The Lair of the Fridge
A cool draft blows strongly from the elliptical tunnel ahead of me. Not far behind me, a warm summer day is far more inviting than what lies ahead. I’m wearing a light boiler suit. The draft is cold without the warmth of a furry suit under the thin cotton. I shiver. The opening is not much bigger than my own body. No room to turn around, but a worm-like retreat in reverse is possible. The cold blast of air ahead is relentless, chilling.
Seven meters ahead the passage turns left out of sight. Beyond that, I hear muffled sounds of metal against metal. Its sound methodical and focused. The pitch of the sound increases, clang, clang, clang, ting and then a dull thump. In my mind’s eye, I imagine sections of rock being removed and dropping to the sand covered floor. Apprehensively, I move forward to the corner.
Beyond the corner, which I now see as a right angled bend, the passage goes on. It’s tighter now and has lost its elliptical shape. The way on is a vertical slot and has bulges of rock in the walls of its three meter length. I can see another corner at the end, but cannot determine how tight it is and wonder if my body can maneuver around the corners. It looks tight and awkward. I’m concerned that I can’t negotiate the passage and retreat to daylight. I sit and wait in the sun. It’s frustrating to give up so easily.
One of my friends returns through the tube to the surface to find out where I am. She emerges out of the ancient opening which has been crafted into a doorway for a natural cold store. Pillars and a lintel only recently cloaked by a thicket of sharp thorn bushes show the hidden doorway and the tunnel beyond. She encourages me that the passage widens beyond the second corner and that I should give it a try. She’s much more slender than I. She reassures me that the crux of the passage, a tight, technical squeeze around a right hand corner beyond where I could see, is being enlarged. The noise I heard earlier part of that widening process. I don’t feel encouraged; the draft from the opening chills the air around me. It pours down the slope around me like an invisible river. Once more, I shiver.
The opening, formed over thousands of years by the constant flow of water has gained interest from English cavers as they look for a back door into the Torca de Vaca cave system in Northern Spain. Several years ago the entrance to the tunnel was located by cavers. Lured in by a significant draft exiting the hole, they believed that larger passages must exist beyond. They had made progress to the first corner by capping, a method of enlarging cave passages by drilling and explosive caps, but left the site for other promising leads. Earlier this year, my companions had returned to the site and made progress beyond the limit of exploration to a technical crux squeeze. Beyond the squeeze, they found a partially eaten animal leg and feces. The air was ripe with the smell of a non-human occupant. Afraid of what had dragged the bone in, they made a hasty retreat and left with open passages leading off in two directions.
I find myself back at the first corner. I watch my friend negotiate the passage. It’s actually wider that it looks. The passage width is deceiving to the eye. First, laying on her right side she moves forward a meter. Then, rotating her body ninety degrees using a wider section in the roof, she attacks the second corner. She makes it look easy as she disappears around the second corner. She gives me confidence through her actions and I commit myself to conquering the passage.
Right now, I’m focused on what is right in front of me. My life and who I am on the surface is somewhat irrelevant at this point. It’s now about how hard I am willing to push myself. My comfort zone is being exceeded to reach an end goal. I think of how to move my body along the slot and I am glad that I am a visual person. I worm my way around the first corner. The floor of the passage is sandy and soft. The water-carved limestone around me is cold against my boiler suit. A thin layer of cotton isn’t much to fend off the chill being transferred from the walls to my body. I shuffle my way along. I try not to get my wellington boots jammed between the walls. I rotate my body. There’s not much room, but I complete the rotation and take a satisfying breath of air. Now I’m on my left side looking around the second corner. Beyond, the passage is bigger and I feel my confidence build. Why do I always second guess myself in these situations?
I sit up in the passage, but it still isn’t large enough to stand up. The floor is soft. A stark contrast to the limestone walls that make up the walls and ceiling. The crux squeeze is ahead of me. I can tell that it has been enlarged. Darker limestone less smooth than its surroundings show where the rock has been mechanically removed, but it still looks hard. It’s height is much smaller than the passages I have already passed through. There’s very little room to maneuver my legs around the bend and the passage seems to rise slightly. It looks awkward and I worry that I will get trapped. I curse myself for not bringing my furry suit. In the narrow confides of the passage, the wind is stronger and I am much colder than before. My friends urge me to come through. I think of hypothermia and how long I would have if I became jammed. They have more faith in me than I have of myself. My mind is a chaotic mess of images of what might become a reality. Apprehension takes hold and I let my friends know that I am returning to the surface. A third friend is on the surface and he reaches the chamber beyond the squeeze easily after I vacate the passage.
They are gone for a while, but when they return they tell us that the passage becomes larger further on. Passages lead off in all directions. They followed what appears to be the main tunnel to a point where it seemed to degenerate into a boulder choke before returning. Exploring further into the cave will have to wait until tomorrow. Predetermined call-out times for rescue parties had to be cancelled. No one wants a rescue party to be sent out when they aren’t needed. Stick to the plan.
My sleep is broken by dreams of cave passages and squeezes. Of elusive links and of passages never yet seen by human eyes. I’ve waited for this moment for many years. It’s been a dream. I never thought it would happen. I am boldly going forward.
The following day I am more confident with my abilities and quickly return to the crux squeeze. My friend is going to enlarge the slot further, but I make it around the squeeze without needing it to be enlarged (although it would be enlarged later). My legs are in an awkward position. One is jammed into the floor of the slot giving me momentum while the other trails behind at a wider spot in the ceiling. I inch forward slightly thinking of my movement as I go. I make sure that I am able to move both of them at all times. Getting trapped now would not be good. With a couple of precise movements, I am through. I am relieved!
I am excited now. I am only the fourth person to set eyes on these walls. We plan on surveying our way into the cave. We want to find passages leading west into the hillside toward Vaca. Before we start the laborious task of surveying we make a quick trip along the main passage. My feet thump on the soft sand floor. Tubes lead off on either side of me, most of them completely unexplored. At some points the roof of the passage is ten meters high. The walls are two meters apart.
Signs of the animal that called these tunnels its home are evident everywhere. Two carcasses of birds are noted on the passage floor along with molding feces, but thankfully no sign of the beast that dragged them in. Later we would find scratch marks on a mud slope. Based on everything we see, the animal is likely a fox. How did it get so far into this lair?
On our way back to start the survey I walk up a side passage. Ahead of me, the floor is untouched. There are no boot prints in the sand. I am casting light on walls that have never seen light. I am standing on ground that has never been stood on by humans. It’s a strange feeling. I feel like I am trespassing. It is not the feeling and emotion that I expected to experience. Protected by the portcullis restriction at the start of the cave, no one has ever been here. I will forever change the floor of this cave with every step I take. Carefully, I clamber over boulders and walk with my friend. I’m looking up to make sure that the boulders above me are also stable. If they aren’t, I am cautious. My movement could potentially dislodge a boulder above and pin me. Exploring in pairs is important in this labyrinth. Being lost or trapped could be fatal.
I slide under a block suspended between the walls of the passage. I look up and stop; my eyes are wide in awe. I’ve waited for this moment for a long time. Ahead of me, in the depths of this maze, my light illuminates a grotto. It is festooned with bosses, stalactites, and stalagmites. They shine and glint in the light cast by my LED light. Water drips in the chamber continuing the process of creation.
Shadows cast by my light change the vision around me. Each movement changes the way the formations look. There are whites, oranges and yellows of all shades. The intricate shape of the formations are altogether beautiful. Each one a work of art in itself, but together they form a picture of perfection. I am the first person to see formations created by the relentless carving, shaping and dripping of water over thousands of years. It is a beautiful sight. I share the moment with my friend even though she may not understand the importance of the moment. The grotto is later named on the survey as L.O.S.T Chamber to honor our fellowship as the Last Orders Speleological Team. I am happy. I am an explorer. I have been where no human has been before.
The Fridge, or site 2917, was not an exhausted site when I left in early August 2013. There were still open passages that hadn’t been explored. The hope is that it will connect to the passages of Torca de Vaca, but it is more likely that site 2917 isn’t connected to Vaca at all. In the United Kingdom, what we explored would be written up in caving magazines. Cavers would flock to the cave. However, in the Matienzo region of Northern Spain, site 2917 has yet to be a significant find. However, for me and for my caving friends, it is significant.