Depth through thought

OUCC News 20th October 2004

Volume 14, Number 9

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Editor: Pod:


Apologies are due to Steve because I had been saving his article, little realising that timely publication was sort of the point. I got the write up from Steve on 2004-09-01.

Please, please send me write-ups or references to interesting articles etc. I'm not desperate for material, no, not at all.

Old Farts Below

Steve Roberts

The Grotte de la Pucelle is, as every schoolboy knows, The Lot's answer to Swildon's. Not as complex, but deeper, and with the same sporting climbing scrambling involvement with rock and water. Perhaps "the Lot's answer to Birk's Fell" would be nearer the mark. Any how, on a recent holiday in the area, we camped near Andy and Ange Cave's house in Padirac and Andy and I set off for a 3 - 4 hour jolly down the cave one morning.

After the railway-tunnel entrance, initially dry but with increasing involvement with the water, we arrived at the first pitch. Andy has a pretty pragmatic approach to rigging (seen before when we bottomed the cave a couple of years back). Some years back, Jo Whistler and I dithered over this and then laddered it. Andy's solution is a 5-foot long bit of tape - all you need to climb down a sloping shelf on the right. Next pitch follows straight away (again a Roberts/Whistler ladder job), and can be avoided by a traverse round over the drop and a simple climb down.

Andy, in wetsuit, had looked rather askance at my fleece-suitedness, and checked that I was happy swimming in it. Maybe I wasn't, but little choice; as it happened, no probs as the swimmy bits that followed had enough handholds and footholds to make progress without total commitment. There was a nice bit of traverse tat on the only bit not so provided. Soon we encountered a proper pitch that needed a rope - all 6m of it. It was already rigged. For safety we slung our rope on as well, and soon encountered three French cavers who had gone underground about 1/2 hr before us. One didn't look too happy, so they were off out. Onwards the bold geriatrics!

Next pitch. We'd been down an hour. Andy demonstrated the empty tackle bag, having underestimated our Zimmer-frame assisted progress. But no! The pitch was rigged.

Rigged - but oddly. A tension traverse on oddly-placed bolts. Just below it, but unusable from those bolts, was a perfectly good traverse ledge. The traverse went un-necessarily far out and then a rope dropped 8m or so to the floor. Clearly the spirit of Elliot had visited. We didn't like the look of it. Andy pulled the traverse line, experimentally. The bolt nearest us fell out of the rock. Point made; out it was.

Pucelle delights on the way out - all those easy little climbs in the water on the way down are pleasantly challenging on the way out. Combined tactics and a little ingenuity (and arm strength) are the answer.

So, back out again after a mammoth 2 hours underground, having gone a bit over half-way down "A respectable time" said the boss.

Why such a short trip? Well, a week or so later there was a new Cave in the Lot, only 51cm long (but a respectable 3.83 kilos). Happy Birthday Jasmine!

Liu Chi Aokou Xia (China's deepest cave?)

Rob Garrett

Billed as the best chance to find China's first 1km deep cave we still had a few problems ahead of us. Firstly, the obvious connection to neighbouring Qikeng Dong (Misty Wind Cave) would only yield 989m depth. A further connection would still be required and of the two possibilities to achieve this one was 900m down and the other was the sister cave Liu Chi Aokou Shang which had a higher entrance 50m away but had resolutely gone in a different direction.

More pressingly, the last trip down LCAKX had followed a big stream passage gently downhill to an unexpected grovelly gravelly sump at -205m. On the way out, however, a second large (20m) passage had been found far back from the sump with a small parallel streamway and we'd followed this to a short pitch. It was to this lead Duncan and I now returned.

The entrance series of LCAKX is about 500m of narrow traversing with occasional crawling and a couple of short pitches. Then the 10m wide passage is reached. After only a few hundred metres of easy progress a bouldery chamber provides the two main alternative ways on. Our route led us down the new 6m pitch which encouraged us with a discernible draught. A 3m wide meandering passage led off but after three survey legs it ended abruptly in a muddy bouldery mess. A smaller side passage seemed our best hope but this too ended very prematurely. Our hearts sank as we started retracing our steps. The last hope was the space under boulders into which our little stream sank.

To our surprise a strong draught blew against the flow of the water and beckoned us on into a small immature streamway. Crawling, stooping and horizontal thrutching made for slow progress. More so because we were surveying as we went and the passage made sharp doglegs every few metres. The rock was mostly poor quality shale and mudstone leaving a smooth soapy floor underfoot and this continued for a few hundred metres without respite.

Eventually, just as we were wondering how long this could on go for without breaking out into something bigger, the passage turned another corner and an answer started to form... "too long". Ahead I could see the roof dipping further and the walls coming in to a sideways crawl partially emerged in water followed by a hairpin bend.

Being in front I hesitated, then I vacillated before wavering slightly. The draught whistled past me. Surely this was just a short obstacle beyond which the much anticipated (and hitherto stubbornly elusive) vast gaping pitches awaited. With a little encouragement from Duncan I ditched all attempts to survey and crawled forward for a quick look-see.

The lefthand hairpin rolled into a flat out tight cobbled squeeze and beyond was a sharp righthand bend in mud brown water. A little short of room but rather wet I forced my way around the first bend and inched up to the next, which now necessitated rolling onto my other (so far dry) side. Unsure how easy it would be to reverse this section I pressed on tentatively. "Does it get any better?" called Duncan from behind by way of encouragement. "Er, yes... in a Dave Lacey sort of way."

"You mean the water gets deeper?" called Duncan. "Aye!" Ahead was hands and knees crawling in water to a tight low-airspace duck of the kind that gets your ear wet but with a strong draught to remind you how worthwhile it all is. Beyond was more flat out crawling as far as I could see, which wasn't very far. Then a span of rock hove into view, barring the passage. Underneath was too small and above seemed to shrink as I approached. Fortunately, being made of chert (the rock that is) I was able to wrestle it to pieces with my bare hands and shuffle on down the passage with the largest chunk ahead of me until I found a convenient place to manoeuvre past it.

At a slight step down there was just room to turn around. Ahead the passage continued in much the same manner, still draughting, but I'd had enough for today. If this was going to be China's deepest cave I didn't much fancy dragging 800m of rope and rigging gear down here, it was time to head out.

The cave, however, refused to die as, on the way out, we spotted a small, flat out, phreatic crawl that rose above the little streamway before reaching a watershed and continuing down on a similar bearing. Once again the call of the wind was whistling through it. We would have to return... {Part 2 is in DTT 14.12]