Does the Sun Shine out of ARSIP?
CU 1976 Contents Page Next:
Smegmire Pot

Cambridge Underground 1976 pp 21-33


Bob Mathews, Julian Griffiths, Nick Reckert, Steve Perry

This expedition evolved from a totally impractical idea, which nonetheless gave a great deal of fun. Given that we could only manage two weeks of holidays, we decided to make the most ot our time. Out of the 14 days available two would be needed for driving out, two for driving back and, we reckoned, two for recuperating and generally getting around. That left us 8 days for caving, and during that time we intended to bottom three pots, each over 500m deep and each in a different country. Italy, France and Switzerland seemed the logical countries; and the logical pots seemed to be the Abisso Gaché (558m), the Scialet de Génieux (675m) and the Grotte du Chevrier (510m). So armed with a lot of rope, a borrowed car (A Rover 2000 no less!), a copy of the 'Atlas des Grands Gouffres' and ten rolls of bog paper, we set off for distant shores.

The drive down was uneventful. Most of the time we were listening to the Bayreuth Festival on the radio; one of Tristan's soloes lasted from Rouen to Dijon. Not that we were driving fast, it's just that the Germans like their Wagner a bit ponderous. Oh, and while we were cruising throuyh a magnificent karstic gorge, within welly chucking distance of the G**ftr* B*rg*r one of the intrepid band (who shall remain nameless, but who was obviously still under the spell of the Epos Chasm.... What?? He didn't do Epos?) suddenly woke up, peered through the window and exclaimed "hey it's Limestone ! Non-cavernous of course..." And so via the valley of Isère, to Italy. Almost halfway between Turin and the Med, we hoped to find the Gaché and soon after leaving Cuneo we were graunching up-hill towards the Marguareis Plateau.

Steve takes up the story:

The Cuneo Hysteresis

At Cuneo the road is metalled. Little else was visible to recommend this rain soaked parking area. The tortuous Military road into Marguareis followed; fantastic views of swirling cloud and sleet lined it's 20 Km course. The Rover took three hours of bottom grating grunt over this; three of us walked much of the way and sympathised with the Rover which developed a nasty rattle.

Halfway in we met two Italians leaving with a Renault. They chattered volubly with the cold, and we learnt that the Gaché would be wet but simple to men of our calibre; that it had 'gone' to 750m and that all bolts were in place. This was cheerful news as we had each expected someone else to bring the bolt-hangers.

While Nick and Julian drove ahead, Bob and Steve walked the final kilometres in better conditions, arriving at the Col de Seigneurs at 7.30. We finished the day sorting gear in the CAI mountain hut, previously inhabited by only one couple who now looked rather frustrated. The gear was split into six packs of about 35 Kg.

Cloud covered our 8 am departure for the Piaggia Bella hut with the four caving packs. Bob and Nick would return later for the food packs whilst the others rigged into the cave. There is a contoured path, however we were pointed off down the 'directissimma' route and reached the hut at 1O.3o am. The altitude was 2200m. We all rested a lot during the walk.

Bob's delightful bivvi tent (A horizontal one seater loo) was pitched before we set off for the direction of the Gaché as depicted on Nick's map. We searched the 2500m contour round the north side of the Cima Pian Ballaur in poor visibility and heavy sleet. This was unpleasantly close to uncomfortable and caused concern at the thought of the after-fall to camp. During the mid-afternoon Nick remembered the vital clue ! His description placed the Gaché to the south of the Cima Pian Ballaur. So being quick that way, we moved round to a gulley leading to a massive snow plug. This did not go and in failing daylight we made a quick scout round. The area felt right for a cave, but we were forced back to the ridge and then the Piaggia Bella doline for the night. The return routefinding was saved when Steve recognised a boulder he had squatted behind earlier in the day.

The plot, and the cloud, thickened between 5 and 7 pm while we discussed the logistics of completing the trip without overshooting our three day schedule. Finally Julian and Steve kitted up for the Piaggia Bella itself whilst Bob and Nick brewed them lentil soup. Several hundred metres of rope and assorted tackle were shouldered, and the heroes prepared to tackle the first 7 pitches.

By now the doline was completely water covered and the twenty foot diameter entrance hole was a spectacular and noisy waterfall. Inside, with carbides relit, we were helped through the boulder choke by a considerable force of water. At -150m we put the tackle to one side before prospecting further. Route finding was awkward, a strenuous line was taken to a chamber at -250m where we split up, rejoining atter twenty minutes ("Where were you, you pillock?") we chose to exit. The retreat was unimpressive. Neither of us remember feeling so grim after so short a time underground. We recovered the tackle and pressed on into a continued rise in water level. Several low airspace moments and several losses of the tackle bags in the waterfalls followed. The bags wore badly and both were reduced from pristine new to badly split. We thus lost nearly all our pitons and several krabs.

We exited at 10.30 to find heavy thunderstorms had filled the doline to 6" of water. Five minutes and one rest later and we had covered the 150' between cave and hut to find a brew on. Bob and Nick had found an Italian Monopoly set. Nick is no better with Italian toy money than with his own English toy money. More lentils.

The next morning was clear enough to find the contoured path out, we took it and were able to move easily. We were much fitter for the altitude after only one day. Looking back during our retreat, the sun came out to show us the Gaché, just above the snow plug. We must have been within a hundred feet betore leaving it.

At the CAI hut, the views were magnificent; all that the Marguareis is famous for. We did not stop at the CAI hut but ferried our bodies and goods down the military road in two shuttles, during the second of which Steve brewed up a heavy stodge for dinner just above Cuneo.

We left an hour later in heavy falling cloud.

In hindsight, the trip might well have been more successful. We had expected foul weather and heavy exercise, but we were surprised by the effect of altitude immediately after our long drive. Perhaps a schedule allowing one day to recuperate would have been the answer. Our later fortune convinced us that once in the cave itself we would have fared better. The real problem for such a lightening visit was the long walk in. Had we known that the Abisso Eraldo Sarracco entrance is within a spit of the Gaché, which was mistakenly chosen for ease of caving rather than for ease of access.

So, having cocked up the first of our three pots, we headed for France. Again the voyage was remarkable for only two incidents, both of them involving bottles of wine. The hot walk from the hut to the Col had given us raging thirsts so we stopped off at a café to mix a sacrilegious but very refreshing concoction of red wine and fizzy lemonade. A bottle of each was brought to our table, and thirty seconds later we had paid the astonished innkeeper and left. Ten minutes later we were thirsty once more so a bottle of the local plonk was bought from a tiny shop and the cork was pulled out just as we were driving through the Italian customs post. By the time we had reached the French side of the frontier, the bottle was dead and we were feeling a lot happier. Incidentally that giggle-juice was the best we had during the entire expedition. Much spectacular scenery followed and suddenly we were in Grenoble - beautifully situated but drab as ever. Here is Nick's account of our next (or first !) trip.


Situation : IGN 1:25000 map Grenoble
866.3 x 342.5 Alt. 1400m

Access: West from Grenoble to St. Engrève, north to the Col de la Charmette where there is a touring club de France chalet. The obvious forestry track (Landroverable, but you might as well walk) becomes very steep, then flattens. Opposite an abandoned mine tunnel about 500m from the chalet is a fairly distinct footpath into the Foret de Génieux. The track soon bears left over a miniature col and drops round to the right. The pot is among undergrowth 10m to the left of the track; we found it to be a 20 minute walk from our campsite behind the chalet and a 15 minute stumble back.

We had no very good reason for doing this pot (to the best ot our knowledge, no other British team has ever been in the immediate area) but from the Atlas it sounded to be deep and enjoyable. At any rate the FFS delegate for the region, Pierre Rias, wrote to me that it was "Vachement chouette, avec des étroitures au fond, pour les Anglais". (great fun with squeezes at the bottom for the English cavers). How were we to know that he had never been to the bottom ??

Next I wrote to a friend that I had not seen for several years, Jean-Claude Dobrilla. Besides being an extremely competent caver, he had two distinct advantages: he lived in Proveyzieux, just a few minutes drive from the Col de Charmette; and he was the discoverer and one of the original explorers of the pot. He confirmed that it was fine down to about -400m, at which depth it became rather evil and thrutchy. It was, he wrote, an easily accessible pot but a demanding one.

On reaching Proveyzieux we dropped in on Jean-Claude's girl friend, Martine (JC himself was diving sumps in Libya) to scrounge some bolt hangers to replace those lost in the Piaggia Bella. Having cleaned out the entire stock, we drove up to the Col de Charmette and camped behind the TCF chalet. The following morning we found the pot with little difficulty and Bob and I descended (having missed out on the P-B fiasco we felt we ought to do a token trip !). The entrance pitch of 10m incidentally is not shown on any survey I have seen and we had to rig it with bits of string. A loose slope led to a hole through boulders, which was the take off for the 17m second pitch. This landed in a rift, and another scree slope led to the top of the third pitch (55m). Like virtually every other pitch in the cave, this was very competently bolted and we merely had to screw our hangers onto the rock anchors. In general we rigged a traverse line out to a bolt about 2m from the pitch head for a free hang but if we had been courageous we could have traversed out further still to, a rock anchor glistening enticingly 5 or 6 metres out ! This third pitch was a beauty, huge and black, but our new rope was running a little too fast and before I could stop myself I was standing knee deep in icy water wishing that my new wetsuit had arrived in time for the expedition. I splashed out of the lake and tied the rope to a boulder to give Bob a dry landing and then we moved on.

An awkward little grovel formed the take off for the next pitch of 9m, on which the rope swung uncomfortably. Two drops of 32m and 14m followed in quick succession, and suddenly we were in the Grande Méandre. While not in itself very difficult, this traverse was a bit tactical for two cavers carrying bolts, slings, spare lights, food & 400m of rope ! That must be enough to do every single cave in Mendip though no doubt Steve will deny it. Fortunately there were two little chambers at convenient intervals where we could rest between ferrying, but otherwise the Méandre resembled the narrower parts of the old upper section of Quaking Pot.

When we reached a rock wall with no less than four bolts hammered into it we imagined it must be a pitch head - well, who wouldn't ? - and proceeded to rig it as the 70m drop we were expecting. 70m later ... rope stops, pitch doesn't. We concluded that the first twenty metres must have been free-climbable, so we stopped on one of the numerous ledges and rigged a spare rope to the bottom. A 6m pitch followed very shortly, but by this time our ropes and our brains were in a state of confusion and we aborted, reaching the cool forest after a 10 hour trip.

Génieux elevation, 13k png

You'll be wanting to know what happened underground the next day - well I can't tell you. The disadvantage of a four man expedition is that you've got to have a call-out party, so we were caving as pairs. While Julian and Steve continued rigging in, Bob and I hitched to Ste. Engrève where we bought far too much garlic and drank far too much wine. Hitching back was no problem at all

'Can you give us a lift to the Col ?'
'Je regrette, but I'm not going that far. Are you Spéléos ?'
'Well, perhaps I can take you a bit further then. Do you know Monsieur Dobrilla ?'
'Yes we do.'
'Eh bien, I might as well go to the Col. It's really not too far.'

It's very nice to find a part of the world where cavers are looked upon as the local super-heroes and treated so courteousely. Steve and Julian returned after a twelve hour trip not very sure where they had got to.

Bob and I descended again the following day, finding that the others had indeed de-rigged the free-climb and rigged the 70 with the appropriate rope with the result that our tackle was back to par. Beyond our previous terminus was a fine 45m pitch, followed by yet another stretch of rift passage, intersected by two pitches of 5m and 8m. Again there were no great problems, but parts of the rift did resemble the Grande Méandre. A quick succession of drops, 30m, 23m, 12m, 17in & 5m (how glibly one dismisses a mere 250 feet in the Alps !) brought us below the magic figure of of 400m and yes, things were getting tighter. The 'étroitures' of the survey proved to be an awkward crawling traverse (rather like Anemolite crawl in Grange Rigg) between black stals. Then came a nine metre pitch and confusion.

Even on reflection we can't quite work out our progress relative to the survey. No doubt the extreme depth was causing our grey cells, acclimatised to the thin alpine air, to suffer from oxygen poisoning. Or perhaps we were hung over. At any rate the passage had suddenly changed course and was now heading diagonally across the strike, which meant tnat there were many down dip dead ends to be investigated: and at the same time we had hit a fault, which caused a few level finding headaches. Continuing down the obliquely descending roof-bedding-plane with our feet dangling in the rift, we eventually reached solid ground at a pitch head. But although there was a rock anchor there was no tackle. How on earth had we overshot Julian and Steve's terminus ? Turning back, we dropped to a lower level and thrutcned down the rift until we found the answer in the form of a rope rigged down a horribly tight slot with - at the bottom - a dead end and a pile of tackle. Bastards. It took us a very weary half hour to retrieve the gear and return to the pitch head. As may be imagined, we were a bit displeased when we discovered that all Jean-Claude's bolt hangers had been used up ... Catastrophe ! There had been few natural belays so far, so it suddenly looked as if we weren't going to bottom the Génieux at all. Bob swore by the coprolites of St. Norbert, a fearsome oath indeed, that we would carry on, and lo ! We noticed a rock flake.

A 12m drop to a ledge was followed immediately by the next short pitch, so we were saved the trouble of finding another belay point. In fact we rigged this pitch very short as it was possible to step off half way down and traverse diagonally down to the water. The only reason that description tallies with survey is that I have the benefit of hindsight. At the time though, we were puzzled as neither the original axonometric sketch, nor Courbon's interpretation of it seemed to bear any relation to the pot as we were experiencing it. Anyway we were now at the foot of the 24m 19th pitch with a sizeable canyon ahead of us. As we traversed along in the roof, all my prusiking gear went clattering down into the depths of the fissure. At first I was inclined to let the expedition insurance take care of the loss, but then it occurred to me that no policy was going to let me prusik back up 500m on Bob's ropewalkers, which I had never tried out on the surface, let alone underground. Another half hour was wasted while I inverted myself in the very narrowest part of the rift and eventually managed to get a finger tip on to a junar. The rest of the gear soon followed and we were a going concern once more. We were also a pretty pissed off concern as we had no idea where we were and had no reason to suppose that we could get much further. Still we continued down the roof of the steeply dipping rift until a bedding plane, angled at about 50°, opened up on the left.

A short excursion along this moon-milk lined passage, which we realised must be the Savonette, brought us to a dead end. Our lights were in need of attention so we returned to the puddle at the base of the previous pitch in order to refill. We had been getting less and less gruntled and were now extremely disgruntled, having lost a lot of time. Off we went again, but this time, we were resigned to not reaching the bottom of the pot so we abandoned our two remaining ropes. Ignoring the Savonette, we dropped down into the rift, following a complex zig-zagging vertical route wherever the fissure enlarged to body size. By the time we had reached the floor we were more impressed than ever by the discoverers, the Spéléo-Club de la Tronche: the pot was genuinely tiqht ! Even if it had consisted of just this particular rift, the Méandre des Trois Masos, it would have merited a Yorkshire grade V. At a depth of almost 600m, the experience was unnerving. The fissure continued horizontally with a dribble of water in the bottom, somewhat like the passage below Scimitar Aven in Growling hole, and at last, through a loose thrutch, I spotted the head of the last pitch. We had beaten the crux, but nonetheless it was annoying to be stopped by the lack of a mere two bolt hangers. Given a bit more time we could have bought bolts in Grenoble and bottomed the Génieux, but we were in a hurry to reach Switzerland. So, reluctantly, we turned back, derigging part way out. We were shocked, nay, disgusted on returning to the campsite to find no food waiting: the reason was simply that Messrs Perry and Griffiths were paralytic drunk. However we booted them mercilessly out of their swinish sleep and insisted on being fed. They made a great show of indignation and protested that they were sober, but the effect was spoilt by the fact that Steve kept falling over his feet and Julian kept talking VERY LOUD and repeating everythinq and repeating everything.

Julian, Bob and Steve finished de-rigging the following day, while I lay and groaned under the effect of the dreaded lurgy. However Reckert's miracle stiffeners came to the aid and at 9 pm I descended with a couple of French cavers (Philippe and Christian, to whom many thanks) just in time to help with the last four pitches. There's timing for you.

It was just as well that we had finished because the next day, several hundred fancily dressed chamois-hunters turned up. We heard later from one of the game-wardens whom we had got to know, that this bunch of incompetents had stonked around the woods for hours shooting the trees to bits and generally making so much noise that the chamois had run rings round them; eventually they had come across a single chamois standing on a rock, giggling hysterically at their antics and so helpless with laughter that it was unaware of their presence. Two hundred rifles were raised to two hundred shoulders to shoot the creature to bits, but before the sporting gents could fire, the chamois uttered a final guffaw, before it slithered uncontrollably off its rock and fell down a pothole, never to be seen again. We did not offer our services as we had taken quite a dislike to the hunters.

Although naturally rather peeved with not having seen the sump, we were still quite pleased to have virtually bottomed the Génieux, and couldn't understand how it was that this unusual pot appeared to be a popular stomping ground for French spéléos who are not generally fond of things narrow. However, we were enlightened when, after cleaning our gear, we went down to Proveyzieux for dinner with Alain Figuier and his wife. Half the village was there and they were almost entirely members of the Spéléo-Club de la Tronche. Several, including Jean-Claude, had returned only hours previously from Libya and regaled us with tales of decompression problems in kilometre long sumps. Wine was drunk. Songs were sung. Canard aux Raisins was followed by wine, which was followed by Poulet Basquaise and more wine. The songs grew bawdier. Gratin Dauphinois kept arriving as fast as we ate. An arse-baring contest was held with Steve coming a poor second place behind Geneviève. Still more wine, more songs, chocolate mousse, a trip along the spirits rack, much glass waving and health-drinking and falling about, followed by a hair raising drive back to the Col. I love the French ! But the following morning we distictly remember the following conversation:

'Do many people go down to the sump ?'

Shocked silence... Then:

'Didn't you know ? Nobody's been down anywhere near the bottom since it was discovered ! It's the hardest pot around here. Listen, there were four expeditions to it last year and none of them got below 400m. There was one group from Belgium who spent a week getting to the bottom of the 55m pitch inside the entrance ! Even the discoverers - Dobrilla, Marbach and Ariotte - have only been to the sump just once. We only recommended it to you as a joke to see how far you'd get!'

AAAAARRGGHHH!!! Still, they were probably right in assuming that we'd never have done it if we'd known what to expect. So there it is, if anyone else wants a try. It's a good tough pot, and nobody has yet looked up the huge inlet at the bottom. It's not the most friendly of pots, but it's very rewarding. A four-man team, with it's greater carrying capacity, could do it in three days, possibly in two. It's got little potential, I'd imagine, but it would be worthwhile it only for the welcome at Proveyzieux.

After that episode we headed north for Switzerland, dropping in on Alain Marbach in Grenoble to pick up some gear. Conversation turned to the recent accident at the bottom of the Berger, and he remarked casually: "Ah. Yes, I had to go down there yesterday to get one of the bodies out. But it was my wedding anniversary and I'd promised to take my wife out to dinner, so I came out after a couple of hours." How blasé is it possible to get about the World's second deepest (at the time) pot ?

Going into Switzerland is like entering a room where a baked-bean party is being held - you hold your breath and leave as soon as possible. We intended to storm the Gouffre du Chevrier and get out before our pockets were sucked dry. One glass of wine each and a campsite ticket left us almost broke, and what was left was soon spent on erdnussli, schoggimilch and lagerbier hell - not much of a diet. Our opinion of the Swiss was not improved when we discovered a tape-recorder blaring low-fi yodels ad infinitum through tannoy speakers at the top of a mountain. What have they done to deserve a country like that? We decided we'd better get underground before we got arrested for vagrancy. Julian describes the trip:

The French had assured us that the trip would take all of 15 hrs, so on ariving at Leysin late in the afternoon we decided merely to locate the entrance with a view to descending early the next morning. However, 'early' turned to 'late' after we'd consumed a couple of bottles of wine, and it was not until after midday that Nick, Bob and I prepared to descend. Steve had been groaning and clutching his bowels, having developed an immunity to miracle stiffeners, which he swallowed by the handful, so we left him to set up camp and headed for the cave.

An easy walk of 500m brought us to the entrance, which is situated in the left wing of the Cirque de Bryon, under a low cliff. Inside the triangular opening a pleasant section of bouldery walking-size passage gave onto the first pitch of 60m. We had hoped to use a 77m rope on the pitch, but this proved rather optimistic as it turned out to be a series of steeply sloping drops with very large rubble-strewn platforms in between. Eventually a short length of rope was put on the first drop of 13m, the second of 5m was free-climbed and the big rope was used on the next two drops ot about 25m each. Oh, for a good old fashioned ladder!

At the bottom a couple of hundred feet of varied stream passage brought us out into the main stream, which was quite sizeable by continental standards. The water dropped very steeply down the bedding and was punctuated by two drops: the first was a 10m pitch, and the second, the Grande Cascade, was about 80m deep in a series of free climbs. The trick was to slide down in a 45° bedding-plane a few metres away from the waterfalls - highly spectacular ! Below this however the cave levelled out temporarily before closing down to a very wet, immature and steeply inclined passage.

After a near-duck - where there was an unsuccessful mutiny by the wetsuitless Nick - it was no surprise to find the passage ending in a sump. This we visited twice for no better reason than that we couldn't find the crossover into the new series. A third visit seemed imminent until B-M rendered the sump intolerable with a bad attack of dysentry. Pooling our somewhat rudimentary knowledge of cave development, we had already decided that the crossover must lead off at the point where the streamway closed down. Twice already we had missed it, but a further 15 minutes of hunting brought complete vindication of our theories in the form of a hole directly above our heads. Ah well!

Soon we were in an almost identical, steeply inclined passage, with a much smaller stream in it. The water sank in a pile of boulders on the right presumably to join the main water beyond the sump, and the passage continued much as before. A series of climbs brought us to the head of a 24m pitch, another piece of jagged nastiness. The 4m drop beyond was rigged with bits of sling and tape, although, as we discovered on the ascent, it was free-climbable. At this point the character of the passage changed considerably as it grew larger and cut sharply across the strike. 100m further on though, we were again forced down the bedding through a couple of large chambers connected by short, sandy crawls. The final chamber was entered by a hairy chimney climb down from the roof, and was distinguished mainly by the amount of rubbish left there by previous 'expeditions': hardly necessary one would have thought in view of the trivial nature of the hole.

Chevrier survey, 12k png

The return trip was accomplished with impeccable efficiency, bar one route finding disaster in the Salle du Chaos, just below the Grande Cascade, and we emerged into a beautiful starlit night after a seven hour trip. Nick let rip with an irrintzina which rebounded round the Cirque, and we stormed off to the campsite in search of wine. There can't be many easier 500m pots in Europe.

One thought which occurred to us as we packed up to leave, was that the Chevrier would be an ideal trip for an expedition bound for Eastern Europe for a spot of pot bashing. It should be possible, tbeoretically to camp in the French Jura one night, bottom the pot the following day in 4 hours and be in Italy by evening ! Our return journey was fairly urcomplicated. We got drunk in Ornans for old times sake (but failed to get marched off to the clink) then drove across France to the strains of the third act of 'Tristan', and had a miserable night in Calais where our tents were blown down, and we all contracted Tunisiangarlicburgeritis (except Steve who was still suffering in best Hollywood-stoic style from speleophobic trots). The following morning, we met the UBSS expedition, returning from their Turkish Bridge-Playing expedition, resplendent in their new fur coats (which still dont seem to have taken over from duvets !) and crossed the channel with them to Folkestone, where we easily beat them in a Double-egg-chips-sausages-and-beans contest by three second helpings to one.

Granted that the expedition was a little over ambitious although we were assured that we could have done the Gaché in 12 hours: but the mad rush to get from A to B and from B to C ensured that we saw a lot of new country, met a lot of new faces and had great fun in the process. A very successful fortnight.

Does the Sun Shine out of ARSIP?
CU 1976 Contents Page Next:
Smegmire Pot