Gouffre Berger

The ADA has a booking for the Gouffre. Berger, the world’s sixth deepest cave, in summer 1984. Since none of us had personal knowledge of it, a recce was plainly in order. Fortunately, I discovered that a British club (the Crewe Cave a Pothole Club) had he cave booked at the same time as we would be in the Vercors. In return for assistance with the transportation of equipment, they agreed to allow three of us to do a trip into the cave using their equipment. We had no concrete plan other than to try to see as much of the system as possible in one trip.

Since the cave is almost 1200 metres deep, and the classic trip we planned was about —1120 metres, careful kit preparation and an early start was the order of the day.
In the event, when we arrived at La Moliere on the evening of the 2nd August, we found that despite. the, size of the Crewe party (40+ ), the strain of rigging the system was so much that after three days work in good weather the lower pitches were still not equipped. We were requested therefore, to delay our start until the afternoon of the 3rd August, in order to do an extra carry of equipment to Camp 1 and, in so doing, aid a new bottoming attempt, privately we were thinking in terms of pushing down and rigging maybe Little Monkey and Hurricane pitches for them. As it was, just before we left for the cave, we learned that the sump had been reached for the first time. Nevertheless, we set off lugging four tackle bags of personal gear as promised, even though this meant leaving the camera equipment behind. We were joined at the entrance by Boyd Potts, a well known caver from Derbyshire, who had a personal score to settle with the cave. On his last trip he fell the last 12 metres down Aldo’s Shaft, cracking several ribs and severely bruising himself.

We duly kitted up and headed down the entrance, which we partially free climbed and then used a 10m ladder for aid, The time was l400hrs. We were quickly assembled on a grubby snow slope where the serious business began. The entrance series of the Berger an excellent, dry but sporting series of shafts and meanders. Here abseiling really comes into its own. We just sat back and rode he nylon highway down the Holiday Slides 10m, Cairn Shaft 35m, Gaby’s 40m, Gontard’s 35m, the three Relay Pitches 10, 10, 6m, and finally the magnificent free-hanging Aldo’s Shaft 50m, It was just like a classic Yorkshire Pothole, and it had only taken us little more than an hour. The big difference here was of course, that a few metres below the bottom of Aldo’s we dropped through a cleft into the vastness of the Grand Ga1lery. We shouldered our packs and headed downwards along the passage towards Lake Cadoux and Bourgin Hall. The weather was dry, so the river was not running and the lake€ had dried up; we simply walked across the bed, We were making good time and soon passed the Little General pitch 10m and the Tyrole. 12m. The latter was an easy traverse — at least in the prevailing weather conditions. We were then at the head of the Big Rubble Heap — a passage of epic proportions total1y covered in boulders, some of which are the size of houses. 400m of this going brought us to Camp 1 at -500m. This is a dry area under an overhang cleared of boulders, and marked by a massive dump of spent carbide. We dropped our loads, hi—jacked a small saucepan from the camp stocks since we had forgotten o bring one, and had a large brew up an something to eat, It had taken us about two and  ahalf hours so far. After a break we dropped our bags and headed downwards.


We had already been impressed with the scale of formations, but now just down a slope and round the corner from Camp 1 we reached the world famous Hall of the Thirteen with its truly remarkable gigantic group of stalagmites. After pausing briefly to admire the view, we climbed off down the steep flowstone cascades which fill the passage from wall to wall, until we reached the 20m Balcony Pitch, This was passed without difficulty, though it is impossible to obtain a free hang for the rope here. Further on we came to one of the Berger’s most famous features — the Enormous Cascade. This is a hollow calcite formation carrying a heavy drip which, on falling into a circular pit beneath, produces a greatly amplified sound. On the original explorations, the French thought they were going to be stopped by a huge waterfall. 

The next obstacle was the 20m Vestiare pitch where the sightseeing ends, the passages lose their formations, and the trip becomes altogether more serious. At this point the canals begin. Since I was wearing a wetsuit I forged ahead using traverse lines and climbing along the wall until I passed all the water and arrived at Coufinades Hall, At this point I found a dinghy on a mud bank which I would have towed back for Tan and Boyd (who were in dry gear) if it hadn’t had a puncture I returned through the canals and found Syd waiting there. He dashed back to the others at Vestiare and swapped over food and carbide supplies so they sensibly decided to go no further. They strolled back to Camp 1, had a meal and rest, and made their way out, reaching the surface in the early hours of 4th August. Meanwhile; the intrepid Syd returned, we divided up the gear and headed back through the canals.

At this point, dear reader, the maxims about “Look before you leap” and “More haste, less speed” came into sharp focus, With the bit between my teeth, and conditions favorable, I was determined to reach the sump. In attempting to make up time, I launched over the overhang at the top of Abelle’s Cascade, looking down and forgetting I had the main rope in my left hand, A stabbing pain and an index finger with the nail hanging off and bleeding profusely brought me back to earth. Nearly 700m down the Berger is a bad time and place to start injuring yourself. Syd joined me at the bottom and we had a quick discussion. Quite clearly we now had a problem — Boyd had the first aid kit, and the next nearest one was back at Camp 1. The hardest part of the trip was still ahead, and if we were to be caught by had weather it would mean a long wait with no treatment, But the weather was ideal, the cave was in a benign mood, and the chances of bottoming it might he much poorer in 1984 when we next had it booked. The result was to press on with me caving one—handed and Syd helping where he could. Traversing, climbing, wading, abseiling and swimming, we made it down Claudine’s Cascade 20m, Topographer’s Pitch 10m, and the grand Canyon to Gaches 15m. The Grand Canyon did the least for me of the whole trip. It comprised a very steep and slippery mud chamber —of large dimensions certainly, but by then we were somewhat numbed by the scale anyway and were no longer impressed by it alone.

We then headed down to the Reseau Met l3m. This landed in a whirlpool 3m deep and gave me a lot of fun getting off the rope one handed, under a waterfall and standing on small holds was most interesting, and was the plunge across the pool. The cold water helped the ‘bruising to my hand’, but the loose nail flapping in the water led to a bad attack of jangling nerves. Further progress and another swim (since the traverse line was broken brought us to the short Reseau Singe 15m. That negotiated we were down to the area of’ the notorious final three pitches. Grand Cascade 40m. Little Monkey 45m, Hurricane 5om. The day of our trip the water was so low it posed us few problems. Some of the rigging left a little to be desired here. In particular the low section of Little Monkey was rigged quite wrongly.

What should: have been straightforward developed into an off balance traverse over a large block to a tricky take off wedged in a corner. Admittedly the lack of a left hand did not help; but by now we were well used to long and airy traverse lines at pitch heads, constantly clipping safety cords in and out, and this had really turned into something special.
Hurricane, by contrast, was a complete anticlimax, more of a breeze than hurricane. Nevertheless, it does not take much imagination to visualise how serious it would become in bad weather The cave is most impressive at the bottom of this pitch. Once again he passage is large, and the water of Hurricane cascades dramatically in a spout down one wall. The passage slopes quite steeply and bends left through a fairly large chamber and past the so called ‘Divers Camp” to where the Riviere 1000 comes in from the right. Water levels were., still low and we pushed on in relatively easy passage, and along an interesting traverse above water clipped into a large polypropylene rope with our feet on a cable. Shortly afterwards the character of the cave changed and became smaller with a cobbled floor, had to duck down for the first time in hours and then, suddenly round a corner we arrived in a clean, round sum chamber. To  be honest, this was prcbab1y the Pseudosiphon shortly before Sump 1, but instead of swimming it and trying to duck through we stopped and had a break. We had been on the go for eight hours. We brewed up a full saucepan of tea, ate some compo biscuit and meat, and divided a mixed-fruit pudding. If this seems over luxurious all I can say is that having descended over 1100 metres we had already worked hard, needed hot liquids in particular, and felt a lot better for it during the ascent.

After a reasonable rest, and a final look at the silent sump pool, we headed off upwards on the long trek. We were quickly at the base of Hurricane which as rigged with a nice new rope and was easy climbing, Emerging at the top, I pressed straight on for the lower part Little Monkey with Syd hot in pursuit. Getting over this pitch-head was an immense struggle,  the exact pitch head was a steel spike over which the rope was looped. This meant that my top ascender’ was 40cms below the lip of an undercut pitch. I had to try to mantel she1f, one handed, over a large block covered in running water into a groove 30cms wide, without lifting the main rope off the spike. If it had come off, the badly placed traverse line would have pulled everything and me in a wild pendulum under the Little Monkey waterfall. By unhooking my chest ascender, finding one foothold on the wall and lunging upwards, I managed to land half in the groove and jam up it like a beached whale. Casting around I found an old piece of rope and was able to rig an independent traverse line which simplified matters considerably for Sid. That problem passed, we made steady progress up to Camp 2 where, before tackling the haul up the Grand we had another brew).

Our return to Camp was thereafter a matter of steady progress though, having worked up a good sweat on the Grand Canyon and Claudine’s, the canals came as a refreshing interlude, and the formation as a relief from the dark rock. My left hand had long been in the throbbing mode, and I was beginning to have problems prussicking up ropes swollen with mud and water. Syd was able to give me a tight line to work on, but all the same I was glad of a full l hr break at Camp 1 where we cooked some soup, bacon burgers, mixed beef and vegetables, and drank two saucepan full of tea and chocolate. We were both amazed at how thirsty we were. The remainder or the trip was straightforward, if tiring. We had a final breather at the base of Aldo’s and set off up. We were by this stage not as fresh as we had been. In particular I was beginning to find one handed rope climbing hard work. Syd did a sterling job with the ropes, but the actual climbing of the 250m of pitch was not really amusing. Even my wetsuit crotch gave up under the strain, and I emerged with a breeze between my legs and Syd in hysterics! I resolved on the spot to use dry gear above Camp 1 next year.

It was daylight as we reached the head of Ruiz pitch with only the entrance ladder to go. It was just after 0700hrs on 5th August. We he been underground for l7 hrs, which is average by modern standards but then we were not racing. The plod of 45 minutes back to La Moliere (uphill! ) was most unwelcome. But it really was a superb trip. Whetting our appetites for a full blown expedition we had planned in the summer of 1984.

On our return I awarded Syd my most improved beginner of the year award. His first trip was a muddy grovel in the Harz Mountains in February. Twelve trips later he bottomed the Berger, a cave which took the world’s best cavers three years in the mid 1950’s to explore.

booking referred to above is from the 29th. July to the 11th. August 1984, and I would be very pleased if some Red Rose members. wou1d like to come. The ACA will provide all group tackle etc. All it will coat you is personal BCRA insurance. Anyone interested, or who would like more details, write to me at this address:

Major J.A. Sheldon                                                                                                           G-2 Division,
HQ Northag,


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