Arun Paul, Ben Richards, Christopher Bradley, Dave Kirkpatrick, Jack Halliday, James Perry, Jennifer Ryder, Rebecca Diss, Tanguy Racine, Úna Barker, Zaeem Najeeb, Ana Teck, Lucie Studena
Flying out and going to the Gouffre des Ordons
We drove past vineyards rolling hills and small towns in the warm sunshine. Perry at the wheel, Zaeem vacillating between sleep, slumber and stupor, Ùna and Jack cramped on the back seats of the hire car.
We were in Doubs, a French department located in the centre-east of the country, at the border with Switzerland and Spring was in the air. We made a quick call to the warden of the caving hut we were headed to, to make sure the last details were ironed out; we made a quick stop at minimal motorway services to recharge the somewhat drained batteries; we made a long detour in the suburbs of a deserted town to find cigarettes. Everyone had left London at some point during the previous night and either driven across the breadth of France, or trudged to Gatwick for an early flight. I had fared better: not-too-early start in Innsbruck, a connecting flight in Frankfurt, and a meet-up with the group in Lyon.
We drove into Montrond-le-Château with 3 cars and some of us found the large building with sloping roof that was to be our home for the week with ease; the others made a tourist visit of the locale, as suggested by the erroneously placed Google Maps pin. It was large and very well equipped, and the sleeping room could as well have hosted barrels of fermenting wine or vast wheels of fruity regional cheese. As it was, it accomodated 13 festering cavers, which I imagine did not prove too different perfume-wise.
We settled on the large benches and started a kettle of tea.
Jack then made the mistake of half-jokingly suggesting a quick caving trip. He did not know then I had planned this eventuality. Ferretting through the caving guides, I dug out the survey of the Gouffre des Ordons. This was a mere km walk away and I had no trouble convincing Jennifer and Ben to accompany us to the supposedly low-investment:high-reward cave. We roped Dave in to come with us reccying the cave entrance and strode off immediately, walking directly from the hut.
With the coordinates in the phone, we wound a sinuous path through the bare woods, climbing in and out of unlikely dolines, until the fenced off entrance pitch appeared in front of us.
Jack proposed to rig down, screwed in a couple of bolts and headed down. Somehow the P-bolts only began inside the second pitch of the cave, almost as a reward for competency on the top pitch. Anyway, Jack then dropped the 20 m pitch into the huge main gallery. This was heavily decorated with 'stacked-plates' stalagmites and abundant flowstone. We followed the laid out path carefully and expressed our amazement at the degree of conservation in this otherwise easy to find cave. No doubt a lot of cleaning has got into it, judging by the graffitied aspect of the later caves.
We got out soon after, Ben derigging. The light had now vanished, but again with the GPS, we had no trouble finding the return path, walking through the local equestrian centre to reach the hut, where Diss, Dave and the rest had conspired to cook a delicious pesto-pasta dish. Sated and for the most part, quite tired from the long journey, we drank to the beginning of the Tour.
Meeting up with Gérard and Fabrice to go to the Cavottes
Barely had half the contingent of ICCC cavers stumbled out of bed did Fabrice and Gérard turn up at the gîte in Montrond-le-Château. With the sun streaming gloriously through the window panes of the dining room and freshly brewed tea sending volutes of steam into the bright light, it was hard to contemplate caving just yet. So we had a cuppa, and then two, before finally loading the cars for the very short drive to the Grotte des Cavottes, a local classic. Gérard mentioned German cavers would drive over 500 km just to see it and couldn't get his head around it. I quietly mentioned flying from Innsbruck or driving from London, but this was lost in the whirlwind of caver-car allocation that ensued. Somehow, Dave was roped in again to drive to the Cavottes. Zaeem, Ben, Ana, Jack and Jennifer brought our numbers up to 9.
The entrance was sign posted, and lay not far from the road between Montrond and Malbrans. At the parking spot, we changed, realised Dave had taken the key of one of the other two cars (a key which would be needed for the shopping group), so he drove off again in full kit to Montrond to give it back. As he was there, we messaged him to bring back some additional tackle sacks. We certainly looked very professional.
The cave itself began as an active sink, but of an unbroken slope, the natural bedding of the limestone provided flagstonesn on which to walk and down-climb on. Just inside, we stepped down into a low passage from which sprouted several 'chuck-a-novice-in' oxbows, which some of us sampled dutifully. After a little more crawling we popped into the chamber of Chaos, from which a tyrolean traverse started, but due to our lack of adequate steel pulleys, we defaulted to the extremely well polished little fracture to the side. Soon after, we hit the first bit of rigging, a traverse over a 15 m drop.
Under the spotlight, and with eight people watching, Jennifer took up the job of rigging around the pitch and onto the other side. Beyond the traverse was an easy climb down a well-polished slab and from there, we walked straight for what seemed a 100 m in a very tall and scalloped rift. At its termination, a right angle bend gave way to the P7, which gains access to the 'Réseau Supérieur'. Jennifer rigged it nicely and we followed her down.
This was the start of a horizontal gallery often wider than tall, intersected by high rifts. We visited the northern extension first, heading towards 'Salle du Nain', a one-time bolt-climb which eventually surfaced, providing a second entrance to the cave. Sadly, this was filled in after the local farmer's wishes, but the explorers left a garden gnome high up on one of the cornices. Sadly also, most of the stalagmites and stalactites this chamber once had sported were broken off, and the walls in many places graffitied.
Turning around to the base of the P7, we had a quick break for lunch. The French deplored our lack of preparedness: we had no cheese, no paté, no bread, only chocolate bars. I accepted tuna paté from Gérard, which we then shared before continuing onto the southern gallery.
This was fairly wide, with hard packed mud at the bottom, and clean bed-surface roofs. Our steps echoed within the larger chambers that separated straight sections of now-abandoned passages and a faint draught could be felt, drawing us towards the pitches that led (eventually) to the 'Réseau Inférieur'.
Puddles appeared, and then the steady drips of water were heard. This was the P20. Gérard and Fabrice decided to head out there and then, since from then on, the cave got muddy and tight. I accompanied them to the P7 and bade farewell, thanking them for showing us the way into the Grotte des Cavottes.
Most people were already down the pitch when I got back to the P20, but Jack was fussing around with the top Y-hang which rubbed a little. We sorted this quickly and went down the heavily fluted shaft, landing on a muddy puddle. There were several possible ways on there, including two muddy and wet low crawls, and one particularly smooth letterbox slide.
I led Jack and Ana astray, by crawling through some mud and insisting I had broken out into a large chamber. It was a 2 m aven. Jennifer and Ben forayed below the letterbox slide into another crawl, that then got bigger and led to a new 20 m pitch. Now due to some miscommunication and the fact that there were two P20's, one of which Gérard had never found (maybe he didn't do the letterbox?), we had no rope to descend this one and decided to also turn around here.
We met the second group (Diss, Arun, Perry, Ùna, Chris and Lucie) on the way to the P7 and exchanged a few indications of places to ferret around before departing. We then exited to glorious sunshine and upon contemplating that not all of us would fit in the hybrid car that Dave drove, Ana and I walked back to Montrond, which took all of 20 minutes.
Back at the hut, we decided to reward the shopping team by cooking a large pot of mushroom risotto with vast amounts of white wine and comté cheese, which went down very well.
Heading to Gouffre de Brizon
Benoît, the son of our hut warden Raymonde turned up in the morning to give us the 'Taupe oguide', a compendium of classic local caves, together with description, topo, mole cartoons and despairingly trite puns. We decided to split the team in two groups again and rig two different caves, juggling with rope lengths and maillon requirements. Fortunately, it seemed that many were completely bolted with resin anchors.
Jennifer, Diss, Jack, Ben, Ana and I made up the team headed for Gouffre de Brizon. We assembled on the shared enthusiasm for abundant ropework and opportunity to practise rigging. The entrance proved to be only slightly further away than the Cavottes, but we braved the long stretch of municipal road and walked there anyway.
Instantly recognisable for its 'rigging mast' and flood warning sign, the entrance to Gouffre de Brizon opened up in the same brittle and brick-like cream coloured limestone as Cavottes. This explained the presence of the mast. Jack took up the rigging duties and headed down the first daylight drop wearing very minimal clothing. We followed, I with GoPro and large Fenix FD65 for side lighting, and soon descended the following 8 m drop, swung into a short section of blasted and dug out passage and reached the first larger drop.
This was a near perfect cylinder in massive, white limestone, leading to a short series of small and friendly drops. Then, the cave opened up again for the P33, which was split up by several rebelays. Near the bottom, we realised an 'active' and 'abandoned' route split and Jack set-off in search of the next anchors while I milled around just above.
I spotted a muddy crawl leading off to the true right hand side of the passage and inspected it cursorily. A few twists and turns over chocolate mousse mud took me to the bottom of a too tight rift. I turned around and dived out, unaware of my GoPro falling out of my oversuit and rejoined the ropes. By that time, Jack was already quite a bit ahead, and Diss and Ben had joined my ledge. I descended towards Jack, sliding in funny just larger than body sized windows. Couple metre drops followed couple metre drops and finally, Jack's 'Pitch free' wafted up from a deeper pitch, announcing the end of the vertical development.
We joined him and peered around the bottom of the last pitch, where the limestone had turned an ominous shade of grey. We had rejoined the water course at last, and it did not look extremely inviting to the mostly 'dry' cavers that Ben, Ana, Diss and Jennifer are.
Upstream, a short little pond played home to some white troglobite shrimps and the cave narrowed significantly. Downstream was our aim: the meander of Hope, described as unworthy of visit by the topoguide due to a very long and strenuous section, meander which started with the promise of near total immersion in another narrow puddle.
I persuaded Jack to follow me and off we dived, relishing the cold water after such - some would say too - pleasant caving experience so far. Immediately, we forced our way through a kind of stooping t-shaped streamway, where progress was rather slow.
After a few bends and chimneys where it was possible to stand up, we attacked an even less promising bit of sideways thrutch, past a large black bin bag that seemed to act as a makeshift doorway to the Beyond. This improved soon to walking height, though Jack sent me ahead to scout to make sure this was worth it.
And it barely was: some stalagmites and a couple other kinds of decorations appeared, but they were rather sparse. What gripped my imagination and led to my bidding Jack come through, were the interesting basins with clear water and well-scuplted walls that conspired to make the meander of Hope the kind of passage one is glad to see and navigate their way through.
It even transformed into something even better: a series of long chambers at an angle from the downstream direction, connected by arches made of thin rock blades, where the going got deeper. I'm not sure Jack was convinced this was worth it, but it was the best we got. Further on the passage deteriorated to a sharp S-bend, after which I could see walls closing in and the vadose trench narrowing beyond critical knee width.
We turned around and headed out. I was intent on finding the GoPro and had a thorough look along the sides of the large fluted pitch where I was sure I'd lost it. At the muddy side passage I'd explored, I ventured a quick look where the previously suspended clay had settled but this was not successful. I grabbed handfuls of clay trying hopelessly to feel for the case of the camera and only managed to dislodge a few embedded rocky pebbles. Frustrated, I ascended back up to the entrance behind Jack.
At the entrance, we were greeted by the cheerful voices of the others who'd waited by the rigging mast. We had a quick group shot and leaving the ropes in for the day's trip, set off back towards Montrond-le-Château, with a feast in mind.
As soon as we got notification from the Belle Louise group that they were out, a splinter section drove to the supermarket to gather supplies and replace one broken braking light from Dave's car. We stocked up on a mix Comté cheese, madeleines, Morteau sausages, fennels, crême fraîche, beer, wine and salami, not all of which were used for the night's dinner.
Heading further inside the Gouffre de Brizon
The next day, I naturally elected to go back to the Gouffre de Brizon, with the absence of the GoPro hanging like a black cloud in the otherwise sunny morning. With the cave already rigged for our full enjoyment, it struck us that we might be out rather earlier than the previous day and thus it was decided that we would then drive to the closest lovely town, which turned out be Ornans.
Up early, and more eager than usual to get underground early, I recruited keen Zaeem to join on the advance party to Brizon, with the explicit aims of retrieving the GoPro and truly 'bottoming' the cave, forcing our way beyond the thrutchy section and finding the hundreds of metres of streamway to the impressive and undived sump mentioned in the disparaging topoguide description.
We made excellent time to the cave, and within minutes cheerfully descended our way past the various pitches. As I was in front for the most part, I got to the muddy side passage first and plunged both hands in the mud, bringing heaps of clay and putting away on the walls.
Splat, splat and splatter. My hands dug deep. I held my breath. My fingers had finally touched something.
I extracted the gloves from the mud, grasping the object of my desire. I brushed the mud off and with a jubilant cry informed Zaeem of my discovery with unabashed joy. I hope this'll teach me, but there's little chance. In fact, it reminded me of one instance last year in Slovenia, where a certain disto was left by yours truly on a certain ledge at -600 m depth.
Greatly relieved and having checked that the video setting still worked (it is after all rated IP68), I expressed my desire to now go find the sump at the bottom of the cave. We headed deeper, along the finely scalloped small pitches and windows that make up the bottom of the cave of Brizons.
We dived into the bathtub of cold, but not uncomfortably so, water that marked the start of the meander of Hope. I clicked away and recorded our progress with the GoPro at any point where the ceiling rose enough for me to stand up. Soon we passed the plastic bag spot again and with a surge of energy, made it through the awkward twists and turns before the deep basins.
In no time, we faced a sharp dog-leg into the most thrutchy part of the streamway. Clambering around a little, we found that it was best approached at high level, keeping the feet well out of the narrow trench below us. Some ten metres of arduous passage onwards, the cave relented, and we could use one foot to propel ourselves forward, our elbows keeping the upper body in the wider part of the rift. This degenerated to a sideways crawl in water where we almost turned around. Our perseverance barely paid off, as after a none too dry section, we popped out in larger passage which we took to be the meander of Four Musketeers.
But this was only the half-way point, and with the both of us quite struggling in the narrow passage, we decided to turn around. No great wonder that the sump at the end is undived as yet, but the metres of 'mostly stooping heigh' easy passage beyond will still haunt me.
Turning back, we made slow but steady progress with Zaeem occasionally breaking into an argument with himself as to whether this was it or not, deciding that it was and advancing, realising that it was not and pondering the realisation for awhile before starting the process all over again. I would chip in here and there, admitting that it was quite tough caving but that a steady cruise would see us out in no time.
And indeed, after twenty minutes or so into our return journey, high pitched tones - no doubt emanating from some harrowing experience endured by Dave - meandered to us. We exchanged a few words and convinced him before it was too late (he was at the dogleg), that the rest of the cave was not worth it. It was a different kind of note then, a sigh of relief perhaps, that rebounded off the sculpted cave walls.
We met up in the series of bassins, Dave, Lucie and Chris had crossed the pools and continued. Arun and Perry had already turned around before the going got too grim and were on their way out. On the surface, we met up with them and walked back to the hut in Montrond and then made plans for dinner.
We decided to drive to Ornans and find a restaurant there, but since the derig had taken up quite longer than anticipated, night was already falling fast by the time we arrived in Ornans. We strolled downtown, past the church and over the bridge into an even quainter part of the city, where restaurants were opening. We settled on the Table de Gustave, which was farther away than most, but also more affordable than most (discounting the automatic pizza distributor). Still, there were no pubs where one might have some non-fancy grub.
All in all, we were well served, though the vegetarian options were sparse and in high spirits we celebrated this so far excellent trip to Franche Comté.
The off-day hike to the Grotte des Faux-Monnayeurs
I still don't get why everyone was so keen to get packing on the morning of what was originally planned to be our big trip to Baume des Crêtes, one of the upstream caves connected to the local big daddy cave: the Verneau system. By 9am or so, all seven tacklesacks were ready, and I was raring to go.
The only hitch in the plan was that most everyone was unsure they actually wanted to cave that day. Certainly it was difficult to muster a team of even four out of thirteen.
Let me explain. There were three full days left. Some people wanted to cave the next day, others the day after, almost nobody today. Others wanted to get some via-ferrata in, at least once, but also twice if possible. Some had a strong liking for staying at the hut and completing coursework (whatever that means). Other still preferred to sample the delights of small french cafés. But most would rather not if that meant that so and so. They would do it sure, unless someone else wanted to jump in. But really, they would do something else given the chance. Oh, wait there is also another option to consider. But in essence they were ready for so and so, either today or tomorrow or both, provided a driver went with them. A list was drawn up and names jotted down, barred and rewritten. And so on and so on.
I just wanted to cave. My frustrated inner self might have bubbled to the surface. If so, I am sorry.
We eventually sorted ourselves into more or less happy groups that would fit into cars, leaving a couple at the hut. One car zoomed off to Switzerland where they seemed to have glorious fun on a long and impressive via-ferrata route. The two others drove to Mouthiers-Haute-Pierre, the starting point of a small hike along the Gorges of Noailles. Perry drove Ùna and I there, passing through Ornans and staying in the valley, heading upstream to the sources of the blue-green placid river. Diss, Jack and Dave were in the car behind us, on the look out for a café.
In the small downtown area of Mouthiers, we walked a short circuit along the deserted alleyways before buying wine and pizza flavoured crisps in the local épicerie. We parted ways with the other group, since there was no café in Mouthiers, and headed off to the start of the hike. A plethora of signs signalled the presence of easy caves and karstic features on- or a short distance off the way we intended to take.
We passed a large hydro-electric power plant and carried on upstream into the gentle 'Gorges'.
It was more that the valley sides had some limestone cliffs high up, visible through the still barren tree branches, but the path we took wound its way up and down gentler slopes much nearer the river. The sound of cascades reverberated of the high but distant grey walls, and we saw that many travertine dams had formed along the river bed, where deep blue water pooled before rushing down a series of steps.
We crossed the river and followed signs to the source du Pontet, which turned out to be an attractive waterfall resurgence not unlike Great Douk in Yorkshire. Thence we walked a little higher, looking for the Grotte des Faux Monnayeurs, one cavity we'd seen in the Taupe-oguide. We found it easily enough, climbing just above the source du Pontet into a tubular passage which was accessed by a short but sturdy looking ladder.
Inside, darkness beckoned and we were ready for it, putting our hitherto carefully stashed helmets on, and stomping forwards in the cool depths of the cave. After a hundred metres of easy walking passage, a left turn up into an ascending branch took us a long way up to the higher entrance, a balcony overlooking the gorges of Noailles. Along the way we spotted a couple of bats and stopped to photograph them. Ùna and I ventured as far as the lack of boots would allow into the further reaches of the cave, discovering nothing of signicance. On the way out, we spotted Perry enjoying too much by half, the unnatural pizza flavoured crisps.
The hike ended without incident and we drove back to Montrond-le-Château via Saône to pick up a little more alcohol for the planned evening barbecue. The Jack/Dave/Diss team had in the meantime made a wondrous shopping spree and our qualms (Perry's and mine) about the amount of meat available for the evening were immediately soothed.
The evening started with the setting up of the fire, the fry up of a first frika round and the considerate drinking of bottle beers. All sorts of meat and vegetables were grilled, and to cap it all off, another round of frika was had. After all, we had to load up on carbs and protein for the next day's epic to Baume de Crêtes...
The long day out in Baume des Crêtes
My final day on Easter Tour was a real treat of a cave. The Baume des Crêtes cave appeared very near the top of the list of the classics of the Doubs and it undoubtedly was.
We managed to wake an early rigging team of five, who departed the hut in good time; we had after all already packed all of the gear the day before. At little over thirty minutes, this was our longest drive to any cave so far, but it was well worth it. We parked near the old football club changing rooms, a set of low delapidated buildings where it was easy to imagine coaches inspiring their players with rousing rethoric. Now there were fifty or more cows grazing, and in their midsts, a white horse. It was not Shadowfax.
In the distance, a clump of trees with a sign warning against sudden and dangerous flooding heralded the cave entrance. This was more impressive a long shot than Gouffre de Brizon. Bolts indicated the way across an exposed aerial traverse over the 40 m entrance pitch. Footholds were next to non-existent, and it was hard to judge how hard it would be on the way out. Still, it was a nice straight hang once you'd got to the end of the traverse, and we landed on a steep sloping pile of debris into which a chest height canyon had been carved and which provided our means of descent further into the cave.
The pitch gave way to a chamber with big volumes and large 'pile of plates' formations; they are essentially stalagmites formed under a particularly high ceiling. We dropped a lot of height there, picking our way over boulders and flowstone inclines, around stals and over branches or trunks that had fallen down this far. On the far low end of this chamber, compacted mud, carbide arrows and polished rock conspired to indicate the way on.
Far from obvious, the next step was to slip in between boulders and find the next anchors, a short series of 2 m drops into the boulder chaos. As I was putting in one anchor, I heard the shout of rocks in Jennifer's unexpectedly calm voice accompanied with unfamiliar sounds of vibrating plastic and sloshing of fluids. I shot a hand forward and grabbed... a water bottle downclimbing rather fast, whose bottom had been pierced by overenthusiastic contact with the cave walls. Sad to say, much prized tap water was lost this day.
Cheeky French cavers tried to lure us into a dig by painting arrows towards the grimmest crawl leading off from the chamber, but Dave saw through it, and got us safely to the next chamber, which had some degree of calcite decorations, but a greater degree of mud. Another pitch saw us joining a small stream where the mud washed off our boots, the start of the Gallery of the Chinese.
We took the next right hand turn, ignoring the inviting and deep gour pools along the 'main way on'. I believe Jennifer took some photos of this place as we were rigging the next drops. We followed the stream, now splashing about in knee high water along a tall and wide rift passage.
Where it started to close down, a bypass (rigged permanently) out of the streamway saw us climbing into a high level muddy passage, traversing on none-too-firm footing over 2 m holes back into the stream and shuffling along to a grim looking crawl under boulders at eye level. Some looking around revealed that this was not the proper way through, and that we had to drop into balls deep water to progress any further. I volunteered for the wetting process and declared the way on passable. A couple of squeezes, all indicated by conservation tape and we were back into sizeable passage, climbing or rigging down towards the ever closer 'Collecteur'.
Finally, we popped out onto a large ledge overlooking the fabled passage by about ten metres. This master streamway passage was in places a good twenty metres tall. It was wide, sonorous and beautifuly scuplted. Upstream of our affluent pitch that is. Downstream was coated in a thick blanket of mud upwards to 4 metres high and it was clear we were near a sump that would back up enormously in flood conditions.
The description strongly advised a visit to the upstream reaches of the Collecteur, emphasing its uniqueness for the region. Blue pools, cream coloured rock, ledges, cascades. Inspiring stuff indeed. I certainly couldn't get enough of the twists and turns of the canyon, but everything has an end and eventually we crawled out of a boulder pile to find the permanently rigged cascades.
We went up one, went a little way further and saw a forbidding waterfall, about five metres high, where it was necessary that one of us climb up first to rig a rope down. This is where we turned around, at the foot of what the survey suggests with a very large chamber is the 'Sinai Hall'. It was getting late however and we'd actually gone a long way underground, in an ever varying environment. Inspiring pitches, crawls, squeezes, mucky ducks, boulder chokes, walking passage and beautiful stream, formations and no small amount of route finding, this cave just had it all and would be well worth a return visit.
As we trudged downstream, we met the second group, acquired a Diss whom we promptly burdened with an unused tacklesack of gear, exchanged a few words of advice and continued our way out. We (Dave) rescued two frogs who'd fallen down the entrance pitch and all struggled on the entrance pitch traverse to find waning daylight on the gentle landscape of the high plateaus of the Doubs. A short while later, we were back at the hut, for what I knew to be my last night there.
I quickly looked up transport options back to Lyon, found a mildly appropriate train connection not too early the next morning and enjoyed the tomatoey risotto (our only tomato-based meal of the Tour if I am not mistaken) together with wine and cider. I tried to commit to memory what had happened during the last days, but it was all muddled in the rush of drink and disappointment at the fast-approaching end.
Still, what an awesome Tour! Thanks to everyone who made it possible and in particular Dave for the drive to the train station on Saturday morning.