Mark R, Chris H, Chris A, Tom H, Simon B, Lizzie H, Luke N, Tom L, Maddie D, Mark K
Azkonarrak lurpeko - BBPC Pierre Saint-Martin 2014
Summary of useful information for future PSM trips
Getting there. Pierre Saint-Martin is really far away; explore the possibility of flying, or the Santander ferry. If not then stop on the way down – doing it all in one is horrible.
Access to the Verna. SE of Sainte Engrace the key can be collected from a village on the way up to the cave. Opposite the church the key can be obtained from the bar – their English is limited so make sure you have your permits on you! The map that comes with the permits clearly shows where to park – don’t deviate from it or you’ll get shouted at! You’re also supposed to return the key at the end of each day. When you are in the cave from the bottom end the key should be left behind the statue in the small hollow to the upper left of the door.
Route finding. There are a couple of places where you can get lost. Before the through trip it’s worth some reconnaissance from the bottom up, i.e. go in and explore the Verna, then press on as far as possible – preferably as far as the Wind Tunnel.
Entrance finding. We initially applied for a permit to do the SC3 entrance but critical maintenance work on the piste meant that we were given a 2 day slot to descend the pre- rigged Tête Sauvage instead. For the Tête Sauvage entrance. Approx 2km walk, 50 mins without kit.
NB it is possible to drive up the rough path almost all the way to the entrance but a 4x4 will give you certainty here.
The entrance differs significantly from recent descriptions as the wooden rectangular frame which enclosed it (with a ‘trap door’) has been completely removed and the rocks/boulders which had been piled around the entrance have been flattened out. A red metal rod marks the entrance amongst the limestone pavement.
For the through trip. The system responds quickly to times of wet weather and the pitches can quickly become impassable. The streamways can also respond but in theory if the pitches can be passed comfortably then the through trip should be possible.
Our 2 day permit window allowed us to leave an extra day since the last episode of heavy rain and we encountered no difficulties due to the water.
There are plenty of opportunities to get lost, so prepare a route description and survey to bring with you.
We took snack food and caved from the surface to the wind tunnel in wetsuits then changed into furrys and sprinted out. Done in this manner and with no problems or route finding difficulties it's a really straightforward trip and no bivvying kit is required. Even so, it's nice to be prepared so we took lots of water, ample food and a thin foil bag and candle each.
11 am, I leave Southport, fresh faced and enthusiastic, I set off across the Peak to meet Mark at work in Chesterfield. After a very brief stop and a detour from the A6 (as it was closed thanks to CAN), I arrived to meet Mark, eagerly awaiting me at his car at 15:30. A quick car swap and then we were on our way, only a little behind schedule.
On the way down we played a fun game with Chris A’s car as we decided to pretend that we’d left Evil Tom at home in order to upset Lizzie. The game was effective and after a couple of hours sat in London’s newest car park (the M25), we arrived at the ferry with minutes to spare, and having realised what was going on Lizzie wasn’t talking to me.
We regrouped on the ferry, ate some truly disgusting food, and before we knew it we had arrived in France. By far the most exciting part of the ferry voyage was being given a very early and very unexpected birthday present from my badgery friends (A shiny new AV and accompanying furry with a singular ‘skull’ motif – thanks guys! ?).
Thus began our seemingly unending drive down through France. Any description I can offer will do no justice to how unpleasant it was, suffice to say that we didn’t arrive at a random supermarket until 14:00. We did a big shop, and then there was another hour of driving left to do until we finally arrived in Sainte Engrace – 26 hours after I left home.
The gite was split into an up and downstairs contingent and a couple of us had to share beds, but apart from that there was plenty of room to frolic and we were pretty content with our little home in the Pyrenees.
Not long after arriving we were introduced to Martin (Barney) Barnicott, an Eldon PC member with a little experience in PSM who joined us for the through trip. He also speaks a hell of a lot more French than the rest of us which proved handy in a wide variety of situations. We explored the village, ordered breakfast from the nice patisserie man, and had an early night after a few drinks. Chris H also brought along our PSM t shirts, so we all sported them 24/7. Mine was a lovely pale green which everyone said made me look like an apple. Cheers guys.
A nice lie-in was a relief as I had fears of Mark getting us up at quarter-to-ridiculous and making us walk to a cave. Instead we had a leisurely start and breakfasted in our own time. Barney joined us and Mark and he went off key hunting whilst the rest of us gathered our kit and gained supplies from the village providore. By 15:00 we had driven up the tourist track and parked up at the roadside, ready to walk up to the EDF tunnel. I slipped on my brand new furry and skipped around excitedly enjoying my newfound comfort. The plan was to have a look around, admire the Salle de la Verna, and do some route finding. The walk up to the cave from where we parked is only about 600m, but uphill and in the humid heat adorned with heavy caving shit, it wasn’t much fun!
Once we were outside I wiped off as much sweat as I could and we all kitted-up. The door to the EDF tunnel is a big metal jobby with an incredible draught howling out of the key hole (which I used as a super sexy forehead de-humidifier). Once the door was open the draught reached across the pasture and a few frenchies on the other side started frantically gesturing for us to close it with the greatest possible expedience. We shifted through the tunnel (which isn’t the most exciting thing, but is very easy going), and suddenly emerged in the Verna.
Easily the biggest space I’ve seen in a cave, and despite coordinated efforts to illuminate its extremities, I couldn’t really take in just how big it is. Regardless, we spent a good few minutes admiring the imposing vastness of the place before moving on. We headed in the general direction in which we hoped to find the rest of the cave, and a nice noisy river made sure we were going the right way. At this point it struck me just how cluttered the Verna is, and I have to say it is a shame as I do feel it spoils it a bit. It’s not obvious how much of it is due to the cave’s hydraulics jobs, and how much is due to the show cave, but there is an unfortunate amount of concrete and metalwork in there which detracts from an otherwise awe-inspiring piece of cave.
After a very short while however, we left the clutter behind and began following the river (which is the general rule for route finding down there, with the exception of the odd time when it’s necessary to scramble up/down/over/under boulders in order to avoid getting wet. The river disappears now and then and at one point we foolishly turned away to explore an adjoining passage, which didn’t go anywhere despite being coated in reflective tape and cairns, so we returned to the river – never trust French cairns.
By 17:30 we decided to turn around having got about as far as Salle Adelie thinking the route to be relatively obvious from this point. In retrospect, pushing on from that point and doing all the route finding in one day might have been a better idea, but we live and learn!
We about-faced and exited relatively quickly, not stopping for much view-admiring as the plan was to return the next day to push on further. The weather at that point was a little damp so we were worried about it being too wet to do our through-trip, but more reconnaissance the next day would hopefully put our fears to rest.
We returned the key to the bar, had some beers, and returned home for dinner and sodomy.
Feeling that everyone else who had volunteered to help find the Tête Sauvage entrance was incompetent I joined Maddie, Tom, and Barney whilst everyone else went off to continue the bottom up route finding. We set off to the village where we knew the ski resort to be (Arette la PSM – not to be confused with the village of ‘Arette’, circa 15km NE) and we did a bit of nosing around – before deciding that it’s not particularly nice. We then failed to help a French woman find her dog and set off up the hill. The walk wasn’t too bad without kit and in the shade of a few clouds. We bumped into an Indonesian group led by a French guide. Barney chatted with him for a while and the rest of us nodded sagely, pretending that we could understand. After a while we bade farewell and carried on, and Barney explained what had been said. Essentially the Indonesian group had been forced to turn around after less than 250 metres of descent, as the waterfalls on the pitches had made them impassable. This was disconcerting, but the French guide had added that with no further rain forecast, a group attempting the through-trip the next day would have better luck, and that by the time our turn came around we would almost certainly be alright.
Arriving at the plateau we were met with a huge limestone pavement going on for a few hundred metres in each direction. Huge clints and grykes with 5 or 6 metre gaps in between them are littered with massive shafts which posed a huge problem for finding the right entrance. We wandered for 40 minutes or so searching for the entrance, as we understood from the description that it must have a wooden frame around it. Little did we know that it had been recently altered, and in fact the first hole that I had investigated turned out to be the right one. Confirmed by the presence of pre-rigged ropes, and also the group doing the trip the next day turned up and chatted to Barney for a bit. They sounded optimistic despite the Indonesian group having turned back.
We headed downhill pretty quickly after we’d had a bit of lunch. We then set out to find a supermarket, losing Barney in the process! We shopped and were home within 30 mins, awaiting the cavers, and preparing a glorious feast of tartiflette.
The 7 of us set of to do some cave exploring at some time approximating lunchtime. The plan was to drive to the very top to drop off gear and then go park in car park II. Upon arrival at the top we got into an argument with a French bloke who owns the place (so he said) and said we were forbidden from dropping off gear due to an inability to drive or something. We suited and booted 4 million miles away and engaged in the walk. Little Chris enjoyed it so much he went back to do it twice. We finally got into the cave after fixing my light’s disco mode, and a short easy walk later we found ourselves in the touristy lit-up Verna. I would describe it as ‘large’ with several others going for human comparisons. We took it all in, then headed for the streamway. The river was really going for it today, gushing over the dam as it hammered down the passage. We kicked on and with a substantial pace we didn’t half cover some distance quickly. It took us just over an hour to reach Salle Adelie, the point we reached the previous day in over 3 hours. We kept on bombing into new territory until we met a new challenge; some rope hanging down a wee hole at the end of Salle Queffelec. SRT on, one by one we slithered down the hole, finding yet another huge chamber to marvel at. It would seem that no part of the cave is small, as we kept finding ourselves at windows overlooking huge chambers.
As time ticked on we got deeper and deeper into the cave, following ever more vague instructions. It was getting very hard going as we climbed mini mountains of boulder-slopes at the end of Galerie Metro. Time and distance was hard to work out as we desperately tried to figure out the instructions. We got to what we thought was Salle E. Casteret as we hunted for high-vis tape and cairns. Approximately 3 and a half hours after we started we approached a huge formation and mud path that seemed strangely familiar…
We had walked in a huge circle. We sat down and had a group cry, deciding to just go home. Chris H, Bead, and Mark R decided to re-try for the way on while the rest of us went home. We were pretty exhausted so went at a steady pace, trudging along but at least not getting lost. It took us 45 minutes to get from lost point to limit of yesterday point, everyone warm, cold, and soaked all at the same time. More bombing along and we were back in the lit-up Verna in no time, 5 more minutes and we were out. It took us one hour five mins in total to get out from the point where we were yesterday, despite being k-nackered.
Good trip, very sweaty!
So after the great fuck up with the route finding, Simon, Chris, and I went back into the cave to try to find the way to the Wind Tunnel, and more importantly, the way back.
We diligently followed the description Barney gave us from the Wessex (Patrick Warren). There were elements that weren’t quite right but generally as long as we didn’t try to convince ourselves that what we saw fitted the description, the route finding went OK.
We passed the camp in Salle Lepineux and touched the Norbert Casteret writing on the wall which felt quite a special moment. After less than an hour we were at the aptly named Tunel du Vent. It was wet and cold!
The way out was pretty well marked and we didn’t have any real problems. Just follow the well-worn route and the tape.
Thankfully we had some trail mix to ease the way out and we were back to the car park in 3 hours.
We then went home and ate Luke’s incredible tartiflette. God I wish I was as awesome as him (you thought I wasn’t going to notice this Luke?.. ill leave it in anyway ;)
Another non-caving day was originally on the cards, but as I hadn't seen the Verna lit-up for the tourists, I decided I would tag along with a small group going in to take photos. However, once everyone heard that I was going, everyone wanted to come along.
We had an outdoor lunch as the weather had finally picked up. We then decided that taking photos would only require us to pack our helmets/headtorches + a jacket. In true BBPC fashion we managed to make this last three quarters of an hour, so I went for an ice cream, and by the time I was back we were nearly ready for the off.
We stopped at the bar and tried to pick up the key for the Verna. I was assigned the task of convincing the 17 year old garçon to surrender it to me, and there were a few minutes of confusion whilst they searched for it and I internally debated as to whether it would be acceptable to buy him a drink in the mean time...Eventually it was found under an ashtray (God knows why) and we made the bumpy drive up to the cave, followed by the unpleasant walk. I ran off ahead as it looked as though there might be a tourist group in there and I was cursing myself for missing the lights the day before. There was a brief interlude in my jog as TomTom and I pissed about with a wheelchair for a bit, but then I resumed yomping down the passage with my weighty load of flashbulbs and suddenly burst out into the Verna.
I wasn't disappointed and a combination of breathlessness and an audible 'wow!' resulted in a few minutes of tourists giving me funny looks, but I didn't care; I could properly see the Verna for the first time, and proper illumination made me forget about all my concerns about clutter – its nothing compared to the sheer size of the place.
I didn't even notice the others arrive around me and Simon told me that I was smiling to myself – I wasn't surprised! Its really impressive. Nothing I've seen before even comes close.
We then had a quick lesson from Mark in how to set-off flash bulbs, and ET and I climbed down almost all the way to the bottom of the chamber (once the tourists had left and the lights were out again). We had a couple of radio instructions and set-off about two flashes over about 20 minutes (actually quite good fun) and then heard nothing from the photographers for about an hour – turned out to be a radio malfunction.
Evil and I sung dwarven songs to each other and after another 40 minutes we heard that everyone had given up – so we climbed back out, and then after a little regroup I said goodbye to the Verna – thankfully not for the last time.
We exited the cave and by some sort of divine intervention we managed to avoid being crushed into paté by a monstrously proportioned HGV. Back to the cars and we trundled back down. Mark, Lizzie, and I got separated from the other cars, and went to investigate the gorge (after returning the Verna key to the under aged barman and his demented grandmother). Apparently it costs a whole five euros to go in so we decided against it. We then looked at a dam, a bridge, a cat, a lizard, a woodpecker, and several beer bottles, before having dinner outdoors for the first time. Mental.
Pre through-trip prep day. Took it easy and supermarket sweeped so we could eat once out of the cave, and then manned around in the river for a bit. As TomTom put it, so much manliness happened I won't go into it; you'll only feel less of a man.
7/8/14 – Mark
The previous day post cave clothes were loaded into mine and Chris A's cars, ready for our exit from the cave. At the same time, we loaded all our caving gear into Barneys 4x4 which he would drive up to the cave. With a four wheel drive you can get to within about 50m of the entrance. Without, it's a 45min to an hour's walk.
It may have been the early night, the enormous vats of mashed potato, or the excitement and apprehension for the coming trip, but I didn't sleep all that well. Alarms went off at 06:00, we forced down masses of porridge, and were off for 07:00.
Mark came, Chris saw, Luke conquered.
We began the day at not too early O'Clock. We had copious amounts of 'porridge' and piled into the cars for le cave du grande. The start of the day was full of success as we lost Barney and wasted many weeks scouring the hillock. Once we were all together again, we wetsuited up and manned our way to the entrance. The entrance is somewhat insignificant given the huge cave system that lies beneath, and the rigging and pitches were instantly awkward. I missed having comforting Y-hangs around as I mounted greased-up pitch heads, rigging my descender with 1.5mm cord. Down and down we went, a little duck (canard) through water to keep us on our toes met us near the end, which seemed to chill the leading party when we finally regrouped.
With the pitches mostly passed, we moved on as a group, Little Chris dancing at the back as he held in 12 gallons of wee. Next there was an awkward handline followed by a tour of a rubbish tip (bloody French). Fairly quickly it became obvious that up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, was the way on. Considering this was supposed to be the wet bit, it wasn't that wet, but I soon gave up on emptying my wellies as it was just in and out of knee-deep water. It's all a bit of a blur but I remember some fairly scary fixed rigging and temporarily losing Mark K. Eventually we got to part one of the very wet bit. Several people went for the handline by-pass but considering we were about to swim, I took the lazy option and followed C-Dizzle through the chest deep water.
A bit more up and down and we were at the scary deep bit, Mark R, C-Diz, and myself going first. Moving at a steady 120mph we shot along and into deep water, pulling like crazy along the handlines to escape the ice-cold water. I followed the other two up some boulders to escape the wetness, surely there was more to come! That wasn't too bad...Mark led us to a dry and less windy spot and we started to change into furries. We had heard a recommendation that we should stop in aragonite chamber to change but the reccee team earlier in the week had dismissed that as it meant stopping immediately after the swim to get changed and then crossing the river again to get back on track.The 'nasty' part was over somewhat painlessly.
We all slowly regrouped in our lovely dry furry suits with some badgers choosing to 'free-ball'. A spot of hot chocolate and saus down us and off we went again, weaving through the boulders and up yet another handline. We didn't really pause again until we got to the old camp with the memorial to Marcel Loubens. We were now only a couple of minutes from where we got lost the other day, so relatively close to home. We passed through a boulder-choke held together by a small amount of grit, and dropped into our home-from-home, the Metro.
Up, down, up, down, up, down, following the river to the final rope climb of the day. We mostly free climbed (balled) it and then sat to regroup for the final push. Our final slog was oh so familiar and in what seemed like minutes we were at the last handline down above the hydro-dam. We had our long and final regroup just minutes from freedom, and then made a break for a sub-9 hour trip. Mark R, Chris A, and I ran the last bit through the Verna and out the EDF tunnel, heading for the warm, sticky sunlight. According to Chris' timings we were out in 9 hours 2 minutes, lying down in celebration. The others came out in groups, no more than 10 mins behind, we had all flown through what we had assumed would be a 15+ hour trip, tired but not broken.
What an amazing trip, the previous trip into the cave helped so much and I would strongly advise good prep for the future Rowter through trips.
So all in all, great free balling success.