The best Berger photos are part of the Speleoclub Avalon Berger gallery, and were taken in MUCH lower water conditions than we experienced.
See also our holiday pictures from the journey to the Vercors, and the (surface) expedition pictures. There is also my sketch map of the Vercors.
The Vercors range is impressive. A plateau over a kilometre high is ribbed by mountain ridges a further 500 m to 1000 m above it, with cliffs upto a kilometre high surrounding the plateau. On all sides, gorges with sheer sides over 500 m high cut through the ridges and the edges of the plateau to the lowlands below.
In these gorges lie the well known Bournillon, Gournier, Chorance and Luire caves, and in the central plateau lie the less known Trou-Qui-Souffle and Glacière d'Autrans. On the Southern ridges lie the deep caves of Scialet De Malaterre with its 120 m high entrance pitch, the Antre Des Dames with its 205 m high pitch and Scialet Du Pot 2 with its 303 m high pitch. On the Northern ridge lies the crowning glory and the target of our expedition; The Gouffre Berger.
The Berger is one of the classic caving trips. It was the first cave ever to pass the 1000 m depth mark and it contains some of the largest passages and best formations in the world. Found in the 1950s, it is still one of the most popular expedition trips and attracts cavers from all corners of the earth.
It even boasts a 207 m pitch in the less used but highest entrance, the Scialet De La Fromagere. The water resurges at the base of a 500 m high cliff at the northern edge of the Vercors, in the Cuves De Sassenage, one of the 5 showcaves in the Vercors.
The reason for the number and size of the caves in the Vercors quickly becomes apparent. It is unusual to have two days in a row without rain. The height of the Vercors ridges causes great thunderstorms on a regular basis where rainfall can be measured in cm/hour. On the ridges, the water collects just below the surface of the exposed limestone pavement before sweeping rapidly through the caves below. As a result, the caves respond very quickly to rain, with the rise and fall of water levels almost matching the patterns of rainfall.
We arrived at the capsite on the Vercors plateau to temparatures of 33°C or higher. On our way, we had been through the great glacial valleys of Switzerland and had been visiting glaciers just to try to keep cool in temperatures like these. Our caving companions were to be a collection of Wessex and Devon cavers, with a few other stragglers, such as us BCC members, and some Frume, Dublin and Tokyo cavers. Les from the Wessex and Andy from the Devon were in charge of arranging the expedition.
On the morning of the first day, Alan, Andy, Simon and Becky (not my wife) entered the cave. It was their intention to rig down to Camp I, just above 500 m depth. The second rigging team entered the cave later the same day, with the intention of rigging the next few pitches to the foot of Vestiaire. Not long after they descended underground, the first rainstorm started on the surface.
The two teams met at the head of Puits Aldo at less than 200 m depth, as the first rigging team had not made the progress they had hoped. Simon, Becky and the second rigging team decided to turn back. Four hours after the start of the rain storm, a flood pulse hit Cairn Pitch, where many of the returning party were forced to sit out the flood for two hours at the Cairn Pitch Ledge, 25 m off the floor. Just below Cairn Pitch, Simon and Becky were caught by a sudden rise in water over a metre high in The Meanders. Fortunately, they were shaken, but not stirred.
When they finally returned to the surface, the weather was still not good enough for anyone to enter the cave to check on Alan and Andy. Early the next morning, the rain had settled, and many cavers emerged from their tents, preparing to be sent to rescue Alan and Andy. Everyone reassured each other that they would be alright, probably caught out by the appearance of Lac Cadoux, which should have been no more than a gravel depression on their way in. Alan and Andy were probably the most professional cavers among us and would almost certainly make the decision to sit out the flood, and not fight it out.
As we waited for our instructions, strange noises eminated from Simon and Becky's tent: 'Ooh! ... Aah! ... Ooh, he's wriggling ... what's he trying to do? ... Hit him! ... Hit him on the head!'. Did they realise we could hear? Tents are not sound proof. As it turned out, a mole had been attempting to dig a mole hill under their tent and had kept them awake most of the night.
A small rescue team had entered the cave about a day after Alan and Andy had started their rigging trip. They made contact from opposite ends of Lac Cadoux, which had risen while they were at Camp I when the flood pulse reached that part of the cave. It is not known how long the lake took to rise but it could not have been longer than 45 minutes because they could see the water level rising as they watched it. They had sensibly decided to sit out the flood rather than get wet swimming the lake and then getting stuck at the entrance pitches. The rescue party rigged a dinghy and they all returned to the surface that evening. Relieved, all cavers celebrated the return of the rigging team.
As the weather forecast was not good for the next day, we decided to visit the Bournillon, the cave with the largest entrance in Western Europe, at 80 m high and 40 m wide. As I had been warned, the entrance is not very impressive as it funnels down very quickly like a sea cave. I followed some of the passages through large chambers but did not do any serious caving as I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, helmet, light and walking boots. That day, the weather forecast proved to be wrong and a replacement second rigging team began to rig the Berger. Had I not been at the Bournillon, I would have been sherparing gear to Camp I. Sherparing teams began moving gear into the cave.
On the fourth day, we were due to leave the camp site and move into the gite. I joined a sherparing team destined for Camp I. The walk to the Berger is complicated and leads through pine forests for 3 km over limestone pavements and well worn, but not always obvious routes. The entrance pitch is a mossy depression in an area of limestone pavement. Outside the tent that had been set up at the entrance, there were about ten other cavers waiting to do sherparing trips. Other cavers were heading out so it was over 45 minutes later that we finally entered the cave.
At the bottom of the first pitch, we were forced to wait again as the second rigging party were on their way out, over 22 hours after they had entered the cave. They had not camped. As we descended the pitches, it quickly became apparent that one of the cavers I was with was very inexperienced with SRT, and we would not even make it to where the gear was stored at -140 m. Many of the cavers on the expedition had only been doing SRT for a matter of months, some just a few weeks. One was only on his second ever caving trip! We passed the first set of pitches without much problem, slowly reaching the bottom of Cairn Pitch at -85 m. After an impressively high and wide section were The Meanders.
During the flood, it had been reported that water had been squirting in from all possible cracks above Cairn Pitch creating a flood pulse. Now, there was little more that a trickle of water in the floor of The Meanders. The Meanders are often talked about as being difficult, small, winding and awkward traversing. As a seasoned South Wales caver, I wondered what all of the fuss was about. Apart from the occasional 15 m drop in the floor, these rifts could easily be in any South Wales cave.
At the head of the 38 m Garby pitch, I turned back, as I had no intention of descending this pitch simply to ascend it again. We were running out of time and could not afford to be caught behind the many cavers who would soon be returning from their sherparing trips to Camp I. On our way out, we passed the intermediate rigging team, who were double rigging the entrance pitches, allowing for higher water levels, and providing a way for caving parties to pass each other without slowing each other down. First trip; 2.5 hours, -103 m. Not bad for Yorkshire, but bottoming the Berger would require something a bit faster than that. I would have to cave with different people on the bottoming trip.
The next day, a two stage small team of the toughest cavers left for the Berger to rig the lowest portion of the cave, about 400 m of depth, of which about 150 m is on rope. A rain storm lasting less than half an hour hit as they entered the cave. They decided to continue as half an hour of rain would not cause any problems. Besides which, they had the System Nicola Cave Phone which they would set up at Camp I so they could be given updates about rainfall on the surface and plan their trip accordingly. As it happened, the phone system did not work. That evening, violent thunder and hail storms shook the Vercors and visibility on the plateau was reduced to less than 100 m.
Although more rain fell this time, the storm once again lasted half an hour. Again, all expedition members reassured each other that all would be ok as the rigging team would surely be past the dangerous cascades and Camp II by now. That night, persistent rain fell to the echoes of thunderclaps rolling across the vercors. I lay awake for hours listening to the rain and thunder, hoping they were not returning through the cascades. Apart from a few spots of rain, the next morning was dry. Occasionally during the day, conversations would start about whether or not the team were ok. They had contacted the surface at about 3:00 pm the day before using the Nicola Phone. That was at the Starless River so estimates suggested that the floods would have hit as the team were rigging the very bottom of the cave. They should have waited at Camp II at the Grand Canyon for the floods to die down, and so should be on their way out by late morning.
That evening, two members of the rigging team returned, having left the others at Camp II. They had seen no signs of the rain, as the flood had hit while they were sleeping at Camp I. The remaining riggers had continued to rig the bottom of the cave.
In preparation for the next day after the predicted return of the remaining riggers, everyone got ready for their trips to the bottom of the cave. Because of the patterns of rainfall, all bottoming trips had to begin early. We were all aware that if the riggers did not return that night, we would not bottom the cave the next day, and more importantly, if the riggers did not complete the rigging on that trip, it would probably never be completed, and none of us would bottom the cave. The last team that had rigged the cave had reached the bottom and left the last few pitches rigged, used only by six people. We might have to re-use their rigging.
We awoke early the next day, and I was worried by the fact that my dad had not returned from the rigging trip. At the latest, he should have been back at 2:00 am. We headed for the carpark at La Molière, where my dad's car was still parked, and began the long walk to the Berger, intending to wait for the riggers to return before we began our trip, so that we would know if the bottom of the cave had been rigged.
On our way, we met the first of the rigging team to emerge from the cave. We heard how they had been trapped just above Little Monkey at about -930 m depth on their way out, and had bivouacked for 6 hours, listening to the thundering of the water on the Hurricane Pitch. They had managed to rig the entire bottom of the cave but did not reach the target of -1122 m. They had been stopped by the awesome amount of water entering at the '1000 m Inlet' at -1075 m, estimated to be five times the size of the already raging main stream. Apparently, my dad had been badly ill from a cup of coffee made from the water in the Hall Of Thirteen. In his haste, he had only warmed the water instead of boiling it.
We entered the cave, quickly reaching the point I had reached before. Here we overtook another party who had been almost half an hour ahead of us. The pitches were separated by short sections of meanders or shorther pitches. Garby's, Gontard's, The Relay Pitches and Aldo's all passed quickly. At the top of Aldo's, we met my dad on his way out. He was clearly suffering from illness and fatigue, despite having also camped at Camps I and II.
Beyond Aldo's, we entered the Grand Gallery. The passage was amazing. Above, the roof soared beyond the reach of my bright halogen light and the river ran across a floor of moonmilk. This junction is easy to miss on the return and many cavers had already followed the wrong passage here. Downstream, the Starless River reached the tranquility of Lac Cadoux. It is an odd feeling crossing a lake underground on an inflatable dinghy pulling yourself across with a piece of string. So peaceful, yet worrying because if you fell in, the weight of your SRT gear and clothing could well spell serious trouble.
Beyond, the passage passed through a large chamber with stalagmites several metres high. After a couple of short cascades with accompanying pitches was the sudden feeling of emptyness. The floor had changed to boulders similar to those found in Ogof Draenen, and the walls and roof were nowhere to be seen. The Grande Èboulis was every bit as big as it had been described. The passage began its steep descent to Camp I, narrowing enough for the far wall to be just about visible, but the roof climbing even further into the blackness. Several sightings of the far wall turned out to be boulders, some taller than three story buildings, or longer than a set of terraced houses. These boulders were big enough to hold entire cave systems. Camp I came as a blessing. Finally, we would have the chance to deposit our sleeping bags and dry clothes.
Immediately the cave changed. Again the passage narrowed, and the floor was filled with enourmous gour pools. Routes had to be carefully picked across the rims to avoid the deep water. A collection of tall and wide stalagmites marked the Hall Of Thirteen. This was a truly magical place. The gours continued for a great distance, occasionally separated by climbs over their rims or down stal cascades. Mighty stone bridges crossed the passage with the roof still invisible above them. There was, however, one thing that occasionally broke the spell; the smell of human excrement in the water flowing through the gours. The discourtesy of other cavers had scarred what should have been one of the most treasured moments of my life.
We descended through a funnel in the floor to reach the stream. Cascades dropped to the start of the canals. I had been warned that these were unpleasent and foreboding but I quite enjoyed being waist deep in very deep water, dragging myself along using old, frayed rope for support and floating on the bag on my back. What I did not enjoy were the cascades that followed. The water charged along narrow gullies where traversing relied on remnants of old rope. This was clearly a very dangerous place. A rise in water level would give no chance of escape; there is nowhere to run and even fewer places to hide.
The cascades ended at two thundering waterfalls, the Claudine's and Topographers' Cascades. Both had recently claimed lives in severe floods and given the force of the water in these only slightly elevated conditions, it was not hard to see why. The water on Claudine's crashed onto a ledge with such power that the water ricocheted off it to land across the other side of the large plunge pool. None of us were happy being here.
Knowing that continuing would only cause us to become trapped by the impending floods, we turned back in the next enormous chamber, the Grand Canyon. We had reached nearly 800 m depth and Camp II, the only team to do so apart from the rigging team. After the Death of Nicola Dollimore on the Topographers' Cascade, the Nicola radio system had been developed to allow communication from both camps to the surface. If we had managed to get it to work, we would have known that there had been no storms and there would be no floods. The weather forecast had been wrong again. It is with some disappointment that I realise that we could well have reached the 1000 m depth mark. Still, we did the sensible thing, and I feel proud of my 800 m. It is not something that I wish to challenge.
On our return, the cave was much harder. We dragged our bodies up the cascades and through The Canals. This was not fun. This was not worthwhile. We finally met the team we had passed in the entrance series as we climbed back into the calcited passages at the end of the Hall Of Thirteen. They continued into the cave but turned back after going most of the way through the cascades. We ate at both Camps I and II, but there is no amount of eating that can prepare the body for the amount of work required to climb back up the Grande Èboulis, let alone prusik up the 300 m of pitches above it. After being caught behind three people on Aldo's Pitch, I began the freezing journey upwards. With a heavy tacklebag slung beneath you, and gear that snatches with every move, 42 m can seem more like 420.
Reaching the top eventually, I waited for the next caver to follow me. In the narrow draughting passage, I cowered behind my tacklesac for warmth. He took even longer than me and by the time I started up The Relay Pitches, I was freezing. The last thing I needed was a group of Tokyo cavers to meet me in the narrow passage between two pitches. Armed with a video camera, bright lights and some flashguns, they confronted me with the ever popular phrase; 'say cheese!'. An exasperated exhale and an unpleasent smile later, I stumbled onto the next pitch, blinded by the light from their camcorder.
Wearily, I climbed the remaining 200 m of pitches, cursing my equipment, the cave, and anyone who may have played a part in my being there. At all times I was expecting to be forced back by the flood pulse from surface storms. It was now that I learned why The Meanders have their reputation. The tacklebag would continually snag on rock projections, in the narrow rift in the floor, or on the stemples that are supposed to help progress but only serve to hinder. The caver in front of me even donated his water bottle to a 15 m deep hole in the floor as a rock projection forceably detached it from his belt.
It is quite common for adrenaline to run out once the entrance is reached. I think I left mine in the Grand Canyon. When I reached the surface, it had been raining for about half an hour and because of the lack of mobile phone reception in the rain, I was denied the chance to get back that night. Kept from the freezing cold by a bonfire and coffee, I slept for only one hour on my lilo. The entrance series did not flood, and I watched the next day dawn.
Just as the mobile phones became useable again, a Vercors thunderstorm hit. We huddled in the surface tent and sat out most of the storm. As the rain died down, we began the seemingly endless and exhausting uphill walk back to the carpark where our lift was waiting. Second trip; 14 hours, -800 m.
It continued to rain for much of the day, delaying many teams who had been underground, camping at Camp I. Underground, a potentially fatal drama was unfolding. One of the members of the expedition was heading out alone up Aldo's pitch when his carbide light failed, about 5 m from the floor. Because of how frequently this happens, carbide users also carry electric lights. He switched on his electric light which promptly faded and died. He reverted to his backup electric light, which also failed immediately. Now in complete darkness, he reverse-prusiked back to the floor. In the darkness, he re-stoked his carbide light, receiving chemical burns to his hands for his trouble. Succeeding in producing a partially useable light, he returned to the large passages of the Starless river and the Grand Gallery.
Now very cold in the 3°C air, he unpacked his sleeping bag and got in, using his carbide generator for warmth. Unfortunately for him, he had got his sleeping bag wet by getting into it with wet clothes and by putting it under dripping water. His generator had also got hot enough to burn him, so he had taken it out of his sleeping bag. He was found by chance four hours later, bordering on hypothermia. After being made to wake up, he was revived with warm drinks and was taken out of the cave.
On the surface, we had whiled away the time resting and visiting one of the best caves in the area; the Chorance Showcaves. As beautiful as the Berger, but with none of the effort or danger. A quick visit to the Gournier entrance lake completed the day. That was as much as my aching body could take. I took another day to recover, complaining to anyone who would listen. I appreciate the fun and beauty of caves, but after the pain and cold and fear, I have to ask myself why I do it. Was the Starless River, the Grande Èboulis or the Hall Of Thirteen really worth all of the effort. On my way out through the cave, I would have said not, and the only thing that was worth it was fueling my ego with the number 800. Even so, no-one cares about 800. All they ask is 'why not 1000?'. I can tell them why; caving is good, but is not that good. But as always, selective memories remember only the good bits, and I think that next time I get the chance, I may be back. Well, maybe.
While I had been resting, the rigging team headed into the Berger, with the water levels about the same as they had been when I had done the trip to Camp II. Put off by the amount of water, they abandoned all gear from the cascades onwards. For the next two days, the remaining gear was removed, and slowly taken back to the cars, timed carefully around the storms, which had now changed from every evening to every morning.
The holiday was over. We had been unlucky with the weather, but by many accounts, the expedition was a success;
We had successfully tackled one of the deepest caves in the world. Almost every caver involved had been deeper than it is possible to go in any British cave, and had seen larger passages, and more magnificant, more extensive formations than they had ever seen before. Some had even made it to over 1000 m underground. We had faced the challenge, and although pushed back by the weather, each of us surpassed ourselves and as a team, we had bottomed The Berger.