RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 36 Number 2 Article 2
June 1999

Summer 1998 - Caving in the Pierre St. Martin Area

The team : Pete Hall, Johnny Braindead, Carmel Ramwell, Beardy.

During early 1998, some of our Dutch friends enjoyed some classic potholing in the Yorkshire Dales. They invited a small group of the Red Rose to join their P.S.M. expedition. In the end, four (lucky ?) Red Rose members made it to the Pierre.

Pete, Johnny and myself had spent an exhausting week in Matienzo before driving to some obscure French ville to collect Carmel who had flown out from the UK. It was Sunday 16th August when Pete's super jalopy rolled into Oloron, a supposedly small French town. About an hour was spent scouring the town, which was in the middle of a large fiesta. Eventually we found Miss Ramwell relaxing outside a bar.

After a beer we crammed all the gear and the four of us into Pete's car and set off in search of our campsite. Following "Dutch" instructions we followed the scenic route in a torrential downpour and about 25 yards visibility. We eventually arrived and camp was quickly erected. Johnny and myself then quickly regretted letting Carmel and Pete go for supplies.

The weeks caving began on Monday. Carmel and I joined a party going off to find the upper entrance (the SC3) and carry all the tackle to the cave. We were being shown the way by someone who had been here 20 years ago and things had changed. Along lots of now disused paths we stumbled and eventually found the entrance after about 2 hours of wandering. Unfortunately an extremely large ski piste had been bulldozed through the beautiful karst scenery all the way from the car to within 20m of the entrance. This reduced future walks up to a more reasonable 45 mins. Whilst we were wandering about the plateau, Johnny and Pete went to sort out the bottom end of the cave. Upstream from the La Salle de la Verna to the Tunnel du Vent - piece of duff was the considered opinion.

Tuesday again saw the Red Rose party split, Carmel and I spent a day shivering in the SC3 waiting for the Dutch team to rig the entrance series, 340 meters of pitches. good practice for the Dutch but a really strong cold draught chilled the waiting rearguard to the marrow. We left before the final few pitches had been rigged. Meanwhile Pete and Johnny went off to rig the 317m deep entrance series to the Gouffre Lonne Peyret.

The highlight of the trip should have happened on Wednesday, the planned SC3 - EDF tunnel through trip - one of the worlds classic through trips. But to preserve Anglo-Dutch relations we had to bow to political pressure and not attempt the trip. (Less said - the better). However the Red Rose remained keen and undertook to see as much of the cave as possible. We strolled up to the plateau and went to have a look at the Tete Sauvage. Here we met a group of Spanish speleos about to descend. Pete ranted away in Spanish to them and we wished them well on their traverse, before carrying on up to the SC3.

The four of us made a rapid descent of the pot which gets better the further down you get. The last pitch "Liberty Bell" provides a classic 54m free hang. At the bottom I had to go off briefly to be "ill" before we sped off through the cave. The way was well marked and the caving easy, gradually increasing in size until the monumental proportions of La Salle Susse was reached. We pushed on downstream until the Grand Canyon was reached. True to our word we did one of the hardest things I have ever done underground - turn back. (The way on was open and inviting - the traverse was in the bag - we reckon that a time of 8-9 hours would have been probable.) But promises were promises, so off we set back upstream.

15 minutes later we met the Spanish Party that we saw at the Tete Sauvage still descending the cave. They were quite surprised to see us making an exit and Pete arranged for us to detackle the Tete Sauvage for them. This entrance was definitely less pleasant than the SC3, a duck, the tight Meandre de Torture and lots of wobbly scaffold "pidgeon poles" didn't endear the cave to me. But we were soon back in camp for the most disgusting meal I have had in a long time - Spinach and Sardines, specially selected by Miss Ramwell.

Thursday - no rest for the wicked. The hardened RRCPC team set off to achieve something. A descent of the Gouffre Lonne Peyret (-717M). The entrance series was rapidly plummeted on some rather thin 9mm and at -317m the proper caving began. Huge galleries were traversed with lots of boulder hopping and climbing. After about 45 minutes the party split and Pete Hall and I set off on a dash to the bottom. Whilst Johnny and Carmel continued at a more reasonable pace.

A few in situ ropes were handy on some free climbs and before long the Embarcadere (a lake at 500m) was reached. Here we had to strip off furrys and don wetsuits as a large stream was now followed through lots of canals, lakes, cascades and steeply dipping (30 degrees) streamways with a sandstone floor - Superb sporting caving. A pitch that was described as R6 "may need a rope" was a serious 10m pitch that needed rigging from hard-to-find bolts on the right hand wall looking downstream. By 5pm we were very nearly at the bottom, but disaster struck - we lost the way and spent the best part of an hour looking for the way on. Eventually we sorted it out and the Salle Styx (the bottom) was finally reached at 6pm. It was an immense chamber not dissimilar to the Verna and, with the bottom ticked, the long exit began - no easy way out here.

We had arranged for a Dutch team to meet us at the entrance series at 7pm which was obviously not on the cards so we just moved as fast as we could. Pete had to scrounge some unused carbide from my generator as all the food and bide were stashed further up the cave. Putting wet furrys back on was definitely unpleasant and we stumbled back to the entrance series at about 10pm - completely wasted.

Carmel and Johnny had left us the most gorgeous Nestle Milk (Rocket fuel!) and we heard shouts from above - the Dutch had waited - (Stars!). The slow prussik out began. The pot was soon detackled thanks to the Dutch teams help (as there was no way we could have done it ourselves). Eventually a weary team plodded back to the car, camp and tea!

The best bit was yet to come - Pete Hall sitting up in the tent struggling to zip his pit up. "What are you doing Pete?" "It's hard zipping this bag up when your knackered!" What a trip! Do It.

Paul Swire

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