Report by Jules Barrett
Cavers: Jules Barrett (EPC), Gaz Bode (EPC), Dunka (EPC), Dave Gledhill (EPC), Bernie Maddison (EPC), Julian McIntosh, Pete Pollard (EPC), Nige Strong (EPC), Jase Rider (EPC), Steve Rider (EPC), Bob Toogood (EPC), Colin Woodley (EPC)
The Gouffre de la Pierre St Martin in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques is a big system with a number of entrances on the limestone lapiaz that straddles the French and Spanish border. The system is currently the forty-fifth longest in the world with almost 54km of surveyed passage and number twenty in the list of world deepest caves with a vertical range of over 1300m. Until recently access to the cave has been the preserve of scientific expeditions. The PSM is famous for it's 'through-trips' entering the system via the mainly vertical entrances of the Gouffre du Beffroi (otherwise known as SC3) or La Tete Sauvage (the Savage Head) and exiting via the EDF tunnel. On the way the route passes through a number of huge 'Salles' (chambers) until the final and largest which is the Salle de Verna. In the 1950s a water company drove a conduit from the surface through to the Salle de Verna aiming to capture the water from the stream which runs through it. Unfortunately (for them!) they drove the tunnel too high up and now the EDF tunnel makes a convenient exit from the system. We had booked the SC3 entrance for four days in August and our intention was to complete the traverse from SC3 to the EDF tunnel.
The (rough) plan was to rig the cave on Sunday, have an easy trip on Monday, do the traverse on Tuesday and then de-rig sometime later in the week. Half of the rope was in Dunka's car and the other half was coming down from mid-France with Nigel.
Sunday 12th August
Sunday dawned and Nigel had been tied up with French bureaucracy so a general call went out for rope and hardware. Everyone threw in whatever they had and when we made a big pile of it, and looked at the rigging guide (but you can't look too closely!) we decided that we could get a fair way down 'sans Nigel'. Anyway, we would have fun trying! Rope bags got packed and we drove to the Pierre St Martin ski station arriving around mid-day. The route to SC3 begins up a long distance path - the GR10. Bob and Dunka led us up the GR10 and into low cloud towards the entrance. Unfortunately the message about turning off the GR10 had passed them by and after about half an hour of walking they had disappeared into the mist. Pete went after them but came back half an hour later having found lots of tourists but no Bob or Dunka. We had started the day with less rope than we needed to rig SC3 and given that Bob and Dunka had one of the rope bags we now had even less! The remainder of the team found the Tete Sauvage entrance and from there headed off up the track to find SC3 - a narrow rift a short distance from the track. This we found pretty quickly (with thanks to Joy and Julian, Bernie's GPS played a supporting role!) and we once again re-packed rope to allow us to rig the entrance pitches with what we had left. Pete and I nipped in first with a set of bags and began rigging. Dave, Bernie and Julian followed carrying rope. The SC3 pitches are well equipped (P-bolt type anchors), spacious and a good mix of big shafts and short rifty sections. There's not much caving between the pitches and most of the time you're on rope. Since rope was at a premium the pitches were rigged pretty 'economically' and we pressed into service all sorts of odd bits of rope including a bit of 8mm that I'd brought out to make a new footloop. Eventually we arrived at a re-belay and the rope really had run out. We headed back up the ropes with only a few short pitches and the huge Liberty Bell pitch left to rig. Pete and I emerged on the surface to find no sign of Bob or Dunka and thumbed a lift down the track with a lad from Lyon. We arrived at the car to find Dunka and Bob who had enjoyed a day touring the lower slopes of Pic D'Anie in the mist. A good day despite some complications! Nigel arrived later on at the campsite with a load of rope for rigging SC3!.
Monday 13th August
We fancied an easy day so headed off to do the Bidouze Traverse. This short pull-through trip had been described to Dunka as great fun and we were joined by Julian's ten year old lad Rowan and wife Joy. Half an hours drive from St Engrace takes you to a large limestone plateau. We kitted up and a short walk leads to the swallet entrance. After a short section of fine stream passage we arrived at the first pitch - a lovely 18 metre pitch with the water to land in a knee-deep pool. The cave continues like this with short abseils down cascades in the stream. Although short, the cave was great fun and we eventually arrived at the resurgence exit. A steep and narrow path leads back up onto the plateau and the parking. Rowan's abseiling technique was excellent and perhaps he's an Eldon member of the future.
Tuesday 14th August
We had arranged to meet Steve, Jase and Gaz at 8:00 in the morning at the ski station. In fact 8:00 saw most of the Eldon enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the campsite. As Dunka poured himself another brew he explained to me that this was not a problem as this being an Eldon trip, the other lads would expect us to be late anyway. "In fact, if they've got any sense they'll not arrive until 9:00 I shouldn't have thought". We arrived at the ski station at around 8:45 and there was no sign of Steve, Jase and Gaz. After a certain amount of waiting around we concluded that they must have had a skinful the previous evening and decided to give the PSM a miss. Whilst this seemed highly unlikely (given that they'd come all the way from Leek) it was the best we could come up with and the remaining nine of us headed up to the SC3 entrance. In we went enjoying the excellent pitches down to the deepest point reached on the Sunday. Here rigging re-started and despite some alarm when a rope threatened to finish a couple of metres short of a rebelay we continued down to Liberty Bell and the bottom of the pitches. The route from SC3 to the Salle Cosyns is mainly following the Bassoburuko river downstream and has some excellent caving. Route-finding is not overly difficult and there is a good mix of crawling (a short section at the start), traversing above the stream and some entertaining little climbs up and down. Eventually we arrived at the handline climb that leads into Salle Cosyns where the Tete Sauvage joins the route. From the Salle Cosyns there are a couple of short climbs and a bit of abseiling leads into the Salle Pierrette through which the Max Couderc river flows. Following the Max Couderc downstream leads to the Salle Monique which is the first of the larger chambers and a taste of things to come. At the end of the Salle Monique most changed into wetsuits as this is where the deep water starts. I stayed in my furry suit and started the next section with some trepidation. A few waist-deep sections give pause for thought but we passed through the pools and into the Salle Suisse. Here Dunka went to have a quick look up the Affluent Rio Larumbe (an EPC extension from 1969) and we were delighted to see a dim carbide glow coming towards us from the SC3 end. Stik, Jase and Gaz had finally realised what they should have known all along (that we were just late!) and followed us down the entrance pitches; catching up with us here. For the first time on the trip we had a full complement of cavers as we carried on into the Grand Canyon. Here there are four separate boulder chokes and each chose his own way through - no doubt each convinced that we had found the easiest. The Grand Canyon continues and a short climb leads up into the Gallerie des Marmites. A bit of climbing and slithering leads onto the Grand Corniche - a narrow and exposed ledge which gives a dry bypass to a deep canal - and then onto Hidalga. For some reason the Hidalga section reminded me of Ben's dig in P8 but soon you're at the start of the 'Tunnel de Vent'. Here an assortment of lilos, kid's rubber rings and inflatable toys came out and the assembled fleet launched. Pulling along the good in-situ guideline was no problem but I was pleased to get to the other side. For the record, trying to stay aboard my 99p Tesco lilo was like wrestling a crocodile and I couldn't help thinking that it was similarly trying to kill me. In a nice twist, Colin offered me a knife with which I finished it off! Hot chocolate all round and a change into a dry furry suit for me and we were off towards Salle Navarre. A long-ish handline climb from the bottom of Navarre leads to the top of Salle Lepineaux and this was the first place that I realised just how big this place is. The roof is way out of sight and despite spending a little time looking for it I couldn't really see where the Lepineaux shaft enters. The scree slope that leads down to the bottom of Salle Lepineaux is massive and I'll not forget the sight of twelve lights descending down the hillside. We passed the Loubens memorial, through Salle Elizabeth Casteret, through Salle Loubens and into the Metro. This is mostly straightforward walking passage but does go on a bit. Next the route goes through Salle Queffelec, Salle Adelie and into Salle Chevalier - a massive 380m long. Some pleasant traversing finally leads to a slab which dropped us into the Salle de Verna. This was a bit strange as they're building a hydro-electric power plant in the Salle de Verna and there's huge concrete and metal structures spanning the thing. The EDF tunnel is easy to find and we exited propelled by an immense draft. Fourteen and a half hours for the trip for those who weren't rigging. You could definitely do it faster with a team smaller than twelve. After half an hour of sitting around and a celebratory toast we climbed into vans and headed back to the campsite.
Wednesday 15th August
Not a lot happened. Woke up late, tried to get some food and were disappointed to find that Calamity Jane's had stopped serving. Tried to go to the bar in the evening which was shut. Would possibly been better off going caving.
Thursday 16th August
De-rigging day. We drove up to the ski station again and five followed Nige into the entrance. Nige de-rigged Liberty Bell and continued with the rest of the cave passing bags up and out of the cave. All went pretty smoothly and we met up with families etc. for a meal and drinks in the evening.
A superb trip in a vast cave. My main memories of the PSM will be the excellent and straightforward pitches down the SC3 entrance, some demanding caving and the huge named chambers leading to the EDF tunnel. Dunka had put together a comprehensive and excellent description of the route through the cave and this made route-finding relatively straightforward. Many thanks to Dunka and Pete for organising an excellent trip!
Click [here] for Dave Gledhill's photos from the trip.