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Scialet du Silence -The Rig

Wednesday July 27th 2022

Members present: Becca Hay,  Christopher Edgar,  Jean-luc Heath,  Paulina Poterlowicz,  Rosie Marshall

Report by Jean-luc Heath

Silence is a cave that’s plagued my mind for years. A vertical monster pot that appears to be the Berger entrance series, but twice as deep. For this reason it had been in the back of my mind since seeing the topo whilst in the Berger back in 2018, a mere 4 years before the events of this report.

The first challenge presented by a trip to Silence is finding it. The cave lies in the bare limestone valley of the Clos D’apres, at roughly 1800m of altitude. This means a climb of 800m up from the nearest parking at Les Glovettes (just outside Villard-de-Lans). There is of course also a cable car that will take you up to 2000m (if the name of the “Restaurant Altitude 2000” is to be believed). From here it’s roughly and hours trundle by a yellow and green marked path to a set of cairns (45.018148, 5.577699) leading to the cave entrance (45.017467, 5.576241) which is clearly labelled! Now, the cable car is around 7 euros for a return, and with the 10 or so bags of rope, plus caving gear, plus camping gear (camping to be discussed below). That will likely require multiple trips and be expensive. For this reason the report below starts with me, Paulina, and Rosie going for a walk to find the cave, and our associated adventures. However, before that good stuff, more admin, Silence is all about admin.

The topo, survey, and somewhat coded rigging guide provided in Speleo Dans Le Vercors Tome 2 proved to be pretty spot on, and are worth following. Worth noting that when we visited in 2022, it was still on spits, many of which were very corroded and hard to get bolts into. We managed to get as far as we did without placing any new spits, however I suspect in future, or to go any deeper, it would be likely a few new spits would be required. Rope lengths in the guide worked well enough for us (I think we generally had 10% extra, but not always..)

As mentioned above, this trip needs a lot of stuff. There are three main ways to deal with this: Option 1: have lots of people working in shifts to rig and de-rigg, heading up and down the hill at the start and end of each shift.
Option 2: have only 5 people, and shuttle all the gear up, bring camping stuff and bivvy at the surface. You could also head down and up at the end of each day, but this would probably take longer, but would be far more chill…
Option 3: Be hard as fuck and do it with like 2 people and a bivvy, 8mm, amarrage souple, cut-off wellies, and massive bollocks.

The walk
We found that in the very hot conditions of our visit, that walking to the cave with just day hiking gear took a lot of effort and quite a long time ~3hours. This therefore makes the cable car a very good option, especially for the way up!

The report

The Preamble
We start our tale on the first week of the 2022 Vercors holiday. Having done something the day before, Me, Rosie, and Paulina decided a rest day was in order and that a good rest would be the 800m height gain trundle to find the entrance of Silence. Yes, climb the equivalent of Scafell pike in 30 degree sun for a rest day. Good idea. We armed ourselves with some coordinates found on wikipedia and set off from Les Glovettes. The walk up was a twisting trail up the ski slopes with patchy shade from the trees. This eventually got us to “Restaurant Altitude 2000” where we briefly pondered getting a beer, then decided that would be a much better reward on the way back down. Afterall, it was only around 1pm, and the cave didn’t look to be more than 40 minutes away. After finding a raspberry bush and some unexploded ordinance, we jovially followed a yellow and green marked path down into Clos D’apres, and then followed the gps coordinates I had in my phone over to a completely bare patch of limestone. Hmmm. No cave… We proceeded to do the most sensible thing anyone can do in an unknown mountain environment, and split up. After a good while of wandering around I found myself very alone. Not ideal. However, an exciting development. I had remembered a map app Miles had suggested to me a few days earlier, so I fired it up and had a look for some paths. There were none. However, this app, for reasons known only to itself, has a lot of cave entrances marked. Including Silence. Not fully trusting this open source mapping I cautiously trundled in the direction in which it suggested Silence would be found. Low and behold it was spot on and I soon found myself at the clearly marked entrance to the cave. A few phone calls and yells later and I was reunited with Rosie and Paulina. Correct location successfully marked on my phone, we followed a line of cairns up to the continuation of the green and yellow marked path we’d departed earlier. This eventually saw us back at “Restaurant Altitude 2000” however this had all taken rather a long time and it was now closed, along with the cable car we’d planned to test out on the way down. Defeated trundling ensued and we were eventually back at the car. The intensity of this walk made us realise that for taking gear up the hill we’d definitely want to use the cable car. With the planned night shift team taking the last cable car up, and the day shift taking the last one down, or walking down.

The Plan
The planning of Silence soon became a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, as it became evident that a lot of people weren’t actually massively keen on spending three days of intense effort on one cave.. At one point the whole thing was called off. However, during one car journey back from a Canyon it was decided that the contents of that car, and Chris, would just try and send it anyway. This made a team of me, Paulina, Rosie, Chris and Becca. It was decided that we’d attempt the cave over the space of two days, rigging on the first, bivvying on the surface, then derigging on the second. The plan was that we’d all carry our caving gear and one tackle sack up to the entrance, taking the cable car. From there, me and Rosie would begin rigging, and smash a good way down whilst the other three headed back down the hill to shuttle up the remaining bags and camping gear. They would then head down and relieve me and Rosie, taking over the rigging until they reached the revised goal of a sump at ~480m. When they would turn around and head to the surface to find a glorious meal warmed by me and Rosie. We’d all have a lovely cosy bivvy, then in the morning me and rosie would head down and hit the limit of the rigging and begin the derig, shortly followed by the other team (ensuring everyone got just as far down). A Flawless plan, I’m sure you’ll agree.

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
Everything went according to plan until I started rigging. I headed down the first pitch with two bags, and the top half of my over and undersuit removed as it was extremely hot near the surface. Here the rigging nightmare begins. I couldn’t figure out where the traverse I was supposed to be rigging actually began. Eventually it was found down a somewhat concerningly loose scree slope, and headed out over some weird rock, which I later realised was a snowplug. The first few metres of the traverse were okay, though it was noted the spit were quite difficult to get bolts into. Ade had lent us a skyhook which proved incredibly helpful. I soon found myself at a point in the traverse where I could see its continuation 5m below me, and on the opposite wall. About an hour or two of swinging and experimental deviations ensued, none of which led to a usable pitch to the continuation. Eventually after discussions with Rosie the correct route was found to be an exposed step into a little grotto, which contained spits that created a nice hang to the next level of the traverse. This traverse became known as the death traverse. It was effectively free hanging, and the spits were frankly terrible. This made it excellent fun to rig. Unfortunately by this time, the shuttle team had caught us up at the grand depth of -20m. This therefore fucked the plan.

Improvise, Adapt, Disappoint your mum
It was decided that I’d keep rigging for a while and get things moving. From the end of the traverse a short blasted passage is followed on rope to a set of pitches of 33m, 32m, 29m. All of which are split up with various rebelays and traverse generally on good size ledges, though occasional free hanging rebelays are present. The quality of the spits made this section of rigging quite challenging as often the best spits for the hang would be so corroded that it was impossible to put a bolt in them. This led to some creative deviations and monster Y-hangs. At the bottom of these pitches a meander is reached and I think it was a pitch or two before here where me and Paulina swapped over the rigging. It was around this time we noticed an absence of Becca, who turned out to be reinventing SRT at a particularly tricky deviation. At this time I’d been underground quite some time and was a little bit fucked and quite cold. Time for some cave noodles. These noodles were happily consumed by me, Rosie and Becca whilst Chris and Paulina went ahead to rig. We carried on to join them, dropping a few pitches and crossing a meander to a large calcite-y ledge where Paulina and Chris appeared to be having a rigging dilemma. I had a bit of a look and was similarly baffled, but eventually compromised on some sort of hang using a spit and a big chunk of calcite? This was to be the final pitch we dropped in the cave, and it saw us at Meandre Confortable. I found it to be a Meandre unconfortable! Especially with the time we’d already spent underground. Some chatting ensued and we agreed that we might come back to tackle it in the morning, or may just call it a day, but certainly that it wasn’t wise to push it today. The most frustrating thing was that had I not spent so much time fucking around with the very first pitch and traverse, we’d have been a lot further into the cave, as progress since then had been reasonably swift. From turning around to reaching the surface took us around one hour, maybe even less. I rapidly realised the turnaround was a good idea when on the first rebelay (freehanging) on the way out I clipped by short cowstail to the knot, long to the loop, then took my chest jammer off, sat on my short, to then take my hand jammer off, then put it back on, then put my chest jammer back on where it had been a second ago, and then take my hand jammer off again. Clearly I was tired. At this point I decided it was best for me to revert to the old reliable drill based system of fresher SRT. This soon had me safely and robotically out of the cave.

Blueberry Dell
On the surface we headed to ‘blueberry dell’ a small patch of assorted shrubberys that represented the only soft ground in the area. Once here some of us began sorting out a sleeping area using a pattern 58 poncho as a ground sheet, and two rollmats to provide some padding and insulation, we weren’t too concerned about insulation though as our experience of it being incredibly hot during the day, and at the apartment suggested it couldn’t possibly get too cold at the bivvy. Whilst a lot of groundsheet faff was occurring, some other heroes were beginning to reheat the gnocchi bolognese we’d carried up with us. At some point I constructed a drystone wall to keep the wind away from the tiny stove. Yes, the same stove that was being used for underground brews, was also our means of cooking for 5 people… Under the original plan this wouldn’t have been a massive issue as we’d have had a maximum of 3 people eating at a time… However, with all 5 of us present and starving, it meant a fairly laborious batch cooking process, but I seem to recall eating gnocchi in my sleeping bag at around 1am. Once fed we were all soon tucked up in bed in what was effectively one giant spoon. A good amount of time was spent stargazing, at what were probably the best stars I’ve ever seen. Specific vocabulary was used.
Shooting stars suitably spectated, slumber swiftly signed-in.
Select souls surreptitiously shivered, survival sacks soon sought.
We had misjudged the amount of cold. I had a slightly colder night than I remember having in Daren Cilau, I think others were comfortable, whilst Becca appeared to be conducting a reenactment of the final hours of the Franklin expedition. Once in a survival bag she seemed to sort her shit out.
The sky at my feet framed by the pale grey walls of the valley was stained orange as the sun began to rise at 0600. There’s always something reassuring about seeing the sunrise after a night bivvying in the mountains.

Breakfast was a slow process with no one really wanting to move. Chris eventually took one for the team and got some porridge on the go. This was a typical oats with water type situation. Between all our Russell group educated brains we figured out we could add some of the first aid chocolate to make it taste better. It did taste better. We hadn’t brought any spoons. So the porridge was thickened to the point that it could be forked.
Is it easier to fork porridge, or spoon gnocchi?
By the time the porridge was consumed around 0900 some direct sunlight was hitting the valley floor and things began to heat up, so it was probably time to head underground to visit the snowplug and death traverse.

The derigg
It was decided that with the already quite advanced hour, and our lack of enthusiasm for missing the last cable car and having to walk all the gear back down, the we should simply derigg what we’d done, and get out of there. It was decided that Paulina and Chris would head underground first and derigg the first two bags, then head out and begin shuttling what they could to the “Restaurant Altitude 2000”. We promised ourselves chips when we got there. The plan went pretty smoothly, with the decent down to and the general derigging going pretty quickly. I can’t really remember who derigged what, I think either me or Rosie derigged the death traverse. I do remember scoffing chocolate like a madman, and dreaming about the end of day chips. Once back on the surface, it was established that between me, becca and rosie, that we could carry an amount of bags which I can’t remember now (but described by Becca in a recent interview as “too many” (likely 3-4)) that would mean there wouldn’t need to be a second shuttle - heroic behaviour. I think it was 4 bags as I have a strong memory of not having any free hands to help negotiate the steep limestone pavement up to the green and yellow marked path. We eventually made it, and whilst trudging along the trail we came across Paulina, on her way back to collect more bags. We gave her some bags, probably one each, so 3? This meant that Paulina had quite a hard day. At one point the tacklesack sat on top of my rucksack fell off and rolled down a steep downhill section of the path. Many others also decided to take this journey. I think at one point I fell over, much to the concern of a french child. These memories are quite muddled due to time, exhaustion, and a lack of food. Thank god we’d be getting to “Restaurant Altitude 2000” in time for some chips. Good, french, chips. Starchy, crispy, salty, fatty, delicious chips. By the time I reached the landrover track to “Restaurant Altitude 2000” I was getting pretty bored of the weight so decided to just TAB down the hill to wherever Chris was waiting so it would be over and done with. Upon finding Chris he seemed somewhat surprised by the amount we were carrying, and pleased that he wouldn’t have to make a return journey. I quickly dumped my bags and jogged back up the hill to re-find the others and offer to take some bags off them. They seemed keen to persevere without assistance. Bags successfully stashed out the front of “Restaurant Altitude 2000” we went to get some chips. We spoke to a waiter, sat down, and attempted to order chips. We were too late for chips. This was more crushing than realising we’d taken two days to get to the same depth as the bottom of Lost Johns. It transpired crepes were available. We acquired what were possibly the best crepes I’ve had (likely due to the situation, rather than the food itself), an absolute emotional rollercoaster. We reflected on out achievements (or lack of) for a while, and then somehow managed to cram all of the gear and ourselves into some cable cars. Note, they seem to be free on the way down?

Walking back to the car we got some pretty weird looks from general passersby, then even more when we began unpacking and coiling all 10 bags of rope in the car park. After a thankfully short drive back to Villard, we unpacked the car and drank some wine, whilst having to quietly admit to everyone else that we hadn’t really got all that far.

Despite not actually going very far, we did learn a lot from this experience. Old spits can be an absolute nightmare, but are likely stronger than you think (but still not that strong). It’s possible to carry 4 bags on alpine terrain, but it's not particularly enjoyable. Don’t underestimate just how cold a bivvy is going to get. Snow plugs in caves are incredibly cool. The key to getting shit done is having a good plan. You don’t have to actually get very far to have a fucking excellent time.
If you don’t finish a cave like this, you’ll end up thinking about going back for years…