Sima de Cueto to Coventosa Traverse

"The Vice Presidents Trip" Tony Baker and Fred Levett
Narrated by Fred Levett

And so it was at 10.00 am on 2 August 1997 only one decision remained; to go down or not to go down we went down and down and down__...

The day started at 5.30 am after a good dose of pasta and an early night. By 0730 Tony and I were ready to start the walk up. Tony's car had been left at Coventosa entrance and Jackie Levett provided the taxi service.

We were both equipped with 1 litre of fluid each for the walk up, 1.5 litres for underground plus 250ml of "carbide water" for topping up at the staging posts underground. I had enough food for a modest dinner party, Tony two pieces of fruitcake and a tin of fruit. SRT kit was closely examined. Various theories existed as to the benefits of using two Stops for quicker changes at re-belays and giving time for one to cool down. Simplicity won, only one Stop (each) was used, it seemed familiar, and the familiarity was comforting.

Tony elected to wear fashionable T-shirt, shorts and stylishly cut orange cotton boiler suit. I had a tatty old undersuit with shorts for added padding in the harness having heard reports of numb legs caused by the length of time dangling.

As you gather this point in the trip engenders considerable procrastination

Now to business.
Sun bright, strenuous up gradient, one and three-quarter hours to the entrance. A magnificent walk, worth it for the experience. Much effort at dumping, drank the water, fettled the kit. "Who's going first?" said Tony. "You" said Fred, master of the quick decision. So ended the preliminaries.

The Shaft.
One pitch, 197 metres to ledge, 5 re-belays. Top section hung mostly against wall, feet out to walk down. Hell this Stop's hot one finger on the cam back to monitor nice and steady. The ropes on this upper section are dry, that's the problem. Average shaft diameter about 8 metres where's that first rebelay? what geology! Journey to the centre of the Earth or what! Tony shouts up "Rope free" at regular intervals, the acoustics are incredible, the size enormous. Everything seems in slow motion, the light below getting smaller. At last, the ledge. A quick stretch of the legs then on down. 105 metres to the foot of the main shaft, 302 metres in total. The diameter has decreased now and only about 4 re-belays take us to the bottom. The de-riggers will need to be good.

A further 270 metres of descent in 10 pitches followed, much tighter in comparison with the main shaft and colder and wetter. The ropes are wet here so no Stop-chaud problems.

Now at -581 metres, 2hours 27 minutes into trip and in the Galeria de Juhue. My left hand is stiff from holding the Stop open for so long, but I'm feeling good. This was Tony's second trip; he could handle any shaft now.

The Big Stuff
1.5 km of fossil passage ahead of us. Large boulder climbs going on and on. There's lots of degradation of the formations in this section. Just as I'm getting the hang of navigation techniques, namely reflector, cairns, tape, sweet wrappers and foil, Tony recounts the "lost for 11 hours in this chamber" story. 'Sala de las Once Horas' was definitely larger than Roundabout Chamber in OFD! The first stop came at 'El Oasis' for carbide water, and the second stop just before 'Pozo de Navidad' for my lunch and to fettle the carbide lights. Four hours in now.

The Smaller Stuff
A drop down and it's more like South Wales now. Crystalline deposits are everywhere but much destruction is evident. The area must have suffered earthquakes. The caving is different but no easier. Fewer ropes are evident and more exposure tolerated, especially on traverses. We climb up and down just like OFD. The first photoshoot takes place in the 'Galeria de Navidad'. An incredible formation just like an upturned cactus in crystals is the focus of our attention. I model and Tony does the business. The second photoshoot follows quickly in the same galeria consisting of close-ups of fine hair like formations and gypsum flowers. I've never seen formations like this. Now the third session in 'Sala Blanca'. A big stal and I are the subject. Navigation's still going well considerably aided by Tony's electric spot. I'm saving the batteries in my "free with Esso petrol" torch. The trade route is much more obvious now.

The third stop is at 'Pozo de la Union' for carbide water. A plastic bottle is filled from a drip using a funnel, all conveniently waiting for us. Still going well.

The fourth stop comes just before 'Pozo Josiane' to fettle the carbides and for my tea.

We were now in the crawly, snaggy grot before 'La Turbina' and every time I move something snagged on the rock. I was rather grumpy for a bit, swearing at my tackle sack and feeling the wind increasing [in the cave]. Tony remained steadfastly polite, could this be role reversal? Meanwhile Tony was increasing the wind utilising the stored energy of the previous night's curry. We reached 'La Turbina' at 20.25. Very windy. Carbides blow out. Descent on rope down a tight rift with chest jammer and extras removed. Stop attached to short cow's tail - "keep right," shouts Tony. Very like St. Cuthberts on Mendip.

The Lakes and out
The cave is very different now. Tackle sack on and keep moving, a cross between Aggie and OFD III. The welcome sight of the 3 lakes looms, and 3 blown up boats! Inner tubes are fitted into 2 for the comfort of passengers and the kit including the rescue dump goes into a third. Off goes Tony towing the luggage, I follow for my first cruise. 150 metres of water, 5 minutes caving [a pain with 3 boats], 100 metres of water, 50 more then dry land. The lines through the lakes are very handy. The submerged rocks and walls sharp - not so handy. Sailor T sets off back to leave the boats ready for the following party. Meanwhile I sit enjoying the can of lemonade stashed on the recce trip. By the time Tony returns I am cold, very cold. Even with my carbide generator down the front of my undersuit and hood on I feel my temperature dropping. Then I stop feeling cold. My numb brain tells me this is not good news. We arrived at the lakes at 21.00 and left at 22.35. We get going, my body soon picks up but my brain just won't function - could this be hypothermia or just tiredness? It was now well past my bedtime.

The entrance series is big and encouragingly familiar after a previous trip. The most notable features are the traverses, some over water to start with then into large dry passage. Exit at 00.07. Back to the campsite 00.40. A magnificent trip taking 14 hours with photography and boat handling course. Shaft, rifts, climbs, lakes, pretties, all in one trip.

Times. Walk up 1hr 45min, pitches 2hr 27min, 'La Turbina' after 10hrs 25min, lakes after 11hrs, out 14hrs 7min. Delay at lakes 1hr.