Gouffre Berger 67
A Surface Members Recollections and Photographs
Bari M (Mick) Logan
In early 1967, at the age of nineteen, I paid my £40 dues and joined the Nottingham based Pegasus Caving Club’s ‘Gouffre Berger’ Expedition scheduled for August, as a member of the small surface support team. I took with me the latest compact Mamiya 35mm camera and 6 rolls of 36 exposure Kodachrome colour film, hence the subsequent collection of rather unusual surface pictures taken over a three week period of the event.
At this early stage of my story, I think that I should mention, that originally there was going to be two separate expeditions running simultaneously within the ‘Berger’ over the August 67 period. Basically, one ‘exploratory’ – The Pegasus Club Expedition and the other ‘diving final sump’ – The Ken Pearce Expedition, with an agreed shared input from both in the provision of ladders and ropes; and the duties to initially tackle and afterwards de-tackle the cave.
Sadly however, circumstances changed rather dramatically for the Pearce team within a few days of them tackling and entering the cave which prompted a sudden withdrawal and almost abandonment of their expedition. Fortunately however, after much discussion between both expedition leaders a mutual agreement was reached which resulted in a partial amalgamation whilst maintaining both expeditions original aims. This episode is more fully referred to in the official Pegasus-Berger Report.
My allotted duty was essentially working with P. (Pete) B. Smith with day-to-day campsite detail and supplies to cave; Dr Harold Lord with communications to cave and surface surveying; and emergency support.
We were already well acquainted being members of the B.S.A. (British Speleological Association) North Midlands Group, T.P.U. (Technical Projects Unit); the latter being formed in 1965 to provide specialist services for cave exploration and more importantly at times of emergency being affiliated to the D.C.R.O. (Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation).
Harold Lord professionally worked for the Mines Research Unit based near Buxton in Derbyshire and had designed a new underground communication system, the ‘Inductorphone’, of which he wanted to test the full potential in the exceptional cave depths that the ‘Berger’ had to offer especially as it could also be applied to electronic surface surveying.
The systems small metal-box hand held phone units were manufactured in the workshop of his house in Buxton and being a 4th year apprentice telecommunications engineer at the time, I assisted with the wiring and soldering of some of the units, testing and packing the ancillary equipment with P.B. for transportation in Harold’s vehicle to France.
Journey to France
Friday 4th to Sunday 6th August
As P.B. and I both lived in Nottingham, we decided to travel the 800 miles to Grenoble, France together in his newly acquired Hillman Imp Van which had the rather unusual novel design of a rear engine. The large single-windowed backdoor hinged upwards, a feature that was later to probably save my life, to expose a rear high platform cabin storage area; further bulk storage was to be had under the front bonnet which lacked an engine and this P.B. utilised to the full during our late Thursday evening packing session.
He meticulously crammed it full to capacity, with amongst more normal caving kit, two tadpole fully charged diving cylinders and associated equipment, one gallon of paraffin for cooking stoves, a Tilley lamp, box of emergency illuminating red flares, box of calcium carbide tins for acetylene head-lamps, two gallon petrol can, boxes of matches and a couple of ex-army ammunition tins containing explosive material for which P.B. had an official licence.
Here, I must point out, that P.B. dealt with the French Custom officials, using his best Franglais and with much arm waving and pointing; they did search the van quite thoroughly and after the production of various documents, much to my amazement, we were allowed on our way with no items in our possession withheld or confiscated.
The two-day drive down to Grenoble, at high speed, proved fairly uneventful except that is for the very last four miles ascending up thousands of feet on the steep tortuous narrow gravel road from the village of Sassenage. It tightly hugged the mountainside and had no safety barriers on its outer edge to protect vehicles from the very steep to sheer drops through forest and into the valley far below. A drive, certainly not for the faint-hearted, and one, which proved something of our nemesis some weeks later.
We finally arrived at our destination on a fine hot sunny late Sunday morning on the 6th August at a large rough car parking area on the Mouliere plateau to be greeted by magnificent views of the near and distant snow-capped alps and a group of other team members busily unpacking.
The main campsite had been established approximately 2 miles downhill from the Mouliere and ¼ mile up from the entrance of the ‘Berger’ situated on the Sornin plateau, being the most suitable place (ample forest clearing) for a large tented area and most importantly, access via a laid plastic pipeline to a fresh running water supply.
P.B. and I decided that our first priority should be to quickly carry our tent and personal equipment, less some of the more exotic under-bonnet kit, down to the camp, get settled and then make ourselves acquainted with the rest of the team, facilities and discover what immediate duties we had been allocated.
Rest Day – The Gournier Cave
Monday 7th August
As there was very little to do around the camp until the Expedition lorry and trailer arrived from the UK with all the equipment and supplies, today was deemed a full rest day and P.B. and I were determined to make the best of it from dawn till dusk.
We decided that morning should be dedicated to caving and we should find something local to explore then in the afternoon make a visit to nearby Villard-de-Lans where construction was underway for new villages and sports facilities for the forthcoming ‘1968’ winter Olympics.
After consulting other team members who were knowledgeable of the area and cave systems, we were advised that a couple of hours in the Gournier cave situated near the village of Choranche, Pont-en-Royans, would be a very easy but rewarding trip, so off we set.
The cave is situated not far from the road and at the top of a wooded slope beneath a very tall limestone cliff and its elliptical shaped entrance is of reasonable proportions. Inside, a short slope down brings one to the shore of a large crystal-clear lake, the length of which is probably best navigated by dingy, but without one to hand, we had little choice but to take a refreshing swim.
On reaching the far-end of the lake a fixed 30 foot electron ladder leads one up over a massive flowstone formation and into a wide dry river passageway which, although undulating over its course, can be walked easily at a good pace for miles and eventually merges with a flowing river.
The passageway is filled with a whole variety of magnificent cave formations, stalactites, straws, stalagmite columns of all shapes, sizes and heights, helictites and most impressive of all large gours filled with masses of white and pink crystals. We had by no way reached the end of this spectacular cave when we decided to turn back in order to fulfil our planned afternoon excursion and on the return journey we met a group of French cavers who were delighted to meet a couple of ‘Brit’s’ appreciating their caves so much.
Afternoon, brought us into the village of Villard-de-Lans and we decided to stop and treat ourselves to a bit of French food. To be found on the high street, amongst the row and variety of small shops was a patisserie (bakers) and a charcuterrie (butchers).
P.B. opted for the latter and instructed me to go to the former with a particular request for a quiche (cheese flan) which he confessed to being very partial to. A little later we met up and made for the park across the road for our late lunch. P.B. proudly produced his purchases, sliced smoked ham, a couple of cured sausages, pate and a large round tin of sardines in olive oil.
My purchases were more modest in variety, a baton of fresh bread, lump of cheese and two very nice looking individual round quiches and a couple of bottles of fizzy water and as I had a very poor command of the French language, all obtained from the tolerant shopkeeper by my finger pointing and nod of the head approval to buy.
P.B. deftly opened the sardine tin with his old rusty but sharp penknife and after some bread, pate and cheese as a starter, proceeded to pile the top of his beloved quiche with sardines laying neatly in a row. After a couple of bites into this treat however P.B’s face said it all! I had made the dreadful mistake of buying not quiche but plain old custard tarts!
Now, it has to be said of P.B. that he never wasted good food and was quite generous in his ways at times, accordingly therefore he graciously insisted that we carry on eating this newly concocted delicacy of his and that I should particularly have the lion’s share of the sardines and plenty of oil, the tin of which was still about two thirds full. How could I refuse such a polite and kind invitation? So I did, but it is not something that I would wish to repeat.
Following lunch, we visited a few of the villages around Villard-de-Lans under construction for the 1968 winter Olympics one of which was location for the main ski jumps, constructed out of concrete and blending into the hillside with skilled architectural design. Nowadays of course, the entire region around Villard-de-Lans has become a major annual skiing venue and all courtesy of the 1968 games.
We arrived back at camp fairly late that night and were told that the Expedition lorry and trailer had arrived at the Maison Forestiere and would move up to the Mouliere next day, therefore expect a very busy and full day, the expedition had now begun for real.
Sherpering to Camp
Tuesday 8th August
Very early morning the Pegasus expedition lorry and trailer arrived on the Mouliere and as over 1 ½ tons of materials had to be physically carried to the camp within a target one-day period, every team member was detailed with a number of individual loads to Sherpa, six as I recall, and some weighing around the maximum 60lb mark.
Carry loads were strapped onto lightweight green aluminium ex-army frames and one quickly learnt how to ‘stack and strap’ a varied assortment of kit or boxed food for as comfortable journey as possible on the downhill trek to camp through pine forest and over rugged limestone terrain in ant-like file with fellow team members.
On the way down one would invariably encounter at some stage of the back-breaking trek, members on the way up to collect yet another of their allotted loads, greetings being exchanged with the usual jovial ‘obscene’ banter.
Especially so, when on one occasion an individual carried down a frame laden and bulging with packs of toilet rolls! Accordingly to comply with the standard practice for such indiscretion the enterprising knave was subsequently dubbed with a suitable nickname, ‘Shit-load’.
Tuesday 8th August
Within a couple of days of the campsite first being established and the last few members of the team arrived from the UK, it began to spread out within the clearing in a very seemingly unstructured fashion with tents of all colours, shapes and sizes straddling the path and circling a large open log fire.
Of particular note was:-
At one-side a large white fully-stacked food supply tent at the side of which lay a mountain (2,600) feet of rolled-up electron ladders and (3,500) feet of coiled rope along with headers, pulleys, climbing equipment and various items of emergency rescue kit.
There were a couple of tents housing the expedition photographers surrounded by boxes of expensive cameras and equipment for which they remained solely responsible for throughout the duration of the expedition. A make-shift clear plastic roofed telephone exchange manned by Harold and Sarah Lord and nearby a small tent which was temporary home to Dr Hugh Kidd the official expedition medical officer and his essential equipment.
The toilet facility, worth mentioning I think, was basic but efficient in containing effluent waste in a central out-of-the-way place. Situated a little distance just below camp was a clump of bushes running through the middle base of which was a narrow limestone fissure some 2 feet in width and estimated 25 to 30 feet in depth. This became the ‘common squat’ and persons using the facility announced their presence to the outside world by hanging an ‘engaged’ sign (piece of cardboard on a loop of string) onto a suitable tree branch, thus privacy and dignity was maintained.
Although crouching and hovering over the fissure took some practice, the thoughts of falling backwards ‘arse first’ into the dark depths of that ‘Stone-age Crapper’ certainly had a psychological laxative effect on the colonic system, thus visits were generally of a very short duration! Every few days, forest floor full of needles and cones, were shovelled into the fissure to help natural bio-degradation of the waste and to also give-off a sweet pine aroma, so at least basic toilet hygiene was maintained for a relatively large group of people.
Plan of Action
Tuesday 8th August
Expedition leaders convened a short meeting late afternoon to quickly go-over the plans and timings for the assault into the cave, also to give out priority duties to individuals for:-
Organising tackle into a specific sequence for descent, packing of individual ration packs for immediate issue to the teams and future supplies to the cave over the next ten day period of proposed occupation, communications laying cable and surface surveying possible liaison dates, emergency rescue/medical equipment location and immediate readiness if required.
Accordingly, given orders were undertaken quickly and efficiently, supplies and equipment being sherpered down to the cave entrance until late evening in readiness for the following mornings descent.
But, there was one slight snag to the plans, because already in the cave was an Italian team of cavers who were experiencing problems pulling-out within their allotted time schedule, mainly due to physical exhaustion. So, in order to try and speed things up, P.B. and I, along with another individual, were tasked with manning the hauling and life-lining ropes on the entrance and second (Ruis shaft) pitch, for the purpose of trying to help the Italians out and at the same time frog hop the Pegasus teams and equipment in.
Manning the Entrance Pitches
Wednesday 9th August
At around 05:30, first light, P.B. and I set-off for the ‘Berger’ where lines and ladders to the entrance and second pitch were already in place courtesy of the Pearce Expedition, who were already underground. Now for me, the entrance to the ‘Berger’ was in fact very much an anti-climax and quite disappointing in appearance being just a mere fairly narrow fissure in limestone rock, certainly not giving away any secrets of what magnificence it had to display below.
There was a rough-hewn wooden platform over the narrowest part of the fissure from which one could, with ease, haul equipment up and down the 35 foot drop. From the bottom of this, a short passageway led to the second pitch (Ruis shaft) situated in an ample sized domed chamber which was very reminiscent of Bar Pot in Yorkshire being also similar in width and depth (100 feet).
To one side of the chamber and protruding out to the very centre of the drop, was a long stout pole fashioned from a pine tree which had a pulley wheel attached to its end and was surmounted and fixed in its middle to sheer-legs. By lifting the base of the pole and walking it to the left one could bring the end of the pole and pulley-wheel back to the top of the pitch directly to the liners standing position. This very simple device, in effect a Neolithic crane, enabled two operatives to move equipment up and down the very centre of the pitch at considerable speed without hindrance of the shafts sides.
P.B.’s eyes lit-up on seeing this archaic piece of equipment as it fell straight in line with his practical building-works skills and in decisive action, he quickly stamped his authority and took control of being rope-man on the device; and as another person had taken over entrance pitch lining duty, P.B. designated me the task of the pole operator.
Manna from Heaven
Wednesday 9th August
We did not have to wait long before our first unsuspecting customers arrived, the Pegasus advance party laden with personal ration back-packs, camping equipment, tackle and most surprisingly of all, a very mysterious bitumen coated stout cardboard tube about 5 feet in length.
The group made short work of descending the Ruis shaft ladder and P.B. and I then put the pole device to use lowering ration packs and kit which were all easily attached by karabiner to the looped end of the pulley-wheel rope.
However, the last item to be sent below, the cardboard tube, presented P.B. with a bit of a dilemma as far as easy attachment to the hauling rope was concerned, reason being, he did not have to hand any short lengths of rope to make a suitable secure double lashing around the tube for karabiner attachment. P.B. had no alternative therefore but to use the end of the hauling rope itself by throwing a couple of tight loops around the centre of the tube and finishing off with a series of overhand knots.
All was ready to go. P.B. gave me the signal and out went the pole. Momentarily, the tube hung over the centre of the shaft perfectly level so P.B.’s tie-on was certainly dead centre, but before lowering commenced, it suddenly and without warning, up-ended, slipped through the rope loops and began its own free-fall descent into the abyss of the Ruis.
Warnings were shouted as the tube gathered momentum, and according to up-lookers accounts, spiralled downwards bouncing off the walls of the shaft until finally breaking apart and showering it’s contents of hundreds of Lone Ranger Sweet Bars onto the poor wretches trying to take shelter below. Needless to say, P.B. and I were hailed with a flurry of obscenities which gradually faded away as the Pegasus team pushed further on into the cave.
Wednesday 9th August
Next came a ‘rattle’ on the ladder and a shout from below for “line”, the request was duly met by P.B. and the unknown person began to climb the ladder at a steady pace but accompanied with a regular continuous resounding metallic ‘click’. On reaching, coming over, and standing on the top of the pitch, P.B. and I were somewhat astounded to greet and be greeted by a very dishevelled Italian of about 5’ 2” in stature and by his grin, almost toothless, but most remarkable of all, with only one hand, the other missing-one being supplemented with a large curved bi-part metal hook! Hence the continuous ‘click’ sound on the ladder.
All he continued to say was “mille grazie” “mille grazie” (thanks a million) for not only was he grateful for the pull-up the Ruis shaft, but also for the shower below that he had just experienced of Lone Ranger Sweet Bars, because all of his overall suit pockets were bulging with them ! As were his team mates who followed him out close behind. They must have been starving!
P.B. and I thus concluded that the disaster of the cardboard tube had, in the end, at least turned into something of an international act of goodwill amongst cavers. We shook hands with the Italians, a tough little bunch, as they made their way off to the entrance pitch and that was the very last we saw of them, to this day, I still have no idea where in relation to the ‘Berger’ entrance, they had set-up camp as I never came across it.
More Pegasus parties arrived and glad to say, all went smoothly with their equipment descent; then at around lunchtime, after doing an 8 hour stint, P.B. and I received a call from camp to say we could now return as our duty had been accomplished as planned.
On reaching our tent someone had placed outside of it another black cardboard tube and a couple of lengths of lashing rope, so at least we now knew that the underground telephone system was working!
Thursday 10th to Thursday 17th August
There were a few constant early morning daily duties around the campsite whilst always remaining in earshot of Harold Lord and Sarah on the telephone exchange and that all important emergency whistle.
Typically, a quick walk around, collecting any rubbish or food waste, tents secure and insect (ant) infestation free, and gathering fallen wood for the camp fire. Now, the latter duty soon became more time consuming and problematic as on each successive day greater distances had to be taken from camp into the forest to locate fallen dead trees and branches. P.B. however soon came up with a solution for this and announced over breakfast that he alone intended to fell a large standing lightning-struck dead tree situated close to the camp, which could then be logged using the vintage six-foot double-handed saw kept in the supply tent.
In typical impulsive and determined fashion, he set-off for the Mouliere plateau and returned several hours later with an ammunition tin and brandishing a small handsaw about 10 inches long. The tree it has to be said, was quickly felled by cutting a deep ‘V’ notch in the base of the proposed drop-side and a double grooved channel around the back and sides of the trunk to join it into which was tamped a twin-loop of Cordtex charge. A tension rope to a neighbouring tree ensured true direction of fall and on loosing-off the charge, down came the tree perfectly as planned and we were ensured camp fire wood for the rest of our stay thanks to P.B.’s ingenuity and love of pyrotechnics.
Occasionally quick trips away from camp were a necessity in order to purchase fresh supplies of milk, eggs, bread, vegetables and fruit, from the villages just below the mountain. Also, as we were living in an age (unthinkable now), without mobile phones, i phones, i pads and lap-top computers etc.
Trips to the Maison Forestiere, a hotel restaurant situated at a cross-roads on the gravel road some 2 miles below the Mouliere plateau, in order to use the land-line telephone and relay given messages back to UK interested parties with updated Expedition news was one of P.B.’s official duties.
The principle task for P.B. and I was to ensure a flow of supplies to the cave (bottom of the Ruis shaft) and this we gave a priority to as soon as a call was received from below with a list of urgent needs and a given cave rendezvous time.
The system worked very well and ran smoothly in the initial few days that teams were underground and the weather remained fine, however all could and did change for us at times in a most dramatic and terrifying fashion, which I will explain in a little more detail in my following short notes on ‘Weather’.
Thursday 10th to Thursday 17th August
I was led to believe that August was the chosen month for the expedition based on historical metrological data which indicated the month as being annually overall driest. But as with all accumulated research data, there are also ups and downs on graphs and we certainly experienced a bit of both over the expedition period.
Overall though, the weather was hot and sunny, in fact very hot at times with clear blue skies and one could enjoy being in the relative cool of the forest and at the same time, when out surface surveying on the barren tops, bask in the heat and wonder at the beauty and expanse of the green alpine meadows and spectacular mountain ranges. However, anyone with knowledge of the Alps can tell you that with just a simple change of wind direction all that fine weather can change quickly and dramatically into a possible life threatening situation and something to be vigilant about at all times.
On change, first the clouds would arrive usually around late morning, fluffy little white ones forming a broken sky, these would then gradually merge to form massive cauliflower shaped cumulus clouds thousands of feet high and invariably accompanied with distant rumbles of thunder.
A scenario like this around camp soon brought a rapid response with a very quick inspection of all the tents, especially supplies, to ensure all tight and secure this need following a previous storm at the start of the expedition when gusting high winds brought many tents down. Then report to the telephone exchange who would put through urgent calls to the teams underground to warn of the imminent storm and the possibilities therefore of flash flooding down below. A general stand down would then be given and the static telephone line disconnected for the duration of the storm.
Then the heavens would open, torrential rain on strong gusting winds 30 to 40 m.p.h. often with inter-mingled hail the size of peanuts, brilliant and incessant flashes of lightning and the all-around crashes of thunder which constantly echoed through the mountain cols and forest.
On several occasions, just prior to the storm breaking, an atmospheric phenomenon known as an ‘interchange’ occurred. This is when the mountain air suddenly goes very still and then the rapidly rising hot air above the mountains, draws the moist cool air from the valleys below and with it a bank of dense mist (fog) which suddenly enveloped us.
It was during one of these phenomena at night that P.B. and I witnessed static electricity sparks known as St. Elmo’s Fire on metallic objects around the camp and I immediately banished his ammunition tin from our tent!
As frightening as these storms were, providing that you were recumbent and in the dry warmth of a tent, it was a situation easy to cope with, but it has to be said that P.B. and I had to endure far, far worse on one very memorable occasion.
Early one morning the telephone exchange received a call from below (Camp 1), I think, with a request for two supply packs and a large box of calcium carbide tins with a scheduled delivery to the bottom of the Ruis shaft for the afternoon at 15:00. With three large items to carry and deliver, we decided to make two trips from camp to cave, one before lunch with the box of carbide, lower that down the Ruis and leave it there attached to the line, return to camp, then deliver the other two packs post lunch.
The carbide was placed as planned without difficulty and on a leisurely journey in and out of the cave. However, our alarm bells began to ring on the way back from cave to camp when we noticed storm cloud formation beginning to build and on reaching camp the telephone exchange confirmed that bad weather was definitely on the way soon by the sound of static crackles affecting line reception.
By the time we set-off to the cave with our second carry at 13:00 it seemed like all hell was breaking loose in the heavens above us with a very big storm and by the time we reached the entrance pitch there was torrential rain, hail, lightning everywhere around us with the most deafening thunder.
My heart was pounding and I think I probably achieved the fastest descent ever of the 35 foot electron ladder, after all, I was completely exposed in a raging electrical storm on most probably the best lightning conductor for many miles around!
P.B. lowered the supply packs to me, descended rapidly himself and we hastened into the sanctuary of the chamber above the Ruis shaft and there we waited for the arrival of the team below to the sound of outside thunder like distant cannon fire on a battlefield.
The team arrived virtually on time and the supplies were lowered and they went on their way, but for us, another challenge lay ahead because the storm showed no sign of abating and in fact seemed to be gathering in ferocity. As our carbide lamps were beginning to fade, we decided there was no alternative but to make a run for it, so it was up the entrance pitch electron ladder like a pair of rats up a drainpipe onto the path and leg it the ¼ mile to camp as fast as we could through the heavy rain.
We were about halfway there when there was a sudden almost blinding bright blue/green flash of intense light just above us and to our left accompanied instantaneously with the most deafening crack and boom of thunder the likes of which I had never experienced before. On looking in the direction it came from, there on a limestone outcrop about 300 yards away was a tall pine tree in flames from top to bottom.
On spying this P.B. remarked, “Lightning never strikes twice in the same place”, too which I replied, “Does that mean it could be me or you next?” It was still daylight but very dull when we eventually arrived back at camp both soaked to the skin and shaking through cold and fear. Harold Lord came and greeted us with hot mugs of tea and enquired, “Did all go well with the delivery?” It was to say the least a very terrifying experience.
Storms in the Alps, particularly at night can put on the most spectacular and awe-inspiring light show, most enjoyable on the eye when viewed from the safety of afar, but to be in the very centre of one on the heights is by far another most mentally challenging and dangerous matter.
On an even more sobering note; the following early fine morning, P.B., Harold Lord, Sarah and I spent several hours tracing the faulty static telephone line between camp and cave. It ran about 8 feet overhead resting on pine tree branches close to the path and we eventually located two distinct breaks which had been caused by the action of indirect lightning strikes from the storm that P.B. and I had been in the very centre of. Now that certainly makes you think!
Thursday 10th to Thursday 17th August
The unique Inductorphone underground communication system designed by Harold Lord and being trialled on the expedition, also had another great potential, that of surface surveying. Quite simply, a large circle of plastic coated copper wire 30 – 40 feet in diameter is laid on the ground and this picks up faint signals purposefully transmitted from underground. Then by using headphones with a signal amplification unit attached to a large hand-held copper coil and slowly walking around the perimeter of the circle one can mark two points on the ground where the signal is detected the strongest.
These two points act as co-ordinates within the circle and give the direction from which the signal is being transmitted from underground. But in order to conduct such a detection survey not only is a strict time synchronisation required between the underground (transmission) and Surface (receiving) teams; but also the approximate mapped surface-location of the team below has to established, in order to position the wire ground loop as accurately as possible.
As I recall, we did two surface surveying sessions both on fine weather days over the initial week of the expedition and each taking hours to set-up in order to receive but a relatively few minutes of transmission signals. A team below with a small signal transmitter would be contacted very early in the morning and asked to give a specific location in the cave from which they intended to transmit at a given time. Synchronised time was set at least three hours on in order to allow time for the surface party to trek away from camp using compass, distance estimation and a local army issue land map and cave survey plan, in order to proximate the intended survey site.
Harold Lord (receiver), P.B. (hand-held copper wire loop), myself (wire ground loop) and several other individual volunteers from camp formed the survey team and we also had with us a mobile Pye Walkie-Talkie back-pack unit, one of two on loan to the expedition. The other set remaining with Sarah Lord who manned the telephone exchange and thus, we were able to establish contact and liaise through her with the underground team.
Now, it must be remembered that we were conducting these surveys in a very old fashioned and primitive way compared to nowadays blessed with modern technology and luxury of the personal hand-held and very accurate GPS (Global Positioning System with built in accurate visual satellite mapping), laser distance readers and programmed survey drones.
The first survey that we conducted was quite an eye-opener for all the team concerned because we set-off for our estimated surface location point not going in the previously assumed direction of the ‘Berger’ entrance or downhill from camp in its proximity, but left uphill through forest and out onto the barren tops. After trekking for about 1 ½ hours and re-checking compass directions in relation to the surface map and cave survey plan, and much debate amongst the group, we arrived at an area jointly considered to be the spot to layout the wire ground loop, and what a spot !
We stood on the rounded top of a grassy alpine meadow looking thousands of feet down and could see, to our left the bend in the river Isere and nestling in it the city of Grenoble, to centre right the Dent Du Crolles and below it the village of Crolles, and immediately right the Engins Gorge, all surrounded higher up by the grandeur of snow-capped mountains.
Absolutely breath-taking scenery.
Under instruction from Harold, P.B. and I laid out the wire ground loop and the team pulled it into as perfect a circle shape as possible. We then just sat back, basked in the warm sunshine and waited for the allotted transmission time. Eventually, via the Pye mobile radio set, we were informed by Sarah on the exchange, that all was ready and the underground team as arranged began transmitting their signal on time which lasted about 1-15 minutes. Just sufficient time in duration, for Harold to listen in and intercept it strongly at several points and plot both positions on the ground.
But Harold kept the actual data collected very much to himself and I suppose quite rightly so because this was pioneering research that he was conducting and well ahead of its time and therefore needed to be carefully and secretly developed. Likewise, the actual surface location in direct relation to the cave system below was also kept a secret, but I can say with confidence that we were heading towards the Engins Gorge and even more so on our second surface survey which also proved fruitful and positive in signal detection.
Now, 50 years on and I wonder what further development was made to the Inductorphone system and the off-shoot surface surveying possibilities that it showed? It was a genius invention by Harold Lord and I would very much like to think that he not only received the highest academic recognition for his work but also the financial remuneration that should have gone with its commercial development and application.
One very amusing incident to recall whilst out surveying was our brief encounter on the tops with an old French shepherd and his two enormous dogs. We were sitting on the grass resting and consulting maps when he appeared, more curious about our presence than we were of his. We exchanged pleasantries, as you do in these situations, in broken French of course and he stood eyeing both our maps and electronic equipment with intensity and the occasional gesticulation. We did try and explain what we were doing and he did appear to take it all in by the continual nodding of his head.
The dogs stayed very obedient by his side, until that is, he eventually turned away with a wave of his hand and moved off; they then took-flight and made a rapid circuit around the group sniffing each individual as they passed by. The larger of the two, a big dog, on encountering P.B. with a sniff, immediately stopped, went around the back of him, cocked his leg and pissed all down his T-shirt! And I must add, much to the hilarity from those witnessing this canine act.
Now, I did observe that the dog must have been somewhat dehydrated from the dark yellow stain on P.B.’s T-shirt and also that it may have had some sort of urinary tract problem from the rank-odour that it gave off. Needless to say, P.B. took it all in his stride and in a billy-can on the camp fire that night aside the evening stew, was P.B.’s T-shirt being boiled and sterilised. This created some interest from one particular very idle and somewhat disliked camp individual who enquired, “Is there a possibility of some food tonight and what’s on the go?” P.B. replied, “Stew and a special!”
Visitors to Camp
Thursday 10th to Thursday 17th August
There were, it has to be said, a small group, predominantly female, of hangers-on around the camp who had travelled out from UK with their partners (expedition members) as unofficial attendees of the proceedings and therefore not duty-bound to the expedition in anyway. Also, a few well known individuals in the caving world, who just pitched-up to be there and witness the expedition.
They were all very politely tolerated by the surface team providing that they did not cross-the-line breaking basic camp regulations. Now this may seem harsh, but after all it must be remembered that we were the official guardians of the camp during the absence of the rest of the team. Particular intolerable transgressions for example; take food from the supply tent without sanction, because rations solely intended for underground were strictly segregated from the boxed rations that the surface team were allowed free range of; use the open camp fire without collecting or cutting wood, etc.
P.B. was very good, direct and totally un-diplomatic sometimes with dealing with any rule-breakers, but the vast majority of individuals however did abide by the rules wholeheartedly and some actually gave a lot of valuable help at times for which the surface team were truly grateful.
As news of the expedition spread to local villages we began to receive visits from local school children with their teachers on a regular basis. Presumably they had walked up the mountain to the cave entrance via the network of criss-cross footpaths that one came across everywhere. One group even brought their village mayor with them who looked resplendent in his blue, white and red sash.
P.B., sporting his old caving clothes and looking rather like a hillbilly certainly looked the part of a mountain man and always obliged the visitors with glee when asked to pose with them for a souvenir photograph.
Two newspaper men from the UK arrived at camp one day about half-way through the expedition and thereafter visited on an almost daily basis. I think they were a journalist and a photographer and I seem to think that they had been sent there by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ via an arrangement set up by Ken Pearce. They head-quartered at the Maison Forestiere and disappeared back to the UK following Ken Pearce’s team final pull-out from the cave and their confidential meeting with him concerning the outcome of his final sump dive.
One very notable person that arrived in camp one day, tented overnight, and whose presence caused quite a stir, was Fernand Petzl one of the original explorers of the ‘Berger’ back in 1953. He was a very endearing man who took a genuine interest in the expedition spending much time talking to individual team members and recounting stories of his exploits. He and his son Paul, who also visited, owned and ran an engineering workshop based in the village of Crolles, near Grenoble where they designed and manufactured novel climbing and caving equipment of the highest quality. That was 50 years ago and yet today (2017), the name of Petzl is synonymous with adventure sports with outlets of such products throughout the World.
A great character who arrived totally unannounced was the famous Belgian (modern) caver Etienne Lemaire along with his side-kick, Henri I believe he was called. If anyone deserved the honorary title of ‘Professional Caver’ these two certainly did, virtually travelling the length and breadth of Europe and beyond exploring cave systems non-stop and on an absolute shoestring budget.
On the final day of the expedition and mass pull-out from the cave, both Etienne and Henri did something, which on reflection now, was totally ground-breaking in the caving World at the time and I think made a major contribution to entirely changing the basic methods of cave exploration, but more on that later in my final chapter.
Thursday 10th to Thursday 17th August
For anyone remotely interested in natural history the alpine countryside and unspoilt natural environments surrounding the ‘Berger’ will not disappoint having much variety to offer. One could write a whole book about it and no doubt, someone has but here, I refer to a few specific things of particular note on observations and encounters during my stay there. The mature pine forest immediately surrounding the camp was very dense in places, dark, cool and had a floor covered in fallen cones and in particular a deep carpet of fine needles which gave off a very fragrant aroma.
This was ideal territory for the large, black, wood ants that thrived there and you would frequently come across the large mounds (ant-hills) that they had constructed from the tree litter. These were on average about 3 feet in height and 4 – 5 feet in circumference at the base and each mound housing thousands of ants. They would forage out along tiny well-worn tracks, one line of ants going out empty and one line of ants coming back laden with supplies; on quite a few occasions they managed to raid tents in the camp probably having located un-packaged food, thus prompting campers to up-pegs and pitch-down again elsewhere, but the ants in truth were more of a nuisance then a danger. They did however have a rather powerful nasty nip but were not poisonous, although if you happened to disturb a mound by foot-step one could quickly detect a distinct cloud of fumes in the air from the formic acid that they instinctively sprayed out in order to deter unwanted intruders from their colony.
Wasps were common in the camp and required the usual respect when around food and a few unwary people did fall victim to their nasty stings. More worrying than those however was the occasional sighting of the much larger hornet and on the day after the big storm whilst tracing the broken telephone line, Harold and Sarah Lord did spot a large paper nest of them suspended from a tree branch for which they issued a warning and everyone gave the area a very wide-berth.
Open clearings in the forest gave opportunity for lush grass and wildflowers to grow and this created the perfect feeding (grubbing) ground for probably the most feared of all animals to inhabit the area, the wild boar, and much of this fear I should add is inherent through myth. On the very first day of reaching the Mouliere plateau and before setting off to the campsite for the first time, we were warned by others about the presence of wild boar and the possible danger that they posed with their formidable large tusks, heavy bulky frames and tenacious nature. However, over the weeks spent trekking around the environs, although we did come across much evidence of their existence by way of up-turned sods of grass in some places, very much resembling a war time mortared field; and also well-defined cloven hoof prints in the soil, we never caught sight of a single animal, let alone a large group of them. But, having some knowledge of the habits of boar I can assure you that they were certainly watching us!
The terrain high above the campsite and forest whose tree-line usually ends in the Alps around the 1,500 metre mark, was true alpine meadow and held a profusion of wildflowers and associated insect life, in particular a good variety of butterflies, grasshoppers and crickets. And of course, naturally associated with this possible food chain, small lizards basking on rocky outcrops, and insectivorous birds. Snakes must have been present also, but we never encountered one.
My final mention, is something very special and a very rare encounter which occurred on three separate fine dark evenings whilst sitting around the campfire. We had a visitation by two of European Eagle Owls who may have been a pair. These flew quite low above the fire, at I would estimate no more than 15 feet and slow enough for the observers seated below to see their very distinct shape and size of their enormous outstretched slow flapping wings. They must have been local residents but we never saw them during daylight hours and presumably they had been attracted by the flickering and glinting light given off by the fire, making them curious enough to make a fly by.
Those sitting by the campfire who were lucky enough to witness these magnificent and spectacular birds were amazed to see them on not just one but three occasions . A rare sight just once but three times truly incredible.
Final Days of the Expedition
Friday 18th to Saturday 25th August
Immediately following on from Ken Pearce’s solo dive into the terminal sump of the ‘Berger’ on Friday 18th August and Pegasus’ teams having completed a full ten days of exploration, a decision was made to begin a de-tackle, retreat and fully pull out of the cave over the ensuing three day period. The surface team was alerted to these plans and began putting in place a duty roster in order to provide help by lining the entrance and Ruis pitches, keep a good campfire going, warm food and drinks for arriving team members, and maintain a heightened awareness for any emergency situation.
Early, at 05:30 on Monday 21st August, on the chosen date for the mass pull-out, P.B. and I set off for the ‘Berger’ armed with bagged supplies of comfort food and a large water container to set aside at the top of the entrance for surfacing individuals.
The plan was, that I would stay on top and line the entrance pitch and P.B. would take the Ruis shaft. Individuals coming out would give a hand to haul up equipment behind them and thus form a rapid chain exit from the cave.
It was, to say the least, a very anxious and lengthy wait until P.B. alerted me with a shout that a group had arrived at the bottom of the Ruis shaft and that he had begun lining.
First, it was mainly the Pearce team. Then came a continuous flow of Pegasus individuals and equipment. Tons of it!
The pile at the side of the entrance pitch just grew higher and higher. P.B. and I continued this duty for many hours and I lost count as to how many times he nipped along to the base of the entrance ladder to re-fill his and my carbide lamps which I lent him as a second back-up light, also to hastily grab thrown-down treats from the goody-bags to keep him going.
It was around 12:00 when the last detail of surfacing cavers, after resting awhile around the entrance, left laden with kit for the campsite, but more kit was still piled there so P.B. and I decided to do at least two carry returns each back to camp. By the time that we had finished this final task it was around 16:00.
So, from our very early morning start to finally sitting down at camp late afternoon, P.B. and I had been up and busy for eleven hours almost non-stop. Inevitably we were very tired but not nearly so tired and physically exhausted as the large group of cavers that sat and lay around us in camp who were now enjoying the light of day and warmth of the sunshine after just spending ten gruelling days underground exploring the World’s deepest cave system.
By early evening and a concerted effort by the team, all kit and equipment had been moved back from the cave entrance to the camp, but sad to say, on checking through the returns, the photographers announced a major problem. They had inadvertently left a tin containing very valuable loaned Leica equipment in the cave towards the area of Camp 1. This presented a real dilemma because the cave had now been completely de-tackled and all the equipment anyhow was stacked back in the camp, so it would take an enormous effort to organise a team to re-ladder and all that that would have entailed in order to retrieve this one, extremely valuable tin.
Much discussion took place during which there was a sudden turn-of-fate when the Belgian caver Etienne Lemaire and Henri, who had only recently returned to the campsite from a local caving trip, volunteered to descend into the ‘Berger’ and locate the missing tin. He proposed to do this by means of abseiling in and prussiking out, which they assured everyone was a little time consuming but easily do-able.* Their offer was most gratefully accepted and they set-off without hesitation following a hearty meal.
I retired to bed for a very well earned rest and on awaking next morning and going over to the campfire, which was surrounded by a large group of cheerful people, there amongst them and to my amazement was Etienne and Henri, with the tin of missing camera equipment.
Very noticeable behind them on a grassy bank lay 2,500 feet of rolled-up electron ladders and on seeing this, I realised in an instance that in some way this equipment was becoming somewhat redundant because Etienne and Henri, had just very clearly demonstrated that big complex cave systems could now be explored by using just quality climbing ropes for the descent and ascent. This act was history in the making and how true that has proved to be now 50 years on.
The following four days were set-aside by the expedition organisers for re-packing equipment and sherpering up to the lorry and trailer on the Moliere and the all-important campsite clean-up, mixed in with a bit of rest and relaxation.
But first and foremost, Tuesday 22nd August hailed the Expedition evening ‘Dinner Bash’ at the Maison Forestiere. P.B. and I looked forward to attending this very much, setting off early to his van on the Mouliere with two hefty loads of general re-packs leaving only the tent and two light Bergan loads for our final evacuation from camp a planned few days later. The dinner was good, so was the wine, beer, music and the usual ribald behaviour and banter that one expected and had to go along with on such high spirited cavers get-together occasions.
I have no idea what time it was, but very late when P.B. hailed me across the room wanting to return to camp. It was a warm clear night with bright stars and an almost full, if not full, moon. On reaching the car park, we were approached by Henry Mares and Celia, one of the Pegasus expedition member’s girlfriend, both requesting a lift to which P.B. agreed and Henry and Celia occupied the front passenger seat, P.B. drove and I laid in the back of the van wedged between equipment with my head facing the backdoor.
Somewhere on the narrow gravel road going up, P.B. who wasn’t speeding, totally miss-judged a very sharp right hand bend and just went straight on over the edge and down a 60 degree slope into the forest below. The van somersaulted on its course downhill at a rapid rate. The back door flew open and I was catapulted out into space on the way colliding the top of my head with one of the door hinges which cleaved my scalp wide-open.
I came to earth on the slope momentarily dazed by the blow to my head but eventually gained the confidence to try and stand up when I realised that the only injury I appeared to have was that to the top of my head which was now profusely pouring blood down my face. On looking below, I could just make out the van with its headlights full on, inverted, wedged between two large pines trees and pointing uphill.
P.B. and Henry were shouting for help and I briefly replied an affirmative as I slowly made my way up the very steep slope to the road where on arrival I almost immediately managed to stop a couple of vehicles full of party revellers on their way up.My blood soaked appearance, like some monster from the house of horrors, soon had a sobering effect on the occupants who, fortunately for all the crash victims, were all highly experienced cavers and majority members of cave rescue organisations. So on realising the gravity of the emergency situation that confronted them, they quickly swung into action.
I was placed in the front vehicle and quickly driven up to the Mouliere were Dr. Hugh Kidd the expedition medical officer and his wife Mary, also a practising doctor, had set-up a couple of tents alongside their VW campervan. Mary treated me, whilst Hugh set-off with rescue equipment down to the crash site, eventually returning with Henry who had no-more than a couple of badly bruised kneecaps. P.B. had a dislocated left shoulder and Celia was in a stretcher. She had been fitted with a neck brace because she had a suspected neck injury.
P.B. and Celia were accommodated in the Kidd tents overnight and a close watch was kept on Celia. Henry and I were despatched back to the main campsite under our own steam. A two mile very ‘wobbly’ journey I seem to recall, with strict instructions to be back at first light for a journey down to Grenoble hospital for a full health check-up.
Next morning, I arrived early, as arranged but without Henry who felt that there was no necessity for him to go to the hospital. P.B. had his arm in a sling and Celia was still strapped in the stretcher and neck brace and in much pain. Hugh drove us all down to Grenoble hospital in the VW campervan, accompanied by Mary, where we remained for much of the day whilst x-rays were taken, tests conducted, and I had my scalp painfully stitched by a female medical orderly who I think last performed such a duty at the Battle of Waterloo by the look of the instruments and suture material that she was using.
P.B. and I were discharged after paying all our required hospital bills in cash, but news of Celia was not at all good as she had several fractured neck vertebra which required a long stay in hospital and the fitting of a full neck to abdomen plaster jacket. So, Celia remained in hospital and the rest made the journey back to the Mouliere making a brief stop on the way at the Maison Forestiere in order to make a few necessary urgent telephone calls back to the UK. At this point, I managed to contact my health insurers who acknowledged my claim but only on the proviso that I returned to the UK within the next few days for a full independent medical assessment.
On reaching the Mouliere, we discovered, P.B’s van in the corner of the car parking area. Somehow it had been recovered by the rest of the team earlier in the day. It was rather miss-shapen but the windows were intact and remarkably showed no other signs of damage. The engine ran so it was serviceable.
Next day P.B. decided that he was going to move down to Grenoble and find a campsite there and stay to look after Celia best he could during her prolonged stay in hospital. Being somewhat incapable of carrying heavy loads, I packed his tent and belongings and took them up to his van, gave him all the money that I could spare and with a handshake he set off on his own. That was the last I saw of him until several months later when he finally made it back to the UK.
Celia spent a full six weeks in Grenoble hospital and then somehow was transferred to the Manchester Royal Infirmary UK where they discovered that the cast she was in for six weeks had been incorrectly fitted. So she had to have a new one fitted and endure yet another six weeks recovery. In the end, I’m pleased to say it proved to be a successful course of treatment. P.B. and I did visit Celia on one occasion, at her home in Buxton and she did seem to have recovered .
On reflection, the four occupants of that vehicle that night, were extremely lucky and had it not been for the brilliant prompt rescue action and medical intervention taken by our fellow expedition team members, the outcome could have been much worse if not fatal.
I now had to consider how I was going to get back to the UK. The majority of the Pearce team hailed predominantly from the Northern Shires, Happy Wanderers Pothole Club etc. so they had organised a coach (bus) to take them back to the UK which was departing from the Mouliere within the next couple of days. On hearing about my plight, they very kindly offered me a free seat for the journey.
I was more than truly grateful for this kindly offer and it was on a very dark, cold, wet and windy night in the early hours that I was dropped off in a lay-by beside a dual carriageway just outside the City of Derby, but my final home destination was Nottingham some 15 miles away.
The bus disappeared into the night and I noticed that there were very few cars about as I crossed the carriage way and began to thumb a lift. To my amazement after only a few minutes, the fourth car stopped and the driver offered me a lift and would you believe it, to the very centre of Nottingham! I could hardly believe my luck!
As we set off, the driver, an elderly very well-spoken gentleman, who was on his way to the General Hospital, enquired, “Where have you been and what have you been doing?” Now I was very tired and did not really want to get into a long drawn-out conversation so on a quick impulse, I simply replied, “On a camping trip with my mate Pete to Castleton in Derbyshire”. “Oh that’s very nice” he said. “Lovely picturesque countryside and there are lots of those wonderful show caves there, did you go down any by chance?”
I just sat there totally speechless and so ended my ‘Berger 67’ adventure.
12th January 2017
* Some ladder was used on this descent.