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

Mammoth Cave Surpasses 400 Miles In Length

Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the worldThe National Park Service has announced that the official length of Mammoth Cave now surpasses 400 miles as ten miles of newly mapped chambers and passageways were recently added to the cave complex. Park officials say that these additional miles were the result of a series of smaller, more incremental finds, and were not the result of a single major discovery. Exploration and mapping of these new areas were conducted in partnership with the Cave Research Foundation.

Carved out of the central Kentucky limestone, Mammoth Cave was already the longest cave system in the world prior to the addition of these new discoveries. In fact, it is so large that it is more than twice the size of the next longest cave. Mammoth’s massive underground complex attracts thousands of visitors on a yearly basis ranging from curious travelers to full-fledged explorers and spelunkers. Some of its more famous locations even have names, such as the massive Grand Avenue and the aptly named Fat Man’s Misery.

The Park Service conducts daily tours of Mammoth lasting anywhere from one to six hours in length. Some of those tours are along relatively easy-guided paths while others venture far into the darkness to decidedly more challenging and cramped places. The popular Grand Avenue tour for instance is a 4-mile, four-hour trek that is physically demanding, while the hike to the beautiful Frozen Niagara is a much easier quarter-mile walk that is safe enough for both children and older visitors. Both provide fantastic views of the interior of the cave that simply must be seen to be believed.

If you’re looking for a destination for an upcoming trip to a national park this summer, Mammoth Cave National Park is one of those places that will delight and amaze the entire family.

[Photo Credit: The National Park Service]

Two day hikes in the mountains of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve moved from Madrid to Santander, in Cantabria in northern Spain. This region is part of what’s often called Green Spain, made up of the four northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I’m loving life by the sea and I’ve been busy exploring Cantabria’s countryside, which offers some of the best hikes in Spain. Green and mountainous, northern Spain is unlike most people’s popular conception of the country.

I discovered a local hiking group via a Couchsurfing friend. We go every other Sunday and the group also acts as an intercambio, or language exchange, which are very popular all over Spain. It’s a good way to practice your Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, or Portuguese. There’s also an Irish guy who insists on speaking to me in Gaelic because of my name. If he keeps it up I’m going to start speaking to him in Amharic.

My first hike with them was through the Reserva del Saja, a reserve in the cordillera Cantábrica. This is one a popular destination for hikers from Santander and is only about 40 minutes by car. The hike starts at Bárcena Mayor, a cluster of stone houses nestled in the woods by a mountain stream.

%Gallery-140381%From there we hiked along a dirt track through woods bright with fall colors. An amateur mycologist kept heading into the woods in search of mushrooms and soon had a sackful. Like in other parts of the world, some mushrooms in Spain are toxic and you shouldn’t pick mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. He showed us one particularly nasty variety that will give you permanent liver damage if you eat it. After a long walk we humped over a steep ridge and on the other side saw a large pool fed by a couple of waterfalls. This made a peaceful stop for lunch.

When hiking with Spaniards, be prepared for their later eating hours. Our lunch stop was at about 2PM and some people commented that we were stopping too early. Another culture shock came when I brought out my practical wilderness lunch of a sandwich, chocolate bar, fruit, and water. Many of my hiking companions busted out elaborately prepared meals, fine cheese, even bottles of wine. The Spanish know how to live well, and don’t see why they should stop doing so simply because they’re miles from the nearest paved road.

My second hike through the cordillera Cantábrica was from the town of Ampuero, about half an hour’s drive from Santander. This is in the Ason-Aguera region. Our goal was to climb Mount Yelso, also also known as Mojon Alto, to see a prehistoric menhir, or standing stone. This mysterious ancient stone stands in a prominent location from which you can see the surrounding countryside as far as the sea.

Of course getting there was half the fun. The fall colors are wonderful in Cantabria at this time of year. We tramped through a forest past a mysterious cave entrance and a sinkhole hinting at another cave. This is one of the best regions for caving in Europe and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences under Cantabria. Some of these caves have prehistoric paintings dating back 10,000 years or more. Others go down more than a kilometer and if you want to see the whole thing you have to pitch camp and sleep underground. Cavers from other parts of Europe have been known to move here just so they can be closer to the amazing caving opportunities.

At times the forest opened up and we passed green fields where cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed. We enjoyed sweeping views of the mountains all around and the play of light and shadow over the landscape as the shadows of the clouds passed overhead. The weather can be unpredictable in this part of the world so Cantabrians are in the habit of enjoying the outdoors any time the weather is favorable.

The hike ended, and all hikes should, with a trip to a local tavern before the short drive home.

If you’re passing through Santander, feel free to look me up (just Google me) and with enough prior notice I’d be happy to introduce you to the group and see that you have a fun hike in the mountains of Cantabria.

Hiking in Cantabria, Spain: my first day out

Cantabria, Spain, Green SpainAs I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m no longer living in Madrid and have moved to Santander, a port in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast. Cantabria is part of Green Spain, the area that includes the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and El País Vasco.

This strip of land situated between high mountains and the sea gets plenty of rain and doesn’t look at all like the common perception of hot, dry, sunny Spain. Santander is only five hours’ drive from Madrid but feels like a different country.

The main things that attracted me to this region are the outdoor activities: the sea, hiking, and caving. It has a much lower cost of living than overpriced Madrid, which is good news for travelers as well as part-time residents such as myself. It’s also more social than a big city. Thanks to the friendly folks at Couchsurfing, I already have a couple of offers for hikes and a spelunking group I can join.

Yesterday was my first day in my new home. The friend who helped me move was still around, so after a glance at the map we headed out to the Parque Natural Collados del Asón, about 30 minutes inland and deep in the mountains. This park covers 4,020 hectares (9,934 acres) of the Cordillera Cantábrica and some of the most beautiful mountains in Spain.

The drive took us up winding mountain roads past sheer cliffs and forested hillsides. Nestled in the valleys were a few stone farmhouses and herds of cows. Tall peaks, some well over 1,000 meters (3,281 ft.), towered around us. This is one of the best regions for caves in all of Europe and I could see the entrances to several as we drove past. Some were dark holes high up on cliffs, while others lay at the bottoms of sinkholes by the side of the road. Many are open to the public and some even have Paleolithic cave art of prehistoric men hunting extinct animals 15,000 years ago.

%Gallery-134360%The village of Asón is on the edge of the park and surrounded by tall peaks. While this was the least remote part of the park, it felt truly rural. The village is only a couple of dozen buildings and the few residents we saw stared at us with open curiosity. We parked the car and chose one of the shorter hikes, an 8 km walk to a waterfall.

The path gradually climbed through thick forest and over a couple of streams. We passed only two small groups of hikers in the three hours we were out there and saw nobody else. We did have company, though, in the form of herds of cows and the biggest slugs I’ve ever seen. Check out the gallery for a photo of one of these monsters.

At the river Asón we had to hop from rock to rock using a stick to steady us. Once while doing this same stunt in Missouri my foot slipped and I fell headfirst into the water. The bottom half of me landed on a flat stone so I was only wet from the chest up. Luckily I didn’t embarrass myself this time and my camera survived to take shots of the waterfall just upstream.

As you can see from the photos, it was a stunning cascade hurtling over a sheer cliff. Vultures wheeled about overhead, riding the air currents and hoping one of us would conveniently die. The whole scene was so alien to what I’ve experienced in Madrid in the past few years–lush forest, cheer cliffs of gray rock, a mild temperature, and no people.

My friend looked around and remarked, “I think you’ve landed in the right spot.”

Yes, I think I have.

Several long-distance trails crisscross this park and I’ll be sure to explore more of them in coming months. I may not be back for some time, though, because living anywhere in Green Spain you’re really spoiled for choice. All of the mountains have trails and caves, and little villages have restaurants serving up local specialties. I’m also planning trips under Cantabria and will be writing up my reintroduction to spelunking in future posts.

Green Spain: Exploring Iberia’s Celtic north

Green Spain, Cantabria, Santander
When people think of Spain, they tend to think of a sun-soaked, dry land with a hot climate and beautiful beaches. For the most part that’s true, but Spain’s northern region is very different and equally worth a visit.

Spain’s four northern provinces are often called Green Spain. From west to east, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country are a verdant strip between the North Atlantic/Bay of Biscay and a chain of mountains that traps the rain. Lush, with a mild climate and rugged coastline, it feels more like the British Isles than Iberia. Indeed, the old Celtiberian culture that existed before the Romans has survived more here than in the rest of Spain. You can even drink cider and listen to bagpipes!

I’ve covered the Basque region in my series Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque Region, so let’s focus on Green Spain’s other three regions.

Cantabria is the smallest region of Green Spain, but packs in a lot of fun. Santander is the main city. I’ve been here for the past three days lounging on the beach with my wife and kid. The weather has been warm but not too hot, and the water cold but bearable. I actually prefer these beaches to the jam-packed tourist hellholes of Benidorm and spots on Costa del Sol in the south. Fewer drunken Englishmen, more space. More risk of rain, though, which is why I’m inside today talking to you folks.

%Gallery-127797%Like the rest of Green Spain, Cantabria has a rugged coastline you can follow on a series of trails. Jagged rocks break the surf while far out to sea you can watch freighters and tankers sail off for distant lands. Picturesque lighthouses dot the shore at regular intervals to keep those ships safe, like the one on Cabo Mayor pictured above, an easy stroll from Santander. The currents and tides make this and the Basque Country good spots for surfing, but wear a wetsuit!

If you go inland you can hike, ski, and rock climb in the towering mountains, many of which reach higher than 2,000 meters. Lots of little villages lie nestled in the valleys, where you can sample local produce and relax at outdoor cafes watching the clouds play over the peaks. Prehistoric people were attracted to this region too. The Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias have dozens of caves with prehistoric paintings dating back as much as 20,000 years. The most famous is Altamira, which is temporarily closed to visitors, but many more caves are fully open. There’s something deeply moving about standing in a cool, dark chamber and playing your flashlight over some paintings of bison and shamans left by your distant ancestors.

Asturias is bigger than Cantabria and famous for its cider. Alcoholic cider, that is. Personally I think Asturian cider is the best anywhere, and there’s some tough competition in England and Galicia! Many brands of Asturian cider are only available in Asturias. I can’t even get them in Madrid. The Asturians claim that cider doesn’t travel well over the mountains, but I think they’re just keeping the best for themselves!

Galicia is a bit different than the rest of Green Spain. Sticking out from the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, it gets the full blast of Atlantic winds. It’s even more rugged, with more amazing views. A big draw here is the Santiago de Compostela, where the Cathedral of St. James has been a pilgrimage center for more than a thousand years. It’s the destination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) a network of pilgrimage routes across Green Spain. Some trails start as far away as France, and they all join together eventually to make their way to this holy cathedral where St. James is said to be buried.

Hiking is big in Green Spain. If you don’t want to walk all the way from France to Galicia, there are plenty of shorter trails and day hikes. If you’re more interested in what’s under the land than on top of it, the Picos de Europa in Asturias and Cantabria have some of the best caves in the world. I’m not talking about the homey caves of prehistoric Spaniards, but massive labyrinthine networks of tunnels reaching more than a kilometer into the earth. If you’re not a dedicated spelunker, take heart. Every guidebook lists “show caves” you can go to with the kids.

This is just a quick overview of what northern Spain has to offer. You’ll be getting more from me in coming months about this fascinating region because we’re moving up here in September. If you have any specific questions, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll try to turn your questions into day trips and posts!