clive here is mick playfords (austrailian) experience of the expedition- very long btw
he is a memeber of the Maquarie university caving club (sydney)
Note: This letter was written for my family and friends. As such it is not a true and fair representation of all that happened on the expedition. If it appears that my role is excessively prominent I apologize. Nothing could be further from the truth. This letter really just records the trips I was involved in on the expedition. After 18 months traveling I was feeling pretty stale and really did not push myself as much as I normally would. Anyway sit back, relax and read about my adventure:
"CAVING IN SLOVENIA"
It all began by sending a simple postcard:
"Hi Pauline, I'm in Beijing at the moment but am about to catch the Trans-Siberian train back to Eastern Europe. I want to spend the summer caving again in Europe…. any suggestions?"
Pauline was the leader of the Oxford University caving expedition to the Picos Mountains in Spain which I had gone on the year before. I got my reply in Helsinki where she suggested I join up with the Imperial College expedition to Slovenia.
A few phone calls later and I had vague directions to meet up with the group in the town of Tolmin about a month later.
A month later I got off a bus in the pouring rain in Tolmin and wondered down the street trying to work out what to do. A man ran out of a cafe greeted me like an old friend and dragged me in for a drink. This was Andre, from the local Slovenian caving club. He introduced me to his two friends who it turned out had just come out of the cave after a mammoth 20 hour caving trip. They explained the history of the exploration of this cave to me.
In the 1970's the Slovenian's had explored the caves on the Megavic Plateau, pushed one to about 500 m depth (M19) but otherwise had limited success and had turned their attention elsewhere. This is where the Imperial College Caving Club came into the picture. Two brothers, Jim and Mark Evans, had restarted the pretty much defunct club and decided they would like to try their hand at cave exploration. So they wrote away to a number of European clubs asking for suggestions for an area they could explore and the Slovenian's had replied saying they could try the Plateau if they wanted.
For the first three years they did not find much at all, firstly because they didn't know much about caving and how to run a caving expedition and secondly because all the cave entrances were awfully tight horrid things that never seemed to go. Last year they started to get their act together.
The cave they pushed, named Torn Tee-shirt because it was so tight, popped out into a large pheratic horizontal passage at about 200m depth, the mythical Level 2. Just getting down to this depth was a major undertaking because of the tight entrance series and so they established an underground camp in a spot called Club MIG. Level two went off in both directions, and so they had two teams in the underground camp, one for each direction, with only enough sleeping bags for one team to be resting at any one time. To the east Level 2 was heading towards another cave which had been pushed by the Slovenians twenty years ago, M16. Now M16 was an easy cave to get down, at least to minus 200m, and the idea was it would be great to be able to link it up so that the horrible Torn Tee-shirt entrance series could be avoided.
Eventually this is what they did but it was not quite as simple as wondering along the passage. There were two huge pits which had to be traversed around, with some very technical and imaginative caving. A third team was looking around inside M16 and with an amazing freeclimb up into a hole at the top of a rift popped into "Hotline". The two teams met across a huge pit (MIG Country) and the link up was complete. The second team at the underground camp worked their way down Level 2 in the westerly direction. Again they came across huge gaping pits which they traversed around. Level 2 just got bigger and bigger. Eventually it started to go steeply down, "Expedition Road", and then ended in a huge aven. It looked like a dead end despite a number of attempts to squeeze down through the boulder floor. On the last trip of the expedition someone spied a small hole 3 metres up one wall and squeezed through. A narrow, nasty passage joined with a small stream "Bikini Carwash" before leading to a small chamber with a hole in the floor. Rocks thrown down that hole went a long way, but without gear or time it had to wait till the following year to be descended. This pitch was named the Triple X pitch, and the top of it was at about -280m.
That's how things stood at the end of last years expedition. An easy way in, a huge horizontal series with numerous pits and leads, all just waiting to be explored.
However the exploration of the cave is being done in conjunction with the local Slovenian cavers. During the expedition they come up the mountain on weekends to go caving, and since last years expedition have been in the cave twice. On those two trips alone they have pushed the Triple X pitch, which was the deepest and the best of the leads, and had sent the cave rocketing downwards to below -600m.
The lads from London were supposed to arrive that night, but didn't. I spent the night on the floor in Andre's factory. The next day was sunny and I spent the morning lazing in the sun and swimming in the river. After lunch they turned up and we all drove up to the end of the road halfway up the mountain. This was quite an undertaking in itself. The van was so loaded with equipment and supplies that the back was completely filled up except for a small space beneath the ceiling. In this gap five cavers had to lie flat like sardines. To make things easier, three more climbed up onto the overloaded roof racks.
However the road was much too steep and windy for the van. We ended up unloading half of the load and driving up twice. At the end of the road is a friendly farmer who let us park the van behind his house and leave the gear stockpiled in his barn. After sorting out equipment we started on the first climb up to the Plateau at the top of Megavic Mountain.
As is usual on the first carry everyone had vastly overweight packs and it began as a sort of race. The steep and unrelenting trail soon sorted us out and slowed the march to a lungbusting, sweatdrenched struggle. For the first hour you climb up a steep tree covered gully. Just above the treeline on a long spur jutting out from the mountain are three shepherd huts. The way on is a slightly easier if more rugged traverse around to the back of Megavic, and then a final, never ending climb up to the Plateau. All told the carry takes about three hours. For the next four days we did one or two carries a day, not quite enjoyable but necessary and a good way to get fit for what lay ahead.
On the second day a very friendly family moved into the Shepherds huts for their summer holiday, and it became a welcome stop on the hard climb up. They would offer us tea made from mountain flowers, vodka and wine, and there were three adorable daughters about our age to flirt with. Because it was so hot in the middle of the day the carries were usually done in the early morning or evening, and it was not unknown for one or two guys to be running late leaving the Shepherds huts and end up having to spend the night there. Despite the benefit of good company this was not all it was cracked up to be, because it was darn cold without a sleeping bag and with only a hard floor to lie on. Eventually we were ready to go caving.
My first trip underground was actually a bit of a mess. The entrance series was rigged with a rope that had been in there since last year. My group: Tetley, Cullen and me, ambitiously planned to zoom down these ropes and traverse along the Level 2 passage to deposit a pile of gear at the far end of Expedition Road, with a second group following us in to slowly replace the entrance series rope with new stuff. The Slovenian's had recently been in the cave so we thought the old rope was still ok. Well the rope was marginally ok, but some of the rigging was atrocious, which we had to tidy up just to go on, and then we reached a 15m pitch which the Slovenian's were free climbing. There was no way we were going to free climb down that particular pitch, so we rigged it with one of the spare ropes we were carrying in. Finally we lost the way. After searching around for a while the second party caught up with us, led by Jim who did know the way. But there were now too many cavers in the one spot in the cave and any further progress was going to be slow. I volunteered to return to the surface with all the old decrepit rope we had already replaced. I had not even got down to -100m and spent only four hours in the cave.
To make myself feel useful I walked down the mountain in the afternoon and bought up another load of food, my fifth journey in 4 days.
The next day just Tetley and I went in to Expedition Road on a familiarisation, load carrying and surveying trip. Well the entrance series was now nicely rigged on 200 metres of 10mm rope. There was no point cutting the rope as the pitches just linked up one after the other. You start off by crawling down a little rat run and sliding through a body size hole in the wall, which happens to be the top of the first pitch. There are 4 pitches one after the other, down to a reasonable sized chamber. Things went severely wrong for me at this point. My carbide suddenly refused to work, Five minutes of examination I found that the hose to my helmet had melted through where it joined the carbide container. Out came the pocketknife and with a few oaths I made my hose a few inches shorter and could go on.
>From here you have to prussik 4 metres up a wall, clamber around the corner and abseil 15 metres down the "free climbable " pitch. At the bottom is a pit which is traversed around in a precarious balancing act, then through a series of crawls and tight bits with a couple of short pitches thrown in down to the 40 metre deep Vhodni Del -"wet pitch". Then comes the Connection Rift which joins this cave with Level Two. The Connection Rift was still rigged on old, well used and very smooth rope. It was very, very fast. 8m uncontrollable abseiling down was a ledge where we connected onto another rope and prussiked 8 meters up into another hole in the ceiling (not a bad free climb for whoever the joker was who first did it), into Hot Line.
Hot Line is called Hot Line because it blows a gale of freezing cold air. By about this depth in the cave I'm told the air temperature is down to about 2 degrees Celsius, and I'd believe them, it is very cold. The best thing to do is just keep moving. Hot Line is the start of Level Two which slopes down for over a kilometre all the way to Expedition Road and Bikini Carwash. However its not as simple as just stomping down the large pheratic passage, there are some pretty amazing obstacles in the way which help explain why this is the best sporting cave I have ever been in.
We wondered down Hot Line for a bit to Ureka Corner where you have to climb around a corner over a forty odd metre deep hole. Don't worry Mum there was a rope in place to clip on for safety, but it was quite an interesting move just the same. A bit more of Hot Line and than the passage pops out overlooking this large deep chamber - Mig Country. Hot line is a hole high up on one wall and Level two continues off from high up on the far wall. To get down and up involved a frightening but amazing Tyrolean abseil ( abseiling at an angle) down to a huge raised bounder in the middle of the chamber and than an equally frightening and amazing prussik up to Mig Country. One of the scary things is that beneath the boulder the cave continues down for well over 100 metres.
From Mig Country are three utterly amazing traverses over huge deep pits. The first is Titanic, a 7 bolt traverse along a conveniently situated one mete wide ledge. But let me assure you it is no place for anyone with vertigo. The second, Challenger, takes you along another crumbly unstable looking ledge over another large pit. Only this ledge ends half way across and you have to clip on, swing out and prussik up 15 meters to the most awful pitchhead I have ever seen. You have to pull yourself around the corner from a series of bolts whilst free hanging in a very tight nasty wedge between a rock and a hard place. This is near Club Mig where last years underground camp was situated, and what an awful looking spot to spend the night, windy, covered with boulders on a slope, with water dripping all around. Yuck.
The last traverse, The Spirit of Elvis is the best. Whoever rigged the way across this pit was inspired and not half crazy. It starts by a 20m traverse along a rope on a slippery mud slope followed by three short abseils, each of which swings you sideways along the wall. The last section before safety can only be described as mad. You clip a carabineer directly from your harness onto the fixed horizontal rope and launch yourself over dizzy nothingness, pulling yourself along the rope ala SAS style and climb up the far lip where the passage continues, now with a proper floor.
From here to the end is Expedition Road. Where Level Two is at its largest, often over 20m wide and high. It slopes down at about 35 degrees, a huge boulder slope to be carefully negotiated. There are more pits but these are easy to climb around. Well by this time you are an expert. The end of Expedition Road is a huge chamber with a boulder covered floor. By this time we had been caving for about 5 hours slowed down by my unfamiliarity with the cave and by our heavy bags of gear.
After a snack and a carbide fettle, we climbed up into Bikini Carwash. I have no idea why it was named thus, but what a name for a cave passage. The hole is tight and downright awful with a heavy bag because its one of those tight rifts where the only way on is a horizontal slide/climb through a series of tight holes 4 metres above the floor. A bit of a grunt, and for the inexperienced young punter a 10 minute ordeal to go about 20 metres horizontally. Finally a small stream is reach, a small chamber, with a hole in the floor and a big pitch "Triple X".
This is as far as they had got on the last expedition, just recently the local Slovenian's rigged this pitch and continued on down, the cave was looking decidedly interesting. However the Slovenian's had not mapped what they had descended and so we started surveying on down. I went first with one end of the tape measure and Tetley followed. 50 metres and 3 rebelays later was a small ledge still 10 metres above the true floor. To go straight down would have meant getting severely wet. Not a good idea in a cave like this, so instead you traverse along a rope secured by bolts along the wall. Unfortunately it could do with another bolt, and with the key bolt in the middle being positioned about 2 metres higher. Climbing around that wall and down to the floor was the scariest thing I had to do on the entire expedition. Still we made it without shitting ourselves too badly.
Across the floor of this chamber was another narrow rift which we worked our way down to a little ledge in a turn of the passage. Beyond a large boulder was another slot in the floor, this time above a really big pitch. Unfortunately it was rigged off a single bolt, and since we had been told that it was about 90m deep we decided that it would be a good idea to take the time to put in a back-up bolt. (Note: in fact when surveyed it was only 75m deep, with 5 rebelays on the way down). Tetley hammered away and I curled up in a corner of the ledge, feeling cold and tired.
Tetley was sort of keen to continue surveying on down, but I was feeling knackered. It was my first cave in 12 months and I was apprehensive about the prussiking I still had to do to get out. Because it was such a long pitch, and would be a grunt to get back up, to go on basically meant going all out on a mega trip to make it worth while. In the end we decided it was better to go out, get a good night sleep and come in again tomorrow. As it was by the time we got out we had been underground for 14 hours, quite a productive orientation trip. In the days to come Bikini Carwash to the entrance was like the home stretch, even if it was a final 3 hours of full on caving. The 75m pitch and Triple X were such large pitches that once you were up them and at Bikini Carwash the tension just fell away and you just knew you would be able to get out ok.
Early the next morning I had to get up to relieve a full bladder. Unfortunately Tetley heard me and stuck his head out the door of his tent. With a stupid, really, really sick grin on his face he asked was I ready to go back down the cave. Swear words long and profound, it was only 6 am. "At least let me have a crap first", which I did before struggling into my cold damp furry suit, smelling strongly of sweat from the day before.
By 6.30am we were in the Bivi depression heating up some water for tea and preparing heavy cave bags of ropes and the like to carry down the cave with us. Just then a fuzzy blonde mop of hair popped over the edge of the Bivi followed by a huge backpack. It was Sarah. Sarah is a mechanical engineer who's first job out of university happens to be working on North Sea oil rigs, and let me tell you she is stronger then me. She had flown into Ljubljana yesterday and got as far as the shepherd huts last night. No-one else was up yet so we suggested she come caving with us. It was not hard to twist her arm.
So down we went, not exactly bombing down as we were pretty weighed down by heavy bags again, but faster than yesterday at any rate. Some of the gear we were carrying was for the underground camp we intended to establish at the Slovenian limit at -600m. One of the essential items was a tape recorder because last year they had been able to pick up radio stations at -200m. Although we did not expect to be able to repeat that at the very bottom, we agreed that it would be good for morale to be able to blast out tapes of Jimmy Hendrex and Last Night at the Prom whilst being miserable and cold at the underground camp.
When we got to the top of the 75m pitch we set the music blaring because Tetley and I were going to survey the pitch on the way down and that was going to take some time. Because we had re-rigged the top yesterday the rope lengths were all out and so I, being first had to re-rig the pitch as I went. Just below the top, the crack I was abseiling in opened into a huge chamber with a waterfall going down one side. It had a fantastic echo and was utterly huge. In all there were five rebelays on the way down to redirect the rope away from the wall which took a while to re-rig. In fact it was about an hour before I touch the bottom, and my legs racked of pins and needles from sitting in the harness for so long. But it was fun with Tetley hanging above me joking and offering good advice and with the music blaring a long, long way overhead.
Across the chamber was a narrow crack in the floor which was the way on. This pitch was also rigged off only one bolt so Sarah stayed behind to add an extra bolt and tidy things up a bit. Tetley and I continued on surveying and carrying multiple bags, now including the two which we had deposited at the top of the 75m pitch the day before. The cave was now in a completely new phase. We were in an active streamway, fortunately not too big. The rock was brighter and cleaner than higher in the cave, and the passage was newer. The stream wound on for a bit and down a 10m waterfall with a bit of a pool down the bottom. The rope that rigged was on this pitch went around the corner to a further pitch I could not see but the Slovenian's had not left enough slack and half way down I was caught on an angle on a very taunt rope. I had to drag myself down and ended up cutting the rope at the bottom and rerigging the next pitch.
This pitch around the corner started from a small crawl hole shared with the stream and was about a 30m drop. You have to abseil out at a ridiculously severe angle to a bolt placed far out on the wall, positioned so as to avoid the water. It was a real beauty of a drop.
Beyond was a narrow rift with water spraying lightly in from the roof at spots along its length. A fair way along this was another 50m pitch, which had a really difficult start off. That can be excused as the only good rock to put a bolt in was beneath the lip of the drop. It was a free hanging pitch for most of the way, a bit wet and not that nice. (Later Tetley but a bolt in from a bit of rock sticking off the far wall, this kept you drier, but involved some fun aerobatics to get to and from, I don't know how he was ever able to swing out that far and put it in, most impressive!).
By this time we had been on the go for about 12 hours, and had done a lot of surveying. We found a carbide dump left by the Slovenian's, had a chocolate bar (our only meal of the day), left our bags and slowly made our way out. We had been down to -500m, again a very productive trip, but long…17 hours on the go. The next day I did not go caving.
Whilst Tetley, Sarah and I had been working in the far end of the cave the others had been on a series of shorter trips looking into the pits we had traversed around in Level 2 and checking out other leads in the top sections of the cave.
I did not go caving the next day, and neither did Sarah but Tetley together with Alva, Oliver and Jim set out to the bottom of the cave to establish the underground camp at -600m and finish off the survey. They camped the night down there and seemed to enjoy themselves. Tetley is a strange boy. He has done a lot of underground camping in his time and has a philosophy never to crap in a plastic bag. To see him emerge from underground after a multi-day trip, face contorted in agony, tearing off his gear in a desperate urge to empty his bowels is really quite amusing.
When they came out two days later I was my turn to go back in. Down to the Slovenian limit and beyond. Sarah and Goatee came with me. Goatee is a first year geology student, with a beard. He had never been deeper than about -150m, the limit for caves in Yorkshire, and although apprehensive was willing to give it a go. In fact he had never even been to Mig Country so he was going to see a lot of new cave on this trip. Beyond the carbide dump where I had got two days before the cave continued as an active streamway with lots of short pitches. We did not get soaking wet but it was pretty hard not to get damp all over. About seven pitches in all and lots of great caving before we got to the underground camp.
It is the prefect underground camp. You approach it by abseiling down a little waterfall onto a little ledge. The water continues over a lip and down a 30 odd meter pitch but we traversed along the ledge into a side passage. In here it was dry, with no breeze. It had a nice flat sandy floor and was small and intimate, which made the place seem cozy. The sleeping bags were laid around the walls on sheets of plastic and covered with space blankets (a further protection against the cold). A cooking stove and bags of food were sitting in a central location. At one end was a store of all the rigging equipment, carbide and ropes brought in so far. At the other, around the corner out of sight and smell was the toilet. This composed of plastic bags to crap into and twist tops. (Unfortunately they had brought the wrong size bags down. Have you ever tried crapping into a sandwich bag!).
After a late lunch of instant mash potatoes and a cup of tea we set off to see what we could find. This was were it got strange. This offshot passage let around the corner, past the dunny, to another streamway, running completely separately from the first. The 30m pitch before the camp remains undescended and could well be the way down to a kilometre depth, as could another dry passage branching off two pitches further up. (This passage was latter pushed by Oliver and Andre down over 100m with no end in sight but derigged to provide ropes for the bottom of the cave).
Anyway by going past the toilet and following the windy passage along you get to the top of another 50 odd metre drop. Well its actually 25 meters freehang down to a broad wet ledge which you scramble across to the other side, swing around the corner and down another 20 meters.
The cave then enters a small low passage, angling down at a constant 30 degrees with the bedding plane. It has a series of 2 and 3 meter drops in it but was mostly tight and wet, very wet, and distinctly unpleasant. I was getting very bad vibes that if it continued like that it was not going to be worth following, it was just too awful. After a while the passage restricted to a belly crawl in the water (2 d Celsius) and we decided that was enough for one day. We sent Sarah back to the big pitch below the camp to rerig it a bit better whilst Goatee and I surveyed back up. It took over an hour and was the worst surveying I have ever had to do. Moving slowly in those conditions, having to sometimes lie in the stream to get a compass bearing, is a guaranteed way to freeze, it was just awful.
By the time we made it back to the big pitch we had had enough. We met up with Sarah there, just as she spied an interesting hole. By clambering up to a ledge on the far side of the waterfall, we found ourselves in the old stream passage. The reason the passage we had just been surveying was so small and wet was because it was so new. If this was the old abandoned passage than it promised to be roomer, and more importantly….dry.
But we left it for the next day. As it was, it was about one o'clock in the morning by the time we got back to the camp. We stripped out of our wet caving gear and put on a layer of dry thermals and then sat in a circle around the stove making hot drinks and a meal of sorts. We had the tape player blaring to cheer us up, to drown out the waterfall behind us, and make us forget we were a very, very long way from the sun and safety. Dinner was a mixture of pasta, instant mash potato, dehydrated Yorkshire stew, and cheese sauce all cooked in the one container, and eaten from said container with three spoons. We also had a chocolate bar and a swig of vodka to try and send us to sleep. We were all exhausted and very cold and soon got into the sacks to sleep. Unfortunately we had not worked out best how to wrap ourselves in the space blankets and plastic sheets and the sleeping bags on their own were not enough. As a result none of us slept very well, just lying there cold, trying to recover as best we could.
In the end it was the person with the fullest bladder that had to get up first, and that happened to be me. So after 10 hours in the sack I started organising another meal for us, lumpy porridge with lots of sugar. Only when it was ready did the other two reluctantly get up.
It took about 2 hours from when I first got up until we were all ready to go. It is very difficult to get yourself motivated under the circumstances and every job from crapping in a tiny plastic bag, to cleaning out and refilling your carbide lamp takes forever. Still it beats prussiking all the way to the surface to sleep and than having to turn around and come back in.
Eventually we were on our way with a fair haul of ropes and rigging gear to explore our dry way on - named Cold Feet Passage. It was everything we had hoped for. We sent Goatee on to the first pitch to try his hand at bolting (he had never done it before and that particular pitchhead was a nice comfortable place to learn). Sarah and I stayed behind to complete the survey down the 50 m pitch to what we had mapped yesterday.
We linked up with Goatee just as he was finishing up, and a nice bolt it was to! (His next couple of bolts were not so crash hot, but as a wise old man once said to me "a bolt hanger will hide a multitude of sins"). Four or five more drops, a dodgy climb down and the cave levelled out a bit into a narrow serpentine shape which wound on for quite a way. Finally around a corner and through a hole was a short pitch, followed by a short pitch, followed by….!
The cave had struck a fault line in the mountain and was now following it down at about 70 degrees angle in a series of short drops, one after the other. After a few of these we ran out of rope but could see the cave disappearing down the rift as far as our lights could shine. We were ecstatic, if only we had brought more rope down from the underground camp, we would have just kept at it until we dropped. We still had a lot of surveying to do, linking in our new bit of cave with the rest and that took ages. We did about 12 hours actual caving that day and again got back to the sleeping bags about midnight. It was a similar routine to the night before only we drank lots more vodka to try and help us sleep, sorted the bags out better, and were so much more exhausted that we all slept like logs.
The third day was the long haul out. Not something you look forward to enormously but something which has to be done just the same. You can't get a helicopter in to pull out of the bottom of a cave. Surprisingly that day turned out to be one of the best caving days of my life. Just before leaving the camp, we played a song by The Stranglers called "Always the Sun". It just had the right rhythm and was so optimistic that it played in my head the whole way up. It was one of those golden days where everything goes right, and you are relaxed and confident that everything is alright, where every movement is a sort of poetry, all in rhythm to your feelings and thought. My senses were heightened and I was just so enjoying yourself despite the hard work and concentration, and the music in my head just sums up everything that is good in life. We only had to take out one bag between us, which Sarah and I shared, containing our waste carbide and crap all securely wrapped up in a plastic drum. We were slow and steady, it took us about 6 hours to make it back to the sun, and it was only when we got there that we realised that we had forgotten to stop for a bite to eat on the way.
Actually I do remember stopping for a few minutes on the way. The cord leading from my foot ascender to my feet broke when I was about 25m off the ground and I hung there for a while whilst I rigged a new set from some odd bits of cord I had on me. (That's why I always carry spare prussik loops with me). At the top of that particular pitch we ran into 3 Slovenian's and Oliver on their way down. The Slovenian's were up for the weekend and were delighted when we described the way on that we had found. We found out days later that Oliver and Andre rigged about 100m down one of the leads just above the camp before derigging it to take the ropes down to the bottom of the cave. The other two, I never learnt their names, did a mammoth 36 odd hour trip without a sleep, pushing on down Cold Feet Passage to the intersection with yet another stream at about -800m.
Anyway we got to the surface around sunset which was just amazing. After seeing only darkness and grey colours for 3 days (it was a 57 hour trip) the contrast on emerging to the top of the mountain to see a beautiful sunset over the Adriatic Sea was just great.
After dinner Tetley and Simon (another Slovenian caver) set off down the cave. They were also gone for 2 days, and pushed on from the intersection at -800m . At the intersection a stream crosses through Cold Feet Passage and continues on its own very wet way. But Cold Feet Passage also continues on separately and just kept going down and down. The Slovenian's were so confident when they emerged that the cave would go to one kilometre that we, on the surface began to take it for granted. Unfortunately it was not to be….not this year at any rate. At -958m Tetley and Simon landed in a sump pool. A sump is where the water completely fills the cave passage so that the only way on would be by scuba diving through, and that was it. But what a cave! In the matter of about 3 weeks the cave had been pushed from Bikini Carwash at -280m down to -958 metres in some of the best sporting caving I have ever done.
The 8th and 9th trips down the cave derigged the bottom bit back up to the Intersection at -800m and started bolting down the wet streamway. The streamway was a deep steeply sloping rift and it was possible to bolt the rope high in the ceiling above the water and thus keep dry. These trips also did a fair bit of geological analysis (this was a very interesting cave for the student geologists being full of rifts, faults, bedding plains, intrusions and the like) as well as photography.
After that 57 hour trip I spent a few days on the surface recovering. I did not actually sleep well at night being overtired, and full of nervous adrenalin. Also my hands ached as if they had very bad arthritis, I suppose from the cold. In fact they ached so much it would wake me in the night. I had to give up writing my diary as I was finding it hard to hold a pen.
On the first day I walked down the mountain with Ian and his French girlfriend. They drove me down to the river for a swim, to wash a weeks worth of sweat and grim off. What a pleasure that was. Lying in the sun afterwards was also just grand. We stopped off in Tolmin for a pizza and icecream. That evening we carried a food load back up the mountain which sort of defeated the whole purpose of having a bath. I amazed myself by how easy it was now to climb up to top camp. All that exercise was getting me fit, even if I did ache all over.
The days on the surface were spent sleeping in late, cooking and eating heaps of food, reading and generally just lazing in the sun and doing sweet precious nothing.
After 3 days recovery on the surface it was my turn to go back down, and the following is something I wrote a few weeks later about it:
"By the time I had hammered in the third bolt I was exhausted. I had been hanging in my harness for well over half an hour, my legs were a blazing pain of pins and needles from lack of circulation, my hands cramping from holding the bolt driver and hammering away with the hammer. I was soaking wet and freezing cold from the waterfall I shared the shaft with. The joys of expedition caving at -900m."
Sarah, Cullen and I had set out from the surface at 9 o'clock that morning passed through the underground camp around 3 p.m. where we stopped for a late lunch. A third of a bowl each of instant mash potato with a bit of melted cheese stirred in. We then reused the bowl to make up a container of very sugary tea. Then on to the bottom of the cave to continue the exploration.
The pitch at the current limit of exploration didn't look at all pleasant. The previous team had placed an extremely poorly situated bolt at the top in a narrow slot, too narrow to pass a body through. You had the choice either to squeeze beneath the tight bit sharing the narrow space with the stream, or clamber out over the top (ideally where you would have placed the bolt) and wedge your way down.
My immediate impression was just to place another bolt. This lead to an argument with Sarah who just wanted to get on with it, her argument being that this was an expedition not weekend caving. I was about to launch into a lecture how having an accident at -900m did not really appeal to me. That the rigging should be good regardless of the type of caving, and that the thought of exploring a kilometre deep cave meant nothing to me if I, or a friend, had to be pulled out in a body bag. But I saw that she wouldn't understand, so looked once more to ensure that I at least would be able to make my way back up past it, sighed, and began to gingerly squeeze my way down.
In order to stay out of the waterfall (impossible really as the ice cold spray filled the shaft) and to prevent the thin 9mm thick rope from rubbing against the wall I had to place bolts every so often on my way down. After three bolts I was a mess and I was only half way down. I wedged myself in the corner of a small sloping ledge about the size of two telephone books and shouted up to Sarah to descend to continue the rigging. I couldn't make out their reply because of the noise of the waterfall and I guess they couldn't hear me. In the end I just resigned myself by huddling in a wet, cold miserable ball. My carbide was long since killed by the spray and because I had not changed it for well over 9 hours it was pretty useless anyway. My electric which I had used for bolting was also well on the way to a pathetic glow but by turning it off to let the battery recharge a bit and then briefly turning it on I thought I could make out the floor 20 more metres beneath me.
Unfortunately instead of Sarah, Cullen had come down the rope. Cullen had never but a bolt in before and this was not the place to learn. Like Goatie, he had never before been below -150m and having never put a bolt in, rigging a bloody awful shaft at -900m was not really a sensible proposition, despite the fact had had done pretty damn well so far. My God, if I had been doing this sort of caving when I had only been caving for a year I would have been shitting myself stupid.
One of the major objectives of our team of 3 was just to get him down to the underground camp at -600m and back to the surface in respectable condition. having just spent an hour standing in a freezing cold streamway, where the water temperature was 2 degrees and the air temperature was also 2 degrees …wet, cold and having never but a bolt in before….not really useful at the present time. I could only groan and with a silly tired grin invite him to join me on my ledge. Least I had something slightly warmer than the wall to cuddle up against. Another yell and soon Sarah joined us, her earlier enthusiasm fading fast. "Ow my God, what an awful pitch…..what are you doing there?"
"I got a bit tired and wanted you to come down and takeover for a bit…but Cullen came down instead."
"Look this is rather dangerous having all 3 of us hooked on to the one rope"
Time for that silly tired grin again. Via a bit of complicated manoeuvring we got her passed us on the rope and directed her down a bit to a rocky outcrop which she could use as a natural anchor to retie the rope for the next bit of the pitch. It was off to one side and Cullen and I were slightly paranoid that she was going to pull us right off our little ledge.
Once she got that set up she abseiled on and started bolting further down the shaft. I asked Cullen to prussik back up the rope and not wait for us at the pitchhead but to retreat back to the dry abandoned streamway at -800m where he could huddle under a spaceblanket and wait for us.
Three is not an ideal number for vertical caving, particularly rigging at depth in cold, wet conditions. We had to be sensible so I told Sarah not to worry if she did not make the bottom of the pitch but just place the bolt and come up. I prussiked up and waited at the pitchhead. The top of the pitch was a real bastard. It was a classic fuckup of magnificent proportions. But with a great deal of grunting, a good hit of fear and adrenalin and with feet flailing and slipping on the walls I managed.
I spent the time recharging my carbide so I could actually see something and standing ankle deep in water singing softly to myself, waving my arms around and beating myself in a feeble attempt to get warm. I failed miserably.
I waited for ages. Every now and then I would yell at the top of my voice "Cooee" hoping to hear a vague noise in reply letting me know Sarah was ok. After about an hour I started to get worried and was tossing over in my mind going back down to check. However the thought of coming back up through the slot was just too awful to contemplate and I keep putting that option off. Then I heard a faint call drowned by the noise of the waterfall. It sounded like "Help!!!".
"Shit, Shit, Shit" I swore to myself looked at the pitchhead, pondered whether I had actually heard correctly and decided to yell "Are…you….ok".
That faint cry again…was it "Help"?.
I really, really did not want to go down so I waited a minute and yelled again. "I'm OK" I heard and it was distinctly nearer which meant she was coming back up.
When Sarah got below the slot she had a rest on the ropes and told me how she had got tangled up changing over ropes at one of the bolts on the way up. She had not far beneath my little ledge, certainly not to the bottom of the shaft. It was just to wet and she was basically too exhausted, so she had put just the one bolt in. Realising her limit she had given up and had then tried to prussik up to me to rest but lacked the strength to get past the bolt. She really had yelled "Help" but when I had not responded had struggled harder and finally made it. She was not very impressed by the pitch. We decided to name it Pitch FA999, which was a mixture of; Fucking Awful please ring Scotland Yard for help.
We got to about 930 metres, not quite as deep as the dry way "Good not grand", and not down to the magic kilometre but it was just too dangerous to go on. Maybe in winter when the water level is lower.
We made our way back to the "Kaboom Intersection" where we met Cullen huddled under a space blanket. It was called Kaboom Intersection because a container of spare carbide had been left there. On the way down Sarah had opened the lid and been engulfed in a ball of fire…Kaboom. Some water had been in the container with the carbide, creating lots of accetaline gas which had ignited when Sarah opened the lid. She got away with burnt eyebrows but it was quite a sight being at the top of the pitch, maybe 30 metres above her, seeing this huge ball of fire explode around my caving partner.
It took about 3 more hours to prussik up the ropes to camp but it did not take long to cook up a meal and collapse into the sleeping bags exhausted.
The next morning so after a slow start we began on the slow prussik to the surface.
The day after that 31 hour trip the whole expedition walked down the mountain to Tolmin. That night Mark and Andre did a joint slide talk to the townfolk about the caving we were doing on the mountain. It was also a welcome chance to wash, muck around and eat pizza for a change.
When we climbed back to the top camp a team composed of Tetley, Alva, Shed and Mark went down to the underground camp to see if they could push beyond the FA999 pitch. To cut a long story short ….they got to the bottom of the waterfall but around the corner the stream ended a very narrow slot above a further pitch and they decided it was just to dangerous to push any further. It took a long time to survey what Sarah, Cullen and I had found on the previous trip and derig that section.
They also investigated a hole I had spied back in the Glory Boys Series. This lead to quite a lot a horizontal development and another way down which looks like it will have to wait until next year to explore.
I had another 3 days to go before I was to leave the expedition which I filled in by a few easier one day trips closer to the surface. The first was a photographic trip in to Hotline, which was a disaster as it was too cold in the cave for the camera batteries to work. Standing around trying to get them to work was really awful and when we got just to cold we gave up and came out.
The second started off a bit earlier than I had hoped for. Cullen and Olover had gone down to Titanic the previous afternoon to explore down this immense hole which we had been traversing around all expedition. It was not suppose to be a long trip but at 5 am Jim woke me to say he was worried because they had not returned yet. I told him to go back to bed and wait a bit longer before we thought about a rescue. I could not get back to sleep so after a bit I got up and suggested we perhaps should go check up on them. By the time we had had something to eat, got into our caving gear and organised a first aid kit and other rescue equipment another hour had gone by. I lead in first and got as far as the "Slovenian Free Climb" before I met them slowly heading out. The reason they were so long was they had had a very successful if slow trip. Jim had been smarter after sending me down the cave he had decided he needed to do a shit, which he was just finishing off as I emerged. Thanks mate!
After a few hours to recover from the ungodly hour Jim, Hugh and I went in to explore a new bit of horizontal section beyond the connection rift. We found a lot and left lots of unexplored leads behind. We did some hairy climbs and "interesting" balancing acts across suspended boulders. Quite a bit of fun except a lot of it was tight and crawly. I finally tore my caving suit to complete shreds in there and when I got to the surface threw most of my trashed gear on the fire. That way I was sure I would not have to go caving again.
The expedition had three week to go but it had now lost it urgency with some key people leaving. A lot of the remaining time would be spent derigging the underground camp and exploring the leads closer to the entrance. There still remains a distinct possibility that the cave will be pushed to the magic kilometre next year as there are still 4 good unexplored leads at depth and a huge number of leads off Level 2.
On my last day I spent the morning slowly collecting my gear together. My tent and some of my clothes I left behind for Jim as a present. After a very late breakfast and a bit of a read in the sun I said my goodbyes and with a bulging backpack weighing close to 30 kgs set off on a 6 hour walk down to Tolmin.
My journey was coming to a close. The next day I planned to catch an early morning bus back to Ljubljana and on to Romania, Bulgaria and finally back to Istanbul to catch a plane home to Oz. I had an awesome time on this caving expedition. At times I felt a bit stale from having been travelling for so long. But they were great people to cave with, good friends, and the caving… the best I've ever done.
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