These annual Cerberus trips to France seem to be becoming an enjoyable habit. Having visited the Vercors and the Jura, where next? Chartreuse was suggested, but it seemed the caving may be a little too serious for the sort of thing we were looking for this year. How about the ArdÀ che? Warm, dry (hopefully!) at this time of year, plus things to do for the non-caving members of the group. So the ArdÀche it was, and passing the buck of looking for accommodation over to our Social Secretary, I began the task of finding out what the caving was all about.
It seemed very few British clubs had been there, or if they had, they hadn’t bothered to write about it anywhere. A request to the readers of Descent drew a blank, so armed with just a Speleo Sportive guidebook and a Southampton University 1996 trip report, eighteen Cerberus and non-Cerberus members of all shapes and sizes headed south to the tiny village of Comps.
The one thing the ArdÀche region is particularly known for is the gorge of the ArdÀche river, and rightly so. Up to 300m deep, cut into an almost horizontal plateau, it extends for around 35Km from Vallon Pont D’Arc to St. Martin D’ArdÀche. Unfortunately this impressive gorge is a real tourist trap, something we seem to have avoided on previous Cerberus trips. Even in the gorge itself you can’t escape the crowds, hundreds of canoeists in boats hired from the profusion of hire shops at Vallon. Even so, it’s not bad, as gorges go!
Beyond the gorge, the region is less impressive. Being fairly southerly, the ArdÀche enjoys an almost Mediterranean climate, and the vegetation reflects this, consisting of dense, prickly scrubby things that deter you from straying too far from the beaten track.
We were staying in a refuge in the tiny village of Comps, even too tiny to have a bar. However, it was sufficiently far from Vallon to be very peaceful (apart from the noise we bought with us!), and was a great spot.
Wednesday 31st May Event de Midroi
The Rochas-Midroi-Guigonne system has the claim to fame of being the fifth longest system in the Ardeche (7700m) and the deepest through trip (175m). Since we didn’t know the system at all, we decided on a visit from the bottom end, we’d go for a pull-through at a later date.
The Team:- Pete, Rod, Marcus, Graham, Andy.
From Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, take the D290 down the gorge until the small bridge at the Gournier is reached. The easiest way to find this is to drive as far as the Madeleine showcave, turn round and head back to a sharp right and sharp left. At the left bend is the aforementioned bridge. Park here. A track leads under the bridge, to eventually reach the Gournier refuge. This track is very steep in places, you’ll know it on the return! Once at the refuge, the track becomes a more horizontal footpath, continuing down river, well back from the water. The footpath steepens as the Grand Gour is reached, a large rock ledge about 10m above the water. At the end of the ledge, the path narrows where a steel handrail aids further progress down to river level. About 250m from the end of the handrail, a sandy path leads up to the entrance. Despite being 4m square, the entrance in the cliff face is difficult to spot.
The large dry entrance passage is easy walking to a muddy pool. The trench in the floor and all the rubbish testifies to the fact that this part of the cave is frequently visited. Shortly after the pool, the water deepens significantly at a lake that fills the width of the passage. This lake is about 30m long, and can be crossed either by swimming or traversing above the water using the ecohangers on the right hand wall. Since we didn’t have the intention of getting wet, we opted for the traverse. The hangers are well spaced, one or two being a little too well spaced, and stainless steel footpegs assist with progress. Approximately half way along the traverse, it gets interesting, a large bulge shortly followed by the traverse going straight up makes rigging quite entertaining, with one or two opportunities for a thorough soaking. Happily I managed to stay dry. After the climb up, the traverse continues at a higher level along a false floor, quite easy, though the rope is still necessary, purely for safety as a slip could be quite serious. The rigging used about 65m of rope and 29 maillons, and took around one and a half hours, though it didn’t seem that long to me. It probably seemed an eternity for those waiting, I suggest a better option is to send one man in to rig while the rest sun themselves by the river! Once rigged, the rest of the team were close behind, though one or two had personal epics in a couple of places, perhaps the traverse line could have been a little tighter.
From the lake, the passage continues, large and with a bit more paddling to a T-junction where the water and mud is left behind. Right leads to a couple of quite well decorated chambers but with no way on. The way on is to the left. An enjoyable 5m climb up a large flake into another chamber follows, leading into a well decorated passage and an attractive crystal pool. This is furnished with a slightly suspect traverse line, which we all trusted our lives to! Beyond this, the passage continues large and with more excellent decoration. A large chamber is reached, and the way on is down a loose gravel slope to a lower passage. Apparently this area can sump. At the bottom of the slope, a beautiful blue/green pool and more fine formations are encountered. (I’m fast running out of superlatives!)
Unfortunately I’m writing this article nearly four months after the event, so my recollections of the route are now getting a bit woolly!
A bit of confusion follows. Straight ahead, a high aven with dubious looking ropes hanging down is fortunately not the way on, neither is the right-hand route through a deep pool. A left turn along a lower, narrower passage but still finely decorated passage is the correct route. A couple of roof alcoves contain some superb helictites. Also of note is an area well decorated with numerous breast-like pendants, complete with nipples, (you can tell it’s a bloke writing this report!). Shortly after this the passage enlarges again. We knew that somewhere around here was the connection with the Aven Rochas, the top entrance to the system. Going up an unlikely looking crawl on the left, I could detect a faint draught, so pressed on via a couple of tight crawls to a slot in the roof. The draught increased in strength until it literally whistled around my helmet. This had to be the connection. A short wet squeeze and another unlikely looking slot, and I could look up the bottom pitch of the Rochas. Shame we hadn’t rigged it from the top, it would have been an excellent through-trip. Returning to the rest of the team, I couldn’t persuade anybody else to take a look.
Continuing along the main passage, an entertaining climb up a slippery slope leads to more large passage. Sadly for us, the route to what is supposed to be the best part of the cave, the Reseau Mambo, is now gated, so we had to be content with just peering through the bars down a tightish-looking rift. A quick poke around some large passage to the right of the gate revealed a 10m drop, not free-climbable, down to a sump pool, the way on to the Event de la Guigonne, definitely not free-divable! The end of the cave for us.
An uneventful return journey, shame about the slog out of the gorge!
Friday 2nd June Event de Peyrejal
Part of the 24km long Sauvas system, the Event de Peyrejal boasts 6105m of passageway. Taking heed of a warning of potential thunderstorms later that afternoon, we opted for a quick trip just to visit one particular area, about one third of the cave. As it happened, the rain never came, but given the cave’s reputation for rapid and violent flooding, any warning should be taken seriously.
The Team:- Peter, Rod, Marcus, Mike, Andy
Take the D901 from St. Paul le Jeune towards St. Andr¾ de CruziÀ res. 100m after kilometre post 10, a track on the right leads to a parking spot after 150m. Follow the track for about 100m to where it bends left. A caver-worn path can be seen heading right over a low wall for about 70m to the entrance in a small group of trees. This is the artificial entrance. The natural entrance is to be found by continuing along the main track from where the wall is crossed, down into a large valley and then following the valley up. The natural entrance soon leads to a sump, hence the artificial entrance.
Not much need for a full description of the entrance pitches. Basically, if you take the following kit you’ll easily get to where you want to be. Ropes of 15, 10, 12, 12 and 3m, 10 hangers and a couple of slings. Sadly for us another group were ahead of us and a third group hot on our tail! Had I known of somewhere else worth going nearby, a change of plan may have made more sense. However, I didn’t, so we continued. The pitches are easy and quickly follow one another to drop into the main passage, an impressive phreatic tunnel, about 6m by 3m high. As with most of the passages we saw, this one is well scalloped, the direction and force of flow being all too obvious. Downstream leads quickly to the sump between here and the natural entrance. Returning upstream, past the point where we dropped in, the passage continues in a similar size before a narrow bit with the only formations we saw, a few gours. Passing the gours the passage continues, still quite large to a junction. Straight on leads to the main part of the system, but since we didn’t want to stay down here long, we took a left junction to the most impressive part of the cave, the Sauvas branch This leads to the Goule de Sauvas and the Cocaliere, a show cave being visited by some of our group that very day. A shingly crawl for approximately 100m gives way to a perfect text-book example of a phreatic tube. 2m in diameter, dead straight for 30m and solid rock floored. On showing my rather pathetic attempts to photograph this passage to a couple of non-cavers, both asked if it was natural or man-made!
The passage continues along a canyon, then more tube, a bit of crawling and stooping, more twisting shingly canyon and finally the sump from the Goule de Sauvas. We were pleased to note that the water was not rising. However, the existence of logs and car tyres further back suggested that when it does, it does with some considerable force. An uneventful return, we were perhaps a little disappointed to exit to clear blue skies, we could have spent longer down the cave after all!
…….After waiting for the others to descend the artificial entrance to the
Event de Peyrejal Chrissy, Graham and Sam visited the main stream entrance. This
is well worth a look and when you see the size of the river (normally dry as it
was on this occasion) you appreciate how dangerous the main cave becomes if it
rains. The large passage leads for 200m to a sump the other side of which is
reached from the alternative way in. We previously visited the cave in 1991 and
were pretty certain that the others would have a very good trip.
A few of us had an afternoon’s canoeing down the Ardeche River from Vallon Pont d’Arc to just beyond Pont d’Arc, taking in about three rapids, the last multi-rapid run being the best bit. If time permits, I would recommend a full day’s canoeing down the whole gorge. Prices seemed very reasonable. The cost includes you and your canoe being brought back up river at the end of the day. Waterproof drums are supplied for your valuables, food, beer, etc. Go for it! It was quite strenuous, I found a few muscles that caving doesn’t use!
Shopping:(mustn’t forget this one, seems to have become a special interest group in its own right)
Market – Joyeuse (31st May)
Joyeuse is a town which spreads out on terraces opposite the Tanargue massif, a crystalline range at the southern end of the high volcanic lands of the Velay and Vivarais.
The market spread through the entire town and was filled with stalls selling fruit, wine, cheese, souvenirs, and all other kinds of traditional crafts. The highlight was the saucisson stall selling a variety of saucisson including ones made from donkey meat or duck and saucisson coated in ash.
Market - Ruoms (2nd June)
This was the nearest town to the gite. There was an old walled centre to the town surrounded by seven round towers. The town was pretty sleepy and did not have much to recommend it, apart from a good ice cream shop and a supermarket. However, the market brought the town to life.
Choppers spent £25 (not a typing error!) on a large bar of nougat.
Casteljau, an interesting speleological site on the Chassezac river, is where the majority of the club headed for a walk to start the week’s activities at a leisurely pace. A very picturesque spot with an Ardeche-sized river running round the base of the hill.
We parked at the top of the hill and followed one of the way-marked paths in an easterly direction and followed it round the hill in an anticlockwise direction, which took in a lot of fragmented caves. The base of the cliffs by the river had many small caves that were investigated as part of the course…….
…….After investigating some tiny caves down by the river (Choppers had to
do his first moon of the holiday) most gave up at the halfway mark after lunch.
Graham, Chrissy and Sam continued to complete the circuit, visiting a couple of
other caves on route. Passing three young children complete with Petzl headsets
the first consisted of about 50m or so of smallish easy passage. Being close to
the camp site in the valley below it was obviously well visited being pleasant
but not terribly inspiring. Climbing on up the hillside we eventually located
the to the second cave. It was quite a climb up into a very tall impressive
entrance and care had to be taken. It was worth it. The 100m or so passage was
more of typically large French proportions and the view out of the entrance
overlooking the valley below certainly made the effort to reach it worthwhile
Aven D’Orgnac, ArdÀ che
Discovered in 1935 by Robert de Joly, one of the great forerunners of modern speleology. He must have been impressed dropping into this vast chamber with its superb tall stalagmites. The top chamber with the big stal is well impressive. The cave was even accessible to my self, having a lift down to the first chamber (main); Well worth the visit, and as with most French Show Caves, very reasonable to get in. There is also a museum here to prehistory opened in 1998, though unless you understand French well, don’t bother, in fact even if you do, don’t bother, apparently!. You can purchase the local cave area guide book here "Speleologie Du Department De L`Ardeche" 1986, 190 FrF. It’s not much cop, but it’s all there is local apparently. It’s also available from a bookshop in Vallon Pont D`Arc, I’m told cheaper.
Grotte De La Cocaliere, Gard
The "Ivy Hole" was opened in 1967 by Mr Marty after seventeen years of research, it is the largest cave in France with 48 kilometers of galleries already explored. They say the show cave is child friendly but beware of the initial showcave entrance, many flights of steps downwards, hard work with a push chair.
I preferred the lift in the Aven D`Orgnac, easy going from then on. Some lovely formations especially some exquisite disc formations which I had not seen before, worth the visit to see these. At the time we were ambling along these quaint galleries, members were in the lower reaches worried about reports of a storm brewing, no such worries up here. A good distance was travelled underground, and I was beginning to weary when to my surprise we surfaced, it was a through trip, and a little train was waiting to return us. Lifts, pretty through trips with no ropes, and transport back to your vehicle, these French know how to Cave!
I for one am certainly glad to have visited the area, though I’m not in a great hurry to return. I think this was the view of the majority of us. The caving was great, though the trips not very long. With more information on the area I’m sure we could have found plenty of other trips, though again, I don’t think they would be of any great length.
Most of the canoeists said afterwards they’d have preferred to do a longer trip.
It struck me as a bit of a long drive for just a week, considering where else we might have gone.
All in all though, an excellent week. Thanks to all who helped make it so.
Speleo Sportive en ArdÀ
che. Philippe Drouin & Thierry Marchand. 1989.
Shepton Mallet Caving Club Journal. Volume 10 no. 1.