Springtime In Green Spain: Time To Get Out Into The Countryside, And Under It!

Green Spain
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.

The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.

One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.

The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.

Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.

One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.

%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.

Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.

At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.

Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.

We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Fourth Largest Cave In The World Discovered In Iran

The fourth largest cave on the planet, Ghar-e-Dosar, as seen on Google EarthA team of Iranian spelunkers exploring an underground cave system near Mehriz, Yazd have made a surprising discovery. Last year, the group of cavers stumbled across a massive underground chamber and after taking careful and exact measurements of its size, the cave is now confirmed to be the fourth largest in the world.

This new cavern is part of the Ghar-e-Dosar cave system located in central Iran, which has been known about for some time and is a popular destination for cavers in the region. The system hasn’t been completely mapped however so new aspects of it are still being discovered. Last February a team of eight entered the largest chamber there and set about taking precise measurements of its total expanse. Those numbers have all been crunched now and what they found is simply amazing.

The subterranean room measures 1263 feet across and 869 feet wide, covering roughly the equivalent of 20 acres. The cavern slopes downward over its length starting with a height of about 230 feet and plunging as low as 469 feet at its deepest point. Those dimensions are large enough to put it above Majlis al Jinn cavern in Oman and slightly behind the Torca del Carlista in Spain on the list of the world’s largest cave rooms.

It should be noted that this chamber ranks as the fourth largest in terms of size for a single cavern. Ghar-e-Dosar isn’t nearly as large as Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, however, which doesn’t have a single chamber that compares in size but does stretch for more than 400 miles of underground passageways.

Thanks to our friends at the Adventure Journal for sharing this story.

[Photo Credit: Iran Speleo]

Chicago’s Field Museum Unveils Brilliant Reconstruction Of Lascaux Prehistoric Cave

Field Museum, Lascaux
The Field Museum in Chicago is the first venue in North America to host an impressive 3D reconstruction of the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France.

Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux” showcases the best-ever full-sized replica of the paintings, including many never before seen by the public. Visitors will feel like they’re in the cave itself as they enter into a tunnel that has the same paintings and relief as the original. The works are lit by simulated oil lamps and torches to replicate what they would have looked like to the Paleolithic artists who made them some 15,000-20,000 years ago.

Lascaux contains hundreds of images of animals, geometric shapes and an enigmatic human figure with a birdlike head. The artists used the natural contours of the stone to give the figures a 3D effect and the illusion of movement.

Also on display are period artifacts and a reconstruction of a Stone Age family, with descriptions of their surprisingly advanced culture.

The original cave was closed to the public in 1963 in order to preserve the fragile paintings, which were already beginning to show wear due to the changes in temperature, humidity and a rise in carbon dioxide due to more than a million visitors entering the cave. Now experts are trying to remove a growth of fungus, bacteria and algae that threaten the paintings.

“Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux” runs from March 20 to September 8.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Gadling Goes Underground: More Explorations Of Caves In Spain

caves in Spain
The caves in Spain are famous for their variety and extent. Some delve more than a kilometer into the ground. Others are adorned with prehistoric cave art more than 10,000 years old. Almost all have beautiful rock formations. There’s a whole other world under the one we usually see.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a course on caving. My first experience was in Cañuela cave, an easy cave suitable for beginners. Last weekend we went to Coventosa in a remote valley in the Sierra de Cantabria, a tougher cave system that requires more rope work.

The first challenge is what you see in this photo. Here I am worming my way into a little tunnel that slopes down at a steep angle. As you can see I’m tied in with a pair of carabiners attached by ropes to my harness. Why? Because at the end, the tunnel opens out onto the edge of a cliff. Start sliding uncontrollably down this tunnel and you could fly right off the cliff, fall ten meters and smash into a bunch of jagged rocks.

Coventosa is an active cave with some amazing formations. Water seeping through cracks in the rock leaves mineral deposits that harden into stone. Over vast periods of time, these accumulated deposits create stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. Several walls were full of shellfish fossils, evidence that the area was once underwater. Exploring caves gives you an appreciation for how incredibly old yet constantly changing our planet is.

%Gallery-183046%Normally as the water drips down it will create a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The water hits the floor below, leaving more deposits to create a stalagmite rising from the ground. Eventually these two features will meet to form a column.

If the water is dripping more slowly, sometimes instead of a stalactite you’ll get a soda straw, which looks exactly like what it’s called. These tend to hang straight down or at a bit of an angle if the water is pushed by an air current. Some soda straws eventually turn into stalactites, while others cling to the side of existing stalactites and grow at crazy angles, with the water seemingly defying gravity. There are various theories as to how this could happen, which means that scientists really don’t know what’s going on. We still have a lot to learn about our world.

Caves are one of the last frontiers left to us for exploration. New caves are being discovered every year, and additional tunnels in existing caves are being explored regularly. Caving is pretty much the only way a regular person can discover a previously unseen part of the world.

While I’m years away from that level of skill, the caves in Spain are already giving me a taste of that feeling. How many people have been to the Beach, a stretch of sand next to an underground lake so large that it defied my attempts to photograph it? Or visited the Ghosts and the Virgin Mary, a cluster of eerie stalagmites in one of the deepest parts of Coventosa Cave?

Then there was my favorite, a low gallery with a forest of columns half submerged in water. Our lights couldn’t penetrate to the far wall. As we crouched there, one of the students asked how far it extended. The instructor said it didn’t go much further than we could see and was sealed off by a rock fall at the end. That made me wonder – what if we took away the rocks? Was there a tunnel on the other side? Where would it lead?

Passing between these sights got tricky at times. On one cliff we had to tie into the rope, get around a difficult outcropping, then secure our protection to a second rope. Going up that same route was even more difficult and a couple of us (myself included) made the rest wait as we fiddled around trying to find the best way to do it.

While caving can be physically demanding, it requires more balance and focus than pure strength. The best student in our class is a young woman who is a foot shorter than I am, who flies up and down the ropes with far more ease, and an obvious natural talent. This is a sport that any reasonably fit person can do.

Even so, by the end of the day we were all worn out. As we emerged from the cave entrance we were greeted by the deep blue sky of evening. We’d been in the cave for nine hours and the day had passed us by. Jupiter and a crescent moon shone high above the peaks. In that other world you lose track of time. Now that I’m back in the regular world with its sky and its clocks, I’m marking time again until next Saturday, when I’ll try an even more challenging cave.

[Photo by Dani]

Caving In Northern Spain

caving, Spain
After living a year in Santander in Cantabria, northern Spain, I had a problem. I was chronically, unutterably, and perhaps terminally bored. Santander is a sleepy regional town, and while weekend hikes and trips for Gadling helped ease my boredom somewhat, I was still not getting my drug of choice – a long-term, low-level adrenaline high.

There’s nothing like it. Do something captivating and somewhat perilous for a period of a few hours to a few weeks and you’ll feel more alive than any amount of booze or drugs can ever make you. My trips to Iraq and Somaliland were two of the biggest benders of my life, but they also came with a bad case of withdrawal. So, at age 43 in a town I didn’t like, I needed to find a regular adrenaline fix.

How about learning an extreme sport in a foreign language with a bunch of people half my age?

Yeah, that should work.

Cantabria is one of the best regions in Europe for caving, and luckily the Federación Cántabra de Espeleología offers annual classes. I already had some experience caving in Missouri and New Mexico, but that was 15 years ago. Plus techniques are somewhat different in Europe and technology has changed over time. So I took a beginners’ class. This is not the sort of sport where you exaggerate your ability. That could land you in serious trouble.

%Gallery-181190%The course started off with a series of lectures that provided me a long list of Spanish words I hadn’t picked up making the rounds in bars. This was followed by a practical class at an abandoned quarry. While most of my fellow students were from the local university, I was glad to see a couple of others who looked like they knew what it was like to have kids instead of just be one.

We spent all day learning to ascend and descend. Unlike rock climbing, the point isn’t to take the most challenging way up a cliff, but rather get up there as easily as possible in order to save energy for exploring the cave. You wear a harness similar to a climbing harness. For ascending, you tie into the rope with a Croll, which has a blocking device that allows you to go up the rope but stops you from moving down. Another device that locks into the rope is called a puño (fist) and has a strap with a loop that goes around your foot. The puño has a blocking device like the Croll and you move up the cliff by doing a series of one-legged deep-knee bends, worming your way up the rope like a caterpillar.

For descending you switch to an locking pulley called a Stop that allows you to safely rappel down. Switching from ascent to descent requires securing yourself with the aid of two carabiners on ropes tied to your harness and making sure you disengage and secure the equipment in the proper order.

Beginners at a sport always expend far more energy than they need to. I was no exception. Once I got to the top of the quarry wall for the first time, I started switching over from my ascending gear and securing my Stop so I could descend. Each step is safe if you do it right, because at least two devices are securing you to the rope or wall protection at any time. Despite this, my mind was still in rock climber mode and I was trying to do it all with one hand as my other hand gripped a ledge. One foot was on a good hold and the other had a halfway decent smear.

This, of course, was entirely pointless since I was properly secured through my gear. Just then one of the instructors popped his head over the cliff top.

“Why are you hanging on?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

“Let go,” he told me.

I let go.

“Now hang there for a minute.”

OK, lesson learned. I got back to work.

“It’s easier with two hands, isn’t it?” he said.

We finished the day worn out but successful. The class all made it through the techniques without injury, even that older foreign guy who made everything more difficult for himself.

Now came the real test: Cañuela Cave in the beautiful Sierra de Cantabria. Our instructors were easy on us and picked a cave with little technical work. The entrance is like an airplane hanger, a huge hole in the hillside sloping into darkness. Not far in, the tunnel starts to narrow and the floor gives out. The only way to continue is along a rounded hump that slopes off at a steep angle to the jagged rocks below. A rope is secured along it and by tying in with the carabiners attached by short ropes to our harness we were able to traverse this pretty quickly.

Now all daylight was behind us and we started to see rock formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and more. The route opened up into echoing galleries and then narrowed down into smaller rooms. One room was nearly circular and fringed with stalactites reaching almost to the ground, making it look like a giant petrified birdcage.

A bit beyond, we had to use the Stop to descend a cliff. A second, deeper one came later. I couldn’t see the bottom from my vantage point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m scared of heights. All through university I went rock climbing in order to conquer my fear. I never did; I only learned to ignore it and get on with what I was doing. Discovering that you can live with the source of your fear without being affected by it was the most important thing I learned in university.

I thought I may have trouble with caving, but it turned out I didn’t. At the quarry I was too busy fiddling with the new equipment to even notice. In the cave, not being able to see the bottom made going over the edge easier somehow. No, that doesn’t make any sense – phobias never do.

More wonders followed: a lone bat clinging upside down to a rock, stalactites formed at an angle because of air currents, fossils stuck into the wall. Check out the gallery for just a small selection, and stay tuned for more underground adrenaline highs. I’ll be going into more detail about the world underneath our feet and the sport that helps you explore it.

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo of yours truly wearing his helmet at a rakish angle taken by Dani “that guy in the caving class whose last name I should have learned.”]

caving, Spain