Les Grands Causses

In May 2017 the NPC visited the Grands Causses region of France for two weeks, staying in Meyrueis and venturing out in all directions to sample a number of the many caves in the area. Armed with both the knowledge gained from 2017 and with an updated set of more objectives, we returned to the region in May 2018 for another two weeks of caving, cycling, walking, and talking about the weather.

The Grands Causses are a group of limestone plateaus located south of the Massif Central in the south of France. Actually this is obvious from the name: Causse is an Occitan word meaning "limestone plateau". But how many of you knew that offhand? The area is perhaps better known for its river gorges--including the Tarn and the Jonte--which have carved great gashes through the landscape. The scenery is stunning and in fact the region was designated as a UNESCO world heritage centre in 2011, although for its agropastoral heritage rather than for being pretty.

In 2017 we spent a lot of our time soaking up the scenery in beautiful sunshine. Not so in 2018 when we experienced three seasons within two weeks... The forecast was for considerable rain for the first few days but nobody was expecting snow! Yet on the first Sunday morning that's what we woke up to. Although most of the snow melted over the course of the day spirits were considerably dampened.

Despite the weather or perhaps to spite it, caving commenced in earnest. On Sunday a group returned to Grotte du Coutal, which is a very interesting mostly horiztonal system, but the early highlight was Aven de Bauomo Rousso (-166m). This might be the most visited cave of the holiday, visited by over 20 people in the three days it was rigged. And every group contained a photographer or two! We could probably host a competition if we wanted. The cave is almost entirely vertical with eight pitches, but there are many places where you leave the rope and several very pretty sections along the way--hence the photography.

A decorated grotto in Aven de Bauomo Rousso. Photo credit: Gary Douthwaite.

 

Although the weather remained stubbornly cold and damp for a few more days, people's moods improved and caving continued elsewhere as well as in the Bauomo Rousso. A large group visited Aven de la Portalerie to warm up on Monday 14th. On Tuesday 15th a group returned to Aven Emilie, which is just a pitch into a chamber, except the chamber is more decorated than anything I've ever seen in the UK. A group of six (one person for each tackle bag) also went to Aven de Hures on Tuesday. Hures is a deep and airy SRT extravaganza featuring a spectacular final pitch in the 100m+ shaft of Puits de l'echo.

Puits de l'echo. Photo credit: Jack Hare.

 

On the Wednesday while the Bauomo Rousso was being de-rigged and photographed yet again, a small crack team bottomed Aven de Puech Negre. Puech Negre is the deepest cave in the Grands Causses with a depth of -400m. They had six bags between four but boundless energy. Actually that isn’t quite true; they had energy at the start but were quite exhausted by the end of the day! Great achievement, though. After all of that caving Thursday was a day of rest. But the club was back to it on Friday 18th. A big group went to Grotte des Egyues in the morning and kitted up in full wetsuits, ready for submersion to the neck. Ten minutes into the cave though we found the first ex-sump was not an ex-sump after all! It was completely sumped. Disappointing. At least the sun had finally come out, drying the wetsuits swiftly.

One objective of the trip was for more people to visit the Grotte Malaval, where a fantastic through trip between the bottom entrance (Entrée naturelle de Malaval) and the artificial middle entrance is possible. This subterranean streamway is an absolute must. Seeing the spectacularly decorated Reseau des Tucs was a highlight of 2017, as was the through trip, only completed by five members. Most people achieved both this year. The rigging team headed in on Friday 18th and had a much more successful trip than the Eygues team, rigging the whole traverse and visiting the Reseau des Tucs too.

Reseau des Tucs. Photo credit: Rhys Tyers.

 

Aside from waving off friends heading back to the UK, the Malaval was the focus of the weekend. Several through-trips were completed and we felt like we’d finally gained an understanding of the rope required to hard-rig the cave. The cave was de-rigged without fuss on Monday. A group visited Grotte de Baume Layrou on Saturday--they didn't get to the good stuff but just getting to the entrance is a bit of an adventure anyway. On Monday a trio experienced the picturesque entrance pitch of Aven Noir, complete with birds screaming dramatically.

Tuesday was another rest day. Many peoples’ rest days were spent visiting the local showcaves: Grotte de Dargilan, Abime de Bramabiau, and Aven Armand. Grotte de Dargilan is long, varied, and stunning. Aven Armand does one thing, stalagmites, but does it so well it’s just ridiculous (it contains the tallest stalagmite currently known)! Abime de Bramabiau, a rumbling river cave, isn’t pretty in the same way but it’s hugely impressive, especially in high water. All three are worth visiting, especially the Dargilan.

On Wednesday the club visited Aven des Quatres Vents, where one person managed to find the way on but couldn’t find it again after going back for the rest of the team! Another group returned to Castelbouc No. 4 (visited in 2017) and got much further this time, all the way to the sump pool. There was a rumour that it’s the most beautiful sump pool in all of Europe; it’s certainly very lovely! Lovely enough to entice a second group in the next day (Thursday).

The final caving trip of the holiday was a return to the Puech Negre, this time doing the ‘classic’ trip to the Salle de l'espoir for photography. After an entrance ~20m pitch, a huge pitch of 87m descends a hading rift before a superb 45m pitch drops into the chamber. Everyone came back enthusing about it.

Climbing the pitch in Salle de l'espoir. Photo credit: Clive Westlake.

 

Including both holidays, the NPC overall has spent a month in the Grands Causses. By my count 36 club members spent at least a week on holiday, not counting two children and at least one guest. That demonstrates the club's appetite for foreign caving--or at least for cheese and wine.

I’ll drop out of my blogposting voice for this paragraph to say I really enjoyed both of these holidays. Exploring a caving area of France that was new not just to me but to most people was a lot of fun and I think it’s fantastic that so many people are going caving together! I’d like to thank Clive and Dewi for doing so much behind-the-scenes work such as sourcing information on worthwhile caves, locating them on maps and working out what ropes we needed to bring, and also everybody who rigged or de-rigged or took a bag of rope in their car. These holidays couldn’t happen without any of these things--thanks!

I'm compiling information about the caves we visited and other activities we did in the Causses with the thought that we can eventually put information here on the website in a special Grands Causses section--infromation like "Grotte des Eygues CAN sump!" for instance! I think the club's learned a lot about the area and the rest of the club/other cavers could benefit from that. So if anybody who went on the holidays has a trip report or a rant or an opinion about the quality of the cafes in Meyreuis etc, please do let me know.

Bestride the Causse Méjean. Photo credit: Clive Westlake.

 

The club visited eighteen caves in the Grands Causses in total, often more than once and sometimes many more times than that. The full list of caves visited is below:

  • Abime de Bramabiau (subterranean traverse)
  • Aven Castelbouc No. 1
  • Aven (Grotte) Castelbouc No. 4
  • Aven de Bauomo Rousso
  • Aven de Hures
  • Aven de la Portalerie
  • Aven de Puech Negre
  • Aven des Patates
  • Aven des Quatres Vents
  • Aven des Tendelles
  • Aven du Gendarme
  • Aven Emilie
  • Aven Noir
  • Grotte de Baume Layrou
  • Grotte de la Porte
  • Grotte du Coutal
  • Grotte Malaval
  • Grottes des Eygues

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