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This remarkable pot was the first on our list of priorities when we visited the Pyrenees in the course of our summer expedition. Our main intention was not to extend it - in fact we had no reason to suppose that it could be extended - so much as to bottom it for its sheer sporting value, using it as an introduction to some of the aspects of continental caving. More specifically, we intended it as an exercise in planning an assault which would last for several days.
The Puits d'Anglas is situated in a small, but very bulky, limestone plateau known as the Massif de Ger, to the south of Pau. In 1959, a member of the Liverpool University Potholing Club who was prospecting in the area, discovered a very large dry valley in the massif, with melt-water sinking near the top of it. Dye-testing established that the stream resurged three miles away, some 5,300 feet lower down the mountain, forming "the deepest proved hydrological system in the world at the time", as LUPC put it. Explorations by a French club, the Spéléo-Club de Perigeux, in the neighbouring valley, unearthed two important pots and suggested that there was a huge master cave to be found. By 1964 LUPC had pushed one of the pots near the sink to a depth of 900 feet. In 1968 they returned and bottomed the system - the Puits d'Anglas as it had been baptised - with considerable difficulty. The cave consists of a series of pitches ending in a very narrow streamway and a sump at a depth of 1050 feet. The pot is extremely severe by French standards - they go more for large, dry boulder-chambers - and no French team, as we discovered this summer, has ever bottomed it; in fact, we were the first cavers there since 1968.
On the 24th July, six eager potholers, frustrated by several days of pitching camp and then moving it again as soon as the mosquitoes arrived, packed their gear and set off for the Anglas with the immediate intention of rigging most of the way down to the stream. The party - Guy Talbot, Bob Mathews, Julian Griffiths, William Taylor, Mark Leslie and I - drove to the ski resort of Gourette and were whisked up into the clouds on the ski-lift. It was rather disconcerting to emerge from the mist near the top into dazzling sunshine and to find oneself dangling several hundred feet above the gleaming white lapiaz, which was still veined with snow, even at this late stage of the year. It was only a few hundred yards from the ski-lift terminal to the sink, and we pitched our tents here on the flat, but rather boggy ground. It was difficult to understand why the area had not been investigated much sooner, since the water sank almost exactly on the very obvious granite/limestone boundary.
When we had changed into claggies we picked up all the tackle and set off in search of the entrance. Fortunately, it was not difficult to find, as all the holes had been clearly numbered, and we were soon crawling into the horizontal passage which makes the pot such a rarity in the region of vertical entrance shafts, and which probably explains why this cave - unlike most of its neighbours - is not blocked by glacial scree or a névée. We made our way rapidly down several free climbs and through a short, but awkward, crawl. The first obstacle was a traverse round the top of a blind 30 foot pot; this was rather a flattering climb since the exposure was considerable and all the large jug-holds were cunningly concealed from sight. After a couple more climbs we reached a descending scree-lined tube: fortunately we knew what to expect here, and I tied onto a line. The traverse that followed was not exceptionally difficult - rather like the traverse over the top of the big pitch in Washfold Pot - but the rumble of the disturbed scree falling the entire depth of the pitch, 400 feet, was a bit disturbing. Luckily, there were several flakes which I could use as runners and we soon had a fixed rope rigged to the other side. A narrow section led to the first 30 foot pitch, Slit Pot, which had an extremely constricted take-off. The second pitch of 20 feet was only slightly less awkward. 35 feet of ladder were lowered down the Triple Pots, but this was not long enough and involved a very hairy ten-foot climb on horrifyingly sharp flakes - until we discovered that we had rigged the wrong pitch.
Everything was eventually sorted out, and we carried on down an unpleasant little climb to the head of the fourth pitch, where we found a certain lack of belay points and were eventually forced to settle for an ageing peg, having foolishly left our bolting gear behind. This 35-footer was followed by a very fine 40, which hung between the smooth walls of a three-foot wide rift - look, no hands ! At the bottom was a ten-foot drop, but the way on lay over this. The easiest method of crossing this hole was to grip the end of the ladder and shove with one's feet, soaring over in an exhilarating arc. A short climb followed, and we were in a fair-sized rift chamber with, among other things, 'F--k this hole!' smoked on the wall. A noble sentiment; we were beginning to appreciate Liverpool's warning about the sharpness of the pot. Virtually every flake was razor-edged, and we had to take great care with handholds.
Traversing over a blind pot, we came to another 20 foot pitch. At the bottom was a small chamber with the 60 foot Showerbath Pot leading out of it. This had a rather desperate take-off, and was jagged for the first few feet, but soon opened out into a superb shaft, beautifully streaked with pure, white calcite which stod out in startling contrast to the dull black rock. Only three of us descended this pitch, since we were running out of carbide, but we intended at least to ferry the tackle to the top of the next 100 foot pitch. After one initial blunder we found the way on in a narrow rift, which could be folowed for about 50 feet, at which point it dropped through an awkward Z-bend and the floor disappeared. When all our tackle had been dumped we made our way out with no problems, except for the discovery that the top pitch was extremely thrutchy.
The sun was just setting when we exited, and at that altitude it soon became quite cold. We rescued our bottle of plonk from a snowdrift, demolished a pile of sardine/pilchard/cheese/paté/chocolate butties, and clambered into our sleeping bags wearing all the clothes we could lay our hands on, including caving gear. The next morning was so beautiful that two of the party decided to go walking, while the rest of us rigged the second section of the pot.
William and I stopped at the first pitch on the way down so that I could put in a bolt, while the others went on ahead and rigged the big pitch. Such at least, was the intention; when we reached the head of Showerbath Pot we could already hear Guy squawking in frustration. We abseiled down and thrutched along the rift until we caught up with them. Giy was jammed ten feet up an eight-inch wide slot, doing wonderful things with bits of belay wire, and getting quite distressed. "Pull on that end. Not THAT end, you fool, the other!! NO, the OTHER!! Too far, try the first end again! Aaagghhh!!! Now it's come off the flake! @£"&!!!!" Eventually he slid down, beaming with success, to the sound of polite clapping as we bent forward to admire his handiwork; the ladder was rigged down a four-inch wide crack.
We sorted the problem out by crawling along a hairy traverse above the pitch and round a corner to a small, sloping, but adequate ledge. And there, wonder of wonders, was an enormous bolt, just begging to be used. Guy was rather upset about being sent back up the crack to retrieve his masterpiece of rigging, but we soon had the pot laddered, and Guy, William, and I abseiled down. The series of pitches which followed was magnificent. In fact they were not really individual pitches, so much as one pitch, broken up by ledges, in an enormous rift. I don't think I have ever before felt such a sense of purpose to a cave as at this point. Above our heads the roof narrowed and plunged downwards in a single uninterrupted curve, until it was lost to sight a long way below us. It was far more impressing, frightening, almost, than any single vertical pitch could be, and the feeling of sheer depth was overpowering.
In more prosaic terms, we laddered the five pitches, all of them easy and averaging 20 or 30 feet. They had one characteristic in common: all of them were extremely sharp and had large, vicious looking flakes hanging over them. We slung a belay round the base of one of these flakes, which must have been about three feet high by two feet wide, and nine inches thick; on a later occasion someone pressed very lightly on this flake and it snapped off an inch above the belay wire and went crashing down a pitch - it was only by good fortune that no-one was injured.
The trip out and back down to civilisation was uneventful, but it was something of a comedown to see the cables of the ski-lift disappearing into the drizzling grey blanket of the valley mist. There was a lot of beer waiting for us down below.
Two days later a six-man party returned with the specific aim of bottoming the system. Three of us - Julian, William and I - had been joined by Jont Leach, Evan France and Martin Evans. When we reached Gourette a full-scale storm was in progress and the ski-lift was immobile. In fact the mechanics had taken advantage of the foul weather to stop their machinery in order to carry out repairs, but when we entered the engine shed they merely muttered "Ah! Ze Eengleesh speleos!", as if that explained everything (after all, what other race would be crazy enough to go out in this sort of weather?), shrugged their shoulders, and set the motor going. 'Free?' we asked. 'Free', they replied. 'And if you want to spend the night in the top terminus...' We did want to. The prospect of camping had suddenly grown rather unpleasant. Not as unpleasant, though, as sitting in the little cabins in that bare engine shed, watching the rain hiss down outside and waiting to be despatched into the swirling fog. Every now and again the lightning would crash nearby, and the motor would wheeze and die. Eventually we were off, bobbing upwards through the greyness, with no sense of motion except of the few occasions when other cabins loomed up out of the mist on their way down, with white disembodied faces at the windows, which peered at us, were swallowed up in the gloom, then... All in all it was a thoroughly eerie experience.
We changed on the wet concrete floor of the terminus, then dashed for the pot during a lull in the storm. At the bottom of the five rift pitches, two of us made the mistake we had been trying to avoid, and dived down an impenetrable bedding plane where we found it very difficult to turn round. The way on was at a high level, and a series of short climbs - 8, 13, 12 and 16 feet - led to what we had imagined to be the crux of the pot, the Mousehole. This was a high-level squeeze in a rift, similar to, but easier than, the squeeze just before the 160 foot pitch in Strans Gill Pot. Everyone was soon through and down the 14th pitch of 15 feet. We were now in a small chamber with a dribble of water entering at one side, and a 60 foot pitch leading out at the other. This pitch was rather awkward, since rigging it involved climbing for 20 feet down a greasy 45 degre gully. The streamway became more and more audible as we climbed down the very pleasant pitch. While waiting for the others at the bottom, I went about 200 feet downstream, finding the passage to be, as LUPC described it, extremely narrow and involving continuous traversing. On the way down it was not too bad, but on the return it was quite tiring. The Liverpool survey is not altogether correct, in that it shows the foot of the ladder about 20 feet above the stream, whereas the traversing only begins downstream of the pitch. Underneath the ladder one is standing in water.
When everyone was down, we decided against heading downstream, since the water sumped in no uncertain manner; instead we decided to look upstream, since this was only marked with a question mark on the survey. We knew for a fact that we were not far from the granite/limestone boundary, and that we would therefore probably only find a series of loose, wet and unscalable pitches, but after all, we hadn't come here with the intention of finding anything anyway, so any discoveries would be an unexpected bonus.
After 150 feet or so of wading in a pleasant streamway, we came to a short climb, followed immediately by a not so short one of twelve feet. Julian and I went up first, and found ourselves, not surprisingly, in a high rift-chamber, with water coming out of the roof and out of a thirty foot pitch at the far end. Just as we were debating whether this pitch was freeclimbable, we heard shouts coming from behind us. Returning to the climb, we found that William had tried to hoist himself up on a flake and had gashed his hand to the bone. He was bleeding profusely, but soon our fisrt aid kit was out and yards of muslin were being wrapped round most of his arm in a haphazard but generous manner. Meanwhile, horrible visions were floating in front of our eyes. What was it that Liverpool had said ? 'The near impossibility of bringing an injured person through the Mousehole made any exploration beyond it a major undertaking... The French took down two dozen sticks of gelignite with which to blast out the Mousehole in the event of an accident beyond it.' And so on. Still, William was climbed up the 60 at a good rate of knots, and seemed to be getting along all right with only one arm; but there are better places to have an accident than 900 feet underground.
To cut a long story short, we finally emerged in the early hours of the morning, having derigged most - but not all - of the pot. We decided against sending an emergency telephone call down to Gourette for the ski-lift to be started, since William didn't seem to need any immediate attention, and after a large, hot meal, kipped down in the warmth of the deserted terminus. We rode down in the morning, and took William to the nearest hospital. A couple of days later a party of us returned to finish derigging - once again the lifting gear was set going especially for us - and to cart the 620-odd feet of tackle back down into the valley.
The prospects in the area are still extremely promising. We had not intended to spend long around the Anglas, so we did no further prospecting, but, as I have already mentioned, the Spéléo-Club de Perigeux have discovered at least two major systems around here. They also found another system while we were around this summer. The main drain - when it is found - will be enormous; but it does not seem likely that the Anglas will provide an entry. The main value of the Anglas is an extremely fine sporting trip. We were psychologically unprepared for it in that we knew that LUPC had taken many years to bottom it, and we were unwilling to take it fast. In fact it could have been done in the course of one or two fairly long trips. In case it should seem, though, that I am treating the system with undue levity, let me just quote a few phrases from LUPC's account of the exploration: '...forced back by exhaustion...; ..it presented such big technical problems, and the lower reaches were known to be particularly tight, even by Yorkshire standards, calling for extreme care in exploration.; ..a tortuous and dangerous fissure passage, physically and mentally exhausting, the consequences of an accident almost unthinkable..; ..it is a dangerous pot.' Too true.
LUPC Newsletter, Spring 1969; article by Lindsay Cowle.
CRG Occ. Pub. "The Lapiaz Superieure du Plas Segoune"
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