Jo Berger, photographer and discoverer of the eponymous gouffre has died on Tueday aged 74. Berger was part of a small but passionate team of Grenoble based pot-holers. Their group included a certain Fernand Petzl, a St Ismier artisan who had specialised in the production of caving gear. In 1953 Berger managed to climb down into some fissures on the Sornin plateau, these gaps lead into a large cave complex. In 1956 the world record of 1000 negative meters was reached. However Berger could not have anticipated the effect his discovery would have on mountain rescue some 50 years later.
The gouffre Berger has been dubbed the Everest of pot-holes. It attracts spelios from all over the world and a permit system is in place. Today the cave complex stretches over 21km under the Vercors and reaches to an astonishing depth of -1271 meters.
Like Everest the cave is not without its tragedies. On the 6th of July 1996 a group of six English and Hungarians attempted the Berger. The were trapped in the cave for seven days after some of the worst summer storms on record hit the Vercors plateau. The rescue operation involved some 150 volunteers from the local cave rescue team as well as specialist from the fire brigade, Gendarmerie and CRS. The operation saved the lives of four of the group in extreme circumstances. The operation cost the local community of Engins 45,000 Euros (eventually reimbursed by the regional council) and re-launched the debate in France on free mountain rescue services.
Free rescue services have existed since a Royal Ordnance of 11 March 1733! The 1985 Mountain Law established the right for local communities to charge for rescue within ski domains but they still had to pick up the tab for other rescue operations if the Gendarmerie had to use private contractors such as helicopter companies. A law passed in February 2002 giving local communities increased power seemed to offer a way out, it would now be possible for Mayors to pass rescue costs on to the victims or their insurers. The law was seized upon by 50 communities in the Savoie but caused a bitter debate in the mountain community. In May 2004 government expert, Marcel Pérès delivered a report on the subject and subsequently the government has confirmed that all mountain rescue costs, outside of ski domains, will be born by the state.
The exploration of the Berger is covered by the classic film “Siphon moins 1122” by G. Marry et J Berger.
More information on French Mountain Rescue Costs