Ice Caves of Migovec

The intro

The main expedition of Migovec Maraton 2019 was looming before me, and yet I heard the call of the mountain, stronger than ever. The plan, as it finally materialised would be to drive to Slovenia and spend a couple of days using the Sheperd's Hut as a base, to continue the exploration and observation of ice caves of the Migovec Plateau.

M17 was a clear aim, since it had proved an impressive and worthwile object of study as of the previous superaction. It was always known to host ice in large quantities and evolved as a kind of tourist trip; I had, until very recently eschewed such trips on the basis that they deterred from true exploration. The second objective was identified after reading early reports of the exploration of Planika Jama, yet another of those caves one accessed by an abseil from the Migovec Plateau, though not as long as the Primadona entrance route. A ice wall was described and this aroused my interest, for Planika could perhaps offer another insight in the decadal underground ice dynamics of the area.

Weather permitting, Charlotte, a caver and colleague of mine at Innsbruck University, accepted to accompany me and Jana in our ice cave pursuit, and so it was that the mid-June window opened up on our schedules. From then on, it was a simple case of going back to Migovec for what turned out to be fruitful caving with excellent company.

Monday 17th June - Travelling to Tolmin

Charlotte and I meet up at the university building, finishing up the packing and counting the bags we each have. One large bag, one tackle sack, and then a crate filled with French wine, but whose true destiny is to carry home some French stalagmites. The samples I intend to take from Slovenia will be altogether smaller and I silently slip fifty or so small plastic bags into a darren drum, which soon vanishes in the depths of the 80L backpack.

We travel to the hire car desk, located at the Innsbruck airport and grab the keys to our white little VW Polo. It smelled so clean and fresh then!

We drive back and park on the plaza in front of the University building before loading the car. The boot is soon full and both back seats are overflowing with a random assortment of items in shopping bags, the product of last minute reminders to take slippers, ice screws, more wine and sunscreen... Thankfully for the putative third traveller, they are not here to experience the bout of mild squishitis.

Off to Slovenia then, with the aim of spending four days there; two full days on the mountain and travel days either side. We take the Brenner pass and soon miss our turn east to Bruneck. No matter, says I; it had, in fact, been my fault as I had assumed the exit from the motorway to be further down the road than where it actually was and foolishly turned off the navigation device. We turn around and find the correct way on, wending our way through the Puster valley, going up and up and up, until the next pass. Then it's down again, and up again. And so on, until we decide to stop for lunch. We locate an underground supermarket from which delicacies are procured, which will aid greatly in our Migovec pursuits.

We swap drivers, and go up the next pass, then down. Around a corner drives a massive bus, but I refuse to slow down. Too late I blink, and the right wing of the car scrapes the safety barrier. We stop to appraise the damage, and conclude that it is a clean, stylish scrap, and that, if anything, we should be paid for the service we just did to the car.

We stop again, for a coffee and bathroom break, before resuming our course towards to Tolmezzo, where we swap drivers again. The scenery, which had always been mountainous takes an even more forbidding air as we approach the massif of Kanin. The valley floor is full of white gravel, a braided rivers meandering between banks of cobbles. Above, the clouds gather, shrouding the sheer cliffs of Kanin in coal grey; the wind picks up, and the road is quite deserted.

Bravely we plough on eastward and soon, the small road leading to the pass of Uccea (Učja) branches off invitingly. The carriage way narrows down to a single lane, and potholes appear, sprinkled liberally over the asphalt surface. Then it's up some hairpin turns in a forest where boulders the size of cars are covered in moss and fallen leaves, giving it a most peculiar feeling of old magic, says Charlotte. Finally the forest opens up; we had hitherto been entirely alone on the road, but we are overtaken by a biker, no doubt thrilled by the twists and turns of the small out of the way pass. He drives down the other side and we follow, breaking out into a small clearing before hitting a section of sharp turns that appears endless at first.

On the outskirts of Kanin

We cross the border post into Slovenia. Here again, everything looks quite abandoned. It's also clear it has rained recently, and mists are rising from the wooded slopes of the hills near Bovec. We turn south, towards Kobarid and thence to Tolmin.

To our right, a great swath of azure and golden sunlight. To our left, an impenetrable sheet of rain masks the Krn massif as we approach Kobarid. A couple of minutes later we get a dousing, but it is soon over and driving slickly on the still wet asphalt, we glimpse the Tolmin castle, then the town, and finally, in its shining glory, Migovec.

But first, we stop at the Mercator to stock up on dried fruits and nuts and beer, before heading to the Kovacija, where Jana has arranged for us to pick up keys to the Shepherd's hut. I grab the envelope and order a couple of beers, awaiting the arrival of Fratnik. Soon, the familiar silhouette appears beyond the sun-shades, and he sits down with us.

We chat a bit to get the latest news on the local club, and also touch upon a recent rescue on Kanin he was involved with. In the meantime, Jana lets us know that Antonio will be up at Ravne, to take some of our gear up on the motorbike. we thank her for this, then take our leave of Fratnik, with the intention of driving up to Ravne, pack some tacklesacks for Antonioa to take up and set off ourselves for Planina Kal, where we'll spend the next three nights.

So it's up the familiar road, each hairpin so much more enjoyable with a small car than with a loaded minibus, and as the last light paints it in gold and russet, we end up at the village of Tolminske Ravne. 924 m elevation. Another 500 m to go before Planina Kal, but from then on we'll be walking.

Antonio rocks up, finds the bike and straps three bulging tackle-sacks over the front wheel, before heading off and up. The high rumble of the engine is soon engulfed by the forest, and Charlotte and I set off, à la fraîche, as they say in France. Twists and turns in the forest. The soft rustle of leaves in the fresh breeze. Cracks and snaps of twigs underfoot and the furtive steps of a deer nearby.

Antonio with the tacklesacks strapped to the motorbike helps us move equipment up the mountain

The huts! We finish the remaining zigzags and greet the small assembly outside Kal. Žganje? Of course. Charlotte, you didn't leave any for me? No matter, there's more; he says, he, Walter. Made by my grandfather. 51 percent. Ah!

The moon rises behind low clouds to the south east, large, golden and full to bursting, and we sit back on the new and comfortable wooden benches. A quick meal is rustled up, and contented, we fall into a stream of conversation with the other guests of the hut. There's Walter, forty years a shepherd, who once worked on Matajur and now herds cattle in Čadrg. Then Jani, his employer, farmer in that same village, and neighbour to Aljoša. Yuri and his wife, Jana, archaeologist whose aim for the next day is to investigate known early Iron Age and Roman Era sites near Zeleni Vhr. And Gorazd, the Triglav National Park ranger, leading the above up Migovec the following day.

The evening is whiled away in small talk, email addresses are exchanged, and maps of the relevant caves shown and discussed.

Tuesday 18th June

Sunshine streams through the glass windows of the upper storey, nudging me out of the snug sleeping bag. I see Charlotte brought one of these aeroplane masks, and she's still fast asleep. Jana and Juri get up, so I follow suit, padding across the smooth concrete floor and out onto the grassy ledge outside the Shepherd's hut. The sky is clear, and rolling mists unfurl themselves below and in the sleepy Soča valley. Charlotte joins us down, while Gorazd heats up a jug of coffee. A quick breakfast, and we repack the bags, distributing some equipment to our helpers, Walter, Jani and Juri.

We set off before 8am, brushing past still dew covered dwarf pine, up along the zigzags that run up the side of Mig. The air is still cool, and with no time to lose, we head up to the portal and onto the Plateau. We find the Bivi with the receding snow plug now uncovering half the circle of stones. The rock bridge still spans the shake-hole proudly. Underneath, we gather the two lengths of 50 m rope left over from 2018 and they vanish into tackle-sacks.

We change into our full caving gear and stride across the Plateau to M17, our first objective of the day. We cross the grassy ridge which runs between two series of shake-holes, the Hare and Moth caves to the south, M17 and M19 to the north. Soon, we stride up to the entrance slope, which opens onto the 40 m first pitch.

Some more kit repacking before the descent. Stones dislodged rattle down the slope and hit ledges on their way down. The final impact muffled by snow.

We descend the pitch, and already we see that the annual variation in snow levels is beyond what was expected. We land on a snow cone almost 10 m higher than it was in October --- Jana and I had then landed on a rubble slope, gone down several metres before reaching an unimpressive little berg of snow, not even 1 m thick. We put on the crampons, and crouch between the snow and the ceiling between the base of the pitch and the main chamber from which issue the typical gurgle and splash of melting ice and streams so generated.

From the ceiling of the main chamber hang three large stalactites more than 5 metres tall. One is actually a pillar, but fast melting, its crystalline surfaces coated in a film of flowing water. The ice rink is otherwise much the same, one new thick layer of clear ice covering the last year's surface, here and there, rocks are encased in the ice.

I automatically start looking for the loggers we had placed in August, since the snow levels are quite high, I am worried they are now buried in snow, but no! Here they are, and both register as logging on the app. We download their data and carry on the usual inspection.

One question I had prior to the trip was whether the snow tunnel identified in autumn is now a permanent feature of the cave, or whether it is just a seasonal occurrence, at the ice level minimum. The snow cone appears impenetrable though, and the snow tunnel is nowhere to be seen. There was therefore enough snowfall and avalanching to plug the gap during the winter.

Onwards to our further aim, which is to reach the very deepest point of the cave. One cause for concern is of course whether the way through the ice is open at this time of year, given the amount of new snow, and the apparent new 5 - 10 cm of ice on the ice rink chamber. But this proves unfounded, as putting the ice screws on the cone, we find the deep pitch open, and the snow slope looks definitely more inviting than the rubble slope we had to surmount back in October.

We reach the end of the second 50 m rope exactly where Jana and I stopped the preceding year and whip out the remaining 45 m rope taken from Kal for this precise eventuality. The walls glitter everywhere with hoarfrost, and on the then ice-free wall, a vast array of frozen waterfalls catch the eye. Another ice screw Y-hang and we progress a little further down, landing on a short slope of cobbles frozen together, with solid wall on one side and clear ice on the other.

Impressive ice stalactites inside M17

The lowest point of the cave is then found, barely 5 m below the previous terminus, choked with a variety of angular rocks. Space beyond can be seen, but the rocks lie close to their natural angle of repose, and any digging effort will have to contend with a vast reservoir of blocks upslope, just waiting to close it down again.

We pause for lunch, treats bought in Italy coming in handy and decide to head up to sample around the pillar of ice, making use of the 'sampling platform'. This is a cut out chopping board and compartmentalised Tupperware box acquired at no great cost from IKEA, together with various components --- clips, slings, eye screws (M5), circular magnets --- sourced from BAUHAUS Tirol, which used properly allows one person to drill an ice screw into a cliff of ice, retrieve the crushed ice by pushing it out with a wooden rod slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the screw (14 mm for the purpose of the present exercise), and capturing the ejecta in a sample bag, itself held firm and upright within the Tupperware, by an oval opening cut to this effect in the lid. With this attire we take some wood samples along the strata apparent at the base of the ice, and then sample ice directly. Charlotte writes down observations while I toil away with the little sampling station on my side.

Frozen waterfalls inside M17

It all goes smoothly, and we decide to head out, sampling wood more coarsely on the way out. Well, things go smoothly apart from both batteries of the phone and GoPro running out much faster in the cold. Drat. Back in the main chamber, we repack our kit bags for the final ascent and collect water under drips and snow from the cones for comparison with the old ice at the bottom and start the derig of the entrance pitch.

The sun is out still, but darkening skies to the west and south prompt us to walk briskly to the bivi, where we deposit the rigging and bolting gear. The time is half past four, so we decide that with enough light and time on our hands, we can pay a quick visit to M16, and in particular Hotline, where the two loggers Jana installed the previous year ought to be. Hotline, a horizontal breezy passage located just below Brezno Strahov pitch in M16 is quite shallow and we crave a little bit more non-fussy rope-work.

We amble over to this entrance of the system, taking the well-trodden paths across dwarf pine and staircase karst exposures; M1 appears on the left, gaping, but we shun the place, heading down a nearby shakehole where a pair of rusty drums guard the entrance crawl of M16.

Up the little hole on the left, and down the entrance pitch. Charlotte doubts the usefulness of one of the deviations on the way down, but I assure her it is there for a purpose. We also enjoy the new bolts put in the previous summer to replace some of the old original spits, I think Jack did that. Down, traverse, down, squeeze and climb. We're at Brezno Strahov and then at the climb into Hotline. Already the breeze can be felt.

We step off into the large passage, down in the direction of Gladiators' Traverse and start looking for the loggers that Jana placed. One we find almost immediately and take down, the other we search for a longer while, but eventually, as I wander across to the downwind section of Hotline, Charlotte finds it. Relief! Time to turn back and head out, thinking of the good meal we'll be able to rustle up at Kal. Charlotte leads the way. The take-offs at pitch heads are super comfortable, she says. We climb out of the M16 shake-hole in a very light drizzle and leave most of the gear in the Bivi, that is rope, maillons and bolting kit. Items of clothing that will need to dry at Kal we take down with us and hike down to the Shepherd's Hut with significantly lighter bags that what we had started with, clouds swirling around.

Some way down the dwarf pine zigzags, we peer at the huts and see small figures standing out; hey ho! resounds across the valley, and an answer soon comes up. Then behind me, a soft thud and a chortle, Charlotte slipping sideways on the now grassy path, though not for the last time.

At the Shepherd's Hut, Jana brings together a scrumptious meal: cevapčiči, peppers and pasta with vegetable ragout. The usual medicinal dose of žganje helps us catch up on the last year's events. Charlotte helps me drive all the headspace out of the ice samples, and we let dry the wood samples on one of the wooden benches out of the innermost chamber of the hut. Then we break open the Patagonian wine brought to Slovenia by Charlotte, though like the Laško, carried up with the motorbike., at a great cost to our carbon footprint. A little later, we have a fuller golden moon rising above the clouds.

Plan for the next day: access Planika Jama via abseil from the western edge of the Migvec Plateau. Threat of the next day: huge thunderstorm in the afternoon.

Wednesday 19th June

Dawn is again glorious, but soon wisps of cloud darken the horizon. We're much slower getting up and ready, but by 9am we're on the way up the zigzags. Wind picks ups. I forge ahead to start packing the bags, but only manage a five minutes lead by the end of the climb. Jana and Charlotte are hot on my heels.

With one tacke-sack each, we amble across the plateau towards B9, where the abseil to Planika was rigged about ten years ago. This is one small valley just north of the Primadona abseil, but surprisingly tricky to find when clouds rise up from the Tolminka valley and cover the whole land in an impenetrable whiteness. The craggy headland of B9 appears out of the mist ahead, saving us further fruitless and dwarf-pine rich meanderings.

Charlotte spots a bolt, and Jana scouts the way ahead. Now and then, the Polog valley appears, as if at the end of a large cloud tunnel, a good distance below us. I head off into B9 to look for the Moon Door, a small hole towards the bottom of the cave which looks out on the cliff below. Having recently completed the edition of the Hollow Mountain, I remember a certain photo by Rhys Tyers where Kenneth, erstwhile caver had posed below a Y-hang, which certainly had been bolted that year, with the aid of drilling machine.

Getting kit ready before the abseil to Planika

Inclined to try out this curious route which starts with rock solid anchors protected from rain and snow, I call Jana and Charlotte and explain the new plan: abseil from B9 and reach the closest entrance of Planika, which Jana and Jarv had accessed over a decade previously. We reassemble in the small chamber above the take-off of the route and throw the rope down, on which I abseil to a ledge and place a rebelay bolt. Not twenty metres below, a wide grassy, sloping ledge beckons, and beyond the gaping 'second entrance' of Planika, which looks very much like Primadona, nestled against a spur of rock which makes a right angle to the cliff. Just to the north of this entrance is a small hole leading to a tiny alcove. Blackness on the far side draws the eye, and over the edge, where two spits are visible, one can peer directly down the main shaft of the cave, a good 40 metres with a faint glimmer of white at the bottom.

Jana joins me, and then Charlotte, who takes up the rigging duties and soon disappears down the hole, placing an early deviation two metres from our lip of rock, and then a rebelay about halfway down. We join her on a cone of hard snow, around which a wide rim has melted out, allowing access to the collapse blocks below. As in M17, seasonal ice covers the walls of the shaft, frozen waterfalls seemingly issuing of rifts far too small to accomodate them, graveyards of collapsed blocks of large icicles buidling. Where drips fall on the hard snow of the cone, deep pits are melted out, which we must avoid as we climb up to access the far side of the chamber spanned by a small rock-bridge, where the nebulous sheen of sunlit water vapour is visible.

Our disto-resurvey of Planika (plan view)

The next chamber is opened by various skylights more than twenty metres above, and the very large 'second entrance' (see the survey), about ten metres above the apex of the snow. Jana shouts out from behind that the cave is barely recognisable, given the decrease of snow and ice levels, so much so that the access to 'Acre Lane', a rift issuing from the far side of the second chamber is now impossible without a 5 m climb. The 'wall' of ice described below that pitch (an area named 'Snowcold' on the 2007 survey) has all but disappeared, and we now stroll down on the cone of snow for a good thirty metres to the previous pushing front. The two small leads marked now make a short loop with a rock pillar in the middle, and at the very bottom, a short section of 'igloo' leads off, but closes soon to nothing where the ice meets wall meets the rubble floor.

Lunch break: in a very cosy alcove near the bottom of the snow slope we produce a mixture of fennel bread rolls, bressaola, Čadrg cheese and tomatoes from the darren drums and have a bite. Charlotte takes out a small, white poncho and proceeds to wrap herself in it, taking on the appearance of the abominable snow-woman. It's obviously chilly down in this sort of snow cellar and after a quick luncheon, we're keen to get going again, with a disto-survey of the cave, so we can compare snow levels a decade apart.

It is unfortunate that the snow turns to ice only a couple of metres before the end of the cave, it is very coarsely crystalline and clear; there are no samples of trapped organic matter to be taken from it. Even the igloo part lacks any kind of layering or stratification. No wall of ice to sample in this cave at present: it was maybe the case a decade ago, but it is more likely that even then, the ice there was modern. The surveys suggest the ice thickness is never more than a couple of metres on the 'Snow Cold' area, and in fact it appears that most of the material there is hard snow rather than compact ice. There is certainly no large ice rink like in M17, which is fed by no less than three dolines. Planika only has one large entrance, and it is under an overhanging cliff on the west side of the plateau, so it probably never had the same kind of snow input as M17.

At the bottom of the second 'main' entrance of Planika

Jana takes the big fenix light and starts shooting a couple of pictures while Charlotte and I survey out of the cave towards the big pitch. Then she zooms up and lights up the chamber from above while I struggle to get splay shots around the snow cone. Charlotte exits the cave in turn and I ascend after her, derigging as we go. At the alcove we swap places --- Jana is already going back up to B9, so that Charlotte continues to derig the abseil. I head outside, pass the rebelay and shelter in the B9 lower entrance, where Jana helps me pass the bags through. We take the tackl-sacks to the upper entrance, but upon emerging, the ambient light dims suddenly, and fat droplets hit the bare limestone. Pat, pat, pat. Plink,plink. Now hail is coming down, and we hurry back down to the Moon Door to see how Charlotte is faring, and it appears she's prussiked up really fast to take shelter at the upper Y-hang. Her oversuit looks quite damp, but she smiles it off nonetheless. We'll all be wet walking down the mountain to Kal anyway.

The rain lets up a little, but the clag has come in and without flaming stakes or Ariadne's thread back to the much-beloved shakehole, we pick a cautious way up the grassy ridge to the sunset spot. We repack the bags in the Bivi and a series of bright flashes catch our attention. Rolling thunder. We look at one another, wait tensely and after a couple of minutes, decide to go for it, exit the Bivi and get down the mountain.

The booms and crashes of thunder become more distant as we zigzag past sodden dwarf pines and eventually, the thunderstorm passes away to the north. A sunburst through a cathedral of clouds. Kal revealed. Charlotte slips again on the grassy path near the hut.

The place is now much emptier: only Walter remains, and Jana soon follows, as she's homeward bound that same evening. It's not even six in the afternoon, but we have barely a respite: hanging and drying gear, repacking yet again the bags for the morrow's early descent to the car.

A festival of colours at sunset again. The grass is still damp and the air is quite cool, but in the valley's there are yet more clouds rising from the tree canopy. Inside, the fire glows red in the hearth and under its glow, we complete the writing up of the day's observations, and continue the drawing of the Planika disto-survey.

Thursday 20th June

The alarm goes off at 6am, and within one hour, we're hitting the beaten path down to Tolminske Ravne. The car's then loaded --- the scent is not so fresh now --- but no, matter, Charlotte drives down into the valley clouds which, for the moment hide the entire Soča valley from view. So there, it's not always sunny in Tolmin.

A surprisingly filtered photo of the Tolminka valley, by Charlotte Honiat

Tanguy Racine