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The Ario Caves Project - Photo by Jeff Wade

The Ario Caves Project

Steph Dwyer
Photography by Jeff Wade

It is who knows what hour of the night, 4 days into our camping trip and I’m starting to lose all sense of day or time. Deep underground, sleep and rest are determined not by the cycles of day or night but by the cycles of adrenaline and exhaustion.
I am an adventurer, a dreamer, a passionate outdoor enthusiast but most of all a caver. But – why caving? I could have devoted myself to the many other loves of mine like climbing, fell running, canyoning, which are all far more civilised and respected sports. So what is it about gruelling sleep deprived 30 hour trips, chafed, exhausted and broken that makes me feel so euphoric? Why do I spend all my money and free time preparing for a ‘summer holiday’ that involves camping 5 days at a time without any natural light? When an expedition departs it has no idea, no minds view of what lies ahead because cave exploration by its very nature is not only unknown in terms of its journey but also its destination. It is always a total mystery and it is this very essence that intrigues me. What we find around the corner is often beyond our wildest imaginations.

So many people are terrified of caving because caves aren’t places people can easily imagine or relate to. One doesn’t have to be a climber or mountaineer to know at least what a mountain looks like, but for caving, people rarely know what to expect and so their blank canvass is often painted with fear. Indeed, caves can be remote and committing places to explore but often spectacularly beautiful launching you unexpectedly into the most unique of physical and sensory experiences.

On one such occasion I find myself curiously following a stream along an unexplored passage 860 metres below ground in Spain’s, Pozu del Xitu. It is who knows what hour of the night, 4 days into our camping trip and I’m starting to lose all sense of day or time. Deep underground, sleep and rest are determined not by the cycles of day or night but by the cycles of adrenaline and exhaustion.

Gaelan and I were on a mission to meticulously search for any new passages leading off the main line of the cave. Searching high and low one location in particular caught our attention. Climbing up to investigate further, it seemed that we’d discovered an inlet carrying more water than was in the main streamway below. It continued vertically upwards but fortunately we were able to make swift progress by free climbing and linking crumbly hand holds. To my delight, it was exactly what we were looking for – a significant and independent development to the main cave.

The Ario Caves Project - Photo by Jeff Wade
What could this mean? Where could this be going? My heart was pumping with excitement but I tried to steady myself so as not to lose concentration; an accident at this depth could be very serious. Gaelan called out for me, but all he could hear was hysterics of laughter and the announcement “its going Gaelen, its going… wait till you see this.” I quietly smile to myself, this is what it’s all about, moments like these when you first set your eyes upon pristine unexplored cave, to stand where no man has stood before. For the first 100 metres the cave consisted of enormous, well decorated chambers; the walls twinkling in our lights. Further up however the walls appeared to pinch in, could we have rejoiced too soon? The passage eventually closed in until the only way on was a very narrow slot off to one side. It looked ridiculously tight and the bottom of it filled with water. Our adventure it seemed had come to an end.

Defeated I was about to turn around but then curiosity spurred me on to see if anything might lie beyond. The approach up into the constriction was quite awkward forcing me onto my side with the delightful welcome of water now dripping down my neck. I tried to slide my head into the narrow slot but the only space that allowed room for my helmet forced my head down. Unable to see ahead I shouted instead. A lofty echo returned. Holy $**7 that chamber must be massive! A rush of adrenaline came over me and what appeared earlier as tight and hideous was now scary but possible. I just had to find my way into that black unknown. My heart was pounding with fear and anticipation as I forced myself down into the widest part of the squeeze, which had to be in the water, obviously! The whole lower half of my body was saturated to the tip of my ear, briefly at one point I had to dip my entire face into the water to move forward but the grimness was instantly forgotten once I emerged the other side into a massive chamber, bigger than my light could fill. I shouted again then began to sing, the sound seemed to disappear into the enormity of this lonesome aven only to reverberate back as a more eery echo of itself.

Gaelan enthused by my hyperactivity decided he wanted to give the squeeze a go. In an instant my elation was replaced with irrational images of a wedged Gaelan and me shivering, sopping wet on the wrong side of a squeeze no one else even knew existed yet. I being miniature compared to Gaelan had a desperate enough time getting through so I eagerly asked him to let me come through first. With the ethereal cloak of adrenaline now gone, I cautiously inched my way back through – my chest bigger now with uneasy breaths. I emerged looking like a drowned rat and we decided it was time to turn around. After a very sketchy descent, requiring much concentration due to crumbling foot and hand holds, we dust ourselves off in the main streamway or in my case wring out my fleece undersuit. Gaelan the gentleman gave me the dry top off his back to keep me warm. Hours later, we arrived back in camp at 550 metres, tired & elated to hear of the simultaneous finds had by others elsewhere. We called our new discovery Slí na Síofra – the way of the fairy in Irish.

On any given day, a snapshot of the expedition would involve many things. People furiously packing gear in the searing heat of the ario bowl – drills, batteries, bolts, aid climbing gear etc – all the tools necessary to drop that unexplored shaft or scale an unclimbed aven. Others might be busy ferrying exploration kit and camp supplies through narrow rifts, crawls and up and down countless pitches. One common ferry stop was the top of Flat Iron, a 138m shaft above camp whose loose walls meant that only one person could progress at a time for fear of surprising the person below with a shower of rocks. At camp people would be emerging from their sleeping bags early in the morning to attempt communication with the surface using a Nicola phone – a sophisticated piece of equipment that utilised low frequency radio waves to carry signals through rock and allow contact with those above ground.

Life at camp was a surprisingly good one. How, you might ask, when one arrives soaked to the bone with no change of clothes after a day’s exploration. Our underground camp however was this expedition’s pride and joy. It was a carefully designed haven that balanced cost, size and weight with an efficient means to keep warm and most importantly get dry again. To achieve this we erected a living area big enough to sleep several people using a cut up cargo parachute, so essentially we were living inside a massive storm shelter half a kilometre beneath the mountains. Inside this we had a washing line for our wet clothes, ample place to cook and eat and two tent inners for sleeping in. We dried our clothes by stripping down to our thermals and drying off over a burning stoves. It was from here that many adventures began.

It is who knows what hour of the night, 4 days into our camping trip and I’m starting to lose all sense of day or time. Deep underground, sleep and rest are determined not by the cycles of day or night but by the cycles of adrenaline and exhaustion.
The Ario Caves Project - Photo by Jeff Wade
It all happened so fast that I cannot remember what actually happened save the terrifying feeling of weightlessness as I fell backwards into open space knowing that a large drop, floored with jagged boulders lay beneath. I remember dangling from a large boulder, holding on for dear life but unable to move whilst Ian below was precariously trying to keep me from falling further.
The purpose of our efforts has many dimensions but if I were to summarise it in one line I’d say – “to unearth and document one of the world’s deepest cave systems.”
This is not a blind hope but an eventuality 53 years already in the making. The alluring fact that keeps me coming back to the Picos de Europa, year and year again is the knowledge that water sinks high up in limestone peaks and doesn’t appear again until the Cares Gorge thousands of metres below. To date the Oxford University Caving Club expeditions have discovered over 1,500 metres of this subterranean world and yet caves higher up the mountain are still wide open, their outward drafts beckoning the eager caver. The thought of this is what motivates us when our backs ache from countless days hiking 30 kilogram packs, when we’re delirious from caving all through the day & bolting all through the night, when we’re lugging 100’s of metres of rope through awkward, arduous cave, or when we’re enduring our worst fear having an accident underground.

To many, having an accident deep underground would epitomise their worst fear. Some might even imagine a fracture in such a remote setting a prelude to a multi-day rescue and label such risky activities as reckless. However, expeditioners understand this and prepare and train for such making the prognosis for an otherwise serious incident far less dire. I unfortunately can prove this through experience.

I left for the surface after a multi-day camp in Xitu. Eager to see the sun again Ian and I set off ahead of the rest. Making my way through a boulder choke (best described as a human scale jenga game, but with rocks) a boulder slid from underneath me and sent me tumbling almost to my demise. It all happened so fast that I cannot remember what actually happened save the terrifying feeling of weightlessness as I fell backwards into open space knowing that a large drop, floored with jagged boulders lay beneath. I remember dangling from a large boulder, holding on for dear life but unable to move whilst Ian below was precariously trying to keep me from falling further. “Steph, you need to pull yourself up” but I was speechless, completely immobilised by the intense wave of pain I was in. Eventually I managed to pull myself up out of danger and sprawled myself across a rock to assess the damage I’d done. The downward force of my fall onto an outreached hand caused me to dislocate my thumb. With the pain in my knees I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to stand back on my feet again. Moaning and scolding myself I shuffled my way to the bottom of Flat Iron, that spectacular 138m pitch I was telling you about earlier. Well, it was far from wondrous to me now, but one of the many barriers of pain and grit that lay between me and the surface. I was trembling, the adrenaline wearing off now and being replaced with searing pain. I felt an overwhelming urge to exit quickly, before all traces of bravery were worn down by the constant use of battered limbs. I tried not to think what lay ahead but instead take it one small step at a time.

The Ario Caves Project - Photo by Jeff WadeThe Ario Caves Project - Photo by Jeff Wade
On a normal day it would take someone between 5 – 8 hours to get out from camp depending on what they had to carry. It required over a half a kilometre of vertical ascent and several kilometres of demanding and varied caving including rope climbing over 43 pitches, traversing between the walls of narrow canyon passage and exiting sideways out through a narrow rift affectionately referred to as ‘Climax Rift’. How could someone with injuries to their hand and two legs do this?

The funny answer to this question is the avoidance, at any cost, of the embarrassment of having to be rescued. The real answer is a culmination of a few things. I was faced with two choices: sitting at the bottom of Flat Iron waiting in the cold for someone to do that 5 – 8 hour ascent, make the call for rescue, wait for them to assemble and then come down the cave. Alternatively I could try and exit under my own steam but not without the help of a friend and a small first response kit comprising adequate protection against the cold, plenty of food and most importantly appropriate pain relief – this was the critical tipping point between being able to get myself out and a full scale rescue. I opted for the latter and 10 testing hours later I emerged on the surface exhausted but safe.

The X-rays afterwards showed that I’d broken two bones in my foot, damaged the cartilage in both my knees and chipped bone off the knuckle of my thumb. The doctors in A&E were shocked by my story but it is amazing how the brain works, how its sophisticated hierarchy can prioritise its responses. I should have been so much more debilitated by my injuries but somehow once my pain was reduced I was able to do the necessary to get myself to safety. The ordeal wasn’t actually as bad as one might have imagined.

And so it was back to the UK and work for me, but the expedition continued to make a breakthrough that had been sought after for many, many years – a way over the final downstream sump towards the master cave we’d always dreamed to see. And so the story continues, another piece of the puzzle close to being solved and others still to uncover!

Steph Dwyer will be talking about the Ario Caves Project at the Kendal Mountain Festival as as part of the Petzl Underground Session on Saturday 16th November. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Steph Dwyer

Steph Dwyer is a cave explorer and co-ordinator for the Ario Caves Project. She has been exploring the complex underworld of her homeland Ireland, the UK and abroad for the past decade. She loves all things outdoors but particularly enjoys caving as a means to the last frontiers of exploration. There is nothing else quite like it for its multi-dimensional experience, marrying scientific research, technology and adventure with a hunger to seek out the unknown. The Ario Caves Project captured her fascination for all the above.

She is happiest when dangling off a rope, dipping her feet into the unknown abyss a kilometre deep underground.

The horned peaks of the Picos de Europa, Spain- specifically the Ario plateau is home to a vast and significant labyrinth of caves. This area has been explored and pushed by Oxford University Caving Club and their friends for over 50 years. To date a master system in excess of 1,500m depth has been found, a caving classic written, a world record achieved and still there lies hundreds of meters of blank limestone yet to be explored. Pozu del Xitu, a 1,200m deep cave was the location for this year’s expedition.

For more information on The Ario Caves Project, visit For more information about Pozu del Xitu’s original exploration by members of the expedition take a look at Beneath the Mountains – a book that is considered a classic amongst cavers.