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VERCORS 2008 – Descent of La Cascade de Moulin Marquis

By Faye Litherland

 
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The Drop!

For those who don’t know, the Cascade de Moulin Marquis is the largest waterfall in the Vercors region of France and falls over 380 metres from the village of St Julien en Vercors to a point next to the entrance to the Grotte de Bournillon in the Bourne Gorge.  If you have ever driven past the entrance to the show caves of Choranche you will have seen it dominating the cliff opposite.

My relationship with the Moulin Marquis began about eight years ago on an ill-fated visit to the region.  The weather was appalling and so most caving and canyoning was off limits.  We were on our way to visit the show cave at Choranche and I was awe struck by the sight of this waterfall. 
Someone mentioned that if you had enough rope (which we didn’t) it was possible to abseil down it.  From that moment on I became determined that one day I would do just that.  I would be one of the lucky few who had seen those beautiful moss structures close up and not just through binoculars.

I had intended to visit the Vercors again soon after, but it was not to be.  The canyoning book and caving guidebooks for the region sat on the shelf and gathered some dust until periodically I would take out the canyoning book and re-read the description of the Cascade de Moulin Marquis and dream.

It was not until the venue of the 4th European Speleological Congress in 2008 was announced as Lans en Vercors that I came any closer to achieving my ambition.  I quickly persuaded a few others that a visit to the Congress was essential.  Talk was of caves we would do, but I was still thinking of Moulin Marquis.

Once we arrived I wasted no time in letting people know I was interested in doing the cascade and was fortunate enough to be invited to join Greg and Helen Brock who once I had showed them the guide book were also keen to give it a go.

The night before the trip I could hardly sleep.  I was so excited I woke up at 07:00, very unusual without the aid of an alarm clock!  We eventually set off and Tim Ball and Duncan Butler very kindly agreed to shuttle us to the top so that a car could be left at the bottom for us.
A short walk from the village of St Julien en Vercors brought us to the top of the waterfall.  There were already two Frenchmen at the top getting kitted up who seemed very surprised that another group was going down and checked with us that we did know that it was nearly 400 metres of abseiling.  We assured them that we did and unconvinced, they then left us to it.

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Helen Brock on the third pitch

Greg Brock was rigging and set out along the tree to rig the first descent.  That sounds pretty tame really doesn’t it?  I think we need a little more explanation of that first pitch.  The tree I am taking about grows horizontally out of the cliff face at the top of the waterfall.  The rigging point is two rope slings and a mallion at head height around one of the branches about 3.5 metres horizontally from the edge of the cliff.  Therefore, to get onto the first pitch, you have to walk out along a tree trunk for about 3.5 metres over a 380-metre drop with nothing to clip a cowstail into until you reach the anchor point.  This was undoubtedly the scariest thing I have ever had to do in my life to this point.  I consider myself to have a very good head for heights and yet I had to push myself to the limit of self-control to avoid bottling it.  I felt almost sick with fear and could feel the adrenaline buzzing through me as I stood at the edge waiting for my turn to descend.  “Focus on the tree, nice tree, nice tree, oh my god what a long way down, No! No! No! Look at the tree, nice tree”.  Greg had already gone down and had successfully found the next anchor point on another tree.  Helen was next and was obviously battling the same demons I was.  She stepped out onto the tree, traversed out and clipped in.  The release of tension when she was safe was obvious.  She went down and then I was alone.  Tim and Duncan had both said that they didn’t want to watch us go and had disappeared back into the trees.  Helen shouted “Rope Free” from somewhere below and then it was my turn.  Terrified and almost shaking I knew I had to get a grip on myself before I stepped onto the tree or I would fall.  I focused very closely on the tree branch where I was heading and took a few deep breaths, I could feel my body start to come back under control, but knew that the longer I stood there the harder it would be.  Having lengthened my long cow’s tail for a good long pick up, I set off along the tree. I know in reality it probably only took a few seconds to cross, but it was a very long few seconds until I was safely clipped to the anchor point.  Breathing a huge sigh of relief I threaded my descender and went to join Greg and Helen at the top of the next pitch.

We retrieved the rope uneventfully and threaded it for the next drop.  In the meantime the French group of two, who obviously knew the way, decided to leapfrog us and miss out a pitch.  Here we had a cunning plan…  Let’s let the French people go first and then we can see where the bolts are and follow them!  That will save loads of time looking for bolts ourselves!  For the third pitch this plan worked very well. 

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Greg Brock descending into the abyss

Finally we were stood at the top of the fourth pitch. This is the start of the section of the cascade,which you can see from the road opposite.  With the French rope pulled through, Greg rigged our rope and started to descend towards the small ledge where the French people were now standing.  They completed their descent of the next pitch and then the ledge was free for us.  Helen and I were stood at the top and Greg seemed to be taking a while to reach the next anchor.  Eventually he yelled “Rope Free” and Helen started on her way.  She also seemed to be taking a while as this was only supposed to be a 25-metre pitch.  Eventually Helen yelled “Rope Free” and it was my turn.  I started to descend, and descend, and descend and then I saw what had taken Helen so long.  We had a 60 metre and a 50-metre rope knotted together.  We were abseiling on the 60-metre side, but 50 metres should have been plenty.  What I saw was that Helen had needed to join our emergency rope to the bottom of the 50-metre recovery rope.  We had not realized that the French people obviously had much longer rope than we did and were missing out anchor points on the way down.  We had just descended a 65-metre pitch; which should have been split into a 25 metre and a 40 metre.  With all of us clipped into the anchor point on the narrow ledge we started to pull down the rope.  Nothing happened.  We pulled again and again and still nothing happened.  We flicked the ropes.  Still nothing happened.  With all of our ropes committed I was starting to get a bit concerned.  Eventually with the aid of jammers and Greg’s superhuman strength, the rope started to move.  The karabiner came down and we all huddled against the rock face as the rope rocketed past us once it came free.  With the ropes recovered we continued to descend pitch after pitch, this time following the guidebook. 

If you look at the Moulin Marquis from the road opposite there is one thing, which stands out, other than its sheer scale of course.  The upper section is dominated by large green moss structures, which thrive in the continuously moist environment of the waterfall.  It is not until you are up close and personal that you see how beautiful and fragile these large structures are.  What is even more amazing is that because the water falls such distances between ledges, it forms a beautiful mist which when the sunshine hits it creates thousands of rainbows wrapped all around you.  I sat on the rope at that point for a few moments just looking and taking in the beauty of it before joining Greg and Helen below. 

As we continued to descend, the ledges varied from, water lashed with just enough space for three people to get their toes in, to dry and spacious enough to unclip and have a walk around.  Two or three times further the ropes got snagged, but again a few flicks and a determined pull saw them come free.

Eventually, after an adrenaline fuelled and awe inspiring five and a half hours we finally reached the bottom of the waterfall and returned to base camp for a well earned glass of red wine.

So was it worth it?  Was it really a trip to fantasize about?  Did reality live up to the dream?  Well I suppose that depends on you as an individual.  For me the sheer variety of amazing sights was certainly well worth it and for heart stopping adrenaline rushes I don’t think they come much better than getting onto that first pitch!