The Expedition Report
|CU 1976 Contents Page||Next:|
Does the Sun Shine out of ARSIP?
Andy tried for several days to stir up same enthusiasm for a through trip in the PSM. It seemed a pity not to do it, especially as the French very rarely offer it to foreigners. I think we were only the second British party to have the opportunity of doing it. However, Team Leach had developed a violent attack of non-serious-caving femalitis (ie. other day and having to be back for dinner); Dave H. was still recovering from the three helpings of K&M that somehow got into his porage; and Guy had not been looking too enthusiastic since his first trip of the meet. The combination of a 10 hour trip, learning to prusik, and having an enormous and unwanted meal thrust upon him by an inebriated fiancée (his, I hasten to add), seemed to take the edge off his exploratory fever. This left Dave F., Andy and myself, not really a large enough party for the trip. Don MacFarlane, of the BEC, wanted to join us, and Andy found three members of the Eldon who were very keen and could contribute some tackle. Andy at last had his team and sent off a telegram to his employers saying, "On the verge of major discovery stop request extra leave".
The whole trip spanned six days. The Eldon, Don and Andy went off on the Monday to deal with the uphill pitch halfway through, from the EDF tunnel end. This trip, which took 10 hours, went smoothly except for Andy falling off the dinghy in the Wind Tunnel, luckily wearing his goon suit (perhaps that is why he was sent through first?). That, and some minor route finding problems between there and the Diaclase Pitch, were the only difficulties.
The Americans arrived on the scene with a bang that day. "The Leader", Smith, drove into the campsite at Licq in a car loaded as though it were a pantechnicon and managed to catch the exhaust on a spike and wrench it off. We supplied them with an attractive interpreter (Hilary that is, not Jont) to supplement their book of useful French phrases, and they disappeared to fix the car.
Tuesday was a rest day, and we moved camp onto the plateau. On Wednesday we rigged in down the Tête Sauvage, which meant only 5 or 6 pitches for most of it has fixed ladder in place. Our only problems occurred on the final 100m pitch. This pitch has a good ledge halfway down, and we had two ropes, a 50m and a 60m, to use on it. We put the shorter rope on and I set off down. I was well down the pitch when a single drop of water fell onto my stinkie jet. Repeated attempts to relight it failed miserably, so I decided to come back up. It was then that I wished that I had practised changing from a rack to prusikers in the dark before. Or in the light, come to that. On the second attempt I found that the 50m rope did not reach the bolts for the second half of the pitch. By the use of what Mr. Fox refers to as complicated mathematics, I deduced that these bolts were more than half way down and therefore that the 50m rope would reach the bottom from them. So we swopped the ropes over to avoid having to freeclimb the middle 5m of the pitch.
Thursday was another rest day, and we ferried my car round to the bottom entrance, about 30 miles by road and left it on the EDF track ready for our exit. This left us to spend the night without either tent or car on the plateau. We were happy about sleeping out, as the weather had been good till then, but it so happened that it decided to let loose a traditional Pyrenean Mountain storm that night. We found refuge in a small hut on one of the ski-lift platforms and had a better night of it than the campers. The Americans had arrived on the plateau by then, but did not seem to possess any tents - they lust draped canopies over the rocks. It was so bad that one of them ran round all night in a wetsuit to try and keep warm. He failed.
Friday came and we togged up in lots of wetsuits to combat the cold and packed chocolate in bags to take with us. We set off at about 9.30 am. It really is a fine trip, for you just run down the fixed ladders, all of us that is but Don, who managed to take the wrong way when his stinkie was a bit dim, and tried chimneying down the 50m pitch. You then whiz down 4 or 5 ropes and the odd ladder: a short flat out grovel and two damp little ladders and you are at the bottom, 405m below the surface. The second team had given us a start, and took about half an hour to descend. We were a little longer as we had to rig the bottom two ladders, and also had a short delay on the 100m pitch when Richard ended up 5m above the deck swinging on the knot (someone had cut the end of the rope, bringing it down to 45m). We did not lose too much time because of this, as the Americans had rigged the Tête Sauvage themselves by now, so we just used their rope.
Then the walking starts: 5 km of it, at first in a shallow stream, where Don, still with lighting problems, was seen grovelling in the dark for his stinkie jet, then on past the rubbish tips in the Salle Suce down to the river - the Gran Cañon. This is a superb passage, about 10-15' wide, in a high rift, the depth varying between knee height and swimming. In places the current was so strong that we could not even hold on to the sides to stop ourselves being swept along. The trick at such times was to float our short fat hairy rubber duck down the passage on the end of a rope, wait till it quacked, and then follow.
Towards the end of the river, there is a 15' climb into phreatic passages which we were glad to get into as a relief from the intense cold of the stream for the last two hours. We paused at the edge of a long, black pool; we could hear the rest of the party in the distance; we were about to thrust our rubber duck into the unknown waters once more when Don appeared up in the ceiling and directed us back up onto a traverse.
We came to some very ropey French ladders with half of the rungs broken, belayed to dubious bits of rotting tape, which were possibly the most dangerous obstacles of the trip, and suddenly, round the corner, was our rope hanging down the Diaclase Hidalgo. A quick 70' prusik, and we were in known territory.
After a series of deep, cold pools, we saw the roof lower abruptly to two feet above the water. This was the Wind Tunnel, about extremely cold water and a howling gale blowing through it. The water level was about 3' higher than it had been on Monday, hardly surprising with all the thunderstorms. Carbide lamps did not last long in the draught, but the Eldon all had spare electric headtorches which gave sufficient light to get us all through. We had a lilo, and there was a dinghy (two inner tubes tied together) already in place, so we were able to ferry through two at a time. There is a fixed wire in the roof to pull yourself along on. The dinghy kept getting stuck in the bend of the tunnel, when being pulled back and someone had to get into the water to free it. There was little enthusiasm for this job as everyone, except Andy in his goon suit and Don in his 6mm wettuit, was beginning to feel the effects of the long immersion by now.
It was not much further now to the top of the scree pile at the foot of the Lepineux Shaft. Here we had our one real halt: we ate peanuts and condensed milk, and the Eldon changed out of wetsuits and into running shorts.
From here it is a long, hot, slog, over lots of large, muddy boulders, just following the Scotchlite. The chambers get larger and larger. The Salle Chevalier is huge and it takes about half an hour to get from one end to the other. The far wall could only just be seen. There is a short scramble through the boulders and then you pop out into the pitch blackness of the Verna. It is like being in the open air with no sign of roof or walls or floor. The built up path leads along the side of one wall to the start of the EDF tunnel. Here we quickened up and raced out to the iron doors. There was a short struggle to open and close them. We stood there in the fresh air and looked at our watches. The trip had taken nine and a half hours. Not a record, but still a very good time considering that half the cave was unknown territory. With previous knowledge of the route it would be feasible to bring the time down to around 7 hours.
We spent a few minutes in the hut talking to the French, then set off down the track to the car. The track was exceedingly muddy after the rain, so two people walked down to Ste. Engrace where we picked them up and drove on to Licq. Here we dropped off Don and Andy, for the latter had to make an express journey back to work, and, somehow, half asleep drove ourselves back to the plateau.
Next day, after a leisurely start, the Eldon, Dave and I derigged the Tête Sauvage. On our way out we met Arthur Champion lugging two enormous rucksacks. As part of his effort to further Anglo-American relations he was acting as guide and porter for the Yanks.
Vic Brown & Dave Fox.
The Expedition Report
|CU 1976 Contents Page||Next:|
Does the Sun Shine out of ARSIP?