The Gandara Traverse
Sunday, 25 May 2014 – Saturday, 31 May 2014

It was 4am on Wednesday 28th May when Julia entered the bunkhouse to announce the Rio Viscoso had been located in the Gandara side of the Gandara System. The through-trip could now commence! Only two days previous Holly, Noel and Mark had entered the system from the Caligraphos end and located the streamway after 6 hours of caving. So this now meant that the route through to the streamway had been worked out on both sides and reflectors been placed to show the way. The objective of this years annual Beardy Tours was even closer to being accomplished.
This years Beardy Tours was a much grander tour than previous years (so we have been told), with a team of 13 British and 2 Spanish cavers including:

Paul Beardy Swire (El Capitano)
Mark Madden
Noel Snape
Holly Bradley
Andy Chapman
Emma Key
Lisa Wootton
Fleur Loveridge
Pete Talling
Emma Heron
Di Arthurs
Julia Arce Saez
Josito
Becka Lawson
Johnny Baker

The objective was to complete the through-trip of the Gandara system. This system is located in the Ason gorge, with the Gandara entrance being located at the top of the gorge, near the small village of Gandara. The system was explored by French cavers, having made connections to two entrances on the other side of the mountain ‘ Bustalveinte and Caligraphos, making a through-trip of approximately 12km long. A team of British cavers from South Wales had completed the through-trip a year or two previously after 6 years of reccying. Having to start with no survey and no information, this had taken them a very, very long time to work their way through from one side of the system to the other.

This time round it was much simpler for us. Armed with a survey and descriptions of certain obstacles and things to look out for from the South Wales team, the Beardy Tours team hit the ground running as soon as we landed on the banks of Santander. We were warned that the system was complex and we may not be able to complete the trip first time round, but we were determined to give it our best shot. We arrived on the Sunday having taken the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander, drove up to Ason and met up with Fleur, Pete and Andy, who were having lunch. Following this a team went into the Gandara entrance to find and rig the 40m pitch, whilst the others located the Caligraphos entrance. It was very misty and it turned out that our GPS location was about 100m or so out, but we had been provided a photograph of the entrance, and after much wandering around in the mist we eventually managed to find it!

The next day saw four teams of cavers entering the system to locate the Rio Viscoso on either end. Becka, Di and Emma H entered the Gandara system early on a bounce trip, with Pete, Fleur, Julia and Josito following behind as a second party who would help, then camp underground if necessary and continue to route find the next day.

Holly, Noel and Mark entered the Caligraphos entrance on a bounce trip, with Emma K, Lisa and Andy following in as a camping group to pick-up from where we had left off. From the Caligraphos entrance all went very easily. Route finding to the junction where Bustalveinte comes in went very smoothly, reaching the junction in just over an hour. Here was a very handy drawing of the junction showing where all the passages here led too which was the first surprise of the day ‘ we had in fact entered from Bustalveinte ‘ not Caligraphos!! With that all worked out, we carried on to camp, which was easy as it was cairned and marked with helpful orange G arrows pretty much all the way, which resulted in us making camp in about two hours from the junction. Here was surprise number two ‘ a note to Team Beardy! This note told us that we were at the Salle de la Sardine a Grosse Tete, which meant we were half way to the Rio Viscoso! Who was our mystery note from? And where were the others as this was labelled as 1 of 5!

After a quick rest stop we carried on to the Rio Viscoso. This was going very well until about half way, when we took a wrong turn. After about an hour and a half of looking up and down all the different possible ways on, we realised we were in the wrong place. So we returned back to our last know correct route. From Lisas descriptions a bad step was mentioned and we soon found this on the left which led up to a short traverse over a hole and clambering over more boulders. Back on track we followed all the cairns to the Rio Viscoso, reaching here in about 6 hours after first getting underground. Mission accomplished! And out we headed. On the way out we saw Andy, Lisa and Emma, who having carried camping gear almost all the way to camp decided to stay underground and seek out the Rio de Sardine to see if this was an easier through-trip option (looks like it doesnt make much difference as an alternative route and you get wet).

Once back at the bunkhouse we found out that the trip into the Gandara side had not been so successful. Looking at the survey this is a much more complex part of the system and there are cairns everywhere that do not necessarily lead the way for the through-trip ‘ the French use cairns as survey stations. So Fleur, Pete, Julia and Josito were at underground camp ready for another push the next day. After a 14 hour trip they had successfully located the Rio Viscoso. Having returned back to camp at 1am, Fleur and Pete decided to stay another night underground whilst Julia and Josito decided to exit the cave and bring us back the good news! Not being able to contain ourselves a through-trip was planned immediately with two teams acting on an exchange – Noel, Becka and Mark taking the Caligraphos to Gandara direction and Holly, Emma H and Di going in the opposite direction. The plan was perfect. Holly drove the van to Gandara and Mark drove his car to the Lunada col. This meant Noel could collect the van on their team and Emma could collect the car on our team. This also meant it was a good mix of cavers in each team who had been in each entrance. Furthermore Noel believed he had discovered where the actual Caligraphos entrance was and the plan was to enter the cave from that entrance, leaving a GPS in a dry bag there for the other team (as route finding on the surface in the thick mist and dark was difficult). All gear had been packed, nothing was forgotten. It was perfect.

Holly, Emma and Di were underground at 10:40am on the Wednesday. Progress was swift as Emma and Di knew their way beyond camp. At the head of the 40m pitch we found Fleur and Pete exiting the system. We thanked them for their efforts as now we were on our way to making the through-trip. After a long chat, we headed on down to camp. Spirits were high when we reached camp in under two hours. Had a bite to eat and continued onwards. The route was reflected well and there were no issues in finding our way through to the Rio Viscoso. There was a lot of singing about rectangles, triangles and very big holes and good joking and laughter. We were happy.

Until about 1 hour into the Rio Viscoso when we realised we were lost. The plan had always been to find the routes through to the Rio Viscoso from either end as it would be easy caving, as it was a straight line on the survey. Note the survey lies!! It lies! It is not one single straight passage, but comprises a number of parallel passages. It appears that when taking the normal route from Caligraphos to Gandara, that the route through is much more simple (but perhaps not as to be explained by Noel), but when heading up stream it is not so simple. The route does not always follow the stream and it certainly isnt stompy all the way.

After a couple of hours of heading up and down parallel passages, sliding through boulder chokes and heading up climbs we decided it was time to turn back around to where we knew we were last on the correct course. A sullen silence had engulfed us. We all tried to remain positive, but deep down we were all thinking DOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! We knew we would be able to get back out as we werent totally lost, it was that we could not find the way on. But this not only meant prussicking up the 60m pitch, which none of us wanted to do, but this would also mean heading home, tails between our legs having not completed the traverse. This was not an option. So back we headed to the last place we knew to be right.

Before getting lost we had followed the obvious way on through a dry side passage, leaving the streamway and re-entering further upstream. When we re-entered, the downstream passage had a carbide arrow on the wall pointing downstream. This was strange as all arrows I had encountered previously pointed the caver in the Caligraphos ‘ Grandara direction, therefore I couldnt understand why it hadnt pointed the caver in the direction we had just exited from. But this arrow could also not be for us as we were heading the other way, and it pointed us downstream and we knew we needed to head up. But by now we were at a loss and decided to go back and follow it. Turns out this is a loop which is not shown on the survey. No help there. We were still confused. Where could we have gone wrong? Would we need to head all the back along the streamway and retrace our footsteps?

We decided to head back up the cave one more time. This time looking carefully left and right. We kept looking back behind us and kept seeing carbide arrows. We must be on the right track. We got to the last know carbide arrow and looked around carefully. Suddenly we noticed that the passage ahead was not one long narrow bedding plane, but two passages! The bedding plane on the left looked so narrow that it looked like it was part of the larger passage ahead, but it was not. Heading into here, it was well trodden with mud and, yes, there it was ‘ a reflector! Whilst we had been lost the others had passed us! Oh hurray, hurray! We were on track again!

By this time though we had been lost for around two or three hours and the singing and laughter was over. We were tired and still had half of the system to go. We headed out without too much bother and reached the Bustalveinte/Caligraphos junction. Here a note from the others told us that they had managed to enter the system through Caligraphos, but it had taken them three hours! Three times as long as Bustalveinte! And not only that but on the way out from here it is about 300m of up, up and up. We had a dilemma. The GPS was at Caligraphos. Although the two entrances are not far from each other on the surface, I could not guarantee I would find it in the dark, and therefore we could potentially get lost on the mountain in the dark and mist (the route is actually quite easy in the daylight).
Furthermore the furthest entrance is Caligraphos, so essentially we should exit from here. So we made an attempt to head out of Caligraphos. We went wrong straight away. Having read the survey we knew we should turn upstream when we reached the streamway, but three cairns pointed us downstream was the survey wrong and the others wanted us to head the right way? We followed downstream to no avail, turned around and headed up the way we thought we should go. This was right! But again there were two ways on. The obvious way was correct again and we reached the 4m rope climb, but here common sense prevailed from the other two. We had already spent three hours lost in the system. There was much chance that the others, when heading inwards, would not see passages that entered from behind them where we could get lost and therefore would not have placed reflectors. We could not trust the cairns as we did not know who had built them and why. I was nervous about getting us lost on the mountain in the dark and mist, but I had made the walk twice before without the GPS. We were tired and could not estimate how long it would take us to exit out of Caligraphos. It was uphill and it was understood to be more difficult. The others had taken three hours to come down ‘ worst case it could take us double that to get out. We decided to head out of

Bustalveinte.

And exit we did! Finally after 15 hours and 20mins! And we were happy. We made it to the cars in the mist (without the GPS) and realised that we really had drawn the short-straw. The exit out of Bustalveinte is a steep incline of crawling, the walk back to the cars was partly uphill and longer and the change on the col was miserable! But we loved every minute of it. Especially when we realised we were going to make the through-trip and not have to prussick up the 60m!

Two more parties made the through-trip the following two days, and all reflectors have now been removed. Advice to those attempting to make the through-trip ‘ reccying the route is essential, in particular in the Gandara side. Survey is essential and take a compass.

Do the through-trip in the Caligraphos ‘ Gandara direction ‘ your knees will appreciate it!

Thanks to the South Wales guys who provided all the information gained from their trips and also for the messages ‘ it made it even more exciting! And thanks to Beardy, Julia and Lisa for collating all the information and having it all laminated and prepared before we arived. Without all this advice and prep this trip would have never been completed and we wouldnt have had such a great adventure.