Note that this is a re-print of the original publication, based on a scanned copy. During the process of converting the original paper copy to this electronic version, the original formatting, page layout and page numbers have been lost. All diagrams and surveys have been scanned from the original and are consequently of poor quality.
Non Lava Caves in Iceland by MT Mills
Cueva de Liordes, Picos de Europa, North Spain by B Woodward
Published by the Shepton Mallet Caving Club
The Mineries, Wells Road, Priddy, Wells, Somerset, BA5 3AU
This issue of the Journal has actually been published on time!
Contained within is an article concerning further work of bibliographical research on Icelandic caves which are non-lava in formation. The second and last article concerns a holiday trip to North Spain made by an ad-hoc collection of Mendip cavers, two of which are members of the 'Shepton', who explored and surveyed the Cueva de Liordes.
By all accounts 'Cold Store Passage' is a place to be avoided, if you have the choice! I was greatly amused to read that one of the latter mentioned was actually 'caught' at the top of the sixth pitch, but not I gather with his 'wet suit' down.
Unfortunately there are only two articles, and therefore, I shall end more or less as I began by imploring support for your new Editor, whoever he or she may be. My thanks go to those who have supported me during my term of office.
NB. For EUILOPA on the survey of Cueva de Liordes, read EUROPA. (My apologies to the author, Ed.)
The purpose of this article is to place on record references found to non-lava caves which, thus, could not be included in my earlier paper, 'A Bibliographic History of Icelandic Lava Cave Exploration', CRG. Transactions 13(4) pp.229-23. November 1971. With one exception all the references detailed herein are to ice caves and englacial tunnels, that is, caves formed in ice as compared with 'glacières' which are caves formed in rock but containing ice. Where it has been possible to pin-point the location of the caves mentioned these have been numbered and their locations are indicated on the accompanying map.
The earliest reference is Henderson who mentions ice caverns formed by melt water at the foot of the Breidamark Jökull (site 1) and ice caverns in the Skeiderár Jökull (site 2). Dufferin considers as a cavern underground cavities including those containing the water thrown up by the geysers. Particular mention is made of one such item near the geysers (site 3) being a large irregular opening in the surface of the soft white clay, filled to the very brim with scalding water perfectly still and bright blue through whose transparent depths one can see down into the mouth of a vast sub-aqueous cavern, the walls of which appear as if of the purest lapis lazuli and so this seemed the crust that roofed it in, he almost fancied that it might break through and tumble him into the fearful beautiful bath.
Holland found that the Skeiderár Jökull appeared black in colour. He approached the Jökull at the point where a tributary stream of the Skeiderá river (site 2) rushes out of a dark cavern in the ice, the roof and sides of which were of the same black ice. With his riding whip he was able to chip off the angles of the projecting masses.
These showed that sand and grit were frozen into the ice and not merely on the surface. He concluded that the black sand was not wind borne as otherwise there would have been some white ice visible in the fissures and the cavern at least. Thus he suggests that some volcanic eruption in the interior of the Jökull similar to that which occurred in May 1861 showered down an enormous quantity of sand and cinders on the snow before it became ice, and that the process of alternate melting and freezing (i.e. névé), which converts snow into ice, carried the sand into the very heart of the Jökull.
Howell records that a very rapid drainage river the Jökulsá, Solheimer Sandr, better known as the Fúlilaekr, bursts from underneath the glacier Mýrdalsjökull like its brother of the Breithamerkr, but is not so large a stream and records that Prof. Paijkull entered one of the caves from which it issues (site 4). The cave was about 7 or 8 feet in height and between 20 and 30 feet in length, the thin roof being of emerald green ice through which the daylight shone.
Barth notes at the hot springs area at Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll (site 5) huge drifts of snow surround the springs all the year, but the heat is sufficient to keep the ground bare in the immediate neighbourhood of the springs. As the snow drifts slowly approach, they are melted away, forming steep, grotesque snow walls with strange forms – caves, columns, and arches – and always leaving a low passage between the snow sheet and the warm ground below.
Bouf et al., noted on the N.E. side of Hofsjökull (site 6) that the flow of water formed in the vicinity of the face reaches the edge of the glacier, and those snows found in the higher crevasses, form the 'moulins' and circulate below ground before resurging at the face. They noticed that this resurges at the foot of the glacier always in caves with ice floors; the water cooled thus in the caves until the moment when it enters the zone of the moraines.
Björnsson has an Icelandic text with a summary in English and describes englacial tunnels formed by the glacial river Hrúta in the glacier Hrútárjökull (site 7). First observed in 1953 and measured in April of that year. The article includes two plans of the tunnels with cross sections. During the winter of 1952/3 Hrútá flowed through a 100m long tunnel in the 'dead' frontal area of Hrútárjökull and a photograph shows the mouth of this tunnel. In 1959 new tunnels were observed and measured, their length was 257m and they were formed by the glacial river in 1957/8.
Ford mentions a great cavern formed in ice in the snout of a névé field, and gives an indication of its size. It was lit by sun shining through the blue translucent ice, fluted on the walls. No precise details of location are given. Leós has an Icelandic text, but no English summary, and describes an ice cave in Hatterdalur (site 8). First noted in 1963 having a length of 70-80m, width 25-30m and height 15-20m, illustrated by five photographs.
Figure 1 – Map of Iceland showing sites mentioned in text
Mercer notes that the surface of glaciers bears a strong resemblance to limestone topography, and meltwater streams cut up the ice into blocks, and small rivulets combined as small streams which tumble down vertical ice shafts or 'moulins'. It is almost certain that the water cuts through the ice in a series of passages and shafts since lower down at the foot of the glaciers can be seen large resurgences from caves in the ice. He concludes that an investigation of these could help to solve a problem found in areas where ice overlies limestone such as Navnlösfjell in Arctic Norway, namely to what extent sub-glacial waters dissolved out caves under the ice.
Finally an Icelandic pamphlet contains a coloured photograph which shows the contrasting natural forces of ice and fire side by side – a hot spring having formed a cave under the thick mountain snow crust at Kerlingarfjöll (site 5).
Anon. 'Iceland' (pamphlet), pub. Icelandair (n.d.).
Barth, Tom FW. 'Volcanic Geology, Hot Springs and Geysers of Iceland', Publication (587) Carnegie Institution of Washington (Washington 1950), p.149.
Björnsson, Flosi. 'Göngin í Hrutárjökll', Jokull 2(9) pp.30-32. (1959).
Bouf, B; Corbel, J; Derruau, M; Garavel, L., et Péguy, Ch, P. 'Geomorphologie et Glaciologie en Islande Centrale' in Morois (8), 2 Année, p530 (Oct-Dec 1955) (Poitiers, 1955).
Dufferin, Lord. 'Letters from High Altitudes', pub. John Murray (London, second edn, 1857) pp119-120,127.
Ford, D. 'Some Caves in Iceland'. WCC. Jnl. 2(37), p.12 (Dec 1952).
Henderson, Ebenezer. 'Iceland; or the Journal of a Residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815' (Edinburgh, 1818). Vol. 1, pp.239,267-268.
Holland, ET. 'A Tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1861' in 'Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers; being Excursions by Members of the Alpine Club', second series, ed. by Edward Shirley Kennedy, pub. Longman, Green, Longmans and Roberts (London, 1862) Vol.1, pp.37-38.
Howell, Frederick WW. 'Icelandic Pictures: Drawn with Pen and Pencil' pub. The Religious Tract Soc. (London, 1893), p.83.
Leós, Ágúst. 'Íshellir í Hattardal', Jökull 3(15) pp.121-124 (1965).
Mercer, DC. 'Icelandic Caves', The Speleologist 2(9) p.11. (Oct/Nov 1966)
MT Mills, December 1971
The Picos de Europa has been visited by a number of British caving clubs over the past decade. Of these the Nottingham and Oxford Expeditions have probably been the most successful, and a useful bibliography of the area is contained in the Nottingham University Caving Club publication 'Expedition '70' (ed. G. Matthews).
These expeditions have concentrated primarily on the resurgences to the northern edge of the Picos and the area to the west of the Cares Gorge.
In August 1971 a party of Mendip cavers, namely Jim Hanwell, Martin Hauan, Fred Davies, Don Thompson, Tim Reynolds, Janet and Brian Woodward, plus a large assortment of offspring and wives, visited the area to the NW of Espinama, i.e. the central massif between the Rio Deva and the Rio Cares. (The 'Mapa Los Tres Macizos De Los Picos De Europa' published by the Federación Española De Montañismo 1966, is the most useful map of the area).
An open cave entrance taking a sizeable stream had been noticed some years earlier by Dave Causer, who had been on a walking holiday in the area. An examination of this cave was to be the main object of our holiday. The cave entrance is situated at the western end of the Vega de Liordes (43°09'00''N 1°09'35''W of Madrid) and is best approached via the miners track from Fuente Dé (43°09'00''N 1°07'20''W).
Most of the ground above the 5000 feet contour consists primarily of frost shattered limestone peaks which are very sparsely vegetated, however the Vega is a grassy alp approximately one mile long by half a mile wide, running east-west at an altitude of 6000 feet. During the summer this is used as a high pasture for horses and cattle. The whole of this high meadow is surrounded by a rim of mountains, the peaks of which reach an average height of approximately 7000 feet. This catchment area coupled with an average annual rainfall of 80 inches and resurgences some 2-3000 feet lower down gave the prospect of a good sporting cave.
With this as a carrot, the trip was organised. Formalities were kept to a minimum, however, Jim Hanwell sought the necessary permission to cave in the area from the regional commissioner in Santander, which was granted. In all of our encounters with the local people we were treated very well; M. Soberon the local pharmacist in Potes was especially helpful and the owner of the Teleferique at Fuente Dé was very hospitable providing a free camp site, who even insisted on cutting the grass before we pitched our tents. The only disadvantage to this site was its situation some two miles distant from and 2500 feet below the cave entrance.
Our plan such as it was, consisted of carrying some of our tackle up to the Vega on the first day, plus equipment to enable three or four people to sleep out in the numerous rock shelters and mine levels that exist near the cave. If the cave 'went' then we would bring up the rest of the tackle later.
Our first examination of the cave, using carbide lights and walking clothes, led us to the top of a wet 20 foot pitch; at least the cave was not immediately blocked by flood debris or a boulder choke and prospects looked good. Later that day Tim, Fred and Martin made a longer reconnaissance. The first pitch was soon passed and this was followed after about 25 feet of passage by another short pitch. A further 15-20 feet later the stream turned right, down a 6 foot pot. By traversing round the left hand wall, this pot could be avoided and the head of a 90 foot dry pitch was reached. The wet way which this dry pitch had by-passed was not examined until the end of our exploration of the cave. This 90 foot pot was abseiled by Tim and after a short crawl through a very windy tunnel the main stream was encountered again on the right which immediately flowed over the lip of a wet pitch some 20 feet deep. This marked the end of the first days exploration with everyone being pleased with the initial progress.
On the surface we were fortunate in that a small hut, not far from the cave, was found to be open. The cows had also appreciated this fact some time earlier, however our training in Cowsh Avens rendered us oblivious to this discomfort and the hut did solve the problem of sleeping. Everyone then returned to Fuente Dé and after a good meal in the local cafe, Martin, Tim and Brian made a second carry up to the Vega. The temperature in the evening was quite pleasant compared to the heat of the day, but about three-quarters of the way up they realised their mistake, and at one o'clock in the morning three shattered cavers collapsed into the hut. The load carrying was bad enough yet on being attacked by a herd of stampeding horses proved to be the last straw.
The following morning Fred, Janet, Don and Jim carried the rest of the tackle up while Tim placed a bolt on the first pitch. This bolt plus a long stretch enabled us to get away with using a 10 foot ladder on the pitch, however, later, Don and Jim found a bypass to this pitch during their surveying. Martin and Brian then put a fixed rope on the second pitch, abseiled the 90 foot pitch and tackled the fourth pitch which had not been descended on the previous day. This proved to be a pitch of 20 feet and wet. Beyond this the passage increased in height and descended at an angle of 20° via three well developed pots to the top of the fifth pitch. This again was wet and looked to be about 40 feet deep. The pitch was laddered but in the absence of a lifeline it was not descended. The cave was now about 200 feet deep and very wet with a strong outward draught. On the return, Martin had his first lesson in prussiking, on the 90 foot pitch, despite the fact that he had not been on the intensive training course and did not possess a single medal or certificate, he managed this with little bother.
The following day Martin, Brian, Tim and Fred entered the cave with the rest of the tackle in order to push on while Jim and Don started to survey the system. The fifth pitch was 33 feet deep and, at the bottom of this, the stream immediately flowed over two short drops of about 5 feet and then disappeared into a black void which looked rather ominous. The bottom of this next pitch could not be seen and rocks thrown down the shaft could not be heard due to the sound of falling water. The passage at this point was well washed and there was a distinct lack of belay points and although the ladder could be belayed to the bottom of the previous one it was necessary to place a bolt for the lifeline. This took about twenty minutes, by which time the water falling down the fifth pitch plus the wind blowing out of the cave were having their effect and everyone was quite cold – at least too cold to descend a wet pitch of unknown depth, so we returned to the surface to warm up. After a couple of hours in the sun and a cup of tea 'just like mum makes', we went down again. By this time we only had about 250 feet of ladder left, all of which was lowered down the pitch. Everyone suddenly appeared to be very busy attending to lifelines, lights, etc., and Brian found himself on the wrong end of the main rope. About 30 feet down the pitch a small ledge was reached containing about 220 feet of tangled ladder, this was sorted out and the pitch continued as a free hanging drop, some 15 feet in diameter, eventually the bottom was thankfully reached after 150 feet. Below the big pitch the passage was about 10 feet square which descended steeply down a series of pots, the first three of which were free climbable, but the fourth required a short ladder. Brian then returned to the others who were by now quite cold. This marked the end of the days progress and we returned to the surface to meet Don and Jim who had patiently been surveying the cave above the big pitch.
The following day Tim, Fred, Martin and Brian descended the big pitch. Below this the streamway descended 90 feet via a series of six pots, one of which required a 10 foot ladder (or handline). The passage then turned to the right into a low canal like passage for about 25 feet before descending a 30° slope. This section of passage had a short dry oxbow on the right, after 100 feet the seventh pot was reached. A ladder was required for this pot in spite of its length of 12 feet. Two ways led off from the bottom of this pot both of which had good outgoing draughts. The left hand passage soon became tight and was not 'pushed'. We then followed the stream down the larger right hand passage. A short cascade led to the top of the eighth pitch, which was 25 feet deep and needless to say - wet. A further 20 feet, over some chert beds, led to the ninth pitch, which was some 35 feet deep and could be laddered dry. Beyond the ninth pitch the passage was quite constricted but a way was easily found through some small boulders. The passage was now 2-3 feet wide and about 3-4 feet high. After 80 feet the floor dropped abruptly, the stream falling about 35 feet down a narrow rift, however, an alternative route across the top of the rift gave access to a dry descent of the tenth pitch. At this point we ran out of tackle at a depth of approximately 700 feet. The stream flowed through the boulders at the bottom of the tenth pitch and continued on through a low narrow passage with about 3-4 inches of air space This was not pushed, however, it should have been as the inevitable eleventh pitch must have been very close. A strong wind blew out of the duck and the possibility of a further extension is good.
As mentioned earlier, the third pitch (dry 90 feet) bypasses a section of the wet way. This section of the streamway was not examined until we had removed the tackle from further down the cave. After cascading down the 6 foot pot the stream doubled back beneath the main passage for 12 feet to the lip of a 22 foot pitch which descended into a rift chamber, the stream then flowed to the right down a steep incline. About 18 feet down this slope 'Cold Store Passage' led off from the left. The stream continued past this passage plunging back beneath itself and after a descent of 12 feet, the streamway reversed direction yet again and went downwards for about 16 feet where it regained the main passage at the head of the fourth pitch.
Cold Store Passage was named for obvious reasons because the rock in this section of the cave, although dry, was extremely cold to touch when compared with the rest of the cave. The passage followed the same direction as the main streamway (S-S.W.), and after about 90 feet it dropped down into two inter-connected free climbable rifts, 30 feet deep to a pool of very cold water. This pool was about 3 feet deep and 18 inches wide; again a strong draught issued through the small airspace above the water. Both Tim and Martin stuck their noses into this duck but the water which was just above freezing point got the better of them. This passage is obviously a flood overflow which is active when the snow melts on the surface. Once the thaw has finished, the melt-water forms a stagnant pool and the draught presumably maintains the low temperature.
Thus, there are three strongly draughting passages which could 'go' with the most obvious one being the downstream duck. The resurgence for the cave is not known.
All our trips were carried out at a leisurely pace during good weather conditions. Despite the fine weather the cave was quite wet, especially on the pitches and this combined with the strong draughts necessitated the use of wet suits. Presumably the cave would be very prone to flooding, and the 150 foot pitch especially, would soon become impassable.
Figure 2 – Survey of Cueva de Liordes, Picos de Europa
The survey above the 150 feet pitch was carried out by Jim and Don using a calibrated Suunto compass and clinometer, both of which were hand held; a Fibron tape read to the nearest 0.1 metre was used to measure distances. Below the 'big pitch', the cave was surveyed using a hand held Silva compass and distances were measured using paces; verticals were calculated from known lengths of equipment used and therefore, this section of the survey is of a lower grade than that of the upper series. The cave runs primarily in a direction of South - South South West.
As mentioned earlier we explored the cave at a leisurely pace, however, a team of six competent cavers should be able to 'bottom' the system and get out within about six hours. The easiest way to tackle the system would be to walk up to the Vega in the evening and descend the cave the following morning.
A second cave has been found in the area by the Wessex Cave Club. This is situated in the gully by the side of the miners track from Fuente Dé up to the Vega. This cave was not bottomed and the WCC are hoping to sort out this cave during the summer of 1972. From this exploration it is clear that the area is well worth a visit and the chances of finding new cave systems are good.
The following is a list of tackle required to descend the Cueva de Liordes to the furthest point reached in 1971.
B Woodward, April 1972