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The contribution of E.A. MARTEL (1859-1938) to the development of caving technique
von Bernd Kliebhan
Mitt. Verb.dt.Höhlen- u. Karstforsch. Jg. 45(2) 1999

For at least 30,000 years, Man has been visiting caves. During these early underworld excursions considerable distances were covered. Thus, about 3000 to 4000 years ago, American Indians penetrated more than 3 km into Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. In the Rouffignac Cave in Southwest France there are drawings of mammoths about 1,5 km from the entrance, and the "Salon Noir" in Niaux lies 1 km underground.

These early excursions are truly impressive. But Stone Age explorers in general did not try to go on when major underground obstacles were in their way: they just turned round. Their only problem was lighting, and this was easily solved with the help of torches or oil lamps.

Caving equipment did not really change until the 19th century, apart from lighting improvements. Excursions ended as soon as major obstacles like shafts or under-ground rivers barred the way. Up to 1880, reports on vertical or water caves are very rare. The most important events were the exploration of the Macocha in the Moravian Karst (1784), Lindner's descent into the Trebiciano pit (1841), and the navigation of rivers in the Adelsberg Cave by Schmidl and Rudolf (1850).

"Modern" speleology began 1879 with the foundation of the "Verein für Höhlenkunde" (Speleological Society) in Vienna. A systematical search now started for methods to overcome even difficult obstacles in the underground. Edouard Alfred MARTEL, a French lawyer, played an eminent role in these efforts. He developed the first "high tech" caving eqipment of the time. It enabled him to penetrate into cave areas which until then had been inaccessible.

While in France E.A. MARTEL is worshipped as the founding father of modern speleo-logy, speleologists in other countries do not know much about him. This is mainly due to the fact that MARTEL's publications, most of which were never translated, have long been out-of-print and rarely turn up in secondhand bookshops. Hence, the purpose of the following is to bring some lesser known sources to the attention of readers in other countries.

E.A. MARTEL's career as a speleologist began on June 27/28th, 1888, with the first navigation of the underground river of Bramabiau near Camprieu, a spectacular traverse of 700 m length. This excursion is regarded today as the hour of birth of speleology in France.

For this project MARTEL used a rigid ladder to surmount the waterfall at the entrance portal, and a collapsible canoe to cross the water at the end of "Grande Galerie".

During the same year MARTEL undertook his first descent into a shaft cave. In "Baume Chaude" he lowered himself about 30 m into the "Puit du Lac", suspended from a free-hanging, simple hemp rope. "Due to the lack of suitable equipment this was a very alarming under-taking", as he later characterized this adventure.

During the following months he developed the necessary equipment, and then went on to refine his technique from one yearly exploration campaign to the next.

"We used two methods of descent: Either by being let down at the end of a rope, or by climbing down a rope ladder. More and more we used the latter, safer method, and consequently provided ourselves with an ever increasing number of rope ladders, totalling from 12 m in 1888 to 142 m length in 1892. In both cases the person who ventures down is held in a way which is worth describing: A stick of fresh wood, straight and strong, about 0.6 m long and 6 -7 cm thick is cut from the branches of a nearby tree. This stick is notched in the middle by removing the bark at a length of 10 - 12 cm. The rope is then knotted around the notch which will keep it from slipping. The knot must be tied very firmly because it has to carry the whole load. The caver sits on the stick with his legs clasping the master rope from left and right, so that the rope runs down in front of his face and chest. A short auxiliary rope of about 1.5 m length is then slung twice around him over one shoulder and below the other and including the master rope,in such a way that the master rope is pressed against his chest. The caver is thus firmly fixed to the master rope and, most important-ly, secured against tipping backward during a sudden move."

Sitting on the stick, MARTEL and his companions were let down into the pit by five to seven strong helpers who had been hired in the nearest village (Table 3). The rope ladder was not used for climbing down but was intended to convey a feeling of security and, most importantly, to prevent the unwinding of the hemp rope which is inevitable otherwise. When exploring very deep shafts, a dependable system of communication between the caver and his team above ground was of absolute necessity.

"In deep shafts which usually widen towards the bottom, the human voice is echoed in such a way that it can no longer be understood from a distance of 30 - 40 m, even less in narrow shafts. This we learned during our first descents in 1888. We could not have achieved our later successes without the remarkable magnetic Branville telephone (system by AUBRY) which is used in the army. It is both transmitter and receiver, small enough to fit into a pocket, and weighs 400 grams. The lightweight telephone cable, taken along during the descent, secures com-munication with the outside world.

Thus the electrical voice carries clearly and distinctly from the bottom of the pit to the surface, establishing communication between the caver and his com-rades above, through shafts and caverns and over cataracts and lakes. It increases security and is therefore a powerful support to morale, doubling the caver's audacity because it gives him confidence in a safe return. To our knowledge this was.the first time that this wonderful instrument was used for such purposes."

From 1888 on, MARTEL organized yearly expeditions of two months each into all important French karst areas. From his exact statistics we know that between 1888 and 1893 alone, no less than 230 pits and horizontal caves were explored and 50 km of cave tunnels surveyed. Especially the pits in the karst plateaus of Southern France, the so-called Causses, had taken MARTEL's fancy. The depths he reached are respectable even today: 133 m of direct descent into Aven de Tabourel, 106 m into Mas Raynel (Larzac), 130 m into Gouffre de Rabanel (which with a total depth of 200 m kept a longtime depth record of all French caves). In Aven de Vigne Close (Ardeche), MARTEL had to overcome five shaft levels to arrive at a depth of 190 m (Table 4). One of his most spectacular feats was the descent into Aven de Jean Nouveau, a perfectly circular pit of 163 m in depth (Table 5).

In these undertakings, MARTEL had to depend on able helpers. During his first exploration in 1888, he got to know and respect LOUIS ARMAND, the village black-smith of Le Rozier. From then on, ARMAND participated as a foreman in all explo-ration campaigns. MARTEL could trust him blindly. Over the years a profound friendship developed between MARTEL, a Parisian of the Haute Bourgeosie, and ARMAND, the simple craftsman.

Sometimes several tons of equipment had to be moved during the expeditions:

"Our equipment always attracted keen attention. When we had the misfortune to descend on a Sunday, whole villages would congregate around the entrance to the shaft and impede our work. Admittedly we, too, had to smile at the sight of the confusion of ropes, block and tackle, winches, ladders and iamps which we seemed to spirit up the mountain slopes. Not to mention our surveying and photographic equipment, spare clothes, wine bottles and picnic baskets.

'When we descended into the abyss, the old women would cross themselves and , between recitations of the Lord's Prayer, make remarks such as: "Allright, you may be able to climb down, worthy Gentlemen, but you'll never come up again!" and "There a re all kinds of fools!". Some peasants would enquire: "Do you need the plan of this hole to dig a similar one back home?" And the genial priests who offered us accomodation in the absence of guesthouses forced their blessings upon us."

In his time, MARTEL's caving technique was perfect. In addition, he got himself the best available equipment for the crossing of underground rivers and lakes. Just then, collapsible kayaks covered by cotton fabric had appeared on the US and French markets. MARTEL realized at once that these boats could enable him to cross even remote underground rivers. Narrow tunnels and climbing passages ceased to be unsurmountable obstacles (Table 6).

Just one year after the Bramabiau crossing MARTEL and his team, using this equipment, made a spectacular discovery: On July 9th and 10th, 1889, on the Causse du Gramat., they went down into the Gouffre de Padirac and at a depth of 103 m came upon an underground river which they were able to follow for almost 1.5 km. Today, this cave is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Southwestern France. MARTEL gave a thrilling account of this first exploration:

"I am the first to descend. After eight minutes I arrive at the bottom of the ladder. I unfasten the rope and raise my head. What a fantastic sight! I feel as if I were enclosed within the tube of a telescope pointing up towards the blue sky. The walls of the tunnel are illumi-nated by the reflection of the vertical shaft of light, in a way I've never seen before.

I can just make out the tiny heads of my colleagues, lying prostrate on the ground to peer down at me over the edge of the shaft. And connecting us like a black spider thread is the telephone cable, my only link to the living world."

After 400 meters, a wide river stopped their advance. Early next morning, MARTEL and his three companions were back again with their kayak called "Crocodile", US made by Osgood. MARTEL and his cousin GAUPILLAT started their trip into the unknown in their tiny vessel, with candles and magnesium strips as their only means of illumination; whilst ARMAND and FOUQUIER stayed ashore where they had to wait 6 1/2 hours for the return of their comrades.

MARTEL and GAUPILLAT, at the end of a smooth river passage of 400 meters through large caverns with some spectacular stalactite formations, found themselves confronted with a veritable obstacle course.

"The exit of lac du Benitier is very narrow. Between two straight dripstone columns of 60 m height, the river disappears in the dark. Can we follow it?

We know that our "Crocodile" is slightly flexible. With both hands we push our-selves along the walls. The boat's ribs are groaning, its fabric cover grinds roughly over the rocks, the boat is giving way! What if it breaks! The water is several meters deep! We're stuck, we can't move neither back nor forth! Another try - we'll make it! And we did make it, through the "Pas du Crocodile", a hole of perhaps 91 cm diameter. And our boat measures just 90 cm!"

" Our progress is continually impeded by dripstones. Every time we encounter these barriers, we have to lift the boat out of the water and carry it to the next basin. Altogether during our expedition, we had to repeat this dangerous manoeuvre 34 times, clenching the candles between our teeth."

"Another lake, No. 7 in this expedition, opens before us beneath a dome, 20 m high and 20 m across. This is the end, it's closed all around. But no: In one corner there is a small tunnel, only 50 cm to 1 m high. From afar we can hear the music of drops falling into water. Will this magic world stretch on still farther?

We have a quick discussion: Yesterday it has been raining, this morning it looked like thunderstorm coming up, and we have now been underground for seven hours. Perhaps it's raining again, perhaps the waters will rise! Shall we go back? Never mind! The unknown draws us on, irresistibiy. Forward! Let's go on to new discoveries."

"Where will our journey end? Gradually we begin to feel uneasy. We're drenched. Our supply of candles is nearly exhausted. We have to turn back. We are overcome with fatigue and the obstacles facing us on our return journey will perhaps be even more difficult to overcome."

Fourteen months later, on September 9th and l0th, 1890, MARTEL resumed the exploration of Padirac. During a 25-hour advance with three boats, two "0sgood" and a French "Berthon", 300 m of new caves were covered, ending at the "Grande Barriere". "The local press had given wide publicity to this event. As a result, over 1,000 onlookers were crowding around the shaft. The police were busy keeping careless spectators from the abyss and preventing accidents".

Lots of people were also on the spot in 1895 when MARTEL, during a tour through Ireland and England explored the shaft cave of Gaping Gill in the Yorkshire Dales, 110 m deep, and hitherto unconquered.

"Deprived of the assistance of my devoted Armand, it fell to me to supervise single-handedly the endless preparations.

I had the opportunity to appreciate the virtues of British phlegm. Despite their obviously keen interest, the spectators exercised the utmost restraint. Nothing disturbed the relaying of my instructions, nor were my preparations hindered by any mis-guided offers of assistance. In short, my audience at Gaping Gill was certainly the most orderly and restrained I have ever experienced."

A reporter of the local press witnessed the event:

"Not one single little thing did he leave to helpers. He made his preparations personally, and tested every rope and knot with the anxious care of a man who knows that his life depends upon their security. How minute his preparations were may best be understood from the statement that they occupied him fully three hours. It was not until 1:25 that M. Martel was lowered into the pit, and it was twenty minutes to four before he reappeared. When he descended there were about eighty spectators, amongst whom were some of the principal residents including Mr. and Mrs. Farrer; but when he emerged the number was smaller, several of the onlookers having got fatigued."

"M. Martel prior to his descent put a blue denim overall over his ordinary clothes. He was well supplied with candles and magnesium wire, and carried a telephone wire 600 feet in length, so that he might communicate with his wife and friends at the surface."

MARTEL reports on the descent:

"The first 20 metres go remarkably well. The rope runs gently along the wall. I only have to let myself glide down. The waterfall is about 1 1I2 metres to my left, drenching me with its spray. But the jet of water does not hinder my progress."

"Then I submerge into the waterfall. The water is cold and despite my being well-buttoned up at the collar, runs down the back of my neck, sending shivers down my spine. I congratulate myself on having taken the precaution of wearing boots with holes which allow the water to escape. Contrary to my fears, I am not benumbed by the shock of cold water cascading onto my head. Of course I'm wearing a solid leather helmet."

"At a depth of 40 metres, my progress is suddenly halted:
- Hello! Hello! What's the matter?
- The rope has become ensnared in a crevice; we'll need 5 minutes to free it!
- That's too long! I'm suspended in the middle of a waterfall and it's not exactly warm here. Hurry up!

Despite my protests and lamentations the minutes pass slowly as the torrent of water draws me into the folds of a swirling mantle.

Suddenly, at a depth of 70 metres, the shaft widens. The walls spread out at a right angle and are transformed into a horizontal ceiling which vanishes into darkness. I am entering a huge cavern, stretching away much farther than I can see. At 1:45 p.m. I finally reach the floor of the shaft. The descent has taken 23 minutes."

MARTEL's venture was widely echoed in the English press and encouraged British cave amateurs to undertake systematical explorations. In other countries, too, MARTEL initiated serious speleological activities. To some of them he lent his eouipment. Thus, in 1899, the Greek engineer SIDERIDES began investigating shaft caves in Greece with the help of MARTEL's equipment.

In 1894, two books were published which were to become basics to the further development of speleology: MARTEL's "Les Abimes", and "Höhlenkunde" by Franz KRAUS. In both books, MARTEL's caving technique is described in detail. His methods remained "state of the art" for several decades to come, until in the Nineteen-twenties a new phase of speleological research began when Robert DE JOLY developed the lightweight wire ladder. DE JOLY, Martel's successor, also introduced innovative equipment for the exploration of water caves: Pneumatic boats and watertight suits.

However simple and unsafe MARTEL's techniques may appear today, they never have been the cause of serious accidents during his excursions into over a thousand caves - a result of skill and plenty of oood luck. In his books, MARTEL describe numerous risky situations which might have ended in final disaster: Rock slides, near-plunges, interrupted telephone connections and the capsizing of his boat on the Padirac river.

There was one very particular item of equipment which MARTEL would absolutely not do without: An iron reserve of rum or brandy. Large demijohns of wine and sumptuous supplies of victuals were basic parts of his surface depots. All the greater his horror when he found himself confronted with the consequences of American prohibition during his visit to Mammoth Cave in 1912:

"I felt most irritated by the strict application of the Anti-alcohol laws in the dry State of Kentucky. Two long days spent in a damp, dark giant catacomb, with nothing to drink other than aqua simplex ("pure water" would be a misnomer), herb tea or ginger beer (which tastes like sugared pepper). And the same thing above in the hotel: Water, tea, or ginger beer to accompany extremely poor meals. A horror to European speleologists! Without a small bottle of rum from my personal luggage I could never have finished this very strenuous visit to Hovey's Cathedrals."

However much caving techniques have changed since, in this particular regard most of today's cavers stick to MARTEL's principles. Which leaves no doubt that Alfred MARTEL has fully deserved his place in caving history as the "Father of modern speleology".

Translation: Dr. Klaus Thomas


A.A. (1895): Gaping Ghyll Hole Fathomed - Triumph of a Frenchman.
The Bradford Observer, 5. Aug. 1895
CASTERET, N. (1943): E.-A. MARTEL, Explorateur du Monde Souterrain, Paris
KRAUS, F. (1894): Höhlenkunde, Wien
MARTEL, E.A. (1897): Irlande et Cavernes anglaises, Paris
MARTEL, E.A. (1894): Les Abimes, Paris
MARTEL, E.A. (1914): Explications sur Mammoth Cave
Spelunca No.74, Paris
SHAW, T.S. (1994): The wider purpose of Martel´s visits abroad.
Acta Carsologica XXIII / 17 - p.222-230