I managed to fiddle a year's exchange working for the Commisserat a l'Energie Atomique in Grenoble. For those of you who are not too hot on European geography, that put me in the middle of one of the world's greatest caving regions, with easy access (an hour's drive) to: the Vercors (famous for Gouffre Berger), the Chartreuse (Réseau du Dent de Crolles - and filthy green liqueurs) and the Devouly (Réseau de l'Aigle).
I arrived late in 1981 and didn't start caving until the following February as I had now discovered the delights of skiing. My first trip was into the Grotte de la Guiers Morte in the Dent de Crolles mountain of the Chartreuse. This system is one of the most complex in France with over 25 miles of passage and a vertical range of about 2000ft. There are several classic through trips in the caves, but don't trust the guides in "Grottes et Canyons" as the system is a lot more complicated than their route finding instructions would suggest. There is still exploration going on here but it has now reached an increasingly arduous and hazardous level. One member of the club I caved with was trapped after a rock fall for 5 days, his arm was broken and some tight bits had to be blasted in order to rescue him. The cave he was exploring for a possible connection was reached after a rappel of about 200m down a 600m cliff face - one can imagine the rescue problems. Guiers Morte was my introduction to SRT, I'd only ever used ladders before. Dent de Crolles is equipped with some very dubious looking fixed aids, some of which must date from the period of exploration in the 1950s, if you have to use them (necessary in most of the through trips) take a good look at them and your insurance policy first.
The following week I went on a resurveying trip to Trou de l'Aygue in the southern Vercors. Although an old discovery, it had generated new interest when an extensive upper series was found recently. In the two years since announcing their finds the discoverers had not published a survey, so the SGCAF (Spéléologues Grenoblois du Club Alpin de France), who I was now caving with, decided to go and do one themselves. We passed by the old entrance and trudged upwards through the snow till someone recognised the depression which contained the first pitch. This new entrance had been dug out from the inside, it was a rough tube in clay and gravel before it reached limestone. This 7m pitch was immediately followed by one of 17m. The procedure on reaching the bottom of pitch two was to dive for shelter so as to avoid the hail of pebbles sent down by someone negotiating the entrance. We then went on to survey the 2000m of upper series. Beneath a 60m pitch is the old cave, a further 1000m of streamway. I visited the stream on a later date, a great through trip but beware the exit which is a 100m wet flat out crawl that can sump off suddenly.
Now that I've described my first two trips I'll stop the "what I did on my holidays" style and get on with the real purpose of the article. The Vercors is the major karst region near Grenoble and most of the local exploration is concentrated there. The Chartreuse and Devouly massifs are intensively caved too but by an unwritten agreement they are chiefly left to cavers from other clubs. The theoretical maximum vertical range in the Vercors is about 1800m, thus big caves are possible and of course already discovered. The two deepest so far are Gouffre Berger at -1208m and La Fromagère or Scialet d'Engins at -904m. These two deep caves start within 1km of each other and are drained by the same resurgence the Cuves de Sassenage, which has in turn been explored to +450m. The sumps in Berger and the Cuves are separated by a large horizontal and small vertical distance; further exploration is for divers. This region of deep caves - the Plateau of Sornin - is incredibly well explored by parties trying to deepen the Berger so most surface features have been investigated. Other regions further south are less well explored but then less big caves have been found to encourage further searches. The existing cave regarded by the locals as having the most promise is the Scialet de la Combe de Fer. This cave is the entrance of to a very complex system, quite tight and very wet at depth, so far it has been explored to -582m. There is a potential of almost another 1000m, however don't book your tickets now as one of the local clubs is going to give it a thorough explore next year.
Cave exploration in Grenoble is a lot less hassle than we in Britain expect, perhaps it's because they only live 100km from huge expanses of karst. The club I caved with have always had at least one major cave exploration project going since the 1930s. While I was there the cave was Trou qui Souffle - the hole that breathes. TQS was discovered by workmen blasting a forest road and had been explored to a respectable -190m by the famous local caver André Bourgin in the period just before the second world war. Over the years more cave was found and a system of about 2000m of passage was known with a height range of just over 200m. Two years ago SGCAF adopted the exploration and after an assault of 18 months the cave was bottomed at -313m with now almost 14km of passage.
Trou qui Souffle gives a graphic illustration of the two limestones and thus the two cave types found in the Vercors. The first 200m of TQS is in Sennonian limestone - a highly faulted rock with much folding of the bedding. The entrance series reflects this with a steep entrance series of undulating profile, a bit reminiscent of a dry Tatty. Beneath this is a layer of Urgonian limestone in which most of the region's classic caves are developed. Urgonian is faulted into huge blocks with a flat bedding, this can form the huge passages characteristic of Berger and Gournier caves. In TQS the lower passages are vast but unfortunately access requires tricky navigation, therefore the system, other than the entrance series cannot be recommended to tourists. The entrance series and old extensions would make an interesting warm-up trip, the cave does have the supreme advantage of occurring next to (about 1m away from) the road.
My aid to the explorations of SGCAF were minimal; I held a bit of survey cotton in Trou de l'Aygue, I helped poke around some possible extensions to the Glacière d'Autrans and I spent a very frightening time prospecting beneath a very loose section of the eastern rock wall of the Vercors. What I did do though, was to take up cave photography with a vengeance. Club members have already been bored to tears by my slides, so I will mention it no more. The Vercors may not be as famous in France for formations as are the Eastern Pyrenees or the Jura but it does have some breathtaking caves; the rest of this article will be a tourist guide to some of the better trips a visitor might attempt on a visit.
The Vercors is a very popular region in summer and there is no shortage of camp sites, shops or petrol stations. There is quite a good road network and also several metalled tracks in the forests. A good map is essential, for tourist cavers the 1:50000 scale Institute Geographique Nationale is the best, or else use the similar scale annotated map of the Vercors Regional Park published by Didier Richard. If you wish to prospect or explore the 1:25000 scale IGN maps are a necessity, three of which cover the Vercors. No guide books as such exist for the area, though this may soon change as the idea is being tried out on the Vaucluse region. The register of known and surveyed caves (Inventoire: Grottes et Scialets du Vercors, Vols. I and II) is now out of print and is unlikely to be reprinted for some time. Try and borrow one, otherwise you won't stand a chance. If you want to try and explore or you (gasp!) make any new discoveries, the people to contact are:
Le Comité Departemental de Spéléogie de
2, Rue General Marchand,
38000 Grenoble Cedex,
Also useful are:
Les Spéléologues Grenoblois du Club Alpin
32 Avenue Felix Viallet,
38000 Grenoble Cedex,
Other useful things to know are the weather and a bit of caving French. In summer the Vercors suffers violent thunderstorms which have been known to cause very sudden serious flooding. Grotte Gournier had three deaths in its streamway when people didn't get out in time. Gouffre Berger and La Fromagère become dangerous in flood and even the huge passages of Grotte Bournillon can be filled - witness the number of huge stals. broken and toppled by the water. In spring no caving is possible because of the huge volumes of snow melt-water. Caving French has a few odd terms but otherwise it is fairly straightforward; eg. Jumar = Jumar, Puit = Pitch, Corde = Rope, Concretions = Formations (Pretties), Chatière = Anything unpleasant usually a squeeze or a duck, Gouffre = Gulf - ie. big hole, Scialet = Open Pot, Mousqueton = Karabiner. However beware of Ressaut = A Free Climb, Ruisseau = A Small Stream and Réseau = A system of caves, to the untutored ear these sound remarkably similar. Lastly remember the words Bière and Vin, possibly the most essential words in French.
One very important thing to remember is your insurance. Rescues in France are very, very expensive. There are no call-out boards or anything at all similar in the Vercors, you are very much on your own. Remember that although there are many caves in this part of France, caving is a much less popular sport than it is in England. This means that except in the few very frequented systems (which are really only the ones I'll be mentioning) no other parties may come for weeks, so make sure that someone knows where you are and when you are due back. Finally I'll recommend some places to buy gear. Rope is very cheap in France, especially "Interalp" and "Béal" types, one supermarket (I'm serious) sells it. This is the "Genty Record 2" in Fontaine (a northern suburb of Grenoble on the road to Sassenage) and is very cheap - it also sells some gear. More specialist shops are "Clavel Sports", Cours Jean Jaures, and "André Jamet Sports", Rue Ambrose Croizat, both in the centre of Grenoble. Carbide is readily available from many hardware stores - usually signposted "Drogourie", it does come in very large lumps, O.K. for Petzl expedition lamps but far too big for Premier stinkies.
Now I'll describe some tourist trips. A good warm up is Grotte Favot, situated some 200m above the Bourne Gorge near Villard de Lans. The entrance passage slopes downwards at 40° into the cliff face. Easy going walking in a huge passage "Le Grand Tunnel" takes you past some formations to the Grand Scialet, a 50m pitch. The descent is against a muddy wall to a well decorated final chamber. Do that in the morning and the drive to the hydro-electric station at Bournillon, park in the car park and walk to Grotte Bournillon. WOW! fantastic, the entrance is 120m x 80m the biggest cave entrance in the Western Hemisphere. Do the upper and lower gallery circuit as suggested in "Grottes et Canyons", a superb three hour trip. This trip starts with an interesting low passage, the upper gallery which opens into a flood-prone bedding from which you can climb into the lower gallery. The huge lower gallery (20m x 30m) floods completely at times! The hydro-electric station in the valley is there just for when the cave floods! Half way out along the lower gallery is "La Village Negre" collection of huge stalagmites. The whole trip is not strenuous but still very rewarding.
Almost opposite Bournillon is the huge cliff face "Rochers des Presles" at the foot of which are two more caves; Grotte Gournier and Réseau Coufin-Chevaline. Coufin cave is a superb show cave, an enormous low roofed chamber the roof of which is covered by a forest of straws - some extending over 2 metres. To get behind the tourist entrance to the rest of the system there are two choices, either write to the show cave months in advance or go in very dry weather to the nearby Grotte Chevaline. The terminal sump in Chevaline is often only a duck in summer and parties can pirate the extensive (15km and +460m) cave system; however if it rains while you are inside the sump will rise and a nonchalant exit through the show cave will be needed. Next door is Grotte Gournier, a brief swim or dinghy paddle across the entrance lake is followed by an easy traverse (best done with a chicken line) to the entrance of the fossil gallery. This is one of the most impressive trips in the Vercors, an enormous gallery leads on in, over gour pools, past large stals. and over huge piles of collapsed boulders. Beneath the fossil section is a sporting active stream cave now explored to +460m take great care in the streamway as it floods rapidly and seriously. Gournier and Coufin-Chevaline drain the Plateau of Presles on top of which is found the stream cave Grotte Bury, this descends towards the Bourne Gorge in a French version of a sporting Yorkshire cave. Bury is characterised by small pitches of about 10-20m, a vadose canyon of average width is punctuated by several awkward squeezes and deep pools until it opens out into a huge gallery at -350m. Bury finally finishes at almost -400m.
From Bury we drive back to Villard de Lans for the Scialet de Malaterre, not the deepest (that is Pot Deux at 314m) but certainly the most impressive surface shaft in the Vercors. A circular hole 15m across and 120m deep, with a bridge across it. Yes, it's the posiest pitch in France, watch the loonies leap into it. The descent is magnificent, belayed to the bridge descending a well lit shaft to an extensive cave system with huge chambers beneath. At least that's what I was told - I didn't get much beyond the entrance shaft because I couldn't find the way on which is a squeeze into a 30m pitch.
Onward now to the Plateau of Sornin and Gouffre Berger and La Fromagère. I never did these caves (wimp!) but to gain access you need the permission of the mayor of the nearest village Engins (Honest), write to;
This is because the cave water is used for drinking and they want to limit pollution. Another access problem is the Cuves de Sassenage - the Berger resurgence. In theory only scientific visits are allowed to go beyond the show cave but access is referred to the SGCAF, therefore write to the mayor of Sassenage;
and also to the SGCAF pleading your case (lying through your teeth about the speleological project you will be doing). The Cuves is an impressive network of roaring streams and huge passages that mysteriously begin about 5 minutes behind the rather pokey show cave.
What about Scialet de la Combe de Fer with its strenuous wet pitches and tight canyons, Scialet Collavet which guards its magnificent formations by pitches of 80m and 110m or Grotte de la Luire where floods turn a 100m pitch into a Vauclusian spring. There are so many good trips, Scialet Pichet with its superbly shaped pitches and La Glacière d'Autrans with its ice formations even in August, I could go on forever, I've already gone on far too long. Its only 700 miles to Grenoble - that's a day's drive, it's nearer than Aberdeen (*). Do it now.
* Webeditor's note. This is unfair to Aberdeen, which is a lot less than 700 miles from Cambridge, and doesn't involve crossing the channel.