Grotte de Saint-Marcel in the Ardèche, France. Photo credit: Clive Westlake
In May 2019 the NPC again made pilgrimage to France, and from my wording you can tell this means I've written a pretentious blog post about it! The destination was the Ardèche for a week. Named after the river (as so many French departments are), it is especially famed for limestone and caves, in particular the World Heritage Site of Chauvet Cave and Pont D’Arc. The sport caving is very fine too.
Pont D’Arc. Photo credit: Les Watkins
Our target was the campsite of La Rouvière les Pins outside Vagnas. Everybody arrived on Saturday, even those driving solo overnight. The campsite had two apartments, two mobile homes and two chalets which we occupied. After sleeping off the travel, Sunday saw most ready to go caving. Rain could not dampen our enthusiasm. One group set off to SRT spectacular Aven des Neuf Gorges while another went to the less SRT-heavy Aven des Pèbres. Both caves had stunning formations which we eagerly drank in the sight of, being starved as we are for vast chamber full of plated stalagmites in the UK.
Formations in Neuf Gorges. Photo credit: Gary Douthwaite
Aven d’Orgnac, one of the several show caves in the area, was also visited. It’s possible to pay for a guide to take cavers further into the reaches of the cave and this option was investigated. However it turned out that the show cave considered carbon dioxide levels to be far too high for any trips to be safe. This was a theme throughout the holiday, as CO2 was also being encountered in Aven des Pèbres and would be experienced elsewhere too...
Aven des Pèbres. Photo credit: Clive Westlake
One of THE caves to do in the Ardèche is Grotte de Saint-Marcel. This is also a showcave and like the Aven Orgnac cavers can go into the further reaches. For this you need to arrange a permit and a key for the natural entrance to the cave. Cavers aren’t allowed to enter via the tourist entrance, presumably because cavers 1) can’t be trusted near normal human beings and 2) are dirty creatures who have a tendency to be covered in mud. And the further reaches are full of mud. The showcave actually requires you to wash your boots!
Boot washing. Photo credit: Kat Hawkins
We had access for Monday and Tuesday. Grotte de Saint-Marcel is massive and perfectly capable of swallowing hundreds of people so there was no issue with all 11 of us going caving together. This is a fantastic change from Yorkshire where you’ll often be getting cold while waiting for people to rig pitches and so on. Not so in the Saint-Marcel where one is more likely to die of heat stroke or stal poisoning than hypothermia. We travelled as far as is possible without SRT gear.
Grotte de Saint-Marcel. Photo credit: Gary Douthwaite
Many went back to Grotte de Saint-Marcel on Tuesday via another entrance – Aven Despeysse. A series of beautiful pitches in Aven Despeysse form the beginning section of a fantastic through trip from one cave to the other. The rigging team were despatched two hours before the rest of the team and this timing worked out perfectly as they’d been able to rig all the pitches and just finish their lunch when the second wave joined them.
Aven Despeysse entrance. Photo credit: Richard Gledhill
Once altogether the gang enjoyed hours of easy-going walking through large well decorated galleries, with a few hard-rigged traverses, a dry gravelly siphon and one unavoidable pool of water to keep things interesting. They then had to crawl through a long Labyrinth but this maze gave them no trouble and eventually they popped out of a square gate in the side of a wall just below the start of the Saint-Marcel show cave. This gate used to be locked and you needed a key, but was open for our trip, the lock being broken. From here it was 20 minutes along familiar passages to the natural entrance. Unwearied, the deriggers set off back to Despeysse for a quick bounce trip to collect the ropes.
Group photo after the through trip. Photo credit: Richard Gledhill
On Tuesday the other group went to Fontaine de Champclos to experience the immense Salle du Mont-Blanc. A short through trip from the artificial entrance to the natural resurgence (often dry!) is possible too, and there’s plenty of remaining cave to explore.
Salle du Mont-Blanc, Fontaine du Champclos. Photo credit: Dewi Lloyd
On Wednesday a contingent paddled down the Ardèche Gorge as a “rest” day. This was a scenic misadventure. Some realised just in time they were rather inexperienced for a 32km canoeing trip, just in time meaning far too late. Others lost their cameras in the river – regrettably this is why we have no photographs of the Aven Despeysse to Saint-Marcel through trip. Thankfully Richard, being a professional, was able to look after them and get everybody to the end. Canoeing the river is a true highlight of being in the Ardèche and is highly recommended even by those who capsized multiple times. The saner members stuck to the caving that the NPC does best by visiting Grotte de la Cocalière.
Canoeing. Photo credit: Gary Douthwaite
Thursday saw a team head back over to the Bidon area to collect a key to access Aven Noël. A spectacular pitch descends to kilometres of galleries containing, yes you guessed it, fantastic formations. The cave contained rather a lot of CO2 as well which was exhausting but everybody not only made it out, they were enthused by the quality of the cave!
Enthused at the Aven Noël entrance. Photo credit: Jean Brooksbank
The gentler Thursday trip visited Évent de Midroï. As this cave is located on the banks of the river, the walk takes in the stunning scenery of the Ardeche gorge yet again. It also requires a beach crossing! Perfectly located for an after-caving swim and gear wash in the river.
Life’s a beach near Évent de Midroï. Photo credit: Kat Hawkins
Our final full day saw some finally take a day off, but the final trip was to Grotte Estevan for some cheeky photography. A ladder pitch leads into a low chamber full of stal and a series of constricted crawls and squeezes between chambers guard increasingly stupendous helictites. Who knew you could have such a time a mere 8m below the surface? They were back out in good time for a group meal at a restaurant in Barjac.
Grotte Estevan. Photo credit: Dewi Lloyd
The Ardèche is a great area for holiday caving. Although many in the group had been before there was still plenty to keep them occupied. Those who hadn’t been before are keen to return to the gorge and sample more of its many fine caves, for we only tried a small selection. Cavers should always go back to the Ardèche! Our photographs should persuade you of that.
Full list of caves visited below:
- Aven des Neuf Gorges
- Aven des Pèbres
- Grotte de Saint-Marcel
- Fontaine de Champclos
- Aven Despeysse
- Grotte de la Cocalière
- Aven Noël
- Évent de Midroï
- Grotte Estevan
Aven Noël. Photo credit: Clive Westlake