Mark R, Chris H, Liz H, Joe R, Tim N, Robbie S, Mark Wright, Angela Wright, YUCPC and some TSG members.
17th-31st July 2011
This is a record of my experiences underground during the 2011 York University Cave and Pothole Club expedition to the Gouffer Berger. Hopefully, the story will be expanded over the coming few weeks with write ups from other team members explaining all the bits I have missed out!
The drive down to Autrans was pretty good, well- as good as a 9 hour drive on French motorways can be! Poor Lizzie was stuck in the back all the way but hardly complained at all… hardly. We (Liz, Joe and I) arrived at Camping en Vercors at around 1840 and went about pitching tents. I had been rushing around at home to get ready for the trip and managed to forget the front zip- in panel for the massive tent Steve Tucker had given me- what a twat! Well, that’s what happens when you do things in a rush. Despite not having a front on the tent, we had a good nights sleep and awoke on Monday morning to the sound of Joe putting a brew on. After knocking over the first lot of water we eventually got our brew and settled in to the French way of life with a breakfast of baguette, jam and cheese. After breakfast Joe left to go and see his girlfriend who was doing her geological mapping in a nearby mountainous area (not sure where) and Lizzie and I waited around for Tim, Ange and Mark to arrive and went off into town for another excellent pizza.
The next couple of days saw a lot of heavy rain so caving was postponed. York had managed to get permission off the Mayor to start the permit early which was great and as we would soon see, pretty essential given the terrible weather we were going to be plagued with.
The photography team’s first trip down the Berger came on Friday 22rd when we decided to split into 2 ‘photography teams’. Chris, Joe, Liz and I went down first carrying a load of flash bulbs and some camp gear to camp 1. Mark, Tim, Chris Blakeley and Robbie would follow shortly after to take a photo of Lake Cadoux which was full due to the rain we had been having!
The first team made fast, enthusiastic progress through the cave, the first indication that water levels were different to the previous year came early on in the meanders, a steady trickle of water that I didn’t remember being present before followed us down through the entrance series, showing itself from time to time as drips and dribbles on some of the pitches. The most startling difference however was noticed when we popped out into the magnificent Starless River passage. Large pools had formed where previously we had walked over dry mud floors and the stream was noticeably higher. The absolute best part of the high water levels was the lake. We loaded ourselves into the dingy one by one and glided silently over the water, drinking in the experience as fully as we could!
It was nice to see the reaction on everyone’s faces to this spectacular piece of cave, it reminded me of the first time I saw it and have since ploughed through with my head down under the load of a heavy bag. The new perspective was refreshing and I really enjoyed the walk down stream. We soon found ourselves standing in the hall of the 13 looking in awe at the gour pools. Once again the week of bad weather was manifested in what we saw- Last year the Masson expedition was lucky to have very dry weather but the pools were very dry, this time however, the contrast was remarkable- nearly every gour was flowing into the next, the place looked totally different and felt so much fresher, it was superb to see. Everyone was still absorbing the splendour of the cave as we started the long slog back to the surface, being the first trip of the expedition and being heavily out of cave condition I found it harder work than I should have done but we were out of the cave in good time to get home and enjoy a few beers.
We sat around all day on Sunday waiting for the evening start to our underground camping and photography trip. The whole team walked over to the entrance at around 1930 to find YUCPC teams on their way out. We kitted up as we waited and set off down the cave at around 2100.The heavy bags we had with us slowed us down and it was fair to say that we didn’t rush through the entrance series! We all met up at Bourgin hall where the ‘young team’ were already setting up for the first photo. We were there for quite a while but got a good shot and rolled into camp at about 0200 Monday morning. We had a brew, a little bit of food and settled down for a comfortable, warm nights sleep. At around 0400 Toby and 2 others from YUCPC arrived at the camp and got on the radio. I remember them saying that they had rigged to the top of little monkey and were heading straight out. We all seemed to wake up when the next YUCPC got to camp 1 at something like 10:00. It was Mark and Chad. They got on the radio and started to gather information about weather forecasts and the status of the rigging. Whilst they were talking I started to think about what we would be doing that day. We had planned to wake up and have an easy day out of the cave photographing one or two things as we went- it certainly didn’t require all of us to do that! The forecast was good and it had been about a day since the last significant rainfall… as Mark told the surface about his plan to rig as far as possible then turn round and head out, de- rigging as they went I thought what a shame it would be to get so close to the bottom and not take advantage of the weather window. Just as Mark was signing off the radio I made up my mind, asked Chris and Joe how they felt and got positive replies so shouted up to pass a message to the surface that 3 Badgers would follow on after an hour to help with the de- rig team at the bottom of the cave.
Decision made, the three of us got out of bed and had a fast breakfast, packed a few basic bits and bobs into a bag and set off after the 2 YUCPC guys. Every step after camp 1 was a step deeper than ever before and 1 step further into the unknown for Chris and Joe and they relished the experience. We had been told that the Canals were pretty full and everyone who had gone through them so far had got wet to some extent. Sure enough when we arrived at them, they were a good 750mm higher than last year and we all got wet to the top of our legs going through, despite this it was good fun and we ploughed on towards the cascades. The sporting nature of the cave continued through the cascades, the SRT obstacle course not disappointing! The rigging was much higher than the year before to keep us away from the water, there was a lot more up and down but it was great fun. We reached Claudine’s quicker than I thought and pushed on down into the Grand Canyon. It was here that we saw the lights of Mark and Chad near the bottom of the slope. We caught up with them and sat for 10 minutes or so having a chat. Mark suggested that it made sense for us to go ahead as we were moving pretty quickly and I was at this point the only one who had seen this part of the cave. The next part is probably my favourite bit of the cave- we followed the water down through Gache, Matte and Singh pitches then finally the spectacular grand cascade which was pretty spray lashed and very windy. The crawl had some water flowing through the cobbles in the floor but wasn’t half as bad as I had feared it might be. As soon as we got to Little Monkey I took the first bag and rigged on as fast as I could. It was such a rush to be rigging the last few pitches in these wet conditions, I was cautious about going too far for the group but we were a strong set of 5 all feeling pretty fresh and apart from the bottom of little monkey just before the swing across to the ledge the water was easily manageable.
I set up the Y- hang on Hurricane and gingerly swung myself out over the yawning, black void below. The noise from the waterfall along side the pitch was phenomenal but the top pitch up to the re-belay was comfortably dry- just as well because only a couple of metres above the re-belay the end of the rope came out of the bag! I looked at the tag and realised what I had done. By utilising some of the in-situ rope on the traverse of little monkey I had made that rope last all the way to the hurricane ledge. The next rope out of the bag was meant for the short pitch between the bottom of little monkey and the ledge but this is what I had set off down Hurricane on… what a knob! I weighed up the options- jug back up and re- rig everything or tie a knot pass and carry on. Given the size of the group and the fact that we would be de- rigging as soon as we were all on our way out I opted for the knot pass, at about 998m depth!!
We had got away pretty lightly with the water up until this point but the bottom pitch dropped us well and truly into the line of fire! We all got soaked to the skin getting to the floor and the strong buffeting wind made the cold feel even worse. We all assembled at the campsite where there were a couple of sets of diving cylinders and huddled in foil bags and blankets whilst the last person came down the pitch. As soon as we were all together and we set off again up the ropes to de- rig the bottom of the Berger!
The three of us waited just after the crawl for the 2 York guys to catch up with a couple of bags which we took off them and headed out with, leaving them to de- rig the rest to camp 2.
When we arrived back at camp 1 we radioed the surface at about 2030 to find the photography team just emerging. They had left us some food and a stove so we ate everything we could, had a couple of cups of tea and started the slow journey out of the cave with a heavy bag of camping kit each. We got to the surface at 0130 Tuesday morning having spent just under 30 hours underground.
De- rigging trip.
The whole team headed up the hill early afternoon. We got to the entrance and laid out all our damp kit which had been stored up there since we got out from our last trip down. As we were all changing there was an almighty clap of thunder from over the hill… Within a few minutes we were sheltering under a tree looking out at a ferocious deluge of hail and rain. After about 10 minutes or so, almost as quickly as it had arrived, the rain began to subside so we headed in. one by one we descended into the entrance to find York and take over the de- rig. We got to the ledge at the top of Cairn to find the first few de- riggers on their way up. They left their bags with us and carried on out of the cave. As 4 of us sat there at the top of Cairn, we watched the trickles and drips of water. Suddenly, as if someone had just emptied a large bucket at the top of the pitch, the drips turned into a torrent of icy water! The speed at which it all changed was impressive but almost alarming and the temperature plummeted whilst we sat waiting.
Eventually all of the de- riggers were out of the way and Robbie, Tim and Mark descended to Cairn Hall to take ‘the foil bag photo’. Joe, Chris, Liz and I started the hauling of the bags to the surface. I enjoyed the teamwork involved in getting these bags up and we got all 16 bags to the surface over the next couple of hours. Thankfully at this point a bunch of guys from YUCPC turned up and carried a load of this kit back over the top, leaving us with just enough to manage on our own to completely clear the surface camp. We hung around for a little longer to get the entrance shot then I de- rigged the last pitch and we packed up and left the Gouffre Berger for the last time this trip.
A few days ago I was rigging Hurricane pitch- now I found myself de- rigging the entrance, what a great trip this had been but one that would not have been nearly as successful without the careful planning and huge amount of hard work that had gone into it from YUCPC- thanks for having us along guys and congratulations on conducting an excellent, successful expedition to one of the greatest caves in the world!