The Berger cave is a 1000 metre deep system with its entrance high on the Vercor plateau South West of Grenoble. We were joining up with a
I flew in to
Today we had to walk into the cave in showery, thundery weather to leave equipment and camping gear ready for the weekend. The walk in is about 45 minutes through woods and across limestone pavement to a vague valley which is the location for the entrance to this 1000 metre plus deep cave. We met up with the current 'watch' team and a couple of French cavers who had been adjusting the new underground radio system.
Next job was to pitch our tents on the flat bare limestone parent to leave our equipment in until our return the next day.
Soon enough we were making our way up to base camp and fully laden with enough supplies for a couple of days. We had with us water, food and other bits and pieces to make our stay comfortable whilst we manned the camp and took records of comings and goings, messages via the Nicola phone system. Careful notes on peoples entries and exits, departure and arrival at the camp one phone as well. We also had a short trip into the cave to the first main chamber of Cairn, about 70 metres below the surface.
The days main job was to take the bags with our main expedition food in well into the system to ease the start of our main trip. We left these at the bottom of Gontards pitch which is about an hour into the cave. Sharon and Dick came along on the 'reccy' as well.
The days other event was watching Paul and Jules on their epic 24 hour challenge from the bottom of the Berger to the top of Mont Blanc (cycling 100 miles in between the deepest cave expedition and highest peak in
We also changed our plans in bringing our trip forward a day due to possible storms on Monday. So now Sunday was our departure date, we were to be the last team down and to start the removal of ropes on our return from the lower parts of the system.
And so our big day arrived. We welcomed other groups who were also aiming to reach the bottom before we hopefully made the very bottom and started de-rigging. Alistair and Lee set of slightly before I set off with Dick. At first we were traveling through familiar territory down the sections known as "Ruiz", "Holiday Slides", and "Cairn". We were traveling very light weight and so progress down through the Meanders and the impressive pitches of Garbys, Gontards and Aldos was quick. Within an hour and a half we were entering the massive spaces of the master cave. Only my extra bright laser torch could penetrate the darkness here, allowing glimpses of the huge walls and ceilings that dwarfed us. A huge inlet on the left called Petzl Gallery was soon passed and after another short pitch the amazing site of people way in the distance at camp one allowed us the understand the enormous proportions of this part of the cave. Walking down "The Great Boulder Slope" felt like walking down a mountain side at night. 300 metres of descent over a boulder strewn slope brought us to camp one where several people were organising photographic equipment for some shots of "The Hall of the 13", not a separate chamber but a group of impressive formations, possibly the most famous in the world?
We stopped for some food and drink. Alistair assumed the role of cook and handed out cups of French onion and asparagus soup which we gladly consumed. We left a few bits of food for our return before heading on past the amazing formations of "The Hall of the Thirteen" taking a few pictures on the way. Our route continued past amazing flowstone and huge gour pools (like enormous natural dams) and then down more calcite slopes, small pitches and a past an unusual formation called I think the Elephants Do Da, which made a huge noise like a significant waterfall, but in actual fact was just a small jet of water falling from a tube into a calcite bowl. We stopped at this for a while before carrying on down through more great forests of stalagmites in the Salle Germain and Salle des Treize. A large calcite slope brought us to Le Vestier, a small doorway that lead on to the canals (Les Coufinades).
The canals run for a 100 metres or so and have to be traversed via ropes on either side as some of the pools are deep enough for full immersion (which would be pretty unpleasant). A final Tyrolean traverse over a deep pool and we were past the canals and onto further pitches including the famous Cascade Claudine with its original scaffold pole which allowed the first explorers to descend the drop out of the water. Another small pitch called Topographers marked the subtle change of the nature of the cave as the rock got darker and darker and our torches made little impression in the still huge passageway. Around another bend in the passageway some tiny lights in the distance brought into perspective the size of the
We had agreed to stop at camp two for some food and a rest, and we also stopped for a brief exchange of experiences with the couple coming out. Whilst we were eating we heard another couple coming up the ropes, this was Ben and Bridget who were the last couple out the bottom cave before we were to de-rigg the pitches below camp two.
There were still 200 metres or so to descend vertically and this included three significant sections which were The Grand Cascades, Little Monkey and Hurricane. Standing at the bottom of these pitches and watching the other members of the team descend through the spray and the darkness brought home the sheer scale and also the remoteness of our location far below the surface of the
Beyond Hurricane the cave followed narrow channels with small drops and a climb around a small wet pitch until after wading through a deep pool we arrived at the end of the cave (although with a boat a further 100 metres is possible). Here the water depth increased, the walls narrowed and the arch shaped ceiling came close the water. Divers have attempted making a connection through to further passages without success. It is believed that the "missing passage" between this point and the Sassenage caves less than a km away are probably submerged fissures with no way through.
We took photos and chatted briefly before starting our exit. Unlike a mountain trip our return was all uphill of course! Rope bags which are easily lowered down the caves many pitches and carried down the boulder slopes have to be carried, hauled and lifted back through the system with great expenditure of effort. Plus many of the ropes are now wet which means they are at least half as heavy again!
I feel fortunate to have had the chance to be the last out the bottom pitches. Climbing up the thin ropes in the spray lashed caverns the inky blackness of the Gouffre Berger seemed to chase me up the ropes. Even with all my head torches turned on I could see no more than a couple of metres below me.
Removing the rather worn rust bolts as I went the cave was left in darkness once more before the next expedition came to challenge its depths. We still had the job of getting more ropes out the cave and of course now carrying the ropes we were collecting. Dick de-rigged the Grand Cascades, a huge series of water chutes were our ropes clung to the side wall in a spectacular position. A dropped helmet by one of our team in a deep pool reminded us of the caution we still had to take. We were now starting to also feel the effort of nearly 18 hours effort and on a few occasions quite minor cuts to our hands resulted in the rather grim spectacle of blood soaked ledges and equipment. We returned eventually to camp two with 4 heavy tackle bags and enjoyed noodles, hot chocolate and cereal bars. All too soon though it was time to continue and we knew the journey through the canals was going to be tough even with just two extra tackle bags we decided to carry on with (the other two bags we would have to leave for other members of the team to collect later in the week.
Retracing our steps gave us a different perspective on the cave and in the
Then the ascent of a huge flowstone cascade marked our return through the Vestierre and back into the huge passageways and pitches leading up to camp one. Our pace now had slowed to what seemed a crawl and a time check showed that it was now nearly 5am, over 16 hours since we left the surface. Mistaking the red rope of a new extension series for the Balcony pitch delayed us slightly but coming up last up the Balcony pitch I found myself following climbing up past blood coated rock and re-belay. Lee had caught his knuckle on behind his rope jammer and a deep cut was enough to way mark the next part of the 'trail' in red until we located a bandage to stem the flow.
5.30 am marked our return to camp one and the sleeping cavers stirred and vacated two of the spaces in the makeshift foil tent. Dick and myself tried out the emergency double skinned foil bags that Alistair had provided us with, unfolding from a pack about the size of a paperback book these provided enough warmth to snooze for a couple of hours whilst the previous occupants of the camp made their way out. Lying back with a view up the great boulder slope a caver using a carbide light was moving slowly out of the cave and lit up the immense upper chamber with a warm guttering light, a unique way to doze off!
I must have slept but it didn't feel like it and at 7.30 we stirred and decided to make some breakfast (hot chocolate and biscuits to follow on from an earlier can of rice pudding). We left the camp behind in darkness and then had to climb up the 300 metre high Great Boulder Slope and eventually up to the junction with the entrance series. I was glad at this point to find my foot jammer that I had dropped on the way out, without it my climbs up the ropes would have been much harder. We took a look at the Petzl Gallery passage before heading into the smaller passages that would take us back to daylight. 200 metres or so of jummaring and the tiring traverse of the meanders and we were at the entrance pitch. The smell of wood smoke and fresh air was vibrant and intoxicating after so long underground. Although it was just 25 hours it felt like days since we set off on our journey. Sharon and Emma were there to greet us on the surface and the sunshine and cups of hot tea were invigorating.
And so our trip was over. Well not quite actually. We had still to return to assist in the removal of ropes from the cave. When we arrived to do this the ropes had been brought back as far as Aldos pitch. The day was wet and the forecast not good, and on our walk into the cave the three of us who were to start the job today were concerned about the amount of rain falling in that it might affect the retrieval of ropes from the bottom of the Aldos pitch which can become impassible at times due to the sheer volume of water.
Dick volunteered to go down the pitch and tie on all the loose bags whilst Julian and I set up a hauling rig at the top ready to hoist the 5 kit bags (which must have weighed 80 kilos or more) up to the top. This was achieved with great satisfaction and with the gradual arrival of more helpers the ropes were eventually all removed and back on the surface. This was a very tiring 7 hour trip and with aching shoulders and tired legs we walked back over the Sornin Plateau with our rucksacks full and appetites for caving and adventure well fed.
camp one from surface 1.31 hours (rest 39 mins)
camp one to camp two 2.49 hours (rest 1.23 hours)
bottom of cave (psuedo syphon) 1.50
total to bottom 8.13 hours
return to camp two?
return to camp one (rest 4.42 hours)
return to surface from camp one 3.25 hours
total trip time 26 hours (6 hours rest)