Report by Jase Rider
Cavers: Mike Salt (EPC), Dave Cowley (EPC), Pete Pollard (EPC), Nigel Strong (EPC), Gary Bode (EPC), Jase Rider (EPC)
I first attempted this trip in 2001, with a team comprising myself, Stik, Nige, Dunka, Gaz and Steve Fellows. The report of this unsuccessful (yet not uneventful) trip appears in the Eldon Newsletter - Winter 2001. To briefly re-cap, we not only failed to locate the Tanne du Bel Espoir entrance, but we were also thwarted by torrential rains which made the traverse of the system impossible. Three of the 2001 team returned for more and were joined by Mike Salt, Pete Pollard and Dave Cowley.
The team gradually assembled at the municipal campsite at Thorens Glieres, Haute Savoie over several days. Gary and his wife Paula arrived first on Sunday afternoon after a leisurely drive down over a couple of days. Nige, Pete and Dave took the sensible option and caught a flight to Geneva, arriving at the campsite late Monday night. A tired Mike and Jase arrived early on Wednesday afternoon after setting off from Leek the previous evening. Those already there took a trip up the Diau resurgence on the Tuesday and reported that water levels were low.
Nige, Pete and Dave were spending the Wednesday doing the Trou du Glaz - Grotte Annette through trip (trip report to appear elsewhere) so the other four took the opportunity to recce for the Bel Espoir entance early on Wednesday evening... Parking at the Chalet de l'Anglette it was about a 45 minute walk up to the Parmalan Plateau. The scenery up here is amazing with superb views towards the snow-capped Alps. We spent a couple hours up on the limestone pavements trying to find the entrance but to no avail. As nightfall set in we retreated, not having found the entrance but we had a rough idea where it was.
By Thursday morning the other three had returned from Dent de Crolles after a good but tiring trip. However, they were keen to take advantage of the ideal weather conditions and do the through trip today and so it wasn't long before we were bagging rope and setting back off up the precarious mountain track.
Back up on the plateau we resumed the search for the elusive entrance. We were using Martin Kaye's maps and directions (TSG Journal 15) for this as Paz's directions were considered inadequate (putting it politely) following the 2001 trip!
To cut a long story short, we spent all afternoon on the plateau looking for the entrance. In the hot sun. With heavy bags. Getting knackered. And we couldn't find it. Anywhere.
As sunset approached, and with shades of three years ago heavy in our thoughts, we headed back to Chalet de l'Anglette for some welcome food and drink. Later, back at the campsite, we looked at the maps again and came up with various theories as to where we were going wrong.
We were up early on Friday morning (well, fairly early) and yet another trek up to the plateau. We had left our ropes and gear up there the previous evening which made for a lot easier walk up. Failure to find the entrance today would leave the trip in doubt. Well we were in luck! Taking a left-hand turn off the main track a bit earlier than we had done on the previous days and suddenly the map made perfect sense. A mere 15 minute walk from here down to the entrance.
By the time we had been to retrieve our bags (and sat out a light storm) it was 2.30pm. Dave rigged the entrance shaft from a tree and we were underway! Pitches two and three quickly followed and were rigged by Pete, making a daring swing on to a precarious ledge at the bottom of the second. Jase rigged pitch four and wasted a bit of time route finding before prusiking back up a few meters to pendulum on to a ledge. This is the start of the infamous 'toboggans'. Note: first toboggan differs from TSG description as it's quite big - no 'letter box' to enter feet first. This is the second toboggan - tight and sharp in places but not too bad.
Out of the toboggans and a few muddy pitches are followed by a spectacular abseil in to La Salle des Rhomboedres where we stopped for a quick food break - several of the upper entrances to the system converge at this huge chamber. More big pitches soon followed, the largest being Puits des Echos (45m). With five out of six running carbide, some of the pitches looked awesome with the level of lighting.
By the time we got to the tributary streamway (Affluent des Grenoblois) we were approximately five hours into the trip. The pitches became wet, further apart and with one or two exceptions, shorter. By now we had a good mode of operation going with Nige and Pete at the front rigging. Mike and Dave derigging and Gaz and Jase working rope bags forwards to the front pair. However, this didn't always work successfully, much to the annoyance of Mike and Dave!
Pitches were now coming thick and fast and we were making good progress through the cave until, after a total of 24 pitches, we made a final abseil into the Diau streamway. A second food stop was made shortly afterwards at La Salle du Chaos.
With several of the party feeling the cold we didn't hang around and after a ten minute break all that remained was another two hours of fantastic river passage. After about 30 minutes the odd cascade and traverse began to look familiar as we got to the point where we had recce'd to three years earlier. The main point of note here was that Pete lost his wellies in a deep pool and, unable to retrieve them, had to complete the final 2 kilometres of passage in just his wetsuit socks!
Finally reaching the impressive Salle do la Carene and through the massive entrance chamber (La Grande Salle d'Entree) we exited in to the warmth of the night just after 11.30pm - the trip had taken a little over 9 hours which isn't bad going for a party of six.
The remainder of the night and most of the next day was spent drinking/eating/sleeping before we each departed on our separate return journeys home after an excellent weeks caving.
Special Thanks: To Paula (Logistics Manager) who spent much of her holiday dropping off and picking up cavers at various remote places / taking people to pick up / drop off cars etc. Much appreciated.
Finding the Entrance
Parking at the Chalet de l'Anglette take the right-hand path which rises off the main track.
At the top of here the path is sign-posted straight on (Grotte l'Enfer) or right (Parmelan) - carry straight-on.
Shortly path goes down into a dip and up the other side of a wooded valley until turning sharply right around a 1.5m diameter pothole.
Continue on path as it rises and returns to heading SE until it reaches another signpost. Left is sign-posted Grotte l'Enfer. Straight on is sign-posted Parmelan. Go straight on.
Approx 50m after signpost turn left at the elbow bend.
(if you reach the vast Parmelan Plateau you have gone too far, turn back!)
Follow dry valley down on to limestone pavement (lapiaz).
from here either:
a) Follow a series of small cairns in generally SE direction for approx 800m until final steep decent to entrance (look for big red sign nailed to a tree).
b) Follow map in TSG 15.