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

Ultimate Dinosaurs Exhibit In Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

dinosaurs
We all know about the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, but what about the Gigantosaurus, pictured above, or the Amargasaurus? These are just a couple of the little-known dinosaurs highlighted at a new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.

“Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana
” looks at recently discovered dinosaur species from South America, Africa and Madagascar, some of which have never before been displayed in Canada. Not content with simply assembling the skeletons and putting them on a pedestal, the curators have painted the walls with richly detailed murals and have also created Augmented Reality experiences where visitors can interact with the displays to learn more. You can even flesh out a dinosaur skeleton to see how paleontologists recreate these fearsome beasts from the bones they find.

The exhibit looks at how continental drift affected the dinosaur evolution during the Mesozoic Era 250–65 million years ago. At the start of this period there was one giant land mass called Pangaea. This later divided into Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south, which in turn separated into the continents we’re familiar with. This increasing isolation led to dinosaur species evolving separately.

Some of these unusual dinosaurs will surprise you. The long-necked Futalognkosaurus was one of the biggest animals to have ever walked the earth, measuring 110 feet long and weighing as much as 10 elephants. Suchomimus had a face like a crocodile and the Majungasaurus appears to have been a cannibal. Majungasaurus bite marks have been found on the bones of other Majungasaurs.

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” runs until March 17, 2013.

World’s Oldest Cave Art Found In Spain

Archaeologists analyzing prehistoric paintings in Spain have discovered the earliest example of cave art.

El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.

These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.

Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.

Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.

The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.

Burgess Shale online exhibition brings 500 million year-old sea back to life

Burgess Shale
The Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada, preserves an amazing collection of fossils of sea creatures from the Cambrian period. This was a time dating from 488 to 542 million years ago, when complex creatures were beginning to evolve but before the dinosaurs existed.

Some of the creatures were pretty strange, like the Anomalocaris canadensis pictured above in this image courtesy Nobu Tamura. The name means “strange shrimp of Canada”. Another is the Marella splendens, shown below in this image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. These little guys are the most common animal found in the Burgess Shale.

Fossils from the Burgess Shale can be seen in museums around the world, and now the Royal Ontario Museum and Parks Canada have created the Burgess Shale online exhibition. The exhibition has a fossil library of almost every species ever found in the shale, along with information about how they lived. Most interesting are the animated reconstructions, including a virtual submarine ride to visit sea life half a billion years ago.

More than 70 digital reconstructions of the animals allow you to examine them closely. You’ll see how many modern animals such as snails, sea stars, and crabs had their origins in this remote era. These real-life monsters are a great educational tool for kids. My son was fascinated.

If you want to see the Burgess Shale for yourself, go to Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Guided hikes to the otherwise restricted fossil beds, which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are available from July to September

Burgess Shale

Early human ancestor on display at London’s Natural History Museum

LondonThe Natural History Museum in London has put an important fossil of one of our species’ early ancestors on display.

Australopithecus sediba lived 1.98 million years ago in what is now South Africa. It’s thought by some scientists to be a transition species between the more ape-like Australopithecines and the later, more human-like genus Homo. While it has the small brain size of the Australopithecines (although larger than most), its jaw and body look more like the Homo species. The hands are especially well-formed and it may have used tools.

Two exact replicas of the most complete Australopithecus sediba skeletons were recently donated to the museum by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. At the moment only one skull is on public view. Hopefully the full skeletons will go on display soon. It’s the first public exhibition of this species in the UK.

These are exciting times in paleontology. New human ancestors are unearthed almost yearly, and more and more of our family tree is being pieced together. At the same time, scientists are being forced to defend and explain their field of study to Creationists, who have already made up their minds that science and religion are automatically enemies.

The most impressive display of human evolution I’ve ever seen was at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. It has a huge collection of fossil hominids, including Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One room shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance. This is also done with other animals like the horse and hippo. Anyone looking, really looking, at these displays will have a hard time dismissing evolution as some sort of conspiracy on the part of Godless scientists, many of whom are actually devout Christians.

Photo courtesy Brett Eloff.