A Grand Day Out
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
It was not a pretty sight at 9am this morning!
Last year we were chased all over the French countryside by Jean Tarrit and his friend, Jean-Claude, who were desperate to find us and show us an exciting dive site in a cave called the Garrel.
I had visited the Garrel in April 2003 and remember it as an easy, dry and pretty cave with no tackle required. I don’t recall there being a sump, but Nathan Boinet the local activist in these parts, had been dipping his toe in the sumps at the end of the system, some of which came to nothing early on and one which was looking to ‘go’ – but he was diving back mounted 7s and couldn’t fit through the etroiture (squeeze).
So, we were invited to take a look using our ‘techniques anglaise’ (sidemount) and were promised a large group of ‘slaves’ from the CLPA to carry all our equipment.
We were due to meet the French cavers at 9am near St Jean de Buéges but the troops were not to be rallied.
Tim Webber and Jarvist Frost arrived last night having made awesome time – but they were paying for it in exhaustion.
Duncan Smith and Elaine Hill also arrived yesterday – but Elaine was staying firmly between her tent and the toilet block, having eaten something dodgy.
So Duncan was up and about, Rich was dragged out of his pit by me and there was no sign of life next door.
The plan was for Tim and I to take a look at this ‘squeeze’ and see if we could pass it. I would go first and sort the line and have a look, then, assuming I would be too fat to fit, as Nathan had insisted on a ‘thin diver’, I would hand over to skinny Tim to continue.
So, having had a minor epic trying to find bread for breakfast, we got on the road and Tim would show up later with Jarvist in tow.
The French team were at the side of the road, half kitted up and there was a buzz in the air. Lots of banter and greetings and introductions went around and after a degree of faff, we set off – minus SRT kits. This concerned us a little as the others all seemed to have them…….Nathan assured us that the climbing was easy and we weren’t to worry. So we didn’t.
Five minutes in to the entrance we were met with a 15m pitch!!
Never mind……The French guy ahead of me descended and Duncan behind me lent me his descender. I attached it to my belt, abseiled down the pitch and sent it back up the rope…..
I could see this being quite a fun trip for those of us minus rope gear.! However, the French were obliging and over the course of several rope climbs and abseils, I employed just about every technique in the book – including those with red crosses through them! I used a stop, figure of 8, Italian hitch and krab, one or two jammers depending on what I could scrounge at the time, a full kit at one stage – loaned by Jean-Claude who can free climb just about anything – someone else’s cows-tail hauling me from above and quite a lot of brute force and ignorance!!
It was excellent fun and Jean was correct in his time estimation. It took 4 hours to get our teams and two sets of divers gear to the sump. There was climbing, crawling and boulder chokes by the bucket load and it was very, very hot and sweaty in there!
But the banter and morale kept everyone going with frequent breaks.
We arrived at the sump and it was large, blue and clear and very inviting. I was desperate to get in and cool down!!
Everyone arrived on the boulder slope and began unpacking their lunch. It was a natural amphitheatre, with graded seats for the cavers to watch the divers kit up in comfort.
We treated ourselves to sausage roll, taboulé, bread and cheese. Nathan became insistent that it would be better for two people to dive together as the second diver would not get to see anything. I was unsure about this, but as he had dived it and we hadn’t, we went along with his suggestion and Tim and I kitted up together.
The line was broken at the very beginning, so we tied the reel off and set off down the sand slope in zero visibility. I went in front with the reel and we laid 20m of line until we found Nathan’s broken line in situ. We tied into it at a good belay and the water suddenly became crystal clear as we moved away from the sand slope and into a level passage with a boulder floor, about 3m high and 5m wide.
We patched up the line in one place where it was needed and soon came to the end of Nathan’s line, marked with a 45m tag, just at the start of the squeeze.
I had a good look at it and it didn’t look too bad, so after a quick chat with Tim, I set off through the squeeze and passed it easily, stopping for a moment to make a good tie off at the end, before turning slightly rightwards into bigger passage.
Tim duly followed and continued tying the line off behind me. We moved forward until the passage seemed to come to a bit of a break down and spotted a higher passage so moved on up into that and went forward some more. We laid about 42m of new line altogether after the squeeze.
The biggest problem in this sump was the visibility. It is a static sump so there is no flow to help you. The silt seemed to rain down in clouds from the roof – probably because there had never been any air bubbles in there before to dislodge it.
Furthermore, the roof sloped upwards so bubbles were travelling up the roof ahead of us and raining silt clouds down like swirling mists of powder, right in front of our noses and interfering with our visibility.
This problem began to obstruct progress and I got to a bit of passage where the way on was less obvious and it looked to be breaking down. I stopped to have a good look and was engulfed in red swirling powder – so I thumbed the dive and tied the line off, cut the reel free and we set off back home in awful viz.
Following the thin line home was much easier than I anticipated and we soon arrived at the sand slope and looked up to see the dozen or so cavers lights glowing on the embankment in expectation, all staring at us through the ripples on the surface of the water.
I gave Nathan and the expectant audience a brief explanation of what we had found – in dubious French – and received a round of applause and what looked like an explosion of paparazzi!!
We cleared up, had some water and food and started the journey out en masse, which was not without amusement!
Still minus an SRT kit, I scrounged all sorts of items on the way home. The other brits were having similar epics and we ended up fighting over the sole karabiner for use with an Italian hitch!
The journey out was a little slicker and we stopped in the ‘Salle de dejeuné’ which Jean explained was the resting place for the original explorers.
We arrived at the last pitch and I was given an SRT kit from somebody and made my way up the pitch. Rich was also donated kit from somewhere but I have no idea how the others got out!
I arrived at the traverse line and was faced with a French caver, lying on his side looking like he wanted to die!
He said in English (cue French accent): “Christine, please can you 'elp me..? Can you take my equipment because I am very, very tired….”
I said “Of course!”
He went on to explain: “I cannot feel my arms or my legs any more!”
He had left his jammer on the rope and couldn’t face the return journey of all of one metre to retrieve it!!
I offered to take his bag the last 15 metres of uphill crawling and he insisted we do it together!
We surfaced to the flashes of cameras and dusk was settling.
A gang of us returned to the campsite for a great BBQ cooked by Rich and far too much wine!
A grand day out!
A huge thank you to the CLPA and friends for their support and images.