It was a dark, cold morning when Denis said I would be joining his group caving for the day. We were to do CAVE_1_NAME, which sounded harmless until I realised this was the same cave Jorgue had told me about the day before. A series of pitches, followed by a 250m tight crawl. A muddy, squalid, 250m crawl. Ending with 5 metres submerged in icy, cold water with only 5-10cm of airspace and topped off with some submerged formations requiring squeezing through. Didn't sound like much fun, but with all the other trips full there wasn't much choice but to embrace it with open arms and attempt to make the other trip goers think their cave sounded even worse.
After a pleasant drive through the mountains over rock and ice strewn roads we arrived at the turn off for our cave. After putting the jeep into 4x4 mode and pulling onto the snow leaden track leading to our cave we realised the track was in fact a protected cross-country ski track which we had now put some nice foot deep trenches in. Ooops. Never mind, we parked and changed in the picturesque surroundings of the French Alps in front of some very expensive looking lodges. Consuming some plain bread on route we trundled up the track for a km or so until we came to our entrance literally at the side of the track. The hole was about 3 metres long, and some bright spark had covered with a wooden fence, presumably to stop inept skiers falling into it. Unfortunately thanks to four inches of ice at the base of the fence it was stuck solid, and so to get into the cave one had to wiggle down the 6 inch gap between it and the rock face above a 10 metre drop, before clipping into the rope and descending down the rift with a couple of reasonably tight squeezes. At the bottom of the pitch a ice covered slope lead down to a short easy passageway which opened into a small chamber full of amazing ice formations. Huge ice crystals had formed everywhere, including in the onwards passage. The entire passage had become a solid lump of ice, impenetrable without a lot of ice breaking effort. However, looking through some gaps in the formation we could see a rather wet waterfall which we'd have to go through if wanted to continue on. Getting soaking wet from ice melt so early in the trip wouldn't make for a fun days caving, so we decided to turn around and head out hopefully to try join the others through their entrance. Unfortunately the others had the same idea and met us as we were exiting, with David knocking down a ton of snow onto me as I attempted to squeeze back out up the rift which was nice of him!
Unable to enter either entrance of the cave we headed back down the ski track to the cars to get changed out of our kit much to the amusement of a group of girls playing in the snow nearby. Piles of fresh snow was too irresistible to not start a snowball fight with the freshers, naturally I won after getting one down Sandeep's neck (though he did get me square on the side of the head, but I still say I won!). With all our kit repacked into the cars we headed off to try do a different cave (which no-one in the party had done before).
Everyone but the three freshers decided to get kitted up for our second attempt at caving of the day (the freshers opted for sleeping in the cars, the wimps). This impressive massive cave entrance is located at the base of a 360 metre waterfall with a huge cobalt blue torrent gushing out of it and down the mountainside to the rivers below. With the snow melt obviously increasing the torrent was extremely high and flowing at impressive strength. We took the trail on the waterfall side of the river, requiring a traverse through the base of the waterfall. Reaching the end of the trail we realised that we were in fact on the wrong side of the river, with about 100 meters of vertical rock face over the torrent between us and the cave entrance on our side of the river. So, back we went traversing through the waterfall again back to the cars and over the bridge to the other side of the river. This trail lead us right to the cave entrance, passing a gated entrance (pirating attempt failed) on the way.
Inside the entrance to the cave a small bridge provided a route across the raging torrent and some bolts suggested a riggable traverse route around the inside of the cave. Despite the bolts stopping (and instead with the traverse line being rigged using decidably weak looking tat), we managed to follow this traverse right up to an equally impressive waterfall about 50 metres inside the cave. Unfortunately there was no obvious route on, probably due to the very high water levels covering the way. Still with time to kill we traversed back to the bridge in the entrance of the cave, and climbed around the other side of the cave and viewed the waterfall from above. The river was very impressive, and required shouting and hand signals to communicate over the roar it produced. With the time getting on, we headed back out of the cave after much effort to get Denis to stop climbing further into the cave (without the use of any safely lines!). All in all a good day's caving despite note getting further than 30m deep or 50m into any cave.
The previous night had brought a round of laughter when I mentioned that I couldn.t recall any trip where I.d been deeper than 100m underground. So, that morning, when Denis recommended I go on a trip to Le Unknown French Cave I thought here was a good opportunity to prove myself as a hardy caver (stifle those giggles). However, the wrath of winter weather was having none of it.
First problem was a sheet of snow (aka cross country ski track) stubbornly barring the way up to the cave on what used to be a perfectly good approach road. Next, after we had marché-ed off for 4km over snow to reach the cave entrance, Dorien discovered that the first pitch was well and truly blocked by a large lump of ice. Still, not to be beaten, we stomped back up to an alternative entrance to try again. This time, with a determined effort, Dorien and Benjamin chipped away the ice over the p-hangers whilst precariously balanced on an icy ledge and rigged the first pitch.
After instructions from Jean-Luc on how to use a .go., I followed them on down, avoiding large ice formations on the way. Having never used a .go., or 8mm rope for that matter, I did briefly ponder on whether my usual descending technique would turn more into a plummet than a controlled descent, but I landed safely at the bottom (and will admit that I could be converted to using a .go.)
The way on from the bottom was a tight wiggly crawl, followed by a mini keyhole shaped rift passage and I would say I sympathised with the severe contortionist act required by 6.4. Rik, but in reality I just felt vindicated for all the times that tall people have the advantage (mwah ha ha)
As the way on got tighter and tighter we realised why this was the less well-recommended route. Time was ticking on- by this time it was about 5pm -and the decision was made to abort and head for home. On the way back I demonstrated a superior ascending technique whereby I spent about 10 hours on the rope purely in an effort to avoid the icy cold weather outside for as long as possible (obviously if the weather outside had been bright and sunny I would have been up there like a shot with no tackle sac .knitting. practice at the rebelay).
Dan had already surfaced and was relishing the bracing conditions outside and I only had a short time to giggle at his efforts at shoe changing. (falling flat on his back in a snow drift in preference to putting his dry foot on the ground) before everyone was up top and off we stormed for home and an enjoyable evening of fondue and crazy Franglaise discussions!
Joanna King [GI-Jo]
In Douglas Adams classic work, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, we are told that numbers in restaurants do not behave like numbers elsewhere - they are not constant. It is the same with caving in France it seems. The first non-constant number is the number of British cavers supposed to be on a trip organised by the redoubtable Pierre, self-taught SRT expert, cave diver and pessimist ("You see, ze great sing about caving is zat you don't know what will 'appen - maybe ze entrance will collapse, and we will 'ave to choose which is the least important, and eat zem?"). 6 turned into 4, and then to 2, then 3 before briefly taking a return visit to 4 and finally settling on 3. The second non-constant is the number of cars, but eventually 2 was settled on.
We changed by the side of the road and slogged up off up a hill in the melting snow, mist and drizzle following directions inferred from Pierre's GPS unit. But when we got to the right coordinates, the cave was missing. It took us 30 minutes to track down what looked like a miniature M1 entrance, with a little rock bridge and a pitch disappearing into darkness. However, having dropped the pitch, the redoubtable Pierre instantly realised we were at the wrong cave entirely, as (insert name) is over 350m deep and this cave barely got out of daylight. After a bit of faff, in which Crisptophe, Jarv and Maud decided that this kind of blind pitch was a must-see, we encountered the third non-constant number of the day - what the readout on a GPS means. Pierre and Maud had assumed that the number after the minutes of arc must be seconds of arc. In fact, it was 1/100ths of minutes of arc. We were on the wrong bit of the hill. No wonder we had struggled to find the right cave. An hour later, in which the sun briefly came out, Pierre returned from his scouting expedition to tell us he had found the cave. At this point, non-constancy reared its ugly head again. Our call out time was 12, but the time at which we had to leave for the car seemed to oscillate between 11 and 7.
(Insert name) looks nothing like M1. It's a huge shakehole leading to three shafts which link up just underground - far more like Alum Pot. Pierre, rigging using 9mil tied onto hangers with old shoelaces, descended, followed (slowly) by the others until only Christophe and I were left in the fading light and plummeting air temperature. It was nice to finally get underground, not least because it was warmer. The ice formations - dozens of them, delicate, translucent gnomes, spikes and phalluses, a massive ice column several m in diameter, several enormous ice cascades - were every bit worth the effort. The floor was covered with ice so pure and smooth that you couldn't see it, and were only reminded of its presence by the constant slipping of your feet. It really is extraordinary - imagine taking a cave with a small streamway cascading down a series of 10-20m pitches and instantly freeze it over, and you get the rough idea. The way down has been dug and blasted, and forms a narrow tube inclined at 45 degrees linked a series of small rooms and pitches. Painfully slowly, we slipped and slithered down this surreal environment shivering and laughing in equal measure, often bunched together in awkward bundles in tiny ice-floored and ice-walled rooms. Finally, after a couple of awkward rebelays, some more shoelace rigging and a hanger that Andy and I both had to tighten with our bare (and frozen) fingers, we left the ice-palace and found ourselves in normal cave. At this point, Maud had to leave having lost the feelings in her hands through the cold and I (having been at the back) was not at my warmest, so I volunteered to accompany her out. As I prussicked up the first pitch, I looked down and was alarmed to see Cristophe doing amazingly energetic press-ups directly beneath me and a desperate attempt to warm himself up, while Jarv and Andy took the less strenuous (and probably more successful) strategy of pissing themselves with laughter. Climbing back out of the normally hand-lineable dig passages was bizarre - prussicking at 45 degrees, with no friction whatsoever on wall or floor.
The non-constancy of numbers was to strike us again, however. We were to meet with the 4 still in the cave at 11, but they did not appear. As it turned out they would have got to us between 12 and 1, had circumstances not intervened - we first saw their lights at roughly 1.30. We were also expecting 4 cavers, rather then the 3 that turned up. Walking back over the now re-freezing slush/snow, Andy had gone completely arse over tit, turned his ankle and could no longer walk. Having dumped the bags at the car, the 3 others remaining in caving kit returned to fetch him, now crawling painfully over the snow groaning like some nightmarish Gollum-creature, and dragged him like a sledge to the road. A half-hour of faff later, we headed back to the hut tired and hungry to grab a late (3am) dinner and crawl into bed.
In all, I made it 60m under-ground, making this in terms of meters the most expensive caving trip I have been on to date. Andy and Jarv made it 150m or so for the expense of another 4 hours of caving and, in Andys case, a spiral fracture of the fibula, and a 6 hour wait in Geneva airport as his flight details were changed. Nevertheless, it was well worth it to see all that ice!
Michael Rogerson [Goaty]
After two epic days, exhaustion got the better of us; a pleasent lie in followed by breakfast with our French co-conspirators, kit packing and a sedate move towards the airport. A few hours were spent repacking + weighing the kit to avoid any excess baggage, Trollys were raced, and Z. was fed with two-year-old moldy chocolate found in the bottom of one of the kit bags. Flight was beautiful; sunset above the clouds, twilight above the twinkling of Paris and then the whole of central London spread out below us on descent. A day of relaxation after a fanastic weekend in the Vercors.
Jarvist Frost G+