Friday, 20 December 2013

Scialet de la Combe de Fer

One of my old caving and climbing mates has just sent me a link to a video about a cave in France, which together we explored back in the early 80s when we were both members of Hull University Speleological Society (HUSS)

The cave, La Scialet de la Combe de Fer (or Combe d'Enfer), variously translated as 'cave of the combe of iron' or 'cave of the combe of hell' lies in the Vercors, a limestone massif to the west of Grenoble, in south east France.

Our first trip to the Vercors had been in 1980, when a group of 8 from the club drove down to Vercors in the club's British Leyland EA 350, 3.5 ton diesel  van, painted in a  tasteful brown and beige and capable of a top speed of 40mph, whilst burning a gallon of engine oil every 200-300 miles.  We'd gone for a two week caving 'holiday', near the end of which, and full of bravado the likes of which only young people can exhibit, we decided to have a crack at the Combe de Fer.  We never expected to reach the bottom - we didn't have enough tackle for that - but we reckoned we could get about two-thirds of the way down.

The cave entrance is an impressive arch, maybe 20m across and 5m high and leads 300m down a steep rubbly entrance slope to a depth of -90m, where the way on is blocked by a large, deep pit in the floor.  An airy traverse lead to the head of the first pitch, 35m deep into a 'cosy' chamber with standing room for about 3 people.  The exit from here is a body sized tube, from which you have to launch yourself head or feet first (you choose - both are equally acrobatic and scary) onto ladder or rope, down a very airy and damp, 55m pitch.

From here the cave progresses as a series of tight, awkward meanders punctuated by smaller vertical drops of between 10 m and 20m. A short, flat-out crawl with an awkward little drop, leads into a small chamber at the head of a big pitch.  We could tell it was big from the echo but how big we didn't know.  By this stage, probably 8 to 10 hours in, we had lost faith in the survey and in effect were lost ourselves.

We rigged it with 4 ladders.  Each 'electron' caving ladder was 25' long and made of two steel wires with aluminium rungs spaced every 12".  These were cheaper than the easier to climb ladders having 10" rung spacings.  Ladders could be joined end to end with 'c-links'. 

I was the first one to descend.  The climbing was relatively easy as the ladders ran against the wall.  The back wall was also quite close and apart from the uncertainty about the depth, it didn't feel especially intimidating.  Part way down the 4'th ladder - you learn to count the c-links when you're caving on ladders - I reached a ledge and found a place to rest comfortably.  I shouted up that I needed more ladders and the folk above added another 3 to the top and lowered them down to the ledge, from where I relayed them over the edge into the darkness below.  Apart from the grating of aluminium on limestone and some muffled voices above me, all I could hear was a metallic drip from far below and my own breathing.  I had a feeling that this pitch could be the 60m (190') shown on the survey into the Grandes Salles  (literally 'big rooms' and one of the roomiest parts of the entire cave system.)  I shouted up for one more ladder, to make a total of 200'.  It took some more, seemingly endless faffing but after 45 minutes to an hour from arriving on the ledge, I was able to continue the descent.  As I climbed down, the possibility that the ladder still might not reach the bottom kept creeping into my mind.  In this circumstance I would either have to re-ascend straight away or wait for another ladder to be lowered and somehow attach it to the c-links below me. 

Somewhere on the 6'th ladder, the chimney I had been descending suddenly belled out into the roof of a huge cavern.  I was now swinging in space and the little illumination provided by my carbide light was soaked up by an engulfing blackness.  Eventually, the floor came into view and I stepped off the ladder with about 10' to spare.  It seemed likely that this was in fact the Grandes Salles and the pitch that followed confirmed this.  Marked on the survey as Puits de la Boue (pitch of the mud), it lived up to its name, a 25m descent through clarty mud that stuck to the ladders, the lifeline and us.  It dropped us into the main streamway.  Up to this point, the cave had been largely dry, although in wet weather, the upper pitches can become impassable, as 3 of us found in 1986, when we spent an uncomfortable night on a ledge 300 vertical metres below the surface.

On the 1980 trip we reached a depth of around 400m, 180 vertical metres and 300m horizontally short of the terminal sump.  We'd run out of tackle and time to go any further.  We returned in 1981 and more or less laid siege to the cave, setting up a camp in the Grandes Salles with teams of 4 staying underground for 3 days at a time. We ran a telephone line from the cave entrance to the underground camp, in case of emergencies and to relay daily weather reports; we knew that the active streamway lower down the cave would flood rapidly if there was heavy rain on the surface.    The aim of the trip had been to resurvey the main route down to the sump at -580m and with a hope of finding some new passage.  We were joined by three ex-CUCC cavers, who turned out to be along for a jolly and then on return to the UK wrote a scurrilous article about the trip that was published in the CUCC journal - an act which in my opinion put nobody in a good light.

In the event, we never did reach the terminal sump, where the cave continues as flooded passage. We found the final pitch on the day we had to start detackling, at the far side of a squeeze through boulders in the corner of a dry chamber called the Salle du bazaar.  All we needed was 10m of rope to re-join the streamway and stroll to the end but the rope was 200m up and 2 hours of caving away. 

In 1986, three of us drove down to the Vercors at the start of May with 500m of SRT rope, borrowed from the Untamed River Expedition and destined to go to the northern Candian Rockies that August plus a pile of other gear, with the intention of doing a fast, alpine like descent of the cave to the sump.  Things went well to begin with and we got to the top of the pitch into The Grandes Salles on the first day.  On the way out we heard a lot of water and walking round the corner found that the lower of the three large pitches back to the surface had become impassable.  We knew that similar amounts of water would be crashing down the other shafts out to the surface. We spent the night down the cave, huddled in survival blankets on a ledge out of the worst of the draft and high enough up to not get washed away, should the water levels start to rise.  We made it out the next morning and spent the next 5 days on the surface waiting for it to stop raining.  On the day before we had to drive home, the weather cleared enough for two of us to go back down and pull out as much gear as we could, while one remained at the entrance to call out the French cave rescue, if the worst happened.  To save time, we left some of the smaller pitches rigged but recovered the bulk of the gear without incident.  By the time we got back to Sheffield,  we had made it into the local paper (twice) with headlines of "Cavers trapped in underground flood" and "Cavers second trip to danger".  By 'eck, those were the days!

I always said I'd get to the bottom of the Combe de Fer before I reached 40 but by the time I got to 40 I had been to Borneo, decided I'd had enough of caving and become a dad.

At 580m deep, the Combe de Fer is by current world records not an especially deep cave.  Nevertheless, it remains an unremittingly strenuous one, with alternating deep pitches (vertical drops) and tight meanders and dropping into a flood prone streamway before reaching the terminal sump.  It's also navigationally challenging with 3 main routes down, weaving in and out of each other.  The Combe de Fer is certainly one of the harder caves I've ever been down and I have no intention of going back unless other than possibly to take a stroll down the entrance slope for old time's sake.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Do you think I'm over-reacting?

So I've just taken delivery of this ground anchor, chain and padlock from Pragmasis, to bolt the replacement bike, when I get it, to the floor.

Torc ground anchor, chain and lock

The reviews of most bike locks make depressing reading, so I've gone for the biggest thing I can find.  Just to get this in perspective, the keys are longer than a normal front door latch key.  Yes, that's right, the anchor, chain and lock are huge - and very heavy (over 6kgs).  This thing gets a 5 star rating in the review on

If the buggers want to nick my next bike, they'll have to take the house as well.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Review: Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee base layer

Back in the day, and I'm talking 35 years ago, there was but one base layer and it was Damart.  Oh and we referred to stuff made from Damart as thermals since nobody had thought to coin the term base layer yet.  Damart was great.  Well no, it wasn't actually.  It was heavy and it didn't wick very well, but unless you were careless enough to put it in a hot wash or dry it in front of a fire, it was virtually indestructible.  Indeed, I still use a Damart T-shirt I bought in the 70s under my caving suit, on the rare occasions I go underground.

Then in the late 70s or maybe it was the early 80s, Helly Hansen came along.   Hellys were to Damart what GoreTex was to Gaberdine.  They weighed virtually nothing and  wicked away perspiration.   Like Damart, they never seem to wear out and I still use my HH long johns in cold weather.  You may be getting the idea that I have trouble throwing stuff out but that's maybe because 50% of my genes are from Yorkshire stock.

The downside of Hellys and the base layers made of man-made fibres which followed them, is that unless you are lucky enough to have a body which doesn't perspire, they start to smell quite quickly.

Two solutions came along for this problem.  One was that someone rediscovered wool, which can be itchy when worn against the skin but in its merino form, isn't (as much).  The other is that a different someone (I assume) had the wacky idea of mixing the man-made fibres with silver threads, silver ions or silver salts to kill the bacteria which make the smells.  Chemists are brilliant people but sometimes just a bit weird.

I bought a merino top about 5 years ago and it will go for a few days without washing before it gets too whiffy.  If it rains, it does tend to smell like a wet sheep.  Until recently, I'd never tried a silver based odour control garment, which brings me a step closer to the subject of this review.

Go Outdoors contacted me in September asking if I would like to review something from their online catalogue.  The only criterion was that it had to be under £50 before discount.  I've spent a lot of money with Go Outdoors over the years, even with the discount card, so this seemed a reasonable quid pro quo.  Also, as it happened, I was thinking about getting a new base layer to cycle in this winter, so the choice of what to review was easy to make.  I decided that the spec should be a long sleeved shirt with a collar and zip and some form of odour control, which would allow me to live with it after a few days of continuous use.

The Go Outdoors website lists about 50 different base layer products and I long-listed about 8 of these, which came down to a short-list of 2.  The Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee and the Berghaus LS Thermal Zip Neck Top both costing £45 before discount.  The Rab was billed as having a Polygiene (R) Stay Fresh odour control treatment whilst the Berghaus claimed to be odour resistant.

The decision was almost made by the toss of a coin but I've never had a bad product from Rab and its Sheffield origins were enough to sway the choice in favour of the Rab.

The product details, taken from the Go Outdoors website, are:

Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee - a midweight long sleeved zip neck tee, made with a soft feel polyester single jersey knit fabric.  
  • Revised fabric, Polyester single jersey knit
  • Polygiene® STAY FRESH odour control treatment
  • Flatlock low bulk seams
  • YKK zipped neck, chin guard
  • Thumb-loops
  • Fit: Regular
  • Weight: 260g / 9oz (size large)

Size, Style and colour

Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee

I ordered a large.  It's a bit big on me. I probably should have looked at the size guide more closely.  However, I generally prefer to wear something that is looser fitting, even if that does go against all the principles of wicking.  

Thumb loop

The sleeves are long and have thumb loops, which I never used on the merino base layer.  I personally don't find thumb loops very useful.  When I'm cycling I more likely to push the sleeves up my arms to control temperature.

 On my kitchen scales it weighs in at 260g, which agrees with the weight shown on the label for the large size.

The men's version comes in a mid-blue body with charcoal grey sleeves.  There is an equivalent women's product in a more pastel shade of blue.  It's worth saying that I know at least two women who are fed up with gear manufacturers assuming that women only want to be seen in 'girly' pastel shades. 

Fit and comfort

The first thing I noticed was how soft the fabric felt compared to polyester base layers I've had before.

Rab describe it as mid-weight and the fabric thickness compares with that of base layers I've used for skiing.  We've had a fairly mild autumn and one reason for delaying this review was to wait for some cold weather.  Through October and early November, I've been cycling in this with a thin wind shell.  A couple of weeks ago, the temperature dropped below zero and I cycled to the office in the Aeon, a mid-layer and a hard shell - and that felt just about right

It's well constructed, the stitching is good with no loose threads and the seams are flat and comfortable. 

The zip is a YKK and as might be expected, is excellent.  With the zip fully closed, the collar provides good protection to the neck.  The zip extends halfway down the front of the shirt and allows for good ventilation when you want it.

There is some reflective trim on the back of the neck and the bottom of the sleeves.  I'm sceptical about how effective this detailing is in making you more visible, especially since on a base layer, it is likely to be covered up.

Reflective trim detail on rear of shirt

Reflective trim detail on sleeve
 Warmth,  wicking and odour control

I've already alluded to its warmth.  This isn't really a garment for the summer months, although its probably ideal for walking across Scotland in May.  For winter walking, running, cycling or skiing, it's pretty much ideal, I would say.  It seems to wick well and dries pretty quickly at home.  I haven't taken it camping yet or tried to dry it in humid conditions.

I was keen to know how well the silver salt based odour control would work.  In fact it seems to be pretty effective.  I made a point of not throwing it in the washing machine with the rest of the gear when I got back from a ride but just leaving it in a corner to 'fester' between uses.  By its 4'th use without washing, it was starting to get a bit 'fresh', which is to say, smelly.  But that's probably not unreasonable.  I could imagine wearing it for a few days without washing it and not feel too much embarrassment on returning to civilisation.

Value for money

So would I buy one?  Well £45 (or £40.50 after discount) seems quite a lot of money.  If I'd just seen it in the shop, and without knowing anything about it, I might have thought twice about spending that amount on a base layer.  But over the years, I've learnt that it's all too easy to opt for the cheaper product and find that it just doesn't perform out on the hill.  Good kit is worth paying a premium for and the Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee is a good product: functional, attractive and well made.  I'm expecting this to last me at least 5 seasons and probably more, given that I am unlikely to wear it in the summer. 

Summing up

I think this is a good bit of gear and it pretty much met my original set of requirements.  My main criticism is that it's warmth probably limits its use to colder weather.  It will be getting a lot of use this winter.  As long as it remains serviceable for at least 5 years, I would consider it to be excellent value for the money.

Now, perhaps I could review the Berghaus LS for comparison?