Explorers Connect

More people have been to the Moon

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

Cave Diving Exploration really is the last frontier of true exploration. Mountains have been mapped, seas have been scanned by sonar and even the moon and planets have been studied. But the spaces under the earth really are unknown until somebody visits them in person.

Over the last few years I have organised cave diving expeditions to the south of France to push caves beyond their known limits and map places on this earth that no other human has ever seen. In 2002 my caving club visited the Herault department of France, an hour north of Montpellier in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It was to be my first of five trips to the area, many of which yielded new discoveries, fantastic diving and interesting caving. At the age of 21, having been caving on and off since my early teens, I was truly bitten by the caving bug and it wasn't long before I began cave diving. The Herault is mainly a limestone expanse, carved up by deep river valleys, gorges and speckled with dusty, dry limestone plateaus and scrubby bushes, which hide a wealth of potential cave entrances.

The area is probably best known for the excellent red and ros wines, natural features such as the Cirque de Navacelles, showcaves such as Clamouse and Dargilan and canoeing down the stunning river gorges such as the Vis and Herault. The area is breathtakingly scenic but my friends and I don't go there for holidays. We go for the caves. For cave divers, the potential for exploration is tantalising. It is not a cave diving tourist hot-spot like the Lot or Dordogne. The access to the caves in the Herault, either on the surface or underground, is time consuming and physically demanding, requiring large teams and logistics. There are much easier sites to dive in France, so the majority of divers go elsewhere. In 2007 some friends and I went to a cave called the Calaven de la Seoubio, which I had first visited in 2003, to see if the cave could be pushed any further. Three trips into the cave to set up and haul out equipment, plus 11 hours on the day of the push, yielded about 70m of new cave passage beyond 7 sumps (the 8th sump had become an air space due to low water levels).

The local caving club, the CLPA headed up by Nathan Boinet, had supported us enthusiastically and it was an email from them that encouraged me to go back to the area and look at a cave called the Perdreau-Fourmi, which had been left unexplored by a British team who were unable to find a way on. A team of four divers, Joe Hesketh, Osama Gobara, Richard Walker and me, found the way on underwater in the second sump and we left the cave ongoing but well surveyed, as time on our trip ran out. 2012 was to be a return, to continue pushing the cave and also to take a look at another system called the Garrel, which the French cavers had asked us to dive. The Team The 2012 team was Richard Walker and me again, assisted by Jarvist Frost and Tim Webber, both members of our section of the Cave Diving Group back in the UK. Sadly Osama and Joe could not make it this year but were wholly supportive in our continuing explorations. This year we had help from Andras. Although an experienced cave diver, he mainly dived backmounted and was only just learning sidemount techniques.

He had also never done any dry caving, so he was given lessons in rope techniques so that he was able to help us with our exploration. He enjoyed himself immensely. We were also assisted by the CLPA caving club and their help was valuable in shifting equipment in and out of the dry cave passage, negotiating ropes and boulder squeezes. We had two main objectives in this trip. The first was to take a look at the sump in the Garrel, called the Siphon de Pas Perdus. Nathan Boinet had dived it once and 45m into the underwater passage, had come across an underwater squeeze which he did not fancy taking on. He handed the job over to us and Tim and I planned to take a look at it. Here follows our Blog report of the exploration: It was not a pretty sight at 9am this morning! Last year we were chased all over the French countryside by Jean Tarrit and his friend, Jean-Claude, who were desperate to find us and show us an exciting dive site in a cave called the Garrel.

I had visited the Garrel in April 2003 and remember it as an easy, dry and pretty cave with no tackle required. I don't recall there being a sump, but Nathan Boinet, the local activist in these parts, had been dipping his toe in the sumps at the end of the system, some of which came to nothing early on and one which was looking to go but he was diving back mounted 7 litre cylinders and couldn't fit through the troiture (squeeze). So, we were invited to take a look using our techniques anglaise (sidemount) and were promised a large group of slaves from the CLPA to carry all our equipment. We were due to meet the French cavers at 9am near St Jean de Buges but the troops were not to be rallied. Tim Webber and Jarvist Frost arrived last night having made awesome time but they were paying for it in exhaustion. Duncan Smith and Elaine Hill also arrived yesterday but Elaine was staying firmly between her tent and the toilet block, having eaten something dodgy. So Duncan was up and about, Rich was dragged out of his pit by me and there was no sign of life next door.

The plan was for Tim and I to take a look at this squeeze and see if we could pass it. I would go first and sort the line and have a look, then, assuming I would be too fat to fit, as Nathan had insisted on a thin diver, I would hand over to skinny Tim to continue. So, having had a minor epic trying to find bread for breakfast, we got on the road and Tim would show up later with Jarvist in tow. The French team were at the side of the road, half kitted up and there was a buzz in the air. Lots of banter and greetings and introductions went around and after a degree of faff, we set off minus SRT kits. This concerned us a little as the others all seemed to have them.Nathan assured us that the climbing was easy and we werent to worry. So we didnt. Five minutes in to the entrance we were met with a 15m pitch!! Never mindThe French guy ahead of me descended and Duncan behind me lent me his descender. I attached it to my belt, abseiled down the pitch and sent it back up the rope.. I could see this being quite a fun trip for those of us minus rope gear! However, the French were obliging and over the course of several rope climbs and abseils, I employed just about every technique in the book including those with red crosses through them! I used a stop, figure of 8, Italian hitch and krab, one or two jammers depending on what I could scrounge at the time, a full kit at one stage loaned by Jean-Claude who can free climb just about anything someone elses cows-tail hauling me from above and quite a lot of brute force and ignorance!! It was excellent fun and Jean was correct in his time estimation.

It took 4 hours to get our teams and two sets of divers gear to the sump. There was climbing, crawling and boulder chokes by the bucket load and it was very, very hot and sweaty in there! But the banter and morale kept everyone going with frequent breaks. We arrived at the sump and it was large, blue and clear and very inviting. I was desperate to get in and cool down!! Everyone arrived on the boulder slope and began unpacking their lunch. It was a natural amphitheatre, with graded seats for the cavers to watch the divers kit up in comfort. We treated ourselves to sausage roll, taboul, bread and cheese. Nathan became insistent that it would be better for two people to dive together as the second diver would not get to see anything. I was unsure about this, but as he had dived it and we hadnt, we went along with his suggestion and Tim and I kitted up together. The line was broken at the very beginning, so we tied the reel off and set off down the sand slope in zero visibility. I went in front with the reel and we laid 20m of line until we found Nathans broken line in situ. We tied into it at a good belay and the water suddenly became crystal clear as we moved away from the sand slope and into a level passage with a boulder floor, about 3m high and 5m wide. We patched up the line in one place where it was needed and soon came to the end of Nathans line, marked with a 45m tag, just at the start of the squeeze.

I had a good look at it and it didn't look to bad, so after a quick chat with Tim, I set off through the squeeze and passed it easily, stopping for a moment to make a good tie off at the end, before turning slightly rightwards into bigger passage. Tim duly followed and continued tying the line off behind me. We moved forward until the passage seemed to come to a bit of a break down and spotted a higher passage so moved on up into that and went forward some more. We laid about 42m of new line altogether after the squeeze. The biggest problem in this sump was the visibility. It is a static sump so there is no flow to help you. The silt seemed to rain down in clouds from the roof probably because there had never been any air bubbles in there before to dislodge it. Furthermore, the roof sloped upwards so bubbles were travelling up the roof ahead of us and raining silt clouds down like swirling mists of powder, right in front of our noses and interfering with our visibility. This problem began to obstruct progress and I got to a bit of passage where the way on was less obvious and it looked to be breaking down. I stopped to have a good look and was engulfed in red swirling powder so I thumbed the dive and tied the line off, cut the reel free and we set off back home in awful viz. Following the thin line home was much easier than I anticipated and we soon arrived at the sand slope and looked up to see the dozen or so cavers lights glowing on the embankment in expectation, all staring at us through the ripples on the surface of the water. I gave Nathan and the expectant audience a brief explanation of what we had found in dubious French and received a round of applause and what looked like an explosion of paparazzi!! We cleared up, had some water and food and started the journey out en masse, which was not without amusement! Still minus an SRT kit, I scrounged all sorts of items on the way home.

The other Brits were having similar epics and we ended up fighting over the sole karabiner for use with an Italian hitch! The journey out was a little slicker and we stopped in the Salle de Dejeun which Jean explained was the resting place for the original explorers. We arrived at the last pitch and I was given an SRT kit from somebody and made my way up the pitch. Rich was also donated a kit from somewhere but I have no idea how the others got out! I arrived at the traverse line and was faced with a French caver, lying on his side looking like he wanted to die! He said in English (cue French accent): Christine, please can you help me..? Can you take my equipment because I am very, very tired. I said Of course! He went on to explain: I cannot feel my arms or my legs any more! Poor guy! He had left his jammer on the rope and couldn't face the return journey of all of one metre to retrieve it!! I offered to take his bag the last 15 metres of uphill crawling and he insisted we do it together! We surfaced to the flashes of cameras and dusk was settling.

A gang of us returned to the campsite for a great BBQ cooked by Rich and far too much wine! A grand day out! Perdreau Fourmi Monday evening we set off for the Event de Perdeau-Fourmi, a cave our team left ongoing at 30m depth in the second sump. It was a remarkably easy carry this time up the river bed. Rich and I shifted gear through the boulder choke whilst listening to the delightful sound of tap-tap-tapping as Jarvist set to work putting some bolts in and he and Tim set up an elaborate but excellent cable car system for hauling larger cylinders. The plan was to have a set-up dive to make the air-bell in between sumps more user friendly for big cylinders and for getting in and out of both sumps. We made light work of it and all the gear - 4 divers worth of equipment - was assembled at the top of the pitch by 6pm. Tuesday. It was time to see what Oz and Joe had done with my line reel in the passage Rich and I found last year, and on Oz's advice, to check it really was still going before we threw a big team and trimix at it.

We were very lucky to have Jean Tarrit and Claudine from the CLPA come along to help us underground and they did a great job of getting everything down to the sump's edge in under an hour. Jarvist and Tim set off into the sump wearing equipment I am too young to have ever seen before....but it seemed to work as they crossed the sump, tidied the line so that it was tight and immaculate and they preserved the visibility well. Rich and I were to follow about 30 minutes later to give them a chance to rig a ladder to make climbing out of sump 1 much easier and to place a few bolts for ropes and general helpful tatt. They did a great job and Rich and I kitted up whilst Jean and Claudine went up the ropes to get warm and get lunch. We crossed the sump easily and had the luxury of walking straight up the ladder fully kitted without breaking sweat and straight down into sump 2.

We dived to the end of the line, surveying last years new passage again as we went and hit 30m depth and my line reel. The line had been beautifully laid by Oz and Joe and the reel was well tied off at the end. I shone my cave-hunting torch down the ongoing passage and could see large cave ongoing for at least 20m. Satisfied, we cleaned up and left, very much looking forward to the return trip on Friday, to allow the viz to settle after a couple of days. D-Day I would be lying if I said I wasn't just a bit nervous or under pressure the night before this dive. Our last attempt was thwarted by my failed attempt to pass the almost vertical rift in zero visibility, which we now realised was due to a very loose, sloppy polyprop line. We had made attempts to fix it, but ultimately, it needs to come out and a heavy line put in. We had a quick breakfast and drove over to the parking spot to meet the French from the CLPA, who were keen as ever to help us.

After a lot of banter and greetings, Jean, Etienne and three others offering surface support, set off to the cave entrance and shifted the gear through the small boulder choke. this consisted of a pair of 12s, a pair of 15s, two deco bottles of oxygen, and 4 7litre bottles for Jarvist and Tim, plus all sundry bits and bobs you need for diving, like masks, fins and regs etc. We embarked on a mammoth lowering session which involved pulley cars and 'staged' people but it worked fantastically and all the gear was at the bottom of the pitch in not much more than an hour from leaving the surface. Jarvist and Tim were to kit up first and cross sump 1, with the plan to shoot a bit of video and help us out of the water with our large cylinders. They also carried our oxygen deco bottles, which was very welcome. Once they had set off, Rich and I got kitted up slowly and with some help from Andras (Kuti), it wasn't the nightmare we envisaged. We had a 12l and a 15l each of 18/45, as we were expecting the cave to go deeper and wanted plenty of gas to allow for surveying at depth. A pair of 12s would have been ideal, but we didn't have any - and so it was.

Rich and I dived to the air-bell and Jarvist and Tim did an excellent job of helping us un-kit and carefully pulling our big bottles up the slope, to get them ready for re-kitting in sump 2. I got into the water first and with a little help, managed to kit back up again in the narrow rift and float around a bit, trying to keep warm whilst Rich went through the same process. We were handed our deco bottles and had agreed to get them to the other side of the 'annoying flop'. Sump 2 is a very short dive to another air-bell which is passable by belly flopping over a narrow rock bridge which gets in the way. We passed our deco bottles over this and I found a good place at 6m to drop them, quite close to airspace. We set off with the intention of picking up my line reel from where Oz and Joe had left it last year. The cave appeared to be going deeper, but on recent inspection, it may stay at -30m for a while at least. We set off along the rift and the viz had cleared from our last dive a little, but it was not perfect despite being given 2 days to settle. We continued for a while and were both very surprised to meet an upwards line into airspace. Somehow we had overshot the junction which takes us to the 'new' line.

Confused, we went back on ourselves and realised that, in our efforts to avoid the appalling floating polyprop line which had taken off into the roof of the rift, we had swum past the clothes pegs and other general tatt. Even more surprising was that the floating line had hidden itself so far up into the roof, it was quite an effort to pull it down and put it back into the downwards rift which was looking empty. We made several attempts to fix it but ultimately, polyprop sucks and it will be coming out next time. We continued on the correct path, having wasted a few minutes. We very soon came across the 'new junction' and set off along Oz and Joe's line. I surveyed the last leg whilst Rich untied the line reel that had sat quiet for a year and once I had underlined the numbers in my wetnotes, Rich turned to me, reel at the ready and smiled an 'Ok?' I nodded and we set off along beautiful rift passage, horizontal and about 30m depth, dipping to 34m temporarily.

The rock was sharp, pale, sculptured and pretty. the passage was 10m high and 2m wide at the widest part. Rich made a lovely, tight line with good tie offs and I bimbled along behind, counting knots, recording the depth and the compass bearing. It was heading north and all I could think of was that poor geologist who was desperate for the cave to go in the opposite direction! The thing is, it might yet as it has already done one weird corkscrew and we emptied the reel as the rift started to close down - a sign maybe that we should be looking elsewhere now for the continuation. The Coudoulire is known to connect from dye tracing and that cave corkscrews considerably before settling on a path - and it goes deep. It currently lies at 1650m long and 100m depth. We looked at the floor nervously waiting for it to engulf us into the depths - but it never did. It just started to pinch up and Rich was getting itchy feet in large 12 and 15 litre bottles.

The reel emptied at just the right time. We dived back in appalling visibility which was very patchy and were relieved to get back to our deco bottles at 6m with no deco incurred. We had spent 36 minutes in the sump with an average depth of about 20m. We returned to expectant sherpas and delivered the empty reel and Rich was pre-occupied with the fact that he found his long lost Halcyon knife!! We were helped out of the water and out of our cylinders by Jarv and Tim. I was absolutely freezing - I had somehow managed to be the first in the sump and the last out - so I got an extra 10 minutes of coldness either end! We climbed out and I was generously given something sugary by the resident diabetic. He'll live! (probably). We had a shivery dive out. I went ahead and Rich followed, exiting the sump at a rate of knots even I found alarming! Clearly he wanted out! We changed into warm fleecy caving undersuits - the posh element changed into fourth element underclothes! We started packing up and getting gear ready for hauling and we were out of the cave, with our gear back at the car, by 6pm!! Unbelievable! Many thanks to the gang for their help - Elaine, Duncan and Gerick turned up later in the evening to help on the surface as well.

The French cavers had asked us to take water samples from the second sump to confirm that the water was the same as other sites in the area. This job was handed to Jarvist and Tim and we carefully carried the water bottle out of the cave. Once on the surface, the French began doing their science bit and confirmed that the water was the same as that in the nearby source and also others in the area, helping prove a connection between systems including the Garrel. We retired to the campsite to shower and get tarted up for an evening meal in St Jean de Buges - a timely place - but devoid of champagne.