(or why British caving in January sleet is rubbish)
Participants : Wook, Del, Ju, Wadders, (Jez the ill).
A mere two weeks after this desperate band have made their escape from 'Stalag 161', stupidity returns and they find themselves (and more surprisingly their rag-tag collection of aging Stradas, Escorts and Astras) in the Vercors caving region of France.
Classic limestone karst means caving country, but only Wooks and Ju were well enough to join five from the Northern Pennine Club and Jean-Claude (a local) on a trip to a little known cave somewhere near St Pierre de Chartreuse. This find of JC's had silly traverses and huge fossil phreas, but a drought so bad you had to fill your carbide using straws and tiny pools. It also had the inevitable large pile of boulders at the end of promising passage. Meanwhile the three sunworshippers did.
After this rather exerting start, Ju and Jez whizzed off home and wenchwards respectively, and the trio headed south past Grenoble to a petite campsite in La Balme en Rencourel in the Gorges de la Bourne (a whacky racetrack carved into the cliff for your further enjoyment!). JC had suggested Grotte de Bury - "aah Neopren!" - he had exclaimed, which indicated something more aqueous so off we duly went to havalook. (All one word - there's an awful lot of havalook to be done in France it seems, with lots of caves close to the road, the blinding sunshine, and the cheapness of bier and wine). Unfortunately all the oil in Andy's sump did much the same thing near the top of a 'route forestière', so schedules slipped a little. We trogged the 50 metres to the entrance and were suitably impressed so...
Back we came the next day to Grotte de Bury with the thirteen bits of rope (including both tow ropes!) for the 450 metres of it, and actually made quite fast progress down yummy calcited streamway to about minus 250 metres, the Grande Salle, and a general increase in scale, only to not find the way on. At this point a sudden increase in water flow (it had rained quite a lot since we went underground) made for a couple of very wet prussiks (dry pitch heads), in an otherwise pleasant drysuit trip.
In our tiny campsite hundreds of miles from Britain were some Derbyshire cavers who recommended Grotte de Gournier as well as beefing up some of our translations of the cave descriptions. Grotte de Gournier (10 minutes walk) involves a large (40 metres), very cold lake which you swim (aah - Neopren!) if you're British, to a climb and traverse into huge fossil gallery with gours and more calcite than you've ever seen, just slouching around not even trying to be impressive for kilometres. Somewhat overawed we shuffled down through one of the chokes to reach the active streamway beneath and headed upstream. Lots of stomping is followed by pool traversing on 'coathanger wire' installed by the hydrophobic French (although consider what flow rates in flood must be like!) and then climbs using a crazy mixture of tat and wire. Harness and cowstails very useful. The continuation of the cave goes ever upwards according to the topo - expeditions must have consisted of a couple of 'drillers' and hordes of battery sherpas for the bolting required.
One streamway, one huge stomp. Our final French flutter would be of the Big Shaft kind, fnaar. Scialet de Malaterre comes complete with its own tourist footbridge, which makes a damned handy belay at the top of the 120 metre pitch (60 metre freehang). We didn't need the Elliot guide for this one mostly because some keen French guys were just prussiking out as we arrived (after a typical mellow start). Down at the bottom for the connoisseur, after a couple of small pitches, was the chance to wade around in knee-deep gloopy mud, with remarkably pristine pretties nearby.
A short walk round some of the karst to peer at the Gouffre Berger, and the Fromagère involved bumping into lots of other anglais - a veritable Mecca for the caving community - as well as a quick poke down Trou qui Souffle (a cave that is actually in the road, with a tarmacadam edge!).
Next item on the holiday agenda was gorging in the Maritime Alps. Our only previous experience of this strange activity was Sa Fosca in Mallorca which had verged on the rather epic (see journal 89, 90), so we started of with Clue de Duranus - 'for the novice'. By this time our caving French was getting up to scratch but Wadders' guide made references to various types of water - vasques, biefs, bassin profond etc. which our tiny dictionary could not differentiate between and neither could we as we jumped, swam, trogged and abseiled down the gorge. Incredibly pleasant, and not too intimidating at all. A newish Renault 5 parked rather untidily (insurance job?) provided amusement and some much needed fuses for miserly cavers and nicely counterbalanced the abandoned hydro-electric power piping further down the gorge!
The start to another such gorge close by had a notice near the start saying how slimy and dried out it was - a veritable trap! With this in mind then, we decided on the Vallon de Peira. After a gruelling walk up it was very much an amble down, avoiding the 'triffids', through the odd splashy bit apart from the three big pitches. 50, 55 and 60 metre abseils in stunning situations and a very fond wish that the rope will pull down all right. The pitches were particularly memorable for the large tufa formations (where tufa is calcite deposited on mosses and vegetation to form large foamy rock structures). The two old cars did sterling service in the shuttling operations required, as opposed to the efforts of Waddowreck and driver when trying to sneak away from the campsite without paying, but that really is another story....