The French Trip

After receiving the last newsletter I remembered all the promises to Jim of articles. (These I had written, but unfortunately lost on the move from one house to another.) So an article on the Red Rose trip to France.

After spending an entire day just looking for Gouffre de la Henne Morte, carrying 300 foot of rope in dense primeva1 rain forest, we decided that the best policy once we had rnoved down to the village of Arbas, was to make sure we knew where, the potholes & caves were before carrying all the gear up first.
By the time we eventually got around to walking up to find Grotte de Pene Blanque & Pont de Gerbaut it was almost midday; whew, was it hot! The walk up the hill was a very sweaty affair, when we came upon a stone with P. de G. written on it with an arrow thus  Andy & Dave Irons detailed themselves off to find Pont de Gerbaut whilst the rest of us followed an increasing number of red & black stripes painted on trees & rocks.(we should, have learned our lesson looking for Henne Mort not to follow these trails!) This led us along the  ridge and right onto the summit Of Pene Blanque. This can’t be right! Then I vaguely remembered Jim Newton giving me directions. Turn right onto the ridge (which we had done.) then follow the rock face down to the left.( What rock face ) So I backtracked & dropped down the left side of the ridge and eventually found a rock face. (Jim had said “Keep going down until you feel a cool breeze and then look up”) So I continued down & down & down, how much further, can it be, I wondered. Suddenly, the air became quite cool. And there about 40 feet up the rock face, Grotte de Pene Blanque. I shouted to the rest (somewhere on top of the mountain.) hoping that they hadn’t gone off in disgust without me.

The entrance to Pene Blanque is one of the most impressive I have ever seen, a large phreatic tube going straight into the rock face. The 10 x 30 foot entrance is split in two by a large, rock pillar. What looked like a tricky climb-up was easily done even without the hand line in place at the time. Shortly, the others arrived & were also impressed, we milled around for about half an hour & then decided to set off back to the minibus, The scramble back up was a hard pull, but over the crest of the ridge the going was easier (downwards). Back at the bus Andy and Dave found Pont de Gerbaut. In the village I got talking to a young French speleo who had more detailed information than our somewhat sketchy master plan (Courtesy of Frank Addis) and the outcome was that Andy, Dave, Gordon and myself decided to do P. de G, while the rest would have a look round Pene Blanque.                                      We were to do the trip on ropes.

The climb up to the entrance was not as bad as the day before because we were much earlier & the sun had not risen. Dropping down the massive entrance crater the cool breeze from the hole was very refreshing. Andy was volunteered to go first. There was already a rope on the pitch, which was belayed three times (as were all the French ropes we saw). The final belay being on an overhanging lip eight feet out over nothingness. It took Andy about hour to get onto the rope after some incredible acrobatics. He then descended to test the rope. The pitch was 150 feet deep.  Next it was Dave’s turn & he took about as long as Andy managing to get himself tied up in a tape (This seemed to be the order of the day for Dave.). By now the cooling breeze was becoming. positively cold.

Gordon was next, he was determined not to have the hassle of passing bolts & changing ropes hold him up, he had two descenders. (Locking off on one, putting the other descender on the next, loop. & locking off, & then removing the first descender & moving along.) Gordon & I made much faster progress than the previous two simply by being able to watch what not to do. By now I was beginning to wish I had put more clothes on. Eighty feet down the entrance pitch the rope was re-belayed, which is where I changed onto the much thicker French rope. On three bars, almost unheard of on my Lewis racks. The landing was on a rather unstable boulder slope.

Andy & Dave had gone on ahead leaving Gordon & mse1f to descend, the next pitch (40ft.) which was just down the boulder slope. The rope was a free hang, but to get to it one had to use a 15 foot traverse line, the last ten foot having no footholds. By this time I was very cold & extremely pigged off with this hole, and I decided to make my way out. Gordon, looking for a good excuse was to come with me.
Then Dave arrives saying the way on is much easier and that they can hear running water ahead. So Gordon & I decided to give the hole another chance & we descended the 40 foot pitch with gay abandon. A lot of free, climbing followed and then a pleasantly easy 70 foot pitch. Next a 20 foot pitch followed immediately by a 15 foot, ladder pitch, (Not even the French could SRT this pitch.) Soon we began to hear the sound of vast quantities of running water. The passages began to be restrictive. There was no running water. The sound was caused by large volumes of air rushing through the narrowing passage frequently extinguishing even the very large carbide of Gordons.  We climbed down into a walking sized passage - all was very quie. We came upon a 50 foot high flowstone pitch  as there were no more pitches to be descended, this was obviously not the way on. The time was getting on, so we decided to head off out. I had great difficulty getting off the top of the ladder pitch, (too tight) & Gordon spent a good twenty minutes trying to get off the top of the next rope pitch. The 70 foot posed little problem. On the 40 foot, I prussiked up to the bolt, transferred my roller to the traverse line and bodily dragged myself along the traverse by brute force. (Thinks: I will have to use a bit more finesse on the next pitch.) I walked up the slope to the entrance pitch admiring the superb shaft of 30 feet diameter all the way to the surface. As I sat at the base of the rope I thought who is going to be brave and be first out. There was much shouting from the bottom of the previous pitch “Get a bloody move on, Leach”. The decision was made. I was the lucky one to go. up first.

So off I prussiked up to the bolt where I did a difficult changeover due to there being no slack whatsoever, Then my bottom ropewalker kept jamming due to the amount of muck on, and the size &.squijjiness. (I only print this. ed,) of the rope. Eventually I arrived at the top, very cold & knackered, what am I to do now? I have to cross 8 feet of nothing & also ascend another five feet. Firstly, I do a changeover on to the Marlow which we had hung down on one of the numerous spare bolts. That gained me about 18 inches in either direction Then I changed back to the  French traverse line; roughly horizontal (If a slack line between two bolts can ever be described as horizontal) & prussiked along to the next bo1t. From here my bottom two rope walkers are no use as there is no vertical rope to attach them to. This was where my roller rope walker came into its own, in conjunction with my spare rope walker. These were both attached to my sit harness, and moving one & then the other, slowly worked my way up & along the rope until I got onto a foot hold from where I bodily pulled myself over the large rock perched at the entrance. That was not an experience I want to repeat!
By now, Gordon had prussiked up to the middle bolt and was doing a changeover to pass it. I lay exhausted in the bright sunshine, watching the suns rays forming rainbows on the damp air exuding from the hole.

Much grunting, puffing, panting and Gordon arrives. He quickly assesses the situation, What the hell do I do now? (All four of us had completely different prussiking systems, so each had his own particular problems.) Gordon decided to change over to the Marlow, but unfortunately Andy had moved up to the half way bolt, and because there was so little slack :in the rope Gordon could not release it from his chest box. So a lot of shouting, up & down the shaft, takes place and eventually Andy abseils back down. Thus Gordon can get off that rope and on to the Marlow. Slowly he performs many engineering miracles and inches his way to a firm foothold. He takes about the same time as myself, approximately ½ hour. Gordon is also very relieved to get off the rope.

Andy arrives, and he too has a chest box that he cannot get off the rope –why? because Dave has prussiked up to half way bolt. (Lack of slack; etc, etc.) However Dave boxes cleverly, to take his weight off the rope he clips on to the bolt, thereby providing the slack. All this took some time and Andy is hanging by his chest harness (duff gear), his face going blue and complaining that he can’t breathe. By the time Dave had removed himself from the rope we were getting quite concerned about Andy who looked as if  he was going to go unconscious On us. However, freed from his restriction, Andy changed on to the Marlow and was soon moving freely again. Very little finesse and much pulling from Gordon & I gained Andy solid footing again.

It was Dave’s turn and he soon appeared at the top, where he proceeded to attach himself to different bolts with tapes here & tapes there. The unfortunate part was, he couldn’t get off the rope because the crab holding him refused to open due to his weight being on it. Dave tried & tried for about an hour and was becoming absolutely spent so we decided to lifeline him just in case. Then someone had a good idea, why don’t we put a second lifeline out via a crab in a bolt above him and take his weight while he frees himself. This was done and the whole affair was taking on the appearance of a spiders web.
The idea worked, and he managed to transfer to a tape and off the dreaded French rope. He now spent a good ten minutes untangling the mass of tapes he had spun about himself. By pulling on one lifeline and letting out on the other we gradually got Dave across the void.  

Now we were ail extremely cold & tired. It was getting late dusk. The sun having long gone. As we walked out of the entrance and under the rock bridge (Pont de Gerbaut) and up into the dense undergrowth, the heat hit us. I never imagined that humid heat could be so pleasant. We trudged our way back to Dave’s VW and arrived back in Arbas at about 10 o’clock. The others were beginning to be a little concerned to the point of discussing coming and looking for us, while they drunk their litres of frothy beer.

The moral of this story is that Pont de Gerbaut is a ladder trip, we should have been in & out in half the time and been less tired. The only snag would be carrying the tackle up to the hole. The rest of the group had been festering in Pene Blanque, where they kindly left a rope in for us to retrieve the next day.

G. Leach.

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