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.

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