Gouffre Berger

A typical Load of bags being transported to The Entrance
A typical Load of bags being transported to The Entrance

At -1122m the Gouffre Berger was regarded as the deepest cave in the world until 1963 it is still the 28th deepest known cave and the 4th deepest in the France. It has been on my personal hit list pretty much from the day I started caving – A little personal history here; when Pete & I first showed up at WMCEG some 15 years ago comments were made that the thin one (Pete) would make a good caver but the fat one (me) would never make it. At the time WMCEG had some plans that never came to pass to descend the Gouffre Berger when I asked if I could get involved I was all but laughed from the room probably with some justification – so I jumped at the chance to descend it with the WRPC & NPC.

One thing I have always enjoyed about caving is just how much of a team activity it is even when compared to other outdoor activities such as climbing (please don’t flame me I am sure big wall climbing and mountaineering require a lot of team work too but I’ve not had any experience of these), descending a deep cave like the Gouffre Berger really emphasises the importance of the team. With 20 people we were regarded as a small team for a bottoming trip and everyone really had to work hard to make it possible, even those that would not be actually going for the push to the bottom contributed a great deal to the overall effort.

In fact the work started long before setting off for France the permit was applied for back Autumn 2008, weekends were spent checking equipment and packing the 1000 or so meters of rope that would be required.

Just getting to the entrance involved lugging 20 rope bags, a boat, two bags of gear for the entrance camp, a further two bags for Camp 1 and all of this an hours walk from the carpark to the entrance 200 meters below.

Several days were then spent rigging the entrance series, installing the boat at Lac Cadoux – this is essentially a precaution as after a storm the lake fills up quickly but takes days to drain again.Setting up the Nicola Radio system and ferrying gear to Camp 1 as a staging post for the push to the bottom of the cave.

In all I myself joined three trips into the cave, two trips were essentially sherpa trips to carry gear to Camp 1 & just beyond. The first one of these a team of three undertook a “short” 13 hour trip carried two tackle bags each as far as Lac Cadoux. This gave me a flavour of the cave, the entrance series to Lac Cadoux is where the pitches come thickest and fastest, there were large quantities of ice down the first three all of which came down by the end of the 10 day permit some of it assisted to make the cave safer. The roped sections here are broken only by a couple of sections of traverses along the Meanders, this requires mostly unroped easy bridging across some deepish drops for around 50-100 meters a number of old stemples and even a dodgy looking bridge provide obstacles rather than making the traverse easier.

The final pitch in the entrance series is Aldo’s and is one of the known danger areas in the cave, the cave has an active stream for much of its length and with a large water catchment area it can respond dramatically and rapidly to rainfall. Aldo’s has an inlet about 15m down that, without warning, after a couple of hours of heavy rain dumps vast quantities of water it has been described as like tipping a swimming pool on end – not a place to hang around. A short distance from here is Lac Cadoux – our turning point for trip 1.

On Trip 2 we ferried another rope bag plus personal camping gear (sleeping bag, warm clothes, food and WAG bags ) to Camp 1. We also did a bit of rigging adjustment in the entrance series, double rigging Aldos and making some of the get offs easier for tired cavers exiting the cave. From Lac Cadoux there is a longish walk down to camp 1 broken by a couple of short pitches and enourmous boulder strewn slopes. Camp 1 itself is were the Nicola radio is installed which allowed us to get weather updates and relay information to the surface team. We had a brief stop for tea, dumped our overnight bags and then carried on down via the stunning hall of thirteen to the canals. Now is a good time to mention my lack of pictures from the trip this is for two reasons – 1) the amount of camera equipment needed to photograph these vast caverns is far more than any of us had brought, 2) I decided even carrying my snapshot camera was a piece of gear too much for the bottoming trip – more on that later. The hall of thirteen is amazing with huge skyscraper like stalagmite bosses.

The canals are pretty strenuous – IF you follow all the rigging – as it essentially involves long clipped on traverses very via-ferrata style – however we soon discovered that much of the rigging could be avoided with easier ledges or waist deep wading – I’m told water levels were exceptionally low and the rigging is essential to avoid drowning if the water levels are higher. There were still a couple of tyrolean style traverses that had to be followed, not alpine style tyrolean but caving style – were the caver descends a main rope whilst clipping into a tensioned second rope as a guide line to avoid water. About halfway down the canals I announced I was exhausted and we dumped our rope bags and returned to camp 1 for a sleep – exiting the following day almost exactly 24 hours after entering the cave.

Trip 3 – the bottoming trip – I elected to be on the derigging team, we had 6 people rigging in and Our initial plan was to get to camp 1 have a sleep/rest and get up early, passing the riggers heading out for a round trip to the bottom and back to camp 1 de-rigging. There would be six of us, however thunder storms were forecast for the following evening which with the level of uncertainity on the time of arrival of the rain could have put us right in one of the main danger areas when the floods hit – the cascades and the Canals. So at 4pm we hastily rethought our plans, given the variability of when the storm could arrive we decided it was prudent to be back past the canals and in the dry area of the cave by 3pm on the following day. The only way to do this would be to go for it now and cave right through the night. Only four of us (Biff, Cal, Martin & I) were up for the trip. We would be derigging and would have heavy bags to carry on the way out so we decided travelling light and fast was the way to go. This meant a no WAG en-route strategy and so team immodium set off for the entrance at 7pm ready to enter the cave at 9pm. This is also the point I decided that food took priority over the camera in my already stuffed full flood survival bag, (with the chances of being flooded in so high in this system MINIMUM survival gear includes a Blizzard Bag, stove, mess tin, candle, warm clothing, first aid kit, food, spare batteries). Before we entered the cave one of the rigging team appeared on the surface having turned back after a fall and thorough soaking at the Grand Cascade he was cold and hungry but otherwise ok, though the rigging team were now down to 5. Once in the cave my team mates were off like rockets leaving me thinking there was no way I could keep up, we got to Camp 1 in 1.5 Hours about 1 hour less than the average. I was knackered already and I nearly turned it there and then but Biff encouraged me to go on insiting there was “no ‘I’ in team but there was an ‘I’ in Hippy”.. We stopped for a quick brew at Camp 1 with the 1st rigging team who reported they had successfully bottomed and were getting ready for a nights sleep. We then blasted onwards passing the second rigging team on the way back from their trip to the bottom. The rest of the trip down was fairly uneventful and by 3:30am we were at the bottom of the final pitch “the Hurricane” from here a short plod brings you to the 1000m inlet and shortly beyond this at actually at -1122m is what most teams call “the bottom” there is actually a short section of deep swimming canal to get to the sump but unless you intend to dive most people give that a miss. It had taken just six hours to get to the bottom and take some snapshots.

Martin, Cal, Biff, Dave at the bottom of the Gouffre Berger
Martin, Cal, Biff, Dave at the bottom of the Gouffre Berger

Once at the bottom the hard work begins, with the upward struggle and now as each pitch is passed more rope to carry. A brief stop at camp 2 for a revolting cup of tea drunk with a spoon and then onwards up the wet cascades to the canals – always concious of our target to be up into the dry section of cave by 3pm. In the event we had derigged all of the cave to the bottom of the first pitch on the safe side of the canals by 1pm and were safely back at Camp 1 by 2:20pm some 17 hours and 20 minutes of pretty much solid caving since entering the cave the night before. We just missed the hourly Nicola radio call in slot (surface were scheduled to listen every hour for 20 minutes) got ourselves into dry clothes and got some hot food into us. A call in at 3pm let surface know we were safe then we bedded down at 4pm for some sleep. I woke to see my watch saying 7 O’Clock but with no AM/PM I had no idea if it was tomorrow yet, we called the surface to check – still 7PM only 3 hours sleep managed – the weather had still not arrived but was still forecast. We stayed up and chatted till 10pm and then got a good sleep though till 8am the following morning – radioed in – the weather had never come, it was a dry a beautiful day and no rain was forecast – typical, but I still think we did the right thing erring on caution. A quick trip back down to derig from above the canals to Camp 1, then it was time to pack our personal gear and head out. Everything ached – my arms were pumped still from the previous days activity and it took 6 hours to get to the surface finally exiting at 7pm a full 46 Hours after entering the cave. Tea & Beer were drunk before the hour’s walk back up the hill for Pizza and more beer.

Walking back after the Bottoming trip

The caving was over for me but the rigging teams had to go in two more times to recover the gear from Camp 1. Then of course all the gear had to be lugged back up the hill to the cars with most of us making at least two retrun hikes down & up the hill.

All in all we got 12 people to the bottom (9 from our team and an additional 3 French cavers who made use of the cave being rigged to the bottom to place some new and much needed anchors) with no serious injuries it was a very successful trip. Like I said its very much a team effort and thanks to all who made it possible including Fiona who has earned many brownie points by doing much taxi driving to and from Moulier car park to the base camp in Meaudre and generally helping out – I’m told I now owe her a months gardening and that she gets to choose next years holiday! 😉

PS. WMCEG thanks for putting up with the fat one and teaching him to cave, if you need any tips on bottoming the Berger just let me know 😉

Simpsons-Swinsto exchange

Kat negotiates the Duck in Simpons Pot
Kat negotiates the Duck in Simpons Pot

I have a trip planned to the Gouffre Berger this summer so am going to be more caving focussed for the first part of the summer, this meant despite the glorious spring weather a reasonable team had been assembled to tackle a Simpsons/Swinsto [glossary “a caving trip where two teams descend different entrances to the same cave system, pass each other underground, and exit the system via the other team’s route (de-rigging any equipment left by that team on route)”]exchange[/glossary]. I went in Simpsons & out Swinsto. Both of these trips are more often done as pull downs with an exit via valley entrance. This was the first time I had done the exchange though I had once previuosly bounced Simpsons. Doing it as an exchange in my opionion makes for a much more enjoyable trip taking around 6 hours, and felt like a proper caving trip. It also means an accidental decent of Bobs Pit (which we didn’t) would be less serious, apparently it goes at VS 4c. Exiting via Swinsto is suprisingly damp with a couple of interesting climb outs. Overall a fun trip.

Juniper Gulf

Juniper Gulf is a classic Yorkshire Pothole, with its spectacular final pitch being regarded as one of if not the finest in the country. Its been on my ticklist for an embarssingly long time but events have always conspired against me.

So when I saw it on the meets list for the Northern Pennine Club this weekend I had to be there.
With 8 people heading down we decided to split into a rigging/photography team and a derigging team. So it was that George, Neil, Mark, Clive & myself set off from Greenclose at the crack of noon for the Allotment. With all the hype and expectations I had built up Juniper might have proved a disappointment but from the entrance pitch this cave is truly a gem.

Neil & Mark watch on as George rigs pitch 3
Neil & Mark watch on as George rigs pitch 3

George made short work of the rigging and we were soon past the “bad step” and down to the top of the final pitch – it was by the accounts of those there rather wet and Clive was a little disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to get the shots of the final pitch he wanted. Murmurs of its going to be very wet down there were swiftly ignored by me & I grabbed the tacke bag and headed on down the final pitch, it was a little damp but I managed to get to the bottom without drowning or freezing and bounced it, stopping for Clive to take some pics at the top of the pitch on the way up. Only Mark elected to bottom the pot as well while the others headed out. We were going to leave all but the final pitch rigged for the de-rigging team but with no sign of them we continued to derig. A good choice as it turns out as the derigging team turned around at the penultimate pitch and we did not see them until back at Greenclose.

I managed to get a couple of snapshots off and looking forward to seeing Clives pics.


Snowboarding, Downhill and X-Country Skiing

Dean showing Style in the sun

Our friends Dean (above) and Marie live in Zell am See, where Dean just started work this season as a skiing/snowboard instructor. Dean took a busman’s holiday and came snowboarding and skiing with us for the week.

We had mostly sunshine with a useful top-up of snow mid week. No great powder days but I managed to get back on ski’s for the first time in 15 years and was pleased to say that after a few reminders from Dean on technique I could still ski competently down those Reds & Blacks. Reckon I will do more of a mix of snowboarding & skiing in the future.

Fiona looking like the pro X-Country Skier

Probably one of the more interesting things we did was some X-Country skiing or Langlauf. Finding out info about X-Country in Zell am See in advance was quite difficult even with the wonders of the web. Everywhere you look claims over 200km of X-Country is available here but try to find out any specific info and blanks are quickly drawn. The tourist info in Zell & Kaprun were only able to give us a map of the immediate area and told us, incorrectly, that the Hiking Maps of the Austrian Alps: Grossglockner, Kaprun, Zell Am See (Walking Maps) did not show the x-country trails it actually has all the loipes marked as blue lines. BTW. I think 030: Zell am See – Kaprun Europa Sportregion 1:30, 000 would also prove useful.

Fiona managed to find plenty of cut, well maintained loipes in great condition to occupy her for the week doing several 20-30km days.

Marie, Trevor & I also wanted to give X-Country a go so we had a great day out with 2 hours of tution and a full days gear hire from Skischule Maresa Handl, Kaprun would definitely recommend them if you are there. After our lesson we headed out for a 12km tour on the local tracks. We all had a great day and Marie seems mad keen to keep it up.

Fiona, Marie & Trevor X-Countried out

The above photo shows the local boards that can be found at key points on the tracks.

Riding the Freeze in Risborough

Top of the main run back to the Risborough Resort

You may have noticed its been snowing, so just back from the Alps thought I’d try out the runs in Risborough over lunch.

The cover was thin but powdery off piste 😉

Didn’t rate the lift facilities but can’t complain about the transfer time from home 🙂

Mid-way down the Risboro Blue Route

On the final run into the Risborough Resort, hows that for living right on the slopes home is dead ahead!

Hows that for living close to the slopes?

Autumn Sun in Mallorca

Pete, Tish, Fiona and I had planned this Autumn trip to Mallorca way back in February with the objective of getting up Sa Gubia Normal one of the classic (some would say THE classic) Mallorcan Climbs.

Pete & Tish had already got some climbing in when we met up at our accommodation, Con Rosa, on Saturday afternoon. This is a lovely traditional Mallorcan house in the small village of Estellencs (Contact: Nadia Watkins Majorca Holiday House Estellencs). [There are other beautiful villas in Majorca to choose from if the one we used is booked.]

Suggestions of visiting the Torrent de Paries were quickly dashed when we realised time would have meant a very late finish (maybe even after midnight) so a little cragging was done at a relatively recently developed site about 20 minutes drive away. It was late so only two climbs were got in before time for tea.

Sunday we split into two teams of Pete and I & Fiona and Tish to ensure we had a strong enough climber in each party, Pete & I tackled the slight harder line which goes at grade 5 and Fiona and Tish headed up the normal route of 4+, many of the pitches and belays are common so this made for a still very sociable days climbing. It was steep but good climbing all the way up with positive holds, and good protection though aside from the belays Guiba Normal is a traditional climb rather than the bolted sport routes that are generally found on the Island.

Pete & Tish had to go home for work 😥 , Fiona and I were pretty wiped from the previous day so we had an easy bumble around Port Soller.

Some plant I brushed on Gubia normal made my hand red on Monday and by Tuesday it looked like this! 😮

Still this didn’t put us off a gentle days cragging at Sector Pipe S’estret where there are by Mallorcan standards some easier grade climbs. Fiona was pleased to get up some climbs that spat her off last time we visited the island so all in all a successful and very enjoyable mini break.

A belated post from the Dollies

OK so we’ve been back over a week, but I don’t seem to have as much time to post as everyone else seems to manage. Anyhow Dave E, Fiona, Phil, Tony, Chris and I all had great time in the Dolomites. We had a pretty intense week.

Day 1: (arrival day) we arrived in Arabba in time for some gear familiarisation and set up for which Tony was glad of as he immediately decided that he needed new via-feratta crabs (or Biners as they call em in the US). We had a nice little trip around an easy VF called Sas-de-rocia

Running totals: (100m ascent, 100m descent, 30m VF)

Day 2: OK the Colletts guys usually do a little VF called cirspitz for their intro day, we decided that whilst this was a worthwhile trip it hardly filled a day so after a 6:30am Breakfast we managed to be first on the rock and knocked this off in time to get back to Corvara for the Gondola and chair up to Piz da Lech a 3B VF. Which turned out to have a zillion people on it but we still managed to do the round in time to get the chair-lift back down (which was a relief as missing it could have cost a few hours)

Running Totals: (900m Ascent, 900m Descent, 330m VF)

Day 3: We decided to head up a classic 4B Del Trincee direct from the Gondala in Arraba, the forecast was for thunder later so another early start to ensure we got the first gondala at 9am. The crux of this route is the first 20 meters but all got up without drama. We managed to complete most of the route but as the weather came in we aborted at one of the many escape points just before the final tunnel.

Fiona took a slide on one of the loose gravelly paths and hurt her knee, our first casualty

Running Totals: (1400m Ascent, 1400m Descent, 630m VF)

Day 4: With Fiona recuperating for at least the day we decided to do something Fi had done many times before, the well loved Tridentina. This is a lovely sustained 3 hour climb with almost the entire time spent on wire (there is 1 20 minute walk just after the initial short section) Some lovely exposed positions and it’s only 5 minutes walk from the car park. This last fact means, you guessed it yet another early start to avoid the crowds, I think we managed to be on the rock for 8am. My idea was that this would be a relatively light day, but the gang were eager to do some more exercise so after hot chocolate and apple strudel at the refugio we continued on a walk up from the top of the VF. This took us around the ridge behind the refugio, and back down a “foot path” to the normal descent route from Tridentina – this foot path suddenly brought us to a very exposed, marginally protected down-climb beneath a loose boulder pile onto an icy slope that finally led back to more sensible terrain.

Running Totals: (2550m Ascent, 2550m Descent, 1030m VF)

Day 5: This was my second planned “rest” day. A nice easy trip down the lagazoi tunnels. But Fi said her leg hurts more going down than up so we decide to buck convention and climb up through the tunnels and get the gondola down. The Dolomites are full of workings from the first world war and the Lagazoi tunnels climb up and up and up through the mountain with occasional glimpses of the outside world (very Lord of the Rings). Anyhow in the event even my plan of descent via the Gondola was snubbed, fuelled up by beer and hot chocolate once again the team voted to extend the plan and we headed back down the mountain on the Austrian Troop “path” once again the definition of the word path seems lost in translation as there was quite a lot of wire, some big drops and a fantastic bridge.

Running Totals: (3200m Ascent, 3200m Descent, 1230m VF)

Day 6: Off we go to Strobel, this is the first of our trips over the Falzerago pass through Cortina to park at the Hotel Fiames. A quick Expresso then a short slog up to the start of the VF. Strobel is a great trip with lots of sections of reasonably tough climbing interspersed with walks. Although relatively low it has a real mountain day feel to it. The descent is on some very loose scree which depending on your opinion is either horrid or a whole lot of fun, I’m personally in the whole lot of fun camp, glissading down is ace. 😀 Finally through mushroom filled woods and back to Hotel Fiames for what was described by all who tried it as the very best hot chocolate in the world.

Running Totals: (4150m Ascent, 4150m Descent, 1830m VF)

Day 7: A reasonable forecast so we decided to have a go at the logistically slightly tricky point to point Ivano Dibona. This involves dropping a car at the far end then once back at the start taking the chair-lift and very strange little yoghurt pot lifts up to the top. To get on the yoghurt pots you have stand on marked spots then sprint towards the end of the lift station and throw yourself in – crazy. As we arrived at the top the weather was horrid and we nearly talked ourselves out of the trip but set off anyway. This was a really long day with some tricky down climbing in the wet with long run-outs on the wire (which always seem to end about 2 ft off the deck I’m sure they are for helping with body recovery rather than protection). The weather didn’t really let go of us all day which is a shame as I think the views would be stunning.

Running Totals: (4250m Ascent, 5750m Descent, 2330m VF)

Day 8: Despite my suggestion that we do another one of my rest days the team declared themselves knackered and today really was to be a rest day, such a shame as this was the best weather of the week and Lipella would have been great but we really did need a rest. Anyhow we had a nice little bimble on Sentrino Astaldi. This has some very interesting geology (apparently) it’s certainly pretty.

Running Totals: (4650m Ascent, 6150m Descent, 2730m VF)

Day 9: Last day and an OK forecast – bad weather not due till later – so another early start and off to VF Col Rosa. There’s about an hour and a half walk in then a 300m VF. But the weather came in as we were gearing up at the start of the cable and despite two teams pushing on ahead we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and aborted the mission. I think this was wise as the weather kept getting worse and my recall is this VF has some shiny rock and long cable run-outs just when you don’t need them. We bailed out to the simpler but pretty VF Giovanni Barbbara which takes you behind a spectacular waterfall.

Final Totals: (4850m Ascent, 6350m Descent, 2830m VF)

Thanks all for your company and a great time!