Les Aquaterrestres du Lavedan. Club Spéléo-Canyon des Hautes Pyrénées. CDSC 65
samedi 31 janvier 2015
Ou est le Karst? De Jill Orr
La Spéléologie en Europe. C'est quelque chose à la quelle j'ai pensé presque aussitôt quand je suis devenu Spéléologue. Mais ce n'était pas une étape facile à franchir...
Not closing up my condo and storing everything
I own. Not leaving my friends behind temporarily.
Not even telling people what I was intending to do
– though if I didn’t do it once I began talking about
it, I would look foolish.
The hardest part was turning
in notice to my landlord. Once I did that, not only
would I be committed, I’d be technically homeless.
I was less nervous dropping 400 feet in TAG.
Getting here. It started with an unexpected
experience in Florida while waiting with my sister for the
ship. In our hotel, we started noticing more and more
women and men walking around in the kinkiest, risqué
outfits and make-up. You might expect this in a Motel 6
in Las Vegas, but not a Marriott.
I finally had to ask the
concierge what was going on and learned there was a
porno convention being held at the convention center
across the street. Hah! That totally changed my outlook
on it. It now became an amusement, and I stayed up
late to watch the people parading around the lobby and
bar.My sister, being ‘born again’, didn’t see the humor
in it and went up to the room. I stayed up till two. Some
caver’s may appreciate that the TCR costume parade could
give them a run for their money – half dressed with bits
I thought two weeks at sea would be a bore
after that, but we had a little excitement from the hard-up
dude at the hot tub who hit on us for a threesome. Good
lord! He knew we were sisters, and my sister was a holy
roller! I blame it on the darkness and his desperation.
Then I had to listen to my sister lecture him on his evil
ways and the risks he was taking. This time I went to bed
early. To help pass the time, we made a game of spying on
him after that, watching his attempts at further conquests.
Jump ahead to here I am. I arrived in France in May
after crossing the Atlantic with the intention of studying
the language and getting acclimated before contacting the
caving community. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem finding
a club, there are over 400 caving clubs in France! But
would they let me participate with the language barrier?
Living in Europe. It’s something I’ve wanted to do
for years. I’m in the small town of Maubourguet, in the
Haute Pyrenees, population 6000 and about 30 miles
from the mountains. My home is in a 200 year old town
house, but the oldest part of the house was built in
the 15th century.The present day complex was once a
farm house, city municipal office, and hardware store.
On the third floor, evidence survives that show servants
once lived there in the most appalling conditions.
There are more than 50 rooms and areas in the
three story house, of which I have five, with a private
entrance and access to the large garden, with all of its
fruits and flowers when they were in season. My rooms
are French shabby chic with the accent on French shabby.
But it feels like a mini-chateau. Inviting, cozy, and homey.
I have dinner every night with my
very sweet English couple who have been here for over
eight years. We loosely take turns and host each other.
They are delightful, considerate and entertaining. David
has given me a car to use while I’m here. It’s a 1984
Renault 4 with the manual gear shift mounted in the
dash, and a manual choke that needs manipulation
in cold weather untill the engine warms up. It is like
the comic relief for Bourne Identity Paris car-chase
scene. It’s fun to drive and I pay for the gas.
David and Helen have been married 32 years and
are still very much in love. Amazing. They have a rescue
dog fittingly named Scruff who hangs out in my house
when they are napping or out. David is 71, and having
had owned a hotel in England for 20 years, has a rapierquick
British wit and stories that can compete with
the best caver stories. Helen is in a rapidly advancing
middle stage of Alzheimer’s. Witnessing the decline of
a brilliant mind and vivacious personality has been one
of the most horrifying things I’ve ever witnessed, one
can’t be unaffected by it. In the short time I’ve known
her, Helen is not the person I met in May. She’s only 67.
Mais que dire du karst?
At the end of July I wrote to two local grottos. I
used Google to translate my letter to French, and told
them I could not converse in French but I was studying. I
also included a complimentary issue of the Texas Caver.
Three weeks and no reply. Was it because I’m
American? Couldn’t speak enough French to safely cave?
I didn’t want to be pushy but a second letter
went out to both groups asking if the language barrier
is a problem, and that I am passionate about caving.
Finally a reply! I was invited to go canyoneering and
was offered a
Neoprene suit for a weekend in the
Pyrenees. However, it was for the upcoming weekend
and I wasn’t prepared for my first trip to be so hard
core, so regrettably I felt it was best to turn down.
Then a second reply! I was invited to meet with
this group at a national sport fete. This is an annual
convention that takes place at parks all over the country
the first weekend of September. Dozens of organized
sporting organizations setup booths and trial areas to
recruit new members by letting them try out the sport
on site. Everything from kayaking to
karate to caving. But I had to wait
four more weeks. I went and finally
met the French cavers for the first
time. The caving group had set up a
belly crawl of simulated cave passage
made from a black plastic and wood
frame about 15 meters long, and had
lights for the kids to use. I introduced
myself and after a little conversation,
(with some help of a friend who is
fluent in French) I was invited to go
on an open cave day for new cavers,
but it was a month away. Arrgh!
Really? Another month of waiting?!
I continued working during the
week, hiking around the town and on
the local GR trail, visiting new English
friends, and studying French in class
and with a tutor. I spent a week house
sitting for another English couple who
run a B&B in town. The house is very
grand and has quite a colorful history.
Catherine, the owner, told me that
there had been a suspected murder
(ruled suicide) in the house sometime
after the war. When she tried to
learn more details, she was ‘gently
warned’ to stop asking questions.
The house is late 18th century and
the grounds started out as a stable
for Napoleonic soldiers. During WWII
Nazi’s took over the house as a
local headquarters, and the SS were
bivouacked in the cellar. Today it is
overrun by 2 cats, 5 kittens, 3 dogs,
1 rabbit, 9 chickens and a cockerel.
On Sundays we have a routine
of visiting all the local vide greniers
(flea markets). All over France, every
Sunday the vides take place, usually
in the city market square. Everything
is for sale: live chickens and geese
(they will even ring its neck for you),
fresh eggs, second hand kitchen
utensils, furniture, linens and clothes.
Bargains like a copper fry pan for €1,
€4 for a quilted Rip Curl coat, €5 for
a canvas duffel bag for cave gear and
€1 for china with prerequisite chips.
Old world and new collide. Next to
the willow tree brooms they have
been making for hundreds of years,
a solar charged battery is displayed.
The French embrace technology
and France is rapidly changing. The
supermarkets and ultra-modern,
high-tech McDonalds are destroying
the culture. This is not the France of
20 years ago. Except for in the large
cities, supermarkets have caused
almost all of the individual shops to
close. There are still three boulangerie
and one charcuterie in town. 90% of
the old shops are either empty or
converted into homes. I drive past
McDonalds on Sunday nights. The
parking lot is full and the drive-thru
has a line of cars. I’ve been inside. We
stopped for a coffee on the way back
from Toulouse once, but I refuse to eat
there. Orders and payment are made
at an electronic kiosk with picture
menus, and picked up at the counter.
Aside from that, things move
at a slower pace here. The old ladies
gather on benches outside their
homes to gossip on warm evenings.
Walking down the street I am greeted
and reply in kind, ”bonjour madame,
monsieur.” Every Sunday morning,
there is a line in the boulangerie
because it closes at noon and the
French still require their daily fresh
bread. France is a secular country,
but everything is closed on Sunday
– and Monday in the smaller towns
and villages. Sunday is for family.
Two rivers meet in the town of
Streets and rivers are
lined with plane trees that must have
been saplings during the revolution.
Plane trees have unbelievable
character. Canals crisscross through
the town, weaving alongside and
under houses. This is Gascony.
Corn is the main crop of the region,
followed by Fois Gras and sunflowers.
There are stunning views,
fresh air coming down from the
mountains, arrow straight Roman
roads, the scent of bread baking in
the morning, extremely drinkable
wine at insanely low prices, and
of course cheese. France is still a
country rich in the things that matter.
Écrire sur le karst déjà
Yes this is supposed to be about caving. Finally the
first day of caving arrived. This was an introduction day
for new cavers. The meeting town was Saint Pé de Bigorre,
only about 30 miles away but an hour drive through
country villages in the foot hills of the Pyrenees. I have
GPS so it was easy to get there. With the sunrise to the
east and the mountains in front, it is a spectacular drive.
The club I joined is the Aquaterrestres Lavedan.
Here it is required to have caving insurance and a
certificate. Other than that, its just like
us. We meet at
a convenient location at 9 AM, consolidate equipment
and cars, and caravan and hike to the cave. When I
arrived there were about 20 cavers present. The location
was a football stade where the group has a large
storage unit for club-owned caving gear.
also has a two-room dormitory with bathrooms and a
fully outfitted kitchen rentable for overnight events.
I was introduced to Sandrine and Jean-Claude.
Sandrine speaks fairly good English and Jean-Claude is
the senior caver and president, but speaks no English.
A few of the guys wanted to see my vertical
gear. They laughed and made fun of my racks,
pretending to tumble backwards, (but Laurent
requested to try them some time), and were
very interested in my
Sten and rope walker.
The French vertical system is as light weight
as possible. Only one handled ascender, cows tails
(called longes) are used to double clip in for rebelays
and traverses, foot loops are made from rope. The
seat harness doesn’t have rope clips and there is
no loop on the back. The chest harness is put on
like a jacket. I like that. Jean-Claude eyed my bungie
harness with skepticism but allowed it, however, he
lent me a Petzl Stop descender. In all the trips I’ve
been on so far, no one wants to let me use my rack.
La première expérience de spéléologie en France
The walk from the parked cars up the mountain
was eerily similar to TAG. Dazzling views, thick forest,
carpeted with leaves, and steep, ancient trails. We stopped
to look in at a small vertical entrance to a cave on the
way up called Bon 109. Sandrine told me we would do
that next trip. Continuing up another 15 minutes we
arrived at Grotte Bouhadere. I was given a quick lesson
on the descender, and how to tie it off. The descender,
which is a double bobbin, is lighter and easier to use
than a rack and, I think safer. As I waited my turn to
descend, I took some photos. Jean-Claude oversaw the
descent of each person and if a new caver was a little
slow on going over the edge, he gave them a push.
There are too many words for how it felt when
it was my turn finally, and I didn’t need a push. The
entrance was tight and the drop was about 15 meters.
The way the descender is loaded and my weight had me
bouncing down the rope. I had to feed it at first, but half
way down it was finally smooth. They don’t announce
when on rope, but they do shout “Libre” when off. We
began making our way through the passage. There was
very little decoration, only in the large rooms and mostly
near the ceilings. The lead group saw one bat (chauvesouris),
but it was gone by the time I got there.
the passages were very tall, narrow canyons, with only a
couple of crawls. We made several more short drops of 3-4
meters, and several traverses which required clipping on to
rope, and several breakdown climbs. The French are much
safer than we are about traverses. They leave bolts with
rope permanently set up along the hairy canyon walls.
Like in the US, most new cavers are one-time cavers.
Caroline, who has been caving for three years, brought her
husband on this trip. He was clearly having trouble with
the small spaces and became vocal and grumpy about it.
He took an easy exit out and I haven’t seen him since!
After exiting the first cave we went back down
the mountain and to the cars. I had just taken off my
coveralls and changed boots when I was invited to go
into another cave with a different group. Of course Yes!
So higher back up the mountain to the second
cave. The forest alone at this height was worth the
climb. Moss quilted every rock and tree 2 meters up
as far as the eye could see. Rich, green and lush,
it was like an enchanted forest in every direction
with a cool damp breeze caressing bare skin.
My English speaking partner for this cave was
Isabel, who told me it was only a small cave, so I
decided to leave my pack behind. If I wanted it I
would just run back out and get it. Every time I have
ever done that I have been sorry, and this time was
no different. My camera was in my pack, and the
cave was not small - at least by Texas standards.
I expected something with a couple of large rooms,
but no, this was about 11/2 hours each way to a large
room with a beautiful formation from ceiling to floor.
There was a French version of daddy long legs, but they
welcome; if they couldn’t speak English, people smiled. I
practiced as much French as I could. It hurts my ears to
hear my accent, but I’ve been assured they don’t mind. We
compared names of equipment in French and English. They
were surprised we call ourselves ‘cavers’ instead of the
English ‘pot-holers’, and were interested in Texas caves.
La journée de formation technique
My next speleo experiences were two technical
training days. Unlike in the US, the training days here are
training DAYS. All day. I was asked to bring ‘the end of a
sausage’ for barbecue, and a salad. I brought a tomato
caprice salad, some cheese, and stopped at a boulangerie
for a fresh baguette (still warm!). We met at a bottom of
a cliff outside of the
village of Pouez at 9:30. This mini
park is reserved for wall climbing practice. There were
several people with two children who were also learning
vertical technique. Up a trail is the practice cliff. We
concentrated only on descending and crossing traverses
on the cliff side from only four meters up taking turns
over and over again. When we broke for lunch I laughed
out loud when I saw the bottle of wine on the picnic
table! We had a pot luck lunch with gorgeous weather and
I thought we were done after lunch.
The wine (one small glass), heat, and food made me a bit
lethargic, but back we went to practice! All I wanted was
a nap at that point, but I did the right thing, show them
that Americans can take their wine and rock climb too.
We practiced for three more hours before calling it a day.
The second rope practice a few weeks later was
almost cancelled. It should have been because of
the cold and rain. Only Sandrine, Caroline and myself
showed up, and three 13-year old boys who had been
on the last trip and sorely tried Jean-Claude’s patience
were brought by one of their mothers. While waiting
their turn on rope, they sat in the car! I don’t think
they would have gotten away with that in Texas. Except
for the wind, the conditions were relatively close to
French cave conditions and we put in a full day.
Une fois, deux fois, trois fois la spéléologie
The groups have excursions twice a month. The
next trip was back to Saint Pe di Bigorre, and up the
mountain again to another cave. This was to Bon 109 and
was another new caver introduction day. Jean-Claude and
Sandrine were there again, and I was warmly greeted
by the group. Bon 109 is about 50 meter deep, but the
drops are separate and roughly 10-15 meters each. The
second drop required two deviations to keep the rope from
rubbing the cave ledge. They call deviations a Frac (short
for fractionation), but with the southern French accent, it
sounded like something that can’t be repeated in print.
There was a lot of bottle necking in this cave due to
the newness of most of the cavers on this trip. Jean-Claude
controlled the descent and ascents and stayed at the
ledge incase instruction was needed. As in the other two
caves, there was very little decoration here. At the bottom
of the third drop there was a large candle stick column
on the wall about 15 feet above our heads. A tempting
traverse continued on, but because of the time it had
taken to get there, we turned around almost immediately.
In this cave, I took my time with photos and got
some critters, including a frog, huge black slug, spider,
centipede, copper beetle and an unusual a white slug.
There are no snakes in French caves. Back at the cars
we picnicked and talked and finally said à bientôt.
I must have proven myself worthy. I’ve been invited
to a dig, explore, and survey in Titouanouk cave. This
one is with the big boys – and blasting French style!
As of publication time, there have been several more
fantastic excursions, in truly amazing caves. À suivre.