Chris H, Joe R, Mark R, Lizzie H, Mark W, Robbie S, Tim N, Chris B
Having never caved in the Berger I was excited to get the chance to return to the Vercor and give it a go. It's often talked about as one of the best 1000+ meter caves and has such a long and interesting history. Previous Vercor trips had seen the Badgers bottom a number of caves but none more than 350m deep so anything over this in the Berger would be new territory for Joe and myself.
Having flown out with Robbie we were picked up by Joe who was returning from Vallorcine having spent a few days with his girlfriend while she did her geological mapping project. Weather forecast was very mixed and there was snow predicted for the Tour de France Alpine stages over the coming days. Arriving at camp after a requested beer and sausage shop we asked about York’s progress. 'Limited' was the answer though they had only been rigging a day or two.
Our first trip in to Camp 1 on Friday 22nd saw us preparing nervously at the surface. It was to be a two part trip with one team heading straight for Camp 1 and the other team taking photos around Lake Cadoux. Camera equipment was packed and protected along with a little personal kit. Despite studying the survey and reading reports nothing really prepares you for seeing it yourself.
Pitch after pitch I was moved by the shear scale of the cave. I'd been tasked with getting a large blue drum of flash bulbs to Camp 1 so had to be careful not to bash the crap out of it. Not an easy feat when trying to keep up with Mark R through the meanders. It was difficult to know whether to stay up high or descend into them and my calls for such advice often went unheard. Never the less they were successfully negotiated and on we went.
Upon reaching the Starless River I found Mark reclining and taking in the views of all the water running into the pools. All the talk of lots of water by York had me wondering what it must have been like the previous year when most places were relatively dry. It didn't appear to me to be a huge amount of water and where we'd heard or seen trickles on pitches and through the Meanders it just seemed normal.
We soon reached Camp 1 and it hadn't been the epic trip I had prepared for, though at this point we were still the deepest I’d ever been underground and had the return journey to do. We unpacked all the camera gear and I was relieved to see all Robbie's flash bulbs had arrived intact. Mark then ushered us a little further down the slope past the stench of urine until we stood gob smacked at the site of Hall of the Thirteen. Sten was cranked up to 4 and I tried to light the place up as much as I could but as with any large chamber it proved a futile effort. The formations were stunning and to see all the water running over each gower pool into the next was wonderful.
Our second trip in came on the 24th around 9pm. We'd all packed for a night underground, sleeping bags, thermals, stove, food, and lots of snacks. The weather over the last couple of days had been pretty miserable and in my mind I had already told myself that a bottoming trip would be out of the question. We reached Bourgin Hall relatively quickly and started setting up for the shots Robbie wanted. Once he was happy he had 'the shot' we headed on to Camp 1 for a brew and some grub before turning in for the night. Despite having spent a number of nights camping in Daren Cilau it wasn't the most restful of nights sleep. I vaguely remember some York members passing through during the night and a telephone call about someone getting a dunking in the canals. I'd been dozing for some time when I heard Joe talking. Two York members had arrived with the aim of rigging as far as they could. Shortly after Mark R stuck his head out of the shelter and called over to me. "What do you think about a trip to the bottom?" My mind raced. Well this was unexpected. I replied that I’d be happy to go as far as the cave would let us but certainly didn't want to risk it if it proved too wet.
We rose and quickly ate breakfast while packing a few things for our trip. Foil blankets/bags and candles were at the top of the list along with some snacks. Within 45mins we were off and heading down through Hall of the Thirteen. Everything beyond here was new and deep. I had no idea what to expect at the canals, their name suggests something wet and the stories I’d heard had me thinking I’d be wading neck deep in cold water without a wetsuit. The traverse lines leading into them were high up on the walls which kept you high and dry. Once into the canals the same was true for the most part. Looking into the ceiling at the foamy residue served as a gentle reminder that things could get very serious if there was any amount of water falling on the surface. Expending large amounts of energy to stay above the water was starting to seem ridiculous and then the traverse line crossed the water. Clipping in my shortest cows tail, suspended on my back with legs wrapped around the rope I hauled myself across to find my arse and the only holey part of my TSA dragging in the water. That was it, wet pants. Continuing along the canals I was quickly up to my thighs and wishing for their end. They soon were over and we continued our descent.
The Grand Canyon proved to be very slippery and I was glad of the in situ ropes to grab hold of. As I came to the bottom of the slope I saw Mark and Joe had caught up with Mark and Chad from the York team. After a quick chat we moved on ahead of them and continued following the water through Gache, Matte and Singh pitches. I was then surprised to be being led through a small crawl, something Mark loves. Fortunately it was only short and leads quickly to Little Monkey pitch. It was here that we collected the remaining full bags of rope - 17 and 18. Before we could even catch our breath a devilish smile had taken over Marks face and he was off. Rigging! Call after call of rope free came upwards and I followed on after him with bag 18. The roar of water was getting louder and without realising it I’d reached Hurricane. Mark was peering down into the abyss and starting to rig the Y hang at the top of the pitch. Clipped in I gingerly looked over the edge to see what it was like. Through the moisture saturated air and with Sten cranked up to 4 I could make out a large white blur surrounded by blackness. The blur was the maelstrom of water cascading and crashing down the pitch like a herd of buffalo charging across a crocodile infested river. I drew an imaginary line in my head from the rigging down. Wet was my minds response.
Mark disappeared down the pitch and after 20m or so stopped. He was faffing with something and I couldn't work out what. The York guys had caught up with us again and asked how it was going. I finally got a response from Mark and above the din of the waterfall I heard "KNOT PASS". This was followed closely by a rebelay a couple of metres below. Moments later Mark disappeared from view and a faint rope free was heard. I started my descent. After the rebelay it was one of those periods of time where everything seems to go in slow motion. No mater how hard I tried I couldn't get the descender to descend any quicker. Water everywhere!
Once at the bottom I joined Mark who was sat with his foil bag over his head. He was struggling to get his lighter to work properly because of his wet hands. I got my candle out of my helmet and took the lighter off him. After a few attempts fire glowed in front of us and our candles were lit. We huddled together with foil bags over us. Much warmer! Joe arrived and we congratulated ourselves on the descent. We shared no thoughts of going any further. We'd be happy just to get out now. We waited for the York team to descend and once they'd arrived we quickly discussed the plans to derig. We'd wait on the other side of the crawl and collect the bags from them which we'd take to Camp 2 before continuing on our way out.
After sitting for what seemed like an eternity while Joe prusiked back up Hurricane pitch the call of rope free came above the roaring din of the waterfall. I got to my feet and made my way toward the pitch. Wanting to get up the pitch as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of time I’d be getting drenched I checked my gear. Everything was present and correct except my pantin. I hurried back to where I’d been sat and checked the floor. Mark R's jammer sat between his feet where he'd taken it off but that was all. Some loud cursing and a quick scurry back to the pitch found me having the air pummeled from my lungs reducing me to gasp after gasp as I prusiked as fast as I could through the descending water. Chilled to the bone by the icy cold water it literally felt like I was going nowhere. All I could see was white as the torch light lit up the cascading torrent of water. Soon enough it started to lessen and I finally passed the rebelay and called rope free. I soon caught up with Joe and we waited for Mark to follow up behind us.
We waited for the York team to derig and collected the bags off them once they arrived. Dumping them at Camp 2 we then started the long trip back towards the surface. Having lost my pantin at some point on the descent I knew that every prusik out was going to be an effort. Despite a good refuel on chocolate flavoured suet and tea at Camp 1 every step seemed to take twice as much out of me and having two tackle bags instead of one transporter also felt like a hindrance.
Our third and final trip in was to be both photography and derigging. Robbie took his team off to Cairn pitch for some photos while Mark, Joe, Lizzie and I hauled a never ending supply of tackle bags. We'd met a team from York who were coming out with bags and told them to dump them where we were and continue out. It was at this point that the ledge we were on decided to turn from a slightly drippy pitch to a full on deluge following the bursting storm clouds we'd experienced on the surface whilst changing.
This made the experience all the better as we worked to haul the bags up pitch after pitch. We were glad of the strenuous hauling to keep fingers and arms warm.
All in all a fantastic experience of the Gouffre Berger, one which I would love to do again given the chance.
A final big thank you goes to the YUCPC for all their efforts in rigging the cave and their hospitality without which the trips we made wouldn't have been possible. I hope we can join forces again some day. Thank you!