1967 Expedition to the Gouffre Berger

A personal Account by Ian Curphey

 

The following account of the Pegasus Club Nottingham, Expedition to the Gouffre Berger, France, in 1967 is an extract taken verbatim from a personal biography written by Ian Curphey one of the  team members.

The entire biography, which Ian has entitled, ’The Ramblings of a Rolling Stone’, is extensive (1083 pages), consisting of three volumes and remains as yet (October 2020 ) unpublished.

The extracted article below is taken from Volume 1, Chapter 4, ‘Of Caves and Crags’, pages 74 - 85; and is reproduced here with Ian's kind permission.  Copyright © Ian Curphey 2020

 

Prior to my departure on my first voyage to Antarctic waters, my companions of the 1964 Gouffre Berger expedition had decided that our club, the Pegasus Club of Nottingham should make another, and more determined effort to get to the bottom of this difficult and most challenging pothole. Having been requested to join the team, I did so with alacrity. Things looked really bright for me now, and I joined the RRS 'Shackleton' in Southampton in August 1966 on a voyage that would last until the middle of May 1967, secure in the knowledge that a big caving trip awaited me when I returned. 

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the Gouffre Berger is a technically exacting and arduous undertaking and in 1964 we had all trained hard together to ensure that we were fit enough for purpose. When I returned to Britain, I'd been living and working on a small 900 ton ship for nine months, with little opportunity to get fit enough for the trip abroad. I discussed this at length with the expedition members, but they simply replied "You'll be alright, you always were a lazy useless bastard. We'll need somebody to blame when things go wrong." With some trepidation (knowing how hard the trip would be) I agreed to go down as a Sherpa to Camp I, as it was known that the really difficult sections of the cave were most definitely in the lower reaches of this enormous cave. As preparation I only managed to get down four potholes/caves that were hard enough to be called suitable training for the coming expedition, two in Yorkshire - Meregill and Notts Pot and two in South Wales, Dan yr Ogof and Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. I knew that this was woefully inadequate, but with my limited personal ambitions for the expedition, I thought I'd get through okay. During this too brief period, a tragic and very serious caving accident occurred in one of Yorkshire's hard potholes. Five men from Leeds University were drowned when Mossdale Caves flooded. Obviously this incident attracted much media attention and comment. The attempted rescue and body recovery was carried out by cavers from the Upper Wharfdale Cave Rescue and many of the members of this team were also taking part in a diving expedition to the Gouffre Berger at the same time that our trip was planned. In fact, the two leaders, Peter Watkinson, from our team and Ken Pearce, Lead Diver of the Yorkshire Team, had agreed to co-operate in rigging the cave and establishing the underground camps. This tragic accident and the fact that several members of the Yorkshire Team had seen firsthand the dire consequences of flooding in a cave, was to affect our joint caving venture and my own part in it. More of this anon. 

Our team set out for France in early August and after an uneventful trip down to Grenoble, we established our base camp on the Sornin Plateau on the 6th. Work started immediately and for the next five days we were hard at it, establishing a water supply for the camp, laying a telephone cable from the camp to the cave entrance and ferrying the massive amount of equipment we would need for a ten day stay underground for some twenty men. We also rigged ladders and ropes etc in the upper sections of the cave in readiness. This work was completed by 11th August and the attempt to reach the bottom of the cave, some 3,650 feet down began. 

The author Ian Curphey, fresh faced and ready to descend the Berger

 

Reference to the detailed cave map will help in understanding the various difficulties which we encountered. Thanks to our early exploration work we had a trouble free descent as far as the bottom of Cairn Shaft, where an enormous amount of ladders, ropes, food and other equipment had accumulated. The real work started here as a very narrow section, the Winding Cleft, was made extremely difficult because all our equipment had to be lugged through here. We formed a human chain, bracing ourselves in the Cleft as best we could and spent hours passing and pushing the well cursed loads to the head of the Garby's Shaft. The misery continued down Gontard's and the Relay Pits and to the top of Aldo's, a vertical shaft of over 100 feet. This first leg had taken us some 14 hours. The quality of our packaging was tested here when two containers of our 'Travelling Rations' (chocolate and sweets) fell the full length of the shaft, spraying the bottom with barley sugar and humbug shrapnel. Getting our large packages of carbide, food packs, personal equipment and tackle past various obstacles took an age. By the time we had all reached the bottom of the Aldo's we were pretty done in, so we stowed the gear in the telephone boulder chamber and tried to sleep as we were in the Great Gallery. It was very cold, and water drips soaked us even more. We were too tired to care. Slowly, everything went quiet, the carbide lamps flickering less brightly as their water supply ran out, casting weird shadows over the vast void of the Great Gallery. The gentle rumble of water was faintly audible from the direction of Petzl's Gallery, and with this soporific sound in our ears we finally dropped off into oblivion. 

Map of the Sornin Plateau indicating the entrance location of the Gouffre Berger

Known extent of the Gouffre Berger in 1967, to view a more detailed survey of the cave   click here

We slept for several hours and were woken up by the arrival of some members of Ken Pearce's diving team. They informed us that they were going out, saying that they had heard from the surface that it was raining hard, and they had decided that the risks of continuing were too great. As mentioned earlier, many of these men had recently been involved in the body recovery operations in Mossdale, and although there was no imminent danger their caution was very understandable. They also gave the impression that Ken Pearce and his co-divers would be abandoning the trip, but this proved not to be the case. 

Portering across Lake Cadoux by inflatable dingy

We got up in dribs and drabs, lit our carbide lamps and breakfasted on what came easiest to hand. This varied from porridge with honey to Irish stew and ginger nut biscuits. Though ready to get moving and get some heat in our bones, we were prevented from doing so, as Pearce's team exodus created 'traffic jams' between the Great Gallery and Camp I, to where we were bound.

The Cascade of the Tyroliene

We ferried some equipment to the top of The Little General and a telephone call to the surface confirmed that the Sornin Plateau was bedevilled with vicious rainstorms and the forecast was much the same for the next few days. This news indicated that within an hour or two, Lake Cadoux would be impassable due to floods, but by only taking what we needed for the immediate future, we managed to get across dry. We left dinghies firmly anchored on each side of the lake in case some brave souls ventured down after us in conditions far worse than our own. All this strenuous work had taken its toll, and one of our party, Dave Lucas, was so done in and demoralised that two of our 'hard men', Barrie Parker and Ian Patrick, volunteered to take him out. Clearly this trip was beyond his capabilities. Everybody's morale was taking a bit of a dive: Pearce's 'Mutiny', dangerous weather conditions, having to evacuate one of our team, all contributed to a growing feeling that the entire expedition might fold up. We had no more rope or ladder to proceed with and it was likely that the telephone link with the surface might be withdrawn. "It's a bastard" somebody from Pearce's team said "Everything was going so bloody well. Pierce is as sick as a parrot, understandably, but it's partly his bloody fault for pushing us too hard but it's mostly due to the mental strain that some of our blokes went through down Mossdale." 

Eventually we thrashed on, and got the gear down to the Tyrolienne and there, more of our party turned up with more kit. We made a depot of some equipment at the bottom of the Tyrolienne and set off for Camp I (- 1800 feet) and got ourselves established. I cooked a massive meal - two pounds of meat between two of us. Jesus I was hungry. Being back here was almost like coming home. The place still stank to high heaven, but it felt like a sanctuary in this enormous inhospitable place. 

Camp 1, a veritable midden

There were 11 of us at Camp I now, with enough food directly available for two days and access to plenty more so things were reasonable. We were relying on Barrie Parker to get things organised on the surface and find out exactly in which direction the expedition would proceed. At this point in time pessimism prevailed due to the setbacks, but generally, we were too tired to worry too much about anything. We all slept like the dead. 

The ‘enormous’ Hall of the Thirteen. For sense of scale note the caver in the immediate foreground standing by a pool

After a breakfast of porridge and sardines - unusual but sustaining, nine of us set off back up the cave to do a carry, while the two photographers stayed back to start our photographic work. The rain on the surface made the excursion a bit more 'sporting' (as if that was needed down here). The Tyrolienne was made more difficult by the increased water flow and in places we were manhandling loads in chest deep water. I got really soaked as my WWII airman's ditching 'goon suit' was torn and leaked like a sieve. The water hammering down the Little General pitch was quite spectacular but we managed to avoid total immersion until we reached Lake Cadoux. What a sight! The whole passage was flooded for over 200 feet. A great black lake spread ominously out in front of us. We soon had one of the dinghies blown up hard enough for transporting loads and we thrashed our way across. A tremendous cascade of water poured into the lake from the roof above, indicating that the bad weather on the surface was continuing. The dank black walls glistened eerily in the gloom as our flickering lamps lit our way across this seemingly primordial lake. We carried on to the Gallery and collected a load of gear and set off back. Ferrying it all across the lake was quite a business and after some tough load carrying we got back to Camp I and made a much needed meal. 

After eating, I tried to repair my 'Goon suit' and concluded that it might last the trip. We also contacted the surface and received the good news that the rain had stopped so we could proceed to the more dangerous lower reaches. This cheered everybody up no end. 

Because of the shortage of personnel following 'the Pearce Mutiny' I was asked if I'd be prepared to go deeper into the cave and, as I was finding things okay I agreed. The next day I managed to avoid Sherpa duties on the grounds that I'd done a fair amount of humping over the last few days. Cheg, Henry and myself took the telephone gear and a mile or so of wire and extended our communications link as far down as the top of Claudine's Cascade ( - 2,200 feet). The trip down was fantastic. We followed a beautiful stream passage regularly split up by fine ladder pitches, tremendous waterfalls and cascades. Everywhere was beautifully decorated with erratic stalactites, and extensive slopes of glistening white calcite, some of which were hundreds of feet high. En-route we had passed through the spectacular Hall of the Thirteen and revisited the limit of our explorations of 1964 at Pegasus Bridge. Each underground wonder seemed to be superceded by the next. 

Eventually we reached the landing stage which marked the start of the Canals. This is potentially one of the danger spots in the Gouffre Berger as one is required to swim for several hundred feet and if there was a lot of water about, this might be 'challenging' to say the least. Desperate is arguably more apt. The passageway is very narrow. In places only 4 or 5 feet wide. It was hard to imagine what these Canals would be like when the full force of water that can flow through the cave was roaring through. 

The restrictions are quite extensive and in places calcite formations have so blocked the passage that the roof was down almost to water level, requiring us to duck through. It was sobering reflecting on just how life threatening it would be to be caught hereabouts if there was heavy rain on the surface. 

All told, this lower section of the cave is something really special and to be here experiencing its wonders made all the hard work of our descent worthwhile. When we returned to Camp I we discovered that our entire team was now assembled, along with most of the gear. As is usual when men are tired and each thinks they have done more than their fair share of the desperately hard 'Sherpa work', a bit of a 'bitch session' took place, but as essentially we are all set fair, the moans soon gave way to making plans to expedite our progress. An advance party of three went down to establish Camp II at the bottom of the enormous Grand Canyon, with a view to rigging Gache's Shaft the following day. Some of Pearce's diving team reappeared and it seems that there was some hope that, with our combined efforts, Pearce may be able to extend the world's deepest cave record by diving the terminal sump. This was highly likely, with everything going so well. Morale was high all around and our small team set out to pay our telephone cables down to Camp II. We left camp the next day and portaged some gear down to the cloakroom, where we picked up the phone wire that some of Pierce's men had carried down the previous night. New weather scares from the surface had fed a few fears regarding the Canals but fortunately there was little evidence of change and we made good progress, taking the line down the two small pitches prior to Claudine's Cascade proper. These proved awkward in that the first ladder was rigged horizontal across the roof as a hard traverse, to keep folk out of the main force of the water. The second one was only short but landed in a very deep pool which made for some awkward traversing as we kept stumbling out of our depth. Disconcerting, as this invariably extinguished one's carbide lamp, plunging one into Bible-black darkness.

Navigating the canals by inflatable dingy

Claudine's Cascade lived up to its reputation for difficulty. A narrow cleft type passage that took the full stream of water. The ladder had been rigged out to one side on a scaffold pole 'bowsprit' tied piecemeal with bits of cord and old wire. However, after plucking up enough courage to take the plunge, I went down and confess to feeling quite elated once at the bottom. Previous parties had recorded the testing horrors of this pitch, and in my mind, it had loomed as one of the main obstacles of getting to Camp II. Once again, potential dangers made one mindful of how impossible getting up Claudine's Cascade would be with the Berger stream in full spate. 

After Claudine's, this passage gets very wide again and the stream soon vanishes amongst the boulders that are strewn on the floor of this now cavernous section. There was only one small obstacle after Claudine's, a short 15 foot traverse which hangs out over the entrance to the Grand Canyon. We soon reached Camp II and met up with the party who had come down the day before. After we had checked out our phone installation, they guided us down the right hand side of the immense Grand Canyon, which contained boulders up to 100 feet high. 

Claudine’s Cascade, a challenging 80 foot ladder pitch to negotiate

This side of the chamber was reminiscent of an abandoned stream way and at times we traversed ledges with impressive drops into the blackness below. After descending several hundred feet we reached the old Italian Camp (Camp II) and after a bite to eat we went to the top of Gache's Shaft. At some 3,000 feet below the surface, I thought this was far enough for me. In my diary I wrote: 'Some of the lads are keen on a bottoming trip, but with the weather as it is I don’t feel that it's justified. The reports are varied and even our surface team report adverse conditions. I don’t suppose it would be too hard a trip but the big gamble isn't worth it. Cowardice might keep me alive!' So off we went, back up the Grand Canyon up Claudine's and back through the canals to Camp I, where I rested on my laurels for two days. 

Bottoming attempts were underway and the cave had been rigged as far as the first of the most serious and difficult pitches of the cave, The Little Monkey. A first attempt was to be made the next day, and several people intended to head down to Camp II, myself included. Although I had decided that getting down to - 3,000 feet was far enough for me, and my common sense told me to leave it at that, the desire to get to the bottom of the deepest cave in the world was still there. To go deeper was genuinely risky. Sensibly, Ian Patrick has made his decision not to go any further and equanimity prevailed for him. But not so for me. 

Pearce came through camp en route for the sump, accompanied by a cloud of gloom hovering over the heads of those he had bullied into helping him directly. It struck me that he was on a sort of death or glory mission. Arguably the stuff of epics. 

An entry from my diary: 
'Seven of us set out for Camp II from Camp I and had a reasonable trip down as we were only carrying our personal gear. It was decided that a large team would go down below Gache's Shaft (- 2,700 feet) and see what transpired. Some of our team had descended earlier, and at the foot of Gache's we all joined forces. There were 10 of our team intending to get to the bottom of the cave. The lower pitches were technically very difficult and notoriously wet but all went pretty well to the top of the dreaded Little Monkey pitch, the top of which is a bit off-putting (a gross understatement). The main difficulty was the water, or more accurately, keeping out of it as much as possible. We had rigged a ladder horizontally out along the cave wall to beyond the full line of the water. A piton had been driven in here and the main ladder some 125 feet long was suspended from this. Being at the top of these, the two most difficult and dangerous pitches in the cave was to say the least intimidating. The roar of the water falling some 300 feet into a vast black hole was truly awe inspiring.' 

Pete Watkinson, our leader, decided that on my suggestion, we should split up and protect each other over the hard traverse to reduce the risks. Four of the party went down. It looked desperate indeed. When my turn came, I clipped onto the fixed traversing line and fearfully made my way across to the tiny nose where the main descent began. A quick look down and I almost returned. The ladder dropped some 70 feet into a great pool that took the full Berger stream then all that could be seen was blackness and a maelstrom of water. I even changed lifelines back, I was that in fear of my life. Then something clicked in my head, and I muttered to myself "Fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound" and set off down. The descent was okay until the water hit the ladder at which point nothing mattered as there was only one way to go. Down! 

From the bowl, the ladder had been pegged out onto a dry ledge, which made the rungs hang at an angle of about 45°, this made it a real bastard to get off. However, I made the ledge and peering down further into to the stygian gloom I saw the water continuing to hammer straight down Hurricane Shaft. From this precarious ledge, a small 50 foot pitch over a calcite band led to a narrow shelf with an overhanging roof, the start of Hurricane Shaft, some 160 feet deep. A fearful place. One of our men was on the ledge life-lining people coming out after successfully getting to the bottom. The next man up was Pearce and the three of us spent the next half an hour in this precarious place, trying to get Pearce's diving gear up. Things were not going well, so Henry, the other man from our team descended Hurricane, to see if he could sort out why Pearce couldn’t get his bottles and valves up. Pearce was clearly angered to the point of mania, and I had plenty of time to ponder on this, sitting on a microscopic ledge some 3,500 feet underground. I had visions of Pearce going mad: Struggles to the death above Hurricane Shaft! I even went so far as to consider what I would grab hold of to prevent my plunging down the shaft if his anger turned on me! 

Eventually, Pearce gave up uselessly heaving on his gear which had clearly got stuck somewhere and after giving me instructions as to what he had in mind, in the patronising slow deliberate talk of a frustrated adult talking to the village idiot, I descended with him holding my lifeline. I confess it did not feel good being protected by a half-mad bully boy. 

What a pitch. Ominous, black as the inside of a cow. Massive and oppressive with an atmosphere of 90% water and 10% terror. Was I glad to reach the bottom where some of Pearce's blokes were still waiting to get up. I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. Here I was at the bottom of Hurricane with nothing between me and the bottom of the deepest cave in the world. I relayed Pearce's instructions to his merry men and set off for the bottom, knowing full well that the bastard, the complete bastard, would be long gone when I returned. 

The passageway was massive, I shouted to Henry to wait for me, and we set off together for the bottom. A very large passage with many cascades dropped steeply at first but eventually narrowed and flattened out. We encountered some canals, but not too deep. Eventually we came to a short pitch, which we bypassed by a dry elbow passage. Loads of old diving gear had been abandoned here, indicating that the bottom was nigh. We pushed on and eventually met up with three others of our party coming out along the final canal which marked the bottom of the cave. I started swimming along to the end, which I could see ahead but my damaged 'goon suit' started to fill up and as I sank lower and lower, prudence took over from valour. The delight of touching the end wall as it were had alluded me. 

It struck me that it was a long, long way out. The retreat, for it felt like that, was tedious and tiring. From leaving Camp I it had taken some 16 hours to get to the bottom and back to Camp II where I collapsed into freezing oblivion. I slept very badly and awoke very cold and very wet. It was time to head for the surface. It took a further 48 hours to get out. Desperately hard work. I slept again at Camp I en route, but the exodus was not a thing to delve into too deeply. The most significant thing I would prefer to remember is that I smelt the pine trees of the Sornin Plateau while still some 400 feet underground. 

The surface campsite on the Sornin Plateau.  Expedition aftermath, with some of the 2,500 feet of ladder used and total exhaustion

My final entry in the diary was: 
My hands are chewed up with cracks in my fingers to the bone and I'm riddled with pain. The price of victory in the Berger comes very high. Too bloody high. It's over now anyway.

Our success in getting to the bottom of the Berger was hard won and though I did descend many potholes in the future, I never experienced such hardships underground as we endured by our own choice on this trip. For many of us, I suppose it was a sort of Everest, that once achieved made other descents seem the lesser. In order to reach the bottom we had spent some ten consecutive days underground. My diary tells me that during this time I slept only seven times, most of which were of short duration. 

We returned to Britain at the beginning of September after a short holiday in Grindelwald, though the north face of the Eiger impressed, there was little banter regarding anything other than looking at it over the top of a beer glass! Towards the end of the month I rejoined my ship, RRS 'Shackleton' to start my second voyage to Antarctica. 

Ian Curphey

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