Volume 38 Number 4 Article 3
The Dent de Crolles
The Team: Carmel (my tooth hurts) Ramwell, Helen (Im not stupid) Blyth, Dave (I dont fit down small holes) Foxton, Paul (cant I have a lie in) Swire.
As a keen fresher, I had read Chevaliers Subterranean Climbers and was gripped from start to finish with his exciting exploration exploits. The epic trips with scaling poles or digging draughting chokes showed amazing tenacity and teamwork. The result was multifaceted, a brilliant book, a complicated and extensive cave system and, between August 1944 and August 1953, the world cave depth record. A cave with such pedigree should be on every cavers tick list.
Having not had a chance to do much caving this year, I had been looking forward to our trip to the Badalona in Spain, a 1149m deep through trip. However, the Spanish authorities cancelled our permit and our team rapidly fell to pieces. Eventually four of us squeezed into a tiny Peugeot and made our way to France. Limited space meant that we could not take too much tackle. Therefore, we were on the look out for classic pull through trips. Id always fancied visiting the Dent de Crolles and had a couple of descriptions, but the system sounded quite complicated and I had no survey. After an excellent time caving on the Parmelan Plateau and in the Vercors our problem still remained. All the French cavers we spoke to told us to be very careful because the system was like a plate of spaghetti!.
Not deterred we eventually obtained a large survey and an out of print guide/atlas to the cave published by the local council from Expé in the Vercors. The latter was very detailed and had lots of surveys of the crucial junctions. I managed to persuade the rest of the team that the trip was now dans le sac and off we sped to St Pierre de Chartreuse, armed with a few ropes and our French dictionary. At the tourist office we found that the only campsite was 2 miles in the wrong direction but we were able to photocopy all the required pages from our guidebooks. Camp was pitched and Helen put her caving gear in the shade to dry whilst tactics were discussed. As ever, having only one vehicle was causing headaches. We decided that wed like to try to pull through from the P40 (the highest entrance) to the Guiers Mort (the resurgence) and to do it by the original route discovered by Chevalier et al. There is a much easier route via the Boulevard des Tritons but that route isnt steeped in as much classic Speleohistory.
In order to avoid any epics we felt that a cautious approach was required. We split into two teams; Dave and I spent the next day in the bottom entrance finding the route through to the base of Puits Chevalier II where the original connection from the Trou de Glaz had been made. Several fixed ropes were rerigged or replaced and the route learnt (definitely worth doing). At the same time Carmel and Helen reconnoitred a path from the Guiers Mort, (past a sign saying danger - no path) heading south along the base of some huge cliffs to ensure that we could walk back to retrieve our car from the Col du Coq.
Both missions were a success, so the big trip was on. We awoke at the unearthly hour of 5am. By 5:30 we were eating an unpalatable breakfast at the Col de Coq and before 6am we had started the long slog up the mountain towards the P40. Two hours later we were scouring the Lapiaz looking for the P40. It was found by walking NE down a dry valley, slightly on the left of the bottom of the valley, amongst lots of limestone pavement. It had a name plaque and plenty of poorly rigged tat that was quickly rerigged.
The entrance shaft was superb, large and spacious, landing on a steep scree slope. Helen and Carmel soon arrived and I dispatched them off down the Puits du Cabri, named after a skeleton of a Goat (Cabri=Kid) found in the gallery below, before the link to the P40 was made. The entrance to this was small and quite obscure. This obscurity had delayed the connection of the P40 to the Glaz system for several months. The Cabri was rigged and we did it as a free climb. Soon we were all racing along the Gallery York, named after some tins of processed meat that Petzl et al ate during the original exploration. This section was very well marked with tape and carbide arrows. A short 4m upwards pitch led to a short crawl to a 4m pitch down. Immediately beyond was the Puits des Trois Soeurs. This was a 14m pitch that is descended in two parts. The first part was a steep toboggan and the second was vertical and wet. Half way down it was necessary to abseil over a jammed boulder and then land on a ledge on the far side of the shaft. Below in the main shaft was another wet pitch. However, our route followed a meander leading off from our ledge.
The meander was the start of much hard work. We traversed over a 15m pitch and soon arrived at the Puits Orbitolines, an 8m pitch. This was followed by two 4m pitches. The way on here was a little confusing but we got into a dry meander by traversing. After an initial bit of traversing (30m or so) the meander developed a floor which was muddy in parts. However, rapid if not tiring progress could be made at floor level. After what seemed to be a long time we arrived at the Puits Pompiers (P8) where Chevalier had sung that French Classic The Firemans song during one of the original epic exploration trips. Our team regrouped here and redistributed the tackle as Mr Foxtons was a bit on the large side. The following meanders were much easier and soon led to the Puits de Balcon, a series of nice shafts, a little more broken than the survey indicated. Some of these were nicely rigged and on others we preferred to use our own ropes. We soon reached the Salle Douche - remarkably dry considering its name. Here the rope refused to pull through so Dave, our well trained rearguard, shot back up the pitch and rerigged it from lower down the shaft.
We were now in the Trou du Glaz and probably about 15 minutes from the entrance, but our route lay further into the bowels of the mountain. With passages leading off in all directions I shot off for a bit of a reccy, and fortunately was able to follow our descriptions to the letter. Extra thermals were now donned and a quick snack eaten, as wed been on the go for about three hours. We now followed a larger passage with a couple of traverses until a climb up on the right took us to the head of the Puits de lOgive. Here Helen tried a different climb and got into one of those oops positions. Eventually the whole team regrouped, descending a ramp (P28) followed by a vertical (P12). This took us into the main second level of the Glaz and the Puits Lantern 4 (P12) followed immediately. All the belays from here on were excellent, it appears that the Trou du Glaz to Guiers Mort must be a more popular choice for French Speleos.
Following the main passage we soon came to a blind pit on the left with an obvious traverse line leading off to the right. Following on from this brought you to a window on the right, looking down a P36. Ropes went off to the right here, but our rope came back around a flake overlooking the blind pit and back into the continuation of the main horizontal gallery. (The ropes heading off over the P36 are the less arduous route via des Tritons.) We followed the main gallery traversing easily around the Puits du Lac and from there the main gallery had a small trench in the floor. When this veered off to the left we looked for the memorial plaque (inscribed on a rock). This is the start of a small crawl that led to the joining of the Glaz with the Guiers Mort in 1941.
The crawl is small for starters but gets slightly bigger after a 2m climb and soon the 60m Puits de Pendule is reached. An absolutely awesome shaft! It was so named during its first descent on ladders when 55m down Chevalier came to the end of the ladder and could see the floor some 5m below. He pendulumed on to a small foothold whilst his team-mates added an extra ladder on to the pitch - outrageous...
From here began a 200m long meander too much like the traverses in Pippikin to be enjoyable, but Dave loved it. After 40 minutes we eventually reached the Puits Petzl (P18). This was quickly followed by Puits de Piege, which had an obvious pendulum to reach the head of the next pitch, Puits Chevalier. This is an impressive 35m pitch into a huge chamber. Here Helen had to rerigg the pitch as I had abseiled past a huge rub point in the rope, just 5m down the pitch. Immediately below was the Puits Chevalier II (P20) at the base of this, we would be on home ground from our reccy trip. We rerigged this pitch as it was a little dubious and shortly I was sliding down the rope. Nearing the bottom I saw the effigy of a caver made from bits of litter, that marked the base of the pitch. I shouted DUMMY! to the others to let them know that it was the right pitch and Helen jumped up and shouted "OK!"
In minutes the rope fell nicely down the pitch and we all set off out, relieved that we now knew the way. After a little pebbly grovel we reached our stash of bide and food but as wed been so quick this was now just excess baggage. We flew down the Grand Collecteur, with lots of nice climbs and milled potholes. The famous Piscine was passed without difficulty and a quick prussik up brought us into the Vire des Stalactites with lots of exposed traverses. At its end was a crawl with a lovely inlet that had a spout just at mouth height. Beyond the crawl the passage enlarged and descended back to the streamway. Here was a lovely streamway for a few feet until we reached the Plage at a sump, forcing us to climb and prussik into a fossil gallery above. A short pitch down and a further 7m pitch up allowed us to emerge in the roof of the streamway. Here an exposed climb down allowed us to regain terra firma. Pleasant stream way now followed until the stream cut down into a small trench beneath boulders. A short traverse took us into a passage that led us to an 8m pitch to avoid the Coupe Noel and Cascade Elizabeth. From here we had two minutes of easy passage to one more upward pitch of 15m. Beyond were a few minutes of crawling passing through a choke that was dug open in August 1939. We were then able to bypass the Labyrinth as the water levels were low and the first siphon was open. Within minutes we were basking in the sunshine at the entrance. It was about 6:30pm, some ten and a half hours after entering the P40, and seven and a half hours faster than the French guidebook time of eighteen hours. A fantastic panorama greeted us, shapely limestone peaks, wooded hillsides and the sun starting to slowly descend.
Dave and Carmel soon caught up Helen and myself, they dropped their caving gear and donned shorts and t-shirts before running off up the hill for the car sans les sacs. Meanwhile Helen and I loaded up with leg buckling loads of caving gear and set off down the hill to the roadhead awaiting the arrival of the car. In what seemed like no time at all we were tucking into a well earned meal in a local bar. A classic day out.
Chevalier, P., (1948), Subterranean Climbers, 223 pages.
Comite departemental de speleogie de L Isere, (1997), La Dent de Crolles et son reseau souterrain, 303 pages.
Darrne, F. & Tordjman P. (1991), a travers le karst - 60 traversees speleologiques francaises, p128-145
Kaye, M. (1996), TSG Journal 15, P40 to Guiers Mort by the classic route, p54-57