On November 30, 1999, at the age of 60, Michel Siffre spent 59 days in the Clamouse cave in the Hérault. An adventure told
the famous geologist-speleologist 23 years later.
At 10, little Michel explores caves when others prefer to play with friends. His passion was born one day when his father brought him to discover that of Broum, in Peret in the family village near Clermont-l’Hérault. A passion that quickly turns into a “pure and hard vocation”.
At the age of 13, Michel Siffre was exceptionally admitted to the Martel caving section of the French Alpine club and demonstrated that certain terrains date back 11 million years and not 14.
His first expedition to Ceylon in a country where people believe in the “demon of the cave”
The child prodigy of geology won, at the age of 21, “The million of the first chance”, prize of the Vocation Foundation created by Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet (the founder of Publicis). Michel Siffre organizes with this sum, his first expedition, to Ceylon. There, he fights against snakes and leeches in a country where people believe in the “cave demon”.
A year later, he rushed 130 m deep into the lair of the first underground fossil glacier, the Gouffre de Scarasson, in the heart of the Italian Alps. A unique experience. A test of cold and dantesque fear. A trip out of time. He draws from it the title of pioneer of voluntary confinement, raised in fact to the rank of notorious adventurer.
His vocation took him to countless missions for 30 years. In 1972, financed by NASA, he descended for 205 days in the Midnight Cave, in Texas. A record? “I don’t know. I don’t care. I never did this for that. It wasn’t what my experiments were about.”
Loneliness, I’ve always managed with it
In 1999, he wanted to “give back his [ma] nobody” near Peret, his village. He chose the “topographically ideal” Clamouse cave, with the aim of equaling the number of days spent in the Gouffre de Scarasson – two months – and to collect biological data, in particular on sleep and ageing.Technology has changed.The speleologist is surrounded by a team of scientists, including a specialist in atomic physics, and telemetric systems.On November 30, he enters darkness under the flashes of the media. Alone.” Loneliness, I’ve always managed with it. She never weighed on me”. The entrance is deliberately obstructed “so that I cannot go out”.
I malfunctioned from the start
As soon as he wakes up, he lifts the receiver of a telephone “to notify the time of my getting up.” Psychological and physical tests occupy his time. Siffre pedals on a stationary bicycle provided by NASA. Without a temporal marker, it is his body that guides him. “I was dysfunctional from the start,” he says.
When he is hungry, he picks from the fridge, placed there between the stalactites and stalagmites, freeze-dried sachets donated by NASA. “The same ones used for the Apollo XVI mission”. When he wants to sleep, he equips his skull with devices that measure his sleep stages. “I was doing normal ‘nights’. Once I still slept 32 hours in a row”. As at the bottom of the abyss of Scarasson, the rhythm of the earth does not influence the physical rhythm. “The body is actually our own clock.” This time, no discomfort, no darkness. No fears or cold. But still silence. “When a drop of water falls from a stalagmite, it seems like nothing and yet it affects you mentally.” Without time markers, on a day he believes to be December 31, he opens a bottle of champagne and celebrates “his” passage to the year 2000.
The scientific community knocks it out
On February 14, 2000, a moment of paradox, he definitively entered into legend at the very moment he left the Clamouse cave. The scientist becomes a popular hero. His community knocks him out. Haroun Tazieff himself criticizes it in the press. Judging “not serious”, the experiences of the geologist-speleologist. “He apologized a few years later and admitted he was wrong.” And for good reason. The underground experiments of Michel Siffre and his teams have been used by NASA. They are still used as a database by atomic energy researchers.
The point of the caves is that they were cheap simulation chambers
At 83, Siffre lives alone in a small apartment in Nice, the photos of his prowess hanging on the wall, “among books and cassettes. Comfort, like clothing for that matter, I don’t care a bit since a long time.” The octogenarian continues today adventures by proxy. He reads. A lot. “Right now, I’m immersed in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Jack London’s The Adventurer”. His life as a famous speleologist, he carries it with pride, also a little disillusioned: “the interest of the caves is that they were cheap simulation chambers. And me, I had an iron will and I I was very intellectually motivated. That’s all”. Michel Siffre has sacrificed everything for his vocation. “Without regrets”. What half-open a passage to posterity, like the pioneer of temporal isolation. Like the man of a life of freedom lived.