Summer Action

Tanguy Racine, Chloe Snowling, Andrej Fratnik, Iztok Mozir, Dejan Ristic, Jana Čarga, Zdenko Rejec

Thursday 29th July 2021

We arrived at Kal just after 8.30pm, after a twilight hike up the forest zigzags between Ravne, where we parked the car, and the mountain hut, which would be our refuge for the coming week. Back in Tolmin, the car thermometer had indicated 30°C, and sensibly, we waited around just a little, shopping for various food items, before starting the walk up. The heat of the day had mostly dissipated by the time we entered the hut and, with the fast fading light, the Summer triangle already showed in the southern sky (Vega, Altair, Deneb).

Chloe and I had driven from Innsbruck, bringing an assortment of camping and caving gear that I packed very inefficiently into the back of the car - there were only two of us. Intent on managing just one carry up for the week, a surprising amount of stuff remained at Ravne, while we struggled to cram everything else that was deemed essential into the hiking bags.

At the hut, Fratnik, Zdenko, Jana and Izi were already busy preparing the evening meal and offered us a welcome sip of žganje. Later, we caught up over many cups of fruit tea, and discussed the plans for the forthcoming trips. With a window of relatively dry weather forecast over the next two days, we decided to visit the deep branches Primadona in two teams (Izi and Fratnik, Chloe and I), while Jana and Zdenko went over to caves discovered the previous summer in the area below Vrh Planja. The hope, fuelled in no small part by the detailed study of the rotating survey, was to connect the two deep branches of Primadona, shake hands and head back out for tea and medals.

The new resident moves in

Friday 30th July 2021

It took me a long time to get everything packed in the morning and Izi was clearly chomping at the bit before we were ready to leave Kal. In my defence, a new resident of Kal had made its distracting appearance just after breakfast. What is one to do faced with a cute rabbit sauntering across the sun-kissed meadows below the hut?

Izi, Fratnik and Zdenko (who was helping carry some of their gear) left at a blistering pace leaving Chloe and I to make our own way to the entrance of Prima, from below. Despite having walked this route a few times before, the two-year break made my memory less certain and I went up one valley too early! Failing to find the obvious path through dwarf pine, I apologised to Chloe about my route finding (or lack thereof), and called a swift retreat from the inhospitable valley, deciding instead to walk up the 'directissima' from underneath Primadona. Despite this short set-back, we made a vocal connection to Izi and Fratnik as they were setting off, before we ourselves reached the entrance porch to get changed.

Whilst Chloe put her thermals and overall on, I made use of the twilit porch to calibrate the disto we'd brought, then got changed myself. Finally, we checked our SRT kits, fastened the straps on our caving bags and plunged through the little crawl at the entrance. We navigated the friendly but slow 11 mm of the entrance series, Chloe asking here and there was a particular pitch or bit of cave was named. I happily obliged. Soon we arrived at Mary's Café, where we made a quick stop and packed additional rope for our way down. I suspect that after this, the passage blurred into one for Chloe, whose first visit it was to Prima. After TTT pitch, we stopped again, sampling a cave-aged Soreen of 2018 vintage (the air temperature at the Manger camp ranges between 3.7 and 3.9°C).

We continued. The bits between TTT and the Freudian slip are a real nylon highway and offer some of the choicest, uninterrupted sequences of SRT in Primadona. But how abruptly this ends! At the slip, the tone of the continuing passage is well and truly set. Short drop after short drop, with deep pools of crystal clear water - the pools had been left undisturbed for nearly two years it must be assumed, since the bottom of Pivnica, which we'd already left behind us, marks the parting of the ways between the Donji Milanovac, explored on this occasion by Izi and Fratnik and 'Klic Globin'branches. At any rate, the pools were so clear I was misled into sitting in one of them, thinking myself clever for avoiding the narrow bits of the passage above me. The suddenly cold wet arse certainly made for a rude awakening.

As we progressed, it became clear Chloe was less than impressed by this bit of cave, but I nevertheless assured her that it 'became better'. Upon the return journey, I came round to the same opinion; that is, that this series of passages is needlessly tiny, grabby and generally awful, which I credit to some of the quirks of lithology and speleogenesis. After all this, we reached the 'Deeper than Most' balcony, which in my opinion totally makes up for the bullshit that came before. I sensed some muted agreement from Chloe's part (she wanted to do some 'proper' SRT) but as we came down Klic Globin, this turned to more genuine enthusiasm.

We stopped for a quick soup at the bottom of that 60 m pitch, keeping an eye on the laminated copy of the extended elevation of Primadona. Finally, we were entering the 'red zone', which denotes all the parts found in the last expedition. In this case, this comprised the Artemis pitch series, its continuation Poseidon rift - my last terminus in this cave, and finally, below boulders, the Street-Wise Hercules rift, a part of the cave which had seen two visits only, the last of them curtailed due to high water levels.

From Klic Globin however, the way down is no walk to the park. There are several more pitches, some of them technical or narrow, amounting to nearly 150 m of additional depth. For the first time on our trip, we would have closer encounter with proper water (okay - more than 1L/s water); the rushing noise really just surrounds you the whole way down. The rift below Artemis closes down, with a spooky squeeze close to water, leading to the boulder choke between Poseidon and Hercules. Below the boulders, a technical rift-traverse/squeeze ensues, which was a trial for the both of us with our tacklesacks. Afterwards though, it did open up, and the final ropes led down into the big rift that Rhys, Ana and Lydia had started bolting, and that Tetley and Chris had bravely continued before being forced to turn around, leaving a large coil of rope in a small alcove. This was the pushing front.

Conscious of the limited time we'd allocated at the deep end, I jumped into action and started drilling down from the last bolt. Terra incognita, once again. Darkness below. Water everywhere. Drill, tap, tap, tap, bolt in, spanner, maillon, knot... continue.

The rift is wide, and long, ledges hide the next segment of the pitch, and there is always darkness further down. We run out of bolts and survey out. I think this is the first push where I haven't unclipped from the rope. There is rope there to continue the exploration, and at least 37 m below the last survey station. A roughly equal amount of water joins the Artemis stream, is it the water from Donji Milanovac? No sign of Fratnik or Izi, no ropes, no bolts. We're on our own, at the deepest point yet in Primadona.

But we have little time to appreciate this at the time. The noise in the rift is overwhelming, despite the relatively dry conditions on the surface, and Chloe has gotten cold, despite the small down jacket she carried to put on for exactly this occasion. We've been on the go for near 8 hours already and we need start the return journey. It's all mentally daunting to know how much cave, how many obstacles we need to overcome before seeing daylight again, but surveying on the way out provides a neat way to trick the mind back into ascent mode more gently.

Getting out of Artemis was slow, ands when we eventually found ourselves at the bottom of Klic Globin, Chloe stared disbelieving at the remaining route on the laminated elevation we'd brought. It was about midnight when we left Tiger Tiger streamway, another mental milestone (for me at least) and just after 3am when we made a stop at the Manger. The rest was a drowsy slog back to the surface, counting down the pitches before the entrance, but it became clearer and clearer that we would be very close to our 7am call out.

Daylight streamed through the porch, and I quickly turned on my phone to send Jana a text cancelling our now overdue call-out (we'd put in 7 am). The text was sent at 8am, by which time Jana and Zdenko were on the way to the entrance with food and drinks. We met them on the scree-slope, apologising profusely for the stress caused by our late exit. Sure enough, it took us 12 hours from the bottom of the continuing Hercules rift (we called what we surveyed 'Hades'). The full trip totalled 21 hours underground, after which Chloe and I were very exhausted. I don't know how Fratnik and Izi do it...

It also transpired that Izi and Fratnik's trip was not uneventful either. The previous morning, upon arriving at the entrance of Primadona, the traverse rope usually left in-situ to provide an easier access to the cave entrance was missing - the reason for its absence went unanswered but this apparently caused enough confusion, that with all the fuss of emptying and repacking bags to rig a temporary traverse, one hammer was left on the surface. This oversight went unnoticed until reaching the pushing front below 'ma je vlazna', the then pushing front of the 'Donji Milanovac Branch'. Putting in a single bolt and hammering it in with a bolt, Izi and Fratnik surveyed 'Glavobol' or 'Headache' passage, but understandably did not reach too far down before having to turn around, vowing to return later. This explained why we did not connect the two branches at that time, but according to Izi and Fratnik's description (rift opening up, lots of water) on the one hand, and the stand of the survey on the other, there can be little doubt that we are in the 'same' passage.

Saturday 31st July 2021

Exiting Primadona, Chloe and I were greeted by Jana and Zdenko, which was nice, and some ominous thunderbolts (less nice). Black clouds drifted over from the north, entering the Tolminka valley, and fat drops of rain threatened to drench us. In a daze, we followed Jana down the proper path back to Planina Kal, gusts of wind and impenetrable curtains of rain hard on our tail. Back on the semi-horizontal path between Ravne and Krn, Jana started running for the safety of the hut, and summoning our remaining strength, we followed suit.

We were not alone in looking for shelter from the oncoming storm. At Kal, the doors were thrown open to travellers seeking refuge, and shot glasses of consolation žganje went round and round. Chloe and I stood a little overwhelmed by so much presence and activity after nearly 24 hours without sleep and retreated to the upper room to rest a little, though not before Jana reminded us that food would be ready for us soon, and that therefore, we should stay awake a little longer. I drifted gently to sleep nonetheless and had to be stirred by Chloe less than an hour later. The hot food worked wonders. The storm having passed by then, the hut was calm again as we set out to explain once more what it was that we found at the bottom of Primadona.

The storm hit Kal shortly after we exited Primadona

This done, Jana then told us of her own eventful trip to Planja the day before. We learned that despite reaching Vrh Planja in good time, they could not enter and survey either of the two caves located there, because Zdenko was missing a harness. Never one to give up entirely in the face of adversity however, Jana and Zdenko simply made other plans, and went up to the Bivvy, climbing to the Plateau from the back of Tolminski Kuk. The aim there was to take some nice rope the JSPDT had deposited there on a previous occasion, and bring it to Kal (don't ask me why).

The new plan, therefore, was to then head out to Planja on the Saturday, the team being augmented by Rile, who would help persuade any and all caves to go. Shortly after midday, Jana, Zdenko and Rile set off, vowing to be back shortly after sunset. In the meantime, Izi and Fratnik went back to Tolmin, while Chloe and I slept off our exhaustion at the hut.

It was nearly 9 pm by the time the group came back from the Planja area. This time, equipped with harness, disto and phone (and cursory instructions on how to use the latter two for surveying), the team made excellent progress in both caves. The general area is located to the south of the Peak of Planja (Vrh Planja), and to the northwest of Tolminski Kuk, facing the Tolminka valley. It is separated by a grassy ridge from the more often visited Area N.

In 2020, given the small size of the expedition, it was decided that we would check out at least the main object in this area, a 10x5 m diameter open shaft easily spotted on both Lidar and satellite imagery, though for some reason not yet surveyed. This became 'Bertijeva Jama' (Berti's cave), an ice cave near 50 m deep, at the bottom of which one lead remains - a 5 m climb. On the occasion of this trip, we also walked around the area, Simon and I stumbling across a smaller 3x2 m open pit entrance on a grassy ledge overlooking the main Planja valley. Lacking time and resources to descend this cave, we left it to Jana to further explore later that year. When she and others went back in Autumn 2020, she also walked up towards the Planja ridge some 30 m further, discovering another promising entrance. They were both given more geographical names, the upper entrance becoming 'Planja jama' or Planja cave, and the lower one 'Brezno pod Vrhom Planje' (pit below Planja Peak).

Both entrances required expansion of some sort to become passable by humans, and their not inconsiderable draught made them good candidates for additional concerted action. Starting at Planja jama, Jana squeezed past the entrance pitchhead, removing a score of boulders before dropping some 10 m in a passage of moderate size, sloping down. On her own, she then climbed into a small window in the lower third of the pitch and accessed continuing, moderately draughting passage. After a couple of downclimbs and narrower parts, the passage seemed to end at a boulder choke. She headed out and the team moved on to Brezno pod Vrhom Planje.

The first pitch was rigged, dropping into a roomy, sunlit chamber splitting threeways. The north branch ascends immediately, leading to a chimney and a boulder ruckle, thought to be the connection with the upper cave (the reader is left to make their own opinion on this, based on the surveys produced subsequently). The south branch descends and takes a sharp bend to the west, before ending when the ceiling meets the boulder floor. Jana found some bones in a recess thereabouts.

The entrance chamber of Brezno pod Vrhom Planje

The most interesting passage leads off immediately from the foot of the entrance pitch, to the west. There, the team removed a good many rocks from a draughting pitch head, expanding where necessary to make the descent possible. This led to a 13 m pitch, the bottom of which is choked with boudlers. Rile, who had been first on the descent shouted back up that the cave was over, to the dismay of the others, but Jana, never one to give up on a cave entirely descended, intent on finding a way on. This proved easy enough, as there were a couple of small 1 m diameter windows within easy reach of a climb from the bottom. After some discussion, Rile was sent up to investigate the closest one, immediately noting that the draught had been found again. He crawled away for some minutes before coming back and reporting that this muddy, rocky tube was indeed draughting nicely and seemed to continue on. He had reached a bend where the passage seemed to double back on itself and due to time constraints, left it at that.

When Jana had finished, Chloe and I also learned that the survey of those caves remained to be done, a task I was happy to take up in the coming days. It was very good to hear of a surface cave not immediately ending, and although this was by no means a storming lead, it certainly sounded interesting and would provide a good opportunity for Chloe to practise surveying. With that in mind, we looked again at the weather forecast, noting with a certain apprehension the series of storms predicted over the next couple of days. Certainly the worst of the rain would come the next day, with either 15 of 25 mm of rain forecast, depending on which forecast one chose to believe.

Sunday 1st August 2021

In the end, as is noted at the weather archive in Vogel meteo station, 24 mm of rain fell over the 24 hours preceding 8am on the 1st of August. The southwesterly winds brought even more rain during the day, adding a further 49 mm (!) in 12 hours. We stayed inside for most of the day, only getting out at the hour preceding sunset for a beer at the summit of Grušnica. More clouds rolled in from the west, and we retreated inside, not having seen the sun once.

Monday 2nd August 2021

The day was much drier by comparison, with only 7 mm of rain falling toward midday. Taking this opportunity, Chloe and I went up on the Plateau to retrieve a temperature logger in the ice cave M17, with the aim of downloading the third year of data from the Bluetooth enabled device. We hiked up under the thick banks of white clouds which once again hid the Sun, and found the rope necessary to rig the cave in the Bivvy.

The entrance pitch of M17

In M17, the snow levels once again surprised me. In previous years, the entrance rope would be enough to land one on the top of cone of scree, followed by a descent over the remains of snow cone into the main ice chamber. In August 2020 for instance, sunlight streamed from the southern end of the main ice chamber, where is was possible to walk up and head out into the M19 doline. Not so this year, where the previously open snow tunnels were completely closed off by snow and sundry new fallen boulders. Even the base of the entrance pitch was occupied by a 5 m high cone of snow that near closed off the access to the main ice chamber. Yet, the continuing ramp of snow looked no larger than a year before.

By happenstance, the timing of the closing off of the snow tunnel was recorded by the temperature logger, which had the misfortune of being completely buried in snow for the best part of six months, starting in early December 2020. Cross checking with the Vogel weather archive reveals that in the ten days between the 2nd and the 11th of December, the continuous fall of snow flakes was recorded nearly everyday. This first fall of the season led to a snow depth of 135 cm at the station by the 11th, and likely more in the sheltered doline of M19, which acts as a funnel for solid precipitation.

Luckily the logger entrapment ended some time before our visit in August, allowing Chloe and I to retrieve it and download the data. Around the 3rd of December, an abrupt end to daily air temperature fluctuations is recorded. The muted T signal rises to the ice melting point of 0°C over the course of the winter, matching the snowpack temperature variations.

Leaving M17 under increasing precipitation, we sheltered at the B9 antechamber for while, Chloe taking a nap, as we waited for an improvement in the weather. A dry spell did come, about an hour later. Looking suspiciously at the still very white and not at all blue sku, we set off to the edge of the cliff for a SURPRISE ABSEIL.

Yep, in 2020, after surveying the cave Mugo (accessed from the contour path linking Kal to the head of the Tolminka valley), we hiked and scrambled around a little bit, intent on finding some new entrances. I chanced to go around a limestone pinnacle and spot a dark spot in the wall above, but the access looked more straighforward from the edge of the plateau instead. This had played on my mind during the year. Was this a new Gondolin type entrance? Could this be a new entrance to the system (I never dream big)?

The abseil to a disappointing non-cave

Chloe would do the honours and start the abseil. Having pinpointed the start of a likely route from satellite imagery, we set out to find a likely looking dwarf pine stand and ledge before putting in the first bolts. A short drop and we went over the edge, looking at the valley unfolding below us. As clouds formed and then drifted up, enveloping us in a white blanket, we either nothing or a mile of nothing in quick alternation. Still, a few bolts in and we switched places.

The release, when it came, was rather disappointing. Seen from below, the alcove appeared dark, which was helped by the fact that it was a pitch cut by the cliff at its base. With the presumably 'downstream' end of the cave now vanished, there was nothing else but to look up and search for an upstream continuation. Those hopes were dashed immediately, as a little skylight appeared in that direction. These meagre remains of a cave provided shelter to a bed of nettles, and a poor shelter at that. Somewhat gutted, we turned around and went back to Kal.

Tuesday 3rd August 2021

Today was the day for a visit to Planja, we decided. Jana sent a text letting Chloe and I know she was coming back up the mountain in the evening as we set off along the hike. The steep terrain below Planja took its toll as it had the previous year.

Dwarf pine, then scree, more dwarf pine, a dodgy step up, scree and the entrance of Berti pot, and finally some steep grassy ramps up to the two caves above.

Chloe took up the cave drawing duties in the upper cave, while I operated the disto. There, we fully surveyed the sharp narrow passage below the entrance pitch, closing two small loops and finding the choke at the bottom end of the cave impassable (for now). Our chief objective was to continue to the other cave and see what was up.

Completing a surface survey between the two entrances. Sighting the red laser dot on limestone in plain daylight is difficult enough, spotting it on a blade of grass is nigh on impossible, so we kept to short survey legs. At the other cave, we surveyed the known branches and headed down the expanded pitch, finding Rile's window and finding the draught to be encouraging but not massive. I went ahead to scout the route and quickly found where Rile had turned around. Taking rope and bolting kit with us, we headed for the head of pitch some 7 m deep, which Chloe bolted. Before doing that however, we uhmmed and ahhed at the boulder slope which led to the pitch head, stacking a few out of the way, and chucking down more.

At the bottom, Chloe reported that the cave continued. And naturally, we were short on time (this time we were drawing near our 9pm callout). We reluctantly turned around at station 35 of the survey, some 30 m below the surface, but with over 140 m in the phone. I was surprised to see the cave constrained so far in WNW-ESE trend. The lead we left, which we estimated at a 10 m or so pit looked good and would later be visited by Jana in late August. Certainly, the visible continuation looked good from our turnaround point, and to my delight, meant we did not have to derig the cave yet.

A preliminary survey of the entrance series of Brezno pod Vrhom Planje

On the way down, I managed to text Jana that we were out well before 9pm, but the hike back to Kal still took us awhile. By 9.30pm, we reached the hut, whose doors went wide open at our approach. Having hiked up earlier in the day, Jana had brought some more foodstuffs, including tasty schnitzels, and made a potato dish we enjoyed very, very much. Elated at the unexpected surprises in Planja, at the continuing leads in Primadona, at the overall success of this small week of caving of Migovec, we went to sleep with dreams of more to come.

Wednesday 4th August

The weather turned awful again, and forced us instead to think of tasty food to prepare for lunch (what a chore). In the afternoon, all three of us hike to Razor for some struklji, the local Slovenian boiled cake and curd cheese dessert. Chloe was underwhelmed, asking at one point "so what is this that I'm eating?". The rain let up progressively and Jana headed for Tolmin directly, while Chloe and I hiked back up for one last night at Kal.

Thursday 5th August

The weather was on the verge of turning another shade of awful when we descended back to Ravne, laden as we were with our week's worth of gear. On the road to Tolmin, we were greeted by a bluer and bluer sky until the Sun itself showed through, a sight not seen in days. We met Jana for a last time by the Soča, enjoying as is traditional the emerald green of its waters. The levels were the highest I'd seen, which Jana also pointed out, yet there was no brown or sediment in it, which bespeaks the purity of the karst catchment at its source (I guess).

There's still a lot to process, the deep leads in Primadona, the new territory near Planja, but what a trip!


The weather let up long enough for us to hike to Razor, spotting this nice tree along the way