National Geographic : 1953 Mar
Probing Ice Caves of the Pyrenees 391 Daring French Speleologists, Exploring Frozen Underground Rivers at 10,000 Feet, Find Danger, Silence, and Strange Beauty By NORBERT CASTERET With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author H IGH in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain, "through caverns measureless to man," a sub terranean ice river slowly squirms its way. Eons ago, tumultuous waters carved this hidden stream bed. In a far warmer age the waters danced and murmured as they tore along. Today, congealed with the cold of a much-changed epoch, the "fossilized" river seems dead, its sluggish movement perceptible only to the scientist. With my two sturdy daughters I returned to this wonder world and thought back to the summer day when my mother, my brother Martial, my late wife Elisabeth, and I first knew its strange appeal. It was July 28, 1926. We had just crossed the Breche de Roland, a pass at 9,200 feet, about 30 miles south of Lourdes. Below us spread the Cirque de Gavarnie, a majestic natural amphitheater (page 397). Impeded by a snowy tempest, we wandered among the icy boulders of the Marbore massif, looking for possible caves. Suddenly, between two wind-chased clouds, we saw, separated from us by a steep mass of glacial ice, a natural porch in the cliff. Lack of Spikes Increases Peril Was this a cave entrance or simply a recess behind an overhanging ledge? Seeking the answer, we struggled upward against a high wind, cutting toeholds in the ice with our axes. Our obstinacy was rewarded with discovery of the most fantastic and extraordinary cavern that one could imagine. Beyond the semicircular entrance, from an imposing chaos of rocks we looked down on a frozen subterranean lake, beyond which a river of ice, emerging from darkness, flowed forth from the recesses of the mountain. Setting out on this underworld glacier in the feeble light of our candles, our roped party was forced to turn back by a towering ice-sheathed wall. Two months later my wife and I returned, better equipped with flashlights but lacking crampons, or spikes, on our shoes (page 399). Without their aid we found it dangerous to walk on the ice slopes, to squeeze around corners, or to scramble up the ice cascades. So steep was the cave wall that we had to use all our acrobatic skill to crawl into narrow holes or to lift ourselves along. After hours of delicate maneuvers we were surprised to see daylight above. We emerged from the cavern through a natural well massed with snow. Having entered from the west face of the mountain, we came out on the east slope, amid a formidable clutter of boulders. The eastern face wears a savage scowl, masked by snow nine months of the year. Snow Builds Up in Tall Cones This snow, which hides the rocks, melts very slowly, even on the surface. Sheltered from sun, wind, and rain a few feet under ground, it remains throughout the summer and adds to that rare phenomenon, a glacier in the womb of the earth. Once one has made his way down such a snow well, he is surprised to discover that he can wander in great empty halls, each with a towering snow cone rising toward the opening through which the snow fell. Puddles of water, coming from breaks in the roof, spread basinlike traps so clear that one could not see them against the surface of the glacier. Sometimes the snow is so deep that one must bend low to pass from one hall to another. And, at times, the subterranean river piles up to the very roof, but there is every indication that it continues under the tumble of boulders on the ground's surface. To clear out the passages and halls defies every effort, since the work must be begun again each year. But the interest of this glacial underworld does not lie in clearing a passage through it. In this steep gut hidden from the world snow is turned into ice, and a glacier slowly grows. The narrow hall where one can watch this process ended in a vertical translucent cascade, up which our party could climb only with great difficulty. Such were the trials of exploring this ex traordinary cavern. But in the end I knew the satisfaction of having geographers call it "Casteret Grotto." In August, 1950, twenty-four years after my discovery, I again took the Marbore trail, seeking new caves which I thought must exist in this range.