Cambridge Underground 1996 pp 45-49

Gorging in the Pyrenees - A Recipe for Summer 1995

by Sam Lieberman


Sam Lieberman (Me), Jeremy, Chris & Becka Rodgers, Clive George, Dave Fearon, Mark Fearon (not related), Tony & Gill Rooke, Henri, François Danis (day tripper)
A smaller wetsuit than Sam borrowed
A bigger car than Jeremy's got
Longer seatbelts than Sam's got
More sleep than a young Rodgers, French wildlife, and driving 2000 miles would allow
A powerful water pistol for food preparation
A large sign labelled 'LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP' for Mark Fearon
A large sign labelled 'THINK BEFORE YOU DRINK' for Mark Fearon
Tin legs or complete ban on parasitic insects in the South of France
Passports to get out of a French Village into France.
Beaucoup de Marmites

The Meet

Was situated in the majestic peaks and canyons of the French Pyrenees, about 20 miles south of Pau. The first week was spent at a barn owned by François, a recent addition to the club, this is up a very obscure hairpin laden track between the picturesque (I thought I'd throw in some bullshit tourist stuff) towns of Bielle and Laruns. The second week saw a relocation to the next valley system west, where we set up camp at Urdos - last outpost before the Spanish border.


The problems all started in January when the caving club gained it's new and youngest associate member - Becka Rodgers. Now babies are usually well known for their small size (even smaller than Wookey) and it was assumed that there should be no problem packing one for the trip. However a preliminary packing run proved that, whilst you may well be able to load a Maestro up with four adults + gear + more gear + the things you forgot at the last minute, the substitution of a tiddler (small toddler ?) renders your car completely full before you even start.

So, enter the secret weapon - Sam's cavernous boot; cavernous, green boot, that is; oh, errr - that's cavernous, green, CAR boot (as opposed to cavernous green WELLY boot you understand). A trial pack was made on the Thursday before leaving which worked o.k., so it was on to the next problem - seatbelts.

These were troublesome right from the start as Sam's car 'au naturel' does not have rear seatbelts, nor, as it turned out, does it have the full set of attachment points for seatbelts. So having invested in a set from the scrappy I was then required to spend an evening drilling, filing and generally bodging them in as best I could. Feeling quite proud and relieved that the damn things were now fitted, I was a tad annoyed that despite Becka's small size the belts were too short to fit round the car baby seat which was carefully designed to utilise about 60 feet of seatbelt to hold it in. Jeremy then proceeded to take his car apart in order to extract his driver's seatbelt


went the retractor spring,


As it turned out the seatbelt was exactly the right length when fully extended (without the spring) to fit round the seat, the spring was consigned to the 'things to do later' pile and we were set for our hols.

Getting There

Friday saw the car being filled to overflowing with baby cots, baby carriers, baby food, baby clothes, baby bicycle seats, baby toys...... baby's parents, oh! and all the usual stuff for two weeks in the outdoors and wetsuits, ropes etc. etc. etc.- IT WAS FULL.

And then we were off, I drove the first bit, past the overturned caravan on the M11, (giggle), through the traffic jam on the A2 and down to Dover for the ferry. Chris took the first stint of French driving whilst Becka took the first stint of French screaming, Jeremy and I were French Ki.....
..cking around doing nothing. Becka got bored of screaming fairly quickly and fell asleep, Chris got bored of the magic clutch on my car, which is touch sensitive, Jeremy and I got bored.

I took over driving at around 10pm and all was well, five hours later we were trapped in a small French town by diminishing fuel supplies and only five open petrol stations - all of which were unmanned and Anglophobic. Eventually after much driving around (including the wrong way down a bus lane, past a police car) we hassled a Frenchman into deceiving the machines that we were French and got our car filled up. We paid the man 200 Francs for his trouble and drove on.

France is too long, especially the bottom half of it before the sun comes up.

I managed to get within spitting distance of Bordeaux when I decided that I was falling asleep to much and that it was jolly well about time that Jeremy should do his bit on the driving front. Jeremy was asleep and wanted to stay as such (not unreasonable at six in the morning) but took over the driving for an hour or three.

Arriving for a Meal

Before going to François' barn we were due to stop by at his parent's house to pick up some ropes and guidebooks. We spent a while trying to find the place, during which I went back into English driving mode - much to the amusement of the French motorists at that particular junction, and upon arrival we were greeted like long lost relatives. What started as a quick drink (squeeze your own grapefruit) turned into a full blown meal - steak, beans with garlic, bottle of wine etc... we were all a bit overwhelmed with the hospitality. Becka was a favourite and did most of the talking for us. Eventually we managed to make leaving motions and despite attempts to convince them that we knew where we were going, we were given an escort through the back lanes and told in no uncertain terms what the quickest way to the barn was. François' family are certainly a lot more friendly than the petrol stations in France (Perhaps French lorry drivers are so obnoxious because they hang around petrol stations a lot more ?).

We found the barn o.k. 'cos Jeremy had been there before (in 94) and found the other folk already there. The car took a moment or two to unload and we soon got settled in.

An Aside - Cooking with squirrels

One interesting feature of the barn was it's population of squirrels (Pyreneus Montanus Squirrelae Screechieae - for those keen botanists out there [Squirrels? Botany? Hmm - Ed]) who would chew anything remotely edible and unattended in the kitchen area, and who had, over the winter months, converted much of the expanded polystyrene roof insulation into bean bag stuffing. To protect our meagre supplies, Jeremy had somehow sneaked a semi automatic water pistol through customs, which proved fairly effective against the little rats - at least until they learned that sudden illumination in zoom light - probably meant that their lives would suddenly get a bit wetter in the immediate future.

At-tent-ing to the baby

It was rapidly discovered on the first night that babies and squirrels don't get on, and that the combination of mating calls and 'help, help! mummy there's a squirrel in the roof' in six month old baby speak, was not very conducive to a restful night's sleep. So it was decided to banish the Rodgers family to a tent on the opposite side of the meadow. (We would have banished the squirrels but we couldn't catch the buggers.)


We spent much of the first night trying to read the guidebooks - which were all in French of course, and learning, with the aid of Clive's forest consuming 'Guide to every French word that ever was', precisely what a 'marmite' was especially when you might have to 'plonger dans un'. To break ourselves in gently it was decided to do the 'Easy' gorge the next day - Cançeight, justup the road a bit on the opposite side of the valley. Generally with canyonning the best plan is to, where possible, have one car at the top and one at the bottom - this saves an awful lot of tedious walking around in the blazing sunshine.

Gorging ourselves

A brief description follows of some of the other trips made over the course of the holiday (in no special order):

Sousseilliessue - definitely wins top prize in the 'jolly good fun' and 'most difficult to pronounce' stakes (it's probably spelt wrong as well). Unlike most of the limestoney gorges, it has been formed in granite which has much more friendly erosional characteristics, so rather than sharp flakey edges and vertical drops, there are smooth, swooshing gullies, deep undercut plunge pools - ideal for a few hours of sliding leaping and generally splashing around in. One particularly good slide had a traverse line round it, which was initially assumed to be a bypass but a passing fellow canyonnist proved this to be wrong by utilising it correctly - ie. going back up for another go! In fact on the Saturday (just before relocating to Urdos) some keen folk (like me) did this gorge twice in one day. This is the only day we saw François, who was otherwise engaged, for the most part, whilst we were there.

Valentin Inférieur - slippery, slidery rocks was the verdict.

Valentin Supérieur - This was one of the best trips and well worth the walk up in the sweltering heat (no road available at the top - only a Glacier). Starting at a ski resort on the road up to the Col d'Abisque you follow a path above the gorge, pausing to share your sandwiches with the wasps and horseflies (annoying bastards), and continuing until the river becomes accessible. A quick change into your wetsuit and then a long lie down in the glacial melt water to cool off. Then you're off into the gorge which was committing - no way out once you've started and after the first short pitch obviously on the interesting side of sporting. Those that wanted to escape, managed to do so - those that ventured on encountered dodgy traverses (Wobbly piton, rope down to four core strands, wobbly angle iron, knot, more rope down to the core, lift out piton, bit of tatty tape to back up the rope with no sheath, more wobbly ironmongery, thundering waterfall - Eeeeek!!) - this particular pitch was quite well arranged to impress any onlookers above, as you could clamber over a green rock at the top of the waterfall and abseil, seemingly into a mass of wet looking water, you actually abseil into a narrow rift separate from the main fall and then walk in perfect comfort under the waterfall to appear smug and warm on the other side.

Bidet Inférieur - This was definitely on the too interesting side of sporting, the guidebook describes it as a trip to avoid except in desert conditions, however Mark, Jeremy & I decided it was worth a try since it was supposed to be fun. (By the way the Inférieur / Supérieur tell that these are, respectively, the lower and the higher bits of the same river and bear no relation to the quality of trip!) It started off innocently enough, although the stream was taking more water than any of the other gorges we'd done, and the first couple of little pitches were passed without trouble. Then Mark - our valiant leader - got to the next short pitch, and stood there wondering if it was jumpable, and not much time later took a flying leap - and disappeared.... and disappeared.....

"Oh Shit", said Jeremy

"Ohh! Shitt", said Sam.

We shot into full panic, action stations and got a rope strung down the pitch, Jeremy was just about to launch off down to rescue the body, when a very gurglesome scream made itself heard.

"Ohhh! Shit, Shit.."

Then a wetsuited figure popped into sight, coughing a bit but otherwise O.K., As it turned out Mark had not jumped out far enough and had got trapped in a fine example of a proverbial marmite that was swirling in a big undercut (that's why he'd disappeared), the action of reaching for the rope had flung him out of the whirlpool and out to safer waters - a close shave (appropriately enough for the close shaven team member). Continuing on we abbed down a bit of fixed tat into a narrow rift full of fast flowing water and found ourselves at the first main drop of about 20m. We couldn't see the bottom due to the waterfall spraying off a ledge halfway down we could however see the dodgy traverse line heading out over the pitch to give a better pull through hang....

Abandoning trip noises were made and after a couple of half hearted attempts to carry on we headed back upstream - only to find that upstream was coming towards us, this made life difficult.

The escape route we were heading for was at the top of the bit of tat mentioned earlier, however this was at the wrong end of a gully full of fast flowing water. In the end we found a branch that we wedged across the gully and Jeremy climbed along enabling him to reach the bottom of the rope. he grabbed for the rope and got a jammer on, just before discovering that a) he was now dangling, irretrievably attached to the rope in the full force of the stream and b) his second jammer was not readily available. Much frantic thrashing and burbling then followed before he gracefully arose from the gently trickling waters (whoops! - more tourist bullshit), Mark and I then refined this technique and soon we were at the top - a quick bramble bash later and we were safe on the road. A trip to be much recommended.

Floods & Brambles Gorge - speaking of brambles, we decided one day to make a recce trip to a valley just down from the P.S.M. - well known caving district (apparently S.Wales club were in the area at the time, keeping up their new deep cave SRT caver image - but we didn't meet them). The gorge (as you may have guessed I can't remember it's proper name) was dry at this time of year so we were wearing dry grots, however we soon found out there were some deep pools still around, a fine chance to practice our 'send Mark round the dodgy traverse' water avoidance technique. we were getting towards the bottom end of the gorge when it started thundering down with rain (literally), Not knowing how this gorge behaved in thunderstorms we thought it best to abandon the trip at a handy bridge, this led to a track which soon degenerated to a 45 degree trog up the hillside through 6 feet of bramble/nettle thickets (still with our shorts 'n T shirts on, ouch!)

Gorge d'Enfer - This is a gorge a couple of miles from Urdos, with a spectacular walk in (no road at the top again). The sides of the gorge at it's mouth rise almost vertically for about 100m, and yet, on one side, cut into the sheer cliff face about 50m up, is a path - the 'Chemin de Mature' which was originally a logging track from way back, when they used to make wooden ships to come and bop the English. On the other side is a Napoleonic fort, later reused in the Second World War, (Le fort de Portalet) which is again cut into the rock and rambles all over the place around the gorge edge - a great place to explore (though there are some very dodgy rotting floors!). Most people did the walk up the Chemin de Mature the day after setting up camp in Urdos, and found it very hot going in the afternoon sun. Several days later towards the end of the holiday Jeremy and I were stupid enough to get up early and made the walk up (in true caver style - wellies, underpants and tackle sack) before the sun got too high. The gorge itself was very pleasant including, swimming, pleasant wandering down the stream, lots of chaos (ie. piles of shit & boulders) and a short section of darkness under a huge collapsed slab - the nearest we got to caving on this holiday. The path above is a favourite starting point for climbers who like scaring themselves - ie. 50m of instant exposure before you leave the ground - Eeek!, though for us folk down below this means running for cover as the occasional pebble makes it's way down.

Exercising the food off

Obviously the donning of damp rubberwear every day can wear a bit thin (unless you're Julian 'Neoprene Freak' Todd of course) and on a couple of days various of us went walking and/or Cycling. One such walk in the second week got off to a good start when, whilst exiting the village of Urdos, where we were camping, we were accosted by a gun toting border guard. This is a bit odd, being as the border is actually about 20 miles away. I was the only one in the car to have remembered a passport which was obviously very suspicious - since he took it away into the office. (To be checked by Interpol I suppose?) Eventually the guard reappeared and waved us on without arresting Jeremy or putting Becka into quarantine. Tony, The Rodgers' and Myself had a very pleasant day's hiking after all that rigmarole, the route took us back and forth over the Spanish border numerous times - no passports required and not a border guard in sight! Shame we didn't have anything worth smuggling.

Clive, Dave and Henri brought a couple of bikes between them (this might have been entertaining had not one of the bikes been a tandem??!) and on several days various folk, including Becka, who got bolted to the back of Clive's bike, went cycling up and down the mountains (What effect careering down a mountain at 40 miles an hour, tied into a bicycle, will have on the young and impressionable Becka we will have to wait and see - a demon speed freak is born?). They claimed it was fun, but being an avid non-cyclist I'm not sure I believed them. (Also worthy of note was the roof rack on which the bikes were mounted on Clive's car, with carefully made tongue and groove joints and custom made metal fixtures in finest 2mm steel bent to follow every dent and contour of Clive's non-standard roof profile.)

After Dinner Liquors

The evening following Jeremy and I doing the Gorge d'Enfer developed unintentionally into a marathon whiskey drinking sesh. (Mark, Tony & Gill, and Myself had each bought a litre each of Lagavulin on the hovercraft on the way over - each of us, mysteriously, only had half a bottle left the next morning).

The Morning After

Speaking of the next morning, there were several complaints, namely, for the first night of the holiday it wasn't the baby or the squirrels that had kept people up, Tony was staggering around being a bit wobbly, but mostly people seemed to be complaining about how unreasonably well Sam was looking, having consumed twice his weight in whiskey only a few hours before.

The Veg. - diced carrots

Mark's head hurt, his stomach churned - he wasn't a pretty sight the next day. "Must have been something I ate", came the immortal words as one corner of Clive's tent was slowly dissolving in a colourful splash of chunder.

Going Home

Most people left the night before us so I was compelled to sleep in the car (I had been living in Clive's tent) I suspect that in moving my car to a secluded spot I managed to pick the wrong secluded spot to park in that night. The next day after loading up, I found that one of the front tyres was nearly flat - we pumped it up, loaded even more gear into the car, and set off. Several hours later, when we stopped for lunch, the tyre was almost flat again and on close inspection was found to have a two inch gash on the inside wall. Luckily due to sound Vauxhall design we only had to completely empty the carefully packed boot to get the tyre and the jack out (mutter). Other than that we made it back in one piece. Oddly enough the next week, after I'd had two shiny new tyres fitted on Wednesday, I woke on Thursday to find one of them terminally flat again, the car couldn't cope with the radical new weight distribution obviously!!

And finally - to coin a car enthusiast's favourite phrase

Removal (of the seatbelt) is the reverse of fitting. - a bastard-total.

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