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.
Classification:  Karst cave.
Light: electric.
Dimension: L=80,200m, VR=1,408m, T=5°C.
Guided tours:  
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.
Last update:$Date: 2015/08/30 21:54:32 $


1892-1909Édouard Alfred Martel und Eugène Fournier researched caves in this area.
1950Gouffre de la Pierre Saint-Martin discovered.
1951first exploration of the cave.
1952second exploration ends with the death of Marcel Loubens.
1953Salle de La Verna discovered, cave becomes deepest cave of the world.
1954Marcel Loubens lifted from the cave and buried in the nearby town Sainte Engrâce.
1956tunnel into the cave by the EDF.
2006hydroelectric power plant completed by the new owner Société Hydroélectrique du Midi (SHEM).
02-APR-2008hydroelectric power plant operated inaugurated.
2010start 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 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 rope were not enough, so they retried 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 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 pedal, one for the feet and one for the hands. Numerous cavers went down and got an overview of the first chamber, and 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. 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 after three days he died in the cave, although one of the covers was a doctor and tried 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 just Pierre Saint Martin, and that name stuck. Later a chamber inside the cave was named after Salle Lépineux, to compensate him 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 surved 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 Franco regime ruled in Spain and the borders were rather sensible. So in 1954 the Spanish soldiers stopped the exploration but finally allowed to get the body of Marcel Loubins out of the cave. They probably imagined that "Spain 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 was generally know as the only energy plant in a cave. It is for example mentioned in Trimmels 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. 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. 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 a part of their power plant. But the Comité Départemental de Spéléologie des Pyrénées-Atlantiques organized tourist visits which started in 2010.

See also

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