Report by David Harley (aka Mupper Mendip Dave). Pictures are Copyright Tim Webber.
SUSS, after lots and lots of faffing and indecisiveness, finally made the decision to head to France for the summer, in particular the Vercors. Located just south west of Grenoble, the Vercors National Park is an area of astonishing picturesque views but, more importantly for us, it is a massive piece of limestone. The journey began with a car from Sheffield and a car from Norfolk heading southward, something most Northerners have to overcome at some stage in their life. The Team consisted of Tweb, Jeff, Henry, Spesh (Clare) and Me (Mendip Mupper Dave) in two cars heading for Folkestone and the Euro-tunnel. Also Rob (aka Tit), and Adam (aka Squidley) who were meeting us out there. We were off across the channel to France.
Henry and Spesh left Watford on their way to meet me at a seedy motorway junction on the M25 just outside Brentwood. After much lateral thinking of how to get three people and gear in to a space smaller than that gear and still have room for the person in the back to breathe, and Henry trying to dispose of my luxury items including a chair (which later turned out to be a highly sort after piece of kit) we managed the feat. We headed off to meet Tweb who had picked up Jeff just outside Leicester. We were off to the Tunnel sur le Manche. We got on the train about 11:00 (cheap time). We drove all day and arrived at St Martin en Vercor about two o’clock in the morning only to find a closed campsite, quite understandably. So we settled down for the night in a lay by in the quite country village, only to find at 3ish a gang of boy racers come pulling into our lay by. Several hundred thousand fidgets later I got to sleep only to be woken by a lovely sunrise at 5:30ish. The next thing I remember is the knocking on the window as Tim had arrived.
Day 1 – Pitching up
After 15 hours or so of travelling and an uncomfortable nights sleep, most of us just wanted to crash. We were shown our lovely site nicely out of the way from all other tourists. After setting up camp, we were met by Squid and Tit who had been staying in lovely comfortable beds just up the hill. We vegetated most of the morning before deciding to go and explore the Bourne Gorge; deciphering the French guide book we worked out that the canyon started at the dam. Ignoring all the no entry signs, as we couldn’t understand them, we headed for the start of the canyon fully kitted up in wetsuits. The canyon was really impressive and quite sporting starting with a 12m abseil under a waterfall, followed by a slide ending in an 11m abseil/ jump (aaaahhhhh!). You can guess what some of us did. The pool at the bottom filled with car size boulders and the fact you had to jump out at least 3m to avoid the rocks at the bottom made it seem slightly insane. So off Tim went, splosh! he was alive! Meanwhile the others were abseiling down except Rob and I. Rob went next, another perfect jump except almost slipping on the top as he jumped off. It was my turn I had had lots of time to think about how insane this was but did it anyway. Now I don’t know whether it was because my legs had had second thoughts or if it was because I had miss-calculated my flight path, but I was soon aware it was going tits up! I managed to hit the water at an angle just off horizontal. Coming up to find you can barely breathe is not fun but after being towed to the edge I was fine again. I looked on the bright side of things. At least I did jump far enough that I didn’t break my legs; that really could have mucked up my holidays. We headed back to the campsite for dinner and showers and a well earned kip. Dinner, as it was for most of the Holiday and all SUSS trips in general, was Veggie Slop With Meat as there were no veggies. Although Clare and Squid came up with a variety of names for the meals being as they nominated themselves head chefs.
Day 2 – Easing in
The first person to rise was Tim followed shortly by me. Everyone else appeared slowly when they heard the sound of Tim and I tucking in to the freshly baked Pain au Chocolat and Croissant. Today we were going to do Gour Fumant which was up on the Herbouilly pasture about 10 minute drive from the campsite. We had enough people for a rigging and de-rigging team so Tim set off with one group to rig. Then Henry, Squid, Clare and me set off slightly later after clearing up at camp. The road up on to the pasture is part of the route for the Tour de France and there were already messages of encouragement on the road. We got to the top to where we thought we should park only to find Tim’s car not there. We presumed he had parked elsewhere and got changed. The problem with the Herbouilly pasture is it a minefield of shake holes all with the potential to be the cave you’re looking for. We wandered for ages eventually finding a cave with a rope in, and assumed it was the right place. Dropping the first pitch we were surprised to find an ice flow down one of the walls. We explored most of the cave except the lower wet sections. Dragon Chinois is a huge fossil rift with lots of formations and mud-milk. The upper levels are also interesting dry fossil passage. After de rigging we headed off shopping and back to the site.
Day 3 – Free Flowing
I think for a change the first person to get up today was Rob. Unfortunately for him, it was his body telling him to get up with a dire need to release a load. To be frank he had a case of diarrhoea and quite a bad stomach ache. We suggested he didn’t come caving with us, as we didn’t fancy prussiking up behind him. As not to make him feel liked he had missed out we decided to do a cave they had done before we got there. The cave for the day was Grotte de Bournillion, the largest entrance in France, at over 80m high and 5km long. The cave resurges in to the Bourne gorge and has had its power harnessed by building a dam and hydroelectric plant at the entrance. In times of flood almost 80 cubic metres of water can flow from the cave per second. Thankfully all was dry and we could do the cave in shorts and wellies. The main passages start off with huge pools of water with boulder passage beyond. We stomped all the way to the terminal sump which was crystal clear. There were quite a lot of huge impressive formations on the way. It’s a nice cave to do on an easy day, and only took 3 hours. We headed back, to see how our patient was doing.
Day 4 – Drive by Caving
A slow start as always but we were on holiday. The main thing that encouraged us get up was the fact that most of us didn’t like being baked on gas mark 4 as the sun shone down on our tents. Today the cave of choice was Trou qui Souffle which is up near Cochet, up a little mountain road; after about 2km you pass through a quarried out piece of road with the cave about 20cm form the tarmac. Finding the cave was the easy bit, but with over 33km of passage and two different types of development, route finding in the cave was a lot more difficult. We are not entirely sure of where we went; we believe we reached Puis Cigale pitch but had unfortunately used up all our rope. We explored all we could and found some big galleries full of formations. It was an interesting cave with lots of different developments. As we were exiting the cave we encountered some French Speleologists who seemed to lack quite a lot of kit and have their whole family there to watch them go down. Who said caving isn’t a spectator sport?
Day 5 – Entertainers
Today was a day to relax, meaning we went canyonning. In the morning we headed off to the Grand Goulets which is near Baraque-en-vercor. It is a well visited tourist destination especially as the Tour de France was happening in the next few days. The road down the gorge is cut into the cliff in classic French style and vehicles that are far too big try to fit down it. The most fun on this canyon was jumping in off the road side about 4-5m above the water, in front of all the tourists. We stayed here for about half an hour just jumping in which lead to Henry losing his car key, as we found out later. By the end of our session we had encourage quite a crowd. The rest of the canyon consisted of some nice abseils in waterfalls and then a mountain goat track back up top the road. Squid and Clare had a leisurely day by the river, Clare working on our birthday present for Rob. Relaxing in the afternoon by the pool and allowing our gear to dry in the sunshine, it almost felt like we were on holiday. We also went off to Expe to spend lots of money going through Pont en Royan. Pont en Royan is a tourist town built on the side of the river with the ultimate bridge jump. Unfortunately no one had the guts to jump with the Gendarmerie sat across the road.
Day 6 – Life on the open waves
Today was one of the team members’ birthdays, a time to reflect, a time to appreciate and a time to do one of the best caves we had planned to do. Having got up reasonable early we headed of toward Pont en Royan as part of the Bourne gorge was closed due to landslide/rock fall. Parking up at the Choranche show cave we put on all our newly acquired Gucci gear and headed up through the grounds of the show cave to our entrance Grotte de Gournier which is 15km long and gains almost 300m in height with a crystal clear entrance lake – it was stunning. Having made sure we had brought a boat and not an inflatable crocodile, we paddled my little boat (which had turned into more of a submersible by the end of the trip) across to the ledge and climbed up 5m into the fossil gallery, this was followed past some fine formations. We surprisingly found, much to our disappointment, a group of school kids on our extreme caving trip. So we dropped down in to the stream way at the second point to avoid them. Following upstream, we passed huge pools of water along wire traverses and up cascades. We eventually worked out that it was easier just to hold on to the wires instead of clipping in, although this could have lead to us falling off. The cave carried on for ages so some of the group went back the rest of us carried on to the pitch up just before the sump. The pitch here is very impressive as it cascades down the wall and is well worth a look. We headed back out stopping only briefly as Tim helped some Hot French Totty in distress. They were having trouble getting down a climb, but had wetsuits so Tim told them to jump in, and they were saved after much encouragement. We caught up with the others near the end of the fossil passage and headed out to the entrance lake. Hear we all headed back in the boat except Rob who wanted to jump off the traverse. Tim and I went for a swim in our wetsuits ready to pull Rob’s frozen body out of the water to steal all the gear he had on him. He jumped about 6m into the water; it looked like so much fun that I had ago, and another go and another go (as I had a wetsuit on). We all swam back and headed back to camp where we went to the local pizzeria for tea. Followed by lots of drink and birthday cake back at camp. Yummy!
Day 7 – Ouch!
Waking up fairly late nursing our hangovers from the night before, we lounged around for most of the morning. Tweb, Clare and I went shopping near Villard de Lans. The supermarkets in France are strange and excellent at the same time. It seemed this one had been hi-jacked by the local market who had started selling their things outside. We then went climbing near La Chapelle en Vercor. The routes were fairly easy and some were insanely difficult, but that’s the French for you. The rest of the group went off to Grotte de Ramat. The cave has lots of different stages of development with passages going up and down all over the place. The entrance is half way up the road to the Herbouilly pasture. From there you would enter a rift that ends in a chamber with metal rungs leading up to this hole. The rest of the cave consisted of following the stream up. There were a few pretties in an upper gallery.
Day 8 – Dirty English Speleos
Today we decide to do Reseau de Christian Gather. The cave is located on the Autrans, up near all the Ski slopes which look quite strange as they are just grass runs in the summer. We pulled up in a lay by near another car with a strange women hanging around and wondered down to where we thought the cave was only to find a French man ranting on about “you won’t fit down there, use my entrance”. We explained that we would do an exchange and this seemed to please him. We went back to the car and got changed, came back and rigged the tight entrance only to find the French man following us down. The annoying thing was he didn’t want to guide us even though he knew the system very well. He just followed us along grinning to himself. There were some impressive big chambers in this cave with some nice formations. Lots of the chambers had very small entrances into them which would have made it difficult on the way out had it not been for the reflective markers. As with lots of the surveys in Caves of the Vercors Des Marshall, this one has many passages omitted. We eventually entered Salle de Cascade which has a 20m pitch up into the rest of the cave which was where the French man’s friends had gone. On the way out we went out the Scialet de Brudour entrance using the other party’s ropes, and Rob de-rigged.
Day 9 – Big Shafts
Today we wanted some SRT so undertook Scialet de Malaterre, a 120m daylight shaft with a bridge over it. We had planned to do an exchange trip, with me rigging the direct route and Henry doing the alternative route. The first hang was 50m to a ledge where the two routes separate and rejoin at the bottom. We then had difficulty finding the route on, eventually heading down a small hole, then with some dodgy rigging off a stal, as the spit had just pulled out of the wall, I continued down. The rest headed out and Rob followed later only to find half way down this pitch his central mallion was undone. Thankfully he sorted it and after a bit of exploring we all headed out. At the top on the bridge we were greeted by a bunch of inquisitive people, who were probably thinking “psycho English speleos” from the looks on their faces.
Day 10 – Tour de where?
Today was the Tour de France which went straight past our campsite and meant all roads were closed so we had to stay at the campsite for the day. Everyone in the campsite set up their chairs and marked their territory. Getting a prime spot was important; the Gendarmerie lined the streets and we waited, and waited. There were a few people passing by who were following the Tour by bike but nothing else. We managed to persuade Rob, who was missing caving so much, to put on his caving gear so he could get on TV. This unfortunately meant that he had to stand around wearing rubber in the heat of the day because the tour didn’t come passed until about 3 o’clock. We solved his overheating problem by pouring water down his neck, which proceeded to trickle out of the hole in his crotch. The sponsor vans going past before hand threw out loads of free gifts, which little children and adults battled over. The vans passed at around 40mph and when they threw the gifts at you some hurt, especially the fridge magnets. Sadly, when the cameras came passed Rob was on the wrong side of the road and they ended up filming us but at least Tim got the picture.
Day 11 – Come here little children
Today Tweb and I went canyonning in Le Furon. We parked on the track and walked down to the canyon there were loads of jumps and loads of little children to impress. As they abseiled down we could run past and jump. We enjoyed it so much we did it twice! The others did Scialet de Trisou which had a few small pitches which Henry, I believe, did some very interesting rigging on and then one huge one which they unfortunately didn’t have enough rope for because of the 56m of slippery traversing beforehand that the extreme French had failed to mention.
Day 12 – Time to wash our kit
Went canyonning again today. Tweb and I did Grotte de Ramat first then joined the others to go to Les Ecouges, a classic canyon. We started half way down which had the best, wettest bits. An abseil followed by some walking led to a series of slides and jumps of up to 8m. On one of them, Henry mentioned that he had never done a flip before, so we encouraged him and he proceed to do a belly flop, which I guess he done a few of as he was so good at them. This canyon was so much fun and well worth the walk back to the car, which was long. Clare opted out, and had a lovely day paddling and reading “Gone With The Wind” in the sunshine.
Day 13 – Show caving
Having cleaned all the gear and packed up ready to leave that evening, we decide to go show caving. Grotte de Choranche is a beautiful cave. We took Caving Barbie, Rob’s birthday girlfriend along too. She had her own tackle bag and rope as well as oversuit, lovingly crafted by the rest of the gang. We then left, heading back for Blighty. We stopped off at Taize, where there is a Christian camp, on the way home (which was amazingly big) so that Henry could meet up with some of his friends. We then went to Calais, unfortunately passing the last turnoff on the motorway and going straight on to the Eurotunnel with both tickets in one car. After much explaining we got Tweb through and were off home. A thoroughly enjoyable trip was had by all.