The Commune of Balagueres (see map) is situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees and consists of a valley surrounded by limestone hills containing many shafts, but few caves of any length. The area has only been partly explored and was offered to us by Georges Jauzion of the Societe Meridional de Speleologie et de Prehistoirs who arranged for us to stay at a disused school house in the village.
Operations started on Saturday 8th August when the party, R.S. King, M. Webster, D. Yendle, C. Clarke, M. Hauan, R. & J. Bennett carried vast amounts of tackle up to a centrally placed but and inspected an area of Beech Woods to the west of the village, near a place called Uchau, which was riddled with shafts of all shapes and sizes. The French cavers had mapped the area and numbered most of the shafts, and the team picked two which looked interesting. The first went to 40ft. only (P.U. 13), while the second (G.U. l) was descended via a 260ft entrance shaft and a small, climbable pitch to a pool by Dave Yendle. It was discovered later that this shaft had been bottomed by the French via three more pitches, (50ft. 50ft. 210ft.) making it the deepest in the area.
The second day was spent looking for and at the Gouffre de la Gargale, a huge shaft which we were informed had been descended once, many years ago. This was towards the top of an area of steep hillside covered with dense scrub and took several hours of temper fraying, floundering about in the rain to find. It was very impressive however, and presented itself as a huge mist-filled shaft connected via a short tunnel to an even larger vegetated depression. Time was short and Roy Bennett descended for a quick look around and reported that it was big all the way, about 270ft. deep and had no extensions.
The next day efforts were extended in two directions. The main party, augmented by Tony Meadon and Yvonne returned to the Gouffre de la Gargale where Martins, Webster and Hauan and Kangy King descended the shaft in the rain.
Dave Yendle and Martin Fauam had arisen very early to look at the Hount des Espuats, a small effluent cave at the head of the Balague valley. This had been explored by the French for about 260ft. to a low duck with a draught. This duck was found to be 20ft. long with a minimum air space of 5 ins. At the end a small hole in stalagmite gave access to a meandering passage leading to a shorter and more roomy duck followed immediately by two short stalagmited climbs and a section of dry stream passage ending in a choke.
On the fourth day the explorers were joined by Roy Bennett and the choke was climbed to a blockage of overhanging boulders with a draught, a well decorated grotto found near the end, and the new discoveries surveyed. Meanwhile the rest of the party continued to look at shafts and caves in the Uchau area, in particular a huge depression on the hill crest to the west of the area. A small hole some 30ft. down in the S.W, corner of this led to a system of shafts which were explored and measured by Kangy King and Martin Webster.
After this activity, the party had a rest day, and started with a conducted tour of the Laboratoire Souterain at Moulis, arranged by Kangy King who acted as interpreter.
Work at this unique laboratory is divided equally into Speleology and the study of physical phenomena. There is a surface building housing laboratories and a very large and comprehensive library. The most interesting part, however, is the underground laboratories which have been fashioned out of a nearby cave and in which much original work is being done, particularly in the study of cave animals and micro-animals, and such things as tidal effects in cave waters. On leaving, the party was presented with a beautifully produced booklet on the laboratory. (See B.E.C. library).
After this a visit was paid to the Grotte de Niaux, a show cave with prehistoric paintings. The trip involved a long walk through a large passage to a terminal chamber with phreatic pockets in the walls in which were painted animals. They were smaller than expected, but beautifully executed and preserved, so that they appeared quite fresh and lifelike. This was a very worthwhile trip.
Thursday saw the team back in the Uchau area assisted by John Elliott and Roger Solari of the Royal Forest of Dean Caving Club. Various interconnecting holes of P.U. 16 were pushed and surveyed. This system consisted almost entirely of shafts and was an interesting example of the type of cave development to be found in this area. The shaft bottoms had coalesced by collapse to give short lengths of boulder floored passage under which there was presumably more vertical development. In addition some digging was done in a draughty hole labelled P.U. 15A.
Friday saw the last trip into the Hount des Espuats when photographs were taken, the final choke again inspected and a tight inlet passage at the top of the first climb pushed for 40ft. The potholing party found a 100ft, shaft in the hillside above the Balague Schoolhouse – Gouffre de Boucheroudet. This started as a small hole flush with the ground and was well decorated. Another 50ft. shaft was noted in the hill above. Castel Segui).
Saturday and Sunday saw the caving ended with the descent of Coume Ferrat, the largest shaft in the area. This shaft, 204 meters (680ft.) deep was first descended in September 1965 by the French after several previous trips. Subsequent to this it had been used to test a new 2 man winch designed for rescue work from deep shafts. The ensuing expedition put a large number of cavers at the bottom so that the system had been quite well explored and the shaft was tackled ‘because it was there’ rather than in the hope of fresh discoveries.
BIG PITCH LIFELINE TECHNIQUE
Saturday was spent in gathering together nil the available tackle and laddering the first part of the shaft (128 meters, 420ft.) and rigging a pulley and lifeline. The party were astir early the following day and had completed the long walk to the cave by 8.30 a.m. After some preliminary sorting out Martin Webster started to descend an hour later and was soon on the ledge at -128 meters. As no contact could be made with him using the two-way radios the telephones were brought into use. This involved a weighted wire which at first failed to make contact because of the poor visibility. Eventually this problem was solved by using a lighted torch at the end. Roy Bennett then descended, followed by the tackle and the lower pitch was rigged (76 meters, 250 ft.). Martin Webster was again the first to descend and describes the lower part of the trip as follows:- “As soon as the tackle for the lower part of the shaft landed on the ledge, Roy Bennett and I set about threading the various lengths of ladder down over a prominent stalagmite slope and on into the 250ft. abyss which forms the lower part of the 680ft. shaft. When sufficient ladder had been lowered the belay, which was secured through an obvious eye-hole at the top of the stal. slope, was fixed on and I prepared to descend.
Dave Yendle had by then arrived on the ledge and gave a life-line. The descent commenced, but after descending only 10ft. progress came to an abrupt halt when our telephone cable broke and our life-liner became engulfed in great coils of wire.
Dave was soon unravelled and I set off once more down the slope and over the edge into the gulf.
This was completely different to the vast 420ft. shaft above. Initially, it descended through rotting flowstone barriers, which looked decidedly shaky. We were warned to look out for cut hands in the next bit, where it funnelled into a 20ft.dia. cylinder, the walls of which appeared to be made up of close packed rocks, which were found to be very loose when touched. At last, after some 120ft. of struggling down, freeing the tangle of ladder from the myriad of sharp projections I climbed out through the roof of a vast vault which stretched away into the inky blackness far below. After a further 70ft. a large rocky basin was encountered. Here the remaining ladders had to be disentangled and thrown on down. Tackle being lowered down the shaft will almost immediately get caught at this point so it is best to lower it firstly to the ‘basin’ and then carry it on down the remaining 60ft. of ladder to the chamber floor. This was promptly done, and while Roy was preparing to join me, I set off to do quick reconnaissance trip.
One way the chamber led into a large rift about 15 – 20ft. wide and of indeterminate height. This ended after some 200ft. in a rock face with some crawls. In the opposite direction a hole under a gigantic boulder led up a mud staircase onto a ledge, and on through a crawl under a small blockage to a short muddy drop. This obviously needed a handline, so I returned to the foot of the shaft and waited for Roy. He soon arrived and after a quick look around the large rift passage we made our way back to the short drop and quickly fixed a belay onto a very doubtful looking knob of rock and slid (fell!) down the slope into the passage beyond. After two short climbs we came to a junction, one way to the right, down a 12ft. pitch, the other, to the left, through a crawl. We were looking for a tight 60ft. drop with a stream at the bottom, which we eventually found beyond the crawl. This was a particularly miserable affair which had a continuous cascade of earth and rocks pouring down it as you climbed the ladder. The passage at the bottom was a tight meandering stream way with a mass of razor rock on the walls which continually tore our clothes, virtually reducing them to ribbons! Finally after some 300ft. of arduous crawls, climbs and squeezes, we emerged in a slightly larger passage and were confronted by a short pitch with a pool at the bottom. This did not appear to be on the survey, though we found some survey points close by, and it appears that this, lower section was flooded during the French explorations. Here we had to finish exploration as we had not brought sufficient tackle for this drop, so we returned to the big shaft feeling somewhat cheated!
After taking a few photographs, Roy set off up the shaft and soon Dave came into view high in the arched roof, moving rhythmically down, his light illuminating the tiny thread of silver ladder which disappeared into the gloom above. When we reached the floor, we set off to have a look at the pitch we had seen at the junction, which according to the survey was an ascending passage with various climbs and drops. It turned out to be exactly this, although we found it had rather more pitches than anticipated, and after two 20ft. drops, one handline descent and various climbs, using an array of very dubious looking belay points, and an absolute minimum of tackle, we arrived in a large boulder chamber and found ourselves at the top of a 25ft. pitch with a marked absence of any tackle for descending the offending ‘hole’. The point reached was however, only about 50ft. from the end of the known cave, so we were not too depressed.
Now we came to the problem of getting ourselves and all the tackle back up the shaft. This turned out to be much easier than expected. Dave and I climbed the ladder as far as the rock basin, here we pulled up all the ladders, passed the extremely awkward final drop, and unclipped the ladder so that it would not snag on the ‘basin’. I then climbed the rest of the pitch and spent an anxious 30 mins. trying to get the lifeline back down.
Finally we succeeded, and Dave pulling the tackle we had taken off behind him, was given a strong pull up to the ledge. The remainder of the ladder came up quite easily, as we managed to keep it away from the walls by traversing out a little way and giving it an outward pull.”
Once the tackle was back on the ledge, the worst worry was over. Much of the credit for this must go to Georges Jauzion whose advice on siting the ladder etc. was invaluable. The ledge party had in the meantime had a little trouble due to the telephone wire becoming tangled in the lifeline and getting broken. This could have been quite a nuisance, but fortunately the Stannaphones were so powerful that voice contact was just maintained in some way through the ladder and a second illuminated wire could be lowered again before any communication difficulties arose. Another useful point of technique – each time the lifeline was lowered down the big pitch it was weighted with an army pack containing food or stones. This avoided both the possibilities of getting the line threaded through the ladder, and also the problem of catching up the lifeline which can occur if coils are thrown out into the middle of the shaft.
The upper pitch was free all the way, and presented a fairly strenuous climb. This is where the lifeline party of Kangy, Colin Clarke, Tony Meadon, Roger Solari and John Elliott came into their own and sweated at the top to provide welcome uplift for the climbers. In order to reduce the load on a long haul of this length the lifeline was rigged via pulleys and prussikers to give a mechanical advantage of three (see diagram). This certainly reduced the strain on the lifeliners, but gave short pulls on the climbers alternating with no pull as the traction prussiker was slid back along the rope. Some form of winch would have been better if available. Anyway, it sufficed, and tackle and bods were all up by about 8.00 p.m. the shaft detackled and everyone out and back at the schoolhouse by 11.15 p.m. In addition to the above support team, Joan Bennett operated the telephone, Yvonne provided food and George:; Jauzion gave general advice and some useful suggestions.
This rounded off the trip quite nicely and the party then left for some mountaineering in the High Pyrenees.
As can be seen the amount of known cave passage in the chosen area is quite small and the typical cave development is of vertical shafts, blocked at the bottom.
The Hount des Espuats is an exception to this. It lies under a usually dry valley which rises up towards the shafts of Coume Ferrat and the Gouffre de la Gargale and probably drains only the area of this valley. The terminal choke could merely connect with the surface, but the end passage is heading under the steep valley side and appears to take a fairly large stream at times. The cave may act as an overflow system as the stream can rise to a very high flow only to fall rapidly to near its usual level. Thus the terminal choke could well repay demolition (from a safe distance), particularly in view of the draught.
Much of the drainage in this area goes east then north to Alieu in the next valley where it emerges from a much larger effluent cave (Groxte D’Aliou) which ends in a sump which has been dived to a depth of 230ft. The French have concluded from flood pulse analysis that there is an extensive length of open stream passage behind the sump, hence their great interest in the innumerable shafts in the area. A visiting team would have to be very lucky to succeed here, but could perhaps shorten the odds by either pushing shafts known to connect with the main rising or by looking for unexplored shafts near and to the south of the rising.
Hount Des Espuata and P.U.16: Hand held prismatic compass and clinometer
Various shafts, etc. – Hand held prismatic compass and direct vertical measurement.
l. R. S. King (Kangy) Description of a trip to the area. Belfry Bulletin 23 (12) (Dec.1969) 248
2. General Map Institut Geographique National l/20,000 XIX – 47 ASPET No. 4
by R.H Bennett
Published by the Bristol Exploration Club 1973
Editor: D.J. Irwin, Townsend Cottage, PRIDDY, Nr. Wells, Somerset
Further copies obtainable at the Club H.Q.: The Belfry, Wells Road, PRILDY, Nr.Wells, Somerset.
Price: 25p members