Jana Čarga, Zdenko Rejec, Chloe Snowling, Simon Steidle, Tanguy Racine
The beautiful mountain landscape around Migovec may be the perfect destiny for holidays in the chaotic 2020 summer. We, Tanguy, Chloe and Simon planned to look out for some new caves and survey existing ones. We were accompanied by Jana for the whole stay and had many other members from the Tolmin caving club popping in and out over the course of the five days.
Less than two weeks after the return of our ice caves expedition to Migovec in early July, I received an email from Jana asking about the next 'summer action'. I envisaged some work of a more exploratory nature than the last trip and indicated that at least some surface features readily recognisable on satellite and Lidar imagery warranted further investigations. One of those was north west of Tolminski Kuk, on a perched plateau where scree, dwarf pine and idyllic grassy meadows vied for supremacy. Alhough the altitude there could never provide a high entrance to system migovec, or at least, high enough to make it more than 1 km deep, such an area could be the gateway to the north, and the other side of watershed.
Despite the short notice in announcing the trip, Simon Steidle and Chloe Snowling, both currently in Innsbruck and in need of spending their contract holidays, agreed to join, spurred no doubt in part by the lengthy descriptions of exploration and tales of derring-do I had recounted on our previous adventures together. Simon had not been caving much since the visit to Doubs six months earlier, but we had managed to cram in a couple of SRT refreshers at a climbing crag near Innsbruck. Chloe, an accomplished climber, had also joined a couple of caving trips with the research group in the meantime. Given the technical and demanding nature of alpine caving, we agreed to restrict our actions to shallow caves, hoping to make once more use of the cooking and sleeping facilities at Kal. This meant there was a good deal more hiking to and from the cave than actual caving but as the weather remained stable, sunny and not too hot, it proved no bad thing. For once, I could go back from Slovenia with a tan to speak of, and yet we caved everyday!
Thursday 6th August
We reached Tolmin after a six-hour drive from Innsbruck, hiked up to the hut with all of our gear and decided to stay there for the night. Yet, we made our way up to the bivi to unpack the equipment and have it drying over the weekend which was forecasted to yield nothing but sunshine.
We packed my little VW Polo freshly arrived from France in Innsbruck for the journey to Slovenia in the morning of Thursday, picking up Chloe and Simon along the way, before driving across the Alps. We swapped drivers near Salzburg and Simon got us smoothly over the Tauern to Villach, and then into Slovenia at the Predel pass. Tolmin was already under a blazing 30°C sunshine when we arrived, stopping briefly at Mercator to find some nuts and dried fruit (as some will know already, I do love my prunes). Then it was off to Ravne, where construction works continue on the stretch of road above Zadlaz. At the parking spot across the community house, we munched on some (still hot) pizza slices bought at Mercator before distributing the rest of the food according to our weight preferences for the hike up to Kal. Under the three o'clock sun, we began the ascent, quickly passing into the cool shade of the forest zigzags.
'Your bag is not heavy enough' said Zdenko, as I trudged up to the middle hut some time later. 'You walk too fast, you need at least 5 kilos more'.
I could do nothing but sigh disbelieving at this pronouncement; my bag was as heavy as I dared make it for the first day. Zdenko's next utterance ('You need a drink') was altogether more apt.
The drinks were produced, and we soon made the necessary presentations. Zdenko and Jana would be staying with us the next day to reach our objectives. We then discussed how to proceed for the sleeping arrangements (either Kal or Migovec), since there was permit to put up several tents for a week on the Plateau. Dejan Ristic and Andrej Fratnik would be hiking up on Friday evening, with the intention of caving in Vrtnarija and expanding 'Roaring' the next day.
Given the location of the surface shaft that I wanted to investigate, and to which Jana and Zdenko had this very day reconnoitred a 'way', we eventually decided to fall back to a Kal based expedition. We did not want to have to hike up and down Kuk with heavy bags, when the 1500 m mule path from Kal led us almost directly underneath the cave in question. 'Almost directly', as Chloe would later point out, was a slightly misleading term.
The other outcome of this briefing at the command tent so to speak, was that we went up to the bivy before sunset to open the barrels again and find some supplies. There we made a cursory triage of food items that were already out of date (some twenty Jamaica ginger cakes had been left over for instance), or either superficially mouldy (wooden handles of the Le Creuset frying pans) or smelling suspicious (a good deal of rope). Things were left to air and dry wherever possible. We took down some fish tins, damp hollow mountains and maps and some 50 m of 9 mm rope which we might need exploring. The paper-based items were left at Kal for now, to dry thoroughly, while the rope was replaced in the bivy at the end of the week.
I think neither Chloe nor Simon were particularly impressed by the amount of gear left in this shakehole, and might even have been put off by some of the smells. But then again, to them, the bivi was just a shakehole full of unnessary gear, not the only source of cheese, tea biscuits within a three hour walk.
Friday 7th August
After a comfortable night we packed our gear, filled the bottles with water and Vitaminski and left for Planja to do the first descent into Bertijeva Jama (Berti’s Pot). Zdenko joined the four of us, bolts were put in place and we were soon standing 15m lower on top of some ice – where we stood for a good while and got cold feet while Tanguy squeezed himself further down between ice and rock. The passaged proved to be very sound muffling as we had people waiting and shouting on both ends. Finally, we could establish a rope-wiggling-signal to make our way safely down to what seemed to be the bottom. After a couple of minutes Jana removed some stone and followed a draught – but just a tiny bit further under the ice into a dead end. After the survey was complete, we struggled back down through a swathe in the dwarf pines and decided to relish the luxury of the caving hut for the next night and nights to come.
The next day saw us exploring and surveying the pothole long known to shepherds of Planja, visible from Tolminski Kuk but more easily accessible from below. The mule path above Kal (towards Prehovadci) stays about the 1500 m contour for a while, heading north towards Kuk and crossing the various gullies which come off the western cliffs of the Migovec plateau. Beyond the shrine of the Madonna, the path takes a turn to the west, and it is somewhere along this E-W stretch that a crude path snakes up, through dwarf pine at first, and then up a scree slope to the area below Planja. This climb was rather steep and unforgiving and even the mid-morning sun made itself felt.
Right in the centre of the Planja 'bowl', where the scree meets the dwarf pine, a wide shakehole with a tenuous rockbridge presented itself.
The snow cone could be seen from the top, some twenty metres down. We got changed and started rigging the cave, which was to be named after a local shepherd, Berti, who had alerted JSPDT members to the existence of this cave. We elected to rig the smaller opening and with one rebelay, we reached the top of the snow, the only way on, a crevasse between incredibly dodgy rock and solid ice.
There was still ample space to descend, and I went down first showering shingle underneath me. In the chill darkness, the crevasse continued down another fifteen or so metres, before reaching a chamber with a dry, icefree aven coming in. Relieving the rope of tension, I looked around, shouted rope free, then whistled and settled down to wait for the others.
After what seemed an age, I saw the rope being pulled up and down in systematic fashion (someone rigging their descender I thought). This continued a while until I ran out of patience: whistleblows had gone unanswered and shouting yielded nothing. I gave the rope a sharp pull, then ascended back up. Jana, Simon and Chloe were waiting on top of the snow cone for a 'rope free'...
Due to this lack of vocal connection, Jana sensibly organised a rope signal and went down to have a look. Chloe, then Simon and I followed back down to start the survey. Jana surprised me by commenting on a fairly strong draught issuing from the base of the snow cone. She and Simon proceeded to enlarge the opening and move a few rocks, using them as hammers on the solid ice, while Chloe and I surveyed the bottom chamber. We had hardly finished drawing up that Jana, SRT kit off, broke through the ice squeeze and found a little igloo underneath the main ice body. Unfortunately, the draught was immediately lost; it may have been seeping through the rubble below the ice, or a local phenomenon driven by the cool ice body.
Bertijeva Jama is 50 m deep and the ice free 4 m aven near the bottom remains unclimbed. Further discussion with Stane (who had been at the entrance some twenty years prior) revealed that the snow surface had lowered by as much as 10 m.
Saturday 8th August
For this day we decided to tick another checkbox of the Migovec-caving-To-Do-list by finally doing a proper survey of the 200m coincidence cave. This was a welcome gain in caving experience for Chloe and I and knowledge transfer was enhanced by Tanguy teaching the use of the Disto for surveying. On our way to the entrance the four of us were accompanied by Izi, Jana’s husband, and their three children who were outspokenly keen to explore a cave. We arrived at the cave no more than 30 minutes after leaving the hut. There the kids’ spirit of discovery quickly fell apart in the presence of a fresh and strong draft and a small and dirty squeeze into the first chamber. Digging, explosives and the cave being rigged made our trip easy and nice. A good five hours later data collection was finished and we were desperate for the dinner Izi had prepared in the meantime.
I don't have much to add here.
Coincidence is a very interesting cave in its own right. A trip to the far reaches is sprinkled with a nice variety of squeezes, tight pitch-heads and small drippy chambers; it also requires constant changes from descent to ascent, and vice-versa.
The logger placed there last year by Jana, just inside the cave entrance registers the temperature/humidity variations. Coincidence clearly acts as a lower entrance to a large system, blowing out a steady flow of 5°C, saturated air during the summer months. This situation is reversed during cold air events in winter, where the outside, drier air is sucked in, cooling the entrance passage.
As far as the survey goes, only one obvious way-down was left unsurveyed on the trip, but bolts at the pitch head suggest it was checked out and subsequently derigged. We also stayed away from one wet climb, which again had been derigged, presumably because the cave was dead afterwards. On the whole, we surveyed just over 200 m, for a depth of 50 m, Jana and Chloe taking turns with the disto. The cave is locked in a 350°-170° trend and the nearest approach to the migovec system is 170 m to the end of Choke-a-Bloke. There are still 155 m of depth to go!
In the evening, Chloe, Simon and I played scat late into the evening, until Fratnik and Rile came back from their trip to Vrtnarija. The constriction in Roaring had finally been passed! Fratnik explained that the cave continues beyond for a short while, but this was unsurveyed, and I was given to understand that some digging is required for further progress.
Sunday 9th August
The last objective – the search for a new cave – was tackled by walking up some scree slopes underneath Gondolin. Although all the overhangs and possible cave entrances which were spotted from down below, the ascent was a success. Tanguy spotted a more promising possible entrance which will require abseiling and can be done in a future trip. Most importantly he also stumbled over a hole at the rim of a small dwarf pine patch. The short decent unveiled a chamber of decent size (20 x 3 x 5 m) which continued with a small climb into a dead end. As the cave is rather small and the entrance was (somewhat) hidden under a pinus mugo (dwarf pine) we decided to call the cave system “Mugo”. Wait cave ‘system’? Yes, system! There is a 2nd entrance only few meters next to the first one. It was successfully proven to be useable for both entering and exiting the cave. During the final survey out, once again, Jana removed a couple of stones and found another 15m of cave passage which extended the cave to its final size of 40 m. On our way back we received a proper shower when the thunderstorm hit. While most welcome for personal hygiene after the fourth day of caving and hiking, it also meant that the drying bivi equipment had to be stowed wetter than before…
I like this. Simon summarises, our key findings, while I expand in far greater detail than necessary our comings and goings.
We formed a plan to check out some alcoves on the western Migovec cliffs. These are visible from the mule path at the shrine of Madonna and lie to the north of the Monatip entrance.
Our chief aim was to walk up to a rectangular dark spot seen below the impressive overhang of Gondolin. Naturally, the site (and others beside) turned out to be less than five metres long, but on the way we stumbled upon two connecting and draughting holes in the scree. You would have been hard pressed to see them from the path, or indeed from the cliff edge above.
Before exploring this cave however, we climbed up and north, into the next valley. This is where I spotted a large cliff side entrance above us, but still some way down the cliff. At first, I thought this might be the entrance to Jailbreak, but I looked far too large to be it. Back at the hut, I browsed through the Hollow Mountain and in particular the 2006 chapter, where valleys and caves of the western cliffs are tagged and described, but I could not find any match. Good candidate for another abseil?
Heading back down, we risked a look inside the two draughting holes mentioned before. This led to the bottom of a vadose pit, whose downstream side had been trunctated by the slope in two places, yielding the two entrances to the cave. A 5 m climb up led to the upper part of the pit and the non-anthropic 'upstream' end of the cave.
To complicate matters however, a cool draught issued from the wall just inside the top entrance. Jana moved some rocks to uncover a draughting horizontal crawl, followed by a small chamber with calcite popcorn on the walls and an upwind continuation: a bedrock tube with cobble floor, steadily draughting in our faces as we tried to peer past a bend. This passage heads northeast, into the mountain!
Mugo, as we called the cave is 38 m long and 7 metres deep; it lies 70 metres west of Gondolin and there is an 80 m elevation difference between the entrances. Now there's only one option to continue the exploration of this small draughting cave: digging the tube!
The survey done, we headed back to Kal, finding across the gully a traversing trail which led us directly to the Primadona trail. Crossing several gullies at high level, we reached the mule path easily, just as fat droplets started falling. The thunderstorm was short lived, but it did affect many items in the bivi, that we had left out to air-dry in the previous days. Bother!
Monday 10th August
This is already the day of returning to Austria. We walked down to the parking lot and made it to the river Soča around noon time to have a refreshment (and proper wash).
The hospitality and kind company of the folks from the Tolmin caving club as well as the luxury of staying at their hut made it a very nice and unforgettable caving weekend!
Yeah, that Zirben schnapps was quite good, wasn't it?