France has many attractions for the geriatrics of EXCS. There is the cheap wine and food, and also a lot of easy, warm, well-decorated caves all with very foreign and impressive names. "When I was down Esparros," you can say as you begin another lunchtime tale in the New Inn, knowing that few people will realise that Esparros is like a show cave with the lights dimmed. When you can bore people with tales of easy caves, why bother with the hard trips ? Our previous caving holidays had been spent going down the same gloomy hole day after day. It was exciting treading where no man had gone before, but all too often there was a good reason why no-one else had bothered. So we were off to the Pyrenees with dreams of towering formations and meandering underground rivers, followed by five-course French meals in the local sleepy village. And it was all true.
During our three weeks we spent a lot of time travelling and packing up camp but we managed to sample a great variety of French caves, and here are just a few....
If you are offered the chance of 2km of crawling in a sordid little streamway just to see a mud sump, don't bother. We were in no state to make a sensible decision when a trip down Sinai was suggested. After a big meal and an even bigger dose of Armagnac, a quick caving trip seemed the ideal way to round off the evening. But once inside the entrance we soon regretted it. It was unpleasantly like the Penyghent canals, but with nothing at the end. So if you are...
We had just had a trip down Esparros, but it was only 2 p.m. and even Ben didn't fancy retiring to the bar. So we dug out our battered copy of Grottes et Canyons and found that Labastide was nearby. There were the usual problems - roaming around the village with book in hand trying to fathom out the obscure directions. But even we couldn't fail to find this one. It's a big entrance, 20m by 3m, with a grille which is meant to act as an intelligence test to stop vandals getting at the cave paintings inside, while allowing genuine cavers in (vandals are too intelligent).
With three lights between the five of us, we strolled off down the huge passage. Tony saw the first painting - he's the artistic one and has a vivid imagination. It looked more like a muddy smudge than a rampant buffalo. But there was the real thing, on a big upright slab, an eight foot high red and black horse. All very atmospheric in the flickering light of our dying carbide lamps. The atmosphere became a bit too dark as two of the lamps went out and we quickly fumbled our way back to daylight.
The Réseau Trombe offers a number of excellent trips all within a small area, set high in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was early evening when we strode up the track to the campsite.
Our first trip was down the Mille and into the vastness of the Trou de Vent. It is used as the local novice cave - we found two parties of schoolgirls at -300m, and it's well worth a visit. Next day it was time for sterner stuff and so we toiled uphill following the worn path to the obvious entrance of Péneblancque. The icy wind blowing out from the depths was a great relief after the heat and sweat of the walk. With a level sandy floor, a glorious view and built in air conditioning, is this the perfect changing room? Rapid progress was easy in the large entrance series. Routefinding was fairly simple - the only difficulty is ten minutes in where there is a chaotic area, but the way is well scratched. The account in Grottes et Gouffres is quite adequate, whilst still keeping its air of mystery which is so sadly lacking in the boringly accurate Northern Caves.
walking passages led to small tubes and a series of slippery slopes - just slide down and forget about how difficult they will be on the return. The odd pitch follows and then you get into the big stuff. And it gets bigger and bigger until you emerge in the huge silence of the Salle du Dromadaire. A bit more passage, another pitch and there's a big black hole, the way on down into the far reaches of the system. But we were there for fun, so we went out, back in time to enjoy a meal in daylight and to get a fire going before the start of the evening's display of shooting stars.
This sporting trip had been recommended by a number of people. So armed with scraps of paper covered with jottings of various estimates of pitch lengths and a rough sketch survey, we stumbled off into the grey drizzle. Ignoring the bolts, we belayed the rope for the entrance pitch to a rotting tree - just to ensure a sporting hang with lots of rubs. Down the 30m pitch and scrabbling on down rifts, round boulders, gaining depth easily. Then a fine 50m hang from huge boulders down to the streamway. A quick romp along the streamway, a couple of short pitches and the water disappears into a great darkness. It was suddenly very cold and wet as we peered down into the black swirling spray. But once the big rope was down the 130m pitch, it soon warmed up again. With the crashing waterfall out of reach and perfect rebelays, all you had to do was sit back on your rack and enjoy the view. The final 80m drop landed in the middle of a small lake, and forced along by the roaring draught, we continued on down the streamway. A couple of short pitches and the final wet one of 50m. But we were now soaked through and fearful of the rain on the surface, we began our retreat. With heavy ropes, now too tangled and bulky to fit in the tackle bags, we slowly prusiked up the pitches and struggled up the entrance rifts, emerging to a dismal rain-soaked evening. A glorious memorable day which came to a perfect ending when squatting outside the tents in the rain, stirring a disgusting stew, I managed to upset the lot into the mud. And when we tasted it, we wished we'd left it there.
Ken Baker, John Bowers, Andy Connolly, Tony Malcolm and Ben van Millingen spent three weeks in August 1981 eating, drinking, mixing concrete and caving in the Pyrenees. As well as the trips described, they made half-hearted descents of Reveillon, Viazac, Esparros, Mille, Betchanka and Castaret.
Location Plans for the Caves Visited in South West
(Webeditor's note: The quoted scales should be right if you reproduce at 100 dpi.)