Volume 32 Number 2 Article 4
Gouffre Berger 1994
At two in the morning bags were packed, gear checked and we scoffed as much food as possible before the hours walk to the entrance. One last carbide fettle before I was down the entrance pitch - the first of many. The entrance series passed quickly and at the end of Aldo's we popped out into the Grand Galerie and walked down the Starless River Passage.. Everyone had told me about this but I can honestly say that I never expected it to be so big - as Neil said, "Like walking down LancasterEasegill if you were an Action Man."
Bourgin Hall was superb. You just walk through the right hand side of the passage and on the right are huge, white stalagmites watching you out of the gloom. I felt very small and insignificant.. The next few hours passed as a dry, sweaty tramp around boulders the size of caravans and most of the time you couldn't even see the opposite wall, never mind touch it. Yorkshire was never like this.
Dropping around one huge boulder we arrived at Camp One where we "phoned home", dumped some gear and packed the EEC chocolate mountain into one tackle bag. By now it felt like we had covered a lot of ground but a look at the survey showed us to be a disappointingly short way in so it was time to go down, down, down again.
A lot of the cave is really just a blur, not that we were going at any great speed (anything but) but the sheer amount of ground covered means that certain bits stick in your mind but a lot just fades into one another. Abbing down Vestibule we joined the streamway and the cave became more active and noisy. The ropes to keep you out of the canals were a bit dodgy. Once clipped into a newish bit of rope you slid further along to find it disintegrated into a manky bit of tat with no sheath and just a few strands of core left! Changing from one rope to another left everyone with identical bruises inside their elbows.
Abelles, Cascades, Claudines and Topographers, the pitches followed steadily one after the other and into Camp Two. A look at the survey showed us to be well on the way to the bottom so with spirits running high we set off down the last set of pitches. The Grand Cascade was very atmospheric, dark walls and peoples lights shining up through the spray. Past Little Monkey and there I was at the top of Hurricane pitch.
Now I have heard an awful lot about this pitch and none of it good,, ranging from Andy Hall managing to fall 40 feet to the first rebelay to tales of booming waterfalls crashing around your ears. With this in mind I was quite surprised to arrive at the bottom intact. Here we met up with some other Red Rose on their way back from the sump who described it as, "just the same as any other bloody sump and just as bloody wet." We rushed on until the river narrowed into a rifty canal and into the sump. Stood there it was strange to think that not far away, where the water resurged, people would be sat around the fountain in Sassonage eating ice-creams in the sun.
After scrabbling around for a few souvenir pebbles there was really nothing for it but to turn around and start the long slog out with Jo and Lee force-feeding me so many Mars Bars it put me off chocolate for a week - no mean feat!
At Abelles (I think) Cascade disaster struck! A guide wire keeps you out of the pool at the bottom so you prussick up at 45 degrees. Halfway up the pitch and clear of the pool I came to unclip from the wire and found myself well and truly stuck. Time passed as I thrashed about and people at the top and bottom shouted different instructions while I swung around the wire like a pig on a spit. Just as I thought that I would be stuck down there forever a frantic effort of blood, sweat and tears (in that order) and I finally got unclipped. I think I was there for about ten minutes but it felt like hours.
Eventually we got back to Camp One, 22 hours after going underground. Lying in my sleeping bag having a brew was one of the best feelings ever. It must have been that the passage was so big but it played funny tricks on my eyes and I felt as if I was camping at the bottom of a gorge at night and the shadows and lighter bits of rock in the roof were clouds in the sky.
I don't remember falling asleep but seven hours later we woke up when another group were pottering around the camp fettling gear. A lamp on the floor cast shadows 100 feet tall on the opposite wall. In true Red Rose tradition we had "just another brew" then fell back to sleep for another three hours before getting up and back into caving mode. This was one of the hardest parts of the trip for me. I had as much get-up-and-go as a sloth on dope and had to be tempted out of my sleeping bag with cups of tea from Jo.
Back along the Starless River passage to the entrance series was a real effort, I didn't even notice Bourgin Hall which had made such an impression on me on the way in. Once up Aldo's I started to feel more awake - meeting groups coming down helped a lot.
Gontards, Garbys, Cairn and Holiday slides passed until halfway up Ruiz's pitch I could smell fresh air and knew that I had really done it. I prussicked up the entrance pitch with a silly grin on my face and was met at the top by John Lynch with a cup of tea, what a star! Although it was 10pm when I got out the air was warm and smelt of the pine trees around the entrance.
Soon I heard a crashing and thumping from around the entrance. "This !"?!?#! numb sack! - it keeps wrapping around the !%*!?! rope and I can't do a $%!?8% thing!" Jo's dulcet tones floated up the entrance pitch. Jo was quickly followed by Lee and we stood on the surface a mere 42 hours after going underground.
Bottoming the Berger was a fantastic trip and one of the best I have ever done. It was my first experience of caving abroad but hopefully the first of many.