Author Topic: Dent de Crolles - the P40, then and now...  (Read 2629 times)

Offline Andy Sparrow

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Dent de Crolles - the P40, then and now...
« on: November 19, 2014, 03:13:32 pm »
The following article was written for a Wessex Cave Club publication.  I have posted it here in the hope that some of you may find it interesting and informative.

The P40 – Then and Now…

Rachel and I were very pleased to be able to join the Wessex trip to the Chartreuse this year.  I had not visited the system since the early 90s and it was a real delight to enjoy some classic trips in excellent company.  Noel has asked me to write about one of the trips I undertook – that being from the P40 to the Trou de Glaz, but, before describing our journey through the mountain, I’d like to delve into the history of this particular trip, which is a truly remarkable tale of endurance and determination. 

The Gouffre Berger, Pierre Saint Martin and the Dent de Crolles are the three most popular French cave systems for visiting UK clubs.  It’s no coincidence that each was the subject of books that were highly influential to previous generations of British cavers.      Cadoux and Casteret vividly described the Berger and PSM respectively; huge awe-inspiring vaults with an immediate and obvious attraction. 

Chevalier’s ‘Subterranean Climbers’, the history of the exploration of the Dent de Crolles, had a slightly different appeal.  This was a story of adventure, of gritty determination and comradeship prevailing over immense physical challenges.  It was a tale that resonated with the cave explorer; a book regarded by many as the greatest ever written about our sport. 

Excluding the PSM there are five French cave systems that exceed in length the Dent de Crolles, systems that boast superior formations, larger chambers and more exhilarating streamways.  And yet it is the Dent de Crolles that endures as a top three choice for UK cavers, even though the book that inspired this relationship now gathers dust in club libraries.  I find it rather sad that many cavers visiting the Dent de Crolles have not read this classic work.   Quite apart from the fact it is an excellent read, being familiar with the story adds a whole dimension of interest when caving in the heart of this iconic mountain. 

Pierre Chevalier (centre) at the Trou de Glaz

The driving force behind the exploration of the Dent de Crolles was Pierre Chevalier and Fernand Petzl (who later founded the Petzl company).  Their campaign began in 1935, the initial objective being the connection of the Trou de Glaz (alt. 1697m) to the Guiers Mort (alt 1311m).  The successful liaison of these caves in 1941 was the culmination of an epic story that is the focus of the opening chapters of  ‘Subterranean Climbers’.    During the connection trip, which lasted 29 hours, Petzl took a serious fall when a ladder failed.   Badly bruised and shaken he endured a grueling exit.

Having forged this link the explorers took on a new challenge – to connect the ‘Glaz’ to the P40, the latter being an open pot on the plateau of the Dent de Crolles (alt. 1969m).  The P40 was choked at the bottom so the team resorted to techniques all to familiar to Mendip cavers – they dug. 

The cavers' camp at P40

In Chevalier’s own words:

..the loamy earth was coming away in great slices and we uncovered a horizontal vault; we imagined that this must be a siphoning passage, and that a gallery no doubt lay beyond.  But at that day’s end water burst in and flooded our workings… we had to break off just when we had high hopes…

This was 1942 and life in occupied France was becoming progressively more difficult.  Petrol was almost unobtainable and to make matters worse some members of the team, including Petzl, were laying low from the occupying Germans (young Frenchmen were being sent to Germany to do compulsory labour).  None of these difficulties were sufficient to deter the team…

If we took the train from Lyons on Saturday morning we somehow managed to reach the Glaz at the day’s end.  Thereafter we could devote the next eighteen or twenty hours to the job…  Sleep had to be dispensed with.

The digging operation at the P40 was not neglected…

On the 1st of November 1942 eight of us went up to the plateau through driving snow, and we had foreseen that we had to work in relays all through the night, as we had brought only one small tent.  But none of us had the hardihood to pitch it outside in the teeth of the storm, so all went down the shaft when night fell; there we were at least out of the reach of wind and piercing cold.

At the bottom of the shaft, the tent, which only slept two, was erected on a rubble slope.  It was a miserable, long and cold night.  In attempt to keep warm some of the team tried a new dig site and worked feverishly when a hole was opened.  They found themselves peering through a crevice too tight to penetrate and gave it up as a hopeless job.  After logging a hundred hours of work in the P40 the dig was abandoned and the team tried a new approach to their problem.  One branch of the great fossil gallery of the Glaz ended below high avens where water cascaded down from far above.  The team set about scaling these formidable shafts by designing and building a scaling pole. 

Fernand Petzl and the scaling pole

In the course of several overnight expeditions the team completed a series of precarious maneuvers, bridging the 60 metre Balcony Shaft from ledge to ledge, and finally entering a tight and winding meander.  This difficult passage was explored for two hundred metres before, cold and exhaustion forced a retreat, the team emerging after 28 hours underground.   The next pushing trip lasted 29 hours and saw the team pass the sinuous meanders to reach a ledge partway down a wide and well-watered shaft (The Three Sisters Shaft). 

The heavy sections of the scaling pole, dragged and manhandled laboriously through the meanders, were assembled and an ascent made into a wider gallery.   This was pushed to a conclusion during the course of the next 35 hour expedition.  The team, now tantalisingly close to the plateau, and 21 hours into the trip, began digging at the terminal boulder choke, while Charles Petit-Didier forced a narrow chimney.

The two teams were working quite a distance apart and we had to yell if we wanted to be heard, as words carried poorly.  Suddenly a shout reached us –
“Daylight!  I see daylight!”
Unbelieving we chaffed Charley about his visions he was seeing.
“No I’ve put my lamp out, and it still looks the same. Just ahead there’s a narrowing… then it gets wider.  I’m going to break some of it away with the hammer.”
But time slipped away, the rock was unyielding and only splinters were coming away now.  Charley had to admit defeat and give up his scheme forever.  But before he left the fissure he wrapped a pebble in his handkerchief and cast it upwards to be his witness latter.

Hopes were high but when the bottom of the P40 was searched there was no sign of the handkerchief at the shaft bottom.  It would take another 29 hour expedition before the matter was resolved, and this time a mining bar was cast through the daylight fissure.  Another examination of the P40 followed; this time the narrow crevice opened on the stormy night in 1942 was included in the search, and the bar was found.  The link was made, the connection forged, and the Dent de Crolles system became the deepest in the world.   

Please do note, that this brief summary of events is a very poor substitute for the original.  ‘Subterranean Climbers’ is superbly written with a delightfully quirky translation that may have you occasionally reaching for a dictionary.  For all that it’s an easy read, and a great story well told.

So, moving on to the 5th September 2014, and my visit to the cave in the company of Thomas, Niknak, and Clive.  It was yet another fine day as we slogged our way up the long meandering path leading to the summit of the Dent de Crolles.  It didn’t take long to find the P40, and the rope was quickly rigged.  It’s a beautiful shaft, clean and fluted, tapering out to leave you dangling in space.  I can only assume that the ‘40’ refers to the original depth of the cave, as the pitch is a little under 30 metres.  Hidden away in a corner is the 1942 crevice.  It’s an ample size now, but the narrow chimney first ascended by Charles Petit-Didier remains unmodified.  My first attempt to descend this in complete SRT kit proved optimistic, and removing my descender didn’t help much, so off it all came, and down I slid. 

Clive Westlake at the head of P40

Niknak descending P40

Here’s a top tip if you have any porkers in your team – make sure they fit down this hole before you pull the rope down.   The way on is through some low beddings and up a short fixed rope to enter the York Gallery.  Chevalier explains that the entire population of Lyons existed on tins of ‘York’, an imported American spam, during the winter of 1945/46.   

The trip was not entirely without incident.  Niknak had also been obliged to take off his SRT kit for the squeeze and now, halfway through York gallery, realised that his descender still resided there.  While he beat a hasty retreat to retrieve it we came to the brink on Three Sisters Shaft and rigged a rope, double for pull-through.  The anchors were well set back, so much so that I, descending first, ran out of rope three metres above the floor. 

A quick change-over and I was on my way back up.  A convenient ledge offered a temporary refuge to myself and Clive while we waited for Niknak to come back and save the day, which he duly did, and then Thomas and I were off into the meanders.   We squirmed along for 20 metres or so, and then heard Niknak shouting.  The shrink-wrap tag on the Three Sisters Shaft rope had jammed in a crevice and was irretrievably stuck.  He needed a knife, which Clive provided, and the rope, now a little shorter, was recovered.

This first set of meanders snake along and don’t offer too much resistance, but spare a thought for the original explorers carrying a mountain of kit and a section of cast iron scaling pole each.  They had to pass the constrictions heavily laden, and in both directions, while we were on a one way journey and lightly burdened.  We came to a short pitch, The Fireman’s Shaft, where we regrouped before engaging the next set of meanders.  The shaft was named after ‘The Fireman’s Song’, sung here, according to Chevalier, to raise the spirits of a weary team as they passed by at three in the morning.

Now the ‘fun’ really began.  We were struggling along the top of a deep canyon, never quite sure if we had the optimum level.   Shifting up or down wasn’t easy in the tight rift, and a good deal of effort was required to gain new routes, which usually proved to be less desirable than the original.   After a good deal of struggling, cursing and sweating we were able to drop down to the lowest level and make easier progress.  We came to another short pitch and it was Clive’s turn to realise that his descender was missing.  Fortunately it was soon found, having detached while we were at floor level, and had not dropped down some impossible fissure. 

Finally we were on the brink of the mighty Balcony Shaft, which was descended in three sections.  It defies imagination that this great 60 metre gun barrel had been beaten into submission on those epic all night trips using a 10 metre scaling pole.  There are a few rusting pitons scattered through the cave, still wedged firmly in their cracks, the only evidence of those pioneer days.

Clive on Balcony Shaft

Thomas descending Balcony Shaft

One more 20 metre abseil down a conveniently fixed rope brought us to the galleries of the Glaz.  It’s actually quite low-roofed in this area and rather stoopy until you meet the junction with the main gallery.   Niknak went to de-rig the Lantern Pitches while Thomas and I strolled out of the Glaz and into the warm sunshine.   It’s a splendid panorama that greets you as you step out, a welcome sight after our six hours; it must have been like re-birth to Chevalier and his team staggering out after one of their 30+ hour epics.

Clive and Niknak exit from the Glaz

The P40 to Glaz traverse is harder work than the other through trips, and there is little to see along the way, but it is a sporting trip through territory hard-won all those years ago by a determined and resourceful team.   This was to be our last trip in the Glaz before the camp broke and we went our separate ways.   It brought to mind Chevaliers final words as he brought his own story to a close:

It was time to switch our attention to other chasms, for we were not ready to bid a final farewell to subterranean exploration, sometimes so agonizing, but so rich in happy memories, so productive in firm friendships… But whatever came our way, we should not live again those superb hours we had passed far under the Dent de Crolles, and which we shall always treasure as amongst the most wonderful of our lives.

Andy Sparrow  10th October 2014

Ref:  Subterranean Climbers by Pierre Chevalier (1951).  ISBN 0-914264-14-1

Andy Sparrow

Offline mrodoc

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Re: Dent de Crolles - the P40, then and now...
« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2014, 11:07:49 pm »
What I found impressive about the book is that it was sufficiently detailied in its descriptions to allow a through trip from Trou de Glaz to Guiers Mort without us making any serious route finding errors and without having previously recced the cave.  The best bit was when we discovered the sump had dried out and we could walk out instead of taking the bypass.

Offline mmilner

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Re: Dent de Crolles - the P40, then and now...
« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2014, 11:25:44 pm »
Brilliant report Andy.  :thumbsup: I also loved that book, as you will see from my signature. Inspirational...
Norbert Casteret (Ten Years Under the Earth) and Pierre Chevalier (Subterranean Climbers) were my inspiration to start caving. (And I'm still doing it.) Secretary, Darfar Potholing Club, the Peak District.

Offline mrodoc

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Re: Dent de Crolles - the P40, then and now...
« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2014, 10:39:14 am »
On the 1980 some of the Cerberus team did the Gouffre Therese - even more demanding than P40 apparently. I spent a chilly few hours waiting in the Metro with Angie and Ken Gregory but the through trip team took so long we left the cave. I think it took them nearly 23 hours to get through!  The Metro was little creepy in that there is a caver entombed in a side passage at one end. In typically gung ho Gallic fashion his final resting place is adorned with his helmet and light plus two large broken stalactites placed in a crucifix shape.

Offline Duncan Price

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Dent de Crolles
« Reply #4 on: June 15, 2016, 08:46:16 am »
I happen to be visiting Crolles next week on business.  Apart from visiting the Petzl factory (do they have a shop?) what else is there to do?  I understand there is a funicular railway and some via ferrata ( to be had.  I won't have time to do any serious caving* though a walk up to Grotte Chevalier or drive around to the Cirque Meme to visit the Guis Vif might be on the cards.


* did a couple of Trou de Glaz through trips in the '80s.

Offline langcliffe

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Re: Dent de Crolles
« Reply #5 on: June 15, 2016, 01:16:32 pm »
I happen to be visiting Crolles next week on business.  Apart from visiting the Petzl factory (do they have a shop?) what else is there to do?  I understand there is a funicular railway and some via ferrata ( to be had.  I won't have time to do any serious caving* though a walk up to Grotte Chevalier or drive around to the Cirque Meme to visit the Guis Vif might be on the cards.

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