Caving, France, October 2012

I wanted to go caving in France, but that didn't work out, so I went caving instead.

Slightly less confusing: When I was in France about half a year earlier, I had visited a cave (Aven d'Orgnac) and noticed that they didn't just have the short tours in the 'developed for tourism' part of the cave, but also longer tours that went to the more 'untouched' parts.

So when I found that I had a weekend to spare in southern France, my first idea was to go on a speleological tour at Aven d'Orgnac. But there didn't seem to be any such tour on thay specific weekend, so I decided to forget about caving and look for something else to do.

As I had enjoyed rafting and canyoning in Greece, and both are popular activities in France, I was looking for companies offering such trips. And while there are a lot of such companies in southern France, the last tours they offered were usually in mid-October. There didn't seem to be anyone operating on the last weekend of October.

That was confirmed by an email from a guide from one of the companies. It was too cold for canyoning, even with neoprene suits, water levels would be unsuitable for rafting (and the water would be to cold here as well) and the weather would be too unreliable anyway.

And, since the season was over, he wasn't in the Ardèche area (which I had asked about) anymore anyway, but closer to Annecy. But, even though canyoning and rafting were out of the question, he could take me caving instead and would I be interested?

Since that was the original plan anyway, I was quite happy with that option.

So he recommended traversing the "Grotte de Courtouphle" near Matafelon-Granges. The convenient thing about that cave is that it has an entrance at the top of a hill and an exit somewhere on the side of it, so you don't have to go back the way you came. And you abseil into the cave quite a lot (the highest individual abseil is about 20 meters), so the whole thing seemed to be pretty much like the canyoning tour in Greece, but indoors.

As this was out of the season, this wasn't a regular group tour, just the guide and me. (He suggested that he could put the trip info on his blog and maybe get some more people interested, but I don't know whether he didn't do that or nobody else was interested.)

On the day of the trip, the weather was mostly rainy (with patches of snow and hail on the way back), so I was reasonably glad that I didn't plan to do rafting or canyoning after all.

As there is no easy way between the entrance and the exit of the cave, the guide had brought a quad on a trailer and we put that on a parking side at the foot of the hill, near the Ain river and then drove up to the end of a road about 300 meters further up the hill.

There we donned our caving gear and started our 40-minute walk to the entrance of the cave (with about 150 meters additional altitude gain).

The cave entrance itself was quite unspectacular. It was just a small rift underneath a rock.

Courtouphle Entrance

The first bit was a small crawl passage, which was surprisingly windy (as this is, in a certain sense, the 'blowhole' of the cave and, crawling through it, we were blocking most of it, so the air was pushing its way around us with some force.

Once the path became wider, we came to the first abseil passage.

Rappel system

The basic system for all of them was basically the same. There was a short safety line followed by a metal ring in the rock. The guide would then go first, attach the abseil rope to the ring. I would clip into the safety line, move over to the abseil rope, attach myself to the abseil rope, unclip from the safety line (at least in most cases - about two or three times I was so eager to abseil down that I forgot to unclip the safety and wondered why I wasn't descending) and then rappel down. Once down, I would unclip myself from the rope, the guide would come down and retrieve the rope and we would move on.

Guide coming down rope

So far, so good. It was pretty much like the canyoning tour about a month earlier, though a bit darker, but less wet. I was enjoying myself.

Having fun underground

Note: All the pictures shown here (except for the first three) were taken by the guide, Gérard Garnier, who made them available to me.

While it was a bit strange at the beginning that I usually couldn't see where I was going (so in most cases I didn't know whether the ground was 5 meters below me or 15), it was also to rappel into the unknown (and gravity pretty much ensure that I ended up in the right place.)

Cave rappel Cave rappel

And crawling through tight spaces was also a lot of fun.

Cave crawlspace

There were also a couple of unexpected parts.

The first one was during an open, but slightly uneven, passage, where I tried to steady myself on a big rock. I had notice that the rock was looking a bit unusual, with the base being the light brown colour of most of the cave, but the top of the rock being a darker brown, almost black. Only when I grabbed the top of the rock, I noticed that it wasn't rock at all, but a much more squishy substance. I had noticed a couple of bats hanging on the ceiling at some places, but until that moment, I hadn't quite made the connection between them and the stuff that covered some of the rocks.

Later on, there were also some passages where you could sit down and just slide down some rocks, which was fun, at least as long as you didn't pay too much attention on what you were really sliding on...

Sliding on bat guano

There was one significant difference between canyoning and caving that I had ignored. While canyoning is always downhill (since you follow the river), there are passages in a cave where you have to go up. And while I had done abseiling, I never had done a rope ascent.

Which is much harder than I expected.

There was a permanent rope hanging down on places that needed to be climbed. The guide used a rope ascender to climb up that rope and then used his abseil rope to make a block and tackle construction for me to climb up with. And while this means that you only have to pull up half your weight and the ascent was probably not more than five meters, I was quite exhausted by the time I reached the top.

Pulling myself up

On to some more abseiling - this one was stranger than the descents before it, since I thought that I had reached the bottom after a few meters, only to find out that this was just the rim of another hole in the ground and there was some distance to go yet.

Cave abseil Cave abseil

So far, so good, and even though I was more exhausted than I had expected, I was still doing fine (except for some scratches on my hand and bruises on the shins). But then there was a little side traverse. Quite simple, just a bit of rock to cross over, holding on to a safety line.

Side traverse

And then I slipped and fell. Luckily there was nothing to fall down to (and I was holding onto the safety line anyway), but I fell flat on my back. Which would probably be fine if the ground had been flat, but since that wasn't the case, a protruding rock banged into my back.

This was very painful and managed to walk a couple of steps to safer ground and just lay down on the floor trying to get my breath back and try to figure out whether I was ok. (At that point my back just hurt and I hadn't the slightest idea whether that just was the effect of the impact or whether there was anything broken or damaged.)

After about five minutes, the initial pain was receding a bit and, as far as I could tell, nothing was broken and I could move normally. I managed to get through the rest of the cave, but then, I didn't have any alternative (the accident happened about two-thirds through the cave).

So there's not much I can tell about the rest of the trip. Mostly I did try just to make it out of there and not to whine too much.

At least a bit later, when we came to a large chamber in the cave, we had a lunch break, so I got some rest. (And, this being France, having some red wine, together with bread, beacon and cheese, did help me to relax a bit and not worry too much, even though it didn't help my sense of the balance on the final bits.)

Anyway, I made it to the exit of the cave, so all's well that ends well (even though my smile was a bit strained).

Cave exit

There was still a fair bit to go until we reached the parking place with the quad - the exit was still quite some way up on the side of the hill and the path going down was steep and slippery, but we got there, took the quad to drive up to where the van was parked and drove back.

The ride back was a bit uncomfortable (with a stab of pain in my back every time we took a curve), but luckily, no real damage was done, just some major bruises. So while it is now (about a week later) still painful to bend forward to get up from a chair (and I was irritated by reading somewhere that "bruised rips are often more painful then broken rips") and I also managed to hit my knee somewhere in the cave, so I'm currently limping a bit, eventually nothing serious happened, except that I didn't pay much attention to the final areas of the cave.

So while the canyoning trip was much easier than expected and well within my range of abilities (and the rafting trip even more so), this caving trip was pretty much at the edge of my abilities. Even without the fall (which was just unlucky - there was nothing complicated about it except the ground being slippery and it might as well had happened in the bathroom at home), I had difficulties with the ascending parts (also the easier parts that I needed to scramble over some rocks for - and having one foot cramp while trying to step on a rock didn't help either) and I probably should have asked a bit more about the skill level required.

On the other hand, I did make it through the cave and I probably could have asked the guide to go slower if I really felt that I couldn't keep up. And while the trip stopped being fun about two-thirds through the cave, up until that point I was enjoying the tour and probably would have emerged happy and widely grinning on the other side if I hadn't slipped and fallen.

And, probably, when I re-read this section in a year, I will be embarrassed by the sulking and whining tone of this page, but now, while it still hurts, I feel sort of entitled to mention it.

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