Three Pennine members, Dave Raine, John Madely and myself, plus seven members of the CPC, decided to do some foreign caving. We hired a very old minibus from the back streets of Morecambe and set off for the continent. The owners of the bus waved goodbye as if they never expected to see their vehicle again, and sure enough the brakes gave up on the way to the channel. Dave made a quick phone call to Morecambe and the gist of the reply was "What do you expect for £150?"
Our destination was 'La Grotte de la Cigalère', in the French Pyrenees, which was first explored by that venerable Frenchman N. Casteret, in 1955. The cave is protected by very severe access restrictions which make it difficult for English cavers to obtain permission. The only club allowed access is L'ARSHAL and even they are limited to three weeks in the summer. However, as always, we had a good excuse. Rob Palmer had been a member of the first successful British Expedition in 1973 when St. Martins College, Lancaster, had made it to the terminal sump.
Rob was going to dive the terminal sump and we were to be the back up party. Unfortunately, the year before, a group from the Pegasus CC had done the same thing but we thought we could do better! The previous year's attempt had not produced any great discovery apart from deciding that the sump was not the way on.
We arrived in the Pyrenees after two days of drunken driving and the indignity of being turned down in Toulouse by a local prostitute, but that's another story. (Blackmail has always been my speciality).
The group of French and Belgian cavers were certainly amazed to learn that we were the super hard men from England but they obviously didn't recognise quality when they saw it. At this point the bus decided to explode again; the fuel pump seized and a tyre shredded. This meant that all the gear had to be carried up the 6000 ft. to the base camp at Benthillou. Whilst this was happening, I went with the van on a tyre purchasing expedition; the combined Pennine brain finds english difficult enough, so french was nearly impossible.
After we had sorted out our problems, the next thing to do was to get the van up to the camp. It sounded easy!
The tarmac roads ends at Eylie, a very broken down mining village with little to its credit apart from breathtaking scenery. From here the road deteriorated into a track with strange wooden bridges across enormous ravines. After about 2 km the way on was barred by a metal barrier which required a key. Pennine skill soon had it off its hinges and we continued on our way. The track beyond this point is so hairy that I hardly dare write about it for fear of scaring old members by recalling old wounds. It had 24 exposed hairpins which the bus couldn't possibly get round in one. Dave drove the bus up with a bottle of 'duty free' in one hand and with our assurances that it was definitely safer at night. Much to our amazement the bus was only slightly damaged on the way up and Dave had stopped shaking after a couple of days.
The camp at Benthillou is the most amazing place I have ever visited. The place is a deserted mining town with aerial ropeways and scrap mining equipment littered everywhere. All the old huts and buildings are still standing so we selected a fine, two storey dwelling and estabished base camp. We even had a piped water supply and our own toilet with a superb view of the valley below.
Behind the village was a reservoir which was a good swimming pool, even though it was full of melt water. The surrounding scenery was marvellous and more time was spent walking than caving. I could have stayed there for years.
However, more about the cave! The entrance, about 500ft below the camp, is an enormous triangular-shaped hole in the cliff. The actual entrance has a concrete door which is impenetrable without a key. Also placed encouragingly in the entrance is a memorial to somebody who was drowned in the large pool which builds up just inside the cave in times of flood. Undaunted we went for a quiet stroll in the entrance series; the going is very easy for the first two miles...
The boulder slope at the entrance leads down into an immense chamber with the river sinking in one corner. The way on is between large mud banks and this eventually comes to the Salle Blanche, a once finely decorated chamber of white stal., but it has suffered from much carbide graffiti. From here one has to crunch one's way across the best array of calcite crystals it has ever been one's privilege to destroy and into a series of well-decorated passages. At the end of this is the Trou Soufleur and the start of the undamaged formations and the cave proper. The Trou Soufleur (whistling hole?) is a strange place; the cave narrows to a man-sized hole and there is a tremendous gale blowing through which puts sand in one's eyes and blows out one's lamp.
Beyond this point are the cascades for which the cave is most famous. There are twenty six in all, varying from an easy step to the most unstable pitch I have ever climbed. A high level route avoids the first few cascades and after many fine formations regains the streamway at the base of the eighth and ninth cascades.
It was at this point that the first bottle (diving) carrying party dropped its load and returned to base. The next day was the day of the 'big' trip; we were doing it as two parties, the diving support group and a supplies party who were going to bring some food to the camp at the 13th cascade. I was in the first group of intrepid explorers and Dave and John were in the second.
We quickly reached the 8th cascade and went up the ladder to the 9th; these two pitches together are about 90 ft high with water coming down in torrents. We were most grateful to the French for rigging it for us. This barrier of crumbling rock and water was what delayed progress in the cave for so long. The rock is so friable that it is unwise to be anywhere near the pitch when someone is climbing; the hapless climber brings tons of rock down on himself in the attempt to reach the top. From the top is a horrible traverse in the same shattered rock and into a series of chambers. These chambers continue until the 15th cascade. The cave then becomes more sporting with fast flowing water and interesting cascades with apparently bottomless pools at their base.
There is a permanent gale until the 26th cascade when it completely disappears. Obviously the way on to the sump is not the best policy but that was our destination. Above the 26th is a narrow passage reminiscent of Yorkshire and then the final sump pool which, after all that effort, was a disappointment.
Rob dived the sump, but it was exactly as described by the previous year's expedition so we all went home. On the trip back to base camp we kept losing the diving bottles down deep pools and occasionally a bottle would fall down a pitch but, again, that's another story!