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That you'll hear many, many times

... or: never again say that your tackle-bag is too heavy! In July of 1987 we tried, together with a team of British cavers, to bottom the "Gouffre Berger" (-1140 m) in the Vercors, France. At the third day of the expedition, we made a rigging trip that brought us to the depth of -705m, to the top of Cascade Claudine (see picture). An important fact was that the entrance pitches of the cave had been rigged by the British, and that they had failed to rig the flood-prone Puits Aldo (P42) out of the water, because of a rope that was too short (they had cut off a part of it, and used it elsewhere).

Cascade Claudine (-705 m)Anyway, after our trip that had taken some 11 hours, we arrived back at the foot of the Puits Aldo. I went up first in the pit, the silence was complete. At the top, I continued climbing and also went up the 3 small pitches above Aldo. Suddenly, I had a vague impression of hearing water flow. Was I dreaming? I looked around but the pitches under me were dry. Meanwhile, my wife Annette had joined me, and Rudi had started to climb up Aldo. The sound of water got louder and louder, and I realized that something would go terribly wrong. I clipped in my descender and went down the 3 small pitches again, as fast as I could, to warn Rudi. I raced through the short bit of meander, back to Aldo, and then the flood pulse came. But much to my surprise the water didn't run under my feet, but it fell down, somewhere out of the dark ceiling of Aldo's pitch. The water gushed down, making a terrifying noise and the wind howled around. Rudi was hardly half way up the pit when he was hit by the icy water. He struggled up, fighting for his life, much slowed down by his heavy tackle-bag. I tried to protect him from the falling water by standing at the platform, and bending over the top of the pitch so that the waterfall hit me on the back and was diverted a bit. Within minutes, the water washed nearly every calorie out of my body. Finally Rudi arrived, completely empty...

Meanwhile, the rest of the team (Strauss, Kris, Leo & Leo Jr.) had also arrived at the bottom of Aldo. Then, I made a big mistake, but thinking about it afterwards, it probably saved Rudi's life since another member of the team was able to get up the pitch that way... I unscrewed the hangers of the traverse line and hung the rope straight down at the entrance of the pitch, since the waterfall was falling several meters away, in the middle of the pitch. This way, young Kris could climb up the pitch, relatively dry. Then Strauss started to climb up. He was hardly 15 meters up, when we suddenly heard a terrible noise, as if someone had emptied an entire swimming pool in the entrance of the cave. A second, and much bigger flood pulse was racing down and we knew that it was only a matter of seconds. We screamed down, but Strauss (still climbing beside a 42 m. high waterfall!) didn't hear us and climbed on. Then the water gushed down, beneath our feet, and this time it went down exactly where the rope was. It was a real inferno, water coming down at two different places in the pitch, lots of noise and a stormy wind that pulled on our oversuits. Strauss, being battered by the water, managed to keep calm and began switching over from climbing to descending. The manoeuvre seemed to take hours, we were looking down the pitch and the little light just didn't seem to move anymore. But then, he finally managed to get down again. Then, we probably made another mistake: we had two 5 litre plastic containers with us, full of food. We knew that our three friends down there would have to sit it out, and after yelling a warning, we threw the 2 containers down. They smashed down on the bottom (they both survived it!) and our friends were more than happy with this present. In fact, the three of them would have to wait 16 hours before the water had calmed down enough. But, us four at the top, did not have any food left at all. Not a real problem, we thought: we were at -200m, the exit wasn't that far anymore!

We climbed up steadily, me and Rudi in front. Rudi was exhausted, he progressed slowly and had vision problems. I only had some pieces of "grape sugar" (dextrose) left and gave them to him (another mistake...).

Puits Gontard, 25 m high and now a thundering waterfall. Puits Garby, 38 m., dry as always. The 200 m. long meander. We arrived at the Puits du Cairn, 35 m high. It was very wet; icy water (0 degrees Celsius) came down. I climbed up, Rudi's light followed slowly under me. Now and them I stopped and asked if he was O.K. Each time, after a long delay (as if he had to think real hard about my question) he answered "yes, yes". Then I saw Annette's and Kris' light deep down, they were following just behind Rudi. He was now in safe hands and I decided to climb on to alert the rest of the crew. I got out of Puits Ruiz, 28 m deep, and the small entrance pitch as well. It was past midnight, the woods were dark and wet from the rain that had fallen abundantly. I was "knackered" after 16 hours of caving, but without taking the time to put on my dry clothes, I ran through to woods to the camp site, 1,5 hours away.

But meanwhile, things went very wrong! Annette found Rudi, hanging on his re-belay, against the ice of the "Ressauts Holiday". He was nearly unconscious. They managed to get him up the last metres, at the foot of Puits Ruiz. But here, the bottom was full of snow, meters thick! There was no way that Rudi would survive here, he was already in a state of hypothermia and none of the three had any working carbid light left to build a "warm" shelter. But how to get him out of this 28 m high, free hanging pitch? Impossible to build a pulley system, since one long 100 m rope had been used, all the way from the entrance to the bottom of Puits du Cairn. Derigging it would have taken too much time. Nobody had a knife, nor carbid-flame to cut through the rope. It was young Kris, hardly 17 years old then but strong as an ox, who found the solution: he clipped Rudi with his long "cowstail" onto his belt, and climbed up the pitch! Now, Rudi was not very big, but weighed with all his gear and wet clothing at least 65 kilos, and Kris was a thin guy, tired (as we all) after 17 hours of non-stop caving. It was an amazing achievement... At the surface, Rudi was immediately put into a sleeping bag and he luckily revived.

Today, so many years later, I still find this an incredible act. If we hadn't witnessed it ourselves, we would have never believed it: we tried afterwards, one day when practising rope-techniques at a 30 m high rock cliff, to repeat what Kris did. We clipped our partner to our belt and tried climbing up: nobody managed to climb up more than 10 metres.

Kris unfortunately quit caving some years later, but for me, he will always be a hero. How many people can say that they have saved someone's life, and in such a way? As for me: during that catastrophic night in 1987 I made more than one mistake, but I learned a lot from it:

- in case of a flood: go down the pitch right away and sit it out; never try to climb up a flooded pitch.
- hypothermia symptoms must be recognized by everyone (feeling cold and tired, speech and vision problems).
- ban grape sugar (dextrose) from your rations: you run the risk of causing a hypoglycaemia reaction (the body reacts to the sudden input of glucose by producing insulin. But too much insulin will also break down your natural sugars in your blood and you will suffer from a shortage of sugar. The effect is worse than before.
Finally, this story had a weird ending as well. As I explained, the first flood pulse arrived out of the ceiling of Aldo. The water came by an unknown way. One month after our expedition (that, by the way, stranded at -900 m due to the bad weather), another British team invaded the cave. After one of the trips, one noticed that somebody was missing: Alex Pitcher. It was the start of a giant search operation, that lasted for weeks. Every stone in the cave was turned, and even the terminal sump was dived again. But Alex was not found...the mystery was complete. Was he somewhere in an unknown part of the cave, waiting for his end to come? Was he somewhere in the woods?

One year later however, some local cavers of Grenoble, who had been thinking about the disappearance of Alex all winter, decided to start over again. In the 200 m. long meander (situated at a depth of -100m) they found a gallery, formerly unknown. They followed it and arrived at a small pitch. At the bottom there was the body of Alex, who had apparently stumbled into the pitch and had been crushed by some boulders that had fallen with him. He seemed to have died instantly. After his body had been recovered, the French cavers followed the new gallery further on, and arrived ...in the ceiling of Puits Aldo. Most probably, the flood that had hit us, had followed the same way.


...the longest night

Survey of Gouffre AphaniceAphanicé... a legendary cave with it's freehanging drop of 328 m (1100 feet): the "Puits des Pirates". It is still one of the deepest freehanging pitches in the world: there are no platforms, not even the slightest step in the smooth walls of this giant shaft. Also, the pitch begins IN a cave, at a depth of 155 metres.
In 1988 we were in the area, for the famous Pierre-St-Martin through-trip, and we did not hesitate long when we had the opportunity to do the Aphanicé as well. The cave had been rigged by some friends of ours, C.R.S.L. (Liège, Belgium) and we were more than happy to go and de-rig it!

We had 7 candidates, of whom two ladies who decided to go only as far as the top of the big shaft: my wife Annette (3 months pregnant) and Michaëla, who found the shaft a bit too deep...
So we went on our way for what we thought to be an easy trip: the cave was already rigged, and we were in the shape of our lives after having bottomed the Lonné Peyret (-700m) and having done the -1000 m deep Pierre-St-Martin through-trip. We didn't even bother to take a lot of food and water with us!
The first thing that cooled us down a bit was the long drive: over 2 hours! But there was no walk to the cave: we could park the car just besides it. Since 5 men was a bit much in a 328m shaft, two of them decided to go first (Rudi and Marc C.). The ladies would follow them to -155m, and the 3 others (Marc V., Kris and me) would wait another 4 hours before going down and de-rig the cave.

As a result, it was nearly 15:00 in the afternoon when my team went down. Those who know caving club Avalon, will agree that this was abnormally late for us to start in such a big cave (-500m). The first pitches were bigger and more impressive than expected: a P56 and P41. Then a narrow meander, followed by a equally narrow 17m pitch: this will be fun going up with the 350 m of ropes, I remember thinking! Then, another short piece of meander and... nothing! A misty black hole, in which a little waterfall sprayed down. To make matters worse, our 2 comrades weren't even in sight. I yelled down the big pitch, and from deep under we heard them replying but couldn't understand it. Damn!!

We waited for more than an hour before they arrived. Then we started one of the most spectacular descents of our lives. The shaft had a very regular shape, 10 m in diameter, 328m deep. At -90m there was a re-belay, then an incredible 240m free drop (the guys that had rigged it, had managed to find one big 250m rope!). But going down with the Petzl bobbins didn't go very fast; the rope was so heavy that it didn't feed through the descenders and we had to put our Petzl jammers onto it and pull it up. It took us each 30 minutes to go down: another 1,5 hours had gone by!

After some philosophical thoughts about the meaning of life, and more precisely going down enormous pitches that one has to climb out again, Marc started climbing out. Kris and me spend the next 1,5 hours under our space blanket, playing cards! Then Kris went up, and I spend the next hour making 1 picture of Kris who flashed every 10 minutes with a magnesium flashbulb. Luckily, the result was great and this picture remains, in my humble opinion, one of the best "big shaft-pictures" ever (see picture). To make a long story short: by the time I got up the pitch, it was way past midnight and we were starving from thirst and hunger.

Puits des Pirates - P328mDerigging the pitch was our next problem. The 350m of wet rope were too heavy to pull up, and at the top of the pitch there was hardly any room to stand with more than one person (it was a narrow meander). So, we had to build a pulley system with our jammers.  We pulled for over 2 hours and it was more exhausting than climbing out the pitch. Then, next problem: the other guys had made a special "super-bag" for the "super-rope". This monstrous tackle bag was too bulky to pass the narrow meander, and had about the weight of a piano. But, thanks God, we got some assistance from Michaëla and Marc C., who had re-descended in the cave.

By 04:00 in the morning we were at the top of the P43 with all of our gear. I had just derigged the P43, when I made a clumsy gesture and dropped the tackle-bag (with the rope of the P43) in the pitch again. After 5 minutes of hysterical laughing (quite normal at 4 AM in the morning) I had to re-rig the pitch with a piece of the long 250m rope. A big waste of time, since this pitch had a rather technical rigging. When I got up the P43 again, I left Marc the honour to de-rig the last pitch (the 56m one). I climbed up, stumbled through the short entrance tunnel of the cave where I just saw the sun rising. I fell asleep straight away, but was woken up 15 minutes later by the roaring of some sort of wild animal. The noise seemed to come out of the cave. It was Marc, who was screaming, cursing, and swearing to sell all of his caving gear right away. What had happened? After derigging the rope, he had tried to pull it up, but it was stuck somewhere. He had to re-rig it and go down again all 63 metres of the pitch!

At 07:30 hrs, the battle for the Aphanicé was over. We had won it, but how!
Oh yes: one more detail: we had brought a spectator with us, Herman. He had waited for some 24 hours and had passed a long and cold night, in T-shirt and shorts. Thanks Herman!

PS: needless to say that, when we arrived at the campsite around 11 o'clock in the morning the others were already packing their gear to come and rescue us.


... a users guide

Trou d'HaquinI don't exactly know anymore when it happened, I guess in 1987. It was winter and the Trou d'Haquin, a famous Belgian cave, was in heavy flood. I wanted to do something "special" again and together with my wife, I went to the "Nouveau Réseau CRS", a part of the cave that was rarely visited since it begins with a long and very wet duck. The small pitch just before the duck was a thundering waterfall. I had never seen it like that, normally it was bone-dry! Secondly : a very wild river went through the first duck, 10 metres long and less than 30 cm (1 foot) low (see picture, taken in dry conditions!).

I decided (what a fool!) to take my chance, and crawled on, having difficulties to keep my lips above the water. At the end of the duck, there is a narrow and even lower passage, and I saw that it was totally flooded. Going any further would have been suicide, because of the amount of water that was squeezed through this construction. I turned around and tried to go back. But this time, I had the current against me and the water build up at least an extra 5 cm in height. I was struggling, gasping, breathing more water than air while trying to get back to Annette who was waiting at the beginning of the low crawlway. As already explained, the passage is so low that there is not an inch left between your ear and the roof. I started panicking, but there was no choice: I had to go on. In the last 2 metres, who were the lowest, it went very wrong: I went too much to the left, where the ceiling was even lower and got stuck with my helmet. The water covered me completely now, I tried to breathe but inhaled only water. Annette did not seem to realize what was going on, she was a few metres away. My last thought was "oh no, I'm going to drown in the Haquin" (a cave visited by hundreds of novices, every week!) and then I lost consciousness.

This could have been the end of Paul De Bie's caving career...but Annette decided otherwise. She finally realized that I was in big difficulty, and managed to reach far enough in the low passage to pull me out. I soon recovered and after having emptied my longs and having vomited a few buckets of water, I felt O.K. again and could get out of the cave. I must admit that for some time I wasn't very fond anymore of water caves... until we discovered the "Bretaye System" in 1990!


...how the "Salle de l'Ange Gardien" got it's name

It is winter 1992. In this very cold month of January we are busy with the final part of the exploration of the "Bretaye System", a cave that we discovered and that we have been exploring for two years now, every weekend!  It is without doubt one of the wettest caves in the country, with several long ducks and one free-diving passage (2 metres long). A couple of weeks ago we found an important lead that could make it possible to realize in this cave one of the longest through-trips in Belgium. In fact, we are working in two different caves, one starting in the sinkhole, some 500 m stream up, the other one starting in the resurgence. After 3 weekends of work in this new lead, we progressed 75 m. and less than 6 metres is separating both caves now!

Our terminus is a square room, 5 x 5 m "big" and filled with chest deep water. In the left corner of the room, a sort of gallery starts, about 70 cm wide and 2 m long. At the end a narrow crack goes on.

One hour ago, we just have done some "work" to enlarge this crack. I can't explain in detail here what kind of work this was, but you need a battery drill for it and some magic stuff. Rudi and me are checking the results: a chunk of rock is hanging down. Rudi gives it a gentle bang with a crowbar and then... the whole roof at our left comes down! More precisely; a giant boulder, 2 metres long, 1,5 m wide and 1 m thick. It is what we thought to be the left wall of the gallery that we were standing in, and I was leaning against with my left shoulder. In reality, it was a big boulder, a couple of cubic metres tall, that was hanging just above the water surface.

While rubbing "gently" my left shoulder, the thing crashes down into the chest deep water, with a noise as of an atomic bomb. The water in this small room (only 5x5 m, remember!) is pressed away and the waves flood us completely for a few seconds.  Rudi is in serious difficulties: his foot is stuck under the boulder. The situation is dramatic: how do you get someone out of a situation like that (you cut off his leg)?

I can't see his leg, as we are standing in dark brown muddy water up to our chest. But then, after some wriggling, his boot comes loose. Fortunately, the bottom of the lake is a very thick layer of soft mud. This prevented the boulder from crushing Rudi's foot. As soon as we can, we leave the place (with our hearts beating as hell).
That very day, we baptized this room: Salle de l'Ange Gardien, which means "Room of the Guardian Angel".

But, afterwards we noticed that the giant boulder that had splashed down, had liberated the way on: a low passage between the ceiling and the water gave way to a vertical fissure. One year later, after numerous weekends of hard work, we effectively made the junction between the two caves here. The Bretaye was now one big river cave, 1700 m long. And every visitor of the cave, is now crawling OVER the boulder, without realizing what epic moments we have lived here!


... your passports!

It is May 1989. The whole lot is staying in the French Ardèche department. Jan Berckmans has been telling us stories every day, about the giant galleries of the St. Marcel d'Ardeche cave, which is unfortunately closed since a few years. But in my books I have a description of the "Aven Despeysse", which is a chimney in the farthest ends of the cave. It goes up for about 100 metres and is said to have been connected with the surface, after a lot of work by local cavers.

So, one day we go searching for this cave and we find it. Much to our surprise, the cave isn't gated anymore. This opens up new possibilities! Despite the fact that we don't have any description at all of this 100 m deep cave, and that in the books it is said that the "squeeze" that gives access to the giant fossil galleries is closed with a door (near the Salle de la Cathédrale) we decide to make a trip in the cave.

Next day, we (a team of six) start our trip, which will probably end at the famous steel door. It will be an 4 kilometre trip to get to there and back again. I will save you our adventures in the 100 m deep Aven Despeysse (always great, rigging an unknown cave) and in the long and very complex labyrinth. Just reveal that the last hour we mainly crawled on our knees in those "giant" galleries (Jan told only about their width, not their height!). After 6-7 hours we arrived at the famous steel door, near Salle de la Cathédrale... and the door was gone! Yippie, that meant that we could get into the real big galleries and we decided to go to the original entrance of the cave. We knew that this would really be the end of the trip, since we checked it a few days ago and it was firmly sealed by a big iron wall.

Giant phreatic tunnel in St. Marcel d'ArdecheAfter a few hundreds of metres in this truly enormous galleries (see picture) we rounded a corner and suddenly arrived in an apocalyptical scene: massif steel constructions everywhere, people running around, men cutting through steel profiles with cutting machines, others were welding; sparks were flying around. What the hell was going on here? Still unnoticed we went a bit further, until we arrived at the foot of an enormous steel staircase that spiralled up towards a giant hole in the wall. Blue light shone in through the hole which was at least 5 metres wide. At the top of the staircase, a workman was welding one of the stairs. Then, we realized what all this was! The big hole up there, was a tunnel that had been drilled into the cave; and apparently one was very busy to make a showcave out of this cave. The blue light was daylight! For us, it meant freedom! Let's give it a try I thought, maybe when we ask it, we are allowed to leave the cave through here and save us another 8 hours back! I climbed up the stairs and gently tapped on the man's shoulder. He was still busy welding and hadn't noticed me. He looked up and nearly fell of his stair when he saw me: a big, dirty yellow monster, with a flame on top of his head. In my best french I asked him "Excusez moi, monsieur, mais est-ce qu'on pourrait quitter la grotte par ici?" (Excuse me Sir, but could we eventually leave the cave through here?). "Ah...Ehh...mais Oui!" (Ah...Ehh...but Yes!) he answered after having realized that we were cavers. All right, what a luck. The others followed and in a euphoric state of mind we raced through the nearly hundred metre long tunnel. Where shall we arrive, were we all thinking.

The cool, fresh tunnel spitted us out into the blazing hot sun, in the middle of another frantic scene. Trucks and bulldozers where racing around, and it took just 5 seconds before one of them stopped besides us. On top of it there was "the guy in charge", he was obviously very angry and he jumped off and headed towards the six of us. Immediately, without any introduction, he started in the most tyrannic manner a French tirade against us. Where did we come from? What did we do here? Louis de Funès (a French actor, famous for his nervous tirades) wouldn't have done it better. I explained him patiently that we came from another entrance in the same cave, far away on the plateau, and that we had asked for the permission to leave the tunnel and had gotten it. But he was in no way to be convinced that easily. Another entrance, he had never heard of it and he accused us of having sneaked into the cave by night through "his" tunnel and that we were now trying to get out again. The longer it took; the more hysterical he got. He threatened us with police, corporal punishments and enormous fines and finally yelled out "vos cartes d'identités!" (your passports!). The situation was getting grotesque and absurd, (was he really thinking that we went caving with our passports in our pocket?) and we couldn't help it anymore: we started laughing. Then Jan Berckmans told him "mais calmez-vous un peu" ("but calm down a bit!") and that really did it. He went completely crazy now! Around the scene, a circle of labourers had formed and they really enjoyed seeing their boss loose his face against those cavers.

Then, after 15 minutes, he played out his final card: "Eh bien, si vous venez de là, vous retournez par là" (Well, if you come from in there, you go back there!" ) he screamed and he began pushing us back in the tunnel again! But we didn't feel much anymore for that 8 hour trip back; the weather was great and fresh beer was waiting for us. We decided to end this show and headed off towards the exit of the place, leaving the man where he was. And, most amazingly, he didn't try to stop us.

Even now I still think that he never believed our story of an upper entrance. But we knew that we stood "straight in our boots", and that was the most important thing of all. We have always tried to be correct, have never pirated closed caves or done things without permission. This time we fell on the wrong guy, that's all.

To end my story: we did have a 7 km long walk to finish the day with, in complete caving equipment and rubber boots, plus the derigging of the Aven Despeysse.

Written by Paul De Bie

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