La Salle de La Verna

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

Useful Information

Location: Espace d'accueil Arrakotchepia, Quartier Calla, 65560 Sainte Engrâce.
South of Sainte Engrâce, at the border to Spain. Ticket office at the road D113 from SE to the border, hamlet Calla. Visitors are driven by shuttle bus to the cave entrance. Original entrance of the cave at the southern side of the valley. Follow D113 to the end of the valley, turn right on D132 to Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin. From the parking lot La Piedra de San Martin its a 5 minutes walk.
(42.996136, -0.820946)
Open: All year.
Tours booked online. Cave Trekking must be booked by phone.
Fee: Découverte: Adults EUR 18, Children (5-15) EUR 11. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 14, Children (5-15) EUR 10.
Rivière: Adults EUR 23, Children (7-15) EUR 16. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 19, Children (7-15) EUR 15.
Exploration: Adults EUR 28, Children (10-15) EUR 21. Groups (16+): Adults EUR 24, Children (10-15) EUR 20.
Group prices for families, speleologists, and on off-season weekdays. Reduction of EUR 5 for people walking to the entrance.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: electric/personal light.
Dimension: L=80,200 m, VR=1,408 m, T=5 °C.
Guided tours: La Verna Découverte: D=60 min, MinAge=5.
La Verna Exploration rivière: D=90 min, MinAge=7.
La Verna Exploration sportive: D=120 min, MinAge=10.
Visites Aventures: Chevalier D=3 h. Adélie D=5 h. Aranzadi D=5 h. Les Grandes Salles D=1d.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: Découverte yes, others no.
Bibliography: Haroun Tazieff (1952): Le gouffre de La Pierre Saint Martin, collection exploration chez Arthaud, 2 editions 1952 and 1954. pdf
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.


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 the second exploration ends with the death of Marcel Loubens.
1953 Salle de La Verna discovered, the cave becomes the 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 built by the EDF, but the opening of the hydroelectric plant failed.
1962 Spanish cavers reach a depth of 845 m, sonn after British cavers reach a depth of 1,006 m.
1966 linked to Gouffre de la Tête Sauvage, new depth 1171 m.
1966 Association pour la Recherche Spéléologique Internationale a la Pierre Saint-Martin (ARSIP) founded.
1973 Gouffre du Beffroi, Gouffre Moreau, and other caves linked, new depth 1,332 m.
1994–1995 Gouffre des Partages discovered an explored.
2006 hydroelectric power plant completed by the new owner Société Hydroélectrique du Midi (SHEM).
02-APR-2008 hydroelectric power plant operated inaugurated.
05-AUG-2008 Pierre Saint Martin system and Gouffre des Partages connected.
2010 start of tourist tours into the Salle de La Verna.


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 that year's 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 140 km² large and between 1,500 m asl and 2,100 m asl high. They dropped a perpendicular, but the first time the 200 m long rope they used was not enough, so they retried with another rope and measured 370 m. This was the deepest daylight shaft known at that 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 400 m of 5 mm thick steel rope. It was powered by a modified bicycle with one manpower, in other words, it 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 100 kg and was rather sturdy. It was a pain to bring it to the cave entrance. Nevertheless, it failed several times, a general problem with self-made constructions. But at last they entered the cave again and explored new passages. When they returned, one of the cavers, Marcel Loubins was lifted, when the end-loop of the cable broke, and he fell back 30 m 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 everybody 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. Today, cavers tend to choose infantile names like Castle of Edam.

In 1953 the cave exploration went on and was very successful. They surveyed the depth of the cave with 734 m, which made it the deepest cave of the world. And they discovered the Salle de la Verna, 255 m long, 245 m wide, and 194 m high, which was the largest cave chamber known at this time. 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 fascist 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 worthless rocks. But in 1954 the Spanish border soldiers stopped the exploration. After travels to Spain, attempts 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 600 m 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 was, for example, mentioned in Hubert Trimmel's book Höhlenkunde, which was published two years later.

The tunnel provided 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 80 km long and 1,400 m 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 7 km from the reception area. Visitors can also walk to the cave entrance 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 600 m long tunnel to reach the cave. This tunnel is 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 concrete 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 mountaineering 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 to enter the cave river.

A last word for the show-cave-status of this cave, as the operators of the tours actually insist that it is a show cave now. For several years we decided to still call it a semi-wild cave. The main reason was the lack of a light system, which is rather problematic because of the huge size of the chamber. No personal light source, no matter how bright, is 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 were no regular open hours, the cave was visited only after appointment or booking through an online form, but there were no daily tours and the availability of tours was a bit erratic. Any of this happens with show caves, but here three of the most important criteria - light, trails, and accessibility - were not sufficiently met. See the definition of term ExplainShow Caves for more details.

However, the world changes and we changed our minds. We are still not happy with the lack of light, but it seems they have now special floodlight which is turned on as the highlight of the tour and illuminates the huge chamber. Also, they have a regular ticket office, shop, and a parking lot at the village Sainte Engrâce. From here a shuttle bus brings the visitors uphill to the tunnel entrance. This road is not public, so it is not possible to drive there with your own car, but it's possible to walk. And there is the original entrance of the Gouffre Pierre Saint-Martin, which is only 5 minutes walk from the pass road at the border to Spain. We have Google pins for all three locations below.