A mile from daylight and 4,145 feet down... the deepest a British caver has ever been

By David Rose

More than a mile from daylight in an unexplored flooded tunnel, cave diver Chris Jewell cautiously finned ahead.

The passage was barely 3ft high and, as he dived, his movements filled the cold, clear water with silt.

When he was 50ft below the surface, it looked as if the cave was about to close up.

Instead, it widened and turned back uphill, towards air space. At last he surfaced in a turquoise pool in a huge, silent cavern – and by so doing, set a new record, completing the discovery of the deepest underground system yet explored by ­British cavers.

Chris Jewell

Rock Star: Chris Jewell, more than 4,000 feet underground and a mile from daylight

Jewell, 28, a computer software consul­tant from Manchester, had found the long-sought link between the Pozu del Xitu cave, whose entrance lies high in the 9,000ft Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain, and Cueva Culiembro, a cave behind the huge spring where the Xitu underground river re-emerges, at the bottom of the Rio Cares Gorge – known as ‘Europe’s Grand Canyon’.

The connection meant he had discovered a combined cave system descending 4,145ft, so beating the previous British record, set in the Eighties, by around 300ft. The cave is also nine miles long.

Jewell, who made his dive as part of a ten-person team which returned to Britain last week, knew he had made the link because at the edge of the pool he found a sign on the wall, written in soot made by a ­cal­cium carbide lamp.

It said ‘OUCC [Oxford University Cave Club] 1979-81’ and was left by this reporter and friends 29 years ago when we found the pool from the other, Xitu end, at the climax of three expeditions over two years.

To get to the pool from above, we had to negotiate miles of tunnels, some of them vast, others highly constricted, des­cend 37 vertical shafts as much as 450ft deep, and spend days at a time camping underground.

But we had no diving gear, and as the cave roof dipped beneath the water, we could go no further. We had found one of the remoter spots on Earth: until Jewell, no one had been there since.


Labyrinth: The cave divers negotiate a flooded section of cave

Cave divers began to look for a link with Xitu from Culiembro soon afterwards. In the Eighties, they pushed through the first, 600ft flooded section or ‘sump’ to find new air space beneath a thundering waterfall.

But to make the connection, ­Jewell and his team-mates had not only to swim – there are six sumps in all – but to climb about 350ft, drilling steel expansion bolts into the rock to scale a series of overhanging shafts and cascades. ‘It’s not just the diving but the bits in between that make it so arduous,’ Jewell said.

‘Some of the trips underground lasted 15, even 18 hours. The water in the Picos caves is cold – about seven degrees above freezing. That gives you maybe 40 minutes until the temperature stops you functioning.’

After Jewell made the link, team members Jason Mallinson and Emma Heron followed the next day.

But the moment when he realised he was through to Xitu was unforgettable. ‘Before I saw the sign, I saw the footprints in the mud by the side of the pool left by the OUCC cavers’ wellies all those years earlier.

'I was on my own but I just started whoop­ing, screaming, “Welcome to Xitu!” It was a dream come true, and the depth record makes it even better.’

The passage that leads to Xitu is only one branch of the Cueva Culiembro river. Future connections here could see an eventual depth of more than 6,000ft.


The comments below have been moderated in advance.

Superb effort under nodoubt arduous conditions and logistics.. well done

Click to rate     Rating   19

Well done Chris!!!!!

Click to rate     Rating   21

I know they are brave, i agree they are brave. I would love to be able to see some of those sites. However being a tad claustrophobic my stomach and my tied up in a knot and my jaws clenched shut just reading about it.. Well done to those there folk

Click to rate     Rating   29

Amazing experience for these guys and they are so brave. I was wondering how they breathe, is there oxygen this deep underground? - bea harris, worcester, 16/8/2010 10:59 I ove your comment, I assume you were educated under Tony Blair.

Click to rate     Rating   8

Only HULL is lower than this cave!

Click to rate     Rating   21

Amazing experience for these guys and they are so brave. I was wondering how they breathe, is there oxygen this deep underground?

Click to rate     Rating   12

Great to know the spirit of many brits over the last few hundred years is still alive and kicking -well done -now get book and tv drama about he whole triumph sorted

Click to rate     Rating   11

They're obviously never watched the creepy horror movie The Descent.

Click to rate     Rating   5

What an adventure! I done cave diving in my time and it is often a scary experience culminating from dangerous and unfamiliar terrrain versus ones own skill,courrage and experience so it is that the team deserve much admiration.

Click to rate     Rating   2

It would be like most of my fears all coming together in one. This is brave, these are special people who can do this. I'd probably have slipped and curled my toes up after about ten minutes in a cave. How anyway can dive into a sump makes me feel quite queasy & claustrophobic. Bad enough just being in a cave but to be going further & further in and then through chambers of water...no way, not me. My husband did pot-holing when he was younger, years before I met him. He said it was challenging & exhillarating. I say, [as a scaredy cat type], mad! I rather die out in the open thank you. Thank you for sharing this amazing feat with us who are too chicken to try.

Click to rate     Rating   3

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