Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index


The Gouffre de la Pierre St. Martin

Translated by Bob Bater

The Gouffre de la Pierre St. Martin, in the Basses Pyrenees, received a lot of attention in the early 1950’s.  The early explorations are well documented in books by Casteret and Tazieff and make exciting reading.  Since that time, however, Pierre St. Martin has again risen to attention.

Not long after the discovery of the cave system, in 1950, the importance of the exploration was extended beyond that of pure adventure.  The St. Engrace area, dominated by the rugged plateau where the cave is situated, was severely under developed through lack of electric power and lack of water for irrigation.  Not that water was scarce in the area, but that which abounded nearby had insufficient fall for hydroelectric purposes, and too low for use in irrigation.  The discovery of the large underground river of Pierre St. Martin brought hope to the area, and in 1959, the deficiencies were righted with the completion of a tunnel driven through the mountain into one of the large chambers of the cave system where it collected the water and channelled it to the power station.  In this way, not only has the exploration served speleological history, it has also served man.

Until 1954, the exploration of the system was concentrated mainly on the downstream side, i.e. roughly north into France.  The position of the entrance almost on the Franco-Spanish border meant that inevitably, as Spanish speleology advanced, the Spaniards would begin to take an interest in the system, and true to form, when the squabbles over whether the entrance was in fact in France or Spain died down, they participated in the expedition of 1953.  This culminated, in 1954, with the first significant advance upstream.

After 1959, access to the cave was greatly facilitated by the completion of the artificial tunnel, and the great entrance shaft fell into disuse.  Nevertheless, explorers were still faced with quite a trip to reach the Spanish part of the cave south of the entrance shaft, 2½ kilometres beyond where the tunnel joined the natural cave.  By 1965, the Salle Balandraux on the French side and the Sala Susse on the Spanish side had been reached.

As prospects in the cave seemed to diminish, although the explorers suspected that there was still quite a bit of cave to be discovered, they turned their attention, presumably through the influence of the Spanish cavers, to careful exploration of the surface to the south of the cave entrance, in Spain.

For many years previously, the Frenchman Max Cosyns and his group of helpers had been exploring the area around the cave.  They were seeking the mysteries of the Kakouette and Holcarte Gorges.  These narrow, winding chasms had fascinated many with their curious streams of water issuing from their sides.  Cosyns first tried to penetrate the outlets, but meeting impenetrable sumps, he was forced to give his attention to the high plateau 6km. away, which caught the rainfall which must form these streams.  It was on one of these reconnaissance trips by one of his parties that, in 1950, Georges Lepineux, accompanied by Giuseppe Occhialini discovered the entrance to the Gouffre.

The Spanish equivalent of our ‘Speleologist’ magazine, ‘Geo y Bio KARST’, of May 1968, prints extracts from the book ‘Jusqu’ au fond du Gouffre’ by Corentin Queffelec, in which it is described how an expedition, of which he was a member, snatched the World depth record from the Gouffre Berger.  The following account is based on these.

Seventeen years after the discovery of the entrance of Pierre St.Martin, in 1967, Cosyns’ teams had exhaustively examined the Arros region, on the Spanish side of the border. They had assigned a number to each of the entrance they had found and had noted some for special attention. Amongst those was a pothole referred to as the ‘Sima de la Tortuga’ ( Tortuga = Tortoise) also called, in Basque, ‘Bassaburuko’ which means ‘savage head’, hence the French name for the cave, ‘Tete Savage’.

The first descent of this pot was made by Roger Marcorelles, who, backed up by Jean Claude Alibert, made an all out effort to cover every corner of it.  He reached the bottom 234ft. down and immediately became intrigued by a weak current of air coming from a crack in the wall.  On the way up, another thing caught his attention; some distance away, on the wall of the shaft behind the ladder, he could make out something shaped like a huge tortoise shell.  Was it a fossil?  Was it a formation?  It is still not known what it is, but it helped stimulate Marcorelles’ interest, together with the draught and the fact that while in the pot, he has seen no sign of snow.  This was unusual for potholes at this height, but could be partly explained by the small entrance.  He suspected, however, that the draught had a lot to do with it.

After some rather uneventful visits to neighbouring pots, Marcorelles, with Alibert, and this time also with Gilles Reboul, returned to the attack on the Tortuga.  Reaching the bottom again and still finding no obvious way on, he began to re-ascend, dejected, and cursing freely (aswedo).  180ft. from the top he stopped abruptly.  He could see something on the wall.  It was a tight rift.  Swinging the ladder, he was able to set foot on the ledge, and he slid into the hole.

There were several small pots in the floor and pieces of the roof jutted down so he couldn’t see ahead, but after a little wriggling, he realised that his feet no longer rested on the floor.  Straining his neck, he could see the head of a pitch at his feet.  How deep was it?  Perhaps 60ft.?  He searched for a piece of rock to throw over, nearly losing his grip as he did so on the steeply sloping passage floor.  Recovering from his fright, he found an ample supply of bricks and threw one over. Four seconds.  One fifty to two hundred feet he reckoned.  Some tackle was needed.  But he and his colleagues soon unconsciously decided that the pitch had told them all it could, and none of them was to return for the time being.

Later, Noël Lichau, Pierre Rigau and Corentin Queffélec entered the cave, intent on exploring the pitch which Marcorelles had forgotten about through lack of faith.  Gilles Rebout and his team accompanied them. The latter soon laddered the pitch with 160ft. of ladder and went down.  Immediately ahead was another pitch of 50ft. between boulders, then another 100ft.  They had run out of ladders.  Returning to the surface, they set off for the Sima de Monique nearby.  Marcorelles had transferred his efforts here, but had had no success, and so they thought they would de-tackle it and use the ladder for the Tortuga.  Marcorelles, hearing the news, soon regained his faith in the Tortuga.

Gilles and his team. With the tackle from the Sima de Monique, went back down the pot while the others retired in the base came at Arros.  During the night, their rest was disturbed by several noisy cavers stumbling through the darkness towards them.  It was Gilles and the others.  They had got down a total of 1,050ft. and it was still going.

Sleep forgotten, they all stayed up talking till dawn.  A four man party was picked to make a major assault on the pot.  Seeing it was already laddered down to 1,050ft., each man was given 425ft. more of ladder.  This would make the depth attainable exactly equal to the depth at which they would expect to meet the impermeable strata.  Before setting off, however, Arcaute suggested what everyone had scarcely had dared to envisage.  What if they should make a connection with the Pierre St. Martin?  If they should, wouldn’t it be a good idea to draft some kind of inscription down there to commemorate the occasion?  Optimism got the better of them.  Arcaute dictated the text, which was written down in French and Spanish.

“This point was reached by an advance team from the Sima Bassaburuko, going underground in Arros by way of the Sima de la Tortuga or the Tete Savage.  These men, participating in a campaign organised by the A.R.S.I.P. are but the latest link in a long chain of men and effort, which began in 1950. The link alone is of little value. What matters is the chain.”

The four men, Marcorelles, Alibert, Douart and Reboul reached the head of the pitch beyond the narrow rift where Marcorelles had first found it.  It was then that he realised that, effectively, the Sima of Tortuga had ended, since the pitch ahead was only part of a large shaft which extended above them and which must reach almost to the surface.  He had consequently named it ‘Bassaburuko’, a name demanding vocal gymnastics for the Frenchmen.

From pitch to pitch, ledge to ledge, they went deeper until they got to the deepest point previously reached.  They re-calculated the depth on the way down and made it 980ft.  They hadn’t been hasty in working it out before.  Roger Marcorelles, who hadn’t been there before, saw that Gilles’ optimism was well justified.  They gained depth very rapidly.  First a pitch of 25 or 30ft., then another of 50, then a large one of 100ft.

From the -980ft. mark, Alibert descended first.  After a few minutes he shouted for more ladder.  325ft. was down now, making the pot a total of 1,300ft. deep, or round about the level of the black shales, the ones that outcrop in Pierre St. Martin perhaps? Alibert was shouting something. Neither Marcorelles nor Reboul could understand him, but Michel Douart had started down just before and he relayed the message.  He, Michel, was to carry on down to where Alibert was.

The two were left in silence.  Gilles shared Roger’s last cigarette.  Roger re-calculated their depth.  Allowing for all possible errors, he reckoned they must be down 900ft. at least, and the two must be getting on for 1200ft.

Suddenly two blasts of the whistle, almost inaudible.  Take in, he thought, and woke Gilles.  They began hauling in, but after a short while, the signal came to stop.  Then start again.  Then stop.  They realised that both men were coming up the ladder at the same time.  It must have been awkward to send the rope back all the way.

Jean Claude’s smile told them everything.  Babbling some fantastic story about Pierre St. Martin, Michel Douart was temporarily forgotten and was left to swing on the ladder, shouting for a lifeline.

The two advance explorers had set down beside a small stream.  Deciding to follow the water down, they had ducked beneath a low archway and entered a passage filled from side to side with a pool.  This proved no obstacle, and the passage continued, past the first signs of the black shales, into a gigantic passage containing a river. The black water meandered along in a series of rapids.  This must be Pierre St. Martin!  from the other side.  Setting their message on top of a large boulder out of the way of future floods, they pondered on the chain.  They had to get back to tell their colleagues.  They started back at a quick pace, calculating their depth as they went. But there wasn’t really any doubt in their minds.

By the joining up of the Sima de la Tortuga/Bassaburuko pothole with the Gouffrre Pierre St. Martin, the total depth of the system, from the Tortuga entrance to the deepest part of the Pierre St. Martin known up to now, the complex Olivier, is 1152 metres (3,744ft.).  Thus, in 1967, the Gouffre Pierre St. Martin claimed the world depth record.