We just got back from two fantastic weeks diving and caving in the Herault. The trip was organised by Christine Grosart and it was somewhat unique in that we were a bigger group than the usual gang I have been on so many dive trips before. The names of the participants together with a detailed real time trip report and more pictures can be found on Christine’s blog. However I thought I add my own memories here and write a few words down.
All the topos here are courtesy of the fantastic plongeesout.com. Pictures as always are Joe’s credit who is busy working on some video clips from the trip. Check out his page
We had talked since quite some time about visiting a different area of France and after Christine mentioned last year that she would like to go back to the Herault we jumped at the idea.
The Herault is quite different to the Lot and most prominently the logistics are harder and access to the caves a lot more difficult. There are no filling stations and most caves are a long walk from the car. The upside of this, however, is that you are completely alone at each dive site and the beauty and variety of the caves in the region more than make up for the hard work of getting the gear there.
We decided to camp for the two weeks and although this worked fine, it added to the gear and the already long days were made even longer as sorting out daily food etc just takes that little bit longer when camping.
After an uneventful drive from the UK Joe and me were welcomed with a glass of wine by Clive and Noel who arrived a day earlier and had already set up camp.
We decided go caving the following day and Clive came up with a ”nice but not necessarily outstanding cave” for us to crawl in.
Event de Rognes
Hmm well I can only be in awe be the amount of beautiful caves this man has seen as I thought the cave was absolutely outstanding indeed and in my personal view dry caves don’t get much better than this. It is a very sporty cave and has a bit of everything, water, crawls, climbs, pretties etc. The four of us had a really good day and Joe filmed a fair bit, which hopefully results in some good video clip from the trip.
In the evening Chris and Rich arrived and as Rich was feeling a bit too knackered to dive the next day we made plans for another dry caving day in the Rabanel.
The Rabanel is a vertical daylight cave and requires efficiency on single rope techniques. Unfortunately this one did not turn out as planned and we brought the wrong rope lengths and rigging equipment. Uhm well we tried and failed and there was nothing else to do than retreat back to camp and spend the rest of the day swimming in the river, and making plans for the days ahead.
Event de Rodel: Topo
After half a week in the Herault it was finally time to go diving the next day and we decided to start with a shake down dive in the Rodel. The Rodel is probably one of the easier accessed caves in the region being described as only ten minutes from the road. Well it actually is but the sump starts about 100 metres in the cave with crawling sections at the start. Joe planned to shoot some video, which in return meant we had quite a lot of equipment to carry in. This took a long time and was quite some work but the results are hopefully worth it.
The Rodel is absolutely sidemount territory with very low sections but near perfect visibility. There is a squeeze about halfway into the cave and some digging is required to get through.
This one was unique. The Esperelle is used as a water pumping station and for 8 years the cave was closed to divers. The cave can now be dived but access is still very tight and permits have to be obtained. We arranged access via Mehdi Dighouth a local caver and diver who arranged to meet us at the cave and come for a dive with us. We did not meet Mehdi until the early evening and so the whole thing turned into a night dive. Joe and I filmed again and so did Rich who dived with Christine and Mehdi. The Esperelle is a cave with many rifts and a few short passages leading off. It is not the biggest cave but can be happily dived in backmount configuration. Joe and I realised that this dive was a bit special so we decided to do a bigger dive, which actually resulted in swimming to the end of the line in about 65m. Seeing the line tied off to a rock with a lot of gas to spare but nowhere to go was a funny feeling and I had to giggle and be thankful about the privilege of going there on our first rip to the region as it has not been dived by many people.
Event de Perdreau: Topo
This was a project Christine had planned for quite some time as she has very good relations with the local caving club (CLPA) and Nathan Boinet who was the first person to dive in there about 15 years ago invited us as he was keen for the cave to be further explored. The cave has been dived by a few teams but so far no ongoing passage had been found and sump 2 had not been extended for several years. We met Nathan and one of his cave buddies Mario in the morning and after bringing all the gear to the cave Nathan rigged the pitch and we lowered diving equipment for five divers plus ropes and rigging equipment to the start of Sump 1. Chris, Rich and Nathan dived first to check conditions on the line and to bolt the climb between Sump 1 and 2.
As it turned out the line was in good condition and a rope was still in place to get out of Sump 1 so Chris and Rich made good progress. They dived to the end of the line and extended a bit more line into a very tight rift while Nathan checked for dry leads in the airbell of Sump2. Time started to drag on and Joe and me started to discard any plans of further dive during the day. However when the first team returned Christine reported that not only had she found the correct way onward upon their return but she also left the reel for us in place to go and lay line.
Woow. Finding virgin cave passage and handing the reel over to your mates to explore does not happen often and to me this is a perfect example of real team mentality. Thanks Chris.
Joe and me promptly decided that dinner could wait for a few more hours and we quickly got our gear ready and gathered information from the others of where to find the new passage. The second sump has a rather awkward and tight sidewards rift and as the cave is pretty much undisturbed percolation and general movement by the first team had turned sections of the rift into absolute zero visibility and Joe and I could do nothing else but feel our way through the rift and hope for the vis to improve. And so it did…
All of a sudden the rift opened and crystal clear vis lay ahead. We found the area Christine had marked on the line and sure enough the cave seemed to widen up going off to the side. I quickly got the reel out and tied into the existing line and Joe and me set of exploring new virgin cave. A lot of things went through my head at this point but I really could not believe our luck as the cave stayed wide open and kept going on. When we hit our turn pressure (and max depth) I tied the reel off at a rock in 30m and we both looked at the ongoing passage for a moment before making our cold but happy return.
When we surfaced the others had already cleared quite some gear and by the time we had everything back out of the cave we had spent over 11hrs underground. Everyone was dead tired but also overwhelmed with joy about the exploits from the first day diving.
In the following days we returned to the cave but the visibility had not settled enough to continue exploration beyond the rift. During a long and cold dive we surveyed the whole of Sump2 however and handed all the survey data to Nathan.
We will certainly continue exploration of this cave next year and there is quite some work required to prepare for deeper dives.
In order for the visibility to settle in the Perdreau we decided to dive the Gouneyras the next day. Elaine Hill and Duncan Smith had arrived the previous evening and joined us for a dive as well.
The Gourneyras is an absolute stunning cave with massive dimensions. Joe filmed and I had the joy of carrying two big video lights and having the first class view of the cave. We had to turn far too early as we had reached our max depth of 54m but the view of the sun illuminated cavern zone from 40 m upwards with our deco bottles at 21m is something I will carry with me for along time. This cave is a pure jewel and Joe did it brought by capturing some stunning video.
Having been defeated in the Rabanel, Joe wanted his promised share of deep daylight pitches and although scared shitless (heights and open spaces are not my biggest turn on) but also quite intrigued I wanted a go as well. Also we felt like a break from diving so some vertical caving seemed like a good option for a day off. Elaine and Duncan came along and after we finally found the cave Duncan rigged the route. The Mas Raynal is over 100m deep with several routes leading down. We opted for the non-direct route along several rope lengths. The shaft is absolutely massive and roughly comparable with Alum pot in Yorkshire which is visited a few years ago. When we reached the end of it we were all rather surprised to find a big concrete damn which was actually erected in the 1920’s. How the hell they managed that is beyond me but somehow seeing a massive concrete construction at the end of a 100m shaft makes you feel less remote.
The Gourneyrou is right next to the Gourneyras but interestingly enough the character of the cave is totally different with more variation and more gloomy character. Joe and I did a shallow dive down to 30m and as always we did some filming. Rich and Christine had gone in before us as they did a deeper dive and the percolation from their bubbles was enough to steer up the visibility a fair bit with fine smokey layers of silt hanging in the water. This looked actually quite cool and added character to the cave. I think everybody preferred the Gourneyras although the cave itself is actually very nice with quite a bit of variation. Getting to dive is a bit more tricky however as ropes are needed for the final part to lower the equipment into the water.
After two weeks our last day had arrived all too soon and we all went for a dive in the Sorques. Mehdi had a day off and joined the fun. The Sorgues is probably the easiest diveable cave in the area as you can park very close to the water and entrance is easy with no dry caving required. The cave is short but crystal clear and the water was noticeably colder than in all the other caves we did. I dived with Rich and Joe and we did some filming. We did a relatively short dive as we had to head back for a pizza party with Nathan and the guys from CLPA. They had built a beautiful pizza oven with rocks and clay extracted from one of their digging sites and we had a very good evening eating pizza, drinking wine and showing some of the underwater footage to the dry cavers who were extremely happy to see some of their local sites captured in HD.
As I had not been to the Herault before and did not know what to expect I thought of this trip as a bit of a recce trip but it far exceeded my expectations. Apart from the fantastic general caves that are there we established really good relations with the local cave community and we managed to line up quite a number of exciting projects for next year.
We really only managed to do a tiny fraction and only the more famous of the many many caves that are out there. Backmount or sidemount the region has something to offer for all tastes.
As a tip though I suggest to plan carefully and think hard what exactly to bring to the cave. Travelling light is the smarter approach for many of the caves.
A compressor is a must and with a bit of forward planning and adjustment of gas mixtures we managed some good dives with reasonable mixes.
Next year we will concentrate more on the project dives whilst out there but for these we learnt invaluable lessons for what works in team oriented sump diving with several SRT pitches to get to the water.
Bring on Herault 2012. ….