Le Verneau
Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Verneau traverse is one of the longest and most strenuous in Europe
We set off early, underground for 9:01. The walk to the cave was a minute long stumble though some nice French forest. Nat set off rigging the first of multiple short pitches in the entrance series, followed by Noel.

At the bottom of the entrance pitches, we stopped by a pool to change into more neoprene. Despite everyone else having swiftly moved on into splashy passages, Holly, Noel and Nat began to cause a ruckus. After some dubious sounds, Nats exclaims bellowed throughout the cave when he had the misfortune to drop his glasses into the pool of Hollys piss.

Less than half an hour of thrutchy-rifty stuff followed, mostly with nice foot holds. Small climbs and dry passages leads to a long-awaited sump. After passing the bags through, a hesitant Holly dived a seven meter sump, only stopping when ploughing into the bank. Everyone else chose to come up for air once it was available, five metres prior. After a duck, the remaining sumps were bypassed.
The dry fossil passage gradually got bigger, getting into the large Salle du Petit Loup, where lunch was dispensed in the old bivouvac site, apparently recently cleaned up, removing the prophesied sleeping dummy. From here, the description suggests that you can hear the stream way ‘ we could not due to the lack of rainfall in the three weeks prior.

The classic stream way route was opted for, descending some short pitches on tatt, replacing a couple of ropes en-route. It ends in Puits de Jonction – the halfway marker, followed by a pitch into an out-of-depth pool, into which the group divided: the graceful and the not. The next 700m is laced with MAGNIFICENT STREAM WAY! x100 (Nathanael Dalton, 2015) and a 20m awkward traverse.

The lakes were much drier than usual, but still allowed sufficient depth for drowning. A tackle bag full of rope with minimal inflatables means that you too can experience sub-aqua Verneau. In these situations it is best to keep your limbs very still to prevent your elbow-pads and wellies from sliding off and to keep quiet to prevent the rest of your group becoming annoyed at the delay in proceedings. I was, fortunately, saved by Ems, whilst everyone observed with giggles.

We stopped in a large roomy chamber to celebrate Ems birthday with a spot of tea and cake. After a heart felt verse of Happy Birthday and its translation into French, we decided to carry on caving. Joe raced on, in a search for tobacco.

In Salle de Bon Negre, Nats model career took off in a beautiful chamber with a circular collapse from the ceiling, revealing bright layers across the walls. Upon a boulder slope a rock arose, a poignant centrepiece for Jeffs finest photography. Nat was made to pose on a said boulder, which transpired to be only eighty mm wide. The tyrants all photographers are meant Nat spent many a moment lunging and squatting on the rock, resulting in some outstanding photos by Jeff.

I initially couldn’t really be arsed, but a short bimble up a boulder ramp and a crawl from Salle Belauce through formation filled passages made the quirky find very worth it. The Tripod is perhaps not the most beautiful, but definitely an unusual formation which leaves you marvelling at how it would have formed.

The way on is fairly easy-going until Puit du Balot, ascending an 11m on rope whilst Nat emptied out his wellie water and other undisclosed liquids onto the unsuspecting Ems. Holly coiled away a dangerously rickety ladder and screams emerged up the pitch as she rung a dead frog up within the ladder. The sorry evidence was later buried in shame.

Here lay the Galerie des Plaquettes, an excellent fossil gallery, with very white rock exposed. Once an uncomfortable body temperature is achieved, the stream way joined again and is left at a short up pitch. The Galerie de la Betoneuse is followed for a few hundred minutes, dry and bouldery, until it becomes rather muddy, in the sticky sense of the word. This left turn leads to staying high to avoid more arduous lower passage until the inventively named Galerie des Blocs, boulder chamber. A really rather unnecessary hand line crosses a muddy chamber, where we successfully convinced previously considered sensible and experienced cavers that their cowtails were entirely essential.

The potholed streamway is excellent for trapping the clumsy caver until they resign themselves to shuffling like a crab along the floor. Nat and Noel put much exertion into encouraging me to appreciate a remarkable eroded, stratified column, whilst everyone else sped past. The stream rejoins the Grand Collecteur where hundreds of meters of nice large elliptical passage is dotted with traverses we ignored and stomped comfortably through the stream coated in neoprene. Various up-pitches are quite awkward and joined by somewhat squeezey struggles.
An arm-wrenching traverse in steel wire swings out to the final pitch. 200m (what the description claims but feels much less) of crawling through a draughty passage leads to a beautiful French wooded area, complete with bats and via ferrata to get you into the little village of Nans sous Sainte Anne.

A quite brilliant and diverse trip, well worth doing. Thanks to everyone, in particular Holly and Joe for organising.

T.U. 12 hours, 9 minutes.