Recollections of the Pegasus 1964 expedition to the Gouffre Berger
Saturday 8th August 1964, off to Midland Station Nottingham, meet up with the other guys (Ian Curphey - Ian Patrick) ??? for our first leg of the journey to the Gouffre Berger.
Next stop London St Pancras station, we then went down the street to another station to catch the Boat Train to Dover and on to Calais. I think the boat was called the Lord Warden. I went out on deck and took a photograph while the other guys stayed below. We all had packs with personal gear in, all the caving gear was taken in the trailer pulled by Paul Thompson's Land Rover. On arrival at Calais we disembarked the boat; we were shown where to go to get a train to Paris, Gare Du Nord. We had to wait a while on the train, possibly waiting for other passengers, then we set off, after about half an hour of travel the border police came around looking at our passports, they were taken away stamped and returned. On arrival at Gare du Nord found out that our connection train to get to Grenoble was about to leave, so we hastily got on the metro for Gare Du Sud hoping we would be in time, but on arrival all the gates were shut and we could not get access to the platform, bugger!! Someone made an executive decision to get the next train south to Lyon, it was not long to wait, and we boarded with our pre-booked tickets. On arrival at Lyon, we started looking for a local commuter train to go to Grenoble, this turned out to be electric and only about 3 carriages long, not built for comfort with solid wood slatted seats, but the scenery was worth seeing, going through the foothills. On our arrival at Grenoble we headed to the centre of town and looked for the coach station, I managed to get a postcard off to UK (let the parents know all ok) with a little help from Curphey’s French skills.
We found a place to have a coffee and something to eat not far from the coach station, we realised that the odd delays we had experienced meant an overnight kip, which we did at the coach station, no one bothered us, perhaps a regular occurrence. We were picked up in the morning after breakfast by Paul Thompson and co, but my memory is not sure on this, but we were picked up and taken to the campsite at the Sornin Plateau.
My next recollection is sherparing gear to the cave entrance, which I believe we did two or three times, I had a look around from the campsite to see where about we were, to get an idea of landscape, basically the French or Swiss Alps in the distance. And pine trees all the way round us. What I did note was skull and crossbones on posts,” Danger Mines" in French, so kept well away. I think after most of the gear had been taken to the cave entrance and was lowered into the cave, we started descending down ladders. We had to hump gear, including all food for the team further into the cave system, I reckon this took a couple of days; this is sketchy as I had no watch and no real way of telling the time of day or night. The first night we slept on a boulder pile, thank goodness for my lilo, slept like a log, then after a bit of food, we started descending to camp one proper, again ferrying all the gear, this was easier terrain as it was a massive chamber, at this point you could hear water thundering somewhere.
We arrived at camp one after traversing Lake Cadoux and around the Tyrolean, a rope line at the side of the waterfall on a rock ledge, then onto the big rubble heap and past the Hall of Thirteen (stalagmite and stalactites) then camp one at 1600m below cave entrance. I think I stayed at Camp one for a few days, looking around the rest of the cave, and went with the team to explore where Pete Watkinson thought another passage might be, it did not go very far. I can remember lifelining at the top of a pitch. Whilst there waiting I can recall watching the guys climbing up this very unstable old riverbed site. Later on the area was called Pegasus Bridge.
I don't recall anything special about the trek out of the cave, just the reverse of going in, ferrying gear etc, but not as much. I do recall going out first, and just before the final pitch, someone had removed the lifeline, so I climbed the ladder without a lifeline and installed one to enable the others to climb up and out into daylight, marvelling at the bright and vivid colours, blues and greens, after being underground. The trip out was brought forward because of heavy rain above and flooding in the cave, so we did not hang about. During the trip, when we had a bit of time off from being underground, we were invited to a meal at the Maison Forestiere not far from the road up to the Berger camp site. When John Fisk tried to engage some of the French men who were at the table by saying sprechen sie Deutsch, the reaction was a finger across the throat, as we later found out; they were part of the French Marquis. Also we found out that in August it was the anniversary ( 20 years) since liberation of WW11. We also had a reporter from Reuters who used to come up most days and we talked him into bringing up some fresh baguettes, quite a luxury, from hard tack and biscuits.
We had a trip to Villard de Lans sight seeing and a trip to the swimming pools, it was nice to freshen up. Someone was selling fruit in the town, so we purchased a heap of peaches and they were so sweet and cheap.
When the expedition was starting to break up and people were beginning to go home, a decision was made to go to the mountains, specifically a place called La Berarde to climb a peak called Pic Coolidge which is 3774 m high. We camped by the glacial river, visited the local cafe for some food, red wine mixed with lemonade.
I purchased my ice axe in a local climbing shop ( still have it today), overnighted on the mountain, in what can best be described as an oversize chicken hut. Next day went back down the mountain and the day after that a group of about 4 made for home. We hitched a lift back to Grenoble to catch an early evening train, an overnighter, absolutely chock bang full of Italians, no seats to be had, so sleeping bags and lilo’s out, we camped at the end between two carriages, right by the toilets! and slept there the night. Another day to get to Calais and onto the ferry, back to London and get the train to Nottingham. Met at the station by parents, and my mother walked right past me, not recognising my blonded hair and tanned skin!!
Peter Nicholson 2019
Who is facing Ian Curphey?
The oversize chicken hut refuge on Pic Coolidge with Alan Harrison at left and Ian Curphey centre. There is another face in the doorway but not sure who. (see enlargement). Other people I do know who made the climb were Melvin Batchford, Ian Patrick, Paul Thompson, Peter Nicholson and myself Stuart(Cheg)Chester.
If you did not get a mention and you were there, let me know!