Depth through thought

OUCC News 6th May 2009

Volume 19, Number 8

DTT volume 19 (2009)

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Editor: Andrew Morgan

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Deep Water Via Ferrata and Other Stories

Fleur Loveridge

I’m aware that in this digital day and age of instant gratification that people have reducing attention spans. Hence I thought I’d start this article with the “message” and get it over and done with. So, if you are planning a trip to the Grotte de Gournier in the near future, be warned. The numerous fixed wire traverses that are mentioned in the various guidebooks have now largely been removed. This should not be a problem for intrepid cavers equipped with wetsuits. But then Ben Lovett, Paul Mackrill and I didn’t have wet suits. If we had, then I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.

In fact Ben and I had even mused on the plane over on Saturday morning that perhaps we should have packed our neofleeces. But as neither of us had, that was ok; we would suffer together. Then we arrived chez Mackrill, with the aim of squeezing a few days caving in before the OUCC training weekend, and it was decided that after an afternoon of cross country skiing we would prepare to go to Gournier the next day. Oh dear. We had no neoprene. No worries, Paul assured us, he wouldn’t even be taking his plastic suit; in the past you only ever really got wet to your thighs. He mused that he knew that the French Caving Federation had been down there renewing all the fixed aids recently and hence he wasn’t sure of the rigging now, but we’d just take an extra rope to be sure.

Weather forecasts were checked, boats were pumped up and tested for entrance-lake-worthiness and ropes packed. A lengthy excursion was planned, that required deflating the boat, taking it on further into the cave in order to cross the sump, climb up above it and continue into the further reaches of the system. I went to bed excited about the prospect of a big trip in a classic cave, with a touch of hydrophobic’s nervousness about snow melt and catastrophic flooding.

The morning was cold and slightly overcast as we set off down the Bourne Gorge, carefully negotiating the hanging death icicles and loose rock potential. Surely this was more dangerous than the caving? Once changed and at the cave the boat was inflated to reveal the safety warning “do not use out of child’s depth; keep under constant supervision of an adult.” Ben and I mused about who was qualified to supervise Paul, before he paddled Ben off to rig the climb up and traverse at the end of the lake. Returning to collect me and the rest of the tackle I was treated to a surprisingly elegant and peaceful way to enter a cave.

Storming along the fossil gallery beyond the traverse was hot work, with occasional stops to view the beautiful gours. They seemed amazingly resilient for the amount of traffic the cave must see. Paul showed us the various ways to enter the river, before we climbed down at the “second entrance” just beyond the boulder choke and into the stream. The streamway was actually smaller than I had anticipated (as a hydrophobic), but cold and fast moving over the cascades.

Things started with a juggy overhanging hand traverse above a big pool. Never my favourite sort of manoeuvre I opted to wade in, thinking that this was a stream trip after all; surely I would be getting wet sooner or later? It proved only up to my thighs anyway, so no problem. Then came a canal type section and Paul traversed out, first one leg either side, then when it became too wide, hands one side, feet the other. Ben and I followed, and having shorter legs soon felt like the Jim Eyre cartoon where the short bloke approaches horizontal. Rob Garrett would have been proud of me (and yes Rob, you remember that even you had to recently admit that traverses are easier with longer legs).

Things continued in much the same vein and it gradually became apparent that all the fixed aids for the traverses had been removed. This made every deep pool into an obstacle where we selected the best side and level for hand traversing above or within the water and I prayed to the flying spaghetti monster for more longer stronger limbs, not to mention water wings. I certainly didn’t fancy a swim in my SRT kit. It was turning into a pumpy trip on the upper arms and I was grateful for my jaunt to the climbing wall with Chris a few days earlier.

Where the pools were followed by a cascade upwards, the climbing (up, as opposed to along) parts were equipped with via ferrata style staples drilled into the rock. This was seriously fun and made things a lot easier. But sadly the approach to the staples was often desperate. In one approach, the canal walls went smooth, vertical and generally handhold-less, and I had to resort to jumping/diving the last few metres to try and reach a boulder just below the water. Bloody ‘ell it was cold when it went up to your neck, and not good for your overall coherence and buoyancy either. I think “f@@king French b@st@rds” might have been the phrase I used.

Slowly we progressed onwards, sometimes traversing totally above the stream, but mostly at least partially immersed. At one smooth blank section of traverse, the others had to resort to roping me across. Later we found a wire cable high in the roof and used this, abbing and pulling through at the other end. Finally we reached the 12m cascade, which had staples all the way to the top. This was strenuous, but exhilarating as you pulled yourself up, clipping cowstails as you went, all adjacent to a superb waterfall and lots of spray.

Above the 12m cascade we found the old wires still in place in a few places and used them. They looked fairly dubious, but my arms were tired and this helped a lot. Finally we arrived at the Salle Chevalier. It had taken us about twice the anticipated time to get here, what with working out all the hand traverses to try (rather unsuccessfully in my case) to keep dry. Water was coming in all over the place at this end of the cave, which surprised Paul somewhat, as the stream itself wasn’t particularly high and it was almost like the surface was melting, but only in the lower part of the catchment. Paul showed us the way on for future reference and then we set off out as we didn’t have the time or the body heat to reach our goal. We were all really really cold from all the unexpected immersions and glad to be heading back towards the outside.

At one of the pools above the 12m cascade Paul clipped his cowstails on and weighted the old wires, then “aaarghh!!” SPLASH. The wire had actually snapped, just like that. Ben and I took the broken bits and twisted them back together. The choice was simple; use them or swim. At the first deep water without wires we inflated the boat we had been carrying with the aim of using it on the sump we had never reached. The lads then put me and the tackle bags in the boat and I floated off downstream. Utter bliss. I lay there serenely as they traversed the walls. At the end of each pool it was a faff to get out, get the gear out, carry the boat through the narrower sections and then set sail again at the next pool. But it was so much nicer and less intimidating than all that traversing. At the high wire section, which had seemed a bad idea after the other wire had snapped, we could just sail underneath.

By the time we got back to the fossil gallery I was pretty knackered. Whereas on the way in, everyone had rolled down their oversuits and still sweated, on the way out no one even got as far as taking their balaclava off, we were so deeply chilled. This in fact proved to be just the beginning of a cold week, in which everyday Ben and I put on an extra thermal layer to go caving and still came back cold. On the next day, we went to rig Les Saints de Glace to set up a Trou Qui Souffle through trip, only to find the entrance had become an ice sump.

So I got to lie on an ice slope for an hour whilst Ben took photos. The following day the three of us did a 12 hour trip to somewhere in the Trou Qui Souffle. In the big fossil passages it was cosy, but the wind adjacent to the streamways was icy. So when we went to take photos in a well decorated cave on the penultimate day, it was multiple fleeces all round and I wondered whether my oversuit would actually do up.

By the time we left the Vercors on the Friday morning, most of the snow in the area had actually melted, so it was bizarre to return to the UK and find a country in the grip of a snow panic. Having luckily chosen an airport which proved to be open, Ben and I were free to go and admire the snow in the fast lane of the M4 and contemplate the closure of both Severn crossings. It was proving harder to get to Wales than it had to the Alps. But we arrived, Ben gave his talk and a good time was had by all. Thanks to Lou for all her hard work organising the weekend and thanks to Gill and Paul Mackrill for looking after us so well in France.