30th July to 6th August 2016 - Anton Petho
This summer Tom and I took part in Federation Francaise de Speleologie (FFS) last ever clean-up of the Gouffre Berge organised by Remy Limagne. We were also joined by Alex Ritchie (Black Rose), Laurel Smith (FFS), Shezzi (Yorkshire Subterranean Society) and Mark Dougherty (Northern Pennies Club). As well as doing the Berger we did lots of other caves in the area as well which are detailed below. We spent two days travelling down and the first day when we arrived getting food and exploring the area.
Grotte de Roche (30/07/2016)
After meeting Laurel and her friends early in the morning we consulted the helpfully prepared guide book by Remy. Having done some research before travelling out I had seen the Grotte Roche was recommended as a cracking first time trip in the Vercors. Remy’s helpful guide supported this and so it was decided this would be the first trip of our adventure. Having parked in the layby and got changed we walked the short distance to the impressive railway tunnel esc entrance. Following the entrance we climbed up a boulder pile until we reached a short hand and knees scramble uphill. This used to mark the end of the cave until a major digging effort diverted a stream above this climb to wash away the sediment to get access to the next section. After making our way up this moist scramble. Well, the majority of us did, Tom engaged his brain and found a much easier, dryer way around. From here a short passage dropped us down into a slightly angled rift passage which led to a short hand and knees crawl that brought us to a small chamber. After regrouping we emerged in a glorious stomping passage lined with pretties. At the end of the passage we climbed up through boulders to be greeted by a chandelier esc pristine white stal. Behind which was a short iron ladder which led up to a flatout crawl sloping slightly uphill. This brought us to a t-junction, left (downhill) takes you back downhill and to the start of the first stomping passage. Right is the way we wanted to go uphill which after a short while reaches a pitch. This has a short traverse line that goes out to the pitch head proper. This is followed by a 45o slope with rope loops in the roof and metal plates in the floor to aid ones return. Having slid down this I reached the top of the next short vertical slot pitch with more iron rungs to aid the return leg again. After descending this I reached a traverse with a slightly worse for wear looking rope. Which on closer inspection by Laurel showed it was from 1998! After we all made our way across and we had discussed French and British caving terms, we began exploring. Laurel, Alex and I made our way down the very impressive passage, very reminiscent of GB in the Mendips. This passage, like GB, ended in a lovely muddy sump. After we had climbed up very pretty boulder choke on our return, we headed for the exit. Stopping for a group shot at the exit. Unfortunately Alex had gone off exploring so Deloris, Tom’s Sheep mascot stood in for him! After washing our gear in the river by the cave entrance we made our way to the camp to toast our first Vercors caving trip!
Antre De Venus (31/07/2016)
For today we decided a trip in the valley was in order. It was recommended to us that a trip to the superb Grotte de Venus with its excellent formations was a good shout. After following Laurel and Paul to the recommended parking space. We packed our gear and headed up the hill, making our way to the cave entrance which we did with relative ease thanks to the guide book and Laurel and Paul who could read it. The plan was for me to rig the one and only pitch. However, on arrival at the cave we found two bags signalling cavers where already inside. After kitting up I made my way through the metal trapdoor the marks the cave entrance and down the entrance crawl. It was at this point we met the other cavers. They informed the rope was insitu and therefore didn’t need us to rig it. Once stashing the bag in an alcove I followed Alex along the traverse and down the pitch. Regrouping at the bottom of the pitch we headed on down the passage. This has to be the most beautiful cave I have ever seen. There is simply too much to photograph as Tom put it. After walking down the passage until we reached the start of the crawling section, were the cave is meant to become decidedly less pleasant, we turned around. On the way out we photograph this superb cave, including calcited former river beds and strange “Paint me like one of you French Girl” poses. After exiting and making our way down the hill Alex realised he had left his pantin by the cave entrance. So me and Tom bravely sat in the van during the forthcoming thunder storm and waited for him to return.
Grotte de Bournillion (01/08/2016)
As Tom was going to pick up Chris and Shezzi from Lyon airport. Laurel, Alex and I were without transport. Fortunately Mark was planning on going to a show cave down the Bourne gorge with his daughter and this was close to the impressive Grotte de Bournillion. Famed for having the highest cave entrance in France! Having been dropped off by the hydro-electric plant we started the walk to the cave. After kitting up and traversing our way round the entrance pool without embarrassment. We climbed up the imposing rubble heap and into the fine fossil passage. Passing through some beautiful red stalagmites along the way. We carried on until we rejoined the river at a large cascade. After Laurel had tried out her wetsuit and Alex had done some exploring we headed for home to meet the others back at camp.
Gouffre Berger (03/08/2016)
The main event of this adventure was the awesome Gouffre Berger. It is rated as one of the finest sport caving trips in the world, and perhaps because of the history of its exploration it could arguably be the greatest cave in the world. The preparation for the Berger started the day before, sorting out tackle bags and equipment ready to hike up to the entrance so that the next morning we weren’t waiting around. After ditching our bags we headed back to camp, where after some take away pizzas to build up our carbs, we went to bed. The next morning we had decided on a fairly late start, when I say late I mean head up to the cave at around 9ish. Which when compared to other groups setting off at 4:30am was late! We decided the day before that based on who we caved with before we would split into two groups. The first was Alex, Shezzi and Chris, our group consisted of Tom, Mark, Laurel and myself. The plan was to let Alex, Shezzi and Chris go first as they were a smaller group so should in turn be a faster group and we would follow them half an hour later. After driving up to the plateau. We eagerly started the 45 minute walk from the car park on the plateau and made our way over to the entrance. Which after kitting up and descending down the first pitch and sliding down through the old entrance gate I quickly backed up. As on the next pitch, Puitz Ruiz, a caver was coming up (one of the rules of the Berger clean-up was any caver coming up had priority going down, except on the very last pitch, Hurricane), having successfully gone down 15metres and up 5metres, I began my descent proper. Unfortunately the plan of splitting up into two groups never happened and so we made our descent as a team of seven. Other than Alex dropping his go-pro in the meanders and Mark swearing at the amount of rebelays on a pitch we made it to the bottom of the entrance series without incident, 220 metres deep at this point. After sliding down a short climb down into a meandering rift passage and climbing over two boulders we emerged into what can only be described as an awesome bit of passage. The walls can be seen but looking up is just blackness. At this point cavers law of physics of down down deeper and down were completely abandoned. As for reasons unknown we started heading upstream up Petzl Gallery soon realising: “Shouldn’t we be following the water downstream?” we promptly turned around and headed down the main stream proper. The nature of the passage in the Berger after the entrance series, up to 640metres, can be thought of having a series of breakdown sections. Which has subsequently be calcified and form the pretty halls such as hall of the thirteen. These make you lose the stream only for you to re-join it again at the end of the breakdown. The first pitches after the entrance series Puits General and Pool Traverse are good examples of this. After making are way through Bourgin hall and down the pitches mentioned in the last sentence, we reached the truly awesome Giant Rubble Heap. Which as the name suggests is a giant heap of boulders some the size of a small terraced house. Now we have all seen big chambers but then there’s big chamber and then there’s the Giant Rubble Heap. As with my lamp on its normal running mode of ~500 lumens I couldn’t even determine where the walls or the celling where! Handily reflective tape guides you through this mass of boulders in a black void and you emerge on the other side at a steep 100metres descent downhill to camp 1 at 495metres. After refuelling with food and water it was, at this point that the bottom for me would be saved for another day. As having only ever been as deep as 178metres and never having done 220metres of rope work, I decided that was enough of a challenge in itself! I decided to push on to my primary objective which was the start of the canals which is at a depth of 670metres, as I was reliably informed by various people this is the nicest part of the cave. We made our way down from camp 1, down a short slope to the beautiful hall of the thirteen with the infamous thirteen stalagmites looming large in the distance. Followed by a short boulder climb down to the Salle de Germain and then the top of Balcony Pitch. Once all safely descended we made our way down the passage and after a short distance we reached the start of enormous cascade where the water is seen to emerge through a stalactite, awesome! The enormous cascade should really be treated as a handline climb and not as a pitch as I saw it as, one for future note! After this we re-joined the streamway which after only a short distance were forced up another breakdown and this time into St Mathieu’s Hall. Which after passing through we reached the top of the calcite slopes. Which is easier said than done as finding the path of least resistance is tricky. As we ended up doing a short free climbable section only to find on the way back there is an easier way round. After making it down the calcite slopes we arrived at the small window at 640metres that marks the start of the Vestiaire pitch (French for changing room), this is the point where there is a sign warning you the next section to the bottom is the most tiring section and prone to flooding. It was at this point we decided that we should split into groups depending on who wanted to do what. Tom, Mark and Laurel were the A-team and were going for the bottom. Chris, Alex, Shezzie and I formed the B-team. After making are way down the very pretty Vestiaire we re-joined the streamway. Which after following down a climb we reached the start of the canals. At this point we were joined by some French Cavers returning from the bottom. I decided at this point it was time for me to head out and this seemed like an ideal opportunity as I could join the French group and allow team B to carry on. After Chris asked if I could joined the returning French team and they agreed we started heading out. After being fed bread, cheese, parma ham and chocolate I surfaced from the Berger into a pleasant evening after spending 10 hours underground. It was truly unique and awesome experience and I learnt a great deal about deep caving.
Grotte de Gournier (06/08/2016)
Are last trip to the Vercors was the truly epic Grotte de Gournier. We had booked the expedition boat for this day and so we travelled down the Bourne gorge and parked at the Choranche show caves car park. After kitting up we walked to the entrance where we began to inflate the boat. This was in order to cross the beautiful entrance lake. After I had been pumping for a while and the boat was still very much uninflated we discovered I had connected the pipe to the wrong connection, so that it was drawing air out! After correcting the idiots mistake we promptly inflated the boat and began are journey across the lake. After some interesting rowing techniques from me with Chris the kayak instructor winching in the boat with me, we all made it across. Reaching the other side we found another boat moored up indicating that some other people were in the system. At this point we climbed up a short climb and across a traverse on what we believed to be an in situ rope. After regrouping on the other side we made are way down the stupidly large fossil passage. Grotte de Gournier is 15km long and on this trip we would only get to see a small part of it. While we were walking down the passage we met the other explorers. The question was raised by Laurel that; “Should we ask if it’s there rope”. The rapid response was; “Noo they look like they are out for a hike”, as they were dressed in normal walking clothes with backpacks on. After wandering down this awesome passage we arrived at a series of very pretty gour pools. After I had had a bit of a ferret around and discovered the passage kept going we decided to head for home. On are way out a weird attempt to do kung fu poises for a photo was attempted with little success. Reaching the traverse I unclipped my cowtails and then I thought that’s funny I swear there was a rope here. What had happened was the rope was the hikers and they had derigged, bullocks! Cobbling together a weird array of footloops slings and safety cord Tom manage to traverse out and climb down to the boat. He quickly ran back to his van were 30metres of rope was waiting. He quickly got back and rigged the traverse so that we could make are exit. We headed back to camp to pack up and toast are Vercors adventure.
This was a truly awesome week and is definitely place I need to get back!