4.
GOUFFRE BERGER ‘87. (or THE FOLLIES BIRCHALL)

The Joint Anglo - Belgium expedition, consisting of members of the Speleoclub Avalon, Antwerp, and the Cleveleys Road Club caving section, took place between July 8th. & 21st. this year. It’s English members were Randy Allsop (Olly Beak), Lol German, Jack German Jr., and Jack German Snr., Jim “the towel” Birchall, Simon “this won’t hurt” Jarratt (Med. officer), Frank “Hard man” Hardy, Jeremy “gung ho!” Richardson, Pete Watson, Nick “strong youth” Waite, Chaz “must have a smoke” Frankland and myself Keith “animal” Wright.
It all started quite well - everything in the van, plenty of room and only Frank’s gear to get in. Olly Beak was to pick Jim and myself up at Kirkham after picking up Jeremy, Frank and gear. They arrived with the van “bottoming” on the shock absorbers and not enough room in the back for a sardine, let alone two bodies. “Have I brought too much gear?” asked Frank from the pavement where he’d been kicked. An uneventful journey south, stopping at Corby where “The Towels” pockets were found to be mysteriously sewn up.
Onto Dover, plenty of time for the boat - passed through passport control only to discover Jim didn’t have a ticket. As we sailed for France he was unearthed from the mound of Franks “Tyne Brand” Irish stew tins where he had been buried.
“Drivers Sir?” asked the steward as we made our way to the galley for sustenance. “Yes” said I, (well I was) so we were conducted to a waiter service restaurant with half price meals. “Where’s the catch?” asked “Gung Ho!”. Fearing the worst we all ate up, paid up and left - except Randy, now on his third sweet. “Have you your chitty Sir?” asked the waiter. “Chitty?” queries Randy. “For the transport driver’s restaurant Sir”. Randy leaves, not best pleased at having to pay twice as much as everyone else!

The first night on French soil was spent in a lay-by in Compiegne. A good night in new bivvi bags and sleeping bags except Jim who makes do with a sheet of polythene and wakes up wet through and frozen. Arrived at the La Molier campsite early evening on Thursday, the rest of the English party arriving over the next few days. Paul and the Belgium party arrived on Friday evening.

Saturday was spent marking the path to the hole with orange stickers to avoid getting lost at night (Ho Ho!). On Sunday we all made two trips to the entrance with tackle bags (except those left making decisions in towels), and got on with the job of rigging the first two pitches and get the gear down to the bottom of Ruiz pitch, ready for the first push on Monday morning. There was still a lot of ice about, huge blocks which made keeping your feet in the right place very difficult. Back at the campsite we had the first of many campfires, one expedition, but still feeling like two distinct groups.
Monday was back down the hole at last - Randy, Jeremy, Frank and myself to rig to Aldos, the rest relaying gear in. The second ignored them and got the hell out of it, back to camp one and a hot meal. Jim arrived an hour later, glad to be alive and repaired to his bed. The four of us decided to head out when Chaz, Peter and Rick arrived. We tell them about the horrific conditions, but they still decide to have a look. We stagger off up the Great Rubble Heap. I’m soon reeling from cold and lack of sleep. Randy takes my tackle bag as well as his own C and two broken fingers!) and still leaves Jerry and I behind. He is the strongest man I know! We stagger on in a blurr of cold and weariness.

 

We meet Lol, Jack and Frank and tell them the state of play. They only make camp one, with Frank carrying most of the stock from Dixons camera shop.

It looked now as though it was up to Paul and his team to reach the bottom if Cha: and the lads don’t make it - perhaps the water will recede enough. We headed back to the camp - the smell of the pines, as we emerged, overpowering and the hot air almost scorching our lungs after almost 30 hours down the Berger. Next morning Chaz, Pete and Nick return. Although the water had dropped a little they had only got one pitch further (Gache) then we had. All day Saturday we wait, hoping that the Belgian party will succeed.
Round about seven thirty in the evening Frank staggers into the camp accompanied by Dixons camera stock and two of the Belgian party who hadn’t made it to the bottom. “I’m knackered.”. says Frank, “I think I’ll have a beer and get some sleep.” Randy persuaded Frank to hand over a tin of ‘Tyne Brand’ and a packet of potato powder, with a promise to cook it for him. As Frank enjoyed his beer the potato was cooked it seemed to require a lot of water, and grew rather like Topsy.

Frank dined, finished the lot. “Randy, Keith, thanks -er - that packet - it was eight servings!” Four o’clock in the morning we are awakened by their return. Paul is in tears - they have failed. They reached the top of Hurricane - the last pitch - to be met by a raging river.

Failure. Or was it? We had been down to 2400ft.; made some good friends, had some good laughs; a lot of good caving, and found out a lot about ourselves. Given good conditions we could have been in and out in 24 hours. We’ve come back better and more confident cavers, knowing that we can cope with the worst of conditions and make sound judgments about our safety.

Thanks must be given to Jerry who supplied us with plastic drums to keep our gear safe and dry (and test Renault shock absorbers); to Paul DeBie for organising the Belgian team, and most of all to Jim “the towel” Birchall for the major part of the organization prior to going, without which we wouldn’t have got the expedition off the ground.

Keith Wright.

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