La Fête Du Vieil Homme Dans Le Vercors

During one especially cold and wet weekend at Godre Pentre, Hugh Penney, on a visit to the UK, invited us all to his 30th birthday party at his hostel, Le Lapiaz in the Vercors region of France. This was planned, interestingly, for his birthday, at the end of August. As we sat in the twenty watt gloom of the cottage on a winter's evening, the thought of sunshine, red wine and beautiful scenery was particularly appealing. I had been told that there were a few small caves in the area as well!

Plans were duly made. Steve and I, in our usual style, left everything to the last minute. We even had to phone Hugh the night before we left to find out where he lived! Simon, Tania, Eric, Helen, Richard and Linda (Richard's American girl friend for those of you like me who didn't even know that he had a girlfriend. You kept that very quiet Richard) were a little more organised. Simon even brought his mum to do the cooking and his dad to do the driving! Crossing the Channel by whatever route cost just over £100 for a car plus passengers, Steve and I made the journey door to door from Oxfordshire to Hugh's place in a day. The drive was pretty boring. That is until we came off the motorway. The scenery suddenly changed and was absolutely magnificent. The spectacle of the Vercors massif rising up from the plateau in front of us was quite awesome. Steve kept trying to tell me of some small cave he'd been down in the area three years ago. It has a chamber in it with some nice stal' or something. The 'Salle de Trieze' I think its called. He kept boring on about it all holiday anyway.

(Editor's note - Actually Helen, I think it is called the Gouffre Berger and you have not been there, unlike Steve and I of course !!!)

Hugh's refuge is in Presles at the top of a road that winds up the side of a mountain. For Steve and I it was our first visit. We were impressed. We arrived at about 8.00pm. The others had arrived earlier that day and plans were in full swing for the barbecue that was to be held about five minutes back down the road. The chosen site was under a cliff near a tunnel carved out of the rock. From here there were breathtaking views across and down into the valley. The moon was almost full and, at the beginning of the night, the sky was clear and full of stars. By the end of the night nobody cared anyway! Hugh is now officially in the old man's club.

After a good night's and morning's sleep I felt back to myself and able to take in my surroundings. The refuge was enormous. Hugh's place was in the old pig pen set slightly aside from the main building, and work started in earnest on his bathroom on that first afternoon. Trouble was there were a lot of Chiefs and no Indians! By early evening, feeling suitably recovered, we went for a climb on the rocks where we had partied the previous evening.

Grotte de Gournier

This cave is very well known and made an excellent choice for a first trip in the area. Grotte de Gournier is close to Hugh's in the Bourne Gorge next to the Choranche show cave. We asked permission at the gate to go in and were warned to be careful because of the recent high water levels and flooding. Simon, Tania, Richard, Linda, Simon Richards, Steve and I levered ourselves into our wetsuits in the drizzle in the show cave carpark. Apart from the fantastic, if cloudy, view across the valley, this public changing display, the rain and the 'unsummer' like temperature were all reminiscent of a trip down Dan-yr-Ogof!

Armed with a tackle bag full of rope and Hugh's inflatable woman… er… dinghy, we set off up the track. Ten minutes later we were by a fine cave entrance with a 30 metre lake enticing us into the darkness. It was at this point that we started to talk about the ghost of the Gournier. The story is that two cavers were drowned in the streamway during flood conditions. Since then they have appeared to lone cavers offering to accompany them on a trip. As I contemplated this unhappy tale a shiver went down my spine and for a second or two the darkness ahead did not look quite so enticing. "Pull yourself together!" bellowed my more rational side, and putting these thoughts to the back of my mind I began unloading the rope.

We set up a pull back system for the dinghy with the cord and two by two we crossed the lake to a convenient landing platform on the far left hand side. From here there was a slightly awkward exposed climb that, depending on how you fell, would either result in a very hard landing or a cold wet awakening. This was greatly assisted by the first person up rigging in a sling for everyone else to use. A 30 metre traverse followed and from then on it was easy caving in huge well decorated passage. One of the decorations, a man made one, was not so decorative. Somebody had obviously been very scared by the traverse. Adorning a beautiful piece of flow stone was a very large not so beautiful turd. It was at eye height for all to see. 'Shit sculpture' was featured as an art form on 'Euortrash' not so long ago (Friday night après pub TV bollocks) but this was definitely not pleasing to the eye!

We were in the fossil gallery. The passage was roughly 10m x 20m and decorated throughout. Gour pools and stal' everywhere. What can I say, Otter Hole eat your heart out really. After 900m of wonderland we came to the first of the two accessible entrances into the streamway below. At last I was glad that I had my wetsuit on. The streamway was beautiful but also quite full. We carried along for as far as we could go without further equipment - the wire traverses had been removed. In addition, the weather conditions outside, the warnings we had been given by the show cave owners, and the recent tragedy down the Berger were in the front of our minds. Not wanting to be swept away we turned around and headed out. At the boulder choke in the streamway, the others went on ahead whilst I fiddled with my carbide lamp. I sat in the dark waiting for someone to notice that I wasn't behind them. Soon I heard footsteps in the distance coming towards me. At first I thought that it was Steve coming back. It wasn't. The stranger and I talked about the weather outside and he invited me to come with him. I explained that I wanted to wait for the rest of my party and that we would catch him up When the others finally realised that I wasn't with them they came back. They had not seen or heard the stranger. We never did catch him up.

The rest of the trip out was uneventful and yes it was still raining outside.

(Ed - Do not worry about this as this is the product of fevered imagination regarding a little known and rather second rate ghost story. Tosh really).

Rain Stops Play

On our third day the weather was appalling. There was nothing else to do except head for the swimming pool. Yes that fantastic swimming pool with the climbing wall next to it that we've all heard so much about. What a disappointment. All I can say is that Simon's and Steve's grey cells are waning. The climbing wall was minute. I could almost reach the top with one hand! The pool did have a slide and a wave machine but there were also about 300 kids in it. The much talked about aerobics class was also taking place in the next room for the sad old Croydon Caving Club men to letch at. Tragic really. We finished the day with a trip to the local bar.

Trou qui Souffle and Les Saints de Glace

The next day the weather had improved. Steve, Simon D, Simon R and I headed for Les Saints de Glace entrance of the Trou qui Souffle cave system, whilst the others went into the Bournillon. On our way to the cave we stopped at EXPE in order to buy some extra hangers and rope for the seven pitches. In fact we needn't have bothered with the hangers since quite a few of the pitches were 'P' bolted. The longest pitch was only 11 metres. We had a really nice trip with quite a bit of horizontal caving in between pitches and a bit of route finding as well. The final pitch dropped into the middle of a massive chamber, the 'Salle Hydrokarst'. It is thought that the whole chamber can flood to the roof. Some divers left their bottles down there one year and, when they returned the following season, they registered that they had been 40 metres underwater. There was certainly no water to be seen whilst we were there. The chamber itself was extremely draughty and cold, the cave system being extensive beyond this point. It was here that we turned around and headed out. It would have been nice to explore the maze beyond but it was getting late and more importantly, Hugh was having another barby so we had to get back!

Les Ecouges II

Hugh had promised to go canyoning with us and, on our fourth day, the conditions looked good - not bright and sunny but not pouring with rain either. Since none of us had ever been before he decided that Les Ecouges II would be a good one to start with. Les Ecouges I up above it at the top of the gorge looked very intrepid. Must go back one day and do that as well. Les Ecouges II was also fairly intrepid because it had lots of scary jumps that were completely against the grain for us cavers who are used to being on ropes. We set off in two cars on a windy road down the side of the gorge. Once again there were spectacular views all the way. Hugh was driving his Citroen bread van/Tardis and we left this as near to the bottom as possible in order to shorten the return walk back up the hill.

There were two groups already changing to go down. These people were actually paying for the trip. In all there were five pitches and five jumps. The first two were 15m and 25m. We abseilled down them in twos, one on each end of the rope. Steve tried to break his coccyx by sliding down a ramp that I had piloted and said, 'don't do it, it hurts'. Hugh had then tried and said, 'don't do it, it really hurts', but Steve gave it a go complete with tackle bag and knocked the wind out of himself. He whinged on about his poor bruised back for weeks afterwards.

There then followed three small jumps, 5m, 3m, and 4m, into freezing water. The group leaders in the party ahead of us were doing acrobatics into the water. It was their fault that we ended up jumping the next two pitches that previously Hugh had rigged. They were both 6m high and, let me tell you, standing there looking down, that felt pretty high. The first was a sort of toboggan. You lay down in the groove where the water went, and then let yourself be pulled along over the lip by the force of the water into a vertical drop into the pool below. An enormous tree had fallen into the pool and all you could see as you went over the precipice was the trunk coming closer and closer - scary! Steve bottled out of this one and went down it on a rope. Linda lost her welly in the pool. Of course it sank like a stone. The water was freezing and deep. We couldn't retrieve it. Luckily one of the French guys came to our assistance. He had a hood and a mask in order to retrieve all of their lost gear and he dived down and brought it back. Luckily there are still a few real men in the world.

The next jump was a jump into a narrow slit down into the pool below. Terrifying. In fact you had to step off carefully rather than jump because it was so narrow. Both Tania and I had the same idea and tried to go near the beginning on all of these jumps rather than have too long to think about it. Steve was going to bottle out of this one as well until he realised that he had chucked all the rope down and did not have an awful lot of choice!

That was the end of the jumps thank goodness. Now we were back to nice safe abseiling - or so Steve thought. The next pitch we called 'Death Pitch' because this is where I inadvertently tried to kill Steve. He and I were abseiling down either end of the rope as before except there wasn't room for the both of us on the last 10 feet. I carried on thinking he was right beside me and abseilled off my end of the rope in to the pool. WHAM! Down he came into the water beside me to the horror of the others who could see what fate was about to befall him. Fortunately he had a soft landing, but he was a bit shocked - so was I!. Shucks, better luck next time. A 15m and a 14m pitch followed. By now we had learnt our lesson and went down the first one singly as the rope ended before you reached the water so there was a drop into the pool.

The trip was excellent although I was quite cold by the end. Not for long though. We had a half hour slog back up the hill to the car. On the way, Simon was attacked by a rabid dog. All it got was a mouth full of neoprene but not a pleasant experience. All eight of us piled comfortably into Hugh's bread van and went back up the hill to the other car, food and dry clothes. It was necessary of course to stop at a bar on the way home and then back to Presles where our mum had cooked us all dinner.

Home Time

Our last day in the refuge was again spent working on Hugh's pig pen. The bathroom was almost completed by the time we left. Hugh could have a bath at last and did he need it. Two years is a long time without one!

We split the return journey into two days travelling back with Simon and Tania. Simon's dad had an appointment booked at a 'cave' in the Bourgogne region (in the wine tasting sense of the word) so we tagged along. After visiting a hypermarket as well, we clinked home. Tania wins the Croydon Caving Club 'obnoxious prize' for the week. She managed to silence an entire posh restaurant by sneezing at the top of her voice. Seventy odd pairs of eyes turned and looked at us in utter horror. This event now figures in my top ten most embarrassing moments!

The restaurant needless to say, was picked out by Steve and Simon who got a look at the waitressing staff before we went in. Short skirts, high heels and body armour just about sums it up really.

Helen Wray