In August, 1988, about 50 members of the YSS set off 'on the Berger', in a combination of mini busses, transits and private transport to the La Molliere plateau in the Vercors region of the French Alps above Grenoble. The club had previously done the Gouffre Berger in 1986 and was later to return, once more, in 1991.
The year leading up to this expedition was also my first year of caving. Virtually every weekend was spent in the Yorkshire Dales, getting ready for the things to come. Training came in all forms, from the basic idea of cave, cave and cave again to the extreme of one member who insisted on carrying a 150m length of 11mm Edelrid with him wherever he went - including Leeds!
As August drew closer, the general opinion seemed to be that everyone was now ready for anything. Of course, a downer had been placed over the expedition several months before when the news of the death of Alex Pitcher had worked it's way round the caving world.
We arrived at the Berger two days before our permit started, following the Happy Wanderers and a group of Polish cavers. This gave us an easy start and enabled us to set up camp and lay the telephone line to the entrance, ready for the first rigging team. It's about a mile from the campsite to the entrance, through the forest and over impressive limestone pavements, passing close to 1000 foot cliffs and the entrance to La Fromagere. We set up a 30' marquee on the plateau with a telephone line to the entrance, where we had a tent manned 24 hours a day. A second telephone line went from the entrance to Camp 1, at -500 meters, ensuring a good comms link with underground parties at all times.
The entrance pitch of 20 feet leads immediately to the head of Ruiz, with a very loose take-off. The 'Holiday Slides' follow, to the head of Cairn pitch of 120' with several re-belays. On landing in Cairn Hall, a bunch of flowers marked the place where Alex Pitcher had last been seen alive - forced to move on by the howling gale coming down Cairn. The Meanders lead out of Cairn Hall, a traverse which didn't really live up to it's awesome reputation. There were a couple of awkward places, where the only footholds were a couple of rotting stemples in the floor but, otherwise, the going was pretty good to the head of Garby's, a 125' freehang, which is closely followed by the 90 foot Gontard's and the Relay pitches of about 60 feet.. These pitches are all in the same rift and end in the awesome 140' drop of Aldo's. Here, the normal route was a relatively easy descent down the wall - the alternative being the flood-escape 'Helicopter Hang' down the middle of the shaft; for intrepid cavers only!
On reaching the bottom of Aldo's, a walk across a large expanse of moonmilk led us to an amazing sight - the Grand Gallery of the Starless River opened up before our eyes - and grand it certainly was! Neither wall nor ceiling could be seen and it took a few minutes to get used to the enormity of the place. To the left was the Petzl Gallery. Walking on along the Grand Gallery, a short climb down of about 10 feet led to Lake Cadoux - more of a "Lake Ca-don't" on this trip as it was bone dry! Still, a dinghy had been left there high & dry, in case the Alpine gods decided to do their worst. After Lake Cadoux we entered Bourgin Hall, with a line of huge stals along the left hand wall - like sentries guarding the way on.
A short pitch (Little General) was laddered and the following Pool- and Tyrollean Traverses continued the route through this enormous expanse of emptyness to the head of the Great Rubble Heap. The boulders here were huge - the size of houses! We'd been told that there were three routes down the Rubble Heap - left wall, right wall and middle. The only problem was that with rocks this size, nobody could tell if they were following a wall or a rock! The only option was to follow a telephone line - and there were dozens of those.
At the bottom of the slope, Camp 1 made it's presence known in the form of a massive pile of spent carbide. There's been some dirty buggers down there! We'd all taken lengths of motorbike inner tube down with us - it kept the fresh carbide dry and made it easy to transport the spent stuff out. Around the corner, however, was the sight we'd all come to see - Salle des Treize; The Hall of The Thirteen.
A group of stals, about 3 feet high, lay to the right of the entrance of the chamber. Looking past these, across a group of 15' gour pools, the cavern opened up to dramatic proportions. The roof must have been 150' high at this point and, in the distance, a group of pure white stals 40 feet high towered majestically. What a sight! This was as far as I went, at -500 meters, but the Berger continues to a depth of -1100 meters to the first sump.
We had a rest here for a couple of hours and then set off back up the Rubble Heap. This was where I got lost in the rocks. Seeing a faint glow to my left, I climbed a rock to find myself 40-50 feet above my friends and another group!
"What are you doing up there?", someone shouted.
"Trying to get down there!", I replied.
I retraced my steps and eventually rejoined the others. Other than that, we had a slow, uneventful trip out of the cave, resting at the bottom of Gontard's. This was a mistake, as it was extremely cold here and it took a long time to get moving again up the pitch. Eventually, we were at the bottom of Ruiz, with daylight above us once more. Half way up the entrance pitch, after a 20 hour trip, a welcome sound hit my ears:
"Tea or coffee?", called someone from the entrance tent.
Everyone had one chance of a sporting trip to the bottom and also had to join in on a working trip; either rigging, de-rigging or sherpering. I went down with Colin Gray & Fred Weekes at the end to de-rig from Cairn. As the others climbed the entrance, I was left to do the honours as the last out. Colin shut the door on Ruiz and I, holding the last bolts of the entrance pitch, proudly declared "THE END!"
One day, we had problems with the telephone from the camp site to the entrance. Dave Johnson was in the marquee and Martin Whillock was at the entrance when Dave decided to do some remote diagnostics on the line. "What I want you to do, Martin, is to put your fingers across the terminals of the phone."
"You can bugger off!", came the anticipated reply.
"Just do it!"
Martin obviously trusted Dave (Fool!) and said that he was now holding the terminals.
"OK, there's nothing there", said Dave. "What I want you to do now is to put your fingers on the terminals and wind the handle as fast as you can."
Nobody thought that Martin would actually do this, but after about two seconds, a blood-curdling scream filled the marquee!
The nights were spent round the camp fire, looking at the stars."See that one, up there?" Stan asked Martin. "That's Titus Uranus." "Oh, is it?" replied Martin, amazed at Stan's knowledge of Astronomy.
Nearly every day was spent at the outdoor swimming pool at Meudre, drinking beer and avoiding the showers - which the French apparently thought were toilets! Near the end of the holiday, Colin went to the Crêperie in Autrans to book a meal. The owner said that they could manage about 30 of us - so 45 turned up. Eleven of us were sat at our table. When the waitress came round, we decided on "8 Whites & 3 Reds".
"Yes, you'd like 8 glasses of white wine and 3 glasses of red wine", said the waitress.
"No, no", came the response. "BOTTLES!"
We ended up with about 18 bottles of wine passing over our table and everyone had a good time.
This was my first ever trip abroad - and what a trip! We had marvelous weather for the whole fortnight. There was one storm and a fair bit of fog to contend with, but life on a 5000' high plateau was, as they say, grand. Everyone who was there says they had an excellent time on the Berger and the cave itself is out of this world.
But fancy naming a cave after a tin of paint!