Bob had been saying for some time that he wouldn’t mind doing a few canyons so we planned a week over at mine when we could do a few as well as a bit of caving.
He arrived at Toulouse after a bit of a fraught flight having been a victim of the recent increase in airport security but then who could blame them for that.
The forecasts were none too good but at least he arrived on a good day so in the afternoon we were out doing a little prospecting to stretch the legs. We found a couple of new holes, one of which I will have to go and have another look at as it was draughting in quite significantly but the initial chamber appeared to have no way on. Worse though was that we collected a good few ticks between us.
Next morning was grey but still dry so we headed over the hill to the Coume where I wanted to have another look at EPC 36, a hole I had found last summer and pushed again over the winter. An initial crawl leading to a short pitch with an awkward take off, followed by a second pitch of about 30m. At the base of this the little stream I had seen before was roaring and supplemented by another coming in from another inlet. We pushed on upstream almost reaching the known end of the cave but a squeeze in the rift at floor level was too daunting for us to push any further. So we back-tracked and returned to the base of the pitch and then continued further downstream to the sump, awkward back and footing on mud coated walls over deep water. The levels must have been a good metre higher than I had seen before. We then decided we were wet and cold enough so did what one should do in France and retreated to the bar in the village square. EPC 36 is interestingly placed with the upstream passage coming from an area of the Coume without any known caves and for sure is the upstream end of the sump in the Gouffre Pablo. We haven’t surveyed it yet but reckon it to be about 40m in depth and possibly 300m of development at present with a fair bit to go at.
On the Sunday we returned to the same area in the woods to have a look at the Trou des Enarques. The entrance has been known for a long time but no real information as to what lays below. Sylvestre, who compiled the ‘Big Red Book’ of the area, had asked me to have a look and report back as he is in the process of writing the next great volume. We had dumped the kit from the previous day nearby so we had room to carry in more rope plus the Makita and bolts and……. After hanging the wet stuff from the day before out to dry we had an hour or so wandering around further up the slope looking at various hole including EPC 40 which was the one I really wanted to visit. Eventually we returned to the Enarques and made ready to descend. The hole was blowing a hooley as always. Sadly the first few metres were extremely muddy due to the recent rains. It is a rare thing here to get overly mucky when caving here, but for Bob it was just like home. Immediately I spotted bang wire leading in to the hole with a relatively recent krab holding the spool in place so it looks as if someone else has been interested in it after 20 years or so of nothing. Anyhow the mud passed and through a convoluted squeeze and 60m of descent saw the bottom. A very interesting prospect, we just now need to find out if anyone is active there or the remnants of the diggers is much older than it appeared.
Bob and I then loaded up packed all the gear out and went home for a BBQ. Just as we were finishing off the bottle of Soberano the heavens opened and we had to get all the washed kit in and start another bottle inside. Next morning there was no improvement so we brought forward the trip to the Guara and headed off to Spain. Just before the border the sun appeared and from then on we were in 30 degrees for the next 3 days.
The Sierra de Guara is reckoned to be one of the Canyoning Meccas of the world with literally several hundred quality trips all centred on Rodellar. We found a camp site which was surprisingly quiet in Yaso, it had a good bar and served food so what more was needed.
Monday morning saw us leaving the car in a small car park about 9-30 and heading off on the long approach north to San Saturnino. This is the biggest problem of only having one vehicle when canyoning. A couple of hours later we began to descend the watercourse. Easy at first and slowly becoming more encased and inescapable. I had chosen the Peonara Sup as our first canyon because it was long not too hard, did not require much rope and had long swims. (Perfect in those temperatures). We had expected it to be reasonably busy but we saw not a soul until we approached the end. There we passed 3 or 4 groups that had entered lower down than us. We passed the groups fairly easily but fully expected them to catch us up at any moment, surprisingly they were all considerably younger than us and we would have thought fitter. Bob and I then carried on after the point where the majority leave the canyon and entered the Peonara Inferieur, slightly harder, a bit more committing, longer swims and a bit more rope work but still an extremely pleasant canyon. We had by now mastered the technique of lying on our backs supported by the buoyancy of the wetsuits and rucksacks and just being carried down the canyon. Finally after a fairly long extremely narrow section of the canyon with out of depth water we emerged at a picnic spot where we would exit and head back to the car. By this time it was about 18-30. An hour and a half later of an uphill grind in fantastic country with crags and setting sun we got back to the car, the camp-site, the bar and did what we do best……. Help the poor bar staff earn a living!
Later that night we were approached by a couple of the canyon guides that we had passed earlier during the day. Initially they seemed to suggest that we were a bit slow in the canyon and avoided the watery difficulties getting back as late as we did. This compounded Bob’s thinking that he was moving a bit slow despite my reassurance that he wasn’t. Then they realised that we had not only done the two canyons but also 15k of walking they changed their tune insisted on shaking Bob’s hand and joined us for some more drinking. It transpired that one of them was the chap who has written just about all the canyoning guides for the Pyrenees, so we felt we weren’t letting the Eldon down.
Sleeping well, not sure if that was the copious amounts of brandy or the exercise we had a later start the next day followed by a leisurely morning playing tourist and eating a late breakfast in Rodellar. True mad dog style we began the walk in to Formiga, the canyon chosen that day at 14h. 36 degrees, no shade and no water to drink. Both of us had forgotten it. Still the tactic payed off as Formiga must be one of if not the most popular canyon in the area. Loads of groups could be seen or heard finishing as we walked in. Fortunately the one party we encountered at the start asked us to go in front and we soon had the whole canyon to ourselves until right at the end where we encountered the last of the large groups playing in the deep pools.
Enough was enough and we would need a day off if we were to do more so we used the Thursday to drive back to my place and do some more caving in the Coume.
The Friday found us where I really wanted to be…EPC 40. A project that had been found, lost and the re-found, entrance excavated and then the floor had collapsed beneath me and opened up into a 60m pitch leading into what is now called Wensleydale Chamber, just to confuse the locals. This is a huge high aven with several areas of interest but the howling draught sucks you in to a gnarly meander which though not long takes a while before you arrive at another fairly large chamber which has an active stream in it that disappears beneath blocks, The way on is to climb up and over the breakdown to the head of a further pitch to re-join the meander at stream level, this is gnarlier than the first section and is at present the limit of our explorations. A team of fit, small and younger speleos is needed for this. However I recovered a bag of bolting kit that had been there for months and we retraced our way back to the surface. Convinced that after the next tight section we will for sure connect with the Sarrat and gain yet another entrance into the system that must have more possibilities of big through trips than perhaps any other yet known.
On the following day we met up with Sylvestre and embarked on one of the recent classics except we were going to do it in the reverse sense as due to heavy rain forecast later in the day we did not want to have to deal with the water levels preventing our exiting the Goueil d’hyer, which is the active river at the lowest point of the whole system. A fantastic river passage led us to an insitu rope hanging free from the roof of one of the larger avens. SRT kit on and a 30m jug and we were in the fossil galleries and general chaos of the Bourusse. From here on several hundred metres of free climbing through a dry gruyere cheese (10k of surveyed passage in a 400m cube) found us arriving at the foot of another big pitch. The Puit Joseph is mostly free climbable again but the presence of the rope was extremely welcome. At the top of this we joined the classic Louis-Bourusse traverse which we have both done before. A left turn and a half hour or so later we surfaced into warm but grey conditions and were left with a rapid stumble back down the hill to the vehicle we had left about 5 hours previously.
Sunday was wet but we had to do something so we headed over into Ariege where we did two big traverses. The first, Mas d’Azil, was so good we did it thrice. No undue difficulties as there was not too much traffic despite it being a Sunday. We then headed towards Foix paid our monies and went on a barge through the Labouiche another grand traverse but this time we were on the river with electric lights, dams and a guide.
Finally Monday morning I got up early drove to Toulouse, deported Bob back to the UK and returned home to ponder my next trip with Derbyshire emigrants. Will I be having as good a week with the Buttered Badgers in the PSM in a weeks’ time?