by Nick Reckert
Excuse this background; it is personal, but germane, as it partly explains the how-and-why of CUCC's activities in the Pyrenees.
In 1970, with half a year to kill before going up to Cambridge, I taught English in France. I had asked for a posting to the Alps, or the Pyrenees, or anywhere with some limestone, so my attachment to a school in the flat north came as a disappointment. Still ... I soon discovered the Spéléo Club de Rouen and, to my amazement, found that they were one of only a few clubs in France authorised to explore the Gouffre de la Pierre St. Martin, at that time the deepest cave in the world, with a depth of 1,171m. (I say 'authorised' - French caving is famously bureaucratic.)
Most weekends were spent training for the Easter meet at the Pierre; training meant exploring the huge Roman chalk-mines just outside Rouen, and learning SRT on a railway viaduct. My caving had been limited to Mendip, and my abseiling to the raw-crotch technique on twenty-foot drops in the Avon Gorge, so you can understand how I felt when I first abbed off a free-hanging 40m drop on a single rope. I felt ready for anything by the time we drove south to the Pyrenees.
Six-hour trips down Swildon's weren't the best preparation for that meet, which started with a three-day long trip down Arphidia, a wet system 480m deep, next door to the Pierre (it probably isn't normally wet, but there was a lot of snowmelt). It was a knackering and exhilarating experience. That summer I returned for the SCR's month-long camp at the Pierre, when I took part in a three-day upstream exploration and survey of the PSM itself and did the 850-metre deep PSM through-trip from the Tête Sauvage to the Tunnel EDF. I also took part in the exploration of a number of new caves, including the Gouffre Lonné-Peyret, a major stream-system which ran parallel to the Pierre, and which bottomed out at 717m (yet another three-day trip).
So it was a repellently smug youth who appeared at the Societies' Fair in Cambridge a few months later to join the University Caving Club and, when asked what experience he had, replied "Mendip and the Pierre St. Martin. You do use single-rope techniques, don't you?" On reflection, I'm amazed I was allowed in. (And no, CUCC did not at that time use SRT; I hadn't realised that the term and the practice were then unknown in Britain.)
the Year of the Mass Arrest and Jail Break, the Year of Goggle-Freak, the Year of the Austin Gypsy and the Morris Oxford, the Year of Excruciatingly Horrible Flared Jeans and Tie-Dyed Tee Shirts...
Participants: Jont Leach, Nick Reckert
CUCC's 1971 expedition began in the Jura in the East of France (a lovely place, with fine food and wine, enormous resurgences and some spectacular caves in fine, solid rock - highly recommended). On the 6th of August, Jont Leach and I (accompanied for part of the way by Nigel Tasker and his worm) set off in his parents' Morris Oxford towards the Pyrenees (by way of several caves in the Alps).
Once in the Pyrenees, we fell in with some ULSA cavers and went with them a short way down Arphidia. Our aim was to see if we could find a link to the Salle de la Verna in the Pierre. We didn't succeed (as you will realise, because if we had we would have added another 150m to the world depth record). Most of the rest of our time was spent footling around Arrette la Pierre St. Martin where, for God only knows what misguided reason, we picked the most unpromising area and the tiniest holes and we dug... I seem to have written screeds and screeds in my log-book about following draughts down 10cm rifts. We must have been mad. Eventually, having got that out of our systems, we headed off into the bracas (translation: completely impenetrable undergrowth, full of gigantic chasms) and discovered a 100m deep pitch, which we named CUCC3 (we never published the sections of CUCC1 and CUCC2 because they were too embarrassing). The weather over the next few days was so awful that we didn't go back, but helped some French cavers with one of their discoveries, down to a depth of 210m.
Travel Notes for Younger Persons: Jont returned to the UK, and I hitched on down to Lisbon and then back to the UK. Our staple diet in the Pyrenees had been pain d'épice (which is a bit like a loofah soaked in after-shave), ratatouille, corncobs nicked from the fields, contraband Spanish anisette and brandy, and Algerian wine. Total cost for one month of caving, £40. (Total cost to Jont's parents of repairing the poor Leachmobile: incalculable.)
the Year of Poulidor, Passages You Could Fly Zeppelins Down, and Guy Padlocked Into His Tent while Bursting for a Pee.
Participants: Martin Evans, Evan France, Julian Griffiths, Mark Leslie, Bob Mathews, Andy Nichols, Nick Reckert, Guy Talbot, William Taylor, Anne Winstanley
A larger team returned to the Pyrenees, clearly impressed by Jont's and my lies. The first few days were given over to a warm-up trip down the Puits d'Anglas, in the Massif de Ger, somewhat to the east of the Pierre. Discovered by the Liverpool University PC several years beforehand, and bottomed only once (-320m), this cave had quite a fearsome reputation as a genuinely tight Yorkshire-style pot. What was more, it was claimed to be part of the deepest proved hydrological system in the world. Ideal! When we arrived on the plateau, we found it hard to believe that the area had not been explored earlier, for all the surface water sank almost immediately at a very obvious granite/limestone boundary.
As we were to find, the reputation of the Puits d'Anglas as a sporting pot was well deserved. The system is basically a single rift, formed in fine, clean rock (with very sharp hand-holds), and with some spectacular exposure, including a wonderful and flattering traverse over a 120m pitch. This rift character is responsible both for the terrific sense of purpose of the pot - as the roof, barely in sight, plunges steeply downwards - and for its awkwardness - because spotting the appropriate level at which to traverse is difficult. Looking back at my log I keep coming across comparisons to Yorkshire pots (Washfold and Strans Gill in particular).
On our third day we were near the bottom, just past a tight stretch called the Mousehole, of which LUPC had written that "the French took down two dozen sticks of gelignite with which to blast out the Mousehole in the event of an accident beyond it", when William slashed his hand wide open on a rock flake. Oh dear... Getting William out was a lengthy process, but he was soon stitched up in the local hospital.
Then we moved to the PSM area, to try to relocate CUCC3. We failed. Does that sound feeble? Ah, you clearly don't understand about bracas (vid. sup.). While searching, Bob, Julian and Mark found CUCC4 and CUCC5 instead, both about 50m deep.
Just as we were starting to feel at a loose end, one of the cavers at the Pierre asked us to survey a recently extended system called the Grotte de Betçula (Betzulako Harpia, in Basque), some 10 km further west. This loose, generally horizontal and uninspiring cave had a number of unusual features: it had been used as a bivouac for merchants crossing the Pyrenees millennia beforehand, and indeed a piece of classical Greek pottery had been found in it; and earlier still - one hopes - it had been used by Ursus Spelaeus, the Cave Bear. It was an extraordinary experience to come across "bear nests", hollowed out by them in the mud deep inside the cave (and we never did find out how they got through the squeeze and down the 12m pitch...)
And that's all I can remember, except that I believe that several of us took part in an overnight filming trip in the Pierre with Syd Perou and ULSA.
Participants: Steve Elwell-Sutton, Martin Evans, Evan France, Julian Griffiths, Dave Harrison, Jont Leach, Rod and Carole Leach, Andy Nichols, Rob Shackleton, Guy Talbot, William Taylor, Nick Reckert, Anne Winstanley, Jenny?, Pete?
This year's expedition divided its time between the Betçula area and the PSM. Julian and I, deciding that Betçula was becoming too loose and unpleasant, looked at the map, identified a place where there should have been a cave, and drove there. Within a quarter of an hour we were in new territory. If only it were always that easy... On the other hand, Baratchegagnako Harpia, as we christened it, was soon found to be even looser than Betçula. As Andy subsequently wrote, "on most of the climbs, all the obvious holds fell off, together with the first person to use them". This unpleasant cave was fortunately blocked at a depth of about 125m.
In Betçula itself, the previous year's surveying was continued; this led to the discovery of significant extensions, some of them very well decorated, and all of them - including the back door which had presumably been used by the Cave Bears - extremely loose. 4km of passage were drawn up. The potential depth of the system was estimated at 600m, and we were glad to leave it to someone else!
In the PSM area, we returned to hunt for the now mythical CUCC3, and for ways into the much-postulated Harrigoyena system, predicted to run parallel to the Pierre and to have a potential depth of over 1000m. CUCC5 was descended by Rob and Julian, who found it to be only 30m deep after all; CUCC6 (depth 40m) was found and explored with some trepidation (tons of ice-stalactites hanging over the pitch...). On the final day of hunting, CUCC3 was finally rediscovered. As Rob subsequently wrote, "In the last two years CUCC parties looking for CUCC3 must have walked within 30 yards of it no less than a couple of dozen times, and yet the entrance is an Alum-like rift, 80' long and 30' wide!" Four days were then spent exploring this long-lost pot, which went to a depth of about 220m in just three pitches, all in a single shaft and with numerous perched snow-drifts. Unfortunately the draught which was so perceptible on the surface had disappeared by the time the final choke was reached.
We fell in with the Spéléo Club des Deux Sèvres, who had been pushing a pot elegantly called B102/2. When we learnt that it drafted strongly and that it ended at a "too tight" rift, we asked if we could have a go. Five squeezes and a week later we had pushed the pot to -220m, and it was still draughting...
Music of the expedition: Jean-Louis' arse-wiping song. Meal of the expedition: chips and pastis. I can't remember anything else about it...
Participants: Vic Brown, Dave Fox, Dave Harrison, Jont Leach, Rod and Carole Leach, Andy Nichols, Guy Talbot
With Bob Mathews, Steve Perry and Julian Griffiths, I was on an alternative expedition, whose aim was simply to bottom three 500m+ pots in three different countries within one week. (We came close). So this account is hearsay.
The expedition started with a brief foray into Arphidia, but the main achievement was a descent of the Trou d'Audiette (Odita Letzia). This impressive shaft is in the thick forest above the Kakouetta Gorges, and although it had apparently been visited by both Martel and Casteret it had failed to go. The team descended two 30m pitches and a 100m pitch to reach a large boulder-pile, which effectively blocked any progress in one direction (a shame, as it seems likely that the boulder-pile was actually caused by Martel lobbing down huge boulders). In the other direction, the cave chokes. Prospects for extension are minimal.
Vic, Dave and Andy subsequently teamed up with members of the BEC and the Eldon to do a Tête Sauvage-EDF Tunnel through-trip in the Pierre itself, taking just nine and a half hours.
And that was the end of CUCC's involvement with the Pyrenees and the Pierre. As an anonymous writer in Cambridge Underground 1976 records, "Our expeditions have been small, informal affairs. We have not broken any records (except for winning the valley tug-of-war three years in a row), nor have we done anything very spectacular"; but as the same writer concludes, a lot of fun was had, and there was always the potential to find some very major stuff. I hope that someone, some day, will decide that CUCC has had enough of Austria, and decide to try somewhere else. How about the Pyrenees, then?