Ian's Gouffre Berger bottoming report

Bottoming the Gouffre Berger - August 2002

By Ian Wilton-Jones (Tarquin's dad)

My third (and, as it turned out, last) trip into the Berger was in a party of five deep riggers. Our plan was to take over from the thrid of the four rigging teams at the ¾ point and push the rigging to the bottom. As a result, I had prepared myself by taking my bivi-shelter as well as my normal emergency blanket. Also, I had taken my mini pocket rocket stove and enough food to see me safely through 2 full days of effort (including 4 full meals).

I passed by all the second-rigging I had installed the previous day, testing and proving them by deliberately using them.

We checked our Nicola Phone once we reached the bottom of the entrance pitches, at the beginning of Starless River and got a good connection with the surface who, thinking we were the previous party of ¾ depth riggers, misunderstood who we were and announced that another party (us) had entered the cave half an hour ago. I corrected the surface's misunderstanding and we wrapped up the phone to take it deeper.

At last I crossed Lake Cadoux and set off into some new cave (for me). The Great Rubble Heap was, as I was already sure, much less than the stated 45 degree slope but it was certainly impressive at times. It was useful having Ian Timney with us as he had recollections of where to find the route. The place was vast and gloomy in our weak lights .

We stopped briefly at Camp 1 for a brew and a further radio check. This was useless. Nothing resembling any signal at all.

Anyway, we dumped our main camping gear here, but I made the wise decision to carry a day's worth of food plus cooker and bivi-shelter to the far end with me. We then set off across the gour pools and wonderful formations of the Hall of the Thirteen, without giving them much more than a casual glance. I intended to have a more detailed and positive gaze at them on the way back (NOT, as it turned out).

In no time, we were down at the canals and I was seriously intimidated. I had been told that it was possible to get to the far end of the cave with dry feet but there was no way this was going to happen. I think I was at the back of the party, a little behind Biff, and I intimated to him that I was a little unhappy about following the lines of "tat" criss-crossing the passage at times. That water looked seriously deep and I worried as to what would happen should the rope break while crossing with a bag.

I soon modified my tactics by floating my heavy bag and then the job became much easier. I was seriously relieved once we escaped the canals.

About now, we caught up the three-quarters-deep rigging team who had unfortunately made slower progress than we had anticipated - no doubt time had been wasted while they failed to make radio contact earlier on.

The cascades here were a little bit intimidating too. The water was like a pussy cat when flowing along the floor but made the most amazingly wet pitches with huge amounts of white spray perilously close to our rigging points. Here we relied upon previously placed "tat" to hold ourselves out of the water by abseiling well away from the vertical, with the use of a short cow's tail or a krab.

At the Grand Canyon, we were back to Great Rubble Heap proportions of passage once more, with the river well audible a "long way over there.... somewhere"!

We hit Camp 2, which was little more than just a location. It had no facilities to talk of. Here Les and Morse chose to exit as they'd been below here on a previous occasion, but the rest of us were well committed to make the bottom. I think it was about now that I was starting to regret the offer I made to Tarquin, to accompany him on his later trip to the bottom. Was I really going to do this trip twice??? In fact, I rather doubted that he'd have the guts to go through the canals or down the intimidating cascades once he saw them - how wrong I was!

Most of our journey through Grand Canyon seemed to be using a rope on a perilously steep mud slope, high on the right hand wall.

At the bottom of the canyon, the passage narrowed like the inside of a pair of bellows, down to a rather threateningly small archway - this was not a place to be in times of flood. I looked for signs of flood debris but it was not readily apparent.

Not too long afterwards, the passage diminished even more and the stream swung hard left and sumped. We went past the turn and then parallelled the left swing into a brief flat out crawl which soon emerged beyond the sump.

The passage dimensions grew once more and we reached the very awkward Little Monkey. Much time was spent here during the rigging as it required much use of already present "tat" once more. Eventually Tony finished the job and we trailed after him.

The thunder and roar of Hurricane was now evident but the stream was not visible. Looking over the edge was an awesome sight. In the blackness, we could see a gully running steeply downwards and an amazing streamway, several metres wide, appeared out of the right hand wall, under a lovely bridge arch. This water then started its cascade horizontally, just below us, and seemed to miss clipping our rigging as it disappeared out of sight to the left. It looked a very serious location. Brian, beside me, summed up my fears (I did wish he would shut up!!) "I'm not happy about this at all. I'm really not very happy about it".

We tried to communicate with whistle signals but it was very difficult to manage anything.

When my turn came, I was surprised to find that, once we disappeared round the left corner, the rope went into a small, horizontal, eagle's nest hole, then, holding our direction, we emerged from this tube onto a 9 inch wide ledge and a y-hang a little way along. We had to crawl along this Hurricane Ledge before committing to the abseil itself. Tarquin would never do this! The water was right beside us, we were abbing almost into it and it was horrendously serious-looking. I could see the rebelay below but the rest was lost in the maelstrom. "Oh well, here we go!"

Down I went to the rebelay, passed it and then gathered my nerve. Down it went. Suddenly, a rainstorm and I could see nothing. I abbed down, then felt the sideways pull. I hauled the rope through sideways and eventually grounded well to the side. As I removed my descender, I looked around. The wind was horrendous, the area desolate. I was a small person in an undescribably awesome place. This must be what it's like for somebody washed up on the Falklands in a storm at night. I felt very little.

I had given up on my carbide and used my maglite to find my way down among the boulders. I moved carefully in the gloom but I was determined to make the bottom of the cave. After an age of descending, I saw lights coming up towards me. I stopped and chatted briefly to Tony, who warned me of the state of the white-water below the Thousand Metre inlet.

I went past two small inlets on the right (surely they weren't it were they?), then followed the stream using my gloomy maglite. My carbide needed a recharge but this wasn't the place to start that.

The real inlet appeared in all its glory. Thundering first down, then being ejected horizontally by its plunge-pool like the overflow being released from a dam. I estimated its volume as being five times that of the Hurricane water. This was a fearsome place and I was not happy to continue on alone.

I saw Duncan coming towards me, then he stopped and retreated. I chased after him and he explained that he had reached the Thousand Metre Inlet and that was enough. Having corrected him, I dragged him and his quite powerful light back to the inlet in order to get a better view or proceedings.

Looking at the water with Duncan, I made a rapid wise decision that, if I still wanted to live, this was my deep point. That water was suitable for white water canoeing on the surface, not for wading underground.

We gazed and pondered at the inlet for some while before retreating back up the passage to locate my dumped tackle-sac.

Here we found Tony, keeping warm in his emergency blanket, with a candle - true Oxford-Uni-style. I think I surprised both my colleagues by setting up my cooker here, where I made 2 meals which we all shared. We had to wait for the others to prusik upwards, anyway. In such a desolate place, where you are fighting the elements, I feel that the good feeling of having a sound meal in your stomach really pays dividends.

I found myself reluctantly relegated to the back of the team as each person was rather eager not to be last to haul himself out of this God-forsaken place, and me being Mr-Nice-Guy...

At last I was up and away from the depths of this awesome pitch and chasing after Duncan. He waited for me part-way round Little Monkey. I was pleased he had waited.

However, he explained as I reached him, that the low crawl was virtually sumped, that Biff and Butch had elected to go through, but that the rest had chosen to remain here and had set up a camp on the stal slope above Little Monkey. I'm never too happy about pushing a duck in high water, I had plenty of food and a cooker, and I felt that to remain was less risky, so I joined them up the slope.

Tony looked fine as he was clipped onto the rope, but I was less happy about their precarious position, so I moved up past them and found a vaguely nice, if lumpy, hollow and set up my bivi shelter. There was only space in the hollow for one, so I didn't offer my two man shelter to anybody else.

Well, I had a wonderful warm sleep, if interrupted at times by regular updates as people went to have a look at the water levels below. I made a conscious effort to listen to the thumping of the water before I went to sleep, and made a decision not to move until the thumps made a noticeably different rhythm.

After 4 hours, I noticed a change, roughly at the time that Brian came to tell me that things were looking a bit less dangerous. I had just completed a delicate manoeuvre of relieving myself without leaving my bivi. I was fairly sure, but not convinced, that I'd kept my bivi clean but was happy that the canals and cascades would take care of any problem in that department!.

We all repacked and set off once more.

The crawl was a pussy cat, with just a small amount of water leaking onto our passage at the far end. I quickly made my way upstream in order to reach a less dangerous position. Any wave in this low passage area would have dire consequences.

I was much more relieved once we were in the Grand Canyon and we quickly made our way up the muddy side without locating the ropes we had come down until we were very near the top.

Camp 2 was everything we had noticed before. It had nothing going for it but it did contain our 2 other companions who had pushed the duck several hours earlier and we were all very delighted to be reunited once more. We were all safe!

A most uncomfortable night was spent by us 7 in a makeshift shelter comprising several of our emergency blankets, with us each inside our own emergency blankets, lying like sardines on top of each other. I remember resting my head on somebody else - stuff it, I've got to feel comfortable! We guys don't ever get too close to each other, even when we need each other's heat.

Well, nobody seemed to keen on keeping still. I would have been better in my bivi. I hardly slept.

We were all glad to get moving in the morning (if that's when it was) when Butch made a check on the next cascades and announced that they now seemed passable.

We moved up the cascades reasonably swiftly, not really waiting for each other, in order to keep up the momentum. I trailed at the back, as I so often do, with Ian ahead of me, keeping a vague eye on my still being there from time to time. I warned him of my reticence of going through the canals on my own, so he kept a little closer here. This turned out to be completely unnecessary. I was so soaked, that I didn't care about getting wet, and just plunged into each awkward bit, using the rope for safety. As I came out of the far end, I was absolutely amazed. Where were the difficult and intimidating bits? Surely there was more?

Ian and I were now seriously detached from the rest of the party and got ourselves beautifully lost below the balcony when we walked past the obvious rope and tried to push passage that just didn't go. I guess a lot of people had made the same mistake before.

Once we found the route, I moved really quite well - my prusiking has come on so well this year - but I remained in good contact with Ian as we realised that we were both getting very tired and mistakes were always possible.

We marched past the giant stalagmites, one of them looking vividly like a Thor Missile from the sixties. Amazing! However, I hadn't viewed them properly. I'd come back in again - with Tarquin or whoever. These were really worth spending some time giving them a proper view.

We arrived at camp to find everybody bagged up and asleep. I made myself a coffee - by doing that I wouldn't need to boil the water, so I could drink it straight away. I seem to remember collecting the water from the gours below camp and also adding a little bit too much coffee. Whatever! That night I got stomach cramps, something had gone wrong. Also, I had put my dry thermals on and then failed to wring out my used undersuit before donning it once more. It had soaked my sleeping bag - what a prat! I was cold but not that bad. I just could have had a really warm night if I'd used my brain.

As morning came, it was apparent that I had made some stupid mistakes; I was cold and miserable, I had a few sips of tea and the liquid dregs of somebody else's curry noodles but that was all I could handle. I couldn't eat raisins, chocolate, anything. I felt dreadful.

I slogged out of camp with my ton of tackle-sac. Why is it so heavy when you're going uphill? It was so easy on the way down.

On the traverse line I was amazed at my strength as I had felt so weak. It was clear I had a little "something" when required. However, I slipped and fell twice on the frequent moonmilk floor - the second time I got well wet.

Suddenly, I was confronted by a lake. Surely that wasn't there before? It took an age before I realised that this impassable obstacle had an easy bypass, when I first spotted a handline in the water and then noticed a boat on the far side. This was Lake Cadoux. Jerk!

At the top end of Starless River I spotted a light up the passage I had inadvertently entered on my first trip here. I called Butch back. Meanwhile, my stomach was giving me more urgent calls plus my carbide had run low, so I stopped on my own and told the others to go on ahead.

I changed out of some of my clothes in anticipation of the overheating I would get during the entrance series prusiks. My carbide light went out due to low water and it was here that my electric chose to fail also. I kept my head and shook my generator for a while and then managed to force a tiny flame to find my way to the water and rejuvinate it. I was on my own - was this the right place to have an electric failure? On my own? I decided to check Aldo's and confirm a lack of water before attempting to ascend.

As it turned out, the pitch was almost completely dry, so I climbed strongly to get above the potentially hazardous, just-above-mid-height inlet before relaxing a little. I could hear the two guys ahead at the top of the pitch but it wasn't until I was nearly at the top that I realised that it was actually some other guys on their way in - Tarquin and party to be exact - waiting for me to get up before they could go down.

I chatted about the state of the water and made a good effort to explain the intimidating state of the water. I hoped that Tark would not freak out and would view the conditions with a deal of common-sense.

I continued on out, quite slowly although always forcing myself to do 8 prusiks before taking what I can only call "extended rests". Each group I met, and there were plenty of people on their way in, I told them of the state of the water as well as the state of my stomach!

I slogged.

I met Neil in the meanders when I suddenly ran out of carbide - it seemed far too soon - I must have been seriously slow. He offered me a cheese sandwich, which I first rejected, then accepted gleefully. I hadn't managed to eat my choccy bars but this sandwich seemed to settle well.

I trundled out of the cave after a trip of exactly 48 hours, well behind my team mates - they'd long gone from the entrance tent. Another solo slog back to the car but there was no way that I was carrying all that gear back, so I packed up a few things that I would wash and clean back at the gite.

My slog back was almost a delight as Rowan offered to walk back with me - I think she felt sorry for me, so I spent the whole journey recounting (bending her ear about) the time I got trapped in Langstroth back in 1973. She was a good listener.

Once back, my health rapidly returned but my feet were in a state. After Langstroth, my feet were numb for 3 weeks. As I write this, 2 weeks later, my left foot is now almost normal, but the middle portion of my right foot plus the tips of all its toes are numb but starting to tingle.