La Merveilleuse.

Whilst out in France this Summer to do the Traversée Trols Betas-Grotte de l’Adieu we bumped into some French cavers. We managed to get some information from them about other caves in the area and Seb, a ‘youth’ of just seventeen said he’d take us down the Merveilleuse. (He was desperate to prove himself as he’d taken us on a wild goose chase looking for a cave in another area which supposedly had a 18Cm entrance pitch!) We set off from the campsite at 9-ish (morning that is!) to go up to the Chalet d’Anglettaz. We nearly didn’t get there as the car coughed and spluttered and struggled its way up the Route Nationale. A victim of French road surfacing - smear the road with tarmac, throw a pile of gravel on and hope it sticks! Well it didn’t, not on the road anyway, but it did a pretty good job on the brakes and in the carburetor. After coaxing the car up the mountain, we kitted up and started walking. The Tete du Parmelan is an extensive limestone plateau, starting at meadow level where the Great Yellow gentian are in abundance, up through the pine trees onto the limestone pavement which stretches out as far as you can see. the alpine plants provide a magnificent splash of colour in the dazzling whiteness of the limestone pavement and in the distance you can see the Massif du Mont Blanc. We walked up the track opposite the chalet and then cut off to the right through the wood for 20 minutes or so until we reached the entrance.
We had a choice of pulling through or leaving it rigged and coming back out. The main factor in our decision was the fact that apart from the first pitch the cave was already rigged, and it had been rigged for ten years! Unless we carried enough rope to re-rig the whole lot we would have to trust those ropes to prussik out on! The other problem was that we not find our way through, but Seb dismissed that possibility, after all he was with us and he knew the way! We weren’t entirely convinced after his efforts the day before but decided to take the risk!

The first pitch (20m) down the entrance shaft led to quite a tight awkward squeeze along a sloping rift, this popped out into a small chamber, the head of the second pitch (48). We examined the ten year old ropes and maillons carefully. They appeared to be all right which was just as well as there was no way out but down! The next pitch (23m) followed on after a short meander. The pitches were great, quite open with nicely fluted walls. On through the rift we came to a ladder. The wall here were quite sharply scalloped and lying in the hollows was a fine sandy grit. A handline took us down the rift which was too tight for a ladder or rope but needed something to stop you sliding down. this was especially awkward as the tube of my carbide lamp kept coming off and plunging me into darkness just when my arms were pinned into the rift, as far from my lamp as they could be!

Three more pitches (21 m, 29m, 29m) took us into some phreatic passage. We followed the ramps sometimes up, then down, stooping, crawling, and walking until we reached the streamway. We carried along the muddy banks as the river channel deepened and eventually disappeared to the left, we went tight following the ‘dry rout - thick muddy glooch! It half filled the phreatic tube which would otherwise have been quite big. We met the river again but then left it and continued along a high rift passage to a large chamber about 8m wide and 1 5m high. The way on was to the left but we dumped the bags and traversed to the right along a narrow rift passage with a stream in the bottom and climbed up to a small but high chamber with a mega echo. We made lots of noise, enjoying the sound of our voices ricocheting around the walls, and then headed back!

We squelted along the muddy ramps until we came to a narrow, high vadose passage with a load of flowstone on the right hand side. At the end of this we dropped down two very greasy ladders into a small chamber with a wonderful phreatic archway leading into ancther phreatic tube. A labyrinth of passage followed, all very muddy, some walking, some crawling, some flat out - all very squalid. Following the draught we continued on past several quite substantial inlets and avens which Seb said hadn’t been looked at because there was too much to look at on the surface! Further on Keith and Dinny slid down a mud toboggan only to find that we should have turned left down a muddy tube a little way back - reversing the slide proved more difficult and very entertaining as they struggled to stay on their feet!

The muddy tube turned out to be a network of interconnecting passage, I think we went up and down most of it as Seb tried to find his way to somewhere familiar Just as our knees and elbows were starting to scream for mercy from the sharp pebbles we were crawling over Seb recognised where he was. We had met the stream again and had to traverse over it to a short climb onto a ledge, round to the left and then down a greasy handline into a large stream passage. We could hear the roar of the Bunant (the main river from which the cave system takes its name) on our left but we continued on through some pools.

As we rounded a bend to the tight we saw the sunlight reflecting off the water, and looking up we followed the shafts of light to three holes, like windows which looked out onto the valley below. It was both unnerving and exhilarating looking down to the valley floor from 10Cm up the side of a cliff. We had to abseil about 20m to a narrow ledge; Dinny caused great alarm as he managed to set fire to the foliage with his carbide lamp on the way down! Reaching the ledge we rounded the corner and were confronted with our next obstacle - a 100m traverse along a narrow ledge about 100m up a 200m cliff! Not only that but the traverse ropes had been there for around ten years on a south facing wall, and the rock was extremely chossy as Seb insisted on demonstrating by pulling most of it off and watching it gleefully as it crashed down the gully! Too young to have any imagination! Anyway it looked worse than it actually was and we were soon changed and ready to set off on our next epic -the climb back up the mountain to our cars, interesting to say the least. An E1 on grass with nothing more to hold onto than the odd willow tree. Keith eventually thought that he had found a good rock hand hold which promptly came off in his hand. A size 9 wellie promptly came hurtling towards me as he grasped at tree branched as he tiled to halt his fall! Intermittent spells of panic were not made any easier to quell as Seb constantly checked to see if we were all tight, usually from a stance well above us. We began to wonder what the hell we were doing outside when we could have been safely underground. What was that about not trusting ten year old ropes?!

Anne Hodgson.

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