Traversing the Reseau de Soudet
Sunday, 2 August 2015

It’s not every day you get the offer to try and undertake a never-before attempted through trip in a deep European cave system. And so, sitting in comfort far far away from any cave, with absolutely no knowledge of the system, it seemed like a good idea when invited by Chris Jewell and Jason Mallinson to come along to the Reseau de Soudet.

Only as the trip approached, and we learnt more of the backstory to the Soudet did we start to realise this wasn’t just going to be a larger version of a West Kingsdale pull-though. There had been an aborted attempt at the Sam Allshorne trip a few years earlier, the reasons for which seemed to become more serious as we spoke to more people who had been there. A particularly inspiring transgression of the previous trip was given by Stuart Weston a few weeks before we left where he related how the entrance slumped whilst he was in it, burying him, necessitating the others to dig him out!

Considering the cave runs parallel to the PSM (one of the most popular and famous through-trips in the world), we were thinking that there must be a reason that no-one has ever made the traverse in the 20 or so years that all entrances have been connected. And well, I supposed we’d find out what that reason was when we got there.

The cave system consists of two top entrances that join together near the top of the system. The highest, and easier of these (but by no means actually easy), BC5, drops down a lovely 80m entrance shaft, then follows a series of pitches and tight awkward rift sections to around 300m depth. From here the cave gently slopes down dip until it eventually reaches the sump at -1170m, over 7km of horizontal length. As easy as this “sloping” section looked on the survey, we were assured it was fraught with many small pitches, deep pools, awkward climbs and generally just really annoying crappy obstacles that almost seemed designed to provide the most tedious and strenuous progress possible. Apparently at the time of exploration, a trip to the bottom and back from BC5/BC6 was the “hardest trip in France”, taking divers and their Sherpas ~30hours just to get from the sump back to the surface. The more recent addition -the Congelateur entrance is a 288m deep pitch series that lands in the main Soudet collector at just above the 1000m level, not too far from the sump, removing the need for anyone to have make the epic voyage back to BC5 at the top. The Congelateur was to be the exit on our traverse from BC5.

Holly and I turned up having missed the first few days (being now severely deprived of time allowed off work). It turned out that the “bit of digging” to get into the Congelateur had turned into 4 full days of digging mud and slurry infill. Ryan apparently managed a death-defying squeeze through before it was fully opened, but this was far from ideal as the hole he squeezed through was mined underneath a large pile of unstable slurry with rocks in. And to think people came all the way to France for this!

When we arrived, Jason, Emms and Katie had already set off and were well on their way through the first attempt at the traverse. Jason had left with a very optimistic time estimate of 12hours, so people were getting a little nervous when they did not appear after this time, especially after a thunder storm came along and flooded the campsite. Happily they arrived in time for breakfast after over 22 hours underground, looking a little worse for wear, and just in time for an even bigger second storm that turned the campsite river a raging brown.

A day of enforced festering brought on by the flooding followed. In the morning, after Jason’s encouraging remarks of “it’s a brutal through-trip”, “he trip is relentless” and “you need to practice the exit to know what you’ll face to get out of the cave” the previously enthusiastic Congelateur reccie-trip numbers mysteriously dwindled to just myself and Holly, who had little choice if our attempt was to go ahead, as the food dump at the confluence with the main collector needed re-stocking, the exit point needed better reflectors to prevent missing the turnoff, and perhaps most importantly, to check the entrance hadn’t re-slumped. This entrance series down to the main stream way turned out to be harder, more miserable and take a lot longer than we’d expected, and that night we went to sleep with morale at an all-time low, knowing our fitness was far from peak, and it was all or nothing in the morning.

Far too soon the morning came and the multitude of excuses we’d been contemplating the previous night all seemed pretty weak in the light of day. And so the trip began.
So Holly, Chris, Gilly (highly competent US caver) and myself were kindly driven to the top entrance by Sandy, shortly after the crack of dawn. There we festered for as long as humanly possible (not very long), eating copious amounts of tortilla and pastries, vainly trying to dry our wet gear in the feeble early morning sun, and taking the obligatory last minute “fear poo”. Soon enough though, we ran out of excuses and set off on the pleasantly short downhill walk in.

We set off down the 80m open shaft, and progressed along the entrance series of pre-rigged pitches, squeezes and awkward rifts at a steady pace. 300m depth was quickly reached and then the passage changed in character (though in no way relented in awkwardness) into a mainly horizontal passage along the bottom of a fairly immature hading rift, with occasional short pitches. Despite being “horizontal” the whole passage afforded almost no walking at all, with a delightful combination of crawling, stooping, struggling, squeezing, thrutching, straining, sweating, swearing etc. This continued in a similar fashion, then continued some more. And some more.

After some time we reached the tightest squeeze aka Jason’s “point of no return”, which necessitated the moving/removing of SRT gear to pass, and sometime later at some vague point joined the confluence with BT6. Hurray the “entrance series” was finally over after around 6ish hours. It was starting to feel committing. Only a proportionally short distance through the trip, but with a turn-around escape time of at least 8 hours and growing, I found it best to follow Emms advice given the night before, and “turn off brain”.

All we knew about the passages to come was a very vague description from the others, and in writing this, I find it hard to recall many of the details, save that it went on for a really long time. Downstream from the confluence, the main collector continued to grow in size, picking up more and more inlets as we progressed. Many boulder choke obstacles, climbs, chambers, sections of stream-way/cascades followed down ever enlarging passage. Soon enough the passage dimensions were huge in a real PSM vein, with amazing formations adorning many sections of the passage. So many in fact that it was easy to become desensitised to pretties. It was obvious not many people had ever passed this way by the vulnerability of some of these formations to destruction by even the most careful caver.

Even in this amazing passage, the going never relented to anything resembling easy. With the cave on a constant slight dip, and formed in the bottom of a hading fault, there was absolutely NO EASY BITS. A multitude of exposed boulder climbs and slopes seemed to comprise the majority of the obstacles, with one memorable “straddle and shimmy” along a boulder seemingly held up by nothing wedged high up above a big void.

Some hours into this section, and shortly after a couple of sobering abseils on 20-30 year old French 7mm rope (with brain still well and truly turned off) the cave started to become too wet to pass in normal gear at the section called “Navigation”. Eventually, after a few aerobatic efforts to avoid deep pools at the bottom of pitches, we made the call to change into the wetsuits we had brought along. We weren’t sure if we’d changed too soon, but the passage got wetter and wetter, almost like an encased canyon with deep water in places, and very aquatic pitches.

Once into “the Vasques” things started to get exciting. It was pretty evident that by this point Jason and Emms had gotten increasingly more determined (desperate?) as the rigging became more and more cavalier in nature. They would have been much too far in by this point to consider a return journey and with an unknown number of pitches to come, had spent less and less time rigging, with some pitches definitely not rigged with a return in mind, a decidedly committing one way journey. Even with the knowledge that the others had successfully passed this section and gotten out alive, the worries for us mounted as we started to encounter heavily damaged ropes, these had only been placed 2 days before!! As we were only carrying a limited supply of good ropes, we started salvaging all the tatt we could (bits of very old French rope, the ends of Jason’s ropes etc), rigging as sparsely as possible without actually pulling through in case we got to an impassable pitch.

Tensions definitely rose as one of our 8mm rope with a mega rub-point became exposed to the sheath once Chris and Gilly had passed it. I calmly advised Holly (from my nice safe position at the top) that it is okay to just “abseil quickly” over a short cored section, and you should be okay. Perhaps unsurprisingly it turns out this is “not okay” (insert expletive). Holly did remain impressively calm as all the strands of the core became entangled in her stop, totally preventing any further movement!!! Oops (For other reasons not to listen to Noel’s advice see The Grind rant wrt the Backbreaker – sorry Simon). A precious travelling line was soon deployed from above as a parallel rope for Holly to change onto and descend safely. Things didn’t get much better and by the time we encountered our third cored rope we were much more worried about what was to come, as it would be very difficult to deal with too many more cored ropes whilst still leaving options for retreat open. Fortunately the brain was well and truly turned off by this point, finding it much easier to just not think about anything that might be to come.

My favourite “desperation rigging treat” left by Jason in this section was the rope draped delicately over a tiny flake, that looked like it was about to snap off, with no backup and that needed great care to ensure the rope didn’t just pop of the top. Textbook. We had no drill to improve it, but luckily our jaded eyes had seen enough to no longer care. The 15hour+ return to the top didn’t appeal too much.
Despite these technical difficulties, this section of cave was incredibly beautiful with a real exciting and sporting feel reminiscent of the cascades section in the Berger (although somewhat less intimidating). And without really noticing, I suddenly found I was enjoying myself immensely, almost feeling disappointed when the difficulties lessened and we knew it was all going to be okay…
And then, came the highlight so far – a bit of passage you can walk in!!!! A FLAT FLOOR!! Amazing easy walking then followed where Holly skipped gleefully for about 20 meters to a bend, where once again it degenerated into a boulder-strewn slope of ankle-grinding tedium and exposed climbs. It’s funny out of all the 7km of passage this 20m seems to stick in my mind the most clearly – obviously memories clinging desperately to the nicest thing they can…

Not long after the Vasques, the cave dipped more steeply and the stream ran down a series of strikingly steep and smooth long ramps, like some kind of super death slide. Some massive phreatic tubes were seen to head off perpendicular to the streamway up on the left – none of which is on the survey. Future glory for someone to return to…

Eventually we heard whooping from ahead and knew that the only possible thing that anyone could possibly be excited about after this amount of caving must be the start of the exit pitches, indicated by the markers we had placed the day before. The trip had taken somewhere in the region of 12-14 hours to get this far. Weary and cold (but not at all hungry, we had plenty of food stops along the way) we changed back into “dry gear” which was by now disappointingly not dry. The long slog up 288m of pitches commenced with Chris and Gilly heading out before us. We finally emerged out of the freezing draught of the entrance (Congalateur means freezer in French) into the warm night air, like mud covered SRT zombies, after a 19.5 hour trip.

Some local French cavers afterwards confirmed that they thought that these had been the first through trips in this system, although they did question why we even wanted to go in the Soudet at all?
As a sad footnote, in a fitting tribute to the nature of the cave, Gilly’s camera (containing all the photos from the trip) decided to commit suicide a couple days later by losing itself in the bottom of a deep canyon pool, obviously too overcome by the misery of the Soudet to allow the pictures to ever be seen.. This was a real shame as there were some genuinely spectacular situations.
Massive thanks to Jason and Chris for organising, and inviting us and for all the rigging and digging work everyone put in. An amazing classic trip, the real highlight perhaps being never having to do it again. Big tick!

Comments

that sounds awesome, good work!

Wob Rotson

Thursday, 24 September 2015