Volume 38 Number 4 Article 2
Grotte de la Marveilleuse - Réseau du Vertige
5 July 2001
Paul Swire, Carmel Ramwell, David Foxton and Helen Blyth.
Another fine day in France dawned. (For the uninitiated, dawn is something witnessed during late evening at the Farm, generally just before bedtime. However, for certain members of the party, it was a phenomenon never before witnessed so early in the day.) The group consumed a sumptuous breakfast of muesli and yoghurt before Carmel, David and I got into the car. Eventually, after completing his ablutions (1), we were joined by Beardy, and we sped off in the direction of L'Anglette.
Following our arrival at the beautiful Thorens de Glieres, several days before, and the successful completion of our first caving trip, we were keen to extend our stay. Consequently, there was much searching in A travers le Karst for a suitable through-trip. The trip from Grotte de la Marveilleuse to Reseau du Vertige sounded perfect. Some local cavers had also recommended it to us. However, the route description was somewhat vague, describing the latter part of the route as anyones guess. A reconnaissance mission into the bottom entrance was suggested, but as this is rather precariously positioned, the idea was soon abandoned.
And so it was that the Fearless Four (or should I say three and a half as Im not very good at being fearless) made their way to Chalet lAnglette. We were soon on the terrace drinking coffee, with the dulcet tones of Davids friend Eeyore in the background. The coffee obviously had the desired effect, and I headed into the chalet to brave the squatty toilet, leaving Carmel to sweep up, with the aid of a puppy on the end of a broom.
The short walk to the cave passed without incident, save for Beardy and I being abandoned. We decided it would be foolish to risk getting lost, so we stayed put. We expected that the two fit members of the team would find the cave in no time. A mere four hours later saw David return into view and we were soon all to be found at the entrance (literally a stones throw from where we started). Carmel supplied our carbides with the last foul drops of water from her bag and we were off!
One by one, we launched ourselves from a tree, into the surface shaft (about 20m). I was surprised to find myself on a huge snowdrift, not something that I had ever encountered in a cave before. It gave a certain chill to the air that was welcome respite from the heat above. From there, one has to tackle a special ladder (big metal rungs drilled directly into the rock) that leads to a pulpit. Progress from there is via a slide. A slight narrowing follows, leading to the head of a spectacular 48m pitch, Puits du Clocher. Various short climbs and pitches followed, the lengths of which bore no resemblance to our description, thus sowing a seed of doubt in our minds. This was the right cave, wasnt it?
Soon we found ourselves in a meander. After a short drop down, the meander continued, but progress was via a climb up to the head of a pitch. Ahaa... we all thought, this must be P29. One by one, we made our way down the modestly named pitch. According to our description, this would mark the end of the main pitch section. We should be about to enter the streamway and vast galleries. Excitedly, we pressed on, only to be confronted with a climb and a 30m pitch, soon followed by another! We all got that sinking feeling, in more ways than one. Then logic took hold; all the pitches had been rigged for pull through, so even if this was the wrong cave, there should be a way out. However, would our ropes be long enough?
We pressed on, eventually finding ourselves in a streamway. From here on, the book description of anyone's guess proved to be surprisingly accurate. We adopted a follow that draught approach. However, there were one or two highlights.
An almond Mars Bar (lunch), got a mixed reception, but Carmel and I liked it. After lunch, we discovered copious quantities of mud. The mud was interspersed with some short (muddy) pitches and traverses, which were quite a surprise. Shortly after that, we encountered another special ladder. Progress up this was somewhat trickier than the first one; the rungs, our hands, our feet, the bags, our clothes and the lifeline were all liberally smeared with the most slippy, slidey mud that you have ever seen. Personally, I found it particularly awkward, but I eventually managed to reach the top, successfully imitating a beached whale.
On we went through the muddy maze, until some surprise pitches led us to some clean water. Here, attempts were made to wash off some of the mud. I must admit that I am a dirty little tyke, and didnt try very hard.
Suddenly, much to our amazement, there was light and fresh air at the end of the tunnel. We had made it, without so much as a low ebb between us!
It transpired that there were a couple of exits, but the correct one is obvious, as it is necessary to abseil from the cave. It was truly dramatic. Imagine a cave that brings you out half way up Malham Cove, and you are someway to guessing what it was like. You abseil about 25m before landing on a decent sized ledge, although it is still several hundred feet up. From there a fixed traverse line (rope), of questionable vintage, is clearly seen. So far, so good. Round a corner and the path/ledge diminishes somewhat, and you see that the traverse continues for what seems like 100m.
There was nothing for it, I would just have to negotiate the traverse, I couldnt let the others think that I was a wimp. I set off gingerly, trying not to notice how the rope had been weathered, or the blobs of rust that took the place of bolts. All was going well, but as I looked ahead, I noticed that the rope was hanging in a long, low loop. Closer inspection told me that one of the bolts had popped out of the wall, accounting for the low loop, and that this had occurred where the ledge had all but disintegrated. Nervously I carried on, steadying myself by putting a hand on the wall. Disturbed by the light pressure of my hand, chunks of rock just flaked off. Even if the rope was all right, it didnt seem likely that bolts in that rock could ever hold in the event of a fall. I was scared. I reached the worst point on the ledge, and wondered how to tackle it. Helpful shouts of advice started to reach me. Put the rope behind your back; Just step down a bit. This was all very well; these and a few hundred other ideas had been flashing through my mind. However, the reality of the situation was that every option had its risk, and the image of one slip and several bolts popping out was firm in my mind. It was no good. I dont like the look of it, my voice quivered, perhaps one of you would like to have a look.
Beardy rose to the challenge, and pretty soon he was attempting to cross the awkward spot. His face was grim, and I am sure I heard mutterings of oh dear, this looks nasty, but dont tell anybody. Eventually, he reached the comparative safety of the other side, and before long, so had I. Now I had the job of watching Carmel and David attempt it. Both of their faces told the same story!
Phew! On the other side, we were able to sort ourselves out before starting the short walk back to lAnglette. Full of vigour, David took the lead, assuring us that the path was Just up here. It was very soon apparent that the path was actually a very steep scree slope, with the merest veneer of vegetation on it. Progress was extremely treacherous. Early on in the proceedings, a handline was set up, but it was soon clear that the terrain was not going to improve, and it was everyone for themselves. Far up ahead, David sounded to be in fine spirits, still claiming that he could see the path. I, on the other hand, was experiencing the lowest of low ebbs. I was sure that any minute I would fall to certain doom, I had an awful headache and was plastered in mud and sweat. To make matters worse, an eclectic mix of flies was finding me fascinating. There was also the slight difficulty of twelve hours exercise, and only a tiny bowl of muesli, as Carmel may have mentioned.
After about an hour and a half, firmish ground was obtained. We scampered into the trees and finally met the path. My spirits soared. Half an hour later, David was reunited with Eeyore, Carmel was reunited with her puppy, Beardy made acquaintance with his tea and I was able to console myself with a cold beer. There had been a couple of low ebbs, but it was a fantastic day out. We were all happy and safe, with nothing more to fear than an encounter with a squatty toilet.
Mr Paul Swire would like to make it known that he was in fact engaged in the manly task of cleaning the barbecue, and not, as the author states, completing his ablutions. He would also like to point out, that on this occasion, he was not late, but the butt of a cruel practical joke. Furthermore, by associating him with the act of ablutions, the author is guilty of gross misrepresentation. Mr Swire wishes to make it known that any contact with soap and water was accidental. In response, the author would like to point out that any offence caused was purely intentional.