1964 Expedition to the Gouffre Berger
Pete Watkinson. Leader
Stuart (Cheg) Chester
Dr. Colin Beighton
The following account of the Pegasus Club Nottingham’s expedition to the Gouffre Berger in 1964 is taken verbatim from a book written by one of the members of the team, Ian Curphey. As yet unpublished (October 2020) the book, consisting of three volumes is entitled
The Ramblings of a Rolling Stone
The article is reproduced here with the Authors kind permission. Copyright © Ian Curphey 2020
Extract from Volume 1: Chapter 2: Of Caves and Crags: Pages 39 - 47.
There were great schemes afoot in the world of caving and being seriously involved in it, and up to my ears in 'underground ego', the news that the Pegasus Club of Nottingham were planning an expedition to attempt the Gouffre Berger in the late summer of 1964, induced me to write to the leader, Pete Watkinson and a meeting was arranged to discuss the possibility of my taking part. When the day of the meeting arrived, I went to the Devonshire Arms, the chosen venue in Peak Forest, more nervous about the outcome that I have ever felt when attending subsequent interviews in search of employment. Perhaps because the Berger had such a desirable mystique about it, being the deepest cave in the world and the 'Everest' of every caver, I was not at all sure that my experience was adequate for such a venture. Having read Jean Cadoux's 'One Thousand Metres Down', which describes the discovery and initial exploration of the system, the concept of such an enormous cave captured my imagination to such an extent that, even with my misgivings regarding my abilities, I knew that I wanted to go there more than anything in the world. The meeting was noisy and crowded but any nervousness I felt was either unnoticed in the general melee or disguised by the beer that I drank that lunchtime, because when the sessions broke up late in the afternoon, I had a hangover and a place on the 1964 British Expedition to the Gouffre Berger.
A very active period followed as an intensive training programme was devised and many weekends were spent on 'Berger Meets', so designed to enable the members of the team to get to know each other and to work out the best systems for achieving our ends. We developed and practiced cave climbing techniques and devised and tested special equipment which we hoped would contribute to our success. At this time, cavers in Britain had not accepted single rope technique as a satisfactory and safe method of descent or ascent but, in view of the magnitude of the cave we were to visit, and the number of vertical pitches involved, Pete ensured that we could all abseil safely, for by using ropes for descent yet retaining ladders for climbing out, we hoped to improve our travelling speed underground.
So in a few short months, we worked together getting ready, some weekends practicing ladder climbing and abseiling down the biggest shafts we could find and places like Alum Pot, Eldon Hole and Elizabeth Shaft in Nettle Pot put us all on our mettle. The men selected to undertake the main climbing work in the cave, successfully ascended into the lofty dome of Eldon's vast chamber and learnt a great deal about climbing loose, broken rock that was to be of value later. The rest of our spare time, and some that was made spare by necessity was spent making equipment, packing food supplies, or begging, borrowing and buying the seemingly endless items that we required.
Eventually after several problems, trite and serious had been overcome the expedition was ready, and the week before we were due to depart for France, we all met in Nottingham and put the finishing touches to the packing and organised the transport of the mountains of equipment and food. We were hard pressed to find vehicle space for the gear let alone the people, and the problem was solved by several of us making our way to Grenoble by train. This complicated things a little bit, but expectations were so high that I am convinced that if we had had to cycle to the cave we would have all turned up in time!
The Gouffre Berger was discovered in 1953 by a French caver called Jo Berger, after whom it was named. It wasn’t a chance discovery though, as it was found as a result of a concentrated search conducted by the Speleo Group of the Club Alpine Francais, who for several years had been trying to find the source of the Germe resurgence that emerges from the Vats of Sassenage, a large cave system some four miles from Grenoble in the Dauphine. Many trips were made into the Vats in the late forties and early fifties, but the terminal siphon, which prevented further progress did not yield its secrets to the divers who made repeated attempts to penetrate it, nor was it possible to find a different route, which would bypass the obstacle.
However, one important discovery was made as a result of the surveys that were carried out during this period. It had been previously thought that the major catchment area that fed the waters of the Vats had been the St Nizier Plateau, but after plotting the cave plan on the topographical map of the area, it was found that the position of the terminal siphon indicated that the Sornin Plateau, in the northern part of the Vercours, was the most likely place in which to search for an upper entrance to the cave system that obviously must exist on the upstream side of the Vats of Sassenage Siphon. This vast area of limestone separated from the Alps proper by the deep valley of the Isere, was systematically searched by the SGCAF and after many false trails and some interesting minor discoveries, they finally located the Berger Chasm and over the following two years, the cave was descended in stages, each party getting a little further than the last, until in July and August 1955, a major attempt was made to reach the bottom of the cave and although they failed due to technical difficulty and lack of equipment, they reached a world record depth of 3,165 feet and the way on still continued.
Overjoyed with their discoveries, the French group organised and led an International Expedition the following year and the bottom of the cave was reached, some 3,650 feet below the entrance, when a terminal sump prevented further progress. However, although it had been proved by the early parties who visited the cave, that the water that flowed in the Berger was one and the same as the Vats resurgence, it was obvious from the longitudinal distance travelled that the Berger sump was not the other side of the terminal pool of the Vats.
After this initial bottoming trip, several parties attempted the cave, but none were successful until the British Expedition in 1963 which reached the bottom and established a new record by diving the siphon. Unfortunately, this did not lead to any extensive passageway on the other side, for when the diver emerged into a small pool, he was immediately confronted with another siphon. As the difficulties of supporting an extensive diving programme in the bottom of the deepest cave would be extreme to say the least, and the probability on consideration of the geological structures, was that the intervening section of cave might present a succession of submerged passages; the possibility of linking the two caves by this route seemed highly unlikely.
Pete, who had been on this trip, postulated that as underground streams erode their way through limestone, finding lower levels and leaving the abandoned stream way above, it would be worthwhile investigating the possibility of entering such a passage in the lower reaches of the cave, in the hope that it might allow us to pass the siphon. This project was the main object of our expedition and it had been to these ends that our training programme had been directed.
After twenty-four hours travelling from Manchester to Grenoble, with all the problems associated with traversing the crowded London Underground and the Paris Metro, with bulging rucksacks, limited conversational French, and an acute desire to be at my destination rather than be going there, it was a great relief to be reunited with the rest of the party. Sitting in the back of the Land Rover watching the trailer, bulging with ladders and ropes, snaking along behind us as we wound our way up the rough road that would lead us up onto the Sornin Plateau, we discussed our prospects for the coming venture and bored each other relating our experiences whilst crossing France. The steep and forested hillsides, riven with gullies and strewn with minor landslides, meant that our progress was slow, and it was not until the afternoon (Sunday 9th August 1964) that we finally gathered on the summit and established a sprawling and untidy Base Camp.
The Sornin is a most beautiful place, a vast flat limestone table covered in sweet smelling pines and commanding spectacular views of the Alps, faded and soft in the heat-haze of a hot summer day. I felt tremendously excited to be amongst such fine mountains and spectacular scenery, and in an ebullient mood, several of us set off to cross the four miles of limestone pavement and cool green pine forest that separated the Base Camp from the Berger Entrance. As we walked and chatted, we made short forays into every depression or other likely place in which we might find water - our Base Camp position, such a distance from the scene of operations, was dictated by the location of the nearest surface water supply - but our searches revealed nothing in the hour and a half walk. What a grand place for prospecting though, everywhere clints and grykes offered possibilities for future discoveries and even the knowledge that the SGCAF spent many man hours investigating all major sinks and fissures in the area did not damped our enthusiasm, and it was not until we stood at the edge of a large, jagged shake hole, with a small shadowy entrance at the bottom, that the real reason for our being there was restated. This insignificant depression marked the beginnings of the deepest cave in the world, and as we looked down, the conversation slowed down, each alone with our own thoughts.
Later, as we walked back we made tentative plans to get started and, as Pete was still in Grenoble making final arrangements with the French authorities, we had a lively discussion, eventually deciding to split our efforts - one party going down the cave to commence rigging the first pitches, and the other, which I was to work with, laying a telephone cable from the Base Camp to the cave entrance. This took us all day Monday, as we had to climb dozens of trees in order to drape the wire as high as possible above ground, as we did not want our vital communication link, so important in our view for reliable weather information, to be disturbed by a wandering cow or an unsuspecting rambler.
The weather conditions, such an imperative prerequisite for a successful trip, were always a popular topic of conversation, and when it started to rain heavily on Monday night, a quiet gloom descended with it. There was a Belgian Expedition camped nearby, having withdrawn from the cave some days before after repeated attempts to get down below Camp Two, and we took the opportunity during the evening to glean what information we could by making a visit to the camp.
The Leader, Etienne Lemaire - who in later years became a great friend to many of us pointed out several interesting facts, particularly regarding conditions in the cave during bad weather, and I confess my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat as a result of this. I was not alone, many of us had had experiences in caves back home that instilled a degree of caution when confronted with such objective dangers, and I knew for sure that if you are to survive a serious water hazard underground, prudence and commonsense must prevail.
Pete returned from Grenoble with the good news that all the bureaucratic problems were resolved and, during the next four days we took turns in ferrying equipment across the plateau and down into the top section of the cave. By Friday 14th August we had a lot of the gear at the top of Aldo's Shaft, some 750 feet below the entrance, and the rest deposited in Cairn Hall and the Boudoir (see Berger survey). We were ready for our push into the cave.
The weather was still unsettled, but definitely not bad enough to prevent us from going down to Camp One, the first place Pete had decided would offer a reasonable chance for entering an abandoned stream passage. Beyond Germain Hall, at -1,750 feet, the French had discovered a passage, terminating in a semi submerged tunnel, which they named Michalet Pool. They had not penetrated this for any great distance but on their survey it looked particularly promising, as it was shown ascending steeply from the main cave below. It was hoped that this tunnel would lead us up into the hoped for abandoned stream way and, though we would still be a considerable distance from the terminal sump, the Berger is such a vast place that even from this position it did not seem an unreasonable hypothesis. Anyway, if this failed, our intention was to go further down the known cave, into the region of the Grand Canyon at -2,500 feet and search for a roof passage there. However, although we were optimistic with regards to possibilities, we were still very much aware that we needed a spell of fine weather if operations in the lower reaches of the cave were to be carried out in safety.
On Saturday 15th August we all moved into the cave and after nineteen hours of continuous hard work, we reached the bottom of Aldo's Shaft (-950 feet). Even though we were all quite fit after repeated trips into the cave and lots of carrying on the surface, this introduction made quite an impression. As we moved in we attempted to bring all the equipment that remained in the dumps at Cairn Hall and the Boudoir down with us into the River Gallery. The Winding Cleft, a narrow passage that slowly tapers to an untraversable width, has to be negotiated by jamming elbows and knees against the walls. For those who know the caves of Yorkshire well, it is akin to the Providence Pot - Dow Cave trip, via Dowber Ghyl Passage, and proved difficult in the extreme, loaded as we were with vast quantities of food, carbide and equipment. We were there for hours, making a chain and passing the bags along, then moving ahead to repeat the process. I became convinced that the Cleft was in fact circular, and the bags I passed on with difficulty to the man in front, eventually turned full circle - and I passed them on again, ad infinitum. All this effort, coupled with negotiating several ladder pitches with all our gear, meant that on arrival at the top of Aldo's, we did not have a great deal in reserve. However, spirits arose somewhat because once down Aldo's we knew that we would be able to sleep. This turned out to be a nightmare, as an incredible tangle of ladder and lifeline resulted in a three hour delay. Most of us were pretty well done in, and as the temperature in the Berger is around 6 degrees C, this contributed to the rapid reversal of those slowly rising spirits. Cold and exhausted, we huddled in a forlorn group, taking it in turns to untangle the great mass of ladder and rope which we had hauled up the shaft, in order to effect our escape.
Peter with a real feeling for the situation, made a bonfire with a rope and some paraffin and the heat from the blaze went through to the bone marrow and certainly livened me up sufficiently to make the one hundred and seventy foot wet descent, when we eventually re-rigged the pitch. What a sorry looking bunch we were that night, moving through into the River Gallery hoping to find a dry place to sleep, but all I remember of that exhausted search is a howling wind in a vast chamber that forced us to retreat into the relative comfort of a small, dripping chamber at the foot of Aldo's, and there huddled together amongst the rocks we slept the sleep of the dead for nine hours. Time from then on became meaningless; we would go to bed at the end of the 'day' which was often twenty hours long, then rest or sleep for ten hours or so. With each day being in excess of twenty-four hours we were all completely out of phase, but as we worked in compact groups, this did not seem to create any logistical problems.
That first experience of an underground 'dawn' will always remain strong in my memory. Slowly regaining consciousness from an exhausted sleep, shivering with the cold in a wet sleeping bag I lay there in the pitch darkness, the sounds of dripping water and the distant rumble of a river echoing in my ears, and fumbled with useless fingers trying to ignite my carbide lamp, which finally succumbed and burst into life, bathing the world with its life-giving rays. The shafts of light shone seven or eight feet from the source, casting soft shadows onto wet rocks and bags of tackle, amongst which were strewn the damp, slug-like cocoons that were my friends abed. I crawled out very cold and realised that I had slept in all my clothes, including my filthy boots. Somebody else stirred and we encouraged each other to light the Primus and make a brew. After this things improved, and within a couple of hours we had sorted out what gear we would need to establish Camp One, made a mental note of what we were leaving in the Aldo Depot and with stiff legs moving slowly, we set off into the unknown.
After a rest, I was a little more receptive to my surroundings and on re-entering the River Gallery where we had searched for a 'bivi' sight a few hours before the immensity of the place almost took my breath away. It was impossible to see the roof and the passageway down which we stumbled, seeking a way alongside the great river, rumbling and rattling along the rocky floor. Looking back up the cave I could see a vast expanse of blackness, with tiny glow-worms of light bobbing up and down as the others followed. We wound our way through boulders and waded pools of icy water and amongst weird shadows and wispy shapes we were lost in the vastness of the abyss. I really felt for the first time that this was the Berger. We were travelling fairly light now, having learnt something of a lesson the previous day, and we made good progress. At times, after particularly heavy rain the depression in the main passage, know as Lake Cadoux, can only be passed by using rubber boats, but when we arrived there, it was dry, just large deep pools in the muddy hollows, which we managed to avoid. Soon we were wandering in wonderment among the massive stalagmites and gours of Bourgin Hall, and spirits really did start to rise. The cave was full of our shouts, echoing off the distant walls, "Hey come over here, Jesus just look at this" as each few yards of progress disclosed some new formation or point of interest. We encountered no real problems, other than finding our way down the passage. I had never been confronted with this situation before, even in the largest caves of Britain and Ireland. Although there are often problems in selecting the right passage at an intersection, once chosen it is a matter of course to follow the walls, invariably with one hand on each. Not so here. Once in the Big Rubble Heap, it was impossible to see either wall and we fumbled our way through enormous boulders, some over sixty feet high, wandering hither and thither with only the general gradient of the floor as a guide to the direction we should take. It was a unique, almost mind expanding experience and when we reached Camp One, easily recognisable by the mountains of rubbish left by previous parties, I can remember feeling very happy, very happy indeed, and the efforts of the previous days, which had won us this place were more than worthwhile.
My official job on the expedition was photographer and the following day, while the climbing party started to organise their equipment, three of us armed with our crude photographic gear, which included flash powder and an enormous box of PF 100 flash bulbs, each one the same size as a 200 watt household lamp, set off for the Hall of the Thirteen, perhaps the most spectacular underground sight in the world. No matter how many photographs you have seen of this incredible chamber, the impact of standing in the dark, amongst the towering stalagmites, like sentinels guarding the Gates of Hades, sombre and silent in the flickering light of a carbide lamp, burns into the mind's eye, and for me at any rate, left an impression of timeless beauty, strength and silence which epitomises much of that unknown magic that draws me underground.
We spent some hours photographing and as we set out for our return up to the camp, the four man climbing party passed us, all ready to make a start on their exploratory work in the roof. Later our little group made a trip up the cave to the bottom of Aldo to collect more food, this took us four hours there and back. By Tuesday 18th August, Big Al and Melvin, our two lead climbers had reached the Michalet Pool and fixed ladders to enable the rest of us to assist in pushing on past the obstruction. They reported that the passage was blocked with calcite formations, which they had passed into a very beautiful chamber, so keen to obtain photographs I joined up with the next trip into the new section, which hoped to prove if further progress down the cave could be made in this direction.
From the Hall of the Thirteen, the floor of the cavern is covered in massive gours, like the terraced flanks of a Balinese rice field, limpid suspended lakes that catch every reflection, framed in the sparkling calcite that forms their edges. We climbed down very carefully and below we could see the wraithlike forms of towering flat-topped stalagmites, like giant half burnt candles, long dead and abandoned forever. Some had fallen over long ago, with pieces of broken rimstone still attached to their base, perhaps the result of some subterranean upheaval a millennium ago. New calcite had formed over these broken relics, bonding them to the gleaming floor, as though the cave was trying to bury its dead.
Someone shouted and the tinkle of broken calcite indicated their extreme fragility. We moved through in wonderment, trying in vain to refrain from damaging the formations, until we emerged into a place where they were less prolific and damage could be avoided. The new passage continued up into a chamber, and there, like a great font in a medieval cathedral, rose a mass of calcite and cave crystal of indescribable beauty. We spent time here, trying to capture different facets of this unique formation, but I cannot help feeling it was in vain. None of the photographs I took that day portray that strange sense of awe and wonderment that being in such a place induced in me.
While lost in these dreamy wanderings, the more down to earth of our party had pushed the passage until, after forcing their way through more formations which blocked the route, they peered down into a great black void, which ended our hopes in that direction. Later, we proved that Pegasus Bridge, (our name for the new section) debouched into the roof of St Matthew's Hall only a few hundred feet from the start of our climb. It may well continue on the other side of the Hall, but although we looked in that area, we found nothing that shrieked of potential success.
As so, after five days underground, we arrived back where we had started, although we had found a special place of incredible beauty, we had achieved nothing in a downward direction, and the future prospects for our remaining underground did not look too bright. Pete, who made all the policy decisions regarding our activities decided to withdraw from the cave, as the surface party, who were in contact by the phone wire we had installed, reported that the weather, which had remained unsettled, was deteriorating rapidly and this would doubtless make any attempts to work in the lower reaches of the cave impractical. It was a wise decision, for a few days after we withdrew, another party was trapped in the cave for several days and so great was the rainfall, that even Aldo's Shaft was un-climbable. By the time these events took place, we were spread out over the coasts and mountains of Southern France, but this did not prevent the English press from wreaking havoc at home by reporting that we were the trapped party. In a sense we had been 'trapped' in the cave during our five days of exploration work. During this period a party trying to descend had been prevented by flooding and had returned to the surface. Technically we were trapped, but as we made no attempt to get out and were unaware that escape wasn’t possible, the press was wrong in saying we were 'trapped'.
And so we left, slowly and in small groups, we made our way out and by Friday 21st August the expedition was over. The last of us reached the surface in the small hours of the morning, the smell of the rain and pine trees was overpoweringly beautiful and as we made our way back to the Base Camp, like gnomes wandering homewards with our spluttering carbide lamps picking out the branches softly swaying in the dark night air, we all knew that one day we'd be back.