cangas.

At Cangas more coffee (and tortillas), and inspect the Roman bridge etc.  Lunch at the Río Grande at 13:00 – paella, truchas, etc.  Welcomed by the usual proprietor, who treated us to coffees at the end of the meal.  Said goodbye to the Oxford contingent who had come down to Cangas for shopping and joined us for lunch.

At 14:00 we drove down to Arriondas to inspect the menú del día at the San Remo restaurant (see 14 August entry – yes we are two days behind in writing this up).  Bill in his hurry to avoid being run over by a lorry closed the door of the car on his chest!?! He felt a right bloody tit.  In fact blood streamed down his chest! Tactical retreat to Llanes and pitched the tents as before in “El Brao”.

Outside Fuentica (photo Leopoldo Herranz)

Outside Fuentica (photo Leopoldo Herranz)

As per arrangement made on the 9th we turned up at Leopoldo’s at five o’clock, but only half of the contingent were present and not all of those were ready.  Bill was somewhat embarrassed as to his apparel: shorts, teashirt, and gym shoes.  He explained how his more professional-looking gear was stolen in Italy.  Mike, on the other hand, was attired in a super-heavy canvas boiler suit with all the trimmings.

At six we were ready for the walk up the hill, and at 6:15pm the party entered La Fuentica entrance; MFC, WJMFC, plus:

María-Carmen Garcia Gutierrez

Leopoldo Rodriguez Herranz

Jorge Rodriguez Herranz

María-Jose Rodriguez Herranz

Manuel Lista Blanco

Ana Alvarez Holland (no light)

Isabel Mezquita Uruñuela and María Jose Garcia Gutierrez waited at the entrance whilst the other party of eight entered the murky depths.

Bill led and knocked away the cobwebs and precariously-balanced flood debris in the vadose streamway (dry at this time of year).  Fortunately the ‘squalid pools’ were so full of flood debris (tree trunks, etc.) that the first one one could walk across without getting one’s feet wet.  However, Bill heroically stepped into the middle of the second (only 20cm deep) to help María Carmen across.  Ana sensibly had boots and needed no assistance.  The others used Bill as an aid to balancing whilst skirting round the side.

Although La Fuentica is a sink, this section of streamway is quite complicated with many side passages and abandoned levels – not to mention potholes down to sumps.  However, we never got lost and took the correct muddy climb to the old gour passage.  It would be very nasty to fall here; nobody did.  Bill used his stick (very carefully) to play a few notes on the stalagmites.  Ana seemed to cheer up – she had previously complained of claustrophobia, not surprisingly as she had no light.

Now for the first obstacle, a 2m climb down.  Bill went down first and Mike put two linked slings down for the rest.  It is an awkward climb for a beginner but everyone got down OK without problems and little assistance.

As the cave passage got bigger and as the novices gained confidence morale seemed to improve.  After we all slid down the mudbank to the active streamway we stopped for photographs (taken by Leopoldo on very expensive equipment). [These were later scanned and delivered to us on a CD twenty years later, in 2005; two are included here.] However, in the wet streamway Leopoldo left his big camera behind to use a very neat underwater one (i.e., waterproof).

Fuentica streamway (photo Leopoldo Herranz)

Fuentica streamway (photo Leopoldo Herranz)

Bill warned all and sundry not to cut their hands on the very sharp rock (eroded stals?) near the streamway. Little by little we ascended the streamway.  It was easy for Bill because he was in shorts and didn’t mind getting wet, so he waded into the middle of the pools.  Again people used him as a balancing aid as they trod on the tufa round the edge of the pools.  The tufa – a beautiful cream colour – contrasted against the brown rock. The clear blue water in the pools completed the vision of beauty. To mar this vision was the discovery that one was going to get progressively wetter.

No one wished to turn back or wait even when Bill explained that we wouldn’t go on further than 50m.  Enthusiasm indeed! On we went. However, the last pool required getting wet up to the armpits and only Bill, Mike, and Leopoldo + camera crossed it.  There was a very worn rope coming down the pitch (probably Spanish – sheath mostly missing).

Mike led the way out and Bill, who was rather cold, took up the rear. To warm up, and to avoid some of the pools, Bill tried an overhead route with success.  After the chamber where the active streamway ends, Bill ran up the mudslope and put the slings down as a handline. After nine people had travelled across the slope it had become very slippery and for beginners this precaution was essential.  Mike formed the lower 6 feet of the handline.

Again the slings were used at the 2m climb and we were back at the first mud slope.  Some descended without too much difficulty, but for safety we later belayed the slings for the slope was getting wet.  Mike leading on the way out had some small difficulty remembering the route but we all exited without delay at about 20:00.

The Garcias insisted on giving us coffee, brandy, and a bath! What a luxury for campers – hot water.  We changed to clean clothes and assembled to drive off to Celorio for a four-course supper: Cabrales, lomo, tortillas, and chuletillas, all washed down with Carta de Plata, etc., and all paid for by Leopoldo.

Then off to El Taleru bar and later El Serna for a drink at each (and an excess of smoke).  Then we all said goodbyes and thankyous and at last went home.  Mike and Bill took an unplanned diversion to Naves but eventually got back to Llanes.

13.08 We slept like logs until 9 a.m. (which is very late for us!).  Must be a quieter campsite at Llanes compared to La Franca (cheaper, too!).

We decided to return to the La Hermida gorge, and after a coffee in the usual bar we attempted the mountain “road” from the village. It turned out to be speleologically interesting but very precarious (not tarmaced, potholes, and landslips over 1000-foot drops!).  Before the driver had a heart-attack or worse, we parked the car and continued on foot up to the village of Bejes.  Interrogation of an old lady doing her knitting in the sun introduced us to a local man who took us (and his children) to see the caves.  He took us up the valley to a fine but narrow resurgence cave which we three followed to a deep pool, apparently supplying the village with water.  The presence of a bolt and traverse line indicates prior exploration by another group (probably Spanish).

After exiting the three of us climbed up to the bigger but shorter ‘cheese cave’.  Unfortunately there was no cheese, but the old rotting racks were present.  We couldn’t refuse the insistent invitation to lunch; however, as this was not ready, we retired to the bar. At 3pm we entered the kitchen with a wood-fired stove and were served soup (first pasta in Spain), a kind of fabada (but with chickpeas instead of beans [cocido montañés?]), tomato salad + peppers + salt + vinegar + onion, and meatballs in a tomato and very garlicy sauce.  After extended thankyous we returned to the bar for a beer and set off down the hill.

A dog attached itself to us at the top, and followed us down the hill down to La Hermida, often going faster than the car on the rough “road”, and waiting for us with an impatient look on its face.  It couldn’t keep up when we got to the ‘real’ road, however.

Drove back to Llanes and spent half an hour on the beach (cool) then wandered into the town.  Dinner at the Uría restaurant – large whitebait and the chuleta de la casa (enormous steak) with Navarra wine.  Back to campsite for a cognac before bed.

14.08 Up at 9, prepared for some serious caving rashly agreed over dinner the night before (rare).  Stopped at Rales to propose a ‘real’ caving trip on Friday than then headed west. Investigated a dry valley east of Tinganón near dog-house, finding small but draughting holes, then a ‘resurgence’ near smoking dump. Bill looked on from afar while Mike thrashed around in the brambles for forty minutes (and also in hawthorns, mud, bracken, and putrid bogs).  No caves found.  Onward to Arriondas...

Bill closed the door of his car carefully this time and strode into San Remo.  At 13:10 we were the first to arrive for lunch.  A mere 400pts (1.80) a head bought us wine, bread, fabada, chuletas de cerdo, flan (or tarta); all good.  This fortified, or perhaps over-fortified, we headed for Tinganón.

With permission of the local farmer we parked the car at 14:55 and tramped up the hill (mainly on the south side of the stream) to the massive entrance.  We entered the cave at 15:20 and measured the altitude (uncalibrated) as 149m.

Proportions are such that 300m or so into the cave you can still see daylight! However there is a very pleasant vadose trench – usually as narrow as 1.5m – with pools and stream.  Bill was quite happy to splash up this.  Way above the trench, perhaps 15m higher, the old cave is very wide and allows light from the entrance to filter through.

Continuing upwards took us to daylight again (see 1975 survey »), and we started upstream, intent on Cueva Negra. Two slippery climbs later and enthusiasm was beginning to wane. The third climb was higher and even more slippery than the others, and defeated us (especially with only one sling, ‘someone’ having forgotten his...).  Attempts to bypass via slopes on the left brought back horrific memories of the Purón walk-down (see 8th August) and with cries of “he who caves and runs away lives to cave another day” we turned back.  (Altitude 239m, giving the cave a vertical range of 90m.)

In good spirits, despite the need for tactical retreat, we descended through the cave – enjoying the acoustics which were awakened with themes from Evita (“Don’t cry for me...”) and various hymn tunes (“I vow to thee...”, “Christian, doest thou see them on the holy ground...”) with appropriately modified words.  One set of words actually got written down.

Out of Tinganon after two hours, and changed by the farm.  Somewhat astonished when the farmer came by with a daughter and the latter wandered up to the car, pushed us aside, and grabbed a chocolate bar, to the intense embarrassment of the father.  Girl definitely not ‘all there’.

Drove back to Rales for a couple of beers, then on a detective trip (Celorio, Porrúa, Parres, Porrúa, Porrúa, Porrúa, Porrúa, Pancar) to find the place we ate at on the 12th.  Successful at last (it’s in Pancar, called El Retiro, and run by a Spaniard who has an Australian passport) we ordered too many dishes (sardinas, tortillas, ribs, chorizo, chips) but ate all but two sardinas; washed down by Rioja, 1600pts in all.  Eventually back to the campsite via a roundabout route (looking for a bar Bill doesn’t remember from 10 years before).

15.08 A relatively late start (10ish) and headed for the Deva gorge again.  Coffee at La Hermida, and on to Venta Fresnedo.

Toyu the objective, we descended the Barn entrance at about 12:15; a straightforward trip until we reached the sandy chamber, only to find that floods (in 1983?) had blocked the way on with sand.  Flood marks were also visible well up into the Big Chamber.  Some thrutching and climbing-about found a high-level route between the two inclined rifts, and thence to the pool at the bottom of the pitch.

Much flood debris.  Our objective was to look for a bypass to the pitch (perhaps to an older abandoned sink), so first looked up the rift (marked by ‘?’ on the survey) not properly explored in ’82. Mike pushed this for 30m in a flat-out sandy crawl with slight draught, while Bill looked at other alternatives.  Eventually came to other high-up possibilities (draughting but too tight), and a good view over the three pitch pots.

Exited, then.  Mike via the other top entrance, to make a ‘through trip’ and to fight some more brambles and hawthorn, though Bill didn’t quite make it out that way, after a spectacular fall into the bones and other detritus.  Both eventually got out around 15:15.

Back to La Hermida for a wash at the hot spring [under the bridge to the Spa hotel], and then lunch (at 4pm) at the Bar [Paquin?]: paella, tinto, queso Manchego, coffee.  625pts total for both (including a beer for someone who recognised us).

After lunch, wandered upstream for a thorough exploration of the Spa ruins (the early-20th century electrical system was particularly interesting, as were the water-works of the spa complex itself). Next back to the bar to write up the log.
Caught up with the log ¡NOW! 

sat in the bar some more...

sat in the bar some more.

The extended lunch gently merged into dinner at 21:30 (chuleta and filete, which looked identical, and queso de Cabrales) followed by a long walk in the mountains, and a visit to Colio, before the long drive back to the campsite (a joint effort).

16.08 Up late (10:30) as raining, do some packing and then drive to Posada for shopping.  On to Rales in the rain to say goodbyes.  Back to campsite to strike camp then via Parres to Pancar for lunch (not at El Retiro, closed for lunch, but at El Journu). Left 4ish, heading east.  Stopped for 40 minutes at large depression between Laredo and Castro Urdiales which had been meaning to look at for 12 years.  No caves (except one short “through trip”) though several possible digs.

Arrived Otañes about 7:30pm, then back to Castro Urdiales to pitch tents by the sea.  Then into the town for the expedition dinner (at El Peñón) – gambas al ajillo, entremeses, merluza (cogote(?) and al la Romana), coffee, champagne.  4100pts total.  Went to bed relatively early.

17.08 Up at 9.  Glorious blue skies and sun (of course .. last day).  Coffee at nearby campsite then to Sangazo cave for two short caving trips.  On to Bilbao, arriving at about 11:30 for 12:50 plane.

Personnel: Bill Collis & Mike Cowlishaw.  Various OUCC people, and friends and acquaintances from Bejes and Rales.

Other log details: Exchange rate 220 pesetas/GBP.
‘Things still to be done’ list: Tresviso area; Cabañuca (Suarías); Pozo del Infierno (Deva gorge); Los Jarres (San Esteban) – need local guide?; El Mazuco; (Matienzo); Sidra.
(In the original, handwritten, log El Cuevón de Pruneda was called ‘Purón cave’.)

Expeditions to the Picos de Europa and elsewhere since 1973.
Please e-mail Mike Cowlishaw ( or Bill Collis (
if you have any corrections, suggestions, etc.   See also the SpeleoTrove speleology section ».
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This page was last edited on 2021-09-27 by mfc.