Welcome to the continuing escapades of one boy and his Jammer in Slovenia, as he desperately tries to stay alive while following Fratnik up a mountain, while discovering some cave entrances for the next ICCC expedition!
06-Oct Arrived just in time for a quick shop, then on for Pizza & a visit to the Fratniks. This turned into, as it always does, a bout of high speed tea drinking, playing with the machines in the Barracks & a quick Sadni Cha at a Cafe. Mercedes is running for town Mayor - election day is the 24th.
Fratnik turned up the next morning at 8am, bringing an electrician, then off for a bout of assisting Andrej in inspecting boilers along the way to Bovec. A quick dash back for caving kit, and on to Dante Jama to assist some PhD biologists in setting up traps for microscopic shrimp that live in between the cracks in the limestone. The equipment was enormous - buckets & funnels designed more for capturing dragons than bugs...
Another few coffees, and getting the 'business' card of a Brit at the Slov Karst institute who was looking into the ancient history of the area, and a loved a bit of caving. Then on to feed the goats, and kill the fast maturing ram followed by an anatomy lesson in Fratnik's garage as he was skinned.
On Friday I wandered up the start of the peak that becomes the Kalu col (heading towards Grusnica). No cave potential - dolomite! The path disappears, or rather fractures into hundreds of sort-of-paths, on which one stumbles into, or rather, stumbles down all kinds of exciting cliffs. Having only set off at 3pm (alpine start!), the sun started setting and I found myself running off the mountain to avoid having to spend a night in the tick forest. Startled three tasty-looking deer in one of the many dried up streams, they stood there barely 50m away looking straight at me as I waved back. If only I had a rifle...
On Saturday there was a proper morning start, alarm at 5:30 to jump in Andrej's car and drive round to Bovec. We were hunting shamwar through an improbably steep forest, where Andrej had last been 20 years ago with his father. I managed to scare away the only couple that we saw, so we entertained ourselves by trying to find an alternative path down to the valley from 1500m. Andrej had 20m of 6mm rope, which he was eager to attempt to abseil down, but most ways were too risky even for him. On our way back, we found a machine gun emplacement from the very end of the first world war, probably never used. It went to a slit cut into a cliff-face, from which the entire valley could be covered. Its probably not going to be there much longer - an enormous crack runs across the passage, the entire front of the cliff is leaning out... Many many caves in the area (see the illustrated photos of a random peak), none of which have been looked at by any caving clubs... However, due to the incredible steepness of the valley, its probably a matter of attaining the summit (easy from Bovec) and then abseiling down to the entrances, possibly with the help of a camp in the valley directing proceedings by radio.
Sunday was my day off. Woke up at 8, read a little, slept again, woke up and made coffee etc. Then Andrej turned up at 1 in a slightly less cheery that usual - some Slovene cavers down Poloska should have been out at Midnight, and were approaching their rescue callout. Went down to the goats and helped Andrea & Andrej shear three of them. By three O'Clock, Andrej had received a call from someone that went to the cave entrance to check the logbook & found no sign of the cavers - now underground for 25hrs & so made the fateful call. Briefly back in Tolmin to grab kit, Andrea went to look after the machines in the factory while we shot round to Polog. Sprinted up the hill to the valley entrance with the intention of leading a two man mission; as the other cave rescue could not be there before seven. However, Andrej was the only one of the available rescuers who knew the cave, and so was deemed too important to send in short-handed. We waited for an hour and a bit, and directed two alpine rescuers towards the correct cave entrance. They then radioed in the HELICOPTER bring the cavers! We were expecting it to land on a meadow down in the valley, leaving them to trudge up the 200-300m ascent to the entrance, but oh no! After a few flybys at various heights (its a very strange experience to have a helicopter fly below you through a valley), it swung around and pointed straight towards the entrance. Hovering barely a foot above the >45 degree scree slope, with the rotors just skimming the rock in front, seven cavers and a dozen tacklebags tumbled out onto the mountain.
After a protracted faff, we finally set off UP Poloska in the twilight at 7pm. It is a lovely cave, but preferable (mainly due to the vertical squeezes) to enjoy from above! Trudge, scramble, crawl... etc. All kinds of places to get lost, but Andrej found the way as usual. One of the slovenes had been through Poloska a few times, so Andrej was pretty certain they wouldn't have got lost - and was instead thinking of the logistics of stretching a casuality out the various parts of the cave. The 15m supposed 'freeclimb' is rather exciting; easy and with good handholds but entirely exposed. I would rather not. From the bottom entrance it went down through, so we chucked Andrej's 8mm rope down & abseiled, self-lining with a croll on the way back.
Now just before the nasty vertical squeeze, it was gone midnight with most of the cave covered and no sign of the missing Slovene cavers. Most of the rescuers stopped here, setting up a stove & brewing some coffee. If the cavers were injured beyond here; Andrej suspected at least a week long rescue & probably some rock-reshaping, due to the squeezes on either side they were between. Andrej, myself, and two climbers went on. The vertical squeeze was a nasty thing to climb, too tight with friable rock. One of the housebrick-sized handholds exploded into ice-cube sized chunks just as I pulled myself level with it; cutting my brow. Poor me.
Beyond was a 10m pitch, climbed impressively easily by one of the Slovs (he had some cool climbing boots) who dropped a piece of string back down for us to climb. Dumped kit & flew along the tight rift - suddenly one of Andrej's 'HEY HO!' was answered. The missing party - found at 2am!
They were camping at the bottom of the entrance pitch series, after having pulled their rope through and failing to find the way on through the tiny bit of rift. For future reference, STAY HIGH and note the bloody great big carbide arrow! It was quite an atrocious failing in route finding; Andrej put in down to overconfidence (as ever they were wearing climbing rather than caving harnesses...). A 500m pull-through doesn't really seem like the best place for novices... The camp was pretty nice though; no draft, a drip of water in the corner and perfectly dry. They had slept on a mat of rope under a tent of space blankets.
So, with no injuries, but not way of getting up the last 150m of pitches, we turned and slowly drudged down the way we came. I caved out on Autopilot, napping for a bit on my tacklebag. Finally out at 7am, with the last few stars glimmering & a beautiful shadow cast across the valley by the nearly-full moon. Then racing down the scree after Andrej in the gathering light, down to the alpine hut to marvel at the 3 computers & 8 radio cave-rescue van, and drink Sadni Cha. Passed the rather-too-late film crew on the road back to Za Tolmin, stopped & saw Andrej interviewed in front of a picturesque waterfall for 'Slo TV'. Finally back at home for 9am; some couscous & then to bed.
Unfortunately; no photos of the entire thing - it was a serious trip! But the alpine rescuers had some digital SLRs trained on the helicopter unloaded; I'll see if Andrej can get a copy...
Friday 13th October: First Trip to Kal Well, it took me over a week to actually, finally, get up there! Set off at 6am with a 24kg load, almost all of which was dried food. Foggy and dark; wander out of Tolmin via the 7000 Italian soldier graveyard was distinctly eerie, only human shapes being the occasional jogger zipping past me. By the Devil’s Bridge, I was already ascending above the cloud layer, the mountains looming directly above while all around was still indistinct.
Trudge, slip, trudge etc.
Path to hydro even more dodgy than last time; gulley-bridges appear to have all collapsed under the exceptional winter, leaving one to traverse on a slippery cliff face. Someone appears to be spreading hardcore on the path & has cleared the forest around the war memorial - so it may improve quickly! A good few sweet-chestnut trees either side of the Jelovscek (where the broken-hearted cheese-maker used to live), managed to grab an easy cargo-pocketful even though out-of-season already. Cadged a lift up to Ravne once on the road; refilled water & chatted to an old hunter watching a Chamois stalk high above.
Christ - that hill in BIG and STEEP. Its amazing how nostalgia so quickly clouds the memory... Path through the woods well maintained as ever; more scree placed on the higher bits up to the huts - perfect walking. A single shot rang out from the hunting party on the other side of the Ravne valley.
The comf-hut on the far left has just built themselves an enormous limestone balcony - perhaps they’re planning to fly in a picnic table? Less than impressed by the enormous veruca they’ve made in the mountainside to quarry the stone from.
A quick look around for the blowing-dwarf pine I fell into, but did not have GPS to log, during the snow at New Year. No luck - there’s ‘undreds of possible bushes on that first hillock! One of which was hiding a t-shirt. Lifted the rotting cloth up, both relieved and disappointed to discover it wasn’t covering the bones of Andrej’s previous victim.
A lunch of twice-baked bread dipped in olive oil (why on earth do we not have this in the Bivvi?) and an entertaining time suspending all the provisions from the ceiling of the hut (to avoid nibbles from the mice). I was to go see Andrej sing at Javorca church (the 90th anniversary of its construction), but fell asleep on ‘that bench’ in the still air & lovely warm sun. Disturbed only by the snorts of Chamois wandering past, finally awoken by a bird landing on my trouser-leg - I wouldn’t have expected those little alpine sparrows to be carrion feeders! Woke up sun-kissed and dehydrated; the UV had turned my bottle of black current squash transparent - but drank whatever foul chemicals it had progressed into nonetheless!
Checked time to see that I had just one hour to descend - no chance! Took the Primadoni path; as the path marked on my map over Grusnica had clearly been destroyed by the enormous landside in the Tolminka valley. (NB: There’s a footpath to Cadrg clearly marked on the road up the Tolminka, about level with Javorca; the path from Kal to Cadgr is meant to be very good)
All kinds of exciting holes visible from the path - plenty on the West of Kuk, loads below Kal itself in the Fault-valley (Andrej warns that it’s an area of Dolomite & breakdown - but who knows?). Lots on the face of Mig itself, but I assume these have all been looked at... Also a series of interesting holes in the gulley dropping down below Pl. Dobrenscica, viewable from foot of gulley (marked on 1:50000 map).
Dropping down into the valley around 5pm; I could hear the church bells for the end of service. The Tolminka valley itself is very interesting; the dry-weir near Pl. Na. Prodih being beautiful and surreal!
A plod past Poloska, seeing the walked-on remains of Andrej’s “JAMA ->” arrow from the rescue last week. By the time I had got to Javorac, the church bells were silent & no cars were parked near by. Soon hitched a lift though - from someone who turned out to be a next-door neighbour of Tet, crawling in the backseat amongst some farm machinery. No need to buckle up; decapitation upon impact was guaranteed.
“A short bad drive is better than a good long walk!” All Slovs seem to have Simon Le Taxi’s outlook!
Managed to buy some more food, and turn on the kettle on, but fell asleep before managing to either cook or brew. Awoke in the predawn to the sound of Andrej putting the kettle on...
Saturday 14th October: Rescue training with JRS/JSPDT
Eurgh! Strong instant Karma, breakfast of the usual bread, butter & honey - then flying across Slovenia in Fratnik’s caving wagon. Pulled up before the film crew arrived, and dropped the 70m surface shaft (two rebelays on through-bolts, pick a tree initially). Landed rather close to a very decomposed deer.
Fratnik came down after replacing a too-short rope on the alternative caver entry, getting a full-on hit on his helmet from a stone tumbling down - I had just enough time to run from the zone. As soon as he was there, he took me to see the bones of a non-mainstream partisan from the second world war - fraternal rivalry. Some prior caver had rather touchingly constructed a cross out of fallen branches marking the small collection of bones.
Of course, this being Fratnik, he picked the skull straight up, remarking on its quality, and noted that it lacked a gunshot wound. It’s a good thing he can’t juggle, otherwise I’m sure he would have attempted it then and there. Please God, let him never consider the possibility of constructing a recorder from a Femur.
The rescue was a posed-for-TV affair; they have four more serious events a year, where a volunteer is stretcher’d out during a full day from about minus three-hundred from various caves. This time however, a squeeze was created in the corner of the enormous chamber for the stretcher to be filmed being extracted from. Fratnik & myself climbed 20m of flow-stoned boulders to perch ourselves halfway up for one of the film crew to enjoy as he was lowered down spinning gently.
So - who got to be the casualty? Why; the 70kg non-Slovene speaker! Strapped to a spine-board, I could wiggle my fingers & scratch my chin but that was all. Even my helmet was held fast! An excruciating interview from boot-height and the ascent was started, but not before one of the cameraman was hauled up to film. Initially horizontal, I was lowered to vertical after ten metres, as I had no face shield & the smooth manoeuvre looked good for the cameras below!
It started to get properly scary at this point. Though I was sure they must exist, I couldn’t remember there being any cross-linking strops forming a harness, just the Velcro of the orange plastic & the buckles lashing me tight. My weight was supported by my feet placed in little braced loops of webbing - I was basically standing in stirrups. As the weight was off-centre, the stretcher leaned forward slightly. The feeling was exactly like when you teeter on the brink of something, when every reflex in your body is telling you to put a foot forwards. Only I couldn’t move a muscle, I was entirely at the mercy of the random Slov prussik’ing beside me & was wondering exactly what kind of lunacy rig was holding me there dangling 60m above the drop.
Things were (as normal) absolutely fine; I came up grinning for the camera & noted the cool petrol-driven winch & pulley-carriage upon a tensioned traverse that I’d been lifted to. One moment of horror when I was disconnected from the hauling rope & started slipping down the steep leave-greased bowl of the entrance. I really hope I was clipped into something, but couldn’t turn to see, let alone do anything to halt my progress. Perhaps it would be better not to find out.
I (and I think to an extent us in general) have considered Fratnik, if not the typical Slovenian, then at least a representative for the whole breed of Slovenian cavers. This he is not. Of the rescue training party, all the other slovs (except for one old-school dude with hundreds of rescue-society insignias plastered over his helmet) had the normal quota of cows-tails, and they were all dynamic rope (rather than the super-static webbing Fratnik prefers). They also rigged the cave not only with backups for the hangs and used all the available rebelays, but even had cows-tail traverses to clip into for the climb down into the doline. Strange indeed!
After the rescue, we all went on to an old mountain-high post office (now pub), where the prior weeks’ rescue Austrian Alpine Insurance paid for a slap-up meal, coffees & all but infinite jugs of local wines! Chatted to the head-dude over food; they have the system well sorted here. If the rescued have insurance, they claim on it, if not - the rescue is free. Money from the insurance claims is spent on equipment, petrol for the rescuers & the occasional meal.
Sunday 15th October: Most na Soci cave
Cave is a 10m climb up above the road to Most na Soci, on the banks of the dammed Soca. Waterfalls are seen to spout from the mountainside during heavy rain; we looked at just one of these outlets. Cave is a crawl going in for
40m, with various climbs, possible springs & etc. Some spraypaint PSSs & carbide marks show that we’re not the first. Lots of possible diggable or expandable leads, though Andrej suggests we come back when some water is in evidence in order to find out where it comes from. Rock is well washed, except for occasional dead muddy climb. Clearly some formations have been stolen (stal & straws). The underground lake, referred to in a 1920s JSPDT journal is still therefore missing.
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