Ario 2023


This year's trip to Ario in the Picos de Europa heads off next weekend. In a (welcome?!) change this year, there are no diving objectives. Instead the main plans are:

- Tie up upstream exploration in C4 (finishing multiple bolt climbs started in 2017)
- Continue downwards exploration in 27/9, potentially dropping into what was a very remote upstream area of 2/7, facilitating further upstream exploration
- Resurvey the original route down 53/5, for which survey data has unfortunately been lost
- Survey the 2022 extension of 53/5 and continue exploration to who-knows-where following the monster draught
- Possibly resurvey Tras la Jayada, a cave above 2/7 comprising a 300 m deep shaft explored by Spanish explorers that we sadly don't have any survey data for


We had a packing day last weekend at the Yorkshire Dales Guides barn (many thanks, as ever, for storing the kit), and bags packed ready to go up the hill and distributed to be taken out.


Hopefully we'll be able to post updates here during the trip.


As it turned out, the trip was sufficiently relentless that I didn't have time to post any updates here while we were away.

The expedition was (is) 3 week long. The first two weeks saw the most people up at Ario (up to about 25) and a smaller group remain this week.

Objective 1 was the leads in upstream C4 (see above). Close to the upstream limit a confluence is found. Up the right hand branch two climbs were left ongoing in the Sanctuary (a big chamber at the end) and up the left hand branch a third climb had been left. The area is intriguing since it’s not clear which branch is the main stream – they both appear to be very similar-sized passages and take a very similar quantity of water.

This year we quickly set up camp at Bugger Bognor (approx. -400 m; slightly higher than ideal, but a comfortable, dry camp site). The first camping trip took a few photos (that no doubt will appear here soon), rigged the final pitch that we hadn't got around to sorting last year, verified that the ropes on the pitch up to the Sanctuary were in good condition, and dropped some kit at the end.

The second camping trip (and the only pushing trip down C4 this year) saw four of us head in. One pair (Rich and Paulina) went to the Sanctuary leads up the right hand branch, and the other went up to the climb in the left hand branch. Jean-Luc and I comprised the latter team, and despite having camped for several nights in the Sanctuary in 2017 I’d never been up this left hand branch (presumptuously named the "F64 Inlet"). On arriving at the inlet climb (Bish Bash Bosch) we were somewhat underwhelmed: although there was some black space above, it looked a relatively minor inlet and had no perceptible draught (from the floor) or significant amount of water entering. Before starting the climb we decided to take a look at the previous upstream limit.


The waterfall in the final chamber just before the 2017 upstream limit (photo Duncan Simey)

Up the (largely brilliant) streamway we went, until we reached the climb by the waterfall in the final chamber. The ropes were fine, so we popped up these to find the stream emerging from a narrow rift. A common feature of Ario caves is a transition from wide, spacious passages to narrow impassable-looking rifts, but if you can find the right level and make progress through the narrow sections you are often rewarded with larger passage beyond. I had a clamber around in the rift, frustratingly close to fitting through, but just not quite managing to. Jean-Luc pointed out a possible widening fairly high in the rift, and a steady climb of about 12 m saw me at the dark space he’d seen. The chossy entry to the hole ahead clearly showed no-one had been before. Jean-Luc followed me up, and we found ourselves standing in a sizeable chamber. Following a sandy slope up, we soon reached a significant drop back down with a further possibility to traverse ahead. Interesting!

We’d left our kit back at the bolt climb, so needed to return to here to pick up SRT kits, bolting stuff and survey kit. After a crash-course in surveying and Disto use, we started the survey up through our new finds. Once at the drop I set to bolting, descending about 15 m to a ledge, and finding a further drop beyond. Surveying whilst bolting was a new combination for me, but it seemed to work just about OK. Down the next drop we were looking short of rope but luck was (just) on our side and despite having to unclip my descender crab to get off the rope, we found ourselves standing on boulders in the now spacious-again streamway. I quickly scrawled details for a final survey station, delighted that we had passed this obstacle, but aware that time was getting on and that the pair in the Sanctuary may well be finishing off their climbs. Jean-Luc asked me if I’d looked around the corner, which I hadn’t really in my haste to sort all the bolting kit and sort the final survey station. “It’s like Easegill Main Drain”, he said, looking along the passage ahead of him. We agreed to “just have a quick look” along the new section of streamway, and followed the delightfully sizeable passage around a few corners. Looking up, we realised we could now see a roof above – something that hadn’t been the case for a long time. Keen not to leave a “wide open” lead for someone else that proved to immediately sump, we figured we should see what happened further on now the roof was lowering. Sure enough, a few corners later saw the roof meet the water at a beautiful clear sump pool. We extended our survey, moved our final survey marker and returned. We were gutted not to have a camera with us, but our original objective of bolt-climbing had seemed unlikely to prove photogenic, so a camera hadn’t quite made the kit list. Anyhow, adding photography to bolting and surveying as a pair may have been an activity too many.

Leaving our new discoveries (“Look Around You”), we returned to the Sanctuary at about 10 pm to find that Rich and Paulina had just returned from their exploits on the climbs above (one got too small, one got too big!). Much out-of-date freeze-dried food followed before a steady trip back up to camp. Once there it was time for more brews, more noodles, then finally we were in our sleeping bags for about 4 am.

The following C4 trip saw the old Sanctuary camp dismantled and removed and the start of the derig. The next saw the section below Bugger Bognar derigged and camp packed away. Finally, in one very impressive effort, the last trip there saw the whole cave derigged from camp to the entrance. C4 had been rigged for way too long, so it’s great to finally have it ticked off, even if we had to tell Tony in the same sentence that we’d found a lovely looking sump and that the cave was being derigged…


My report above is a bit text-heavy. Thankfully, Bartek Biela took some marvellous photos down C4, as well as others taking numerous photos above ground. Hopefully these give a bit more of a flavour of the trip. I take no credit whatsoever for any of these pictures!

The 1.5 hour walk up to C4 from the refugio gets a bit precipitous towards the top.


Fiona, Rocky and Phil negotiate the path by the C4 entrance (photo: Steve McCullagh)

Once underground, the going feels more straightforward. Pitch after pitch you drop down towards camp, losing height with very little effort.


C4 5th pitch (photo: Bartek Biela)

The most significant feature on the descent is The Monster. It looks pretty big from the top…


Paulina B looking down The Monster (photo: Bartek Biela)

…and also looks pretty big from near the bottom! It’s 140 m in total.


The bottom section of The Monster (photo: Bartek Biela)

Once at Bugger Bognor, the welcoming sight of the tent appears below.


The tent at Bugger Bognor from the head of the eponymous pitch (photo: Bartek Biela)


Having a brew at camp (photo: Bartek Biela)

The pre-push team were rigging the final down pitch of the cave before taking kit up to the Sanctuary. We weren’t sure of the condition of the ropes up to the Sanctuary since they hadn’t been looked at for 6 years, but thankfully they were fine and no re-climbing was needed. Some heavy rain on the surface made for a bit of a damp descent on their return!


The upstream waterfall in C4 (photo: Bartek Biela)

On reaching The Sanctuary the team had a brief gear sort and brew before heading back for a night at camp.


Sorting gear at The Sanctuary (photo: Bartek Biela)

On the way in the pushing team (left 4) passed the others on their way out.


A brief photo stop below The Monster (photo: Bartek Biela)

The rift heading up to the monster is spectacular, but is the way to the start of a lengthy prussik.


The rift below The Monster (photo: Bartek Biela)


Well-known member
Great photos which bring back lots of memories from 1997. Particularly it being suggested that we should go and climb the upstream waterfall in C4 and being told that it was only 5m high! One look at it and we didn't even bother making a start! 🙂


C4 was somewhat of a secondary objective in the grand scheme of things, and our main objective with it had simply been to derig it! One of our primary objectives for the expedition was to continue exploring 27/9, left after 2022 at the head of a pitch in a large rift 200 m below the surface. Its situation above the remote upstream extremities of 2/7 made it an intriguing prospect and a possible route to exploring little-visited leads in the area.

With the cave rigged from last year, all that needed to be done was taking in the drill and bolting/rigging kit. The drill spent the entire two weeks in the cave – a sign of a good lead! For several days, pushing trips went down and reported back that more pitches had been rigged and that there was more black space below.

Some context is probably helpful here: the first 100 m of the cave is fairly straightforward, albeit with some awkward pitch heads. This is followed by the 2019 (capped) breakthrough, that culminates in a squeeze necessitating SRT kit removal for all but the smallest. After widening out at the next pitch (Foot Hang), a point is reached that has become known as the Peril Point. Some 10 m off the floor, a rift in the side of the shaft is entered, for which SRT kits must be immediately removed. It’s quite an exposed spot to be removing all your points of attachment!

The Ario Reality rift follows, and while it doesn’t take too long, it’s pretty hard going, particularly with a heavy bag; numerous calm cavers have lost their cool here! The end of the rift culminates in a particularly awkward pitch head down into more spacious passage. The upshot is that teams tend not to be too keen on mega-long sessions of pushing, knowing that the trip out is fairly hard going.

According to our survey data, we only needed to drop a further 70 m to reach 2/7 at the start of the expedition, but after a few trips it was very clear this wasn’t happening… All became clear one night when we looked at the entrance elevation in survex and saw it was clearly way too low. Our corrected elevation difference was almost 250 m - at least this explained why we hadn’t found 2/7 yet!

Pushing trips continued, and each time a team returned we were expectant of a connection, but still it didn’t come. After much time in C4 I finally managed another trip down 27/9 with Becka and Aileen, who very kindly let me go ahead with the bolting. I hadn’t been down since the first trip of the expedition, so was excited to see the couple of hundred metres of pitches in huge rift passages. A great contrast to the Ario Reality! I soon reached the end of the rigged ropes and set off down. After a few short pitches I could see a view ahead down a few more, and immediately realised we didn’t have loads in the way of bolts with all these short drops. Things had to get quite economical at this point, and after a couple more short drops I caught sight of a light-coloured shape down the next pitch. I suspected it may be a survey marker, but still unsure I didn’t mention it to the others. Once most of the way down the pitch I swung over, confirmed it was indeed a survey marker and told the others. Becka did a lot of excited shouting at this point, but not being aware she was the excited-shouting sort, I assumed something horrendous was occurring above and ducked for cover. Once the misunderstanding was over, we all convened at the base of the pitch, delighted to have finally made the connection.


The 23-year-old survey marker at the connection with 2/7 (Photo: Aileen Brown)

There was only one further trip down 27/9 this year, with the aim to drop down to the streamway and establish the site for a camp. There was speculation before we headed out that the part of the cave named The Randolph (after a posh hotel in Oxford) ought to be a good campsite. It turned out that this was the name of the pitch we had reached, and after a bit more reading of the original report, it appears to have been named due to it being the least inhospitable of the ledges encountered on the climb. Not a great place for a camp! Thankfully better options are available below.


Chris at the upstream sump (Return of the Sump Thing). Presumably Chris and Reuben were the third or fourth set of visitors after the original explorers, followed by Tony after his successful dive from C4 in 2017 (Photo: Reuben Harding)


A survex snapshot of the somewhat vertical 27/9 dropping down to meet the 2/7 streamway

The survey data tells us that 27/9 is 420 m deep to the connection and about 460 m down to the main stream level. Whilst it’s very much not an easy way in, it makes this end of 2/7 far more accessible that the original entrance. What’s more, not all routes were looked at on the way down, leaving the distinct possibility that there may be a dry connection to C4, where the draught is lost up avens a short way before the sump. Maybe Tony will get a chance to dive that newly-found upstream C4 sump after all…


Active member
Great report. I recall with fond memories a 'tourist' trip down 2/7 in 1990 with Sherry Mayo and I think David Monaghan to take photos of Just Awesome and London Underground with huge flashbulbs I had managed to obtain whilst living in Japan.


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