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Gouffre Berger and the French Alps 1985 – A retrospective.           By Phil Romford

I was fired up to write this article after buying a very nice film scanner that handles my 35mm, 120 roll film slides and negatives. So, this gave the urge I needed to sort through all my old black & white negatives first; this is when it was discovered that there were a number of negatives that had never been printed, because they were so under exposed that I never bothered with them. Some fancy scanning software and Photoshop enabled me to produce some pretty good images for printing; they are reproduced here. Some of the negs are damaged by damp and consequent fungal attack, however, they depict what we saw well enough! Pity I didn't take more.To set the scene: it was 1985, the year of the 50th anniversary of the BEC. About a year before we all went, the committee had wanted ideas for a club expedition, Tim Large and I said' 'The Berger!'. The Berger it was.

 

 

Biffo and Pete Eckford

Camp 1, with John Dukes left 

 Tim Large, Stuart McManus and myself organised it on behalf of the BEC and, we invited the Wessex and others to joins if they wished; quite a lot did. During the year run up, we organised a lot of training trips to the Dales for SRT experience and, we held a lot of local SRT training days at Split Rock quarry and some Mendip caves such as Rhino Rift and Cuthberts.I took my car with Trevor (Biffo) Hughes, John Dukes and Tim Large and arrived at Sassenage to meet the town Mayor to introduce ourselves and go through the rituals required at the time. We then went up to the Molliere to set up camp. The next day my team rigged down to the bottom of Aldo's shaft. Back at home before going, we had made up tackle bags with rope lengths, bolts and anchors, karabiners and Maillons for each pitch, we had naively believed that this would work, as the scheme was based on previous expedition reports. It didn't! However, we had a grand time sorting everything out as we went. By the time we were out of the cave much later that day, most of the party had arrived. We had 52 cavers plus families. I forget now exactly how many were present, but it must have been around 90 to 100 in total. Those not doing the Berger holidayed as caver families do!The rest of the cave was rigged by other team members all the way down to the bottom of Hurricane shaft. They too had problems with pre-packed tackle bags – ah well, we tried!Every morning we held a progress meeting where we also allocated jobs to elected teams; such as © Bristol Exploration Club 2011 19 Belfry Bulletin. 538 Vol 58. No.2 Biffo & Pete Eckford Camp 1, with John Dukes left Camp 1, with my pit and camera gear provisioning, tackle checks and rope replacement. We then let people form teams of their own, so they could be caving with their peers, but we ensured that there were very experienced people in each team. My team comprised of Biffo, Tim Large, John Dukes and Fred Weeks; five was a good number. It was now our time for a bottoming trip. The objectives were to get to camp 1 on day one; camping overnight at camp1: bottom the cave on day 2, camping over night again at camp 1, then exit the cave on day 3. What a trip! We had a fantastic time.

Many of the 52 cavers had intentions of getting to the bottom of the cave at 1100 meters or so depth. Some were happy to just be there and do whatever they felt was within there personal ability. In fact, 26 people bottomed the cave, me included I'm happy to say. It was unfortunate that a number of people were unable to bottom it for various reasons.

All 26 who got to the bottom were on a great high and, what a party we had afterwards!! We had ten days of excellent caving, with no accidents and no insurmountable problems.

Camp 1, with My pit and camera gear

Hall of Thirteen

 

Episode 2.

From the Berger, my car full went on South to Chamonix in the French Alps, where we met up with Ross white. Ross was in the Marines at this time and could not get the time off to go to the Berger.

Our plan was to do a training route to get acclimatised, before going for the big one – Mont Blanc. However, in the 'Bar Nationale' as it was, we met up with this Canadian guy who we nick named 'Brock'; he was keen to join us. This turned out to be a good decision.

Our so called training route was this: take the funicular railway up to the snout of the Mer de Glace, then leg it up to the Requin Hut and stay the night. The hut is in a superb location on a very large lump of granite over-looking the glacier; the access to it is via a very steep via ferrata like in the Dolomites. Our route from there was to be straight up to the Midi Plan, then, follow the ridge up to the Aiguille du Midi, then back to Chamonix on the cable car – one hell of a good route it turned out to be!

 Biffo and Ross

 

 

We had got to the Requin hut in very good time, so we could relax over a beer or two. Ross said, 'what's that down there?', 'ah, a pair of short mountain skies' we said. 'ooh!' says Ross 'I'm off down to get them'. No sooner had he said this, when a helicopter comes swooping up only to land and collect said skies. Ross was not pleased.

Early to bed and the guardian was asked to call us at 0300, yes 3 a.m. Being a serious and potentially lethal place, one always asks the guardian for his recommended departure time for a given route; 0400 latest for us.

By this time we had discovered that normal people do this route in a down hill manner, i.e. from the Aiguille du Midi, DOWN to the Requin hut. Being the BEC and obeying the 'Everything To Excess' maxim, we set off - uphill. This was a full on route requiring ice axes, crampons, mountain boots, ropes and racks of nuts, wedges, and ice screws etc. Plus mountain clothing, bivi bags - just in case – and a good supply of grub and drinks. Of course, I had to take my big film camera too.

The first hurdle was a very large granite lump with only one way on, this being a near vertical climbing route; these photos' give a bit of an idea.

When we got about 2/3rds of the way up, we met a Polish party coming down. It was actually frightening watching them as they were all belayed to the same piece of manky 6mm cord, whilst life-lining others down! We were waiting for disaster to strike. Luckily for them, and us, they  got away with it, otherwise we might have been involved in a very serious mountain rescue. With sighs of relief we go on to climb a big chimney – not so easy in full on Koflach mountain boots.

 Ross at climb

 

The Crux 

We were now on the Midi ridge way, way above Chamonix. The next section was an easy ridge plod, but avoiding dangerous cornices, the next obstacle was another big lump of granite with no obvious climbing route, short of bolting.

We were now glad to have Brock with us, as we were able to split the group into two ropes of three, with the least experienced in the middle of each.

The first three were Ross, myself with Tim in the middle, the second three being Biffo, Brock with John in the middle.  The plan was that at each crux the leader of a rope would let the middle man catch up, then let the third man overtake to take the lead; this worked well. The way on was to front point down the snow slope - my lead – to reach a stance at the base of the granite lump. The exposure here was absolutely incredible; Chamonix being about 4,500 feet below us, the cliffs here being near vertical – fantastic; on a real high. The two least experienced were a bit anxious about this, but to their credit they did it without complaining – until afterwards.

While we were fiddling about getting ourselves ready for the last section, me getting dressed in lots of nuts, wedges, ice screws etc. A French couple literally danced along this section, un-roped, just front pointing and wielding a pair of Pterodactyls each. Pterodactyls were amongst the best ice tools at the time. Amazing to watch this, but beyond our experience, or desire come to that! From here onwards it was relatively easy  ridge walking, a bit of front pointing and, finding the best route. The last section was a long slog up the snow field to the Aiguille du Midi at around 12,00 feet. Success1 We did it without any problems and, did it in reverse direction to the norm!

We had plenty of time to wait for the cable car down to town. If you get a chance, go on that cable car, its amazing. It was now time to be thinking about doing Mont Blanc after a rest day. However, my knees were playing up, and John and Tim felt they had done enough. So it was only Biffo, Ross and Brock who did the Mont Blanc route. They did one of the standard routes, by going up the Goutier ridge, sleeping overnight in the Goutier hut, then summiting and back via the Cosmiques to the Aiguille du Midi to get the last cable car back to Chamonix. They were so knackered that they only had the energy to find a local doss under a bridge or something, before getting back to the camp at Argentierre. Biffo can tell the whole story of their climb................

While they were playing with Mont Blanc, John, Tim and I spent a day on a relatively low level all day walk, then a day on a glacier above Chamonix practicing ice climbing – very stimulating!

A brilliant few days at Chamonix for all of us, but it was now time to head off to get our ferry home. Thus, the end of a superb holiday.

There were more photographs, however, I have not yet come across them, they may have been lost in house moves perhaps. I'll keep looking though.

Camera: Mamiya 645

Lens: standard 75mm f2.8

Filter: 3x red

Film: Ilford FP4