Interview #5 – Jean Paul Sounier, France

“Interview” is caving club “Pod RB” initiative dedicated to discussions with cavers from all around the world. What they share about their life above and under the ground, their caving experience, stories, dreams and future plans you can find in the following lines…

Tell us something about yourself in terms of caving experience. You may also wish to include role in your organization, function, personal features, activities, etc. 

As I started caving in 1966, the beginning of my caving career was quite slow; exploring caves using ladders was not very efficient. In 1973 we started using ropes and I went to high mountains karsts to explore deep caves. My first job enables me to travel easily and in 1980 I was a member of the national french expedition the Papua New Guinea. This destination became my favorite. As I was travelling a lot for my job, I was at that time joining expeditions. Then from 1995 to now, I got involved in the organization of expeditions. The first I organized was the 1995 cave diving expedition to Papua New Guinea where we reached for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere the depth of 1000 m.

What made you start exploring caves and why you are still doing it?

I discovered caving thanks to a book written by the famous french caver Norbert Casteret. The book title was: “mes cavernes”. So I begun caving firstly in the south of France. At that time we were using ladders! In 1969, I went to Turkey, on an expedition in the Taurus mountains. The combination of travelling and caving in new caves was a revelation. I carried on exploring new caves in foreign countries and that is why I am still doing it. 

To which club/organization you feel you belong? Tell us something more about this group of people or organization, something about the main drive behind your activities and projects. 

Presently I am a member of the Sophitaupes club, hence I am a member of the Caving French Federation (FFS). But the expeditions I have been organizing these last 25 years are opened to cavers from France and abroad. The drive behind my project is the discoveries of new caves.

What about your favourite cave, area of exploration or region: 

  • Brief history, when and how you discovered this cave, region, etc. 
  • Most existing period or moments from the exploration
  • The cave/region in numbers – depth, length, potential, etc. 
  • Cave features (if applicable) – narrow/spacious, cold/comfortable temperature, rivers, waterfalls, pits, etc. 
  • Any major incidents during your exploration there 
  • Future plans and ideas

My favorite caving area in the Nakanai Mountains in New Britain (Papua New Guinea), an area that I discovered the first time in 1980. The highlight of the expeditions in this area was when we went deeper than 1000 m in Muruk cave. It is now 1178 m deep and 17300 m long. It is a traverse. As this area is close to the Equator, the temperature is fair, about 18°C. The cave is big and has numerous rivers. There is a sump at – 647m so that is why there has been a delay between its discovery in 1985 and the 1995 cave diving expedition.

No major incidents in the cave, but myself and another guy got burns in the surface camp while starting a fire using petrol!

I am setting up a team to return to the Nakanai mountain for 2021. 

What you have learned (in general about yourself, friends, life, etc.) through caving?

Caving is an activity which requires an excellent physical shape and a strong mental. So I learned a lot about myself and my behaviour in strenuous situations. It is also a sport where you need colleagues and through explorations you develop strong friendship. Solo caving need to reach perfection in technics. Caving help to greatly enriches your life. If you cave abroad, then you meet people from different cultures, which enables to open your mind.

If you have experience with cave incidents would you share with other speleologists, so we can all learn from your experience. What would be your advice in case of incident?

Fortunately I have so far not experienced a serious incident while caving. In 1981, I was stuck at -1000m following a flood. We got stuck 36 hours, shivering in that cold cave. So I recommend to all cavers exploring long or deep cave to always have with them items to make a “hot spot”: a poncho designed for that purpose, candles, energy food. 

What is your approach toward cave courses for new cavers, i.e. how you attract new cavers, how long the course lasts, on what you put an emphasis, etc.?

When I was a professional in caving, I used to recruit clients through Internet, but also articles on newspapers and magazines. The length of the training was depending on the objectives, but in one day on a cliff, I was able to take clients in vertical caves down to around 100 m deep.  

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