The story of how several Croydon people managed to join a joint trip to the Gouffre Berger in the Vercors, have a splendid time and do a little incidental caving:
Living in Cardiff (at the time) and having joined Croydon from Cardiff University Caving Club meant that I still had quite strong links with the club while studiously managing to avoid paying any club fees for some years. Back in 1992, Hugh Penney and several others had managed by fair means or foul to get on a trip that was going down the Berger. On their return it was mooted that since Hugh, who was looking to live in that part of the world, had booked the system on spec, we had better use our allotted time.
With a spring in our step and joy in our hearts we commenced the organisation. We worked out how much rope to use, how many hangers, how many crabs, multiplied by four, divided by three and came up with a number that looked right. Investigation showed that we would have to spend a small fortune (by our standards) on lovely new rope and shiny hangers (about œ2k in all). Meanwhile Hugh was travelling the UK in his new age traveller guise (a very dilapidated Iveco van that was big enough to host a roller disco and sleep upwards of a regiment of small cavers), acting as a latter day recruiting sergeant. It takes no great intuitive leap to realise that the more people who go then the less it costs, and bugger the crowing "cos its a very big cave".
In no time at all we had people from all over the Country who we had never heard of writing or phoning and saying that "Hugh said it was OK for us to come". The expedition swelled from about 20 to 60 overnight and carried on growing exponentially, including:
SUC&PC - Salford University Cave and Pothole Club (AKA Sod U C&PC)
Reading - A small contingent of amenable gents
The MCG - Mendip Combat Group (AKA Andy Sparrow, Chris Castle et al)
Croydon - More later...
Either way, money was collected, kit was bought, carbide by the megaton was collected, Cardiff set off in a bus and off we went.
From Croydon, Andy Symonds, Adrian Paniwnyk, George Pankiewicz, Steve Wray, myself and Phil Brooks (lapsed + his mate Richard) were present. Andy and Adrian were to make the journey in Adrian's Renault 5. Me, George, Phil and Steve were to utilise Steve's famous red Montego estate.
On the day we were to depart, Phil and I arrived at Dover (7ish) and looked for George and Steve. Our ferry was due at 1 am on Saturday morning so we aimed to have a few beers and something to eat, followed by a leisurely ferry trip to the continent whereupon we would cruise majestically to the south arriving in Grenoble in time for cornflakes. Some hope! The best laid plans of mice and men etc. The M4 and the M25 put paid to our ambitious arrival times, allowing for a 5 hour journey from Cheltenham to Dover. Wrong! On the M25 on Friday night after 3pm nothing moves. We were late, very late. Steve and George were considering the easy way out and going without us (they had the tickets).
Still, we thought, plenty of time. Let's go and enjoy the historic port of Dover. Twenty minutes later of "What do you fancy?" and "I'm not in the mood for a big dinner!" and since Andy and Adrian had done the wise thing and gone straight onto a very early ferry, we tried to keep it short. The chip shop loomed in our thoughts. "Good old British chips with curry sauce twice please my good man," rang out in the shop. "No, sorry, make that three with a sausage. What, no sausages? A pasty then. No, just the one." George then got to the counter and with an almost teutonic thoroughness caused havoc by asking for gravy. In Leicester chips come with gravy. In Dover they do not. This regional gastronomic variance caused much entertainment to the others. For the benefit of those unaware of the sort of chaos that this can cause a transcript follows:
George: "Chips with gravy please."
Chippy: "Don't do gravy."
George: "Are you sure?"
Interruption while Steve buys some curry sauce.
Chippy: "Yeah, we don't have any gravy."
George: "You couldn't make some, could you?"
Chippy: "We don't have any!"
George: "You couldn't put some hot water on some oxo cubes?"
George: "I'll have curry sauce then."
Chippy: "Sold the last one to your mate!"
Well you had to be there to appreciate it.
Still, we got an early ferry and relaxed on board with a small beer, a coffee and a visit to the duty free to get contraband - gin, cigarettes, cigars, etc. We envisioned a salubrious journey into the bowels of the Vercors, resplendent with wicker baskets, ice cold Chablis, smoked duck, silver cutlery with cigars and brandy. We also bumped into some Reading chaps who said they'd see us there.
The journey South as always with these things was long, uneventful and tiring. Having stopped to change over drivers near Reims, we pushed on into the driving rain and flat roads of central France. We breakfasted south of Lyons and pressed on into the grey dawn.
As we drew closer, the map reading became more complex, and it appeared that there was a short cut that cut off 80 odd miles and avoided Grenoble, so off we went, up some alarmingly steep hills in a very overloaded car. The question was asked "What does 'Route Baree' mean?". "We can get through, don't worry!" came the chirpy reply. Several corners and one road block later we found the problem. Half the mountain, road, trees and all was gone. Like some surreal cartoon, the road lead into empty space and some 400 yards later it continued. Much swearing ensued and the steps were retraced.
Arrival at camp was no great event. A small enclosure had formed with tents and a fire, with a couple of outliers spread over the clearing. Facilities were simple with a delightful pine fresh toilet (beware of the ants!) and water only a good 30 minutes slog away. Tents were pitched, shopping was bought, Grenoble was visited and dinner was had. Luckily Helen (Now Mrs Wray) had lovingly packed a huge amount of varied and interesting sarnies for the journey down, and we had a single chicken and mushroom pie left on arrival. Immediately, Gareth Parsons sidled up and asked if it contained meat. "Of course it does," we explained, "only the best for us!" "What do you want for it? I haven't tasted real food for days, only this veggie stuff." We haggled and were soon swilling what turned out to be someone else's beer (several bottles in fact).
At last we were to go underground (whoopee). We were to carry ropes to Camp 1 for use below 600m. Off we went. As we disappeared, we asked for directions. After much shrugging, Gary Hopwood offered his formidable navigational talents to show us to the entrance. Later analysis showed this to be the first of many utterly daft things to do. No problem, or so we thought, other than taking a strangely complicated and long time to find the cave. For those that have not done any big stuff in France, it is an eye opener. Everything about the place was on a large scale.
We slid down famous names, Aldo's, Gontards, and so on, hanging onto 11mm Bluewater II, a rope so thick and so new that we had real problems getting down, and even worse ones going up. It took several long and hot hours for myself, Steve, George, Adrian and Andy to get to the bottom of the entrance series. Things then got really really big. We motored down stream over hill and valley following the footsteps of Petzl and Co. Then we had to stop, to pass what I think was the best part, Lake Cadoux. To lie on a rubber dinghy and let others haul you across a large lake seems to be the right way to go caving if you ask me. On our return, we found that somebody had decided to stay with the boat, a troglodytic ferryman if you will. This guardian of the styx was christened "Flossie" due to a remarkable resemblance to an inflated (and anatomically accurate) sheep. We can only assume that it was left by the Welsh contingent.
Into a cavern measureless to man and down the starless river to the Hall of the Thirteen, named (originally) after the 13 blokes who found it. A shame that a place of such magnificence should bear the names of those who discovered it rather than something more fitting, but this is prevalent with a lot of places in France. The Berger itself is named after Jo Berger which again seems to border on the egomanic. After photos, noodles and some coffee with chocolate it was time to refill the carbides and head for the surface. This is easier said then done. Even though the Berger is wet in many places, one can travel for 5 or 6 hours without so much as a drip, which causes big problems when having to balance drinking water against light.
We got to the surface after 16 or so hours underground and lay around in the very cold night air utterly exhausted. It was after 3 am and it was very very dark. We de-kitted and generally made ourselves comfortable as we waited for the rest of the party to form up. As there are three or four largish 35m+ pitches near the entrance we had begun to deliberately spread out. This meant that time was not wasted waiting at the foot of ropes. However it also meant that we had to wait for about an hour for the last of our party. We finally headed for home about 4.30 am. This is where things began to go wrong.
It was by now very dark and our lights were on their last legs. This, coupled with our disastrous route finding on the way in, meant that we didn't have the least clue as to how to get back, other than following red splodges. We struck out hopefully and soon discovered that every other rock, tree and piece of clear ground was painted with a red splodge. We wandered lonely as a cloud for several hours, Adrian headed off on his own, we just milled about. Tired, lost, cold and hungry, what were we to do? Well, one bright spark chirped "It'll be light in under an hour, then we can see where we are going, so lets just wait!" Myself and Steve sat down and lit a fire (clever that!) with the last of our carbides and some rubbish carried out, George and Andy went exploring (ie. looking for the way home). Suddenly, a light! Who can it be? It was Adrian, lost and in the same boat. However, as dawn broke (broke what?), we saw the error of our ways and wandered into camp at about 6.30 am.
It turns out that if we had turned left instead of right immediately, it would have only taken 20 minutes! For the rest of the holiday, we rested for a bit, and then it went downhill. Adrian and Andy made an unsuccessful bid for the bottom and were turned back by floods. We slobbed a lot, spent a lot of time in bars and visited some other superb caves in the Vercors. One in particular (La Grotte de Bourginon) is a massive resurgence with an 80m high entrance in a rough O shape. Another we visited seemed to be colonised by mosquitoes and we were a little reluctant to go through the very cold ducks after George left his thermals and furry back at camp (that's one way to keep your gear clean!).
One other highlight was the mass excursion to the local swimming pool to get clean. Having negotiated a group discount, some 20 very dirty smelly cavers marched into a very smart pool complex and, showing uncommon courtesy, some even showered before swimming! This pool was great. It had a real climbing wall coming out of one part so you could practice your sea cliff climbing, and a large water slide which at the start overlooked a fabulous aerobics class. This class, incidentally, was only attended by the sort of person who never needs aerobics. Soon a party of grubby male cavers were watching these devastatingly gorgeous French girls contort themselves with undisguised relish from the safety of an overhead gantry. Unfortunately this soon caused a jam in the water slide so we all had to move along.
The pool also had an SRT practice rig suspended over the deep end, presumably so one can practice abseiling off the end of a rope into deep water. This too provided much merriment. Where was the lifeguard whilst all this good clean (by now anyway) fun was going on? He was reading the paper, smoking a fag, and chatting up some member of staff who wandered in!
Another feature of the trip were the visitors. We had a small contingent of Czech and Slovenian cavers with us who, due to a lack of cash and so forth, made their contribution in vast quantities of paint thinning vodka. Not only could we sit around the camp fire telling stories and drinking beer, but we could also use this vodka to practice our firebreathing. They seemed to posses limitless supplies of this actually quite good rocket fuel, and after a while it was dangerous to go near them else you get another gallon of the chemical poured down your throat in the spirit of international caving cameraderie. For all their rag tag equipment they also proved the hardest and managed to get deeper than anybody else.
On our last night we tried to find the best restaurant in town, get pissed, get filled with fine cuisine, and see how many posh guests we could insult. Mission accomplished on all counts, the next morning as testament we felt like shit, especially faced with the prospect of driving all the way to Calais. Still, we stopped off in Dijon and bought a lot of wine and a lot of beer, so much in fact that the car was now positively dangerous over about 40 mph since the steering was so light.
The journey back was fairly uneventful and we were all glad to get home to our beloveds. However, the dog has now seen the rabbit and with the right manpower and a more carefully organised group we could easily have a seriously good holiday and trip. Hugh now lives in the Vercors and is offering cheap accommodation to his friends at some Godforsaken hut in the middle of nowhere. The biggest drawback while we were there was the weather; early September is renowned for superb thunderstorms and more than a few people had cold wet nights as a result. It also meant that certain sections of the cave are impassable, hence the failure to bottom. Our next slot is booked for July, when we hope that the weather will be more clement.