Gouffre de Vauvougier

Copyright 1999 by Ronald Bourret

It was two in the morning and I was suspended above a 40-meter drop, spinning slow circles in the darkness. The rope was anchored to a coffin-shaped prow of rock by two loops in the shape of a Y. From the junction of the Y, it continued horizontally to the edge of the pit, two impossible meters away. Each time I spun around, something snagged against the horizontal rope -- head, arms, legs, haul sack, coils of rope retrieved from below -- and I would no sooner extricate myself than something new tangled itself: a spider caught in its own web.

I grabbed one arm of the Y, heaved upward, and tried to clip my cow's tail to one of the bolts, but missed by several centimeters. I fell back below the Y and, frustrated and tired, wondered what to do. Months before I had done the same move in the gym, but although I remembered doing it, I couldn't remember how.

Hilary stamped his feet on the snowy ground and switched on his powerful electric beam. My carbide lamp had failed two pitches previously, a victim of the lack of water that had dogged us the entire trip, and the cheap batteries in my electric light were almost dead. It wasn't until weeks later that I realized the waterfall I had just climbed through would have kept my carbide going for several more hours.

In spite of the light, I had no idea what to do and cracked jokes as a way to stall for time between lunges. Hilary and Oli waited patiently, in spite of having already waited an hour for me to complete the traverse below. I had volunteered to clean it on the mistaken theory that, if Oli could lead it quickly, I could clean it in a less-than-embarassing amount of time. This had proven completely false and, when Oli generously offered that it was harder to clean than lead, my bruised ego had grabbed at his suggestion and refused to let go.

We had entered the Gouffre de Vauvougier almost fifteen hours before. It was not a spectacular cave -- lacking formations, subway-sized passages, and gigantic rooms -- but had proven to be an interesting and sporting one. Over 200 meters deep, its pits and meanders provided numerous surprises.

The first of these, aside from the waterfall entrance pitch and the slippery traverse that followed it, was a pendulum halfway down the second pit. I crouched in the passage behind Oli and watched as Hilary's light bounced wildly off the walls, then came to a rest as he paused before another attempt to reach the sloping passageway cutting the side of the shaft. After several tries, he made it and Oli followed.

When my turn came, I pulled sideways on the rope Hilary had anchored to side wall, but retreated quickly when Oli spotted me and told me I was cheating. Back in the center of the pit, I rocked back and forth until my feet touched the wall. Pushing off first with a toe, then with coiled legs, I hoped to gain enough momentum to carry me into the passageway. On my third try I succeeded, landing like a sack of potatoes hurled onto a loading dock.

Hilary and Oli traded leads as meander followed pit followed meander followed pit. I trudged along in the rear, wondering why the ropes they used invariably came from their own sacks. When they finally needed a rope from my sack, promising to lighten my load, I somehow ended up with the heaviest remaining sack -- mine had disappeared down the pit with the leader. Although I suspected a conspiracy, a more credible theory, especially in light of my performance on the exit traverse, was that my true lot in life was to be a dumb pack animal.

Shortly beyond the bottom of the fourth pit, we reached the squeeze, or l' etroiture, as our French map called it. I think that caves have squeezes as a way to remind cavers like me, who aren't usually bothered by drops, just who is in charge. They are rarely as bad as I imagine them, but that never stops me from worrying about them. Oli had said that, although this one was ten meters long, it was "nicht so schlecht." Rather than reassuring me, it only made me wonder what "nicht so schlecht" meant to Oli and I imagined ten meters of unceasing agony, arms pinned to my side and face smashed into the ceiling. I let Hilary go first.

As it turned out, Oli was right. The squeeze was tight only in sections and you could even turn around in two places. We continued through a series of tight meanders, an improbable downclimb, and an abseil into the Puits du Guano. At the base of this, we left most of our gear, including a bottle of water and a pot for cooking soup on the way out. The cave opened up and we quickly traversed a number of hallways and smooth-floored canyons as Oli showed us the places he had visited before.

When these ran out, we entered a series of even tighter meanders. These were new to Oli and led to the base of a huge shaft. Hanging out of the blackness was a ratty rope, soaking wet and covered with mud. Oli started to climb it, hesitated as it stretched more than a meter, then continued quickly upward. Hilary followed more slowly and I brought up the rear. At the top of the rope, a series of frightening, rusty anchors diagonalled up and right to the base of a spectacular climb through glittering flowstone.

The others were out of sight as I worked my way carefully up this, wishing for a rope and wondering if a slip would send me careening to the bottom of the shaft like a golfball in a drainpipe. I emerged into the bottom of another shaft, up which a second rope led. Considering the anchors on the first rope, I wished this one wasn't there, but climbed it anyway. At the top was the rim of a small pit, a third rope, and another shaft.

Above and to the right came a faint glow from Hilary's lamp. Far above him and slightly to the left, I could hear Oli continuing upward. A stone clattered into the small pit and I shouted nervously up to Hilary. Was there any point in coming up, or did the ropes simply end? He relayed the message to Oli. A muffled conversation ensued, after which Hilary replied that they were coming back. I reversed the second rope and waited at the top of the flowstone climb. The others reappeared and we climbed and abseiled to the bottom of the first shaft.

Back in the tight meanders, we encountered the real difficulty of the cave -- lack of water. Although we had brought four liters with us, we had drunk them all except for the partially filled bottle at the bottom of Bat Shit Pit -- er, Puits du Guano.

The meanders required considerable thrashing about and we were soon soaked with sweat. After one particularly brutal section, Hilary mentioned that he would rather drink the remaining water than have soup. I had been thinking the same thing and agreed. Oli didn't say anything but, when we reached the cache, pulled out the pot and heating tablet. Hilary and I protested. Oli was adamant. "We are fat, sweaty, old men," we pleaded. "We want water." It was good soup.

When we reached the squeeze, I dove in without hesitation. The nature of the squeeze meant the leader and the second do most of the sack hauling, and I felt guilty at not having helped much on the way in. As before, it was tight, but not impossible, and I plopped out the far end like stale toothpaste reluctantly leaving its tube.

We had four pits to go and, except for our failing lights and increasingly heavy sacks, the first three passed quickly. Oli and I traded cleaning chores while Hilary climbed ahead. At the top of each pit, we invariably found him sprawled in the passageway, eyes closed and half asleep with a contented smile on his face.

My carbide lamp failed at the start of the exit traverse and I sat down in the darkness to wait. Hilary exchanged his light bag for my heavy one and started across the traverse. Eventually, he shouted that he was across and was starting the final climb. Oli abseiled into the traverse and, when he was halfway through, told me to follow.

I thought this odd, as I was certain I would catch up to him. Nevertheless, I unscrewed the first bolt and carefully climbed down to the second. My sack tugged at my waist, so I climbed down to the third bolt, left it there, and returned to the second, only to realize the traverse was too slippery and I was too tired to safely clean it. No wonder Oli had been so happy when I offered to clean the traverse.

I screwed in an intermediate bolt, cleaned the second bolt, removed the intermediate bolt, and returned to my sack at the third bolt. By this time, Oli had finished the traverse and was halfway up the exit climb. I didn't need to worry about overtaking him. I continued slowly across the traverse: placing an intermediate bolt, moving my sack beyond it, removing the original bolt, removing the intermediate. It was a long time before I finished.

The final climb, although wet, was not difficult until I reached the previously mentioned Y. I still don't know how I got past it, but Oli assures me I made an X and a Z in addition to a Y, with a number of letters from the Chinese alphabet thrown in for good measure. Fortunately, I reached the edge before Hilary and Oli turned into ice statues, and we tromped back through the fresh snow to a warm hut, hot food, and well-earned sleep.