La Salle de La Verna

Gouffre Pierre Saint-Martin - Grotte de La Verna - La Verna Pierre Saint-Martin


Useful Information

Location: South of Sainte Engrâce, at the border to Spain.
Open: Reception: Mid-APR to mid-NOV 9-?.
The tourist tours can be booked online, but only for the day and only regular tickets. Exact time is obviously sent after successfull reservation. Visites Aventures (spelunking tours): only after appointment, minimum 6 persons, indiviuals can join groups.
[2019]
Fee: La Verna Découverte: Adults EUR 17, Children (5-15) EUR 11. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 14, Children (5-15) EUR 10.
La Verna Exploration rivière: Adults EUR 22, Children (7-15) EUR 16, Children (0-6) not allowed. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 19, Children (7-15) EUR 15.
La Verna Exploration sportive: Adults EUR 27, Children (10-15) EUR 21, Children (0-9) not allowed. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 24, Children (10-15) EUR 20.
Visites Aventures: Chevalier EUR 46. Adélie EUR 64. Aranzadi EUR 64. Les Grandes Salles EUR 86.
Group prices for families, speleologists, and on off-season weekdays. Reduction of EUR 5 for people walking to the entrance.
[2019]
Classification: ExplainKarst cave
Light: electric/personal light.
Dimension: L=80,200m, VR=1,408m, T=5°C.
Guided tours: La Verna Découverte: D=60min.
La Verna Exploration rivière: D=90min.
La Verna Exploration sportive: D=120min.
Visites Aventures: Chevalier D=3h. Adélie D=5h. Aranzadi D=5h. Les Grandes Salles D=1d.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: La Verna Découverte yes, others no.
Bibliography: Haroun Tazieff (1952): Le gouffre de La Pierre Saint Martin, collection exploration chez Arthaud, 2 editions 1952 and 1954. Available online as pdf download.
Norbert Casteret (1955): The Descent of Pierre Saint-Martin, J. M. Dent; First Edition edition (1955)
Jacques Labeyrie (2005): Les découvreurs du Gouffre de La Pierre Saint-martin, éditions Cairn, 2005.
Address: SAS La Verna Pierre Saint-Martin, Espace d'accueil Arrakotchepia, Quartier Calla, 65560 Sainte Engrâce, Tel: 063788-2905, Tel: 0975-177566, E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1892-1909 Édouard Alfred Martel und Eugène Fournier researched caves in this area.
1950 Gouffre de la Pierre Saint-Martin discovered.
1951 first exploration of the cave.
1952 second exploration ends with the death of Marcel Loubens.
1953 Salle de La Verna discovered, cave becomes deepest cave of the world.
1954 Marcel Loubens lifted from the cave and buried in the nearby town Sainte Engrâce.
1956 tunnel into the cave by the EDF.
2006 hydroelectric power plant completed by the new owner Société Hydroélectrique du Midi (SHEM).
02-APR-2008 hydroelectric power plant operated inaugurated.
2010 start of tourist tours into the Salle de La Verna.

Description

We heard of the youngest show cave in France which is named La Salle de La Verna and located in the Pyrénées at the border to Spain. It has a huge chamber, and a new website. After some reading the whole story got strange, until we discovered that this is neither a show cave, nor is it new at all. The actual name of this cave is Gouffre de la Pierre Saint Martin, it was discovered and explored in the 1950s, became the deepest cave of the world and was the place of a tragic cave accident. And it was well published, as Norbert Casteret was part of the team, and he wrote a book which was published in numerous languages. So let us see if we can tell the story in the correct order.

The cave was discovered in 1950 by Georges Lépineux on the last day of this years expedition, so they had to leave it for next year. It was located in the middle of the Pierre Saint Martin karst plateau, an area 140km² large and between 1,500m asl and 2,100m asl high. They dropped a perpendicular, but the first time the 200m long rope they used was not enough, so they retried with another rope and measured 370m. This was the deepest daylight shaft known at this time, and it was named Gouffre Lépineux in honour of its discoverer. The cave had made its first world record on the day of its discovery without a single caver entering it.

In 1951 the cave was entered for the first time. The cavers had constructed a winch with almost 400m of 5mm thick steel rope. It was powered by a modified bicycle with one manpower, which had two sets of pedals, one for the feet and one for the hands. Numerous cavers went down and got an overview of the first chamber, and discovered a second shaft leading down to a cave river. At the end of the expedition, the winch was starting to fail and they planned a better winch for the next year.

One of the cavers constructed a new winch for 1952, which weighed 100kg and was rather sturdy. It was a pain to bring it to the cave entrance. Nevertheless, it failed several times, a general problem with selfmade constructions. But at last they entered the cave again and explored new passages. When they returned, one of the cavers, Marcel Loubins was lifted up, when the end-loop of the cable broke, and he fell back 30m to the ground. He broke many bones and had internal injuries. After three days he died inside the cave, although one of the cavers was a doctor and did anything to help him as much as he could. It was hard work to get all team members back to the surface, but it was not possible to take the body with them, so they made a temporary grave inside the cave.

The cave, named Gouffre Lépineux became famous, or probably infamous. Newspapers and radio stations reported every dramatic detail. But everbody named the cave Pierre Saint Martin, after the plateau where it was located, and that name stuck. Later a chamber inside the cave was named Salle Lépineux, to compensate Lépineux for the loss. So today the cave system is named Pierre Saint Martin, while the original entrance is actually named Gouffre Lépineux on many maps. It's really complicated, but at least did the cavers of those times choose dramatic names. Todays cavers tend to choose infantile names like Castle of Edam.

In 1953 the cave exploration went on and was very successful. The cave was surveyed and as a result it became the deepest cave at this time. And they discovered the Salle de la Verna, 255m long, 245m wide, and 194m high, which was the largest cave chamber known at this time. They also surveyed the depth of the cave with 734m, which made it the deepest cave of the world. But they again had technical difficulties and were not able to lift the body of Marcel Loubins out of the cave.

Unfortunately the cave entrance is located right on the Spanish/French border, so there were frequent disputes with the Spanish border patrol. At this time the fashist Franco regime ruled in Spain and the borders were rather sensible. And also the actual location of the border was disputed as both countries considered the area around the entrance as their territory. It would have been a lame joke, to quarrel about some square meters of of worthless rocks. But in 1954 the Spanish border soldiers stopped the exploration. After travels to Spain, attemts to get an official permit and the threat to inform the newspapers about the Spanish harassment, the Spanish government finally allowed to get the body of Marcel Loubins out of the cave. They probably imagined that "Spain government denies heroic explorer his final rest" would be a poor international headline.

The exploration results were used economically soon after the exploration. The Électricité de France (EDF, French electric power company) used the survey data to plan an underground hydroelectric power plant. In 1956 they drilled a 600m long tunnel into the cave, to redirect the cave river. But planning errors and technical difficulties made it a fail. There was not enough water in the river so the plan did not work out, but the biggest problem was that the tunnel ended high above the cave river. However, among cavers and scientists all over the world the failure was unknown, and so it became generally know as the only energy plant in a cave. It is for example mentioned in Hubert Trimmels book Höhlenkunde, which was published two years later.

The tunnel provided a much easier access to the cave system, far from the Spanish border. During the next decades exploration continued, but visits have always been strictly limited with the need to obtain permissions from the EDF. In 1966 the Association pour la recherche spéléologique internationale de la Pierre Saint-Martin (arsip) was founded to coordinate the numerous national and international cavers which came to explore the caves of the area. Today the cave system is more than 80km long and 1,400m deep. But its world records are all gone, as bigger caves have been discovered since then.

The hydroelectric power project was revived by the new owner, the Société Hydro Électrique du Midi (SHEM), in 2006. They renovated the tunnel and built steel tubes from the end of the tunnel to the Salle de La Verna, where they now catch the water. The power plant was inaugurated in 2008 and produces 4 Megawatt since then. As a side effect there is now a trail to this chamber, originally intended for the engineers and workers, which is obviously also suitable for cave visitors. At first the SHEM allowed only its own personell in what they see as their power plant. But the Comité Départemental de Spéléologie des Pyrénées-Atlantiques convinced them to allow organized tourist visits which started in 2010.

The tour starts with a shuttle ride to the cave entrance, which is 7km from the reception area. Vistors can also walk to the cave enrance and save a few Euros. Here the visitors are equipped with helmets, lamps, and audioguides in English and Spanish. The visitors have to walk through the 600m long tunnel to reach the cave. This tunnel is actually equipped with electric light. Inside the cave the path along the steel tubes continues to the Salle de La Verna, but the huge chambers are not equipped with light and can only be seen when the guides use special high power lamps, which burn only for a short time. This is the shortest tour which is astonishingly wheelchair accessible, as the trail follows the water tubes. The cave has only 5°C so warm clothes, gloves, and walking shoes are mandatory.

The operators offer three short tours and four long tours, the short tours are called tourist tours and require no caving skills. The other tours require physical fitness, surefootedness, and at least some mountaineereing or caving practice. The cave is huge and there is no crawling, but it is necessary to walk on uneven ground, climb boulders and on the river tour enter the cave river.

A last word for the show-cave-status of this cave, as the organizers of the tours actually insist that it is a show cave now. Nevertheless we decided to still call it a semi-wild cave. The main problem is, that there is no sharp objective definition of a show cave. Until today the definition of Hubert Trimmel is the best we have: a cave is a show cave if most of the following criteria are fulfilled: light, paths, closed by a gate, regular open hours, entrance fee, and guided tours. You see: its quite fuzzy. Obviously a show cave is still a show cave, if there is no light, or if there are self guided tours. The easy paths are probably the most important critera. So in general, its hard to find a sharp border between a show cave and a wild cave.

In this case we decided to classify La Verna as a semi-wild cave because of three critera: there is no light system, which is rather problematic because of the huge size of the chamber. No personal light source, no matter how bright, will be able to light this cave appropriately. There are no trails, as the tours use the path constructed by the electrical power company, the rest of the cave is undeveloped. And finally there are no regular open hours, the cave might be visited only after appointment or booking through an online form, but there are no daily tours and the availability of tours seems a bit erratic. Any of this happens with show caves, but here three of the most important criteria - light, trails, and accessibility - are not sufficient.