by Julian Todd
To cut a long story short, fourteen old lags more or less associated with the Cambridge University Caving Club showed up at a converted barn up a steep gravel track on the side of a hill near Laruns in the French Pyrenees on one dark and windy night in the first week in August. The lack of youngsters was not intentional. The cars divided up roughly in the following way:
Me, Wookey and Tess in a solar powered oven on wheels, I mean red Citroen van. We arrived early and had to wait for a while to ensure that we had the right place.
Then François and Jean-François showed up. François is the French guy who owns this well equipped establishment which has no electricity, no phone, no gas, no light, no central heating, no showers and no toilets. Thankfully none of us are sad enough to carry a portable phone, so it was worth it. Jean-François works as a pharmacist somewhere in the north of France, I believe. (Well, you have to do something, he said during one of our long late night sessions whinging about the states of our careers.) François is some sort of academic in the university. He's been canyonning here many times.
Two cars arrived later containing Jeremy and Chris, Tony and Gill, Becka, Mark and Clive. Later on in the night Andy and Olly arrived after a horrendous journey direct from expo in Austria. On the way Olly had taken Andy's car into a ditch and it was not now in a fit state to drive, as the breakdown man back in Cambridge said after I had gotten it all the way back across the continent at the end of the holiday and Andy had shown up later and wanted to save himself some petrol in getting it back home to Southampton. It was quite battered and the gearbox didn't feel very well tied down when you held onto the gearstick.
François' barn has two floors, both on ground level because it's on a slope. There were lots of smeggy mattresses on the top floor just like in a caving club hut, and downstairs was a cooker and one small window which looked out into the forest. It could be unbelievably bright and sunny in the middle of the day outside, but in the kitchen area it was so dark you still could not see your hand in front of your face, or even if plate was clean or dirty without a headtorch. It was good quality life style. I slept downstairs to be away from all the people and because there was no light in the morning.
The next morning we went into town and Jean-François rented a wetsuit because he left his behind in Bordeaux accidentally. The sport of canyonning has become so popular that you can have an entire shop devoted to it. Outside there were a couple of local policemen in uniform packing some wetsuits into the back of their police car. François said that one policeman was killed in a canyon last year. They're not known for safety.
First canyon was just up the hill on the other side of the valley from home. We did some car shuffling to get one at the bottom and the rest of us with gear at the top. There were about thirty school kids in the carpark all in wetsuits getting a bit impatient while François yakked with their instructor in French for what seemed like hours. We got a bit impatient too, but because we are old lags who know a thing or two we did not even start to think about changing into anything until François, our leader, had.
All fourteen of us walked down to a flowing stream in the woods and pratted around for a bit. As I looked round I saw that I was responsible for an extraordinary amount of the neoprene that was being worn there. I had made hoods for a number of people, given my old caving wetsuit away to Gill and the two parts of my diving wetsuit was being worn by Mark and Wookey between them. Mark wore just the long johns and just a T-shirt underneath because he was too fat; he had the zip in the front undone most of the time so that his belly and cavernous belly hole could flop out in comfort.
We splashed down the stream, picking our way around fallen tree branches and slipping on moss covered stones. Soon we got to some swimmy bits and then there were a couple of excellent water chutes. One usually sent someone to climb down them first to feel around for the depth before anyone else followed. This was a common exercise. Once in a while in other canyons the deep enough spot in the pool would be found quite far away and you'd have to try and aim for it when you jumped.
Soon we passed the group of thirty or so children with one leader trying desperately to shovel them across obstacles a grown caver just steps over. Their progress went at the rate of novice caver dragging three tackle sacks on the end of a long rope.
We arrived at the pitch. Even ourselves, fourteen highly trained and experienced cavers took forever to rig this drop as a mere pull through. The other party caught us up and rigged their rope much faster than we could and let some of us go down it to get us out of their way.
From there on the canyon continued nicely until it entered a town and we clambered out. We found some shelter to change in because it had started to rain. Then we headed back to the barn to cook, eat and drink cheap French wine. The food groups divided themselves up in terms of quality. I was in a low quality one and there was lots of friction about when to start doing something each evening, who's washing up, why don't we leave it all and fester with this nice cheap bottle of wine instead. I cooked a good meal one day, and then a bad one the next, and then did nothing the day after that and people complained, we stepped on each others feet, forgot to buy bread while the other groups did. The bread got sorted out though. Jeremy went off and bought a horseman's load one morning and we all ate it communally from then on. This was a good move because it solves half the bickering and avoids the sad situation of one group going hungry while the other is hoarding up bread that eventually goes stale the next day.
I woke up early on the next morning (9 am) and tried to get everybody up and out of bed. I took tea and coffee up to them. Olly spotted me carrying his mug to somebody and demanded to have it. He didn't care if it was tea or coffee or piss that was in it, just as long as he possessed his mug to drink out of. Trying to get people up and off to the canyon as early as possible was stupid, I soon discovered, because canyons take in general three hours to do, so you might as well take your time.
Today we had Bidet Inferior on the itinerary. A good one, according to François. It ends down by the road where you park your cars and you have to do a hot slog up a forestry track in your wetsuit to get to the top. Unbelievably sweaty it was too. Writing this now as the Winter is drawing in it's hard to remember and describe how hot it was. The only heat I can understand now is when I spill a fresh cup of tea over my lap. That's burning. It's not the same as this real, all over intense continual heat which reddens your forehead, saturates your eyebrows and drips salt water into your eyes.
We got to the top and dunked ourselves into the water which was oh so cold and flowing very fast. There was an attempt to split into two parties to make the trips more manageable than fourteen useless bodies all piling down at once. François lead the first one, and we trolled down the river till we reached the first pitch.
François whinged about how important (sic) the water was today. The water was too high to go down the middle of the pitch so we had to belay the rope round a tree on the side. He abseiled down and encountered the full force of the water which he didn't like, so he prussiked back up on one jammer and one bare ankle. The area of rope burn on his skin became swollen during the week and festered so badly he had to go to the doctor and get some antibiotics. We climbed back out of the river onto the track feeling a bit disappointed.
All was not lost, François said. There was always Bidet Superior further up the hill. We had walked very far up the track to get here at the start of Bidet Inferior. It was the same distance again further up to get to the foot of Bidet Superior. It's the same stream, but it doesn't form a canyon in between. Jeremy obligingly ran down the hill, fetched his car and ferried us up to it. It was an even further slog to get from the bottom of Bidet Superior to the top. I cannot tell you the heat that we experienced to get up that path. We trudged up a steep trail in the woods and then forever across a vibrant green grassy field. The mountains shimmered. The neoprene melted and oozed down my legs. It dripped off my arms. My boots became buckets of tar.
The water in Bidet Superior was less than knee deep for most of the way. There was a bit of canyon in the middle which the first party decided to waste time on and bang a couple of bolts into because they were too scared to use the rusty pitons that were already there. The pitches and parties were spaced out just right so that by the time the first party got itself down one pitch, the second would arrive at the top and could lob their tacklesack over the edge.
Down at the bottom the rocks were broken up horrendously and formed the most fragmented and dangerous looking boulder stack I have ever seen. I may certainly have climbed through ones that were worse, but they were in the dark, so I didn't see them. All I could do when I was at the bottom was look back up and cringe as other people picked their way down and set off little avalanches and stood on things that shouldn't have taken their weight.
Back at the barn there was more messing up the kitchen and festering to be done, drinking wine and sprawling out under the stars to look at the satellites. That night the squirrels that infested the barn were in truly good form. They raided the kitchen and clung to the ceiling screeching at the tops of their voices like car alarms. I got up and tried to shut them up by poking them with the blunt end of a broomstick. One got among the shelves of food in the tall cupboard. It knocked a super large jar of coffee onto the floor where it broke and became instantly invisible in the dark.
Since there were hills in the Pyrenees, more so than in East Anglia, I had brought my hang-glider. The hang-gliding was done in the next valley over from our one, so I persuaded everybody to go to a canyon over there and drop me off on the top of a hill. The canyon was quite good, I was told. Meanwhile I waited for an hour at the top of the hill, then flew down through a cluster of circling vultures, and successfully landed in the small field at the bottom where I had to wait for about five more hours before being picked up again.
Canyonning, according to François and Jean-François, had become an unfeasibly popular sport in the past ten years. Given the amount of actual physical space that a canyon takes up - as opposed to a cave which uses hardly any - there are a phenomenal number of them. Canyonning first took off in a region just across the border in the Spanish Pyrenees, and all the French would go over there and clog up the canyons like in the rush hour. There really is a rush hour between ten and eleven in the morning when all the keen people woke up, had breakfast and walked up the hills at the same time. Entire towns like ski resorts had been formed on the trade of these tourists. Where we were we often met other parties, and all the pitch heads had pitons and dodgy bits of tat to hang your ropes off of. Canyons normally took under four hours to do, but there were some in the book that were more serious. Up to twenty hours perhaps. I did a canyon in Majorca called Sa Fosca once. It was one of the worst experiences in my life. It was cold, endless, we didn't know how long it was going to be or whether we'd find a pitch that our ropes were not long enough to reach. It became narrow, it was so deep you really could not see the sky at all, there was not the slightest chance of escape and we were all tired and scared the whole time.
These French canyons were nothing like that, being all open and sunny and beautiful to look at and be in. We did François' favourite canyon the next day. It was called Souissons. Even the walk up was good enough to justify it as it was along a path hollowed out in the side of a sheer cliff. Through the trees you could see a big open space and the sun on the cliffs on the other side.
The canyon itself was very pleasant and had lots of water slides - one of its main attractions. The pitches were pretty exciting being full of water and slippery on account of the moss. Our technique of two parties with leapfrogging bundles of rope worked perfectly. There were some pretty good jumps into pools that were deep enough, but some of them weren't and you had to check. According to François' estimates, waist deep is enough to land in if you have to fall three metres or so, but the rest of us were not impressed. Another tricky obstacle you had to cross on the way in these canyons were log jams. Dead trees had fallen into these rivers and been washed down into great wooden chokes during the floods. There were no twigs, branches or leaves left on them, just dark rotting wood the diameter of telephone poles. There was no way around them, you had to climb through them and they were as slippery as ice.
The canyon ended suddenly and entered a picnic area. One minute you were abseilling, jumping and swimming through this canyon, and the next you were walking ankle deep in a little stream where children were paddling with their mothers. We went back to the car.
Back in town we went and booked to go hydrospeeding on a later date. Hydrospeeding is a most excellent sport which Wookey and Jeremy did during a big tour across Europe many years ago, so they knew the idea was that you jump in a rapid river with a pair of fins on your feet and a float which you hold tightly and lean your chest on and paddle like mad while your legs get bashed apart by the rocks and you can't see anything for the spray. There were two hydrospeeding outfits in operation according to the local brochure, one which was dangerous and one which was tame. We phoned up the dangerous one - which was three times more expensive - and they were out of business because they nearly killed someone the year before. Damn. Sounded like they actually might have been good. We reluctantly booked all of us into the tame one.
After another late night the squirrels were out again chirruping and thieving. I found I could deal with them by making a water pistol out of a plastic lemonade bottle with a hole in the top and squirting it at them.
The last canyon was all did together was quite a small one which went along the road just this side of the Spanish border. Before going to it we drove over to the border and had lunch. It was evident where the taxes were cheaper: there was over a dozen large establishments selling exotic boozes, port and red wine out of the barrel, real salamis, bric-a-brac and garlic ropes on the Spanish side, and one small caravan selling soft tasteless cheeses on the French side. We put together a wonderful picnic.
The canyon was pretty. It was very sunny and the water was sometimes deep enough that you had to swim. There were a couple of very nice pitches, but there were also long stretches where the canyon turned into a little flowing stream with grassy banks and you felt a tad overdressed in your wetsuit, helmet, kneepads and SRT harness.
Hydrospeeding was to be done the following day at about five in the afternoon. Because it was going to be such an exhausting activity, everyone decided that they'd have to fester the entire day in order to have enough energy to do it. Andy and I were the only ones who thought otherwise. We wanted to go canyonning some more, but without the local knowledge of François as our guide and our inability to read French with confidence (it's a hell of a long walk up a hill to find you're in the wrong place), we were reduced to doing a canyon we had done before.
Or there was always Bidet Inferior. No don't do it, François said, the water levels will not have gone down. Two people is not enough. Nonsense, we said and cleared off the next morning before anyone had gotten up. When we walked up the water was probably a little higher than the last time. You've also got to worry about the flood pulse warnings that are in all the guide books when you read them. You don't get floods from the rain because the weather is so nice in the summer; you get them from the hydro-electric projects that are everywhere in case they'd like to open their gates and let all their water out. I wonder if they are competent enough to stick a sign out on the day they are going to do it.
The first pitch is always the hardest to do because once you've done it you have no choice about the rest. We chose a tree well away from the waterfall and had second thoughts about whether it was a good idea until a disorganised party of six French people arrived behind us.
This was the way to do it: just two people and no excess gear. We moved through the canyon fast, jumping a lot of the pitches without bothering to test them. We'd stand on the top of a two metre drop, say, and look to see if it was deep enough. You couldn't see through the white foaming water that was closest to you, you'd have to look farther out where it had settled and become transparent, and jump to that point if it looked alright. This felt kind of suicidal and we took turns for who jumped first at each pitch. There'd be a difficult one, and then an easy one, and then another difficult one and you'd sit there arguing about how it wasn't fair.
The big pitch in the canyon was only forty metres, but it felt like the biggest thing I had ever done because it was all lit up with sunlight and I was descending between these two great parallel walls which went a long way down with a raging pillar of white water just behind me.
Further down, wedged in a tight log choke, was a foetid sheep carcass whose smell was carried hundreds of metres down the streamway. Andy claimed that this is what made him violently ill for the following week when he and Wookey went to the Picos and joined the Oxford expedition, so he didn't have to do any of their horrible caves.
Further down there was a peculiar roofed section and then a pitch where I found a figure 8 in the water. This is the descending device of choice for most canyonners because it's light and easy to use as long as you don't drop it. As a result canyonners have discovered a different way to rig their 8s by threading the rope through their crab instead of round the back of the neck of the 8. I still can't see why they don't slide uncontrollably to the floor when they step off the ledge above a pitch.
We got out, went back to François' barn, had a crap in the woods, munched on some stale bread and went hydrospeeding. It was a bit of a disappointment. We had to try and stand on our floats to keep our interest up as we drifted slowly downstream. The idea is supposed to be that you have to cling on to your float for dear life and you die if you become separated from it.
The last day we were there was a very long one for me. It started with Andy and me trying to get François to take us to a difficult canyon. Becka joined our party making us three. Most of the rest went and did Souissons again. Meanwhile François took us over to a canyon whose name I can't remember. He couldn't come with us because the rope burn on his ankle was now exploding with puss and Jean-François had bandaged it up for him. This canyon was certainly very technical. It was very tiny with walls just high enough so you could not climb out of it. The water was clearly at flood level according to the positioning of the fixed pitons. You were close to it all the time and it was difficult to make yourself heard above its noise. You could not escape its force because you always had to stand in it. We had to rope ourselves up and jump from one eddy to the next to avoid getting washed away.
At the halfway point was the single escape route, and I got outvoted two to one. As a consolation they drove me over to the other valley and took me flying. I did badly till I crossed the town and glided in the turbulent air on the side of a wooded mountain feeling airsick for an hour till I was up among the spiny backed ridges at the top. Nothing much was going on there except for some paragliders and vultures. I came down for a nice stylish landing in a crop of eight foot high sweetcorn plants. I flattened 155 square feet of it (that's why my glider is called a Magic IV 155), unhooked myself and went to get some help. Out of an entire landing field full of people, only Andy and Becka, beered up as they were, came to my rescue. Bloody French. Someone else came down in the field after me. They all applauded for a bit, and then ignored him too.
Back at the barn we packed Andy's car to the gills, and then piled things high on the roofrack. Olly, Tess and myself squeezed into it at 6 o'clock and we drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and arrived eleven hours early for our ferry at Calais. We pestered the man at the gate and after six hours we got let through onto the boat.
I dropped Tess off at her house and went round to my house. The driveway was full, so I parked on the road and got sworn at by the neighbour for making his life a misery by parking my ugly car outside his window where he'd have to see it, and if our landlord knew of the kinds of things we get up to in his house he'd have us thrown out immediately, you have no right to be here, blah blah blah. All and all he's a total Tory.