Lago Ercina

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 The Battle of
 El Mazuco

Expedition log, Summer 1986

A transcription of the Speleogroup logbook.

Purón/El Cuevón de Pruneda, Pozo del Infierno, Cueva Negra, Rafa’s group (‘The Wild 13’), Toyu, etc.

07.08 A year to the day after the previous expedition, Bill meets Mike at a rainy and humid Bilbao airport on schedule at 17:25.  Driving west takes an hour for just 25km, so we divert inland via Otañes bar (Kas/tintos), to avoid some of the traffic – but bad traffic the whole way after that.  After heroic driving by Bill, arrive La Franca 21:45 ... but the campsite is full.  Try Purón.  Full. Try El Brao in Llanes.  Full. Camping Entreplayas squeezed us in, eventually, on sites overlooking the sea.  Very late. In grave need of food by now, so backtrack 13km to El Horno for dinner (chorizo and bonito, wines Monopole (oaky, mixed opinions) and Reciente).  Discovered later that we ate the same as in 1985. Fall into tents at 01:30.
08.08 Neither the waves on the rocky shore nor the campers all around woke us; it must have been the hint of sunshine in an otherwise overcast sky that woke Mike at 08:00 (!) and Bill at 08:30, just like last year.  Kas at the campsite bar followed by coffee at the Purón campsite bar, then parked in Purón village around 10:00.  After consulting the 1985 logbook, calculator, clock, ruler, and maps, we ran out of excuses for not hiking up the hill. So, up the well-trodden path at 10:40 to reach the cave (El Cuevón de Pruneda) at 11:25 – the usual 45 minute walk, with stops to admire the view; fortunately relatively few horse flies on the overcast and cool morning.

It’s 12:05.  After a beer and a chat we again ran out of excuses, donned our wetsuits, and entered the SW entrance.  Carefully avoiding the cobwebs we proceed down the now-familiar upper passage.  It turns out not to be so familiar – at a certain climb we put down (unnecessarily) the twin Nylon handline, despite having just proven our fearlessness by repeating the slide, a 3m ramp into a lake (great fun).

A tangled rope delayed descent of the first pitch, but eventually Bill abseiled onto dry land notwithstanding the slightly increased cascade – but then got very wet playing campanologist to haul down the rope.  Next, the climb (2nd pitch) which Bill had been constrained to climb and descend four times in 1985 was descended without difficulty although the spray from the first pitch did impede visibility (we both were wearing glasses).

The few deep pools in the ‘stagnant’ section of the cave were soon crossed, and we were at the third and final pitch.  OUCC in Proc. 6 (1974) » reported a traverse above this pitch to 200m of dry passage(s).  We decided against the right hand traverse and instead Bill abseiled down to the left hoping to see where and how the renewed streamway re-entered the cave.  No luck! From above no water was visible and 20m below the rock was too steep and too slippery to follow.  Having descended the pitch, our slight disillusion was tempered by the discovery, within sight of daylight, of a new cross rift passage on the right (NE) which brought us, at 14:30, to an unknown (and fourth) entrance to the cave, slightly above the resurgence proper.  A further left hand cross rift passage brought us back to the resurgence.

Woe and thrice woe for our hopes of following the steam down to civilization. Too steep and too slippery.  So back over the west bank and over the entrances in an attempt to reach the main path.  No gorse, but it was steep and hairy.  It’s 15:00.  Just around an outcrop we found yet another entrance, full of cobwebs and goat droppings and draughting very strongly.  40m of mainly walking passage going up led to a very steep rift from which the sound of water could be heard.

A descending left hand passage soon led to the other end of the traverse above the third pitch.  The passages do indeed continue up, but they were not dry on this occasion; there were pools and an active streamway. Bill slipped on a muddy climb and lacerated his fingers (ugh).  Bill then followed Mike up through dryish rift passage (small streamlet present); Mike went on a futher 60m or so then we went back, nearly losing our way.  Mike nearly lost his life because he only just saw in time the hole in the floor dropping vertically 12m – “a tufa infill had formed a false floor, which had collapsed to form a 1m hole at one point.  Distracted by the ongoing passage M almost walked into the aperture.  Careful investigation showed that the floor for a metre or more was overhanging the drop (almost certainly above one of the cross rifts explored earlier)” – Mike gingerly laid himself out horizontally on the floor to look down.

Finally out of the new fifth entrance at 15:30 and back on the track by 15:45.  Down to the car (much relieved at avoiding the gorse) at 16:15.  On the way down we again noticed the fifth entrance as the only (visible) hole in the outcrops.  Champagne cider quenched our thirst and a wash in the river removed the worst of the mud.

Next priority was FOOD. To Acuario in Posada for Tortillas. Too late for Tortillas, so we “made do” with pan y queso – Manchego. Good to see Ruperto and his wife again.  Next to Rales (mainly to wash in the spring), then back to the campsite to wash gear.  Dinner in Llanes (paella, tenera, bonito, and clarete), and back to the campsite to write this log.

09.08 Up at 09:00; tea and peanut butter y pan for breakfast, then east looking for diesel and caves.  Found no diesel, but did reach Coto del Infierno.  So, up through the woods (decorated with liberal quantities of Spanish excretions) – not a bad walk, but hard enough after the previous day’s caving.  Down Pozo del Infierno c. 12:15.  Rope essential on the first ramp (just inside the entrance).  Used our only rope on that, so the second ramp defeated us, after trying several alternatives.

Both awed by the sheer size of the cave.  Even though we have been there before in 1973 and in 1975 the caverns are immense, with acoustics to match (7-second echoes!). Returned out with a side trip to the “Temple” (ascending ramp, etc., to left at bottom of the first ramp – now spoilt by foot-mud and graffiti).

Back down to the road (20 minutes rather than 40 minutes to ascend) – a ‘descent into evil’.  La Hermida to clean up at the hot spring, then fine lunch of paella, lomo, and tinto (1600pts). Then to La Fuente in hope of meeting Carlos Puch; no Carlos but did meet local shepherds and cavers.  On to Pôtes for diesel, shopping, and writing up the log.  Reasonable meal (with poor wine) in a small restaurante (G...?) off the main street, then the long drive back to camp.  Arrived very tired.

10.08 Discovered we’d left our rope at the hot spring, so back to La Hermida again (a late start, unsurprisingly). No sign of the rope, so stop at the bar to ask around (no luck). Over to La Fuente again, but still no Carlos, so back to La Hermida for lunch (espárragos, lomo).  Meet people who tell us of caves near Bejes so after lunch, drive and walk up to Bejes in the heat to search for caves.  See some potential entrances (big holes a long way up cliffs) but nothing promising (later we discover that smaller caves near the village are all locked, and used as stores for the famous Bejes cheese).  Impressive setting for the village! Back to Llanes for a late supper of tortillas, etc., at El Retiro in Pancar (see 1985) and then to back to the campsite in the rain.
11.08 Still raining. Recuperation sorely needed after energetic past few days! Spend morning in the campsite bar playing cards, then into Llanes for lunch (fabada, escalope, etc.).  Back to the bar for more cards all afternoon, and eventually to El Retiro for supper again – lomo and excellent chiperones (tiny squid cooked in their own ink).  The sidra was good too; the locals were in full song.  Back via El Taleru for a nightcap, where we meet Leopoldo and family – agree to meet for tortillas (“Best in the West”) tomorrow.
12.08 Up late at 10:00 and off to Acuario for tortillas; not so good this time.  Then West to reach Santianes at midday and proceeded a few hundred metres up the road/track before leaving the car.  The ford was no obstacle.  We had estimated 90 minutes for the walk up to Cueva Negra but actually we arrived after an hour and a quarter – must be getting fit (5km and +500m from where we started to the top of the highest saddle).  Classic karst » scenery and an excellent view of Tinganón.

The imposing big entrance to Cueva Negra (410m) is, alas, not only a favourite haunt of speleologists but also of Spanish cows.  The latter have a greater tendency than the former to attend to ‘calls of nature’ in such inappropriate places.  Consequently the ample entrance of Cueva Negra has been for many years a lake of putrefying cowsh.  Fortunately said lake is speckled with various stones and boulders and so the careful caver can enter without dirtying himself excessively (but see the 1975 log).  “The courage of Speleogroup knows no bounds who boldly followed the lowish [sic] passage down beyond to where no cow had been before.” The atmosphere as well as the grip underfoot improved!

We descended the first 3m climb with a certain amount of difficulty (mainly due to our reluctance to get too dirty; neither of us were wearing proper boilersuits – in fact Bill was in shorts).  The downstream passage meanders through tight hairpin bends without any side passages of note.  At the fork (four-pronged ... left by Beelzebub?) we went straight on.  The winding passage is a little reminiscent of OFD with brilliant white recrystalized calcite constrasting against black limestone.  Quite a bit of walking, stooping, and crawling.  Particularly irritating on our dryish backs were the numerous dripping rocks – all contributing to the small streamway.  Just before what appeared to be the main pitch is a short (1.5m) climb into a pool which we did not descend; time to turn back.

To the tune of “Sh*t, sh*t, glorious sh*t / Nothing quite like it / for cooling a bit”, etc., we struggled out through the entrance. Bill nearly slipped into a cowsh pool (narrowly missing a world depth record attempt in the cowsh lake, he claimed).  Mike, quite ecstatic at this, was determined to measure the depth.  Yes, it would have been an incredible 65cm.  Carried away at this, he tossed a log (not the expedition log) into a pool.  Splash.  Viscosity was lower than expected and a fine dark spray covered Mike’s face and clothes. Bill hastened upwind whilst Mike rolled in the grass in a vain attempt to clean himself.  The Piranha tadpoles were not amused.

Bill explored a fallen block of limestone on the North side of the valley on the way down, but to no avail. Back to the campsite for a (cold) shower to clean up, then to Rales to meet Leopoldo and his wife, María-Carmen, for supper in Balmori.  Rita’s children (two ~10-year-old girls) served us at the garden table and entertained us with their pranks.  We ate mussels, tortilla, bistekas, bonito.  Good thing we hadn’t had any lunch.  Our contribution of a bottle of Italian Barbaresco was appreciated.  After a nightcap and a chat in the El Brao bar we turned in at 01:00.

13.08 El Brao for breakfast (better coffee), then off to visit El Pindal archaeological cave.  This is a few km west of La Franca (and visited by Pete and Liz in 1982). The cave is approached from the south via a small windy road leading down to the sea, with very fine views.  Opening hours (summer) 10:00–12:30 and 14:00–?.  100pts, but free on Tuesdays (that’s why we visited on a Wednesday?).

The cave is very fine as a cave, though the paintings (only half-a-dozen) are not good.  Several hundred metres long, with fine stals, passage typically 30m × 10m high; now dry with one or two small areas of active stal.  Top many-hundred layers of a large stal boss collapsed into passage six years ago (~1980), showing very fine layering like rings on a tree.

The trip took 45 minutes – on exit drive back up the narrow road and stop at the obvious concrete Mirador, which shows the valley above the cave and possible sink (worth a visit?) – and a very fine view over the sea.  Perfect weather! Take clino readings of the sea horizon (–1°), plus altimeter reading (160m) and make hopelessly inaccurate estimates of the distance to the horizon and radius of the earth...  Off to the Restaurante de Covadonga (in alley) in Llanes for Fabada and fish and to continue inaccurate estimations.

Since this is the first day of good sun, head for the beach in the afternoon.  Playa de Ballota (700m or so east of Cue, reached by a steep path from the road about 100m west of mirador [later accessible by road]) was recommended by a camping couple that we met and indeed proved to be a very fine beach – no rocks, gently sloping sand (but not too gentle a slope), a bit of surf, an island in the middle of the bay (with a cave! but a bit too far out to swim to), and no more than 100 or so people (mostly sunbathing, a few playing a form of beach tennis with wooden rackets).  Quite different from the crowded Llanes beach, Playa Toró, which had perhaps 1000 people! Swam and roasted as much as we dared – a couple of hours was enough.

Returned back up the steep path to the road and car, and while swigging sidra/bubbly and recovering from the walk got talking to “Urco” (our private nickname for a rather hirsute Spaniard we’d noticed on the beach earlier).  He was called ‘Rafa’ (short for Rafael) and turned out to be a local caver(!) (or ex-caver) who now finances his holidays in the area (he works in printing in Madrid) by acting as a local guide for tourist parties.  We need a shower, etc., after the swim, so decline his invitation to join him and his group of German tourists for dinner – so back to the campsite and then El Retiro (tortillas, lomo, etc.).

Back to the campsite to find Rafa sitting on the terrace; this time we agree to join him and a few of the Germans for a game of Spanish cards in the Bar Pinín – roughly opposite the town hall in Llanes. Detailed rules!

Not a very interesting card game, though the players were good company. Go on with them to La Galleria (a very noisy and very crowded bar, with a prominent large pillar in the middle) for a quick nightcap – vino dulce, a pale sweet sherry-like drink – before bed. It turns out that Rafa and Uli (the latter being the German organiser of the tourist group) used to own the Galleria together.

14.08 Thursday.  First into Llanes for shopping, banks, etc. (banks will be closed on Friday for a fiesta).  After a light lunch we decide that the fine weather makes a trip to the mountains worthwhile; Iris, one of the German group, is keen to see the high Picos, too.  Route via La Hermida (enquire about rope again – no luck).  Heavy slow traffic then to Fuente Dé – only to find next available ticket is 2½ hours later, 6pm, with little chance of getting back down on the last car (8pm)! Disconsolately return down the gorge.

Nothing for it, we’ll have to go caving! La Fuente for a vino tinto (still no Carlos) then on to Cueva del Toyu.  A couple of “beginner’s” trips into the cave (we didn’t want to get our ordinary clothes dirty) and the world seemed a far more interesting place! By now it was 8pm, so late enough to visit El Hornu (which opened at 9pm).  Forced down a meal of besugo (sea bream, very good and very garlicy) and merluza (hake) washed down by white Rioja which our German companion enjoyed.

Then on to Garaña to view campsite and castle and a drink by the pool.  Decide to go down to the beach nearby for some fresh air before heading back to Llanes – which diversion is somewhat delayed by a “Bang!” as the offside front tyre is punctured.  Changing the wheel didn’t seem to take long, but got back to Llanes campsite very late. Mike has to work on his sleeping bag zip fastener, which needed some creative engineering.

15.08 Fiesta day (Nuestra Señora) in Llanes – everything closed. 
Rafa’s cabaña

Rafa’s cabaña

Up at 10 (driven out of tents by sunshine and heat) and decide to walk up to Rafa’s Cabaña near El Mazuco (we were invited to go up the night before, but not possible as we went to Fuente Dé).  This turns out to be a very fine cabin; once a farmer’s hut, Rafa is converting it to a ‘holiday home’ for himself – wood panelling, etc., very rustic.  No water or electricity, and 20 minutes walk from the road, but the setting is truly beautiful – it’s even situated in a closed valley that could well have a cave at the bottom! Fine alpine flowers and carnivorous plants (with foam).

Several of the German group had stayed there overnight; soon after we arrived we all went up to the nearby view point (10 minutes walk NE) but by then the mist had come down onto the top of the mountain, so we could only see 20 feet instead of 20 miles.  Back down to the road and local bar (very “character”) for wine and sunflower seeds, then on to the campsite for hamburgers and bacon rolls, showers, etc.

Later, we were invited to join Rafa and the Germans (“The Wild 13”) for their end-of-trip dinner, which was held at a restaurant in La Portilla, about 5–10 minutes walk from the campsite. Paella, tortilla, etc., not bad.  The entire group then go to the Llanes fiesta (actually, mainly just sit in a bar) which was rather disappointing – music very loud and few sidestalls.  Even so, with lots of talk about caves, beaches, flowers, etc., it is surprisingly late (3ish) before we get back to tents.

16.08 Los Lagos the objective today.  Stagger out of tents as the Germans leave; with amazing Teutonic efficiency, they manage to leave only 30 minutes behind schedule, at 10:30 – especially surprising because most of them were at the fiesta long after we left!

On to Posada for Tortilla – much better, this time made by Ruperto’s wife, every bit as good as in the past.  Buy Manchego cheese, then to garage to get the tyre repaired (1500pts) by a multiplexing mechanic.  Next stop Arriondas for lunch at ‘San Remo’ restaurant. As in the past, the menú del día is superb, and tremendously inexpensive.  Fabada, pan, truchas (con bacon), flan, and a bottle of wine, for a total of 800pts (£4) for two!

OUCC campsite at Lago Ercina

OUCC campsite at Lago Ercina

Arrive at the Lakes with superb timing, just as OUCC arrive down from the mountains, laden with ropes and tackle.  Have a long chat with them about past expeditions, etc.  There is also a local Spanish caver/politician (José Gonzalez?) who joins in the conversation.  OUCC have had a relatively bad year, with several injuries, etc., but they all look tanned, fit, and bearded. 
Mike at Lago Ercina

Mike at Lago Ercina

Drive back to campsite; Mike takes a nap and wanders around the cliffs and the campsite, spotting a Boris Becker (tennis player) look-alike and various cats.  Bill heads off to the beach for a swim.  On the way back from La Ballota he notices a fine cave entrance near the sea draining a genuine stream.  Daring the fates, the lonesome caver braved the 5m of passage in sight of daylight.  Looking round the dark corner he felt the blast of wind as waves beyond smashed against the cliff.  Nice!

Just as Bill parked was parking his car outside Entreplayas campsite he heard a voice call his name.  None other than Mari Nieves, husband Antonio, and children Paula (aged 5) plus newborn.  We walked down to the nearby Riu Prau Sidrería where besides cider we ate some squid rings in batter.  The family live in Oviedo but during the summer they have an apartment only 200m from Entreplayas.

17.08 A hot day.  Strike tents and have an extended breakfast before heading SE to La Hermida for lunch.  Both hungry, so eat too much! Russian salad, paella, chuletillas.  Tinto is very acceptable.

Fuel gauge is on ‘0’ so drive very economically up to Pôtes to fill up, stopping to investigate caves on the way, including a minor exploration of Cueva de Fair Share (BUSS 1973) – tricky on a full stomach.  After refueling, back down-gorge to La Hermida and then on to La Fuente.  Sit in bar for a while drinking post-prandial Cognac/Anis and writing up the log.  Reluctantly start on the eastward journey towards Bilbao; aiming for Castro Urdiales.  Traffic wasn’t too bad except that the last 5 miles was a solid traffic jam into the town.  Three hours to the jam and then one hour in the jam. Wearing.

Pitch tents in the open space near the campsite and wander into town for some vino/tapas followed by Expedition Dinner at El Peñon – entremeses/espárragos, followed by merluza a la romana (hake in batter).  The food, especially the fish, was excellent, but even Bill was unable to finish his hake! Too much lunch and driving.

18.08 Up at 08:30 (early!) to spend an hour packing, etc., then to the local campsite bar for coffee – meet an English family there who are intested in caving, but no time spare to take them to Sangazo.

On to Otañes to the bar for a final tinto and to write up the log. Finally to the airport, arrrive 11:40 (for 12:50 flight).  Reckoning up the kitty shows circa £180 cash each (total expenditure).

Personnel: Bill Collis & Mike Cowlishaw. Rafa, The Wild 13, and friends.

Other log details: Exchange rate 198 pesetas/GBP. List of caves visited (included above).  Calculations of curvature of the earth (inaccurate).  Photocopy of lyrics of Cueva and other songs (PDF scan).

Expeditions to the Picos de Europa and elsewhere since 1973.
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This page was last edited on 2020-04-02 by mfc.