2003 Expedition to the Gouffre Berger
The Pegasus Caving Club has had a long and proud caving history with the Gouffre Berger cave in the Vercours area of France. Early expeditions by the club in the late '60s resulted in some original exploration and discovery, much of which have been well documented.
When I first joined the Pegasus in the early 70's, I was a totally green novice and had never even heard of this famous pothole, in my inexperience I thought that the Matlock Bath area was the centre of the caving universe. After serving a 6 month probation period, I was welcomed into the Pegasus fold and was mentored by many of the original Berger rats. In the course of caving and drinking with the likes of Cheg Chester, Paul Thompson, Al Harrison and Dave Lucas, I got to know a lot about the Berger and was both fascinated and intimidated by the cave. I bought the Pegasus report of the 1967 expedition led by Pete Watkinson, and also the book One Thousand Metres Down by Jean Cadoux one of the original discovery team. I resolved that if I ever got the chance, I too would visit the famed Hall of the Thirteen.
Jo, Lee, Figg & Al at the entrance
Lee, Figg & Al at the Hall of the Thirteen
As the years went by the old school gradually became less active, but newer members of the club continued to visit France on caving trips on a regular basis. My first ever caving trip abroad was with the Pegasus to the Grotte de La Cigalere in 1975. (See expedition report here) The Gouffre Berger was shut to visitting cavers for a long period, but in 1986 a large number of PCN members undertook visits to the cave as guests on other clubs' trips. During these trips the cave was bottomed by Andy Walchester, Aaron Smith, Sam Garod, Lee Hollis, Dave Briggs, and Tony Bennett while other club members such as Dave Gough, Dave Epton, Malc Debbage, John Addison and Nick Place all reached the Hall of the Thirteen or beyond. (Apologies to anyone I've missed off the list). At the time I was incapacitated and unable to join my peers on any of these trips, the turn of the millennium along with my 50th birthday came and went, and I grudgingly accepted the fact that my time had probably passed for acheiving my ambition.
In early 2003 at the Pegasus AGM in the VAT & Fiddle in Nottingham a totally unexpected turn of events took place. Simon Halliday, a new recruit to the Pegasus announced that he'd been invited to join a White Rose Caving Club expedition to the Berger in the summer of that year. A very overweight, very unfit, very drunk 53 year old lapsed caver expressed his desire to join the trip. Two days later Simon rang me and simply said "Al you're in". Panic set in when I realised I'd got less than 6 months to get myself fit enough to participate in this venture. Originally Simon's friend and near neighbour Barry Suddell agreed to accompany me, Simon was essentially Barry's protegee, Barry and I would go at our own old man's pace letting the young ones tackle the cave ahead of us.
The White Rose led by their self appointed leader Rose East arranged a series of training meets prior to the expedition. Barry met up with them on one of these training meets, and then calmly informed me that there was no way on God's Earth that he would ever venture underground with such a bunch of pompous incompetent. I never got to go on any of the training meets and although I briefly met Rose and crew in Yorkshire, I was not to witness their caving prowess until underground in the Vercours. After Barry's withdrawal, and meeting the White Rose team I began to have serious doubts about the wisdom of my decision. At this stage Lee Hollis said that he and Figg (Dave Briggs) would like to join the team, along with Jo Hughes, Lee's partner at the time. This immediately put my mind at ease. Rose jumped at the chance of having two experienced Berger veterans in the party. The team was now almost numerically equal, Simon, Rupert (Simon's neighbour and caving partner), Lee, Figg, Jo and myself flying the flag for Pegasus with Rose and five fellow White Rose members along with three other guests completing the party.
Rose had some strange ideas about caving practice. As no-one in the White Rose had ever camped underground before, they decided to have a dry run in the Sand Caverns of Gaping Gill. Rose didn't like it. As a direct result of this, Rose decided upon a strategy of driving from the gite to the nearest possible Berger access point on the plateau, walking to the cave, caving, exitting the cave, walking back to the car, returning to the gite, washing their kit only to repeat this process the next day. Unsurpiringly this mode of operation resulted in none of the White Rose members reaching the bottom, Rose however decided that the real reason for their abject failure was due to the Pegasus' selfish attitude. On our first night at the gite, Lee and Jo, Figg and myself were all billetted separately, Rose didn't want cliques within the group, divide and conquer was her self confessed philosophy. Needless to say some people were rubbed up the wrong way from the very start, and tensions were bound to mount further during our time over there. Rose took exception to one of the young guests Henry going out drinking with the Pegasus team, and rang his parents in the UK to inform them that their son was fraternising with a bunch of reprobates. A lot of water has flowed under Pegasus Bridge since then, so I don't really want to dwell on any more of the unpleasant negatives of our time in France.
Exploring the Hall of the thirteen
The positives are as follows; Simon, Rupert and Jan (guest) rigged and bottomed the cave. The Pegasus clique of Lee, Figg, Jo and myself reached the Hall of the Thirteen and comfortably exited. Lee, Henry and the other young guest (Sorry I don't recall his name) de-rigged the cave. All the White Rose members reached the Hall of the Thirteen. Rose whinged constantly and blamed the Pegasus. On her return Rose wrote a very derogatory report on the trip. I wrote to the secretary of the White Rose and as a consequence the most inflammatory comments (most of the report) were subsequently expunged. Rose consistently refused to return the deposits paid by the Pegasus contingent at the end of the trip. Lee wrote to Rose at the time of Figg's fatal caving accident suggesting the un-returned deposits be donated to the DCRO, Rose refused. As I said earlier, Rose had some strange ideas and Barry proved to be an excellent judge of character. Despite all this I did offer Rose the courtesy of thanking her for giving me the opportunity to tick one more thing of my bucket list.
Al Steans 2017