Devon Speleological Society
The trip consisted of the following people: Carl Gibbs, Keef Jackson, Ali Neil, Chris "Stumpy" Whale, Steve Metters, Jim, Karen Porter.
I heard about the trip down the Berger in Decembern 1997, and soon asked to join. The trip was organised by the Devon Speleological Society, with additional help from Plymouth Caving Group and the Yorkshire Speleological Society. Many people helped in the preparation of the trip, least of all me being in Norway for most of May and June. Two people on the trip had previously reached the bottom of the Berger, but knowing that the average age of the group was 40, I had some worries to its success. As with most of these mixed club expeditions most of the group did not know at least half of the others. Many training weekends were set up, to improve standards and familiarise people with each other. I was unfortunately only able to attend two of them, and so set off unprepared and not known.
I travelled out with John Crowley, a CIC holder who organises management training courses, and Karen Porter a language teacher from Newcastle who we first met in Matienzo that year. The trip started well with a speedy journey down in John's Astra.
SUNDAY - DAY 1
We arrived at Hugh's gite on Sunday ready for lunch and with plenty of time for a walk to the bar, a long drink of beer and a good stretch of the legs.
MONDAY - DAY 2
Ecouge- Gorge 1 - (John, Karen, Carl).
An ambitious start saw us at the Ecouge gorge ready to do Section 1, a real vertical treat down to the dam. We met Jean Phillipe a muscle bound Frog training to be an instructor, who joined our party.
The introduction to the gorge was quite gentle with a good scramble over smooth rocks, small jumps into pools, and many 5-15m abseils. We found that Karen's SRT was not quite as good as thought, but after a little Haddocking around she smoothly descended all abseils upside down with her face in the full force of the water. The low water level enabled us to play in the full flow of the water. Traverse wires high up, and bolts along reach to one side, showed us the true nature of the gorge in full spate.
Finally we hit the sunshine, the gorge opened up revealing a huge drop down to the dam and the Section 2. This 70m abseil was split into 2 parts with a small ledge tentatively perched on the side. An excellent end to the day!
TUESDAY - DAY 3
Ecouge - Gorge 2 - (John, Karen, Carl).
Hugh spent last night giving us tales of doom and destruction of countless people drowning in these gorges, but after a good chilli nothing seemed too difficult to conquer. So up early and arrived at the dam for 10 am. to start Section 2 of the Ecouge Gorge. We enter just as a tourist group went down so things were a little congested at first
The first drop gave us a taste of things to come, the gorge is more open and less intimidating than higher up, the sun warms the water nicely while the cascades are a beauty to behold. The other group soon left us to our games, sliding and jumping down the falls, this was the sort of place you could stay all day. We eventually reached the first of the jumps a nice 6m to start, 5m to follow and then a 9m toboggan with two trees fallen across the slide. You feel a collision is imminent, but just as you think you'll hit the trees you slide under and splash into the pool. The slot was the only awkward jump, only 3m wide and 8m high it took a little nerve to go at first. The other group set up a hand line and I got in three jumps while the others were setting up the next abseil. John stating that I didn't need to prove my madness as it was obvious.
After 4 hours of fun, we arrived at the escape route and a hot 30-minute walk back to the car. Excellent.
WEDNESDAY - DAY 4
Glacier d'Autrans - (Keef, Stumpy, Jim, Steve, John, Ali and Carl).
After another relaxing night at Hugh's we packed and left for Autrans. We arrived at the campsite while the others were out but soon spotted their pile of mess placed as far away as possible from the rest of humanity.
Keef Jackson, Chris Stumpy Whale, Ali Neil, Steve Metters and Jim completed the Plymouth gang.
Today was to be a training trip down Tricky Soufflé but another group beat Keef to it, so we opted for Glacier d'Autrans instead, a couple of nice big pitches leading into some horizontal stuff at the bottom. John Ali and myself set off 2 hours after Keef and a good 20-minute walk from the road end brought us to their car which had just driven straight through the barrier at the end (very clever). It was a nice walk even in the heat and sweat. In the forest it took a while to find the gapping gash of a whole but the others were still ensconced at the top of the second pitch having rigged one way down only to find it was still blocked by ice.
Unfortunately unknown to us we were now in a different cave entrance. Keefy rigged down a 60m pitch with 3x20m ropes, while I changed the top rope from a 50m to a 15m rope. On descending we had a re-belay, a knot/rope change over, another rope change over and finally another re-belay. Finally on reaching the bottom I could hear Ali above state "What is this, rope training or what!" but at least it gave the others a taste of our techniques.
A small climb up led to a 10m free climb down which I protected with 2 pieces of tat and 3x 8ft slings tied together hanging off a boss. This was for some reason rejected by John who found a small crawl behind a boulder instead.
By now Keef and Jim were cold and ascended, Stump and Steve left at the pitch above. I rigged down the next perfect 50m free hang to a small shifty passage going on. Here we turned back reaching camp a little later than planned.
The rest of the day was spent chatting, sorting out gear and having the big dinner, speeches were made and the radio guys were introduced. They had a low frequency radio at Camp 2 and were using our trip to test it out.
THURSDAY - DAY 5
The meeting, started slowly the cellar was hot and people soon started to nod off. But the amount of fore-thought and planning that some people undertook soon came through and morale was high in the team. Everything was talked about, I'm sure someone took minutes, teams were devised with letters given to tasks, and now all it needed was names to go in the spaces. An initial embarressed silence ensured when the board was left blank but soon people were jumping at the chance to lug tonnes of equipment down big pitches and across the Meanders.
We all then grabbed a bag and headed to the enterence to establish top camp. Here luxury was not an unknown word and many extra items were sourced to help the people over their long vidules. Comfy armchairs; tripple lilos; a paste board as a desk; gallons of tea and hot chocolate, were all readily at hand. Finally everyone was gathered speaches were made and the first bolt was ceremoniously placed, champagne was opened and a toast to a safe and healthy expedition given.
The walk to the enterance was very beautiful. Mainly flat and downhill there, but cripplingly hard and uphill after the long trips underground. Well shaded and coolin the midday heat, and out of the wind when the northerlies blew.
That night the first group stayed behind for an early start as we all left. That start was very early as they decided to start rigging straight away, dropping a few pitches, but speeding things up in the morning. I decided it was time I had better start fettling my carbide as I had not used it in at least five years, and also buy a spanner being on the next days rigging trip.
FRIDAY - DAY 6
Gouffre Berger , Rig to Camp 1.- (John, Ali, Al and Carl).
Lots of faffing gave us a late start of 11am but with 2/3 tackle-bags apiece we had no chance of catchiung up the others. Quickly descended the first pitches, all well bolted and rigged, with plenty of great freehangs and little water or spray in them. Cairn Chamber at -280m was soon reached, Ali went on through the Meanders while I waited for John, Al and his rucksack. Yes, he took down a canvas army rucksac with enough edges, straps and pockets to get caught on everthing and anything. So half was repacked into mine and Ali took his second tacklebag.
The Meanders are not a problem on your own; bareable with one bag; but anymore especially with extra little bags ie SRT and it's a nightmare. So an exhausting hour ensured dragging four bags through ten minites of passage.
Finally we reached Aldo's, an excellent drop of and then the walking started. We soon met group A returning from Lake Cadeaux which was bone dry, We stomped through big passages whopping with delight slipping across moonmilk floors and rigging down the last few small pitches and a couple of traverses. Quite a few of the drops were easily free-climbed as long as it did not rain.
And so the first group arrived at Camp 1, we had two bags of "camp kit" our own personnel kit and two bags of rope (used up in getting there). Cooked dinner, had a good wander around the Hall of Thirteen and then the next groups arrived bringing own kit and more rope. While exiting we passed Keefy and the rest of the Plymouth lot laying the last of the telephone cable to Camp 1, having already established comms. at Lake Cadeaux and top of Aldo's.
What a team and what preparation, by the end of day one we had rigged to and established Camp 1. Left four more tackle bags and established communicatios to Camp 1. It took Shefield University with a bunch of pretty hard nuts three days to achieve that.
SATURDAY - DAY 7
The next day I rested and fettled ready for the big push on Sunday, while three other teams took the rest of the tackle bags down to Camp 1. Some bags were left alittle before with prehaps too many people trying to take a little too much personel equipment down as well.
But Keefies team had still not returned. Were they staying down ready for the big push? No they were just having a big faff, especially Jim who does like a big faff. They eventually returned at about 6pm in time for another pretty awful veggie slop. The first team to stay underground they came back with tales of being surrounded by beautiful formations, and the delights of eating "Pack and Go" meals in confined areas ( a very hazardous activity). Steve also delighted everyone who would listen with his tales of underground crapping. This was a what goes in must come out kind of trip.
Now here is a tradition that should be changed. Once upon a time when dragons ruled the world and we were poor students, the veggie slop was a useful means of feeding large quantities of poor hungry students very cheaply, and with often a few real veggies around avoided complicated cooking procedures. But today we can afford real meat once a week and even Keef likes to suck on a sausage occasionally, so why do we persist with this awful fodder. The real reason I think, was because everyone was caving late and feeling tired so no one cooked well and hence our energy levels were depleted due to a lack of protein, the viscious circle ensnared us into a downward spirial of appathy and slovenlyness.
SUNDAY - DAY 8
The big Sunday arrived and with it an increase in the steady drizzle that had occurred every night the forecast was not good and a group decision said not to go down. We festered all day and some of the tremendous momentum that had been built up was soon disappearing. The English \ French radio team that were using our trip to test a new 83kHz radio down at Camp 2 turned up. They went down to stay at Camp1 that night, and so did a couple of ours who had left their kit at the top, rigged from Camp 1 down to the Calcite Slopes. I went for a small walk and lazed around.
MONDAY - DAY 9
Gournier - (John, Karren, Pete,John2 and Carl).
The rain was not much better this morning and the Berger called off again. So we decided on a tourist trip down the Gournier. We entered in breaking sunshine, I forgot my wellies, but managed to continue in special Hi-tech speleo flip-flops. The cave was as beautiful as ever, taking photos as we ascended up hill to avoid all that steam as we overheated. Unfortunately two of the guys had to be back for top camp duty at 6pm so we turned around after only a short distance up the stream way.
Bright sunshine greeted our return, and we realised the weather forecast had taken our only two spare days away.
That night the deciding meeting of the expedition occurred. Arriving a little late to dubious murmurs, Andy, Jason and another from the South West Adventure Group were giving their account down to Calcite Slopes where they had rigged to yesterday. For what ever reason the epic trip and epic cave were extolled in all manner of arduous and exhausting detail. Creating an aura of certain death to all that descended into the bowls of this cave, this was easily done as no one else knew what to expect. And so the expedition's aim was changed from bottoming, to reaching Camp 2 in one push and de-rigging back to Camp 1 on the next trip. The truly expert way the trip started, with goals being attained so quickly and professionally were quickly dashed in an evening of debate on the unknown.
TUESDAY - DAY 10
Gouffre Berger, Grand Canyon - (John, Ali, Imogen, Nigle, Pete and Carl).
Three days good weather was now forecast, and a little latter than expected two teams of Ali, Nigel Sargent and Peter Head followed two hours latter by Carl, John Crowley and Imogen. With no other traffic we reached Camp 1 in two hours, had a quick brew picked up the gear for Camp 2 and the 40m handline to descend the Grand Canyon.
Walking down, the formations were as spectacular as ever and the passage large and easy going. A letter box entry led down to the slopping pitches of the Calcite Slopes and we soon reached the end of the previous trip, realising that the distance was not great and the end would have been easily in our reach.
Continuing on we soon dropped down into the streamway and the canals. These beautifully sculptured passages with clear cold crystal water under foot had a series of tenuous traverse ropes above to try and keep one dry. We soon caught up with Ali and the others rigging all these small drops. The rigging guide here became a little vague, not knowing exactly when the traverses ended and the pitches started. It soon became apparent that we had re-rigged the entire stream passage and ran out of rope. A little jiggling around saw us to the bottom of the Canals, we then dropped two pitches on the Frenchies rope and left our 40m handline for Coutards Pitch.
Here was one of the best pitches I have ever done, John rigged it out of sight on a short traverse to the left, but we could not understand why he was taking so long. A hurried "rope free", sent Pete and then Ali out, both giving quick exclamations on turning this corner. Finally it was my turn. The passage is high and rifty, with the stream flowing swiftly over the RHS, clipping into the traverse line you swing out leftwards encountering a 3m piece of scaffolding wedged precariously across the corner of the passage held to the rock by years of French tat and a small flake. I gingerly crawled along this to reach the main hang, which is now well out of the flow of the stream. The 22m drop quickly lead to the top of the Grand Canyon and Camp 2. We arrived at 8 pm.
The Grand Canyon is an immense passage, bigger than Time Machine, but similar in character, except the passage was rotated 20-30 anti-clockwise and 40 downhill. This created some very large drop-offs on the left as we descended gingerly down a hand-line on the right. First though dinner, we quickly had smash, fish and vegetable soup cooked up all round, and then established communications with the surface using the low frequency radio. This had a long array of very thin aerials spread radially out from the camp platform. A large squawk was emitted on transmission, but apart from that reception was good.
Surface asked how we were celebrating reaching Camp 2, and it was at this point that I got out my bottle of Southern Comfort to the joy of all around.
The view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon looking back up to the others was amazing, and it was with great disappointment that we turned around after looking down another large free-hanging pitch and seeing the French rope disappearing into the depths below.
WEDNESDAY - DAY 11
We started for Camp 1 at 11pm with the canals proving no problem and gradually became strung out as we caved out at our own tempo. I arrived back by 1 am and Pete by 2am having taken photos on the way up. We were all soon bedded down to a dinner of "Pack and Goes" which resonated throughout the night up and down the Hall of Thirteen.
Not too much faffing saw us off by 10 am taking more photos, and having a look up towards the Petzl gallery. We passed Keefy and the others coming down at the beginning of a true epic. I exited first with Ali behind, and received a great cup to tea at the entrance by 5pm. The walk back to the car park was the perfect finish to a great trip, a gorgeous sunset with Mount Blanc in the distance greeted us at the car park as the minibus turned up. A beer and veggie slops awaited back at base.
THURSDAY - DAY 12
Steve unfortunately turned back before Camp 1 this time, (its amazing how many people got a bit ill on this trip), which meant I could not use his lilo, and was reduced to the broken thermarest again, but still managed to laze around all morning, just went for a walk in the afternoon but it was very hot.
FRIDAY - DAY 13
Gouffre Berger, Camp 1 De-rig - (John, Nigel, Pete, Helen and Carl).
That's it, time to de-rig, almost the same team as last time, there were about 24 bags spread around from bottom of Aldos to Camp 1. Going down on my own was great, no bag and no hassle through the Meanders, I ferried four bags left at the top of main passage to Aldos and then headed to Camp 1. John and Andy had packed up Camp 1, and with Nigel, John C. and me headed out taking all the kit first to the traverse, then Lake Cadeaux and finally Aldos, de-rigging the pitches and the telephone wire as we went
Pete, Imogen, and Helen had already started hauling bags to the Meanders, a tiring/hot and boring/freezing experience, depending on weather you were hauling or waiting. Leaving just the three heaviest bags at the bottom of Aldos I headed out with only one bag.
SATURDAY - DAY 14
While the others had the envious task of getting the rest of the bags up the pitches (except the "photographers" who decided to take pictures of flowers), we headed to Sassenage and down the show cave to look at the resurgence. A very good hour was spent in there, except for some pretty naff music/love story in the main chamber. Checked out the Canyon for our last day and went for a walk. Ate meat that lunch.
Headed up to top camp as the de-rigging team were coming out, they took a lot less time than I thought And with all that hard team work the group really bonded back together again. Brought a couple of beers up and had a bit of a party around the fire before being left to a cold night up top. Three Frenchies from the Grenoble Club went down to the Meeting Room at -960m, and then back up a side passage to Three Way Junction at -460m, leaving diving gear ready for a further push the following week.
SUNDAY - DAY 15
Packed up top camp, the Frenchies came out at 9am, after 20 hours to the bottom and back. We headed down and went off to Lans to watch Lee, Jim and Karen go parapenting. Kidnapped Marmot who had been terrorising the camp site pulling out pegs and hiding things, Lee gave a good ARSE (Another Really Stupid Expedition) to us from the air too.
Big dinner that night and moods were good, Pete listed all the cock-ups of the trip, with Stumpy winning when he went into the Patisserie and said "Je suis une pain au chocolate". We all knew he was not quite all there. The evening ended with a big sing song and strapping me to a stretcher and carrying me home (very nice too).
MONDAY - DAY 16
Said goodbye to Stump et al and went for a walk, moved into the Gite for one good nights sleep at last.
TUESDAY - DAY 17
Furon Gorge - (John, Karren and Carl).
Packed and on the road by 8:30, down to Sassenage where we finished in style down the Furon Gorge A really enjoyable one with some great abseils lots of stumbling over boulders, wading through pools and a swim through a cave. The last two pitches were 10m and 14m. They could be jumped but even I was only stupid enough to do the first. It felt longer than it looked. John did the nightmare drive all the way back on his own, averaged 50 mpg in his diesel Astra for the whole journey.
Even though we did not reach the bottom of the Berger a good trip was had by all and I think quite a few ideas and lessons learnt. Many new friends were made, whom I shall hopefully be bringing down the cottage at some stage.