Nick Airey and myself decided to have a go at going down the infamous Dobra valley, this was in the summer of 1989. He had been down there before a few years before by himself and had got into a mess. He had retreated from a long descent and had tried to get out of the valley by what he thought would be a shortcut. After getting benighted with little gear, he spent the rest of the next day getting more lost and running out of food. He got benighted a second time but later on the third day, he made it back to his car. On driving back to civilisation, he had a big, meaty meal which tipped his liver over the edge and made him very ill for a while. On recovery, he decided that he wanted to go back and try again. That's where I came in.We got dropped off at the top of the valley and made good time early in the morning. The first major obstacle was a one hundred metre waterfall. We had a rope but decided that it would be too dangerous to abseil down seeing as we would have to arrange stances actually in the flow of the river. There was a scree shoot that went down next to it. It was about 45 to 50 degrees in angle and looked scary but do-able. We crept carefully down this, I remember we both got pretty gripped as it was very loose and steep, a slip would have been very nasty. When we got to the bottom I think we both realised that we were already committed as going back up the shoot would have been very dodgy.We bashed on down the river, wading, swimming, down climbing little waterfalls, until we got to a narrowing of the valley walls. The river went into this gorge with no way round, the walls going up and up, hundreds of metres. We were quite tired and knew that we would have to have a night out in the cold before we could attempt to go back the way we had come. It was a tough decision to go on because we had no way of knowing what the river did out of sight, maybe it went down a big waterfall or something. We discussed it for quite a while and at last decided to do it. Nick took his rucksack off but I kept mine on. He went first. Pretty soon my bag was waterlogged and it was dragging me under. The river went round a few bends and got quite fast, I just did my best to keep my head above water. I got more and more tired and started swallowing water. I was struggling away, starting to think that I was going to drown when eventually Nick grabbed the top of my rucksack and hauled me up from under the water.Still coughing and spluttering we bashed on, the firstly up a short climb. I found it really hard. I felt very heavy. At the top of the short wall, I had to get my foot up really high, the bag tipped sideways as I moved up and loads of water slooshed out - my bag had still been full. Doh! Shortly after we found a shoe and an empty wine bottle. A path bisected the valley at what looked like a good fishing spot. We thought about escaping on it.By this time we were both really knackered and the day had worn on into the evening. I think it was sometime around then that this picture was taken. The valley walls had just opened out a bit and amazing mist floated about. It felt like we were in deep jungle from a Tarzan film and that we were about to here monkeys or drums from out of the quiet. After another hour or so, we came to another gorge. Without too much discussion this time, we both took our sacks off and went for it. I did better at not sinking that time but the gorge was longer and narrower. The river washing more violently about. This was really getting scary.The next section was a difficult bash through thickets. They seemed to go on forever and we were getting cut as we forced through them. When we got out of the vegetation it was definitely starting to get dark. In the growing gloom we could see ahead yet another gorge. Our hearts sank. It was obvious to us both that we had little chance of getting out of it alive as we were both right at our limits of strength. Luckily, there was a lessening of steepness on the valley wall to our left. A long slope went up to what could be a meadow, we strained our eyes to find a route and saw a barn. If we could get to it we would be saved. If it was a proper spanish cabana, it would have two levels, the lower for animals and the upper with straw drying in it. An ideal bivvy. Going up the slope in the gloaming was nightmareish, every muscle aching, stumbling and falling, forcing ourselves to safety and rest. Nick held on to the straps on my sack at one point, he was all in and I was next to it. At last we got to the meadow. Flat, cut grass and 50 feet to the barn. We collapsed and got out the last of our provisions. While eating this, a bull, only about 200 feet away, started to get increasingly agitated. We hadn't noticed it until it bellowed. Now, I'm no bull fighter and this was a full size bit of punishment tossing it's head about. It actually pawed the ground. I'd seen this in cartoons and tired as I was, got to my feet and lurched painfully towards the barn. Half way there I noticed that Nick wasn't with me. He sat completely still and yelled at the top of his voice. In two very distinct syllables, in order for the bull to have absolutely no chance of confusing his meaning in any language, he screamed 'FUCK....OFF'! The bull, for some reason, didn't charge. Wrapped in bits of space blanket, we dossed down in the hay that was thankfully piled high in the barn. Wet, exhausted, bleeding and bruised, we huddled together and tried to ignore the maddening itching of the straw. We quickly lapsed into sleep.When we got back to Arenas de Cabrales, our friends had had a bad night worrying about us, all pretty scared that we were gonners. There had been a call out of the Guardia Civil. Apparently, two people had been killed going down the Dobra valley the year before, trying to do what me and Nick had attempted.12 years after our adventure, I revisited the Picos and Jim Thompson was still in touch with Nick who lives in Oviedo. I rang him up and yes, the film had come out and yes he had the pictures. For all that time I had wondered if that photo had been a goodun!
Hughie 22 Jan 2004