The Vercors by Ian Cummins

Vercors Club Meet: Andy, Edward, Phil, Ian, Peter and Gen (23 May 2008). 

My first caving trip to France!  Having climbed in Provence many times, I wasn’t relishing driving down alone, so it was great to have a lift down with the Coles and drive a nice motor for a change.  Leaving Cowling just before 5 pm on a Bank Holiday Friday left me wondering if we would make the Chunnel by 11 and the traffic in Bradford looked a bit grim, but by taking a devious detour to avoid the A1/M1 bottlenecks, we actually made it.  Not that I remember much of the undersea trip, apart from encountering the most powerful hand driers in the world in the terminal, as I soon fell asleep!  At the French end, Andy and family had a hotel room for the night, whilst I settled down in the Vectra Hilton, sneaking into the hotel next morning for a shower.

Driving south, it was easy to appreciate the quality and the lack of congestion on the péage routes, eating up the journey at a steady 130 kph, whilst taking in the scenery.  Heading down a steep, fast road towards Grenoble, I was stunned by the sight of the Alps ahead, with the big white cliffs of the Chartreuse escarpment to the left and the brooding mass of the Vercors to the right.  Stunned, that is, until I noticed the traffic cop in a Subaru Impreza come up behind with lights flashing – fortunately he wasn’t after us!

Skirting Grenoble and the suburb of Sassenage, we wound our way through wooded countryside to the village of Villard de Lans, our base for the week.  Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with a break in the weather and the seepage-free cliffs and trickling rivers we noted on our arrival were rather different when we left, with high winds, thunderstorms and steady rain the order for the week – not really suntan weather.

First cave of the week was Grotte de Favot in the Bourne Gorge, described as having a serious approach in some reports, but in fact this was a safe, but steep, 600-foot slog up through a wood, with a bit of rock to climb at the end to reach a terrace at the base of the cliff.  The big cave mouth here is not the entrance though and leads through a short crouching section to another platform and the sight of a huge phreatic ramp, descending at about 30-degrees.  The handline descent was already rigged by a party and we fixed our own rope for the 50-metre-plus walk down.  More scrambling down led to huge chambers with some of the largest stal columns I have seen.  Continuing on we came to another expanse at the head of a pitch into the final chamber, where we met a large party of French speleos – mostly female!

I rigged the pitch, which was mostly slabby and slippery, until a final 15-metre free-hang down to another flowstone slope leading to the bottom of the chamber.  More nice columns here and much nice stuff hanging down as well.  Back at the top of the pitch, I noticed a line of chopped holds up the flowstone slope to the side and wandering up to the top I was pleasantly surprised to see more huge columns and some rather large gour pools as well – fantastic!

Next day, with more rain about, we headed off for the Trou Qui Souffle system, one of the largest in the area and not too wet either, with the bonus of offering fine through-trips between its 2 entrances – if you know the way!  Driving up the forest track, we came upon the rather modest entrance, complete with bashed metal rail, right by the roadside – it was breathing too, with the cold draught blowing out condensing the muggy wet air to make a nice mist.  Driving a bit further on to get changed by the alternative Saints de Glace entrance, we found a bunch of speleos puffing on their Gauloises prior to going underground and whilst we changed, their leader came over for a chat.  He told us that they had the SDG rigged and that we could use his ropes as they were going down the TQS entrance – cheers mate!

This was a fun trip – easy, but steep, stream passage with a few short pitches leading to a complex of muddy lower passages, with the connection to TQS lying beyond the massive – and I mean big enough for my light to meet darkness and not rock – Salle Hydrokarst.  Stunning stuff and more than 200m deep without much effort – a brilliant trip.  I decided to blast out first, feeling hungry and whilst changing met a couple of tourists who were trying to find the TQS entrance.  I explained in my best Franglais that it was back down the road and that they had driven past it.  I guess they were expecting a Gaping Ghyll-type entrance, not just a little slit at the roadside!

Before we left, we stuck a note on the speleos’ van to thank them – they probably had a good laugh at my French anyway.

With the rain meaning no trip down the Grotte de Gornier, next day saw a return to Grotte de Favot, with Andy, Edward and Gen, with us just missing a massive shower as we reached the terrace.  Evenings were developing into long card-school/drinking sessions, with the ladies of the party generally outlasting everyone else!  I managed to be first out most of the time, which meant that I at least got some sleep and next day saw a more ambitious plan hatched by Phil, to go for the rather gnarly-looking Sciallet de la Sierre (I think), lying adjacent to the ski runs high on the valley side opposite our base.  With Peter in tow, we drove off to the deserted ski resort, selected the required run and slogged uphill in the hottest sun of the week.  The book said a 25-minute walk was required, so upon sighting a likely hole after only 15 minutes yomping, we decided that the walk had been to easy and continued up to find  – nothing!  Peter had refused to go higher than the first hole and this proved to be the correct choice.  This was a beautiful spot, with conifers, junipers, gentians and orchids to admire and it was almost a shame to be underground on the sunniest day of the week.

The entrance hole had a nice plug of snow and unusually for the area, a blasted crawl led off to the first pitch.  The caving that followed could be compared to a finer version of Trapdoor Pot, with several ‘improved’ crawls linking some aesthetic pitches and some awkward rigging too.  We aimed to bottom the 50m pitch near the end of the cave and make that do.  Finding this pitch head proved to be tricky, involving a pendule into an alcove and a short traverse out over a large, black void – very impressive!

After we ascended this pitch, I took the full rope bag out and left Peter and Phil to de-rig, spending an hour or two in the last of the evening sun on the surface.  Peter spent much of the trip engaged in conversation with his SRT kit, apparently suffering from sleep deprivation due to sharing a room with ‘the beastie boy’ and was obviously trying to maintain his concentration!

With mist now shrouding the hills and not much sun left, I munched my food and admired the scenery, listening to the cuckoo’s calls and the barking of the deer in the forest above.

Finally, I heard a grunt emanating from inside the cave, signalling Peter’s arrival the pitch head.  Gathering some pine cones, I waited at the lip of the entrance hole to bombard him when he emerged, to tired to even notice what was crashing off his helmet!  Phil exited in the last of the light and we trotted down the piste to get changed.  Avoiding the many deer on the twisting forest road, we got back to Villard to find Pizza waiting – thanks folks!  This was a top trip – a very nice day out.

One of the things that strikes you when travelling around the Vercors are the large number of memorials to the Resistance fighters and civilians killed in the repression of the post-D-Day uprising in the area.  Our next cave, the Gour Fumant lies adjacent to an important site in this episode.  The Herbouilly Pasture is a grassy area high in the hills, where German glider troops surprised the defenders and established a bridgehead for the subsequent influx of reinforcements.  The cave entrance lies at the edge of this now tranquil site and was amazingly bearing a solid ice floor in the entrance passage and a large ice formation that any crampon wearer would have drooled over. It is apparently a WRPC tradition to fail to bottom this pot, due to tackle cock-ups.  Some of this may be excused due to inaccuracies in ‘The Bearded Brit Vercors Guide’, but in this case some of my companions left the gear bags in their car!  With attrition of the party due to moans over too slack or too tight rigging, or something like that, Andy and I were left looking over the final 20m drop to the streamway below, before retreating.

With the final day arriving, I resolved to return to finish the job with Phil and Peter, dropping down the nice final pitch and following the streamway to its end and checking out the fine passage of ‘Dragon Chinoise’ on the way out – very enjoyable stuff.  Whilst we were getting changed, a local lad stopped his car and asked how we had got on.  The speleos all seemed to really friendly and keen to give advice.

The final night in Villard meant a meal out – in fact 2 meals for most of us, since our salad starters were easily enough for the average appetite and I had to stash my excess pizza for consumption the following day.

Driving up through France on the return, we encountered more foul weather, only improving when we got up to St. Omer. After fine a meal of lettuce, hidden molluscs and single malt whisky, we retired to our beds for the night, with my last Euro spent in the hotel lobby vending machine, with the bonus of Moto GP on TV as well.

A great week, despite the grotty weather – thanks everyone, let’s do it again.