Caving Stories

Pierre St Martin
Nigel Atkins - Eldon Pothole Club

July 1995 was a very special month for club cavers as quite a few clubs were present for the TSG/Eldon PSM trip. The weather was hot, supermarkets were emptied of beer and my famous legs were once again out on show. The base camp for our festivities was Arette, which lies about 10k North of the PSM and the Spanish border. On arrival at the campsite at 1.30am Sunday morning we were met by Alan Walker, who helped to get Eldon lot sorted out with transport, gear etc. The camp looked like what it was at breakfast, half a dozen different clubs in the same campsite.

I wandered over to the Eldon corner for a brew and generally annoy them with my liveliness, which usually gets on people’s nerves first thing in a morning. It was decided that the entrance pitches would be rigged that afternoon so preparations were made and by 2.00pm we were off up to the Pierre Saint Martin ski resort high upon the mountain behind us. Looking down as we climbed I couldn't help but wonder if the slopes would be as much fun sitting on tackle bags and riding the scree as they are on the Winter snow? Cars were parked up and legs were in motion towards the 'Tete Suavage'. This was to be the way in to the PSM for us as the large 1,000ft 'Lepineaux' shaft has been covered over and a building erected.I don't know whether it was because I was with my wife or that the Eldon lads were over keen, but I ended up not rigging! This was a first for me and I'm not prepared for such events. It showed and I suffered bad sunburn! You need to plaster yourself in sun block, wear a hat and take plenty of drinking water. Wandering around the limestone plateau was great fun and the holes in the ground looked very interesting indeed so I entertained the surface party with a few renditions of the 'hermit' sketch from 'life of Brian'! The walk up to the top of 'Arlas' was also on the cards but it became too hot and a hasty retreat to the shade was made.

During the walk down we passed a couple of snow banks which just had to be played with and on arrival at the car we did what was expected and got the booze out. The rigging team came down later in the evening. Monday was a day off for the riggers and as these were my mates I had to hang around as well. One must feel sorry for those who have a frustrated 'Atkins' among them. 5.00am Tuesday I was up and being lively around the Eldon camp, the gang was relying on me to get them up and by 6.15am we were off to do the through trip. My wife's car was left in St. Engrace and Bob Naylor ferried us up to PSM in the luxury of his 'always clean' Cavalier. The walk over was terrific with a dramatic sunrise and a light cool breeze. Two middle-aged ladies also took the opportunity to walk in the early light, imagine their thoughts seeing us lot lugging gear and me in just my pants!

ACCESS TO TETE SAUVAGE (1/4hr from Ski Terminus, 3/4hr from Ski station PSM)
From the ski station, gain the depression of Pescamon by taking the slope, which is almost driveable and parking cars near two chalets which face out over the town. Going up the slope, (which the French take a run at!) pass under the cable car and follow the track around to the left and then right. The area opens out here with summit of Arlas high up on your right hand side. 100m before the terminus of the piste (bergerie) you may notice the red route of the 'Pic d'Anie'. Continue on the track passing the building with the big pigs on the right and then turning left up another slope. There is a short cut to the bend for hyper people by running directly up the grassy hill and re-joining the track just before it levels off as it turns to the right.
Another track comes up from the valley on the left to join you a few meters further on at the left hand bend, turn right into a small 'pull in' with a red oil drum and follow a small path over on your left to the edge of a Lapiaz (Limestone pavement and the blue walk of the Soum Couy).

Following this path for a few metres you get to the beginning of a big lapiaz which extends for several km (the Arres). The tete sauvage is at the lowest point of the lapiaz situated in a chimney of wood 3m high which makes it possible for winter exploits. There used to be a trapdoor but this was no longer in place. Changing at the entrance was probably the most painful experience I've ever had. My sunburn was now glowing a very bright crimson and the action of rubbing it with tight fitting dry neoprene trousers and socks filled the Pyronees with screams that would've woken up Marcel Loubens! (He died in the Lepinaux shaft). Fortunately the tears running down my cheeks help to lubricate the extraction process. So I was left with a two choices, a solo walk back down the hill or the PSM without a wetsuit? My wetsuit was stuffed into the bottom of my tackle sack and I followed John Tatton down the entrance climb clad in Karrimor fleece top & bottoms and an oversuit.
The Karrimor kit that I used consisted of Hot Rock pants, a long sleeved shirt and a Hot Rock top. Having used this kit before on mountains as well as in caves, (I have four pairs of Rock Bottoms-I love 'em!) I was happy that it would stand up to a trip like this and it was very comfortable going over the sunburn! The bottoms had a tear just below the knee from coming into combat with 'bizarre twigs' in an orienteering event I ran in April, which proved to make no difference whatsoever in their performance. Apart from the sudden surge of freezing cold water everytime I went through a deep pool, (prevented by a well fitting wetsuit) once drained, the Karrimor kit kept me warm and allowed me to move quite freely without the normal restraints of a wetsuit. Having done this type of trip for 15hrs, I don't think I'll ever wear a wetsuit for caving again, (apart from diving) certainly not in the UK!

In case of rain the pitches collect water and the amounts of water can be important. In good weather they are dry. The pitches are equipped with 'Parrot' ladders (which are basically tubes with rungs pushed through them) until -180m. It is essential that you repeat them with rope. The best way to abseil past them and avoid snagging is to slide your feet down the poles until you can hang free. A group of French cavers had left their rigging in place to make the Eldon look good! From the entrance a short meander is followed by a series of small pitches and climbs until 55m. Since there aren’t many well-placed bolts in the right positions, you need to take plenty of slings etc. to construct Y-hangs and back-ups. There in the centre of the pitches of La Tortue you start on the first long meander of 40m. (The Slippery Twat!). This meander is ended by a narrower part of a 10m drop which opens up suddenly into a 46m pitch CARE! YOU CANNOT FORESEE IT!It was here that I decided to slow down a bit as the ropes were very dry and the descender was steaming. Wetting the rope from below is a problem, spitting on the descender has limitations and getting your mates to pee on you from above does leave an odour that hides with you and re-appears as you are chatting up a Dutch girl on the return ferry crossing.

With quite a few people doing the trip over the next couple of days I tried to imagine the state of the ropes when we pulled them out, but I remembered that we had Murph with us and he's the master of 'rope glazing' so he could do it in one go! (I think he used to sell it door to door!) At the bottom of the pitches, (-117m) the dimensions of the cavern increase, 2 small climbs come to a boulder section under which are found the pitches of Damocles (25m). On the de-rigging trip a strap broke on a tackle sack and begun hurtling down the pitch towards three people. "Below!" was cried as Alan at the top was in a safe spot and Steve Murphy was sheltered under a block. The bag got hung up on a parrot ladder 3 rungs above John Tatton's head, which was lucky for the bag!  After these pitches, 3 climbs of 5, 2 and 7m lead to -180m at the end of the fixed aids.
From there 2 pitches of 32m and 17m can pose some problems in case of floods (equipment out of the water recommended). One arrives at -220m into the second long meander of 30m and P10, R3. There is a narrowing after the R3 and access to a P21, which is very wet. A third shorter, wider meander follows and opens up at -270m to the top of a P92, which is in reality a succession of small verticals not exceeding 25m. Deviations hanging from the roof and far walls make this easier to negotiate. At the base of the P92 follow a small stream which soon disappears (le soupirail). A short 'duck' (3ft high with only 2ft of air space) follows, so nip through it on your front lying on your tackle sack and listen to other people’s reactions when they see it.Past the soupirail a fourth long meander of 60m leads to the top of two shorter pitches from where one can perceive clearly the noise of the tributary bassaburuko, which runs into the bottom of Salle Cosyns. The top of the first is dangerous reaching a level of sharp rocks. Past these pitches, which are also wet, one opens into the Salle Cosyns by a balcony ledge at mid height on the left. You can descend directly into the room via an easy climb, best use a short pull through rope as the hand line in situ looks like a retired one from the ACME Pyramid Construction Company. Rumour has it that there a route via a fissure, which rejoins the river and re-climbs into the room by a big block (-284m). Bob Naylor's idea is to employ the services of a Steve Murphy to stand at the base of the climb and jump on him. Timetable 1hr 30mins if rigged, 3-4hrs if need to rig.

The most practical way starts behind the big block in Salle Cosyns and after 20m you get to a fossil gallery which further on falls into the base of a deep pool. At this point an easy climb of 4-5m leads to a higher gallery which bypasses the pool. Here the water is crossed easily and one reaches a short re-climbing gallery, which is terminated by a climb of 7m, which it is necessary to climb. A new gallery of 30m and a climb of 6m to descend (rope indispensable) must be crossed in order to gain a final climb of 8m to descend (rope) which leads to the river. follow it for 150m until the ceiling lowers. Look on the left for a hole in the wall/ceiling? which opens into the Salle Pierrette which runs into another river, which is the tributary Max Couderc.
A hole in the left wall leads to a small chaotic gallery, which ends itself at a pitch (re-climb). The following passage is between blocks on the right hand side of the gallery, 15m before the pitches. After a low passage one re-finds the stream which follows for 150m in avoiding some of the pools change direction (and go home?) or by the fossil passage on the right. One enters Salle Monique (100*30m) which you cross on the left. It is towards the end of the hall (marked by ugly traces of holidays), that you change into wet suits. At the end of the hall is a descending fissure of 6m into a pool of 20m length, wading on left-hand side. Soon after you enter the vast hall SUSSE 280*50m. In this place climb onto the large boulders in order to reach the highest place in the hall. From there one will gradually get into the right part of the room using an angle of big boulders. Piles of rock and tape mark the passage.
At the highest point of the massive boulders you can see a route via a handline heading down to the left side of the chamber - do not enter. Stay always on the summit until it starts to drop steeply on the left, past several small climbs over boulders which are not stable and continue in a vague line towards the right hand side down to the base of the large chamber. You now rejoin the active course lost at the start of the hall, which has quadrupled since the Tete Suavage.
Here begins the 2600m Grand Canyon.

This is the most beautiful part of the crossing having no problems at the smaller parts of the river but in cases of flooding becomes dangerous if not almost impossible.
The wide gallery of 1-10m is very high. The river is almost always present. The immersions are frequent but pools, which are too deep, can be avoided some what with careful observations of submerged ledges and blocks with the exception of the tunnel du vent.

In the first part of the canyon the river runs after several rapids on a bed of sand and gravel. The banks avoid immersions (therefore saving energy and complaints). Four barriers of big blocks cut the progression. The passage is at mid height and the way on is clear. The last two barriers are the most important. A little bit after the 4th barrier at 1200m from the salle susse, the walls clamp together and the way on is entirely in deep water (0.76-1.2m deep) at the small bit of the stream. This part is the most dangerous in case of flooding. The water can climb there to several meters and the current can be violent. An enlargement of the gallery and the apparition of new beaches of polished pebbles mark the end of the aquatic part of 300m. A little after the walls close in, the roof lowers if one follows the river but a high level gallery is accessible by an easy climb of 6m.  One reaches at this point the Gallery of the Marmites.

This gallery is fossilised well and is cut by many deep wet holes. Towards the middle, a delicate climb of 5m can be by-passed by re-climbing a small tributary. The climb, decorated at the top with some old wire ladders, had a tatty bit of rope with a couple of loops in it, but it should be noted that this may not still be in situ. I suggest you do what I did and take a certain Mr Chris Moorcroft (who has no fear of slippy and awkward climbs) along with you, send him up first with a rope and get him to lifeline the rest of the group! Towards the end of the gallery a small breakdown is followed for 20m which ends by a climb of 2m. There the aspects of the face changes brutally and it opens into a climbing gallery full of boulders.
Follow this for 20m and re-climb on the right a climb of 4m, which gives an enlargement of the gallery (in order to avoid a long aquatic passage, which requires a dinghy). Moving on around several large boulders, you will arrive at the ancient campsite of the Grande Corniche (waste bins). The long Corniche (8m long, 80cm wide) indicates the end of the gallery that you re-join later by an easy climb down of 8m.
d'Hidalga - Galery Principe de Viana
This gallery is almost oval, always fossilised, very high, 2-4m wide to the end and with a notable enlargement on the left to several meters of height At 100m after the Grand Corniche, a mass of block in the middle of the gallery mark the new change of route: It is necessary to climb the left face for 5m in order to re-find yourself in the widest part of the gallery. From there one accesses always on the left to several passages, lateral and muddy, that you will follow in order to reach the top of pitch Hidalga (25m). The exit to the top of Hidalga is gained from the top of a long muddy climb on the right. This easy climb, (shunt?) with tatty gear hanging down not to be trusted, steps over a 14m drop near the top. From the top of Hidalga you can see from 25m the gallery that you left at the 5m climb. The top of Hidalga is the entry of a big new gallery descending over to the right with (your back to the 5m climb), the gallery Principe de Viana, you descend first of all a steep and bouldered slope which is ended on the left by a lower down passage.

There you re-join the river of la Pierre and the progression is made in a series of pools of which the first 50m length is by places to the limit of the height of pontoniers. There are a variety of holds on the right hand wall. An enlargement forming a hall after a re-climb in the boulder/debris marks the end of the gallery. In re-descending from the other side of the hall you soon reach the low roof above the first pool of the Tunnel du Vent.
You can leave this short pool after a few metres to climb up on to the right into a small chamber (man made?) which opens again to re-enter the water of the Tunnel du Vent, to the congruence of the tributary Darlas. This main pool, deep and 50m in length according to the guidebook, requires a dinghy. At most places, the ceiling is low, the air current is violent and the passage often sumps off in flood.

This was it, the moment we had all anticipated with bated breath and the point at which I desperately did not want to put my wet suit on! Although by now my legs had become very numb from the extremely cold water, it was the thought at removing the trousers with half a pound of leg flesh still in them! (Some may comment at this point whether or not there is indeed that much flesh there to start with). Alan inflated an inner tube to float me over on and had made his way through the tunnel to the other side. At this point everything seemed to go downhill very dramatically and in true Eldonian tradition. After a few "pull the rope" type cries, Tat yelled pull it all back, it's crap"! This was the magic phrase that sent us leaping headfirst into the green and very UN-inviting cold water.
I dived in screaming "get out of the way, I'm comin' through" clutching my buoyant tackle sack and shouting "Eldon Bastardos" many times at the top of my voice. I think it was a mixture of anticipation, extremely cold water, the wind blowing a hoolie and laughing hysterically with my mates at the whole situation that got me through in my now 'not so dry' gear! There was a fixed rope in the roof over towards the right when we went through and this made the crossing quite easy. About two thirds of the way across the cold water got to me (still in my fleece kit) and I went short of breath for a second. Just as this happened, my foot became caught on some submerged wire and pulled my face into the water.
I reached up and grabbed onto the wall, gathered my thoughts and freed my foot. On reaching Alan at the other side I could tell that he was happy at everyone blasting through without any problem. Past the Tunnel du Vent, it opens out into the large halls of La Pierre. Dinghies and wet suits are no longer required from this point. First things first, so the brew kit went on followed by much stripping off and tip toeing over sharp boulders. I couldn't believe the amount of stuff strewn across this area, it looked like camp 1 in the Berger. Those sachets of cup a soup are brill for these situations but not good enough for the Moorcroft man who set about a full scale meal of 'Chicken a la squashed slug supreme'.

Tunnel du Vent to Salle de la Verna

This is the most complex part of the trip. From the Tunnel du Vent to Salle Lepineaux, many teams have become lost in the enormous chaos of boulders and rescuers have been called in several times, Most are people who have managed to find their way after several hours. For this reason, a fixed route set up was set up in 1985. From the resting/changing place up from the Tunnel de Vent, follow the markers along the right hand wall down. After several passages to cross boulders you reach the base of a big boulder which re-climbs towards the right. Re-climbs 20m then turns sharply to the left in order to find, between blocks, a passage which gives access to Salle de Navarre (220*50m).
In Navarre, start descending the boulders staying at about 20m from the left wall. At the end of 150m you arrive at a low point of the hall then you climb staying 10m from the same wall. 50m further you walk the length of that wall and tackle another coplex zone, very chaotic, where it is necessary to re-climb between the blocks on the right (do not leave the marked route). Once this passage has been crossed you arrive at the foot of a 10m climb which looks like the most un-likely place to progress.

Climb this and it brings you on to the top of an excellent viewpoint over the chamber. Electric lights come into their own here and we had a mixture comprising of two electrics and five carbide set-ups. The way on is on the left side and is a climb to the next level.
There was an old wire ladder in place but the climb alongside it is very easy. The hall ends there and you continue to climb into the right hand part of a vast chamber (30m wide).
100m after the R10 you arrive under the pitches of the Lepineaux, at the top of the hall of the same name. The route skirts the right hand side before a steep descent among the scree leading to a fine and very pointed boulder. At the base of the boulder take the left and pass infront of the camps and several words described by M.Casternet to the Memory of Marcel Loubens who was laid to rest there in 1952.
A little further down the hall ends itself in chaos of blocks, which dominates the hall 'Elizabeth Casternet'. Reach this by descending a climb of 10m (rope useful). In the hall E. Casternet, descend the rubble and boulders the length of the left wall for 50m until the overhanging passage which makes a clear narrowing, but which opens at the same time into La Salle Loubens in keeping to the left part. There are some fine gour pools towards the bottom, sadly vandalised, offering the first water since the Tunnel du Vent. Just after, a flat gallery presents itself, Le Metro.

The Metro is 600m long, flat for the first 150m and varying in aspect from when you re-find the river. Next you follow the left wall, the length of real walk? The progression without problem dominates the river of the PSM. A high barrier of blocks marks the end of the Metro. In following the left wall, one wins this barrier, but a hole between the blocks you can see the length of this wall, a new hall above. This natural hole is often equipped from a level of 10m, but the climb is relatively easy. One penetrates into the Salle Quaffelec, that one crosses for 200m always following the left wall. Towards the end of the hall you will avoid descending into an obvious gallery, but you will re-climb on the left towards a balcony from where leaves a higher chaotic gallery.

After 50m the gallery turns to the left. You will find straight ahead between the blocks a low passage of 2m in height, which gives access to the Salle Adelie. Continue by following the left wall. One looks over by 30m the depth of the hall where the river flows. At the end of 50m, the passage turns and an awkward manoeuvre (fixed traverse line) leads to an incline up to a small hill which cuts the room in two. From this hill a steep descent along the left wall leads to the river where you reach the depths of the hall.
There you enter into an active gallery of 10-15m in width which you follow on the left for 100m to a small fossilised gallery and a distinctive rock sculpture with a slab roof (man made?). The current of air becomes strong and you soon arrive at a pool with a low ceiling. Sliding on your front over the small ledge on the left allows you to cross without getting wet. 10m further on you enter into the Salle Chevalier (380m long). Climb first a small barrier of boulders under which the river loses itself. The hall has a characteristic V section.

Descend to the left-hand side of the V for about 120m, then cross the river in order to find on the right a spacious turning. From the turning a new footpath leads to a climb down on the right which is easy to descend. The hall ends here at the end of the climb. The boulders re-join the river on the right and a balcony avoids a large waterfall. La Verna is no more than 200m from here and you can reach it either by crossing the river or by some passages among blocks on the right. In case of flood this last option is advised. The two routes join at the summit of the Verna to the depart of the footpath En Corniche? This balcony on the right side of the chamber is easily recognised by the handrails, which lead to the artificial 'EDF' tunnel.

At this point you gaze in amazement from 100m the depths of the hall of a diameter of 250m. The river plunges into a series of cascades 80m in height. We spent a good few minutes just taking in the atmosphere and reflecting on the adventure that the last 15hrs had given us.
Sitting at the entrance, breathing in the early morning mountain air, kitting up and losing a fight to my wet suit seemed like days ago. I wonder if my wife is getting blotto in the pub with the lads? A unanimous decision to about turn and march like troopers down the EDF tunnel which I found out was to hit a massive underground water way which would supply the Pyranees with water. Ha, bad move, didn't work, but gave us a much easier way out than re-tracing our steps to the Tete Suavage! At the exit of the tunnel was the most amazing draught, which provided much fun for the door monitor. The locks on the steel doors could be opened from the outside as well as inside so you don't have to worry about keys. The cabin on the surface can give a well-appreciated shelter.

We were greeted by thick fog, a very humid night and massive frogs. Murph had a vague description of the way down and promptly took off down it. Tat didn't believe him and moaned a lot. The cave was very enjoyable but the track down became a real pain in the A**E!
Made up from almost entirely small limestone lumps, I think it was built by Seigfried and Roy as part of their magic act - Ladies and Gentlemen, the track that has no end!

I'd left the car in a pretty good place, down hill from the chapel, and the beer was soon extracted from the boot. We had to leave three people there by the road whilst the rest of the team were taken back up the 12km road to Bob's car at PSM. The drive back to the campsite seemed to take forever. On reaching the camp I felt lively again and wanted to share my experience with everyone. Thankfully Becki shut me up and I live to cave again!
Key for La Verna from Arsip on St. Engrace town hall.
Nigel Atkins, Eldon Pothole Club

'Inverted Prussiking', Birmingham NEC