France Summer Mini-Tour
Rhys Tyers, Tanguy Racine, Jack Hare, Dave Kirkpatrick, James O'Hanlon, Melanie Singh, Sam Page, Sandeep Mavadia, William French
On a beautiful Tuesday afternoon we assembled at the Union and packed until we were ready to leave as we planned – that is before five. Two and a half hour of map reading later we were approaching Folkestone so early that we grabbed a ticket for the earlier train, a boon since we would be taking a detour in Paris later. We crossed the channel as befits cavers – underground – and reached the continent. Taking small roads at first to avoid tolls Rhys could not avoid getting flashed. Taking bigger roads to avoid getting lost, we could not avoid getting fleeced by the tolls. Taking the motorways Dave could not find shops open 24/7. So much for the French 'savoir-vivre'. We picked up Mel in Paris after Dave drove the bus under the Iron Curtain and followed a southerly course towards Toulouse as dawn neared. We reached it at midday and after more laborious routefinding we drew close to Moulis and Luzenac ( the hamlet, not the town which bears the same name ). It was close to 2pm and good to be back 'home'.
After a conversation with the camping site owner we met the neighbours. Guy ( a former 1000km runner and professional clown ) and his wife became our hosts for the night: it rained down as never I had seen it possible ! With eleven people crammed in their little veranda under torrential rain we made a merry gathering. The wine came flowing, as we watched a football match ( some tried to tell Guy that the interferences are due to the bad weather outside ) and a singing trout. All in all a memorable first night, while we waited for Sandeep and Sam gone to give Jack a lift from Toulouse. At around midnight though the rainstorm abated so I went to sleep and thankfully the tent was dry. Were the driving party okay under those buckets of water ? Only the morrow would tell.
Once the minibus arrived at the campsite, we set up our tents, cooked a meal, some other people went shopping and I fell asleep. I woke up shortly before our local French contact arrived, and he discussed where the caving was with Tanguy. This was in French and I didn't understand a word of it, but I listened in all the same.
Later some friendly elderly couple who were caravanning next to us invited us in to watch a France world cup match on their TV. The rest of the evening proved to be a slightly surreal experience. Other cavers trickled in and then trickled out (to go to sleep, to pick up Jack from the airport) before the game started. Our hosts didn't speak English, and while on some level they seemed to know that only Mel and Tanguy understood their French, they chatted away at the rest of us quite happily also. Every now and then the man of the house would retire to his bedroom and return proudly brandishing some trinket our other. What was it going to be? Some distilled alcohol? A scrapbook of marathons he had run? An African drum? You could never be sure in advance.
By the time the match had started, only Tanguy, James, Mel and I remained. It was a slightly excruciating experience. Perhaps due to the poor weather, the tv signal was terrible, and the image would be clear for about 5 seconds to catch your attention and give you a vague idea of what was happening, only to abruptly cut out again leaving you with nothing. The game was the last in the group stages and I don't think there was much at stake. It was a goalless draw.
I arrived at the campground wearing a wrinkled pink dress shirt and a pair of crumpled chinos. Normally I don’t come caving so over-dressed, but Wednesday was pulling a double duty for me - in the morning, my partner’s graduation in Cambridge, and then a series of trains, tubes, more trains and then a plane from Gatwick to Toulouse where Sandeep and Sam kindly picked me up. Our adventures in the wee hours of the morning trying to find the campground are lost in the mists of time. A note for future explorers of these inhospitable lands - there are many tiny hamlets with the same name. Make sure you navigate towards the correct one.
Still, I got a good nights sleep and awoke to a really rather lovely campground with some of my favourite cavers. First order of business was therefore to go caving, and we drove the van up some winding and twisty roads deep into the forested hillside. After about an hour of bashing ferns and checking out deeply suspect holes in the ground we found a wonderfully signposted and information board laden display pointing us to where we wanted to go. The cave was beautifully set in a large depression in the ground, surrounded by trees and covered in vegetation. There was a clear stream running down into the bowl, and the entrance was over some fallen trees halfway up the slope - a bit muddy, but not wet.
The next day we went caving. We split into two groups, Rhys, Jack, Sandeep, Mel and Dave were to take the bags in and do the rigging, the rest of us sat outside for an hour or two before heading in. Tanguy and James shared their visions of the future of the club. Tanguy wanted us to be less incompetent and to go caving earlier. James wanted us off this secretive old fashioned mailing list, and on to facebook. While we were waiting, at some point I said slightly pompously to Tanguy "I may have to take a tacklesack out, although if I'm crafty enough, I won't have to". It may have been my overactive imagination, but I think his face fell slightly at this. Worrying completely unnecessarily that I had just robbed a young man of his innocence I vowed to myself that I would be taking a bag out of this cave tonight.
Rhys began to rig the first pitch, slightly tight with a bit of a tricky rebelay. We made great use of naturals throughout the trip, and after a bit of streamway and exploring of possible leads (everywhere is bolted, which can make route finding less straightforwards) Rhys swung out round a wall and rigged into the main chamber. It was slowing going from here for a while as it was pure SRT on sloping ground. Eventually we reached a more vertical section and Rhys dropped down to a set of bolts where he realised he’d run out of rope. I followed him down with the next tackle sack, and hung out on my descender whilst he rigged the next section down to a pretty little chamber with a tall waterfall. At this point, we heard that some of the others behind us had turned back as it was getting late. I tried to push a route a little further, but we had the rope bags mixed up and the rope I had wasn’t long enough for the next pitch. We decided to return and followed the others out, Sandeep de-rigging.
The cave was fairly standard until about halfway when we broke out into a chamber with a sloping floor and the rigging got a little more exciting. This was where we reached the rest of the gang. I started to worry about the time. We needed to get out fairly soon if we were to get pissed this evening and still go caving the next day. Talking to Tanguy, it turned out we were also meant to be meeting our French contact at 8, so we should really be out of the cave at 7. After some discussion, the back half of the party decided to head out. The front half seemed to be carrying on down oblivious.
Sandeep escaped down the next pitch with the two remaining tacklesacks of rope. I realised what I needed to do. I had to take one of those bags, cut this trip short and end this madness. I got Dave to shout down to Sandeep to leave one of the bags as I would take it out, but Sandeep was having none of it, and kept on going. I was going to have to go after him and get this bag myself. I reached the bottom of the pitch where there was a crowd assembled rigging the next pitch. I offered to take the bag, Rhys (perhaps not wanting to find himself with two bags to take out) overrulled Sandeep, and I ran off with the last tacklesack before anyone keen to keep going could argue back. Whatever happened now, no-one was going to be going much deeper. By the top of the pitch I had already caught up with the freshers and Sam and we left the cave at a gentle pace.
No-one could fault me for not doing my bit with the derigging as I had taken a bag out from near the bottom, but here I was listening to music and finishing off the wine with the advance party out having just forced an end to the trip without anyone really seeming to notice. Nicely done, though I say so myself. We were still late to meet the French guide, but not too late to start drinking.
The next day, half the group wanted to go to a rather tough sounding cave with Laurent. Those of us who decided against wanted to go check out the via ferrata nearby. After a fair bit of messing around shuttling the cavers back and forth, finding food and the cave entrance, Sandeep and myself returned to camp, where we picked up Mel, James and Sam ready for a day of adventure above ground.
'What ?' That was the general reaction to a 7am start on the morrow. On the return journey from the Gouffre Degaudez I phoned Laurent, a French caver who had previously offered to guide us to and through the Coume Ferrat cave, arguably the hardest cave in the area. Since it was to be a long trip we had best go early ( and break the Midday Rule ), and meet in Cazavet, a village nearby. Such was the word of Laurent that only four of us signed up for the trip: William, Dave, Rhys and I. Sandeep and Jack kindly offered to drive us there before their own hike.
The next day we were going to be taken to a cave by a local. The nutter had proposed that we meet him at 8:30am, he would take us to -700m and we'd be out at 3am the next day. Halfway down we would need to change into wetsuits to get through a streamway that was "balls deep". Oh and there was a 200m pitch. This plan did not meet much enthusiasm, and the guide was haggled down to just going the streamway so we could be out for 10pm. Team "I'm not getting up that early" (Jack, Mel, Sandeep, James and Sam) were to via ferrata instead, and pick us up when we were out.
So it was that I crawled out reluctantly out of my sleeping bag at 7 in the fucking morning. There was some doubt as to whether we were even going to eat anything before going caving, but luckily we did buy some bread and cheese and (accidently and very controversially) blood sausage. We didn't need to bring any wetsuits in the end though, and most of the cave was prerigged, so with any luck this trip would turn out to be a bit of a doddle.
The sun shone brightly on this morning and we drove to Cazavet, checking for open shops on the way ( obviously none were open ), as a result of our unpreparedness ( read incompetence ) we arrived at the village empty handed, dreading to cave empty-stomached – if such a condition exists in France. Fortunately Sandeep and co drove to a nearby town where they found a boulangerie while Rhys and I waited for Laurent. Laurent arrived shortly after ( but not before a man in his small van with a gaffer tape window – hilarious ) and was followed by the conquering British with a hoard of 'chocolatines' whom we sent again on a food gathering errand before we set off – at last – for the Coume Ferrat.
The road was nice and smooth in the valley, but as soon as we soared above 100m the road turned to a gravelly path and trusting Laurent's route finding we were dropped off earlier than planned at a barrier. Waving goodbyes and good lucks to Jack and Sandeep we set off on the crude path and ascended for the best part of two hours through a beech forest, and an alp and more farmlands, eating wild strawberries on the go. At last ( and after Midday it turned out ) we reached the cave entrance, a dark gash along a fault line in the moutain side, amidst the shrubs ( whose name I could not translate – but now I can – they were boxwood, the kind used on Palm Sunday).
We ate cheese and bread and left the raw blood sausage Dave had acquired by mistake for later. Stomachs full, hearts light we entered and after 30 m of slippery dipping passage Laurent rigged two rebelays and whizzed down out of sight in a HUGE shaft. I started to follow him warily for the first time with a simple descender, and during that memorable descent I could not help but marvel at the size of the pitch, for 208m is a big space, and seeing the lights of three people above oneself is quite an experience. I now look forward to the big pitches in Slovenia ! At the bottom of a 150m descent the way on was on a large ledge leading to a feet first crawl. I decided to turn back there still wary of the entrance pitch experience and head out. Dave kindly accepted to follow me out, and 80 metres or or so apart we prussicked out. I did so with Laurent's words in mind: 'You have no foot jammer ?', 'No' I replied, He looked at me with the faintest shadow of a smile 'You're going to struggle' he said.
The first pitch was quite deep as advertised. And in spite of my dislike of big pitches and long hangs, and in spite of the fact that the rope was 9mm, every hanger was loose, and the bolts which were beginning to rust after 40 years were apparently hammered in by a French psychopath who really enjoyed swinging on ropes, I didn't find it so bad. At the bottom Tanguy decided it would be best to not continue "to conserve energy for the journey out" (the young fresher was learning fast). Dave would go out with him. I continued with Rhys and Laurent (our guide), depositing the tacklesack with the remaining food shortly after parting ways with the others.
The way on was down a pitch up a few pitches, then down a few more, a dive through a 50cm diameter hole about 1.5m up a wall, and then onto an impressively sized streamway. Rhys told our guide to turn around when it looked like it was time to head out and to his surprise Laurent agreed. One highlight going back was a belay none of us had noticed on the way down which was literally just a knot of rope slotted into a crack.
I was slow pussicking out, but we were out pretty early, and by the time we got to where we were to meet the minibus, it was only 9pm, and our ride wasn't due for another hour. Laurent showed off his impressive timewasting skills, by giving us a lift down the hill coasting gently at 15km/h. At the bottom we waited around until 10:30 (two kittens appeared to keep us company), until Tanguy was able to get through to the others on the phone to pick us up. Apparently it was decided that we weren't really going to be out at 10pm, so they were just planning on swinging by at some other point in the evening. This was the source of no tension whatsoever of course.
On the surface we waited, went foraging for more wild strawberries which we ate immediately while our kit dried on the sunlit alp. As the warm colours of the afternoon began to fade, we made for the cave entrance once again where Laurent, Rhys and William were readying their bundles. Ready to leave then ! Coume Ferrat, I'll be back. Evening drew upon us, and by 10pm we were in an empty hamlet, sitting on the bench and drinking the last of daylight. Soon the roar of the minibus racing through the fields brought us back to the needs for sleep and comfort.
Sadly the via ferrata was not to be - when we arrived, a sign said that it was closed, which we confirmed with a phone call - still too much snow on the peaks. Undeterred, we decided to hike to a mountain lake and swim there. The start of the trek was flat and beautiful, following a fast and clear flowing stream up through a valley. We went fast and light, with just two backpacks, drinking water from the streams along the way. As the valley rose, more and more waterfalls joined in from the sides and often the path was swamped became a river. We arrived at the base of a huge waterfall, streaming down a slab of rock at least a hundred metres tall. The spray was chilling but very refreshing, so we paused a while before taking a winding path up that clung tenaciously to the side of the cliff.
On the way up, we met several groups, and finally asked one for how long it would take to get to the lake. He was pessimistic about our chances, but more crushingly he told us the lake was frozen over - swimming would be difficult! After this blow, we settled on reaching a small refuge and turning back.
The sun began to set over the high valley walls as we descended quickly, and we began to look out for places where the river was calm enough to swim. Scrambling down a steep, slippery bank we made it to one suitable spot, and stripped off. The water was incredibly cold, and my feet numbed instantly. Sandeep decided to encourage participation by splashing everyone, so I hid behind a tree whilst Mel drenched him. refreshed and slightly hypothermic, we made it back to the car and drove back to the campground. Later in the evening we retrieved the cavers and brought them back to camp for a hot meal.
Saturday was our final full day, and everyone wanted to cave. The previous night, Mel had read the guidebook (in French) and found a nice looking cave. It was agreed that half of the group would go into the cave to rig whilst the other half bought food for a BBQ and follow on behind. This worked well, as the second group easily caught us up. I filmed Mel translating the guidebook into English, which was very useful to have in the cave when she wasn’t nearby and we needed a detail quickly.
Portillon ( not Portaloo ! ) is on the 1:25000 map. Much like other caves in Franck's guidebook, the entrance description is almost 2 paragraphs long. We drove up a small road ( and comparisons with Slovenia arose – although to my knowledge mountain roads are all pretty much the same in every country, bendy and narrow ) to a ridiculously small hamlet where we stopped. Because we had previously decided to split up between a rigging and foraging party, Rhys and I agreed to recce the way the cave entrance through barbed wire and all sorts of stinging shrubs. Unfortunately the rigging party met us while we were still searching so I volunteered to spend a little more time looking for it, which paid off because I managed to walk straight past without noticing, but Mel's acute eye saved the day !
We drove up to the tiny hamlet of Rames in the hot sun along increasingly rural roads. Parking up, we chatted with a local who kindly asked us to move the bus a bit. Tanguy set off with the map to try and find the cave entrance, and eventually Sandeep, Mel, Sam and I were ready to follow him. It was a hot day, so we didn’t have our furries or oversuits on our tops, and the thorns and brambles along the way tore some large scratches in everyone’s arms and back. Eventually we found the cave entrance, covered by a metal grid, and we crawled inside to the welcome coolness.
For caving the next day, we split into two teams pretty much the same as the previous day except we acquired James. The other team went first to rig, and we would go shopping and come back. It was a hot day, so when we went caving we didn't get into our kit and just carried it up the hill to the entrance to put it on there. I found out at that point that I'd fucked up packing my things, and what I'd only taken up half my kit and the rest of the bag was just random spare equipment (including a wetsuit). As I said before, it was a really hot day, and I just couldn't be bothered to go to make the 20 minute walk to the van and back for the rest of my things. And from what I heard, this cave shouldn't really take more than an hour anyway, so I wasn't going to miss out on much. So I just went into the cave as far as the first pitch and headed back to read in the minibus.
The first section was a slide, and we proceeded down it quite far with the rope bags before considering how to get back up. It transpired we were meant to rig it with a handline, and so after some faffing we got the ropes back up near the top and I rigged the first two sections using some beautiful naturals. The chamber with the slide was stunning - free of mud and with a beautiful creamy rock that played well with the light from our torches. Sandeep and Sam rigged the vertical descent at the bottom through a tight section, and we dropped into a cavern of ‘grand dimensions’. It was huge, and had more great rock formations. The way on was to the right and into a crystal clear stream with thick mud at the bottom - it didn’t stay clear for long!
The gallery series that followed was full of medium sized chambers, well decorated, with crystal clear water, huge rock formations and tiny ones of stunning detail. It was easily the most beautiful cave I’ve ever been into. At a round chamber the others paused whilst I painstakingly rigged a short descent down to the streamway, and they took many photographs. Mel got her first chance to rig at the next section, and we were down into the streamway. This was followed by some interesting free climbing and then a pre-rigged traverse that hopped along boulders wedged in a rift. After this, the way on wasn’t obvious, and I rigged off some naturals down to a narrow bit of streamway that was clearly impassable. By this point the other group had caught up, and Rhys took many flash photos as I struggled to retrieve a water bottle I’d dropped down a rift.
Around three hours later we entered the cave ( without William who noticed the bag he had taken up was full of spare bits of kit ) , and took photos in the first big chamber. It was nice and dry so far with a nice succession of crawl, SRT and walking passage. Soon after we could hear the muttering and clattering of equipment from the other party and teamed up two pitches from cave's end. We had a photo taken by an obese stalactite and other calcite formations. They then gave way to pristine pools of stagnant green water.
The passage on was increasingly beautiful and ornate, with some excellent free climbs over deep pools that were almost universally avoided. We arrived in a fossil passage with a deeply surreal floor consisting of shallow pools encrusted with delicate pale structures. The path picked its way between these to an awkward descent that took some time to rig. This lead to a large chamber in which the final descent lead us to a small chamber where we gathered. At this point, the way on was through a deep, stagnant stream. I bridged the gap and made it about fifteen metres along the stream, but couldn’t see any obvious advantage to continuing, especially as the guidebook said it was impassable. One for the cave divers, maybe?
6 hours had now passed since the first team had gone in, and still no-one had come back. I sighed. Has something gone wrong? Am I going to have to be a hero again? Reluctantly I got back into my furry, made extra care I was taking the right kit bag, and climbed up the hill to the entrance again. Mel, Dave and Sam were waiting outside drinking wine. It turned out they were just taking ages. Then it started raining heavily just as the rest of the cavers started coming out, and we all ran back to the minibus.
During the day I had left all the doors and windows in the minibus open to keep it cool, which unfortunately meant it had become full of flies. To get them out we spent a few minutes with the windows open thrashing wildly around and banging on all the walls in a way that would likely have terrified any passer by.
I had the honour of derigging the whole cave. A pleasure involving cutting tape where the carabiners had ceased. In fact putting one's weight on it would release the lock, but I had neither leisure nor knowledge to do so at the time. Rhys kindly stayed at hand ( and so did Jack to take a tackle bag at the opportune moment ), and we exited under torrential rain.
Our return was swift and enjoyable, and we exited into a thunderstorm. Back at camp, Tanguy’s quick thinking provided us with a dry space to BBQ, and we stayed up late into the night drinking and eating as the rain fell heavily around us. The next day involved lakes, pretty towns and lots of driving, returning us to London around noon.
Then we had the long awaited bbq, which we had to have under a shelter due to the rain. The food the others made was nice but the exotic French vegetable I had insisted we buy from the supermarket earlier that day that "was used as a meat substitute during WW2" turned out to just be a beetroot. After eating we played cards until the wee hours of the morning.
The next day was the day we went home. There was a plan to go rafting during the day, but it was booked up, so we went to a lake instead, and on the drive back stopped off at a picturesque town (Sarlat) Tanguy remembered from his childhood. Amazingly once we got back to Beit Quad at midday the next day, everyone still had enough energy and enthusiasm to do most of the stores cleanup before heading off home.