Grotte de Pène Blanque to rseau du Maillon Manquant
Tuesday, 30 August 2005

This was the big trip I had been thinking about a lot during the past year as I scanned and laminated surveys for the Summer visit to the Felix Trombe. I was eager to explore here mainly because of a trip into the Pène Blanque last year (with Ben Young, Watty and Lyndon I think?) where we went off the edge of the survey which we had with us underground, and were route finding using only the translated cave description. On that trip we were aiming for what was described as the big galleries of the Maillon Manquant, which was how that route description ended. I had no idea what the big galleries of the Maillon Manquant were like, but they sounded interesting. They were also a long way from the entrance so maybe there was a through trip to be done? On that trip we got almost to the end of the described route, but could not find a 12m climb up, and spent a while going in circles in a series of confusing and identical looking chambers before Ben suggested we ought to head back before we got completely lost. He also said he was not sure how much more nondescript muddy chamber he could take.

So later that year back in the UK I got hold of the updated 2003 survey (thanks to Beardy) and began to look at exactly what the Maillon Manquant consisted of. This was made more difficult by the fact the survey was spread over around 400 A4 pages in a book, but slowly I got it scanned and reassembled into something meaningful. The area of the cave called the Maillon Manquant turned out to be as big as all the cave we had covered on that previous trip, and one of the few photographs of formations in the Felix Trombe that Ive seen anywhere implied there were some pretties to be found in the far reaches. It also became clear that there was no through trip option, and that to explore the Maillon Manquant would require a pretty long trip. Best to take the camera gear then!
This trip ended up getting left until the end of the holiday, which was unfortunate for Caroline and Olly who had flown home the previous day. Gary and Sheila decided to go walking up on top of the mountain, so that left a team of just three of us. Gary drove us to the start of the trail, and we agreed to meet him back there at midnight if he did not get a call from us earlier. With a one hour hike back from the entrance, where we could get good phone reception, we could easily call him at the campsite and have him meet us before we got back to the road if we came out early. More likely we would get out around 11pm and he would be waiting for us, as we estimated a 12 hour trip underground plus an hour of hiking each way.

By the time we had got to the entrance, changed into our gear and got underground, 1.5 hours had elapsed. The route was familiar to us as far as the letterbox pitch, and the plan was to keep going all the way to the Maillon Manquant with minimal stopping and then photograph on the way back out as time allowed. However I could not resist taking some pictures of the fine fossil formations in the Salle du Bivouac when we got there. We needed a break by that point anyhow. Route finding was relatively easy with both a detailed survey and route description, plus I knew we were going the right way as I recognised points along the way from the previous year. It took us about 5 hours to reach the point we had turned round the previous year, and the survey looked very straightforward at the point where we had failed to find the way on during that trip.

We emerged from a sandy hands and knees crawl and went up a slope into a small chamber. The description and survey showed that there should be a 12m climb up at the top of the chamber. We crawled into the obvious way on and found a steep slope up, but this led to a junction. One way came back down into the chamber we were just in, the other led to another junction. We explored some more, finding each passage led to more identical passage with more junctions. All steeply sloped circular holes like the inside of a Swiss cheese. Then we noticed more possible ways on if you climbed up tubes directly over head. Some led back into the original chamber via passages we had not noticed when we were there a few minutes previously! Then I found one which headed off in a direction away from the chamber, into a second chamber somewhere above, and continued some way in a similar manner into further chamber. Eventually I came to a squeeze down through some calcite which looked like quite different sort of passage to what we had been in, but I was a long way from the others and it looked like it might be difficult to reverse. This area was certainly not on the survey!
I returned to the others to find that Paul had discovered yet another way on. I could hear him from the first chamber and discovered a slot up under one wall that has not obvious at all from the chamber, but when I emerged it turned out he had come in a different way altogether! We were in another sloping chamber and at the top of this one there was an almost vertical rift which Paul spotted a rope hanging down. It was not clear where we were at the top or bottom of a pitch, as we were level with about half way up the rope. It turned out you had to go down the sloping floor of the rift to get there, which was a bit awkward, but got us to the bottom of the rope. After just over an hour we had found the 12m climb! For future reference, when you emerge from the sandy crawl, ignore the obvious slope up to the right, and instead lie flat out and go under the left hand wall at the bottom of the slope to find the alternative slope up to the rift.

The climb up the rope emerged over a muddy lip onto the floor of quite a large room (Salle de la Revanche) and the way on into the Maillon Manquant was an obvious stooping passage with a howling draft blowing through it. Finally we were into the grand galleries! Huge phreatic passages with a gravel stream bed and some impressive 8ft high pebble sediment banks in places. We turned right and followed the passage to the end, where it became a hands and knees crawl on flat mud in a phreatic passage. There was some nice cracked mud and small stals near the end. Then Martin noticed some tiny bat bones on the mud. Skulls about as big as my little finger nail, and other bones so small they were difficult to spot. We took photographs of everything and then returned to the junction where we had entered the galleries. We had been underground for about 7 hours now, but had to see at least some of the galleries in the other direction. Huge stomping passage led to a junction and an impressive cracked mud floor. More photographs, and then on down one of the larger passages. Now we were finding amazing gypsum-like crystals sparking on the walls and boulders. Some climbing up onto a higher level over huge boulders led to even more impressive cracked mud floors. Some of the best I have ever seen. Martin found another skeleton in a pocket of crystals perched on a boulder in the middle of the passage. He identified this one as a rat.

We were now really pushing it for time, and decided to go as far as the next obstacle and then turn back. So along more stomping passage to a short climb down with a fixed rope. There were some impressive big stals here too, so more photographs and then we had to go down the rope just to check there was not more just round the next corner. Paul descended the rope, and disappeared off. When he did not come back we decided to follow, and continued along more big passage until eventually we came to an area of boulders and decided it really was time to turn back. The return to the entrance was exhausting, taking about 5 hours at a pretty fast pace. Towards the end where the passages of the Pène Blanque climb back up to the entrance level in about 150m of steep ascent, I was so exhausted I could barely put one foot in front of the other. Paul came back to find where I had got to after a small unplanned exploration of a side passage by myself, and took the camera bag off me.
We reached the surface about midnight, and were able to contact Gary at the car using the two way radios we had with us. It took another 1.5 hours to hike to the car. On the way up the steep scree below the cliff face of the Pène Blanque we encountered two pairs of eyes reflecting out lights in the darkness of the forest. They were the right height off the ground to be wolves, and Paul got a glimpse of a dog like animal before they cautiously circled around us and disappeared off down the slope. We were not sure if there were wolves in the Pyrenees, but they were too big to be foxes. We also encountered a few large toads along the way. An excellent trip to end of holiday on!

During the 36 hour ferry ride home from Bilbao, I was reading the book containing the survey, and found a clue in the index which enabled me to match up an annotation on the survey with the impressive formations in the photograph I had seen. It turns out there were about another 30 minutes of caving further along the passage where we turned round. We are keen to return again, and came up with a plan to fly out to Toulouse next year for a long weekend, hire a car, drive to the Pène Blanque and camp underground for the weekend. From a base camp in the massive chamber about 3 hours into the cave (the Salle du Dromadaire), we could not only explore that area of the cave which we had only passed through en route to the further reaches, but also do a far longer trip into the Maillon Manquant. The cave extends almost as far again as the point we reached! This is an ideal budget airline caving trip as no ropes are required and the cave is possible in all weather, being largely fossil.

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Images
Formations in the Salle du Bivouac
Posted by: Dr Footleg
Size: 76kb
Width: 480 pixels
Height: 640 pixels
Posted: 27 February 2006
Grand galleries of the Maillon Manquant
Posted by: Dr Footleg
Size: 55kb
Width: 600 pixels
Height: 450 pixels
Posted: 27 February 2006
Passage where we found tiny bat skulls
Posted by: Dr Footleg
Size: 48kb
Width: 600 pixels
Height: 414 pixels
Posted: 27 February 2006
Sediment Banks in the Maillon Manquant
Posted by: Dr Footleg
Size: 75kb
Width: 600 pixels
Height: 450 pixels
Posted: 27 February 2006
Cracked mud floor with drip holes
Posted by: Dr Footleg
Size: 55kb
Width: 600 pixels
Height: 450 pixels
Posted: 27 February 2006