Volume 38 Number 4 Article 5
Réseau du Verneau, The Doubs, Jura, France
Traverse from the Gouffre du Bief Bousset to Grotte
24-26 August 2001
The Team: Beardy (RRCPC/ULSA), Carmel Ramwell (RRCPC/ULSA), Mark Madden (ULSA), Rojer Thijssen (Speleonetherland), Jane Knight (noncaver)
To round off an excellent summer of foreign caving, we planned to attempt one of Europes longest, yet rarely achieved, through trips. The traverse, from the Bief Bousset to the Grotte Baudin is 9km long and 345m deep, our French guidebook quotes 15 hours for the through trip. The first through trip by non divers was accomplished in July 1984 by the French team that was exploring the system.
Most of the system was explored by cave divers. The exploration began in earnest in 1970, when the 230m long sump at the resurgence (Porche du Verneau) was passed. During the next four years over 9km of cave was explored beyond this sump, probably one of the longest sections of cave ever explored beyond a sump. At the upstream end of the system several other caves were being explored. By 1975 two caves, the Bief Bousset and the Vielle Folle, were linked to the Verneau but the connections all involved sumps. The first through trip was done in November 1978, entering the Biefs Bousset and diving out to the Porche du Verneau taking 15 hours. The following year, Chorvot and Vittot entered the Biefs Bousset with diving gear, dived the sump at the end of the Bousset. They visited the downstream sump before returning to exit out of the Bousset. The trip took 21 hours, the round trip covered about 18km and was 345m deep. In 1983, the sump at the end of the Biefs Bousset was bypassed by scaling a series of pitches from the downstream side, and then descending an impressive 35m pitch. With these pitches rigged, it was now possible to enter the Biefs Bousset and explore all the way downstream to the resurgence level without diving. In 1984, the Grotte Baudin was explored and linked to the Verneau, just upstream of the final downstream sump. This provided the long awaited dry exit and in July 1984 the first through trip without diving was achieved.
However, the exit into the Grotte Baudin is very easily sumped and remains closed for weeks at a time. This must have provided the local rescue team with much work during the last seventeen years. Officially, to attempt the traverse, you need to get written permission from the local Marie de la commune de Nans sous Sainte Anne, and it is wise not to enter the system unless there is a settled weather forecast.
Id never been to the Jura before. Its a lovely area, gently undulating with wooded hillsides, lovely rivers and quaint villages. After our nocturnal drive through France, croissants and coffee in Ornans definitely hit the spot. We set up camp by the bank of the river Loue in Vuillafans, two villages upstream of Ornans, the local town. During Friday afternoon, Mark and I visited the Grotte Baudin, to tackle the cave and ensure that the flood prone section was passable. Carmel, Jane, Mark and I all broke into a sweat as we walked up the steep hill first to the Porche du Verneau and then on towards the Grotte Baudin. Finally, Mark and I said goodbye to Carmel and Jane who dashed off back to Ornans to meet Roger, who had driven down from Holland to join us. Reaching the cave we quickly changed and found the cool interior of the cave to be a pleasant change from the blistering heat outside.
The first 200m of cave was mainly crawling but with a very impressive draught blowing out of it. Soon we reached the Salle Hoppe, a large chamber with a steeply descending floor. Part way down this chamber a passage bears off on the left, and almost immediately a smaller, partially hidden passage drops down and heads back towards Salle Hoppe at a lower level. This crawl soon enlarges to a stoop and then descends steeply to a junction. Turning left here brought us to the head of the first pitch (P12), which was furnished with a nice in situ rope. From its base a climb down was followed by a short wet crawl to a 5m climb down a small chimney. This brought us to the second pitch (P6), again already rigged, this went down a very steep toboggan. A short muddy crawl then led to the third and final pitch.
Full of hope I quickly slid down the rope, I could hear the sound of a large streamway not far away. The rope was very muddy and I quickly had to jam myself across the rift as it became apparent that I was abseiling into an out of depth sump pool! The rope was rebelayed about 1 inch under the water and you could see a rope leading off horizontally through a submerged bedding. This bedding is the route through to the main cave. The sound of the streamway came from a 4 inch wide rift in the corner of the sump pool. Search as we may, there was no sensible way through to the main streamway. It looked like wed driven seven hundred miles to be disappointed. Two depressed cavers, turned around and headed out of the cave, dragging our tackle out with us.
Id reached the top of the first pitch, my SRT kit was soon off, I was wet, cold, muddy and hacked off.
Meanwhile, Mark still brimming with enthusiasm had free climbed up to a ledge, 6m up the first pitch, and found an interesting hole with a phenomenal draught blowing out of it. The sound of jammers scraping rock echoed up the pitch, but soon faded away. Gradually the sound of grunts and scraping returned. Ive some good news and some bad news came the cry from below. The good news is that I have been to the head of a one hundred foot pitch, and the bad news is that your going to have to come back down. In seconds, descender and cowstails were back on and I joined Mark on the ledge.
I followed Mark through a very cold and muddy tube. Gear constantly got caught, and the muddy pools and cold draught made it quite miserable. After about 75ft of awkward, flat out crawling, the pitch head was reached, complete with in situ rope. There was hardly any room to dress here and the pitch head was quite awkward, one of those clip in and launch jobs. Once on to the pitch, I could admire the large chamber we had entered from its ceiling. The sound of a large waterfall from the other side of the chamber added to the atmosphere. We descended 15m to a rebelay, with quite a swing to the bolts. Here there was a choice of routes, either a 10m pitch to the base of the chamber or the mother of all traverses, bolts disappearing horizontally into the distance, with no foot hold in sight. We chose the former. At the base of the pitch, we could follow the streamway down to a sump. Here there was the other end of the rope coming from the submerged bedding. Wed found an amazing sump bypass. The big trip was on. We decided to explore upstream for fifteen minutes, involving a steep climb out of the chamber, where a dangerously worn rope hung down. Using this for assistance we soon regained the traverse and headed upstream. Elated with our discovery, we soon turned around and headed out along the impressive traverse. Half an hour later we were stripping off our extremely muddy oversuits and cringing stuffing them into our lovely clean rucsacs.
Happy with our days work we returned to camp and the full team enjoyed tea and a few beers. After a lie in on Saturday we had a leisurely breakfast before packing the ropes for the Bief Bousset into three tackle bags and the food and carbide into a fourth. After leaving one car in Nans sous Sainte Anne, we soon arrived at the Bousset. An arduous 100m walk led to the entrance, and the caving began in earnest at an extremely civilised 1pm. The first pitch ambled down a large gully, pleasant caving led to the second pitch, split into about three section but in a lovely roomy shaft. Shortly after this the cave became distinctly more arduous, almost dales like in character. First a short flat out crawl, a short pitch and then things became smaller. For a steady half an hour we followed endless traverses, eventually arriving at a sump. Up in the roof, a bypass led to some more traverses and then to a series of mud floored chambers, linked by flat out crawls. Eventually, the fourth pitch was reached. Roger, in his 5mm wetsuit and oversuit was finding the caving particularly warm. Another short drop was rigged, then at the next pitch, Mark tied a huge butterfly knot as part of his Y hang. He swung out on to the pitch, unclipped his cowstails and began to descend. Immediately, he began to descend extremely rapidly as the butterfly knot slipped and let one and half meters of slack down the pitch! Hmmm. Needles to say a little rerigging was undertaken.
After a couple more superb pitches we arrived in a large pool. The way out was an obscure stoop come crawl into a series of deep but narrow gours, a very sporting section letting us all cool off. Just beyond this was an awkward handline and then we met the Grand Collecteur. We had a short break, some cheese and left a bag of rope here, wed obviously climbed two pitches. Downstream was fantastic, not dissimilar to the Lost John's Master Cave, but about three times as big and providing a kilometre of uninterrupted streamway. This ended in a dark and frothy sump, apparently only 5m long. It has been free dived, but not by us.
We retraced our steps a few feet and climbed a muddy slope on the south side of the passage, a muddy crawl then led to a couple of large avens. The second of these is 35m high and rigged with a nice in situ rope. We let Carmel check the integrity of the rope and rigging. Soon the whole party was strung out along the shaft, which was split into four sections by nice Y-hung rebelays. At the top a short passage led to a series of five muddy pitches, allowing us to drop into the passages on the downstream side of the sump. They were mainly dry at this point although we passed a U tube that obviously sumps in wet weather. Beyond the passage grew in size to reach huge proportions as we passed an old bivouac site.
In a chamber called the Salle du Ptit Loup, I think there is a choice of routes, sensible cavers probably head over to the left and down a rigged pitch into the streamway. However, we stayed in the high level and veered off to the right, following some reflective tape markers up through a boulder choke. Beyond we passed a large hole in the floor on the right (Salle Jarbraud de Bois). Here we continued in error at high level, soon to find that there was no way on. Back at the large hole, a very scary climb led down to the streamway, which continued through several boulder chokes and deep pools. Two or three short pitches were climbed down often using worn pieces of tat for assistance. After a long time the passage looked like it was about to sump but an obvious dry passage rose up on the right. This was dry but contained some fantastic milled potholes. At the end of this passage were a rope and a rusty ladder. The rack was soon loaded and off I slid into the darkness. Only 7m below was the base of the pitch, but in out of depth water. The others could only imagine what was going on with all the spluttering as I fumbled desperately trying to unload my rack. The others had the good sense to use the ladder to aid them in this, while Mark did a swan dive from the last ledge. This was the Puits de Jonction 1975 where the Bief Bousett was linked to Verneau in 1975.
The next 700m were in a majestic gallery, sections of open streamway, several boulder collapses to climb over, and towards the end a series of long lakes with sheer walls. The lakes once had traverses rigged through them, but these had been washed away. The longest lake was about 35m long, Id swum across it with one tackle bag but it had been quite an effort. Carmel swum across with the second bag, neither bag had been buoyant. A concerned expression came over her face about 15m from the end of the lake as the strokes became faster and faster - a close shave really. From then on we inflated our dry bag to give ample buoyancy. At the Salle de la Corniche the streamway plummeted down a 10m pitch, whilst we teetered along an exposed traverse into a fossil gallery. The following lakes turned out only to be chest deep. We soon climbed up into the impressive Salles des Bon et Petite Negro, very large bouldery chambers, before rejoining the streamway.
Pleasant streamway followed until we reached a boulder choke. Up on the right was a large ramp into Salle Belauce, which we climbed. We knew that the famous Tripod formation was here somewhere but we couldnt find it. Salle Belauce was large and impressive but we soon had to retrace our steps to the boulder choke, where we found the bedding plane that took us onwards. In no time at all we reached the Puit du Legionaire. As it was an 11m up pitch, we were thankful that it was rigged. At its summit we entered the Galerie des Plaquettes, an excellent fossil gallery as the rock is extremely white making it feel very bright in contrast to much of the system. Shortly we regained the streamway and found Puit du Balot complete with ladder and line, which again was fortunate as it was an up pitch.
From here we entered a long section of dry fossil passage. The secret is to stay in the large highest gallery. If youre not careful you can end up in a lower and more arduous gallery. Time was pressing on now, and it was well past Carmels bedtime, her eyes were closing on a regular basis. Roger was still overheating and his lack of recent caving was beginning to show. Mark and I were lapping it up, the caving was fantastic even if we did have to carry the bags, but we did have frequent stops to admire the impressive gallery and let the dawdlers catch up. We passed several awkward climbs, one of which Mark fell 10ft back down, and eventually we came to a drop. At its base, the obvious route led down a passage to the left. This soon led to a small but wide streamway. Fifteen minutes later we rejoined the main streamway and we could sense that the end was close.
We stopped on a huge boulder just downstream of Salle Nanette to eat the last of our meagre rations, a packet of Tangfastics, they were! A few minutes later we reached the start of the long traverse. None of us felt that we had the arm strength for the serious traverse section, so we risked the dodgy rope down to the base of the cascade. The split pitch up was soon climbed but the flat out crawl, as expected, turned out to be quite arduous with a large tackle bag. The entrance series felt like home ground and we were soon outside, congratulating ourselves in the sultry heat. It was half past two in the morning, the traverse had taken thirteen and a half hours.
Darne, F. & Tordjman, P., (1991), A travers le karst, 60 traversees speleologiques francais, p190-191.
Aucant, Y., Frachon, JC., & Schmitt, C., (1990), Topoguide 1, Speleologie en Franche-Comte, p26-37 & p67-69.
Frankrijk, (1989), Doorsteek Reseau du Verneau, Speleo Nederland, Pierk, p17-20.
GIPEK, (1996), Inventaire Speleologique du Doubs, p184-200.
Chorvot, G., (1984), Une epopee souteraine 1870-1984, les explorations dans le Verneau, 156 pages.