Changing in front of the uninspiring manhole entrance of the Tête Sauvage. Within seconds I am bathing in sweat as the hot sun batters against my neoprene-clad body, and I drop into the coolness of the cave with relief. I hope these rotten beams aren’t holding up anything important…
Slither past the first few parrot poles into the first meander, nicknamed the Torture Tube. The head of the next pitch is a leap of faith, but then the shafts get bigger and more fun. A long delay hanging round on bolts finishing my cheese butty as the 100 metre pitch is re-rigged, but after two and a half hours we are at the bottom confronted by the Soupirail – a “dog’s front door, half full of cold water”. Is this what I came a thousand miles for? Fortunately, it’s only a metre or so long, and we are soon in the salle Cosyns and on our way.
At first, the passages are a comfortable Ease Gill size, but then we reach the start of the big stuff – salle Manqué, 100 metres by 30 metres, is followed by salle Susse, 280 metres by 50 metres. Thank goodness for the markers.
The Grand Canyon follows – “Leck Fell Master Cave on steroids”, as Duncan remarks, going on for ever with the roof soaring out of sight.
Galerie des Marmites – a high passage of brown intricately carved rock, obviously the fossil continuation of the Grand Canyon with rifts in the floor leading down to water. We miss the rope out of the Gallery and blunder back into the river – 150 metres of swimming and clutching at imperceptible holds in the walls. Thank goodness for the buoyancy provided by the inflated wine bladder stuffed in my oversuit. Reach a boulder choke, and try to find a way up before sanity prevails – return back through the water to get back on route.
Cold now, shivering, and unsteady on our feet. Locate the climb up onto the Grande Corniche and stagger through the next couple of chambers, and back into the river where a fixed handline traverse on shredded ropes is used to avoid waist-deep water. Why do we bother? A couple more chambers and a short crawl leads to the boat, a £10 blow-up kiddies toy, which we use to navigate the Tunnel du Vent, fighting to control the vessel against the accompanying gale. Try to avoid shredding the boat on the sharp schist landing at the far end without falling in.
Relativity easy going following markers through large chambers and up into the roof of the salle Navarre. Here the top of some giant boulders provide a resting place – judging from the rubbish we’re not the first. Strip off the wet gear, don dry furry suits, consume some food, and we start to feel human again. A couple of minutes of confusion whilst we look for the way on, before spotting the camouflaged rope leading up the wall next to us.
A few more minutes and we are standing at the top of salle Lépineux, with the boulder slope stretching 60 metres down in front of us. From the shaft above hangs down a shiny white rope – a link with the surface some 300 metres above. Tempting, but the entrance gate will be shut. The lingering smell of cigarettes indicates that the riggers are not long departed.
Down the slope to where Occhialini’s and Tazieff’s moving epitaph is written in carbide soot on the rock where the body of Marcel Loubens rested for two years before being retrieved. Here, it is the smell of history that hangs heavily.
We are in known territory now. The majestic Metro is easy going following the footpath on the left, and we soon reach the ascent into salle Queffélec. A ten minute break to take off harnesses and take on food, and we’re on the last lap, plodding up and down the salle Chevalier boulder slopes on weary legs. Eventually, we pick our way across the river, and along the traverse into the impressive expanses of salle Verna. Almost the area of the London Olympic Stadium and three times the height.
No time for gawping this time – out along the EDF tunnel, through the door where I am blinded by the warm humid outside air condensing onto my cold spectacle lenses. A shoulder is used to force the door closed against the draught, and we have made it.
Thirteen hours underground on a trip that will last in the memory for ever. Thanks to Stuart Hesletine, Terry Devaney, and Duncan Smith for their company.