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Tolminski Migovec Cave Exploration
Rik Venn describes this summer's expedition to Slovenia.
Imperial College Caving Club is an elusive and strange organisation, steeped in its own jargon, tradition and proud history.
In some strange fractal way, my joining of the caving club has been a bizarre macrocosm of caving itself. When I joined
the club last year, I was cautious at the prospect of climbing into a foreboding vertical concrete tube in Wales. Similarly,
when I arrived at my first meeting in Southside bar, very much the fresher and anxious to make the right new friends, I was
apprehensive at this scruffy beer swilling bunch, most of whom seemed dreadfully old. But as I ventured into that first cave,
and as I was drawn into the maternal bosom of the club my fears first shrunk, then melted away. Just as I was hooked on
caving I felt inexplicably bound to the club after only three or four trips. Thus I was led out to Slovenia this summer as the
only fresher: to meet some old faces and some new ones; to eat, live and sleep on a mountain for a month; and above all to
venture into unexplored caves!
Overview on Slovenia
The Julian Alps in Slovenia are the closest geological feature to South Kensington which house enough virgin caves to
warrant an expedition. Imperial College has been exploring cave systems on Migovec mountain for around ten years.
System Migovec is the largest of these. With 4 entrances, 11.3 Km of passage and a total depth of 900 m it is incredible
to think that this was all discovered by a student club with help from the Slovenian locals. Although there are still a few
unexplored leads in this fantastic system, the bottom has already been found. Much more interesting and exciting is
'Gardeners World'. This was discovered by Ben Ogborne in 1999 and was originally named 'Ben's Crap Lead' due to
the unpromising appearance of the original entrance to the cave.
This years expedition focused all of it's efforts on Gardeners World. At the end of the 2001 expedition, the last Imperial
College trip to Slovenia, the cave was about 530 m deep and looking very promising. This cave is particularly vertical.
All myths of caving as a sport dominated by crawling and squeezing were completely dispelled by scores of jaw-droppingly
enormous vertical shafts. The biggest of these is Concorde, big enough to accommodate 2 of it's namesake nose to tail.
That's over 80 metres high. You can barely see the headlight of a caver on the perfectly smooth floor from the top of this
perfectly cylindrical, perfectly natural colossus.
Carrying and Rigging
The first four days were spent by me, Tetley, Clewin and Martin carrying all the food, tents and caving essentials up the hill to
Migovec plateau where all the cave entrances are to be found. The plateau is around 1000 m from our base camp in a tiny village
called Ravne and around 2000 m above sea level. The traditional 'up, down, up' from Ravne was exhausting to say the least.
However, after several days of this Brian, Colm and James arrived and we were well supplied and feeling fit enough to go
caving. The cave was rigged ( rope put in place ) and 'Camp X-Ray' was set up by Irishmen Martin and Colm around the
limit of exploration in a horizontal sheltered passage called Friendship Gallery. Martin and Colm had followed a lead in
friendship gallery which quickly became too tight and two Slovenes, Robert and Bogomire, ran out of rope trying to get to
the bottom of a really big pitch at the end of Friendship Gallery.
Underground Camp and The Big Rock Candy Mountain
I was on the next trip with Clewin. We travelled down to camp X-Ray, put in some ropes on the more awkward climbs in
Friendship Gallery, then went to bed in the camp. Camping underground ranks among the most unnerving experiences of
my life. Surrounded by small candles and lulled to sleep by the soundtrack to Blackadder on the tinny camp stereo, we
gradually drifted into sleep. It's impossible to know how much time passes underground without a watch and when we awoke
it could have been 6 hours later or 16. All I knew was that as I opened my eyes as I woke, the surroundings went from black
to pitch black. We switched on a headtorch, ate some breakfast and sugary tea before setting out and reaching the bottom
of that really big pitch. It was later found to be around 85 m tall and I can't describe the feeling as my feet touched the floor of
'Big Rock Candy Mountain'. We went on to discover around 200 m of an underground stream going on so far that we had to
stop. We turned back at around 7:00 pm and caved through the night until we emerged around five in the morning, starving and
absolutely shattered. This had been an epic trip in the grand old Imperial tradition.
Meanwhile, on the surface, life went dozily on in a sheltered area on the surface known as the bivvy, which served as larder,
kitchen, and living room for the expedition. Non cavers Andy, Janet, Tom and Pete H. went on walks in the surrounding mountains.
Between caving trips, I chose between playing guitar, sun bathing or just sleeping all day to recover from caving. Nights were
spent talking, eating and drinking 75% abv rum. News from the bottom came up every day with weary cavers through most of the
expedition. The news was invariably good as there was simply so much to explore.
Tetley and James were next down. Unfortunately, Clewin and I had not surveyed what we had found so James and Tetley were left
with the unpleasant task of taking the careful measurements necessary to make a good 3D map. They discovered another pitch at
the end of the streamway. Colm and Brian descended that pitch the next day, going on to run around in miles of tube shaped
passages. Everything discovered by Irish tinkers Colm, Brian and Martin seemed to end up being named after places in Dublin.
More exploration was done by Pete J, Dave, Jan and Shed. The main body of new leads were in the section originally pushed by
Brian and Colm. Agonisingly on the last trip, Tetley and Pete were left gazing down a passage to which they could not see an
end. They heroically de-rigged all the new bits of the cave and handed bags to me, Jan, Shed and Brian at around -400 m. We
all swiftly left the cave leaving Tetley to finish the de-rig, which he did in record time, emerging for a hearty supper and bed.
There ends the tale of this year's expedition although needless to say that a fantastic time was had by the expedition's members in
nearby Tolmin swimming in the river, eating delicious food and enjoying all the joys of modern life which we had deprived ourselves
of during our time on Migovec. The final depth of gardeners world was around 750 m and it now stands at over 3 Km long.