• Overground/underground - a caving archaeology project in the Yorkshire Dales

    1st June 2-4pm at Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

    Click here for more

Photographers blog. Ario Caves Project 2022.

My usual photography heavy report of my personal experience with the project to put a diver in the bottom of Pozu Cabeza Muxa.
Rather than dump a huge amount of word things and photos in one go, I will endeavour to update this thread each day with another section of the story.

Last year I was involved in helping document the three counties traverse. On the back of this Chris Jewel approached me about a project coming up during the summer to dive the downstream sump of Cabeza Muxa in the Picos de Europa as part of the Ario Caves project. It looked unlikely I would be available, and so I declined. However, as the time drew nearer, my schedule changed and so I asked what the project involved. Chris said it was a spectacular cave with around 500m of pitches down to an impressive streamway. Once the streamway was reached there would be a further couple of dozen pitches dropping the last 300m of elevation, spread over 2km of horizontal cave, terminating in a sump at around -900m. I had a good think about this..... and again declined, saying that I didn’t think I was fit enough…. Unfortunately for me Chris is a pretty persuasive guy, and after much messaging, and despite my concerns, I found myself in Cheddar, jumping in a Van to begin a two-day road trip through France to Spain.

Chris had been put in contact with Jim Thompson, a caver who has retired to the area and now owns a hotel there. He had offered to put us up for the night and help sort logistics.


The Hotel Torrecerredo


The Picos Mountains viewed from Jim's place.

We collected Martin Holroyd en-route and met Keith, an Australian caver, at the hotel Torrecerredo, where we were treated to Jim’s fine cuisine before our final chance at a shower and soft bed for the next two weeks.

After a good breakfast we set about filling up several 25kg drums of water and headed off to the meeting point for the helicopter pick up.
With low cloud cover hampering things, it took longer than hoped to get the kilometres of rope, dive, camera, water and other kit on its way, but the pilot did a sterling job flying around the weather, and by the afternoon everything was up on the mountain.


The Kit dump waiting to be collected

Mountains of rope donated by Spanset and UKCaving stuffed in to bags sponsored by Petzl


And it's away!

Keith and Martin elected to walk in from the helicopter point, whilst Chris and I drove around to the car park at the lakes above Covadonga, where we met an Irish caver named Petie and hiked the 3 hours up to the Refugio to set up camp and settle in for our first of many spectacular sunsets.


The stunning lakes above Covadonga


Petie pushed off the path by the ever present dairy herd


None shall pass!


Refugio Vega de Ario


Home for the next fortnight


Stunning sunset above a cloud inversion

..........Coming next Day 1 of Cabeza Muxa


Well-known member
Muxa day 1/

Our first task was to find the cave. Off we set with GPS and description in the general direction and after a couple of hours wandering across the mountain, we arrived at a massive shake hole.

Martin, myself and Keith had taken caving kit, so Martin went to work with the rigging whilst Keith and I followed with camera kit, rope, and other spares Martin might need. Chris and the others set up the gear tent, before flagging the route back to the refuge and returning with further rope and bolting gear.

Muxa loses around 70m just walking down the rock-strewn sink hole until you reach a ledge and your first pitch proper. From here the entrance pitch is around 26m to a boulder strewn ramp. The cave then continues with a series of shorter pitches to similar ramp sections all the way down to the -200m area. Here we called it a day and returned to surface.


The Walk in to Muxa


Big Vlad, Little Vlad and Fiona of the Oxford University Club hard at work erecting the gear tent.


Our first look at Muxa


The rigging begins


Martin installs a deviation on the entrance pitch


Keith Bolts a rebel on the 2nd pitch

Muxa day 2/

For the 2nd day Chris and Petie took over the rigging, so Martin and I played with the camera on the boulder strewn ramps for an hour to give them room. We caught them up just as Chris was beginning the first section of main shaft and followed him down 100m to swing in to a ledge which we would call ‘the eagle’s nest’. Here I stashed the camera and took the rope from Petie. Martin continued the rigging and I followed with the extra kit he would need. After a final ramp, we headed over the edge and wow! The scale of the shaft from this point was immense, my Scurrion’s light just swallowed up looking down the depth of the shaft. Martin’s headlamp became a pin prick of light below me. The drill would go, and then Martin would beckon me down to join him in the darkness and check the hang as he headed off to repeated the process. I would call down to him and ask if he could see the floor yet and each time he would call up to say ‘not yet’…..what was I getting myself in to!

We finally reached the floor with Chris following and poked our noses around the corner to look at the next 100m drop. We were at around -500m down and this would be my first test. Chris headed up first making short work of the pitches. I kept with him for the first couple of shouts of rope free, but by the third I responded ‘Whatever…show off’. I was aware that I was slowing Martin down and pushed on harder, just making myself more tired. I eventually exited the cave after 3hrs, almost twice the time it takes Chris and Martin, but with strong enough legs to do the walk back to camp, so I was very happy and beginning to think perhaps I could do this with the heavy bags that would be required later into the project.


Martin heading in to the cave for day 2


A little rejigging at one of the rub points


One of the many boulder ramps throughout the entrance series


Last one Martin, then you can go play with the bolting

Muxa Day 3/

Whilst Martin headed to the front to tackle the last 100m of rigging down to the camp, Chris, Myself and Keith spent some time trying to capture the sheer scale of the main shaft. For this we would need to switch from using strobes to more traditional flash bulbs as the volume of light required would be more than the newer technology could handle.

Eventually we burnt through the £200 worth of bulbs I had taken and continued on to drop to the camp at -600m.



After around an hour of faff the camp was set up. To collect water, a slope requiring use of a line and SRT kit would be needed, but worse the toilet would require doing a further small pitch. This would mean putting on a wet under-suit and SRT kit to use the facilities :(

It was decided that we would get an early night and early start on the rigging of the streamway the next morning, so we snuggled in to our sleeping bags in the 6-degree camp and were soon sent to sleep by the sound of the dripping water on the tarp above.


mmmmmm Dinner mix.....the perfect blend of ingredients that can absorb all flavourings to still taste like sawdust no matter what is added!


The luxury changing area

Coming next the final instalment. Muxa the stunning Muxa stream way and pushing the limits....in more ways than one!
Last edited:


Well-known member
Muxa Day 4/
After a good night’s sleep, the four of us set off down the stream way. Approximately two kilometres and a further twenty-six pitches stood between us and terminal sump. Martin rigged pitch after pitch, often dropping in to clear turquoise pools which I took full advantage of, grabbing shots whenever I could whilst we awaited the next pitch to be rigged.

A dozen pitches in, it became obvious we would run out bolts and rope. Keith decided to head back out with the plan to return first thing with more kit to finish the job. The three of us continued on and reached just over half way when we finally could do no more. On the way back there were a couple of locations I wanted to photograph with the last of my batteries. We set up strobes and I grabbed a quick shot of Chris in this part of the passage. Looking at a tired Martin and cold Chris I didn’t have the heart to push for anymore photos and so we headed back to camp to get warmed up, fed and grab some well-deserved rest.


The stunning Muxa Stream way


Kieth descends uses a tension line to keep clear of the water


Chris takes a turn bolting


Martin ascends the last pitch of the day


What would prove to be the last shot of Muxa for me.

Muxa Day 5/
The camp could only accommodate a maximum of 4 and my camera batteries were struggling with the cold, so I had decided that if Keith and Petie came in, then I would head out and get my kit recharged ready for the push day.

We expected the guys to arrive fairly promptly, as Keith knew we would be waiting for the bolting kit. 11 o’clock came and went, then 12, 1….as 2 o’clock approached we decided there must be a problem and we would all exit the cave. We pulled on our cold, wet caving kit and packed up the camp. We were about to start out when we heard someone heading down from above. Petie arrived with a bag of kit, blissfully unaware that we had been waiting on his arrival. Chris and Martin grabbed the bag off him and off they went. Petie thought Keith was just behind him, so, not wanting to meet him on the pitches, I waited around. After an hour I was getting pretty cold, so told Petie I would head out. I was up the first 100m before I could hear anything from above. I called out, but the nature of the cave meant it was impossible to communicate. I hunkered down at the base of the big shaft and waited for Keith to arrive.

Almost an hour later Keith landed next to me. He had hurt his hand on the entrance pitches and had considered turning around, but had Petie’s camp kit and more rope, so thought he had better continue. I said my goodbyes and begun the slog out. After just under 3 hours, I was emerging to a misty drizzling sky. I had walked to the cave a couple of days before in shorts and a t-shirt in blazing sunshine. As I shivered, I cursed myself for not considering the change in the weather, but the return is mostly uphill, so fortunately I never really got too cold.

Down day 1/
I took the next day off to charge batteries, dry my caving kit, and take a look at the shots from the cave. Chris and Martin emerged victorious with all the pitches rigged and a beer or two was had in celebration.

Fresh, strong teams had begun to arrive and were quickly seconded to carry dive kit down to the sump. Whilst this was going on Martin H guided Keith and I to C4 where we headed in to check on the condition of the rigging, replacing rope and bolts where needed and moving rigging kit forward to the head of ‘The Monster’ pitch in preparation for the teams heading in the following week.


The Entrance series to C4 had something of a different feel to Muxa!

Down day 2/
I awoke early not feeling great and ambled from my tent with stomach cramping. I felt weak and very nauseous and it wasn’t long before I was bent over heaving the contents of the previous night’s dinner. I crawled back to my sleeping bag feeling pretty bad and managed fitful sleep for a further 10 hours. I awoke to find out Keith and Petie had also come down with the stomach bug. I had been sipping water each time I’d awoken and was feeling a little stronger by the evening. The next day was the push day and I knew I needed my strength, so forced down a little rice and stew before crawling back in to my tent.


Not feeling 100%
Last edited by a moderator:


Well-known member
Muxa day 6/ Push Day/
I awoke feeling a lot better than the previous day and shoved two bowls of porridge down me. I was confident that I’d be fine energy wise and keen to get back in to the cave. The push team would consist of Chris, myself, Stuart Weston and Lisa Wooton. We made short work of the descent to camp, where I collected the camera kit and did a comms check, to find the radio was working perfectly from -600m to surface, incredible.

We each had dive kit shared between us, and would need to carry even more weight from the half way point as two of the previous team had not managed to get their loads all the way to the sump. Heavily laden we continued onward. I reached a rift that traversed upward and around the corner to the pitch head. At around three meters above the floor, I miss footed and grabbed the traverse line, the flake the rope was secured to snapped off and my cows’ tails slid off the end and I was left with a loose piece of rope in my hand. I was being driven toward the floor and unable to get my hands ahead of me fast enough. My nose was flattened to my face and blood begin to flow everywhere. The water was ice cold and I threw handfuls over my face until it began to feel numb and then clamped my misshapen nose straight. I heard Stuart shout back to ask if I was OK and all I could manage was ‘No, nose!’ Lisa and Stuart begun stripping open the first aid kit and getting me out of the cold water. Stuart asked to look at my face and I slowly released my throbbing nose, watching his face for his reaction. ‘Doesn’t look too bad, he said. Nose looks pretty straight, there’s a gash on the bridge and nose is bleeding.’ I felt relieved that it sounded like I’d been lucky. I probed my cheek bones, top jaw, around my eyes…..all felt pretty good. By this time Chris had arrived back to see what the hold-up was. Stuart and Lisa were putting the final touches to the dressing in the form of strips of gaffa tape whiskers to hold everything in place. I asked for some pain killers and reassessed how I felt now the shock was wearing off. I figured I could either feel sorry for myself back at camp, or man up and get the job done, so on we continued.

We reached the sump and, as Chris prepared himself and his kit for the dive, I opened the camera box, only to find the kit swimming in water. At some point, likely during my fall, I had flooded the gear, it was useless. I’m pretty sure if you’d asked me at that point what I was more upset about, my nose or my camera, the answer would have definitely been the camera!


Feeling a little bruised and battered

Finally, the adrenaline wore off and I began to feel cold and sorry for myself. Chris headed in to the sump with poor Stuart up to chest deep helping Chris kit up, whilst Lisa helped pass cylinders and generally made sure I was OK. Chris instructed us that he hoped the dive would be around 3/4hrs, that we should wait at the sump for 6hrs and that if he wasn’t back by morning, that we should begin out as something had happened……I really hoped nothing happened.

I was sat in my bivvy bag being fed cups of hot chocolate by Lisa and Stu. Shivering, bleeding, generally feeling sorry for myself, when I heard a voice shout whoop, whoop. I threw off the bivy and we all shouted back. It had only been a couple of hours, had something gone wrong, or right?

Chris had gone in to the sump and instead of going deep as he expected it had meandered around at -30m depth until he had hit a shaft after around 150m which had surfaced in a sump pool and on to continuing passage. He had followed this until he had come to moon milk covered, slippery deep, gours where he decided it would be dangerous to continue.


A still from Chris's Paralenz footage as he surfaces in virgin cave


The man himself, back safe n sound (shot on the Paralenz)

Jubilant, we packed up as much kit as we could carry and began the slog back to camp. Lisa insisted that she help me carry some of my gear and this time I relented and gave her a daren drum of camera kit, substituting it with a drybag that was light, but protruded from the top of my bag. This proved to be a real pain and kept catching on the roof of the passage, to the point I decided I would have to drop it, or risk exhausting myself.

Chris and Stu caught me up and repacked the drybag and sent me forward. Still bleeding I zoned out and just put my head down, plodding forward, until I arrived at a boulder choke that required two people to move the kit through. Chris was right behind me again, so together we navigated the kit through and stomped the last of the passage to camp. Both shivering we stripped off our wet kit, put on dry layers and climbed in to the sleeping bags to try and keep warm. We had left the Refuge at 9am that morning, it was now 4.30am and we were both having trouble staying awake. We made a warm brew and chatted awaiting Stuart and Lisa. After an hour there was still no sign of them. We went through scenarios of what could be delaying them. I said that the boulder choke wasn’t obvious, and Chris feared that he may have pulled a rope up with him and they could be stranded. We decided we would give them until 6.30am and then we would go looking for them. At 6.15am a far too cheerful Stuart and Lisa emerged. They had a managed to turn themselves around and head back toward the sump before realising their mistake, then had trouble finding their way through the choke…..but they were safe and they were here and I wouldn’t have to put wet caving kit on. I fell asleep instantly.

Muxa day 7/
Com’s check was scheduled for 10.30am and was unfortunately nowhere near as clear as the night before. We managed to ascertain that a team of 4 were heading in, but couldn’t glean anything more than that. I began to pack my camp and camera kit up for exit and found that during their return Lisa had, quite rightly, jettisoned the heavy camera kit to ensure she had energy to get back to camp. I considered going to get it, but Chris convinced me that I would be better using my energy to get myself out with the kit I had. Having only had a few bowls of porridge in the past few days I knew he was right. The next team arrived at camp and headed toward the sump to begin dragging the kit back. Chris, myself, Lisa and Stuart headed back out. Chris is a machine and by the time I was half way up the main shaft his light had disappeared above me. I concentrated on keeping ahead of Lisa and Stu, not wanting to slow them and just about managed.

It was an amazing feeling to exit in to daylight. I could no longer hear the other two behind me, so feeling exhausted I got changed and begun the uphill slog back to the refuge. Half way back I was met by Shawn and Petie who had come to help. I gratefully gave my pack to Shawn and Petie continued back to the cave to help the other two.

And it was all over......well almost
The next 3 days were taken up with trips up and down the mountain to move the camera, dive and camping kit and help the next team up the mountain with their gear, before I headed down for the last time to celebrate with a hot shower and a proper bed.


The amazing staff of the refuge


The Team

I have to thank Steff and Mike for retrieving the last of the camera kit from the cave so I didn’t have to. Start and Lisa for looking after me in the cave and patching me up. Stuart again for helping lug the camera kit down the mountain with me, saving me a fourth trip…And of course Chris for your support and stubbornness, no matter how many times I said no ;)

Finally I would like to thank the entire expedition crew and staff of the refuge (Many who have not been named) who made this tough expedition one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had.

Mark / Chunky