Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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This was our biggest outdoors adventure of the year and as such, felt both exciting and scary. Getting here was a long journey that I prepared for over the past three months. Now at 2,650m/8,700 feet, I couldn’t believe it was finally coming to life despite all the hurdles. Here we were, standing in front of caves thought to be Europe’s highest ice caves when they were discovered in 1926. Very few people knew of this cave and even fewer visited it. Its remote access implied an overnight in a mountain shelter 4 hiking hours away and its traverse required solid ice and mountaineering techniques. Wearing harnesses and mountain boots, we paused to unclip helmets from our backpacks, get the ropes out and adjust our headlights. My girls snacked on chestnut butter tubes while we all had a drink of water. We may have started at sunrise when the air was brisk but the Spanish sun was hitting us hard by mid-morning and the coolness of the cave would be welcomed.
Ironically, the only thing I was certain to find in the cave had nothing to do with ice or caves – it was a fence barring public access for safety reasons. Because of its high altitude and mountain location, this ice cave requires rope ladders, ice crampons and other mountain gear to get through it and the safety of “visitors” is not something park authorities can monitor. Fortunately, I had safety well covered as an experienced mountain guide came with us, providing all the necessary gear for climbing, treading ice and caving. He would be our technical guy.
As for me, I would provide what knowledge I had of the cave, which was in fact very little but hopefully enough to cross the mountain underground. Despite being the best informed of our party of six, what I knew only resulted from forum discussions with cavers, tidbits gleaned on the phone from mountain guides and the only topo guide to this cave network. I also contacted two people who had physically been to the cave but the rest was rumors, old articles and a 1950s report. Good luck to us.
At this point, I should probably explain the burning desire I had to explore the cave and why I would go through so much trouble for a place nobody even knew about. As I said, this ice cave was thought to be the highest ice cave in the world when discovered by Norbert Casteret in 1926. Casteret described it as a hall formed of an ice lake, followed by an ice river through the chambers and ending with iced waterfalls to climb out of the cave. He walked under crystal arches and snowflake corridors in the middle of the summer of 1926 and 1950. There was even an underground “ice Niagara” chamber with a 40-foot vertical ice wall. I was hooked and I had no idea why nobody ever mentioned that cave.
But then, it looked like global warming had taken a toll on the cave since the 1920s. The fantastical ice cathedrals and snow crystal corridors had dwindled down to isolated ice columns and broken pillars. The frozen lake was a mud puddle on recent photographs. A report dated only two years ago mentioned only rock, water and dirt in the cave – hardly any ice. A French mountain guide wrote this to me this spring: “The cave features some ice in the entrance chamber but by mid-August, it won’t be very much at all. There are no ice rivers or amazing crystals. It seems to me that you have the wrong idea about the cave.”
Could all the ice really have disappeared? If yes, there were no more ice caves in the Pyrenees as these were the highest caves on record in the mountain range. This being a World Heritage Site, I contacted the UNESCO and their global warming committee – never heard back from them. This being a scientific rarity, I contacted the French science institute – they were not interested in helping out. The French caving society knew little but sent me an article by email. Local mountain shelter guardians knew of the cave but only one had been inside and that was a while ago. Only one solution to find out – go there in person. I wanted to hope so badly. I wanted to hope that we would find ice inside that cave and to some extent, we did. However now, comparing my pics with historical photographs is sobering.
Around 10am, my two girls (8 and 10), my dad (72), my husband, a mountain guide and I entered the cave in the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park on the ridge separating France from Spain. We helped our girls over the fence and left daylight behind. Walking slowly, we didn’t switch on our headlights immediately. First, we didn’t know how long we’d be in the cave until the exit and had to save our batteries. Second, we wanted to acclimate our eyesight in dim light conditions after the bright Spanish sun.
The entrance hall was dark, so dark. It was damp too and smelled of dirt. Here, I knew I should find a giant ice column – or not – and that’s what I looked for first. There it was! Or at least, the base of the ice column. It had melted to the point that only a circular base protruded from an icy mount, an ice replica of a ruined Corinthian temple. Behind it on a high rock shelf, a dangling ice medusa looked like it could break away and fall at any moment. This was what was left from a multi-layered draped waterfall. My oh my, this was real. I glanced around to find the best way to reach what remained of the column. It was slippery but I found a rock trail on the left hand side and walked slowly, making sure I didn’t break any ice.
The cave seemed so fragile, I didn’t want to make it worse so I treaded lightly and refrained from touching ice columns. Using my gorillapod, I lit up the inside of the ice column – amazing how ice refracts light, by the way – for a picture and walked away. My girls were freaked out by the ice medusa after I told them to go under it “as quick as they could” because you know, it looked a bit unsteady. They hustled up, obviously. Before we exited the entrance chamber, I expressed pangs of regret that we hadn’t been able to locate the Niagara ice wall. Wait, our guide said, let’s have a last look round. That barely visible crevice, maybe?
After our guide had scouted the crevice and concluded it led nowhere, I put on my crampons, tied the rope to my harness and went under. It was slippery as hell and mostly, I went down on my butt. It also descended much faster than I expected and I had to hold on tight to the rope to slow myself down. After an initial descent that led me roughly 3m/10 feet below the level of the entrance chamber, I found myself under a slow-sloping ice ceiling that seemed to go on for 30 yards or so. I couldn’t sit up and crawling was tricky so I extended my legs and inched forward using my elbows. When that didn’t do it, I flattened myself, rotated so as to advance head first and progressed as far as I could sandwiched between the angled ice walls. Here, the ice floor showed large geometrical crystals whose beautiful shapes were visible to the eye. I wish my camera could show what they were like, this was magical. Further along, the floor went up again to reappear by the broken pillar in the entrance chamber but right below it, there was something interesting. A low circular wall. Could this be it?
I bent over and realized this was a well of sorts. Grabbing my gorilla torch, I lit up the hole. It was more of a vertical shaft leading down to an octogonal-ish ice floor roughly 25 feet below. I knew my rope would be too short to get down to the bottom but I desperately wanted to find the Niagara ice wall. Could I see an indication that the bottom led to somewhere else? Alas, as much as I twisted my body and contorted my shoulders, I couldn’t see anything down there that could be a door or an entrance to a tunnel. I remembered what the guardians of the mountain shelter had told me the night before. “We’ve been to this cave three summers in a row and never have we been able to descend to the Niagara ice chamber.” It wasn’t there anymore. The entrance had melted away. It made so much sense! From historical reports, the entrance to that low chamber came at the end of the low-sloping wall. If the ice had melted, it may have solidified and blocked off the passage to the lowest level except for big shafts like the one I was looking at.
Much as I wanted to linger, my girls were getting cold and people were waiting for me up there. I took an ice selfie, a few shots of the shaft and went up the rope. Together with the guide, I looked at the map of the cave and tried to make sense of the scribbles and squiggles. A cave map ain’t like a trail map, I can guarantee you that much. It’s like an X-ray of the underground levels and you have to think 3-D looking at a 2-D drawing to know which level you’re looking at.
At least, we knew that we had to leave the entrance behind so I urged my girls to walk fast past the ice medusa and we paused on big rock boulders behind to consider the safest course. A big rock chaos blocked our way and we could go over or under it. First, we tried over and it led to a chasm. We backtracked and went under, which appeared to be the key of most other passages in the cave.
Until roughly two thirds of the cave, we kept bumping into ice fields, icy areas that featured broken columns, splintered crystals, snow pockets or a blend of the three. We didn’t see a single standing column or ice waterfall. All the ice was on the ground. Nothing either on the walls or ceilings. A high chamber signaled the end of the ice and soon, we went up big stacked-up boulders to face a wall next to a 15-foot drop. Our exit was up the wall. The drop we had better avoid.
Our guide went first and secured ropes to a big rock at the top. Then, one by one, we climbed. I volunteered my 10-year old first, as I thought she wouldn’t have too much trouble getting to the top. Surprisingly, she struggled with finding good foot grips on the wall and didn’t want to squeeze her hand in a crack to reach the top but after three tries, she did it. My 8-year old having watched the whole thing, had learned a few things and went faster. She’s also smaller and lighter and this is one of the rare occasions in outdoors adventures where being small plays to your advantage. My dad went third. He’s never done any climbing and he’s 72 years old. He’s not the most flexible guy either and wasn’t thrilled about the prospect but we cheered him on with my husband. Not one to chicken out, he took the wall in strides. Honestly, I wasn’t sure he’d make it and was ready to retrace my steps through the cave with him but inch by inch, he “wormed” his way to the top. Hadn’t he had rough outer layers, he would have torn any fabric he was wearing. He did it! I went next in a pinch (it helps that I’m a former climber), and then my husband.
At that point, we were not completely out yet. We’d reached an intermediary level at the bottom of an open air cave. To get out onto the mountain, we needed to climb a “rock chimney”, which we did in the same order and using different climbing techniques. The chimney was wide enough that both our hands touched the walls in opposition (for the adults) and the girls used their flexibility to stretch their legs across like in action movies. It was a lot of fun and my girls would have done it again given the opportunity.
Oh, how blinding the sun was. After three hours in complete darkness, we quickly pulled out our sunglasses to embrace the views. In front of us, grand Spanish canyons. Hundreds of feet below us in a snow field, a herd of wild mountain goats called ibex. They were so far down that they looked like fleas on a white blanket but with our binoculars, we could clearly see their horns.
It was time to savor a late lunch, reflect on the cave and find a way around the mountain back to the mountain shelter.
For a comprehensive photo gallery, click here.