In 1983, CCPC organised a trip to the
Gouffre Berger in France.
This was the first cave in the world to be explored below 1000m depth, in the 1950's and is
still a challenge for most cavers.
The club has visited the cave again since and members have been there as guests of other clubs.
Here is the report from the 1983 trip. John Gillet and Nigel Cooper had copies that could be
scanned and converted with OCR to be turned in to an HTML web page.
Spelling, grammer and punctuation are as per the original report. Some OCR
errors may have sneaked in. PDF's of the original typed
report can be downloaded for each individual page, or the complete report PDF can be
downloaded. This file is 32MB.
This report is from what is now a considerable time ago. If you are
planning a trip to this cave, you should consult more recent reports and
visitors for up to date advice. Nonetheless, it gives an interesting
insight in to the club and caving in the early 1980's.
Some personal and organisation information has been redacted from both
the web pages and the PDF's for privacy reasons, or because it is no longer relevant.
REPORT OF THE 1983 C.C.P.C. GOUFFRE BERGER EXPEDITION
This report outlines the main events of the 1983 Crewe Climbing and
Potholing Club Expedition to the Gouffre Berger. Excerpts from the
expedition log and photographs are used to record some of the experiences
obtained. Appendices are provided to guide future expedition organisers
in planning, obtaining permission, and organising a similar trip.
Expedition statistics, equipment lists, and other useful information are
also provided. The expedition objectives were as follows:-
To mark the Club's 25th. Anniversary by a descent of the Gouffre Berger.
To provide an uptodate written and photographic record of the descent.
To organise a collaborative expedition with several British and
foreign caving clubs to promote friendly relations between clubs.
The eternal beauty and grandeur of the Hall of the Thirteen attracts
cavers to the Gouffre Berger like moths to a candle. In the winter of 1981
this irresistible force, advancing age, and the desire to celebrate the
club's twenty-fifth anniversary drove John Gillett to write to the Mayor
of Engins for permission to descend. The Mayor, with Gallic aplomb,
ignored the letter as was his usual opening gambit for such requests,
but undeterred, John wrote to several prominent French cavers to enlist
support’ in convincing the Mayor of our existence and credibility.
A further letter couched in impeccable and slightly dry French produced
a prompt reply. The Mayor was unable to grant permission for 1982 as the
cave was fully booked, but promised first choice of the 1983 bookings.
A preliminary reservation was made, after some discussion at a club
meeting to agree dates, and the 1983 C.C.P.C. Gouffre Berger Expedition
Good news travels fast and club members were soon clamouring for further
details, so a meeting was arranged to gather opinions, support, and ideas
for organising the venture. From this point onwards a diary of meetings
and events was kept, and most of the ensuing saga has been drawn from this.
Sufficient information was gleaned from journals and discussions with
other cavers about previous expeditions to the Gouffre Berger to enable
John Gillett, Ralph Johnson, Paul Holdcroft and Tony Gamble to make a
preliminary assessment of what would be involved in the descent before the
first formal expedition meeting was convened. This eventually took place
on 26th.May 1982 at the ‘Bleeding Wolf', Kidsgrove where John, Ralph,
Paul, and Tony were supported by club members Terry Ball, Liam Kealy,
Tony Reynolds and Alan Scragg. Boyd and Jenny Potts of the Orpheus club
also attended to give advice and as potential expedition members. The
advantages of enlisting the help of other clubs had been discussed
previously, and it had been agreed that friends should be contacted to
provide extra effort and expertise.
This first meeting raised many questions about equipment, telephones,
costs, provisions, and expedition organisation. John and Ralph agreed to
be responsible for organisation, Paul and Tony for tackle, and Terry for
telephones. After some discussion, it was decided to use 11mm 'Bluewater'
rope for tackling, and to budget for about thirty members on this basis.
The choice of rope diameter, affecting costs and tackle burden, was one of
the most critical decisions taken. Full of enthusiasm, the participants
drove off into the night fully aware of the magnitude of the task in hand.
Three more meetings were held at the same venue on a monthly basis with
the same core participants, and by the end of September an expedition Bank
Account had been opened with a starting balance of £60 donated from
C.C.P.C. funds to set things moving. More than forty firms were contacted
to try and obtain free or discounted goods, and a few replied with offers
of help (see Acknowledgements). The equipment requirements were assessed,
and preliminary cost estimates based on thirty cavers indicated that a
deposit of £30 per head should be adequate. Alternative transport
arrangements were studied including Minibus hire, towed trailers, and the
use of personal vehicles. Several friendly caving clubs had expressed a
willingness to participate and the French club Ziloko Gizonak had been
invited as some recompense for their hospitality in various trips to the
By the end of 1982, twelve club members and four Orpheus members had
paid deposits and a further fifteen cavers had promised to pay, so it
looked as though the budgetted costs would be met and the tackle burden
handled effectively. An overall plan of all the activities necessary prior
to the descent was drawn up so that the critical activities could be
defined (See Appendix 5.). Detailed studies of alternative tackling
arrangements and descent strategies were made. It was decided to form teams
of about four cavers, each of whom was well-known to the others, and to
plan descents on a team basis to simplify management. By Christmas the
organisation seemed fairly well defined and we moved ahead confidently
into the New Year.
The Warm-up Month by Month
January was a month of hectic activity albeit on phone and paper. The
outbreak of Histoplasmosis on the Mexico Expedition had resulted in heavy
claims on the B.C.R.A. Insurance, and we were warned that the premiums that
we had budgetted for could well be doubled. Several alternative insurance
firms were contacted, but their premiums were all more than double those
budgetted, so a reappraisal of expedition finances was carried out. The
costing was performed in some detail as it had been decided to approach
the British Sports Council for a grant, and a complete financial and
organisational statement was required as part of the application procedure.
The budget for about thirty expedition members, assuming a trailer was used
to transport tackle, came to about £6000 including about £1000 for rope and
hangers. Luckily the Westminster Speleological Group, the Wessex Caving
Club, and several other clubs provided enough additional members to enable
the costs to be met, as well as providing an injection of continental
caving expertise. A Newsletter was circulated to the many far-flung members
to inform them of the current position, including estimates of personal
costs, personal tackle needs, and dates of practice meets.
During February, the Mayor of Engins wrote asking for the expedition
dates to be confirmed for him to complete his diary of expeditions to the
Gouffre Berger for 1983. He asked that a leader be nominated to be totally
responsible for all activities during the period booked, and John now took
on this role with Ralph as deputy. We requested the Mayor to reserve the
1st. to 12th. August for us, as this promised to provide the best weather
and suited the holiday arrangements of most expedition members. Having
fixed the dates and studied all the alternative routes to the area, the
ferry bookings were made. The optimum route for length, cost, timing, and
ferry availibility appeared to lie via Dover, Calais, then down the
Autoroutes via Paris, and Lyons to Grenoble. We had obtained a discount
from 'Sealink' ferries and most members took advantage of this, although
some obtained discounts through personal contacts.
At the end of February the Ghar Parau Committee interview for the
British Sports Council awards took place in Castleton. This provided an
interesting experience, but unfortunately the committee of well-known
cavers considered our expedition was only a holiday excursion and unworthy
of a grant. We were very disappointed and felt quite strongly that there
should be more support for ordinary sporting activities underground as well
as for the more esoteric research projects. We were advised to approach our
local Sports Council for help which seemed quite promising at first as the
initial contacts were helpful. Unfortunately however, the area in which we
met and lived fell between the jurisdictions of several local Sports
Councils who each in turn passed our request on in a circular route from
which we gained nothing.
In March, a caving conference on expedition organisation was organised
by the B.C.R.A. at Buxton. Several expedition members attended and
although little was learned about expedition planning several useful
contacts were made and an entertaining account of an early Gouffre Berger
expedition was heard from Dave Allsop. Paul Ramsden provided details of his
flood stricken trip to the Gouffre Berger in 1982 together the descent
plans for three teams and the latest tackle list. He said that the cave was
very cold and advised wearing furry suits and waterproof overalls, with a
rubber 'Pontoniére' for the canals. He also stressed the importance of each
caver being self-sufficient for food and light as it was easy to become
separated and trapped if a sudden storm occurred. The B.C.R.A. Insurance
Officer, Geoff Wells was also there, and although he could not provide a
firm insurance quotation before Easter, confirmed that the premium was
likely to be double that of the previous year due to the recent heavy
The first expedition practice meet was also held in March beneath Leck
Fell in Notts Pot and Lost John's. Seventeen cavers turned up and a
planning scheme devised by John to test out some of his ideas was used to
enable teams to rig Notts and Lost John's simultaneously, swap over, and
derig likewise. Both potholes were very wet, and the roaring torrent in the
bottom of Lost John's swept a couple of cavers away, who luckily retrieved
themselves without mishap. The exercise lasted from 9a.m. until 6p.m.
with each team descending a total depth of about 250m. and covering a
horizontal distance, including surface walking, of about 4 kilometres.
It was a refreshing and enjoyable event which enabled expedition members to
get to know each other as well as to get fit.
April was a month of surprises. The Mayor of Engins sent details of the
teams before and after ours, and we discovered that an English team, The
Black and Tans, from the Manchester area, had booked the fortnight after
ours. Their leader, John Heginbotham, conferred with John Gillett about
sharing various items of equipment to the mutual advantage of both
expeditions and it was agreed that the rescue stretcher, telephone line,
and First Aid kits would be left in place by our team. The team prior to
ours was from Liége and John rang their leader, Pierre Casters, who was
willing to leave his telephone line in place and some hand-lines. These
arrangements could not have been bettered, and the amicable relations meant
that the overlap periods between expeditions could be treated in a relaxed
manner, especially if the weather presented delays in detackling to any
Another surprise followed when Jack Sheldon, of the Army Caving
Association wrote to John for advice on obtaining permission for a descent
in 1984. Jack was subsequently successful in his application and then asked
if he could perform a reconnaisance whilst we had the system rigged. We
agreed that this would be all right provided that he took out adequate
insurance, and in response, Jack offered to arrange to ferry out some of
our equipment as there was an A.C.A. group caving in the Vercors during the
period of the expedition. A "Four ton' truck would be used so we could send
quite a weight of tackle if we wished. This was a Godsend for us as we were
still in the throes of deciding exactly how to transport the increasingly
growing weight of equipment and supplies. A few packing and weighing
experiments were conducted and it was apparent that we could transport all
the 'strategic' gear in John's Saab by stripping out the rear seats and
only leaving room for two occupants. The 'nonstrategic' and personal gear,
weighing about 5cwt., could then be sent out with the A.C.A. The resultant
savings in costs from not having to repair the club trailer, buy a towbar,
cover extra ferry and insurance charges etc., were a welcome boost to the
Also during April, we gathered in supplies at discount prices or for
free from our sponsors, additionally, Michel Lauga of the Ziloko Gizonak
offered to purchase our carbide supplies for us as his contribution to the
exchequer. A further Newsletter was despatched to the thirty seven paid-up
members detailing all the current events, with an overall plan of campaign,
advice on personal gear, and the dates of future practice meets. We had a
practice meet at Gaping Ghyll, with descents of the Main Shaft and Flood
Entrance. The Spring had sprung and we were now most certainly on the move
into a Summer full of promise.
In May, the main physical event was a rather abortive practice meet in
the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu system involving fourteen cavers. The original plan
was for one team to rig Pendulum Passage, travel downstream to the Marble
Showers and then traverse out over the upper series and then to O.F.D.3.
Another team, entering at O.F.D.1 would travel upstream, ascend Pendulum
Passage, and proceed to O.F.D.3, with all parties leaving the system
through the Top Entrance. In the final event, the team travelling upstream
had an affair with a falling boulder in Pendulum Passage and most of this
group were unable to proceed past the Crevasse, so after some discussion
everyone went out without visiting 0.F.D.3 at all. Although the planning
worked adequately several of the less experienced members learnt that their
stamina needed building up; an important lesson for the final expedition.
Also in May, having paid the B.C.R.A. Insurance premiums, obtained First
Aid certificates from the First-aiders, and listed the names of all the
expedition members, a dossier was sent to the Mayor of Engins to finalise
the authorisation of our descent. He did not reply, but a short phone call
soon established that we were all clear and that there were no further
formalities required. The Mayor invited us to call in and see him as we
passed through Engins en route for La Moliere, and wished us the best of
June was a month in which many loose ends were tied up. The ferry
bookings were confirmed and paid for, the final tackle items and supplies
were bought, and we held a large scale practice meet in the Lancaster-
EasegillPippikin system to try out the new personal gear. A final
expedition meeting was held at ‘The Bleeding Wolf' on 29th.June to check
that Passports, holiday insurance, Francs, and personal gear had been
obtained, and to arrange the rendezvous at La Moliére.
The various duties were agreed for running the campsite and keeping
account of underground activities. The planning system for descents and
ascents, and for rigging and derigging the cave was explained
(see Appendix 5.)).
The final Newsletter was then circulated to each member with all the
details which had been agreed clearly presented. One minor panic occurred
over the supply of hangers. Of the original hundred which had been
manufactured earlier in the year, only fifty could be found! There was
nothing for it but to purchase more and investigate the cause at a later
date. A second minor panic occurred when Paul eventually took his dinghy
down from his. loft and found that it had perished! Several frantic phone
calls later we established that we could borrow one from the Westminster
club much to the relief of all and sundry.
July was the month for packing and departures. True to their promise,
the A.C.A. collected the 'non-strategic' equipment for transport to La
Chapelle en Vercors in their 'Four-ton' truck. Ralph packed the emergency
supplies for Camp 1 and Camp 2, cut the ropes to size, and labelled and
packed all the tackle into tackle bags for the rigging teams. The medical
kits were made up, and last minute purchases of extra rope, Maillon
Rapides, and other essential items were completed. We had chosen to travel
on the weekend of the great flight South by the French holiday-makers, so
various departure times were used depending on members ideas for avoiding
traffic jams. Luckily the weather was fine, the Channel calm, and everyone
had an accident-free journey down through France to La Moliére, one on
foot, one by train, one by motorbike,two by bus, and the rest by car.
Establishing Base Camp.
Among the first arrivals in the area were Brian Cowie and Russell Carter
of the Orpheus who saved a day's work by travelling to La Chapelle en
Vercors to see the A.C.A. about the gear which had been ferried out the
week before. The A.C.A. were again most helpful and managed to move the
gear up to La Moliére, so that, when John and Liam arrived on Saturday 30th.
July, fresh from Sipping mint tea with the Mayor, they found Brian and
Russell together with Rachael Clarke guarding an enormous pile of equipment
amidst the glinting metal of the French tourists' cars. It transpired that
Paul Bates and Dave Pike had also arrived, and that they had reconnoitred
the route to the cave entrance before returning to Autrans to sample the
local wine. As well as helping on guard duty against the marauding cows and
tourists, Rachael had spoken to the local shepherd, who had been most
unhelpful and aggravated when she asked him to unchain the barrier across
the bridle-path to the plateau to enable the carloads of gear to be driven
to a likely campsite. The shepherd's attitude, the milling tourists, the
broiling sun, and a large notice warning that a deer had recently died of
Rabies in the woods, did not help to establish a friendly environment to
camp in. An additional worry was that water was in short supply and the
only source was the piped spring-water feeding the cattle troughs not far
from the carpark and the tourist hordes. We felt somewhat exposed, and a
tour of the plateau looking for a campsite for fifty people made us feel
even more concerned as the best spot seemed to be exactly where the
shepherd did not want us to go. John and Liam went off to parley with the
shepherd, who had retired in high dudgeon to his hut about half a mile away.
As John and Liam approached the fenced enclosure around the hut, several
fierce dogs ran out barking and snarling. Mauvais chien! How does one tell
a French dog to desist from gnawing one's ankles without resorting to a
well aimed kick in its ribs? Luckily the shepherd, a surprisingly Nordic
looking young man, called them off in the nick of - time.’ This respite
allowed John to open a conversation in French only a degree less hideous
Words flowed to and fro. Fifty aggressive cavers were weighed against
two hundred stampeding cows. The patronage of the Mayor of Engins was
balanced against the shepherd's boss. The impeccable demeanour of English
cavers was compared to the vile habits of the French tourists. Liam opted
out and returned to base for a brew.
About half an hour later, amicable relations had been established and,
chatting about country life in their respective lands, John and the
shepherd strolled across the plateau with the dogs at their heels to view
the shepherd's idea of the ideal campsite. This was located in a sheltered
hollow, out of sight of the car-park, fairly close to the water supply, and
large enough to meet our needs. There was some evidence of previous
occupation, and we later learned that this was the site of the Engins
village barbecue. The shepherd seemed sure that his herd would not be
offended by our presence there as it was near the woods and off their main
grazing routes. Bidding the shepherd farewell, John returned to the others
who were still valiantly guarding the gear and beginning to wilt in the hot
sun. His news was received with some relief and a further inspection of the
site confirmed that the location of Base Camp was now established.
A steady stream of equipment soon began to flow down the hill from the
cars and tackle dump. Tents were erected on the prime sites, with people
vying for the best chances of shade at mid-day and with the least chance of
hitting the rocky surface. As the afternoon wore on, other arrivals
appeared on the scene, and by evening most of the C.C.P.C and Orpheus
members had arrived. Paul Bates and Dave Pike arrived too, somewhat the
worse for wear after an experience with the local red biddy.
We now had all the necessary equipment and enough cavers to make an
early start in the morning to rig the cave. Preparations were made and
Ralph, the two Tonys, Paul and Terry went off to drink up all the beer in
Autrans! In the early hours of the next morning everyone was hugely
entertained by the hilarious attempts of Ralph and Cliff to establish a
basis for a competition between their champions, Tony Gamble and Cliff's
brother respectively. They eventually went to bed leaving the campers to
grab what sleep they could. The scene was set, the actors on stage, and the
curtains ready to open on the first day's engagement with the Gouffre
The early morning sun was blazing down by the time that people had
consumed breakfast and the tackle loads had been sorted out. Ralph's work
in the U.K. now proved to be extremely useful. There were twelve loads
altogether, including the underground camping gear, each packed in a
separate rucsack. Like ants, the expedition members carried all these over
to the cave entrance some two miles away. As each load arrived at the
Entrance, it was lowered to the snowplug above the Ruiz Shaft to keep it
from the attentions of the inquisitive tourists. At this stage of the
expedition we were a day ahead of the original schedule, and as there were
still several others yet to arrive, it was not possible to mount a
continuous guard on the Entrance. Also at this point we discovered to our
chagrin that the C.B. radios brought to communicate between the Entrance
and Base Camp would not work because of the lie of the land. Undeterred by
this minor blow, the Sherpas worked on, and the rigging team set to work on
equipping the Entrance Series. At this point, Liam's narrative comes in.