Ario Caves

By Hati Whiteley

What is the Ario Dream?

In one sentence, to find and document the world's deepest caving through trip.

In another sentence, to abseil into the mountains at the top and to re-emerge back into daylight at the bottom of Cares Gorge, nearly 2000 metres below.

The Ario bowl is located in the Western massif of the Picos de Europa, Northern Spain. Its horned limestone peaks are stark, devoid of water, yet honeycombed with inviting openings to a vast complex of chambers and waterfalls far below the earth's surface.

The caves here have long-since fascinated and enticed cavers from across the globe to explore their depths; the Oxford University Cave Club have been making pilgrimages underneath these mountains since 1979. Their obsession, and that of their friends, gave birth to the Ario Caves Project in 2013, whose expeditions have since made significant headway into the abyssal subterranean world.

We know in theory that such a master cave system exists but we have not found it all yet. The scientific justification for this super deep system comes from the culmination of many years of exploration, documented caves along the length of the mountain, surveying, geological studies, shaft bashing, careful GPS documentation and most crucially dye trace testing. If you were to put to dye into the caves at the top of the mountain it would be come out again in Cave Culiembro in the bottom of the Cares Gorge.

The Ario Caves Project is a continuation of 50 years of the Oxford University Cave Club’s work. Their latest expedition, led by Steph Dwyer and her partner, Mike Bottomley, saw the team make historically significant connections that have brought them considerably closer to pioneering a reality for the Ario Dream.

'I draw a line in the sand, stumble over the slight frog in my throat, then look away in an attempt to distract us both from the sobering question, “so... how long shall we give you before we call rescue”? A token gesture, like one could really be rescued from the far side of a flooded cave passage this far underground! Tony though, seems unfazed, then again he is a well practiced diver in his element and as he says himself, “I have no imagination”. However, I do and our cave diver last year nearly died at no fault of his own, and to be honest that scared me.

Cavers are tough, we have to be, we train our minds, our bodies and practice how to deal with stuff going pearshaped in such remote and committing places but... stop it Steph! I pull my mind back in line, doubt or fear are luxuries one cannot afford down here. I mean even if one wanted to, ya can’t exactly opt out now, 650m beneath the mountains with 100s of metres of rope climbs between you and the surface. It’s the stuff that would drive some mad but the bravery required and discomfort of being cold, wet and chaffed after days spent camping underground are insignificant compared to the elation felt whilst doing original exploration.

To turn that corner and be the first human being to lose yourself into the enormity of the chamber you’ve just found, the gypsum crystals glistening as they catch your light, to name a passage that will stand the test of time in a system of world class significance is a privilege afforded to few nowadays. Hard won but amply rewarded. If Tony makes it, if he dives through and finds cave 2/7 it will be our Ario Dream come true.

A success of historic proportions.'

The Full Ario Dreams film by Hot Aches Productions is premiering at Kendal Mountain Festival this year, the first showing has sold out but tickets are still available for a second showing on Sunday 19th September.

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