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The cave-school of Putaendo

A mining legacy where to go caving

Chile is a country of mountains. Its geological conformation does not have many places with limestone, the sedimentary type of rock where water is more likely to dig its way and form natural cavities. However, there are other types of soils where it is also possible for natural cavities to form, such as ice, gypsum, salt, lava...

The Madre de Dios archipelago, located at latitude 51º South, has an incredible outcrop of karstified limestone. Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica. Photo: Serge Caillault - Centre Terre

Chile is also a country of mining and, therefore, of man-made caves. Many of these artificial caves are currently abandoned and, if they are sufficiently stable and safe, it is possible to explore them. In other words, to go caving.

But what does "caving" mean?

One reads many definitions of "speleology". If we stick to its etymological meaning, speleology would be the study of caves. It is true that the practice of what is now known as "speleology" was born out of a curiosity to understand the underground environment in all its dimensions. However, not all those who practice this activity were or are scientists; rather, they are explorers.

For the sake of affinity and as one of the oldest speleological organisations, we are going to stick with the definition that the Fédératon Française de Spéléologie agreed in 2010 to define "speleology":

(Translated from French)

"Caving is a multi-disciplinary activity with a strong educational added value, combining scientific, environmental, sporting and leisure aspects.

Its aim is to explore karst and underground environments, whether natural, artificial or man-made, in order to make an active contribution to the study, knowledge and conservation of the areas where caving is practised, while taking into account the elements of the surface heritage.

The underground environment is made up of a variety of forms and landscapes (chambers, meanders, galleries, shafts, etc.) with or without the permanent presence of water (in the form of torrents, streams, rivers, gorges, waterfalls, basins, reaches, etc.), and with or without the presence of ice. It also includes artificial sites (mines, quarries, etc.).

The external environment takes the form of outcrops, depressions, cliffs and gorges.

Speleology requires progression and traverses that may involve, depending on the situation, walking on varied terrain, crawling, swimming, underwater diving, sliding, climbing and de-escalation, descending and ascending on equipment, with or without rebelays, and other techniques for evolving on equipment (handrail, lifeline, Tyrolean traverse, fixed ladders, etc.) that may require the use of all types of securing techniques. The opening of certain caves and the crossing of narrow passages may require the use of deobstruction techniques.

In accordance with the specific techniques linked to the diversity of obstacles, the discipline requires adapted equipment, in particular descenders, blockers, harnesses, lanyards, protective helmets, crampons, fall arresters, lighting devices, isothermal clothing, self-contained diving suits, ropes, cables, connectors, etc."

This definition is sufficiently broad and, at the same time, detailed to understand that the practice of caving requires a series of specific training and skills that are suitable for a wide variety of underground environments, including artificial caves. The techniques used in caving are backed by more than 60 years of practice by thousands of cavers around the world, so it is not advisable to apply other techniques, materials or equipment if we want to avoid accidents or encourage irresponsible caving practices.

A cave-school in Putaendo

Located in the central zone, in the province of San Felipe de Aconcagua, Region of Valparaiso, Putaendo is a picturesque and welcoming locality nestled in the middle of the valley through which the river of the same name flows.

This hard rock valley has areas of andesitic type, as in the case of the old underground mine excavated in the western slope of the wide valley, within the limits of the Serranía Quebrada Herrera.

Approach to the Owl Cave. Photos: Daniela Oyarzún

This cave had already been partially explored by a group of students from the Universidad San Sebastián with the aim of carrying out a thesis work on "leasure caving" ("espeleísmo" in Spanish), a term used by some to refer to sport caving, i.e. where the main objective is neither exploration nor study. The Spanish term is not, however, commonly used in the caving world.

The group left four climbing belays (three of them at the head of the upper shaft) positioned in such a way that the rope rubs a lot. For this reason, we do not recommend using them.

We don't know if the thesis was ever written (at the time of publishing this post we have not been able to find it), but from the images posted on YouTube it seemed to us a suitable place to continue with our training modules. With this idea in mind and thanks to the excellent efforts of Yakolén Tepebasi, a member of the association who lives in the area, we held several telematic meetings and made three trips to the site to present the project to the municipal authorities and the Board of the Serranía Quebrada Herrera, locate the cave, explore all its wells and galleries and install it for initiation.

The reception to our project was so positive that, with the aim of adding our grain of sand to the rich cultural and natural heritage of the valley, we are now working on an educational proposal for the children of the area and on taking all the modules of the introductory caving workshop to this beautiful valley.

The Owl Cave

This is an old mine in hard and very stable rock. It consists of three superimposed levels that follow a very marked fault line. The lower level is siphoned off and the mining perforations show the flooded area of the cavity at several points. The fault cuts across a gully whose vegetation indicates the presence of water in the groundwater table. The haulage that must be overcome to reach the cavity entrances is probably all the rock material extracted from the cavity. We have not been able to find out much about the mine, but we will try to find out more about the history of this charming cave.

Upper entrance with a 10-metre shaft. This entrance is visited by owls, probably because of the number of little animals that fall down. Hence the name. Quebrada Herrera, Putaendo. Photos: Daniela Oyarzún, Natalia Morata

The cave has an upper access and a lower one, so it is actually a charming traverse. With wide and comfortable galleries, this cave is a jewel to exercise the manoeuvres learnt in modules I and II of the introductory caving workshop and, in addition, to add a bit of progression without equipment, to get started in topography and several other things that we will see in module III.

Views of the different galleries of the cave. Photos Daniela Oyarzún

Blanche, Yakolén and Daniela were in charge of sketching the lower level while Natalia rigged the upper levels. Photos: Daniela Oyarzún

It is also a cave suitable for visiting with children as part of our Cuerdas y Más initiative.

Sketch of the lower level. During module III we will carry out the complete topography of the cavity.

The cave is full of details that allow us to work on aspects related to geology, hydrology, zoology, history, etc. Photos: Daniela Oyarzún, Natalia Morata

In order to cause the least visual impact, Petzl PULSE removable artificial anchors and SPIT self-drilling anchors were used. The PULSE removable anchors were used at the head to also prevent anyone from using them unsupervised.

Photos: Montse Jiménez, Daniela Oyarzún

Module III

Thanks to the excellent predisposition of the Serranía Quebrada Herrera's board, we will be able to turn this beautiful cave into a place of practice and, in return, into a beautiful speleological circuit for the youngest children in the area. Therefore, in addition to module III, during our preparation trips, we also designed what, in the near future, will become Cuerdas y Más - Putaendo.

Module III is reserved for those who have completed our initiation modules I and II in the last year or, failing that, have participated in the training sessions. Speleologists wishing to join our activities are also welcome, but they must be completely autonomous in rope progression and master the main self-rescue techniques.

At the end of the post you will find the dates and locations for the last modules I and II of this year.

Automatically translated with Deepl

With the support and collaboration of:

Serranía Quebrada Herrera

Useful links:

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