The Torrente de Pareis Bites
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P8 and Pink Llamas
Austria expedition archive

Cambridge Underground 1999 pp 43-48

Pour faire le canyonning, en Vercors!

Sam Lieberman

Or, four wettings and a fumarole Sorry couldn't resist it. Sam's crap joke emporium

Week 1 - Mostly canyonning

Where, oh where, to go on my summer holidays. I'd been debating all sorts of options. Go to expo in Austria, third year in a row? Naaaahhhhhhh! Time for something different. Matienzo, Spain. Now that would be nice. I'd not been there since 1994 and was feeling overdue for a dose of Spanish hospitality, sunshine and nice caves. Then, my old MUSS buddy, Mark (Wendy to his friends), decided to get married... on.... July 25th, no consideration these people, don't they realise that some folk have expeditions to go on? Anyway I'm rather partial to a good knees up with my old MUSS chums, so that was that. Later it transpired that Tanya had the self same problem on the same day (different person getting married though). Tanya wanted to go to Jeremy's Vercors canyonning jolly, and Dave Ramsey, pending the solution of chronic staff shortages at the Pen y Pass YHA where he worked, was keen to go. So between us we had a carload. After all the Vercors has a cave or two, so at least Dave and I would be happy.


People were flocking (language, Timothy!!!) to the Vercors, with some people arriving direct from Expo, and the rest from good old Blightey, although we were three days later than most.

Some weeks before, Ally, our resident French speaker, had been cajoled into booking a campsite in Beauvoir en Royans in the north western corner of the Vercors. The booked campsite proved to be a less-than-ideal swimming-pool, caravans, and children affair, so it was suggested by the camp site owner, who agreed that the campsite was tooooo nice for us, that a move should be made to the 'Camping à la Ferme' at the bottom of the hill. This proved to be an excellent move, as we got a nice walnut orchard almost to ourselves.

The campsite rapidly filled up with cavers: Jeremy, Christine and little Becka, MarkF, Ally, Dave H, Tess, and Dave & Henri (who had spent a week cycling there, keen or what?). Wookey and Tim then arrived, apparently with 10 seconds to spare on Tess' deadline of '6:00pm Saturday' -- nice driving Wooks. Steve & Kate came from expo a couple of days before via an airport so Kate could fit in a wedding -- you just can't get away from the things -- why can't they be in the winter? (Of course! they'd clash with the skiing holiday then... never mind). Mike & Tina + JulianT (Becka was away with OUCC hogging all the bivvy space down 2/7 in the Spanish Picos. Adam & Rachel arrived shortly afterwards.

The campsite change confused Andy and Juliet when they turned up to find the correct campsite completely devoid of smeggy caver types. This also confused us when we arrived. We were sure we'd got the correct campsite but where were the cavers??? We drove round and determined there could be no cavers, no scungy tents and wetsuits hung over the trees, so we drove away again. But... this was the only campsite? We went back and found someone to ask, and were led round twisting turning corridors to where a piece of paper sat mysteriously on a table -- A treasure map!

"Dear Cavers..." it started, and proceeded to tell us how to get to the other campsite. So off we went and found the other campsite, nestled in a Walnut grove, very pleasant "except for the rain of course" this was to be a prominent feature of the next two weeks.

First few days

I'm not entirely sure what happened on the first day or two as the most informative report says, and I quote

"I was there!"

Many thanks to Dave Horsley for this. So I'll have to make this bit up.

On the Sunday that I was still in England fighting with the traffic on the M1, I would guess that people were generally recovering from their journies. There was a huge fireworks show nearby that night and this kept some people from going mad with the patter of rain on the tents. On Monday, since it had been raining for 24 hours, it was decided by some to play it safe and go to a 'not too wet' gorge, Le Neyron. This was subsequently declared a nasty place, full of smelly brown pools and obviously in need of several weeks of rain. Wookey and most other people went down an almost totally dry gorge (Les Lavures?) in two waves. It had some pitches, apparently, with dubious belays, and Jeremy's old climbing rope was later found to have suffered terminal and worrying sheath damage on this trip.

We arrived sometime on the same day as these trips were happening and set up camp, in the rain, whilst waiting for people to return. The next day people were keen for some proper trips. Andy A, Juliet, Adam, Rachael, Tess, Wookey, Sam, Dave R and Tanya were team Versud and everyone else went to do what turned out to be **** Star canyon **** of the holiday -- Ecouges. Versud was a pleasant enough trip bit of walking, bit of abseiling -- nothing too strenuous, just right for us recently-arrived folk. The others were just happy for a canyon with some water in. After we'd dried out in the sun a bit we set off back to the campsite but on the way found Ally and Christine loitering around in the nearest village. This was odd, as their transport was several miles around the hillside at the bottom of the canyon they'd just come down?? It transpired that they'd taken a wrong turn out of the canyon and walked the wrong way for 'a bit'. We went to go and rescue Dave Horsley and Co. who were walking back to recover the cars and met them just in time to offer them a lift for the last 20m! Dave, Tanya, Sam, Adam and Andy A. were still keen and went to find another quick canyon to kill some time. After half an hour hacking through a wood and ten minutes hacking through some brambles we found the first pitch, we climbed the second pitch, and the third, oh, and the fourth, oh and there was the road. Mmmm... "I've had more fun crossing the street before", was the conclusion.

The next day the teams swapped round, more or less, and we got to do Ecouges. It appears that the bottom half of this gorge is incredibly popular and everyone and their grandmother's dog was there. We overtook three parties of schoolchildren on the first pitches by virtue of the fact that there were only seven or so of us, however as we got further down we lost ground by not knowing the canyon. So whilst Tess was busy being strung up in a waterfall, the hordes of school children were being thrown over the edge with gay abandon. No one got lost on the way back this time!!

Dinner that night was sausage surprise (that was dinner every night in fact) with lashings of cheap red wine to wash it down. There was hot competition as to who could find the cheapest wine at the supermarket, I'm not sure who won in the end, but we had a good time doing the background research.

Well, two days of canyonning, and Dave Ramsey was beginning to fret a little -- no caving done as yet. It was decided to break out the rubber dinghies and have a bash at the Gournier. Andy A., Juliet, Julian Todd, Dave, Tanya and Sam went. We parked up, asked the nice man if we could visit and then had to re-park about half a mile further away -- it's the rules. The Grotte du Gournier is in the same cliff face as the Choranche show caves, and starts as a 50m lake with a greasy climb and traverse to get into the cave. After that there is about an hour of wandering down large, DRY, passageway -- Ideal for the wetsuited caver, we were quite grateful when we found the streamway, eventually. The Gournier stream is a top quality piece of caving, with clear greeny-blue canals, swirly pots and interesting via-ferrata traverses. On the way back Julian decided that rather than go back down the pitch to the boats he'd just `drop in' on them. Sam, being stupid, followed him down, 30+ ft is a long way to be falling into a dark (and very cold) lake, I nearly climbed back up for another go.


The last day for most people, and everyone drove round to the Grenoble side of the massif to do Le Furon starting at a dam with a couple of jumps and then miles of trogging until we (TimVB, Adam, Rachael, Tess, Wook, Andy A., Juliet, Dave F., Christine) got told off by fishermen for doing this bit, which should be reserved for trout. The lower end had some pitches at which several people thought ``I could jump this'' but didn't. I'd somehow managed to avoid Ally's wetsuit until this trip and was regretting being on this trip now with that hideous luminous pink and yellow monstrosity. I was quite pleased to find a cave entrance well and truly gated with big steel bars across the entrance. I confused a lot of people by spotting one of the bars was loose, squeezeing in and then replacing the bar. Jeremy for one couldn't work out how I'd got in!! Team B did it right and started half-way down where these good bits were, and found that a rope was completely unnecessary. So several went back to try again. AndyA managed to mangle his ankle this time on a rock on the 11m jump. The rock had been hiding in the centre of the 'safe' area Dave F. had swum round after jumping in himself. I think it was also this gorge that Ally decided to do away with Christine by lobbing rocks at her. As if that weren't eventful enough it was on the way back that I had my unfortunate run in with the Gendarmerie - see my separate report on car disasters!

More sausage surprise, more wine, More rain, and MORE wine -- this was the last night for most, after all. The last I remember was Tina, Tanya and I sat in the Wook van discussing Life, the Universe and Sex, at least Tina and Tanya were -- I couldn't get a word in edgewise.

Week 2 - Mostly caving

Saturday 1st August

Everyone except Andy, Juliet, Sam, Dave & Tanya left, half back to the the UK, half to Ally's parental pad in Switzerland. Dave seemed glad the cannyoning contingent had gone and was looking forward to a week of fine caving (and maybe a canyon to keep the girls happy). Dave, Tanya and I went for a bit of a sightseeing tour in the central Gorge de la Bourne and after a bit of entrance spotting made a plan to visit Grotte Favot. The walk up was described as `a bit of a slog' and they weren't bloody wrong!. It's about half an hour of slogging up a 45° slope covered in trees and little marbles masquerading as 'proper gravel', but it's worth it in the end. Especially that day. Dave and I found the entrance without too much trouble (Tanya had decided to stay behind at the car) and headed through the entrance to the 'amazing pentangular passage', an apt description -- whoever had written the description knew their beans from their deep fried octopus suckers. The passage was about five metres in diameter and had a flat floor, pointy roof and two walls angled up to join the roof -- hence pentangular -- amazing.

We found a rope already rigged down the steeply descending passage and later in the trip met a bunch of cavers up for the weekend from Lyon. The cave was duly bottomed -- a lovely pitch down the side of a huge calcite flow, and all the obscure (and pretty) side passages got proddled in. It was getting on time to head out and we set off back towards the entrance. As luck would have it we timed our exit perfectly and as we were re-ascending the 'amazing pentangular passage' the sun was shining directly down the centre so there was a pentangular shaft of light illuminating the back wall with a shadow of Dave in it. We also noticed some strange spiral patterns on various parts of the roof (we're not sure whether they were prehistoric cave art or something else??). The best was still to come, as we ascended further, and looking back down, we could see a pentangular rainbow framing the illuminated back wall. It was all very atmospheric and beautiful, nature at it's best. The next day, Sunday, was a real washout. We had to do something, so Dave, Tanya and I went to Pont en Royans for a wander in the rain and then on to the showcave at Choranche. Luckily, Sam knew the magic words for a caver's discount, and off we went to join the queue (worse than Bar Pot on a Saturday afternoon it was). The showcave is in fact quite impressive, heavily concreted in places (shame) but a marvellous collection of straws. The Son et Lumière was a bit OTT but nice enough. They'd also got a load of 'rare and unique to this cave' amphibious pink thingies, like newts I guess. I'm not surprised they're rare, having been caught and stuffed in a tank as they were. On the way out I asked if there was any possibility of a proper trip, "Non", was the answer but the chap did give me a contact address of the club in Valences that explores the place as their expedition every year.

Hey! Guess what?

Sausages for supper again.

Monday 3rd August

We were on a roll now Dave and I, and it was still raining, so what else could we do but more caving. And the Trou qui Souffle caught our trained and expert eye(s?). What is the correct translation for this ?? The 'Trench- like hole in the ground that Whiffles' or is it Jabberwocks that Whiffle ?? It transpired that the easiest way to the bottom was via another entrance, Saint les Glâces (or Glâce les Saints, I can't quite remember) and so off we went. The most obvious thing we noticed at the entrance was that it was blowing a gale of cold air out, lovely. The cave drops down and down in a sometimes narrow rift with numerous small pitches (most of them proved free climbable on the way out except the first and last couple of pitches). After a certain amount of muddy squiggling about the last pitch drops you 20m into a large chamber the Salle de Hydrokarst there is a large old phreatic passage that runs down to the sump from here with large and beautiful scallops. The sump is apparently at -469m so that's almost half a Berger's worth. And only 60 odd metres of rope actually needed. A good trip.

The following day, the weather was looking better and Tanya was fed up with Dave & Sam's obsessive desire to commune with mud so we trawled the canyonning guide and found Les Archettes. The gorge turned out to be miles away (1½ hours drive nearly) but was actually quite pleasant with a sunny aspect and no difficult pitches -- a nice day's walk. The route back went through Les Goulets where the road goes through some spectacular tunnels hewn out of the side of the gorge. We decided to stop in Pont en Royans for food and had a fine meal... except Tanya, who's meal had been lost in the translation! She was most upset, mostly because it meant that it was sausages for tea again, I suspect.

A day of caving, a day of canyonning. It must be time for caving again -- opinions differed. Andy A. & Juliet decided to find another nice canyon (Le Leoncel, I believe) whilst Dave & I went to find Scialet du Tobbogan which sounded fun. Tanya came with us and found a nice place I the sun to sit and read a book whilst we were caving. Scialet du Tobbogan starts as a fly-infested narrow rift descending at about 70 degrees. At the bottom there are two ways on, one goes to a second entrance through a ducky bit, the other goes to the rest of the cave, which as it turns out was very nice -- well decorated (though unfortunately a bit trodden on). The last pitch drops you into a fine streamway which we splashed up until it got too deep and neither of us fancied the airy wire traverse. This was a shame as it meant we missed the huge chamber a bit further on. Maybe next time?

(More Sausages)

Back to canyonning the next day and it was decided to go for the big one Ecouges part I AND part II. Up until this point everyone had done Ecouges Part II -- the fun, splashy, jumpy bit of the canyon. Ecouges Part I was a different kettle of herring. Big pitches, very enclosed -- just what canyonning should be. We set off and were soon leaving the pleasant sunny stream at the top in exchange for the roaring pitches of the canyon proper. All went well until a 30m pitch ending in a thundering swirl pool. We'd rigged it with two 30m odd ropes and once everyone was down the pitch there was some keenness to get down the next pitch and out of the pool. We started hauling the rope back down but noticed too late that there was a large ball of tangled rope disappearing up the pitch. We spent a lot of time trying to shake the knots out and only succeeded in watching the tangle going further up the pitch. But then... Success... Oh bugger -- there was a figure of eight knot in the end of the rope -- one of Dave's caving ropes -- Always tie a knot in the end they say!!!. We had no choice but to pull through and untie the accessible rope, luckily with the 100m rope, this still left enough for the big split pitch at the bottom -- we'd just have to use some creative rigging. The last pitch was great, some 70m abseil in the sun, split on a ledge next to the waterfall, ending in a deep pool near the road and the start of the second section of Ecouges. We regrouped and set off to enjoy the second part of the canyon with no kids in the way, and jumping all the way. Excellent trip. Dave did mumble something, though, about never going canyonning again, muttter, mutter 30m ropes grump! We all chipped in a bit of cash in the holiday accounts so he could buy another one.

Friday came, our last day and we decided to enjoy the uncharacteristic sunshine and go for a walk up above Cognin les Gorges. I confidently led Dave and Tanya along a cliff walk through the trees following, as it later transpired, a town and county boundry. I thought the path was a bit indistinct. Still we did see some wildlife -- an eagle soaring around and a deer in the forest + a cave to keep Dave happy.

What shall we have for dinner tonight?

Well there's some sausages left.


Everyone went to bed except Sam who crept off with a bottle of wine and sat watching the moonlight shimmering over the Isère river -- magical. The drive back was horrendous, after two weeks of almost continuous rain, the sun came out with a vengeance and we all melted on the way back. Sam was regretting having finished off the wine.

Tina's Vercors Report

Yep, I'll try to think of a few bits in a sec when I get back from chronic DIY.

Short and to the point!.

The Torrente de Pareis Bites
CU 1999 Contents Page Next:
P8 and Pink Llamas
Austria expedition archive