When an expedition falls apart it is always a good plan to have a back up ready. A group of British Cave Diving Group Members had been planning to attack a resurgence site in Italy, however when permission to dive the site was not forth coming the team headed in different directions. Some towards Spain others to the South of France. Pete Mulholland and Mike Thomas headed to the Herault within site of the Mediterranean. We had read much about this area, but had never had the chance to explore it before.
Our trip was planned as a combination of reconnaissance and pushing exploration. They took one vehicle with a trailer, a compressor and a huge pile of cylinders, rebreathers and scooters. The region has an impressive high plateau cut through by steep sided gorges. The Plateau is at 7-800 m 2300-2600 ft. Rivers snake precipitously below this at an altitude of 2-300 m 650-980 ft. The gorges steeply cut, heavily wooded, slick with rock scree are full of wildlife. Finding cave entrances is a problem in itself. One area was searched for two days, hacking around in the brush, and slipping and sliding on the scree without finding the entrance, despite map references and a description ( Admittedly translated from French into English!)
With a team of two, high altitude and severe carry ins Mike and Pete opted to dive on alternate days. Each dive required three back breaking load carries each way of at least 100 m vertically and at one site 1300m horizontally. Both as British Cave Divers are actually happiest when they are alone in the water. Its easier that way!
At one site, the Gourneyras, Mike was in the resurgence and Pete was poking around looking for surface caves. On the back of the cliff wall above the blue sump pool was an inviting hole. 10 m (30 ft )above the water and 5 m (15 ft ) from the top of the cliff. A rope would be rigged to inspect the entrance! In the middle of rigging a rope ready to Rappel ( Abseil ) down to the cave Pete started hearing things! Awooo Awooo !! Where there wolves here in France? Possibly wild dogs! The noises got closer and closer! Fearing the worst the rope was rapidly deployed over the cliff edge and Pete hurried into his drysuit. He could always hang on the rope out of harms way if it was a pack of wild dogs. Poised and ready to swing out over the void if the noises got any closer Pete awaited Mikes Return.
After two hours bubbles started breaking the spell of solitude around the glorious resurgence pool. Mike had had a great dive. You could see the entrance from a depth of 50 m ( 165 ft ), great visibility and wide wide passage. Pete swung out over the cliff, checked the cave and splashed down in the resurgence pool ready to carry Kit out. Telling Mike of the noises, and wild dogs seemed ridiculous as now the twittering of Birds and the rustle of the trees in the warm afternoons sunshine cast a comfortable spell over the valley! Not a dog in sight! Were they imagined... did Mike believe him? Not from the string of sarcastic comments that followed for the next few days!
A few days later and Pete is in the water at the Gourneyras and Mike is mooching around the valley looking for caves. A fallen tree gave access to the far bank. Mike strolled over this arboreal bridge and had been poking around inside an impressive dry cave with a sump some distance inside it. Returning to the bright glare of sunshine .. Awooooool Awoool. Yes he had heard that! Perhaps Pete was not barking mad. In the distance one lonesome howling monster could be heard. He decided to arm himself with a stout staff. Back across the tree bridge looking like an extra from a Robin hood movie! Up on to the steep zig zagging track through the bushes. More barking, a rustle and a black shape is hurtling down the slope straight at him. He swings his stick at it, and swings it over his head. As the stick arcs over him he sees his adversary flying through the air, with crazed eyes and drooling tongue. He has hooked the collar of a little tiny black French poodle.... It crashes into the bushes below him.. and Mike heaves a huge sigh of relief. 30 Mt up the slope he passes a French Family picnicking.. Bonjour,, he calls as he quickly slides by..... "Bonjour!" ( Good Day!) they call after him unaware of the Viscious attack he has just made on their family pet! "There is nothing to Fear but fear itself!"
At a second site the Gourney Rou Pete had a very different kind of experience. Diving on a Cis Lunar MkV with offboard cylinders of Trimix and Nitrox Pete had passed the elbow of the sump at 85 m ( 280 ft ) and was headed on up to explore the passage on the far side. Once into the shallow section his bag was purged of Trimix and replaced with air. ( This was to limit the decompression that was beginning to rack up. Looking round to a torrent of bubbles He realised his Trimix was streaming away through the open circuit offboard regulator mouthpiece. The valve was shut down. After checking the demand valve the tap was cracked back on. The main O ring blew and the last few breaths of Trimix rattled off into the blackness.
Oops! Wrong side of a sump with only air as dilluent and an 85 m deep point to pass to get out. All further exploration stopped at that point! There followed a few stunned very loud moments of thinking! The heart says one thing and must be ignored..Fortunately the head kick in and get things in order. Wise words spoken by Tom Mount on a Cave Diving Course came back to me! "Believe you can. Believe you can't. Either way you are right!" Quitting is the only unforgivable sin in cave diving! To quit will result in only one outcome. No matter how desperate the situation seems .. despite everything your heart pounding in your chest is telling you, you must allow your head to regain control. You must continue to try. Regardless of how hopeless the situation looks. Quitting is not a survival option.
At 85 m air as a dilluent would be delivering a PO2 of 2.00. Not necessarily fatal, but not good! It was decided that this was too high for safety. He headed to 70 m, got the rebreathing bags well inflated and started burning up some of the oxygen before heading deeper. As the PO2 fell the EAD began to climb. Horribly narcosed he felt the stupor increasing as the O2 % fell and the narcotic depth creeps ever deeper and deeper. At a PO2 of 1.5 enough was enough! He began his descent. Concentrating on moving and avoiding the dive line. At this point in the sump there are actually as many as 5 lines running parallel. Getting tangled with this level of narcosis would not be a good thing! Swimming became impossible.. The heart started to scream.!!!!!!.. no way.. no way! no way! The head fought for control and the body kept moving... Crawling along the bottom focused on a single thing... keep going, Do not quit! Quitting is not a survival option. The warning lights on the Rebreather began to light up! Too high a PO2! Check!.. 1.7... OK! keep going don't stop.. Flushing the loop will not help.. Keep crawling.. More red lights.... Low dilluent.. Check.. Switch to offboard dilluent... keep crawling.... Dive line getting close... check. Stay clear keep crawling! Red Lights! Don't care!..Keep crawling..CHECK!!!
Finally instead of crawling down the passage He was crawling up! The elbow on the floor was at 87 m 285 ft. As the depth fell away, the head progressively cleared and the heart began to shut up! Survival is the only option! At 40 m there was a spare cylinder of 32 % that was not needed but most welcome. At 6 Mt was another cylinder with oxygen in for emergency use. During the dive Mike had built a little pile of rocks into a little statue. With sunlight streaming into the entrance of the cave dancing on this little rocky idol Pete had something to look at and contemplate while he finished his decompression. He Exited the water very shaken, and surprised at how bad things can get, and yet still you can manage to hang on ,keep going and survive . The EAD on this dive was in the region of 95 m! This is 30 m deeper than this diver ever plans to be on air ever again!
After a few days of reflection, and a few modifications to his equipment Package Pete redived the site and pushed a rift up to within 30 m (100 ft) of the surface before turning to come back to the spring sunshine of the Herault Valley A return at a later date with a lot more surface support is planned. The Herault Region in France has much to recommend it. There are a multitude of Dive Sites, the locals very welcoming, the food excellent, and wine cheap and plentiful. Admittedly the dive sites are a little inaccessible and the terrain is extreme. Altitude, deep dives and strenuous activity make this a very special kind of diving location. Lessons learnt here will be remembered for a long time to come.
Pete would like to thank:-
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for help with the custom designed thermal Tricore undersuits used on these dives.
Despite the very strenuous equipment carries prior to diving the undersuits proved very capable of wicking away massive amounts of sweat, leaving the diver warm and very comfortable throughout 3 hour dives. The undersuits was custom fitted to combine with a drysuit from
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that proved exceptionally comfortable.
The combination of heavy undersuits and drysuits often leads to very restricted movement, however the C-bear undersuit allows the maximum of movement while providing more than adequate thermal protection. An electrically heated vest was included into the suit package. The diver ended up not using the electric vest because the thermal protection proved very adequate without. Air was used for suit inflation to keep things simple!
Pete Mulholland 2000