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Pierre Saint-Martin Through Trip

Friday August 4th 2017

Members present: Evan Cooper,  Joshua Young,  Lilo Hoecker

Report by Joshua Young

The day began as any other. Up at 8 for a quick breakfast of croissant, baguette and brie (truly embracing the local culture.)Then followed a surprisingly small amount of faff before leaving the camp at 9. The team was myself, Evan, Lilo, and Dave Coulson. We were to be the latest group in today. There were quite a number of groups going in, including one french team, as this was the just the second day the full through trip was really viable.

The commute up to the ski resort brought us well above the cloud layer for some spectacular views, surely a good omen for the day to come. A 20 minute uphill walk past the Tête Sauvage entrance takes us to the gaping SC3 shaft, just a few metres from the piste where so many tourists whizz past in the winter, ignorant of what lies below. I began my descent just after 11.

SC3 is an excellent series of enormous rifts and shafts. Every pitch is as splendid as the last. It was sort of familiar to us, as our last trip had brought us out this way. Believe me, it takes a while to prussik 350m. The srt finishes with the Belfry (a fantastic place for echoes), and the final 54m pitch. Everyone was down and set to go by 11:45. The way on is through a short rift traverse/squeeze, before it quickly becomes a stooping streamway. The following 2 hours were spent in a rather Dales-esque environment. There was some low streamway, rifty climbs, and well decorated fossil passage. Towards the end, the streamway opens out to stomping passage, with the odd deep pool to climb around. This ends at Salle Cosyns (named after Max Cosyns), where Tête Sauvage drops in.

A quick break and we were off again. A number of up and down scrambles into and out of the water, including a short chest deep section, takes us through the final part of the upper system, ending at a large dry chamber to lull you into a false sense of security, before the Gran Cañon. This consists of about a kilometer of knee to waist deep wading in fantastic glacial blue water down a tall, well worn gorge, only interrupted a couple of times by some tall and large yet relatively simple boulder chokes. Now, wading through water in the UK is pretty cold. The water in the PSM is bonechilling. Your legs don't register cold, only pain.

Once this finally ended, we found ourselves in some muddy fossil passage. Here, navigation became a little more tricky, and we may have gotten slightly lost. Fortunately, throughout the system are plenty of guides. Along the entire through trip are hundreds of cairns, reflectors, and red tape to show the way. If this isn't enough, you can also look for the thousands of piles of spent carbide littering the passages. Although we were thankful for the navigation aids, it was a reminder of how lucky we are in the UK to have such an excellent culture of conservation. It's a shame that the PSM doesn't have the CNCC to look after it!

After a short sense of humour failure at the 8 hour mark, not knowing if the passages would ever end, we eventually reached the next major obstacle. Le Túnel du Vent. This is a 50m long lake (similar to the Green Canal) with a pull rope, a howling draft, and thanks to an earlier trip, 6 tractor inner tubes. We hopped in, and after a grand total of 10 feet, Dave had flipped his boat. This was not the only submersion he recieved. I also almost took a dunk at one stage, but we soon found ourselves at the other end. Being soaked already, Dave offered to return the boats while we stomped around to keep warm.

From this point, the cave changes character entirely. The final 3 hours consist of boulder hopping up and down slopes in huge echoey caverns, occasionally meeting the stream as it rises out of the floor. Imagine Easegill's Montague passage, scaled up to the be about 50m high and wide (including scaling up the size of the boulders). You could fly a passenger jet through some of these chambers. We also passed the memorial to Marcel Loubens underneath the L'Epineaux shaft. The broken winch and rusty metal stretcher are still in place where they were left, more than 60 years ago.

The last couple of hours were rather tedious. 3 hours straight of focussing on nothing but where to put your feet. After so long underground, we just wanted out. So what a relief it was to finally face the impenetrable darkness of La Verna. The chamber is roughly spherical, with a diameter of 250m, and a height of 194m. A standard size hot air balloon has been flown around in there. Dave's scurion on highest setting could just about reach the other side, but it was still too dark to make out any detail. When the showcave lights are on, it is truly a sight to see.

The 15 minute walk down the straight concrete tunnels out was bliss. We were going 5 times our speed over the boulders. Eventually, the speck of light at the end of the tunnel turned into a metal gate. Not quite the gates of heaven, but it was good enough for us. We raced out and all together slammed the door shut before the gale got too strong. We began walking down to Lilo's car in the warm night air. It was 14 hours after leaving camp, and we still had a few left before bed. All in all 12 hours underground, covering 6k, and a vertical distance of 983m. Job done.