Spelunca number 66


Noël cave
(Bidon, Ardèche)

Philippe BARTH, Brigitte DUMARCHE, Jean-Michel HERRERO, Julien TESSIER et l'A.R.S.P.A.N.

Noël cave could be listed among the big classic caves of St Remèze plateau. But the specificity of this cave is to be anything but classic. Superbly concretionned, from the year of its discovery very innovating in the way measures for the protection were adopted : measures which, without being repressive, allow to make  the visitors sensitive and responsible for the exceptionnal characteristic of the cave.

A positive experience which allows to see after 7 years of practice that, Noël cave has remained as it first looked.

Geographic situation :

    Department : Ardèche (07)

    Town : Bidon - Secteur "La Coutelle"

    Owner : Commune de St Marcel d'Ardèche

    Map IGN 1/25000 : 2939 Est

    Coordinates : X = 774,7 - Y = 228,125 - Z = 278

Access mode :

In order to protect the Noël cave, a door was placed but it is open for each caver who asks for it :

A.R.S.P.A.N., Mairie - 07700 Bidon - tél. 04.75.xx.xx.xx

An equipment sheet will be given to you, a cave survey and a visit sheet.

This initial contact allows too to spread the visits in the time.

Don't be reluctant to reserve in advance.

The speleology activity is free. You must only indicate the discoveries which will be protected and marked  before we note them down on the survey.

Geological context

Noël cave is completely dug in the urgonian limestones which form most of Saint-Remèze gras.

The term urgonian has no stratigraphy value because the age varies according to  the areas. In Ardeche, it dates back Inferior Barremian (-114 millions years) to Inferior Aptien (-112 millions years).

These limestones, of which the total thickness is about 300 m, are made of various kinds : shell, chalk, rudist limestones...

Some clearly clay levels, wich are obviously more sensitive to the frost, are the origin of the "ledges" seen in the Ardeche gorges.

Among the numerous breaks and clefts which chop the plateau, there are two main families : N 50-60 in West and N 140-150 in East.

This breaks quite inherited from the ancient geological history (hercynian) had successively an opposite and normal working during the pyrenean and alpin episodes.

Chronological account

25 December 1989

During a prospecting session, Jean-Michel Herrero, Brigitte Dumarché and Julien Tessier discover a blowing hole of a nut size. The entrance widening gives access to a heap of blocks at -3 meters.

The strong air current incites to the desobstruction.

3 February 1990

After 40 hours of work, the entrance shaft is open. A 7 meters jump (also obstructed) comes out into a big cleft ceiling with impressive measurements contrasting with the first shaft narrowness.

The spot height -120 meters is reached.

10 February 1990

Beginning of the spacious galleries (3 km) exploration, superbly concretionned...

... and virgin !

First protection : indications here and there advising to take one's shoes off, and be careful of the gypse flowers and pins.

7 May 1990

M.Sabatier, St Marcel d'Ardèche's mayor (land owner), authorize the inventors to manage the entrances into the cave and put a closing system in case of damage. He warns however the inventors.

23 May 1990

First thought about Noël cave protection between Bidon and St Marcel d'Ardèche's mayors, the inventors, CDS 07, St Marcel's caving club, GES Avignon, St Montan caving club.

Ideas are given : door, marking but the free access seems necessary and the combination of the 3 facts is  difficult.

17 June 1990

The cave is over-frequented and all sorts of rubbish is found. This led Jean-Michel to decide to set a door  with the help of the "Dolichos" club. A sign indicates that visits are allowed, but the door is accepted with difficulty by cavers !!

15 August 1990

Beginning of marking led by Jean-Claude FLAHAUT.

Thanks to "Vieux Campeur" (1st prize at the competition : Enough of mess, we are going to clean up !!) and the participation of the cave clubs : Tignahustes, Aérospatiale Toulouse, Montignac, Forez and Bidon, a sign is put up at the entrance of the shafts to make cavers aware of the protection policy undertaken inside the cave, fixed equipments are placed in the galleries and the marking is finished in 1991.

The marking shows the waybut also enables to discover some formations.

December 90 - January 91

Two surveys of the cave are made : one by St Etienne (Forez) club, the other by Tignahustes and Aerospatiale caving club from Toulouse.

30 March 1991

An exploration account is set up giving the visitors a great place to note down their comments and suggestion about the protection.

27 February 1993

ARSPAN's creation :

Association de Recherches Spéléologiques et de Protection de l'Aven de Noël.
Caving Researches and Protection's Association for Noël Cave.

31 July 1993

Agreement between the owner and ARSPAN authorizing ARSPAN to manage the protection of Noël cave.

31 October 1995

Agreement between FFS (French Caving Federation) and l'ARSPAN, this one becoming "privileged partner".


A narrow 31m high shaft, a little handrail and a some meters jump give access to a big 90 meters high shaft, an immense cleft positionned North on which the main gallery rests.

    the main gallery

Development about 650 m, medium diameter more than 10 m and some ceilings are at more than 30m high. At the beginning, the gallery was cluttered up by clay massifs with clay fir-trees, then after a low little passage under a rocky bridge, little gours occupy the ground to an enormous stalagmitic pillar behind which, on the right, the white gallery junction is. The path in the main gallery becomes more undulating in the middle of blocks and big stalagmites. After about ten meters, a 4m high climbing gives access to a big gours area which is jumped over as you going along the right rock face.

The big flow gallery begins on the left at the top of the calcite flow which is 15 m high.

Going along the flow on the right side, at the bottom, we can go on into the main gallery which always accupied by dry gours. A little waterfall flowing from the ceiling is one of the only water arrivals of the cave.

The gallery, with beautiful dimensions stops abruptly and continues with crabwalk (1,5m x 2m) covered with very white tiny cauliflowers that contains a real bats cemetery. The crabwalk is ended by a clay shaft the  access of wich is very difficult.

Before the crabwalk, on the right, a 7m high climbing enables to reach the upper gallery.

    the upper gallery

At the top of the climbing, we go on towards the exit then after a passage above the main gallery on a rocky bridge, we enter a 200m long gallery(12m x 12m) decorated with varied stals (helectites, straws, candles and dry gours).

The ceiling is lowered progressively, then is raised and it's the floor which comes back up to a calcite flow which blocks the passage.

    the white gallery

With a little more modest dimensions than the main gallery (8m x 5m) the white gallery is decorated with numerous and very delicate stals : cauliflowers, orange crystals, gypse pins and flowers. The ground is full of little stones in slabs and the ceiling shows very beautiful lids.

The gallery's bottom is not much concretionned and is finished 300 m further upon a stalagmitic dome.

    the big flow gallery

At the top of the big flow, a narrow passage (0,5m) goes into a little and very concretionned room.

Then by a slope down, we arrive to a gallery (8m x 8m) the ground of wich is covered with cristallized dry gours that end up 150m further upon a calcite flow.

    the Sarrianais's gallery

The passage to the lower galleries is 20m away from the shaft base, on the left.

A 2m high climbing followed by a slope down comes to the junction of two little galleries (1,5m x 2m). The one on the left, is stopped quickly by a little columns' store ; the one on the right, is covered with little cauliflowers and comes to a bigger gallery decorated with stalactites.
A 2m high jump, in front of a superb flow, leads, on the left, to a gallery cluttered up by big blocks which arrives to a vast calcite flow. At the bottom of this one, on the right, we can look at an important filling of stone, shingle (quartz and micaschists), sands and clay.

In the flow, a twenty-meter-shaft is followed by a 4m high jump gives access, by a low passage, to a room diagonally crossed by a big cleft. At the bottom of the room, we continue into a low gallery (2m x 1,5m) slightly going back up.

A few meters further, the ground is covered with white calcite and the advance goes on through white stals to a stalagmitic massif blocking the passage.
Notation : As in the plateau's numerous caves, CO2 is often found.

Speleo beginning

From its nature, its altitude and its immediate proximity by Saint-Marcel cave's system, Noël cave is to bring closer to the latter ones. The whole seems a series of plateau water's fossil collectors.

In view of their position perched 100m high upon the Ardeche river and after the hypothesis the most currently supposed as far as the Ardeche canyon's digging is concerned, we can date the main and white galleries' formation from upper Miocene that is to say about -6 million years.

In this period, the system was to the altitude next to the Ardeche river and completly drowned as the lower points in the Saint-Marcel's system are now.

As the Ardeche gorges' actual drowned limestone area, the system could, temporarily, serve of loss to the river as the crystalline shingle's presence in the lower parts confirms it.

In no case, these losses can be responsible for the digging.

After the buriness of base's level formed by the Ardeche river, the system found itself pushed into fossil gallery's rank. The waters' collection through the 100m high limestone which surmount, took care of decorating them with splendid stals.

Stalagmites, stalactites, flows, gours, draperys and jellyfishes are there with colors from milky white to vivid red. If many are of modest size, some are enormous : like the big flow or the immense gours placed to its base. Moreever these gours indicate a flow that goes both to the downstream gallery and to the upstream gallery. The water arriving from the ceiling by the big flow was divided into the two directions to get lost then towards hypothetic deep levels.

As the description shows it, this important stals has unfortunate results because all the galleries are blocked by flows.

Remarkable gathered in bush helectites , gypse flowers and filaments come to complete this mineral inventory.

The cave is also remarkableby its bats' skeletons fossilized in calcite.

Alone or gathered in several tens of bodies (final meander), some are extremely well- preserved. The age of the bats and the way that they took to come so far in the gallery remains a mystery.

"To discover, yes but..."
(inventors' impression)

Which caver has never had an obsession with the idea to be the first ?

A desire which leads him to prospect, to dig, to discover insignificant caves which wouldn't deserve the effort to give them a name !

We made that during several years to arrive on 25 December at the top of a blowing hole.

New "desob". Shaft1 = 30 meters high; banal ! Shaft2, stop by lack of ropes; look, it's new !

And then, about 3 km galleries' exploration to wind you, glittering rock faces to blind you, the wonder in front of the gypse pins and flowers, the calcified bats...

What words are enough powerful to describe our discover's richness ?

Conscious of this cave's particularity and overall of the damages undergone in the numerous caves in the region and elsewhere, the idea to fill all up came to our minds for a moment.

Difficult to destroy in this radical way our passion, but what to do ?

At first, the presence of a door was essential. It meant problems : some cavers' virulent dissatisfaction, friends' departures,............, doubts.

Then new friends arrived, encouraging us by their advice, their help : Jean-Claude Flahaut, who has died since, took the marking managing in hand, André Vermorel, Bidon's mayor, asked "Vieux Campeur" for a subsidy that allowed to finance the protection's deal, Mr.Sabatier, St Marcel's mayor, trusted us and all the others who are so many that the list of their names would be too long to write. And then, this extraordinary successful chain of solidarity : the association ARSPAN's creation.

We are not alone, even if we assure day after day the phone -calls, the cavers' welcome, the visits at home, the door's opening and shutting. Tedious sometimes, but how fascinating and enriching.

Cavers, don't thank us, but continue to respect this fabulous cave so that caver's generations can fully enjoy its underground richness and that this experience is spreading : this will be our best reward !

And don't forget that the worst constraint would be to see that destroyed...

"To protect, yes but..."

When Noël cave's protection came up, we thought about it for a long time.

After several meetings and concertations, we accepted the following basic principles :

    The cave must be accessible to everybody, and the natural environment must be protected at the same time.

    A door is placed but it is open for all.
    It eliminates the fall's risks and limits the air currents' effects.

    The appointment is the occasion of contacts which allow to make the visitors aware of the sensitive and exposed places, to show the survey and the explo's progress, to recommand sufficient lights.

    To phone allows also to limit the number of people on the same day.
    It's more pleasant to be a few than to form a queue to go down or to go up.

    A little sheet to fill in after the exploration allows to implicate the cavers in our
    protection's worry :

                no pollution : the ascent of carbide, of rubbish, of stumps,...

                to indicate any anomaly : footprints, broken band, damages...

                to give any remarks in a position to improve the protection.

All the sensitive parts are marked and protected.

They are written down the survey. The caving way remains free. You must only indicate the discoveries so that they can be marked and protected, if necessary, before being reported on the survey.

To implicate in our worry the local and national people in charge : owners, town, CDS, Ardeche gorges' reserve, FFS...

To put in place these principles and to watch over their respect, it seems to us essential to gather people together in an association. This is how ARSPAN was born.

To be an active member, you must take part in the protection's action : nowadays, there are about 50 members.

No subscription : the income come from sympathizers and the managements were made by subsides or donations.

Why this association ?

    to be known by the authorities.

    to share the tasks related to the protection.

    to give us the means to succeed : financially, legally (union makes strength...)

    to continue the researches in and around the cave.

    to improve the marking and the access to the cave.

    to exploit the information given by the visitors.

    to write and to send a yearly information letter.


The experience is positive, after 4 years of practical experience, 95 % visitors are satisfied.

It depends on each one that protection's experiences of that kind multiply, spread and become finally commonplace...

There, we could say that we succeeded.


            Spélunca N° 38 (1990)

            Spéléo N° 1 (1990)

            Plaquette ARSPAN

            Journal de l'Aven de Noël n° 1 (Novembre 1991)

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