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Journey to the center of the Earth

01/26/2015

Technical specialist Juan Felipe Ramos explains his unusual work in the bowels of cities and tells us about the complex rescue of a Spanish caver in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.

 The daily routine of his work is played out in the sewers of Madrid (among other locations) where he supervises repairs and carries out technical checks. 

PERFIL

Juan Felipe Ramos, Head of Works in Madrid’s Sewers and Head of Service for ACCIONA Agua Services in Yuncos (Toledo)

Juan Felipe Ramos is also a renowned caver, known in the US as a spelunker, or potholer, and he was one of the team of 60 people who took part in the rescue of his compatriot and fellow caver Cecilio López-Tercero, who was trapped underground - the subject of worldwide media interest - in the rugged and little explored Peruvian jungle in September.

What does your daily work consist of?

In the sewage system of Madrid, I perform the technical, organizational, production and economic checks for the works. This can concern improving the network or resolving faults, flooding, subsidence or urgent jobs. I also perform administrative tasks. Part of the work is to propose improvements to the network and see they are accepted. As Head of Service for Yuncos (Toledo), I organize the preventive maintenance and urgent work, meter reading, leak discovery, water analytics, invoicing control, user management, project preparations and network budgets, quality management and health and safety at work checks.

How is your day-to-day in the Madrid sewage system?

The work we carry out in the Madrid sewers are mainly tubular, installing Madrid has sewage galleries over 20 m deep. The oldest are known as water ‘viajes’ (‘journeys’) channels and underground work, building brick galleries very similar to those constructed back in the mid-17th Century or even before then, the socalled water ‘viajes’ (‘journeys’). 

What is Madrid like down there?

Madrid has sewage galleries over 20 m deep. The oldest are an adaptation of the use of the ancient water ‘viajes’; others were built anew, dug underground and lined with factory brick over traditional concrete, or before that on granite flagstones. They feel eternal.

Madrid has sewage galleries over 20 m deep. The oldest are known as water ‘viajes’ (‘journeys’)

Every time there is a break, it is due to an unusual down feed or a blockage, never to the collapse of the gallery by its normal hydraulic use. In some galleries, you can see the remains of stone columns, old bridges or foundations that were covered for many years due to the urban planning needs of the moment and, in some cases, we have come across old bolt-holes from the civil war era.

Is it dangerous to walk these galleries?  

Yes, for someone who doesn’t know the sector and work procedures. We have seen the earth subside into holes 12 m deep and 12 m across, which appear from one day to the next. In some cases, we have emptied mortar into holes only to find out that below the surface (road or pavement) there is a cavern of over 50 meters. 

Any curiosities you have come across down there?  

You’re always getting surprises from animal and bird life: pigeons, cockerels, snakes, rats, cockroaches, etc. Or anything that people chuck, or safeguard, down there: safe boxes, bicycles, motorbikes. I found a dressing gown in a drainpipe. As an anecdote, years ago people used to place little baskets under the downpipes from buildings in the hope of collecting jewellery that might drop down from bathrooms. 

Is caving an advantage in your line of work?

Caving gives me knowledge of how to work vertically, in confined spaces, as well as a good aptitude for, and attitude to, working down in the service galleries. 

What qualities does a good potholer need?  

He needs stamina for long-lasting physical duress in an 80% aerobic and 20% anaerobic environment. Perhaps the psychology is the most important. You have to control your nerves, phobias, fears, be patient, prepare to stand the cold, etc.

What led you to go to Peru to help save Cecilio?  

A sense of solidarity with a like-minded fellow. Any one of us cavers could have be in the similar situation. I also wanted to help because I could. I had the capacity and necessary knowledge. I have been a member of the Madrid Federation’s Speleology Rescue Committee for 14 years and have acted as Team Leader in the simulations we organize at provincial and national level. At the rescue, we were mainly members of national Speleology Rescue Committees, qualified first-aiders and potholers. Around 60 people went into the cave and others on top perform logistical tasks.

How did the rescue unfold?

Cecilio injured himself 400 meters down in the Intimachay cave in the Peruvian Amazon. To get to the cave, you take an 11 to 15 hour flight to Lima, 23 hours on a bus to Chachapoyas, three hours in a van to Leymebamba and it’s a three-hour climb up to the base camp, which is 40 minutes from the cave. The cave is an active water course with many ledges down to 150 m. Then it gets more vertical with 12-35 m deep caves, down to the depth of -400 m. We went down to where Cecilio was and took him provisions and dry clothing. I was acting as Team Leader in the first contingent of 12 rescuers. We divided ourselves into Intervention Groups (GIs) and we managed to get Cecilio out and up to -300m after a few hard 18-hour days. With the arrival of more cave rescuers, we shortened the working days and split up the rest of the difficult stages of the cave between the other six GIs. We worked frenetically to install zip-wires, counterweights, restraining equipment and traction drives. The GI under my charge raised his stretcher from -225 m to -150 m. Four other GIs left Cecilio at -100 m, and the following day the two final GIs brought him out of the mouth of the cave. As well as the hard conditions in the cave, full of mud, wet, and 10˚C, outside in the camp the conditions were not easy either. I have never been in a situation like it, neither as a rescuer or being rescued. 

Do you plan to carry on with the hobby after this drama?  

This sport has its risks like any other open air sport: mountaineering, climbing, canyoning, etc. In this world, there are few things left to explore: far space, the ocean depths and the underground world. The feeling of being in a place where no other human has been before is addictive, like the sensation explorers of the past experienced. Caving, which joins sport with science, can be defined as the last frontier within the reach of ordinary people. 

Does your family pothole?

My wife and I practise the same hobby and our children come with us on 90% of our activities. We’ve been walking in the mountains with them and entering caves with them since they were a few months old. My four-year-old son has done vías ferratas (routes with cables to hold on to) and he has been down 60 m in a cave. We’ve carried the two-yearold down on our backs in a three-hour descent where there were many ledges and little vertical caves descending eight to ten meters. Logically, the kind of activities you can perform with children has to be undemanding, and this obliges us to lower our targets, but we enjoy doing this kind of activity with them very much. 

THE RESCUE IN FIGURES

  • It was paid for wholly from voluntary contributions.  
  • 58 Spanish potholing rescuers. 
  • 7 members of the original expedition.   
  • 40 Peruvian military personnel, firefighters and police. Mr. Nicolás, special police envoy from the Spanish Consulate in Lima; Mr. Jabier Farje and Mr. Humberto (expedition collaborators); 10 members of Peru’s Andean Caving Club and the Bagnols Marcoulé group (France), among them James Apaéstegui, experienced former rescue coordinator in the area  
Equipment on the ground
  • 4,800 kg of material in total
  • 2,000 m of rope
  • 750 climbing anchors
  • 5 hand drills
  • 2 generators
  • 40 tents
  • 1 kitchen
Equipment contributed by Peruvian Air Force
  • 2 helicopters (one of them was diverted to help out in the earthquake in neighboring Ecuador)
  • 1 Hercules transport aircraft
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