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A Flying Visit to the Berger

Due to work commitments and family holidays, I could only manage to join the Berger trip for four days over the middle weekend of the trip.  Fred Weeks was in a similar position and agreed to come with me.

We boarded the 9pm ferry at Dover on the Wednesday evening, and then spent the rest of the, night driving through France to the Vercors.  We arrived at La Moliere on Thursday morning and made our way towards the Bertie flag which was just visible over the brow of the hill. Contact was made with Tim and Co. and we were informed that the cave had been bottomed the night before and was rigged ready for the big rush.

Our camp was set up and after a meal we tried to catch up with our sleep.  This was not to be.  The first interruption was Dave Turner, leaping about and inquiring if we would like to go to the bottom with him in about an hour's time.  Various other people came and enquired about our journey down, after which Fred und I realised that we were too keyed up to sleep. We decided to that we would take our sleeping gear etc. down to the bottom of the entrance pitches, ready for our trip to the bottom which was be on the Friday.  Having collected our gear together we made our way to the control tent and signed in for the trip.  While we were doing this, J. Rat appeared from his bottoming trip of the night before. The walk to the cave is pleasantly downhill through trees and the cave entrance is situated at the edge of an open section of limestone pavement.  We booked in at the entrance tent and then set off down.

The entrance is a scramble down over boulders, then down a short ladder pitch, which can be done using the timber log ladder which is permanently installed.  If the log ladder is used, care must be taken otherwise the rest of the cave may not be visited.  From here a thrutch through an old door leads to the top of the first pitch. We enjoyed the first pitch and were glad to be underground at last.  On round a corner and straight on the Holiday Slides which were laddered.  At the top of Cairn pitch we were brought to a halt by Dany who was having a bit of a struggle on the pitch.  He admitted to being f •••• d and added that we were welcome to the cave.  At the bottom of Cairn pitch we emerged into a soaring rift chamber which for some reason most people find enjoyable. Following the passage on from here into the Meanders, Fred and I were both disappointed with these after all that we had heard and read.  All that can be said is that carrying full sacks through them can be a bind.  Soon we reached Garby’s, which is a nice free hang all the way down.  We pressed on from here to the top of the next pitch which we thought was Alda's, and stowed our sacks on a ledge above the pitch.  We set off out at a cracking pace (for me} and regained the entrance after an enjoyable trip.  We then learnt that we had left our sacks at the top of Gontard’s and not Aida’s.  The walk up to the camp is a drag after being underground and the path can be easily lost in the dark - which we did, twice!

On the Friday morning, after a hearty breakfast, we found that half the camp had left at various times for the bottom.  As we had left most of our gear at the entrance the night before, we had very little to get ready other than a camera box, and were soon on our way, in a state of anticipation.  As we were changing, Trev, John and Phil. arrived to go to the bottom so we joined them. The cave was very busy at this time and there were delays on most of the pitches.  As we passed Gontard’s, Fred and I picked up our gear and arrived at the top of Aldo’s.  At the bottom of Aldo’s we met Pete Glanville, who was returning from the bottom without a stop for sleep.  John hauled his sack up for him and then John and Trev proceeded to give Pete a hard time by telling him his gear was all on the rope wrong and that he was not in a fit state to get out.  We left him sitting at the bottom of the rope looking at all his rope gear, mumbling about what goes on first!

A short section of passage from the bottom of Aldo’s leads you out into a large passage which disappears into the gloom in each direction.  We turned to the right and set off past Petzl Gallery, with our sacks on our backs.  The going was easy along a fairly level floor with boulders to scramble over or round.  Except for the size of the passage, this section I found rather uninteresting and was a little surprised when Trev announced that we were standing in the middle of Lake Cadoux.  A slight climb up from here and we entered a section of passage where the roof was much lower and there was a large amount of stal, both large and small.  When passing through this section of passage on the way out, I had the impression that these stals were walking along beside me and disappearing into the darkness!  We made good time down over the Little General's Cascade which had a ladder on it and through to the Tyrolienne Cascade where John had to recharge his light.  Trev, who had already done this section a number of times before, shot off for Camp 1 to make a brew.  His parting words were "Follow the right-hand wall".  When John was with light again we set off up a boulder slope, as we approached the top the roof rose majestically away and the sides melted into the darkness.

We moved on over the boulder floor to the right until the wall appeared out of the gloom.  John and Phil, both of whom had done this section of the Great Rubble Heap, moved on and when they were a long way off their lights seemed to be stars moving in the blackness.  Fred was very impressed to say the least.  The only other place I have been which made me have that feeling of insignificance was the Salle Verna chamber at the end of the Pierre St. Martin. The floor gradually becomes steeper and we passed by huge boulders the size of houses, Camp 1 came into view below as we rounded one of the boulders.  It was a welcome sight as we would be able to leave our sacks here for the bivvy on the way out.

The most note worthy thing about Camp 1, apart from the smell, is the large mound of spent carbide in the middle around which everything seems to happen.  A number of people were asleep in their pits after their trips to the bottom.  While we had a brew and something to eat, Trev changed into his wet-suit for the bottom section.  He cursed and changed back into his dry grots as there was something wrong with the wet-suit and he had carried it all the way to Camp 1 for nothing.

 

With the minimum of gear, we set out from Camp 1 straight into the Hall of Thirteen.  As we walked over the dry gours in the floor the large stals came into view, first as faint glimmerings as the light catches them, and then as stals that grow and grow as they are approached.  I did not think that the pictures I have seen do justice to this group of stalagmites.  As we were going to take pictures on the way out we pressed on down a well decorated passage to the Balcony Pitch.  This was passed quickly and we pressed on down until the passage levelled out and the roof came down to join us.  The cave, for me, from this point on never seemed so huge and overpowering as the section above. Because of this, the passage sections between the pitches and obstacles do not stand out in the memory as the top half, or perhaps it was too much of a good thing to take in all in one go.

After some scrambling through stals and up and down stal climbs we came upon a staled in wall with a small (for the Berger) hole with a rope disappearing over a stal bank.  This was the Vestibule pitch where one clipped on to the rope and slid off on ones arse over two large stal banks.  At the bottom of the second stal bank a scramble had to be made to a ledge on the left otherwise a fast descent would be made to the floor below without the aid of the rope.  The ledge is followed on a traverse line diagonally across the wall until the floor is reached.  We pressed on down the passage which became a high rift, and on rounding a corner we met the stream flowing at our feet.

"The canals, lads!” said Trev, leaping up and down on a boulder in the middle of the stream.  He continued to bleat on about the state of the existing traverse lines when he was on the previous rigging trip, and finished by saying,  "They are all right now as I have sorted them out", whereupon he leapt up at the right-hand wall and clipped into a tatty old piece of nylon rope and disappeared along the wall.  Phil followed on, but after some distance came to a halt.  The cause of the problem as received from Phil was “ a sodding great knot in the rope which needs a large krab.”  He was using a small krab!  Large krabs all round and on, trying to ignore the lack of external sheath on the rope here and there.  All along this section the stream fills the bottom of the passage, it was very clear going down into the blackness - the sign that says "I'm bloody deep!" The next entertainment was a crossover to the opposite wall.  Two lines crossed the stream with a bulge on the other wall to duck under as you crossed. Trev, Fred, John and Phil managed with some trouble depending on the length of their legs.  Me, I suffer from ducks disease, no way would my legs stretch to obtain a hold and I ended up hanging like a spider in a web, with my arse in the stream, praying that the rubber inner fixed to the belay would hold. A big effort and I reached the other wall and continued after the others.  A cross back to the right-hand wall was made easily this time and I caught up with John, who was watching Phil perform acrobatics round a stal column which ends 18 inches above the water.  The trick was to brace your feet at water level and then lean back in your harness until your back was level with the water, and then move to your left and stand up on the other side of the column.  The rope at this point was horrendous, all inner and no outer.  (We all used it both ways on all the trips and it's still there!). A quick scramble over a boulder and the canals ended in a fine cascade and pool, which was interesting to descend and cross on a single line from the top - much more fun going back up!  Large passage was entered here and we had a break for a change of carbide.

We set off again in high spirits down Cascade passage to the top of Claudine's.  The water spills out of the passage and tumbles down over the wall to land in a large shallow pool at the bottom.  The rope is off to the left at the end of a short scaffold tube wedged into a crack in the wall.  The descent is a walk down the wall by the side of the stream and very attractive when watched from below.  We followed the passage via various short pitches and climbs to the Grand Canyon, which is a steep descent over a boulder floor. At the bottom we arrived at Camp 2.

A rest was taken here and after a discussion it was decided to have a brew on the way out.  From Camp 2 the passage closed, down rapidly and we dropped through a hole in the floor to a series of pitches where one moved from one rope to the next with hardly a break between.  I found this section quite wet with spray on the return, and think that they would be very hard in high water conditions.  We were all getting bitten by bottom fever at this point and went charging down the passage looking for the last series of pitches. Before these are reached the roof lowers and a short section of passage has to be negotiated on hands and knees with even a bit flat out under a rock arch.  The streamway is soon regained to the ominous noise of water falling a long way. We had to wait here as Ken Dawe and Bob Pyke came up from the bottom.  We had a chat when they arrived, then set off ourselves.  A short climb up to the right leads to a traverse on a rope to the head of Little Monkey.  The rope sails down over a deep pool with the stream crashing down on the right hand side. After the edge of the pool is reached, a steeply sloping wall/floor is followed down until the stream suddenly shoots over the edge into blackness.  Hurricane!!

A move to the left is made to an alcove where a change over is made to a traverse line.  A move down and round a bulging corner of rock of rock and I found myself on a small ledge with nothing but black space to the side and down.  I moved carefully along the ledge to where John was sitting in a small eagle's nest type of place with room for only two people.  The head of the pitch is further out along the ledge the other side of the eagle's nest and the roof is about 2 feet above it.  Getting on and off the rope is a real pig and everybody had some trouble with it.  Once on the rope the pitch is a beautiful free hang.  When I reached the bottom I had that feeling that I was a long way from home!  This soon passed as we set off down a large passage floored with boulders.  After some distance, a large inlet came in from the right pouring water down a short pitch.  [This is the water from Fromagerie - the other major cave on the Sournin plateau and containing a 600 foot. plus pitch!  Next year a British team are going to try and link it with the Berger - what a round trip that would be!! - ed.]  The passage shape changed to a high rift and pools started to appear in the floor.  When we reached a pool that came to above Fred and Trev’s waists I stopped.  Fred’s waist is my chest and I did not feel like going out soaked through.  John and Phil agreed.  Trev and Fred went on a short distance but quickly came back with the report of a deep pool and duck.  This was the bottom for us.

After congratulations all round we set off out, our first objective being Camp 2 and a hot brew. As with most trips out of a cave, we gradually became strung out as the people in front pushed on to clear the pitches for those behind.  At Camp 2 we all assembled again and had a welcome brew.  We cleaned up the camp which was a bit of a mess and after a lamp fettle set out for Camp 1.  Again we were strung out by the pitches and my mood was very sombre as I was travelling alone or with just one other person and the little incidents that are amusing when in a group become annoying instead.  Also by now we were all becoming very tired.  We all eventually struggled into Camp 1 and had a brew and something to eat, what it was I have no idea but it was hot and tasted okay. Camp 1 was full to bursting with sleeping bodies all over the floor and strung in hammocks on the wall.  I found a flatish area on the rocks off to one side and set out my sleeping gear.  Trev left the camp at this point as he was going all the way out, I was glad it was him and not me.

We all settled down to sleep but I only slept very fitfully.  I had those lurid dreams about floating in a dark space and then dropping down on Camp 1.  At another point in my sleep, I awoke suddenly with my hand outstretched trying to hold up the roof which I thought was falling in!  At last it was time to get up - which I did, whereupon half the rest of the residents got out of their pits.  They were all waiting for someone to make the first move.  A meal was cooked and eaten along with lots of hot drink and we all felt much better.  Time at this point had ceased to mean anything and the meal we had just eaten had no point in being called breakfast or anything else - it was just a meal. After a general tidy up and much fettling of lamps, I dragged out the camera and Fred and I set off to take piccies. Some time was spent photographing the camp and the Hall of Thirteen, along with a large group of other flashers everywhere.  Fish had turned out of one of the hammocks and was giving Phil a hand firing the flashes but there was one problem,  Fish was using his personal stereo cassette to listen to music and had no idea what Phil was telling him.

After taking all the pictures we required in that area, Fred and I set off out taking photos as we went. Phil and John were going to follow doing the same thing.  Eventually we reached the bottom of Aldo's, only to find that Ken and Co. were still using the rope.  Fred had just started to ascend when Phil and John arrived.  This section of the cave was now rather congested and became very slow.  I enjoyed the steady plod up the pitches and through the Meanders, even though I was in desperate need of a crap from Gontard’s on.  The surface was reached and it was bliss to change with the warm evening sun to dry us out.  I had been underground for 31 and a half hours, not much by some standards but one great time for me.

Those of us who did the trip together, plus others, spent the evening having a communal meal and drinking numerous bottles of wine etc.  On the Sunday, Fred and I cleared up our camp and very reluctantly (we both would have liked to have stayed to the finish) set off on the drive back through France to the ferry. 

The crossing was rough and I nearly smashed into the back of a lorry when I went sleep at the wheel as we came into London - a good thing Fred was awake at the time!  We arrived home just about in one piece after a truly unforgettable four days.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who organised the Berger trip which proved to be well planned and carried out.

Buckett.