Cambridge Underground 1982 pp 47-48


It was all very well in theory, a three-week limestone holiday to the French Vercors in August as key members of Hull University's expedition to the Scialet de Combe de Fer. Simon Farrow and I nodded approvingly as Iain Crossley put us forward to HUSS in the New Inn as experienced veterans of innumerable expeditions. And so we were able to spot a good meal at a mile and a nasty cave from ten.

In return HUSS assured us that Combe de Fer wasn't, despite being deep and bristling with pitches. It had been surveyed, scrappily, and HUSS planned to resurvey it all, push all the extremities and hack away at the 200m drop to the resurgence at Goule Blanche. Four day underground camps, prepacked man/cave/day food units, the lot.

"No problem", declared Iain, examining his third beer from under his sunhat, as we sat outside the café on our way up to the campsite for the first time. "We'll just mosey down this pot, whip through the surveying, poke about a bit, then back to the food and drink. No idea about Continental caving, these people".

Then we hit the campsite. First disaster - after an hour's search, Iain and I could find no hot showers. Or cold showers. Or water supply. Or any facilities at all. Good God, here's a caver washing mud out of his hair in a bucket! Simon alone was unperturbed. For three weeks he stoically caved in his pyjamas; or slept in his playing-out clothes; or strolled around town in his caving grots. Just a matter of semantics, clothes sense.

Second disaster - behind the caver with his head in the bucket lurked the Food and Operations Tent. Ah, la vie gastronomique! Exotic salads, piquant sauces, rampant cheeses, subtle wines.... What the hell's this? Boxes of bran, nuts, seven varieties of lentils, baked beans, more baked beans, tins of divers soya forgeries and even a jar of vegetarian Bovril. In the corner an open bottle of Algerian Chateau Chunder sulked rancidly. The whole club was vegetarian! I began to whimper.

The worst disaster was the cave. Late the next day - it was an hour's walk to the Combe de Fer entrance - we found the HUSS vanguard party struggling back up the 300m rubble slope. They croaked a desperate tale of muddy pitches, muddy rebelays, long tight muddy rifts, loose muddy boulders and, further down, a flood-liable and muddy streamway. We were appalled. Day two and two of us decided it would be pushing the boat out too far to have anything more to do with it. Simon did risk three trips but wished he hadn't.

On day three the rest of HUSS arrived in the Grunge Bus, four days after setting off. This detuned abomination had once been a bread van, which CUMC its then owners had taken to Afghanistan two engines ago. The detune was a challenge to Iain on the rare occasions he managed to collar the keys: he was frequently admonished by the notorious X for pushing it over 30 mph.

(X was clearly The Leader. A self-made man, I concluded: no-one who knew what they were about could have got so many parts in the wrong place. And a natural leader - an NPC caver on holiday bumped into a HUSS member he knew and asked innocently "Is he with you, too?", seeing X for the first time. "No", corrected X, puffing out what could have been his chest, "He's with ME!" Later that evening, after a hearty meal out, Simon quizzed that worthy on Becoming a Leader. Well, Simon swayed about while two bottles of wine conducted the interview. Wine in such a container loses all subtlety and X became so stumped for an answer that he retired to his tent to think of one. For a whole day. After a fortnight of us he could be made to crawl away from the circle of cheery laughter round the night bonfire and lie in the grass, sobbing.)

So instead of Combe de Fer we occupied ourselves in the many excellent tourist caves up and down the 500m deep limestone gorge of the Bourne. The Grotte de Gournier, a spectacular 100m swim across a deep blue entrance lake to a climb up a 10m stal dome. Then 1.5km of dry stomping, followed by an OFD type streamway which we had time for only a little of. The Bournillon, reputedly the largest entrance in Europe, normally dry but with a hydroelectric station just for when it floods! Inside, a huge and interminable stomping passage 20m square containing not a single loose object, everything moveable having been shot out of the entrance in flood. An hour or so later Iain and I concluded we weren't Big Passage Men after all and scurried out, apparently just short of the end. Simon had already decided he couldn't hold his breath above an hour and lay outside watching the clouds.

Cuves de Sassenage, the Berger resurgence. A fascinating showcave, superbly lit. We found out too late about the leadership system for the extensive interior. The Berger. Well, to the bottom of the first pitch - we strolled over and polished it off one afternoon. Plus various odds and ends: Grotte de Deux Soeurs, Favot, La Glacière, Grotte des Gaulois. We would have done the Grotte Merveilleuse Supérieure too, if my trifling map reading error hadn't brought us to within a few yards but six hundred feet above it.

In between, swimming, sunbathing and lots of superb ridgewalking at 6-8000 feet, and of course our Ascent of Mont Blanc. We did plan to climb the last 4000 feet until we stepped out of the telepherique and were boggled by it. Instead we took a telecabine over to the Italian border, which it did in two dizzy half-mile swoops dangling us hundreds of feet above rock and ice. Quite the most frightening experience on offer in Europe (barring Majorcan brothels).

Sadly all this ceaseless activity failed to impress HUSS. Night after night we would toil back to the campsite, reeking of wine and meat, to find them huddled in the Veg Tent over a bowl of lentils and a guttering candle (leather sandals in neat rows outside), and try to cheer them up with tales of the big world outside Combe de Fer, but nothing worked: not even the 1040Fr restaurant bill we brought back once could raise their spirits. Eventually they stopped talking to us altogether. Culture shock, no doubt.

So we never did find out what happened on our expedition.

Andrew Nichols

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