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The Pierre St Martin

Listed under Caves & Caving in South West, France.

  • Photo of The Pierre St Martin
  • Photo of The Pierre St Martin
Photo of The Pierre St Martin
Photo by ralphjohnson
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I had wanted to explore the Pierre St Martin since my early teens having read the book “The Descent of Pierre Saint Martin” by the father of French caving Norbert Casteret in which he described the first descent into the system via the 312m shaft later named Gouffre Lepineux. Sadly it cost Marcel Loubens, one of the early explorers, his life when a clamp holding his harness to the winch cable snapped without warning. On my first visit to this beautiful area of the Pyrennes I was disappointed to find that there was no access via this route but an entrance via the Tete Sauvage was now possible which consisted of a series of pitches separated by relatively small ledges, it had a depth of around 380m. To make life easier, well relatively easier, a tunnel had been driven into the vast chamber, The Salle de Verna, at the end of the system with a view to using the void as part of a hydro-electric scheme. Fortunately for cavers this never materialised and this left us with the deepest “through-trip” in the world.

Despite being just over 1200’ descending the entrance is the easy part since the journey from the foot of the shaft to the “EDF” tunnel consists of a complex network of passages and often takes groups as long as 24 hours to complete the “traverse”.

After several hours of strenuous and often wet caving we reached the “Tunnel of The Wind”, a passage where the water level often reaches the roof rendering it impassable, but always wet and bitterly cold with a howling gale due to its small size and being the only connection between two vast networks of cave passage. None of us were looking forward to this 70 m long aquatic problem but after changing into wet suits and with a variety of flotation devices we all made a successful crossing (not that we had any choice in the matter!).

We had been underground 6 hours and we knew that we had around 3 ½ km left to reach the Salle de Verna and that the route to the foot of The Lepineux Shaft (the one that claimed the life of Loubens) was complicated. Groups loosing their way had resulted in several rescues and the local rescue team had marked out the route with short lengths of reflective tape, however despite this being a great help it was by no means foolproof and we lost our way several times!

Eventually we reached the foot of the Lepineux shaft and the original tomb of Marcel Loibens (his body was recovered some time after the accident). The site was marked with a simple vase of plastic flowers and the inscription “Ici Marcel Loubens a vecu les derniers jours de sa vie courageuse”. We sat in silence for a while each with our thoughts as we ate a small meal before packing our sacks and moving on leaving the Salle de Loubens in total silence once again.

Some of the chambers were ENORMOUS being over 200m long with walls and a roof that our halogen spotlights could not reach. Several hours later we finally reached the massive Salle de Verna which is the largest natural underground chamber in the northern hemisphere. All that was left was a short walk along the mined EDF tunnel (with a somewhat dubious roof in places) into the warm night air, followed by around an hours decent through dense pine forest to the tiny village of St Engrace. A truly magnificent adventure and one that will remain in my memory for many years to come.

Written by  Ralph Johnson.

Other expert and press reviews

“Pierre St Martin”

This is one of the most famous cave systems in the world. It is devoid of formations but the scale of the cave is almost beyond comprehension. Those not into hard core caving can reach the gigantic Salle de la Verna (second largest cave chamber in the w… Read more...

Written by  Mike Lyvers.

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