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The writings on the wall.. A SPECTACULAR weekend caving in France

 

Reseau Felix Trombe- French Pyrenees

 

Robbie S, Mark R, Bob Toogood, Johnnie Lattimer, Martin Barnicott
5-7/02/2011

 

Several weeks ago, Robbie had been approached by Martin Barnicott (AKA ‘Barny’) to go to France to photograph a spectacular formation- the Blanc de Blanc. Bob Toogood, an old friend of Martins had put the pair in touch and Robbie had asked me to come along to help with the photography and enjoy what would be a very good trip. Johnny Lattimer was the final member of the team to assist with the photography and, as it turned out provide some fantastic humour.

 

We awoke on Saturday morning at around 0730 and all piled into my car (Johnny having driven all the way down from the dales already). We were flying from Gatwick to Toulouse where Barny would meet us and take us on to his house.

 

Upon arriving, we were immediately struck by the bright French sun and blue skies; we jumped into Martin’s car as the layers started to come off and before very long were out of Toulouse, off the toll roads and winding our way through the spectacular French countryside towards the mountains. Martin’s house is nestled in the tiny hamlet of rouax, it is an extended old barn built in a very tasteful way which blends in sympathetically with the sleepy rural mountain landscape.

 

We sat around for a while chatting and browsing caving books and headed down the road to the village for some food. We were greeted by a very friendly French man who shook my hand a little too long for comfort and said something to Martin about my height whilst laughing away.

 

The restaurant was simple but nice with a great atmosphere and the 5 steak and chips we ordered were delicious, not to mention the 10 or so carafe’s of wine we got through! Back at Martin’s house, we finished off another 2 bottles of wine and settled down for the night in our temporary beds in the old barn section of the house. Johnny and Robbie had found something to tease me about which they both thought was very good sport so we whiled away a bit more of the early hours with amusing banter before one by one falling silently into a deep, wine induced sleep.

 

 

Saturday
We woke around 9 ish and quickly got ready for the cave, Martin seemed surprised that we needed 4 Daren drums of flashes and a peli- case of camera gear but all would become apparent later! We parked the car about 20 minutes drive from the house up a forest track and set off through the woods to find Martin’s new entrance to the Reseau Felix Trombe. Martin had called the entrance ‘Serendipity’, it was a short walk up the hillside to the entrance which was a very lucky find indeed. The first few pitches were fairly Yorkshire-esque down to the squeeze. We had been told that there was a squeeze near the start and a bit of crawling towards the end, but otherwise we were expecting a series of lovely big shafts and house sized fossil stream passages. It wasn’t long before we realised that this pre-conception was perhaps not entirely accurate as we grunted the camera bags through squeezes and sharp knobbly rifts for a couple of hours! The cave walls were covered in lots of places with ‘popcorn’ formations which were lovely to look at but very good at tearing oversuits, as 3 out of the 5 of us found out!

 

We finally emerged from Serendipity into Recuardo de Rodella (memories of Rodella) which was a very good sized passage. From here, we walked and scrambled over blocks and up a couple of walls to the junction with the Maillon Manquante (missing link). This portion of the cave was huge, vast avens and large chambers came and went as we progressed towards our ultimate goal. We replaced a rope that had previously broken on Martin at the bottom of the Avenue Futile and headed up this to the Blanc de Blanc. As we approached the formation through a wide bedding plane that pinched and flared, the formations remained as they had been throughout the cave- nice but not special and always a pale brown colour. A shout from the front of the group signalled our arrival and as the Blanc came into view, it took my breath away.

 

The bright white column was perhaps 4m in diameter and fell vertically from a void in the roof for about 10 or so metres before hitting a ledge and cascading down into a large hole as a wall of fluted flow stone. At the bottom of the hole, perhaps 30m or so below could be seen a vivid turquoise lake. The walls and ceiling around the column were adorned with smaller but no less spectacular curtains and stalagmites, all of which were the purest, bright white which stood out all the more against the muddy brown character of the rest of the cave. We carefully traversed past the formation, skirting a delicate dried crystal pool and abseiled down the far side to a mud bank. We all stood here for a while, in absolute awe of the spectacle in front of us, only the rumbling of my stomach reminded me we had a job to do but first we should relieve Martin of some of the food he had been carrying for us all. A quick lunch of bread, pate, cheese, fresh tomatoes, more pate and mackerel in a mustard sauce was enough to spur us into action for the photographic challenge.

 

After telling Robbie that he would rather not be in the picture himself, Martin was left standing whilst Robbie positioned the rest of us about the place out of shot with the flash guns and then put Martin centre stage on the climb next to the column! In order to get behind the Blanc, I took my wellies off and tip-toed over a flow stone floor where I could crouch, out of sight and looking down into the lake. The picture was made pretty quickly and a second was done from the reverse angle, this time with Bob in the foreground.

 

Once satisfied with the results, we packed up and caved back out of the Avenue Futile and then down through some further squeezes and climbs to a large window below the column just below the point where the flow stone from the base of the Blanc cascades off the lip of the ledge and forms another series of spectacular curtains. At this point we found a couple of spits in the wall and rigged a rope down to the water of the turquoise lake. I took the waterproof flashes down the rope inside my oversuit and hovered a metre or two above the surface of the water. Martin then got on the same rope and ‘posed’ for the next shot. The result of the underwater flash going off must have been spectacular when viewed from the window as the shouts and gasps continued throughout every iteration of the shot until Robbie was finally happy with the results.

 

It was with some sadness that we packed up and left this amazing place and started back out on our long journey to the surface. We returned back down to the junction with the Recuardo de Rodella and Maillon Manquante and turned up the Salle de Remanche. From here we moved into Berchmai and had one last stop for the remainder of the food at a pleasant sandy floored junction. The caving was a mixture of short crawls, climbs up through boulder chokes, climbs down ropes and walking along large dry stream passage. We passed through the Salle de Brouillard and into the Pen Blanc system, Martin all the time explaining where we were and what the names were for everything- Salle Dromedaire, Salle Bivouac, Salle Bouden and the Boitte de Letter (Letterbox!) were all negotiated, forming a superb series of chambers and passages. We were in for one final surprise however when we emerged into a large chamber not too far from the entrance, I noticed the floor was absolutely covered in tiny black pellets- bat shit! The roof was festooned with a large colony of bats, I have no idea how many there were but they counted in their thousands. We left the bats in peace and tackled the final crawl, emerging at the spectacular main entrance of the Pen Blanc system. The passage popped out of the towering cliff face 15m above the ground, overlooking a spectacular view of the valley. Robbie took the opportunity to snap one last picture of the cave entrance, the starry night sky and 4 very tired cavers!

 

The walk back to the car took an hour or so and was pretty hilly but the lure of food and drink spurred us all on.

 

I’m not sure what time we got out but the trip took over 12 hours or so and we went to bed some time after 0300 Monday Morning. Thanks to Martin for a spectacular stew to send us to bed on!

 

Monday
It was a slow day, aching muscles and tired eyes slowly cleaned, dried and packed away kit whilst basking in the sun. We bumbled down to the village again for one final taste of France (I’ll give you a clue- it had a frothy head and was served in a gay looking glass). The journey to the airport was pretty quiet as everyone was struggling to stay awake but we were soon there and saying our goodbyes and thanks to Martin.

 

Here is a tip for you all- if Robbie ever asks you to take something through customs for him- refuse! I found myself taking a suspicious black peli-case out of my bag and putting it through the x-ray machine for the second time, then being taken to one side. I had to explain what the small black box with a switch on the side and a long thin wire was for, what the little blue glass bulbs were, what the plain white, shrink wrapped cylinders with a red and black wire sticking out the side were and what the other assortment of coiled cables, batteries and tripod- components were for!... Thanks Robbie!!

 

The flight back was pretty uneventful, Robbie beat me at squares, I beat him at hangman then we landed. A burger king filled us all up (sort of) and we got home around 02:30.

 

A fantastic way to spend a weekend- a great time was had by all and Martin’s warm hospitality made it a very comfortable, enjoyable trip. The formation was quite simply staggering, I feel very privileged to have seen it and hope that one day I can go back to share the experience with someone else.

 

See http://www.shonephotography.com/?p=1783 for the photos!

 

 

 

Mark