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The Gouffre Berger

The first time I heard rumour of an expedition to the South of France was in an art lesson at school. At that stage I had no idea that I would be a participant, but on hearing that it was to be a club trip with everybody involved, I was determined not to be left out.  I borrowed and begged as much as possible and the rest I was; able to buy due to the “Ian Dear memorial Fund” grant.  The few SRI practices I was able to go on, because of my exams, indicated that my SRT was very poor, in fact, the only time I was confident of it was at the top of Ruiz.

The journey down to the South of France as tiring but enjoyable.  We avoided the motorways~ sticking to the country lanes, thus seeing a little more of France.  The second night of travelling we broke down, but luckily it was only half a mile from the campsite.  When we did arrive the following morning, I couldn’t believe the view from the plateau where we camped, as I’d never seen mountains before.  The Alps appeared so close, yet high and majestic.

The afternoon we arrived I managed to damage my ankle, and so was forced to sit around for a couple of days, resting it and cursing.  The first trip that I managed was to the Gournier with Robin, Paul and John, my travelling companions.  The cave was superb.  In the entrance was a beautiful, crystal-clear lake which had to be swum to gain entry to the cave.  The freezing swim was followed by a short ladder climb into extensive passages With powerful formations.  As my ankle coped with the Gournier I was ready to have a go at the Berger.

The hike from the campsite to the cave entrance almost finished me off but putting my kit on brought the adrenalin pumping back!  After a year of Mendip cave entrances the entrance to the Berger was quite awe inspiring. A large hole in the ground surrounded by scaffolding and memorial plaques to those who have died there.

I started descending the Berge, midday on the Thursday, with Robin G., Paul M., Edic H. and John C. We each had kit bags for food, sleeping bags etc.  Mine seemed to weigh a ton, I think I took too many packets of glucose sweets!  I really enjoyed the descending of the cave - that was until we reached Aldo’s.  Aldo’s terrified me.  After traversing over the top I sat shaking at the top of the pitch.  I peered ever the edge to see the others but all I could see were pinholes of light.  I took a few deep breaths and with great care abseiled down.  At the bottom I felt completely overwhelmed and couldn’t say a word.

The Gouffre Berger was big! The passages were on a mega-Yorkshire scale.  The boulder piles and pitches were of a size I’ve never seen before and personally wouldn’t mind not seeing again.  The formations were spectacular, especially the Hall of Thirteen.

At Camp 1 we had a welcome cup of tea before carrying on.  Just after the Hall of Thirteen Paul slipped and twisted his ankle.  Robin volunteered to return with him whilst John, Edric and myself carried on.  I thought the second half of the cave was similar to an overgrown Swildons, but more exciting.  As the cave grew wetter my furry suit grew baggier and soggier.  I had a slight hiccup with my SRT 8ft off the ground on one of the wetter pitches but by standing on Edric I was able to unhitch myself. As we ventured deeper and deeper into the cave, the feeling we got from meeting people coming from the bottom spurred us on.  Finally we arrived at the top of Little Monkey and stopped to check our carbide supplies but found that they were low.  We decided we ought to turn back two pitches from the bottom.  It wasn’t until we started going up the pitches that I noticed how tired I was.  Edric hurried on as he was cold, whilst John and I ambled back to Camp 1.  I found myself getting slower and slower and dropped off to sleep if we stopped.   After 19 hours underground we reached Camp 1.  I felt absolutely shattered.  We stripped off our damp kit and crawled into sleeping bags.  I didn’t sleep but to stop moving was reward enough.  Six hours later we started making moves to go out. I think one of the hardest things I’ve ever done was crawling out of my warm sleeping bag into damp cold kit with the feeling of dread from knowing what is to come and that it’s all up hill! From Camp 1 to the surface I ate glucose tablets by the packet so that now and again I had spurts of energy.  At Aldo's I had a panic.  My chest jammer would not run up the rope correctly and kept coming off.  John calmed me down, sorted the jammer out and convinced me that I could do it. Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, I clipped my cow’s tail in at the top of Ruiz.  I vowed then and there not to go down again.  The elation and relief I felt was immense, only comparable to seeing daylight the next morning or to using Dany's udder cream on my "Berger" hands.

Other caves we explored whilst in France were the BournilIon and Padirac.  Bournillon must have the most impressive cave entrance in Europe.  Padirac, a show cave, had too many steps and too many people waiting to see it.  The rest of the holiday was spent discovering French cuisine, sight-seeing and doing tent duties.  The area in France where we were staying was beautiful.  I found it difficult to adjust to waking to a view of the Alps each morning.  Their character constantly changed during the time that we spent there. During the sunny days they appeared inviting, at night time a vague outline but during the spell of freezing weather only their awesome presence could be felt.

Thinking back now about the Berger, I don’t think it was as physically difficult as people tend to believe but more psychologically difficult.  The feeling of desolation at the bottom of Aldo’s and the desperation to get out was much harder to cope with than any of the caving done within the Berger.  All in all, it was an experience I’ll never forget and a superb trip.

When’s the next one?

Lisa Taylor