Expedition To The Grotte De La Cigalere - 1975
Pegasus Caving Club Report
The Grotte de la Cigalere is in the Haut Lez of the French Pyrenees in the Department of Ariege. The entrance is quoted variously as being at 1,688, 1,700 or 1,850metres above sea level. Despite these discrepancies, finding the large triangular entrance presents little difficulty. The entrance can be seen above the mining track which leads from Eylie to the deserted mining settlement of Bentillou. Bentillou’s abandoned buildings make an excellent surface camp above the Cigalere. The track is 13km long and although maintained by L ’Union Pyreneenne Electrique it is in poor condition, often being damaged by the frequent heavy rainfall. The track winds up the mountainside by a series of tortuous bends and it is advisable to restrict movement up the track to vehicles with good ground clearance. The track and the cave entrance are barred and locked, access being strictly controlled by the Laboratoire Souterrain in Moulis. Prior permission must be sought well in advance for a Cigalere trip. The Paris based L'ARSHAL. (Association de Recherche de Haut Lez) make regular trips to the Cigalere. Access for other clubs is restricted to the period when L'ARSHAL are visiting the Cigalere, which is usually the first three weeks in August. Letters to L'ARSHAL and the Laboratoire Souterrain are necessary, but once contact is made, both were exceptionally helpful.
The Cigalere is a resurgence cave and features loose rock and numerous wet cascades. The water from the Gouffre Martel joins the Cigalere, but when the U.P.E. tunnelled into the Martel diverting water into Etang de Chicore for the power station at Eylie, there was little effect on water levels in the Cigalere. The main source of Cigalere’s water is yet to be found. No physical link up has been made between the Cigalere and the Gouffre Martel, but the prospects are good.
The first of the Pegasus Club's two-week trip was occupied with visits to the Montespan caves and Casteret's Ice Cave (see accounts in the Pegasus, Newsletter ) with final negotiations at the Laboratoire in Moulis regarding access and waiting for the arrival of L'ARSHAL from Paris and drinking.
L'ARSHAL were most cooperative throughout. Recognising that our time was limited, they allowed us up the track to Bentillou before them, to establish our camp and subsequently gave us open access to the Cigalere prior to their own trip.
We drove up the track on Monday 4th August, with considerable difficulty, as the van carrying most of the equipment was heavily loaded. Several crates of wine had to be unloaded with other gear en-route, and a return trip made. Apart from the drivers the cavers all walked up the track which is about 13km. long. Owing to the difficulties of this track, it is advisable for any team to allow one day for ascending and one for descending over and above time allowed for caving.
We entered the cave on Tuesday 5th August, in two groups, one carrying caving and diving equipment, the other carrying photographic gear. The cave was retackled as far as the camp in the Salle de Minuit. The diving equipment and tackle for the remainder of the cave was left with two team members who wished to camp, the rest of the party returned to the surface. The time taken for the round trip was twelve hours.
Throughout the cave, we used L'ARSHAL equipment leaving our own at the surface. We re-tackled pitches still rigged from the previous year, with new equipment brought from Paris. The mutual advantages of such an arrangement are obvious, but the underlying spirit of cooperation, not always as evident in international caving, was particularly valued by us.
We expected major route finding difficulties in the Cigalere but only experienced fairly minor delays. We were aided as far as the camp site in the Salle de Minuit by the telephone cable installed by the French. The first sector of the cave as far as the Trou Souffleur contains most of the formations and is relatively easy caving. The formations, although beautiful, were somewhat overrated in our opinion. We noted the vandalism mentioned by St. Martins, but much of the formations' decay appears to be natural, the removal of formations, even those already broken, is forbidden.
On the second day, Wednesday 6th August, a smaller party set off to reach the end of the cave, and to carry the diving equipment to the stream sump, whilst the photographic team moved independently through the cave at their own pace. The photographic group obtained excellent photographs. The sump party joined the campers, who had already been to the end, and carried the diving equipment to the terminal sump ready for the next day's dive. This trip also occupied about twelve caving hours.
On Thursday the 7th August, the two divers and a back-up team, including a photographer, went to the sump. One diver entered the sump but no airspace was reached. A comprehensive report by the diver is included in this report. French cavers from L'ARSHAL assisted in carrying out diving equipment from the campsite to the surface. The caving time was twelve hours.
The speed, reasonable ease and considerable enjoyment of caving throughout the trip was no accident, it occurred because each person worked hard as part of a team. The surface party were in every sense an integral part of the trip providing hot food and cool wine at all hours and in all conditions.
Route Guide And Comments
From the entrance, descend the slope to the streamway in a massive chamber flanked by mud banks. This chamber can flood and it is advisable to leave a dinghy, and a hand line to the entrance in case of emergency. Either follow at stream level upstream, climbing a small cascade, or traverse the mud slope parallel to the right-hand wall of the chamber. Our party found the stream way easier, particularly with equipment.
Follow the large stream passage with occasional boulder piles for a few hundred yards to the Salle Blanche. The Salle Blanche is a large decorated cavern, but is by no means "Bigger than Gaping Gyll main chamber" as one source quotes. A high-level series of dry passages and sandy crawls lead to the Trou Souffleur, where an incredible roaring draught which blows carbide lamps out is encountered for about six feet of narrow passage.
Go right, and down to the stream, up to the boulder slope opposite which can either, by a series of short climbs, by-pass the first cascade at high level, or climb slightly left of the water directly up the cascade. We found climbing the cascade quicker and easier with equipment. A hand line is advisable but not an absolute necessity. The second and third cascades are free climbed. The forth cascade is laddered (30') whilst the fifth and sixth are passed by high level passage. The seventh cascade is laddered (35'). The fourth and seventh cascades are not laddered in the water, but at about twenty to twenty-five feet before the water via high level rifts and traverses. There is a short section of stream passage, followed by the eighth and ninth cascades. The eighth (35') is laddered slightly to the left of the water. The French equipment from the previous year was still in position, but it was badly worn by the buffeting of winter floods. It is advisable for the tackling party to be extremely wary of tackle left in the cave and particularly so on the eighth as the equipment is within reach of the water. For tackling purposes the eighth can be climbed without artificial aids by a competent climber. The ninth cascade (45') is not usually climbed in the water, but can be by a good climber. After the eighth go left up a boulder slope to the foot of a 45' pitch, beware of loose boulders. At the head of the pitch is a slippery mud slope, and a traverse leading to a high-level rift above the eleventh cascade. A hand line
is necessary, especially if equipment is carried. Climb down the rift via the easiest route, (follow the telephone wire), to stream level.
Go upstream to a large chamber with a boulder slope, climb up and to the right. From this point follow the cable through a series of boulder choked chambers, passing either over or through these until the campsite chamber is reached. We did not encounter the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth cascade via this route. The campsite in the Salle de Minuit is easily recognised with a stream inlet on the left and a relatively dry chamber littered with camp and cooking materials. Camping is not a necessity, though two of our party chose to do so. However, as the cave changes at this point into one of a more active youthful nature, it is advisable to use the campsite as a resting and eating site, leaving supplies in case of emergency. The camp is only about two hours caving time from the terminal sump. The fourteenth and fifteenth cascades follow immediately after the campsite. The fourteenth is climbed left of the water as is the fifteenth. On the fifteenth we left a handline and on our return either reversed the climb or abseiled. At the head of the fifteenth, after a short low passage, climb up and to the right to a boulder slope and chamber. It is possible to miss the way here, but as the sixteenth cascade follows soon after the fifteenth the mistake is soon realised. After the chamber follow the high-level passage through a small calcited chamber to the head of a (20') ladder pitch. Descend, following the passage to stream level. A series of deep pools joined by small stream passages lead to the twenty- fourth cascade which, although short, is made easier by use of a hand line. Proceed upstream to the twenty-fifth cascade which can be laddered in the water (25') or dry (25') leading to a tight tube and a 45º sloping stalagmite floor. Follow the stream passage until a sump is reached, and then climb up the obvious parallel rift to the right for about 25' until a "window" is reached overlooking the chamber containing the twenty-sixth cascade. Go through the 'window' and traverse down to the left onto an angled ledge, about one third up the cascade, and to the left of the water. There is a piton here for belaying the base of the ladder on line to prevent swinging into the water. A fairly easy climb follows the ledge to the head of the cascade. The route to the right used by Casteret and others is not recommended and holds no advantage. The stream sump follows almost immediately after a boulder pile.
To the right is a dry passage and sandy crawls leading to a static pool with Casteret's
and his party's names on the wall beside a more recent "Amazin' raisins rule, O.K.".
Total distance from entrance to sump is about 3,500 metres.
Loose rock is the most significant danger, as what appear to be solid belays or ledges often drop away. Water was not a great problem on this trip but it is easy to envisage conditions where a sudden rise in water level could cause problems. There are numerous high level by-pass routes which would provide refuge in most cases. It might prove necessary to re-rig certain pitches if water rose considerably. Losing the way could have serious consequences if for example a party tried to climb one of the cascades normally by-passed, e.g. the sixteenth.
Personal equipment should include wet-suits (or dry suits) for the far reaches of the cave at least. We used them throughout the cave. Carbide lights of the cap and generator types were used in conjunction with lead acid cells.
Two hundred and fifty feet of ladder and corresponding ropes are all that is necessary and it is advisable to take a few pitons and bolts.
When the terminal sump was reached, it was found to be more the inlet 7 furthest from the entrance, rather than the logical end of the cave. It is an inlet on the left of the main passage going upstream towards the gravel choked "sump" which is the true end of the cave.
James Cobbett dived, encountering after about twelve feet a small air-bell. This is probably the one mentioned in the St. Martins 1973 report. The sump then went down through a narrow rift and then to a larger air-bell at about forty feet from base. The sump then descended to a squeeze considered too small for such a large diver. The floor is shaley silt and had, by this time, stirred up to reduce visibility to a few inches. James Cobbett tied off the line at the air-bell and returned to base, but not without some unpleasantness in the rift. The French Cavers assisted in the removal of equipment from the cave.
It is possible that the sump washes out and would be passable in different conditions, but extensions could probably be better made elsewhere in La Cigalere. In particular, staying at the camp and poking around in the roof could find something. Only three expeditions have reached the end of the cave and there must be a lot more to see.
We have, in this report, tried to minimise the "glorious narrative" approach to reporting caving trips, and hope that this report will be of practical use to subsequent trips to the Cigalere as well as being of general interest to those who may read it. We wish to point out that the Cigalere is a serious undertaking and could, under certain conditions, be a very dangerous cave. It should not be underestimated.
James Cobbett, J Middlemist, Mick Durdy, Alan Harrison, Sue Harrison, Paul Foster, Alan Steans, Stuart McManus
Liz Jeanmaire, Mike Jeanmaire, Victor Holland, Steve Watson, Phil Nuthall & Clive Westlake
James Cobbett - Pegasus Caving Club (diver)
M. Cooke - Technical Speleological Group
Ian Davison - Independent
Mick Durdey - Pegasus Caving Club
Paul (Torchy) Foster - Pegasus Caving Club
Alan Harrison - Pegasus Caving Club
Victor Holland - Pegasus Caving Club
Stuart Huntingdon - Eldon Pothole Club
Tony (Wingnut) Huntingdon - Eldon Pothole Club
Mike (Fish) Jeanmaire - Plymouth Caving Club (diver)
Liz Jeanmaire - Plymouth Caving Club
Stuart McManus - Pegasus Caving Club (Expedition Organiser)
J. (Mouse) Middlemist - Eldon Pothole Club
Phil Nuthall - Pegasus Caving Club
Bruce Roberts - Independent
Ros Roberts - Independent
AI Steans - Pegasus Caving Club
Pete Smith - Technical Speleological Group
Steve Watson - Pegasus Caving Club
Clive Westlake - Eldon Pothole Club
Jerry Wooldridge - Technical Speleological Group (photographer)
The following letters refer to the request for permission to visit La Grotte de la Cigalere by the Pegasus Club.
Translation of the above letter.
Dear Sir, Paris, July 2, 1975
I receive your letter today on 26/6/75 regarding your visit to the Cigalere. I apologize for answering in French, not having the honour of knowing English...
Mr. JUBERTHIE, of the Laboratoire de Moulis, had informed me of your telephone communication, which I had been quite astonished at, having replied to Mr. GOUGHLAND's letter. I enclose a copy of my reply.
The terms are still valid, and if you agree to participate in our expedition, please send me the surnames, first names, dates of birth of the participants, because I must provide a nominative list to the Laboratory of Moulis and the Gendarmerie.
We will be at SENTEIN from the 2nd August to the evening, beginning of our expedition. It is not in my power to authorize you to go to La Cigalere before that date.
For reasons of convenience, we will have to climb to the Cigalere in a group, because the access path is prohibited and closed by a barrier and is used by the workers of the E.D. F for work in the mountains.
The stay is made under tent at 1900m altitude.
You will be able to take photographs in the Grotto, but of course they must not be used for commercial purposes, since all documents in the Cigalere remains the property of the National Centre for Scientific Research.
On the other hand, please respect the number of participants that you indicated to Mr JUBERTHIE, that is to say not more than 12, because too many trips in the cave will lead even involuntarily to a degradation.
Pending your reply, please accept, Sir, the expression of
my best regards.
It is believed that most of the photographs in this article were taken by Jerry Wooldridge. Thanks to him (without his knowledge) for permission to reproduce them here.
The Survey by ARSHAL is copyright. Many thanks and hoping they don't mind.
Bibliography And Useful Addresses
1. 1967 le Réseau hydrologique Martel-Cigalère, D’Ursel. P and Magos.B.
2. 1973 Annual Bulletin Association de Recherche Spéléologique du Haut Lez
3. St. Martin's College Cigalere Report R. Palmer Expedition to the Grotte de la Cigalere 1973.
D. Roucheux, 92 Rue Regnault, 75,
Paris 13. France.
Professor De la Mare-Deboutille,
Laboratoire Souterrain, Moulis,
Ariege. Tel: Moulis 7.
Report written and compiled by Al. Harrison, Stuart McManus and James Cobbett.
Pegasus Caving Club 1976.