SELAS goes to Voronya

A description of the participation of SELAS Caving Club, Greece, in the CAVEX missions of 2005 (January & July) to the world's deepest cave, recounted by a non-participant writing from the safety of Athens.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

I hope the wait was worth it...

What follows is my own faithful re-telling, condensation, beautification, distortion and fanciful reconstruction of the events of early January 2005 over in Abkhazia. I was not involved in the mission beyond the provision of moral support to the three boys from SELAS taking part thanks to the kind sponsorship of TNT. I have heard the story a few times since the travellers returned; the story has had some time to mellow and condense in my memory, some parts growing vaguer, some more fantastically specific in my mind's eye as the imagination adds detail not present in the original telling. Any and all factual errors are my own. None of the photographs are. If you are unhappy about something, let me know and I will correct it. If you are unhappy about a photo attribution or label, let me know and I will correct it.

So, there they were on the morning of 3 January, the Monday after new years, getting ready to get on a plane, with friends and well wishers come to see them off. Kostas Zoupis, president of the Hellenic Speleological Federation (FHS).

Nikos and Niki wrap up a rucksack for travel

The three arrived that evening in an already dark Moscow, where they were met by Ilia Zharkov of CAVEX, the organizers of the expedition, who put the three Greeks up for the night and fed them traditional Russian fare, on arrival.

Kostas and Elias enjoy supper at Ilias’ place

The evening was spent in sightseeing around Moscow: Kremlin walls, red square, mausoleum, St. Basil's basilica with the groovy domes, and that building at the far end of the square which is built like a climbers’ playground - tough to keep Elias with the others.

Building on the edge of red square, lit by streetlights at night

Early the next day - Tuesday 4 January, the boys met up with more members of the team, and went to the other of Moscow’s two airports for the flight down to Sochi, just this side of the border with Abkhazia. The plan was to group up in Sochi with the rest of the team going down by train, and then cross into Abkhazia, by night when there would be less traffic crossing at the same time.

So the border was approached after nightfall, the gear loaded up onto a wheeled cart thing and carried across the no man's land to the vans waiting to carry the team on to the refuge (Base of the expedition) across the border.

Assorted caving gear, crossing the no man’s land to Abkhazia, the vans in which the expedition was ferried around

The next day the rain started. It was Wednesday 5 January, the whole team from five countries was gathered in a refuge used by cavers in Lapsta, where provision had been made for sleeping the whole team. Lapsta is a seaside town, smallish and probably typical of Abkhazia. Most of the locals go about their business armed, not unlike Crete some years ago or certain parts of the island today. The roads are potholed and in bad repair, something not surprising given the recent history of the region. The former tourist infrastructure is falling apart, but architecturally looks back to former glories, both imperial and Soviet.

"Rain, rain go away, come again another day"

Across the way from the refuge, sits the train station and beyond, the black sea, which in the former days would gather visitors from all over the Russias and the Soviet Union. Now, the town does not do much in tourism, save the cavers coming for the Arabika Massif.

Lapsta train station and the Black Sea in the background

The sea on the other side of the station acts as a reminder. Water entering the caves up on the valley of Ortobalagan, eventually comes out into the sea, some 2,200m lower, and a little bit more over to the west.

So, without any means of getting up to Ortobalagan to start the descent into Krubera-Voronya, it was a good opportunity to pool the equipment and organize it. The group had rope and gear for more than 2,000m descent, equipment for camps, food, communications equipment, survey equipment, etc. gathered from five countries.

The bad weather gave the team a chance to organize themselves a little better for the trip up to Ortobalagan

In terms of communications, there were two laptops to be taken up to Ortobalagan with mobile phone connection to the internet and a big antenna for the mobile to be able to reach the outside world, and some photovoltaic cells to be able to recharge batteries and keep the power flowing.

It was meant to be through this laptop that I would be getting my information during the two weeks to put up onto this site.

After the group equipment was put into place, the individual gear had to be sorted out in the refuge. It was an odd unpacking - the hope was that it would only be one night in Lapsta, but at the same time, there was a chance that the team would have to get used to the refuge.

Kostas and Nikos unpack essentials for one night's sleep only…

After the organisation and unpacking, the team went on an expedition to showcaves in the area - something karstic had to be seen, despite the weather!

Seats and benches blur into one large seating space as the expedition members try to break the world record for cavers in a van.

The trip set off in the crowded vans and went to “Novoafonskaya” where they had the opportunity to walk through the largest chambers in the world, and even ride a train that had been installed in the cave system.

Large chamber in the Novoafonskaya system which houses the largest chambers yet found.

Kostas, Elias and the rest of the expedition enjoy an evening meal after a day of waiting.

After the day's preparation, visits to show caves and evening meal with copious vodka and other nourishing stuff, the time had come for sleep, and so, with the unfavourable weather being unpredictable - without any way of telling whether the next day would be the day the trip up the mountain would start, the boys went to bed. It was 5 January 2005.

The train station by night.

Waking up on Thursday 6 January, there was no improvement in the weather, meaning that the expedition had to make tourist visits to more sights in the area. A visit was made to a large fish-farm, much of which is now in disrepair and unused, although there were some fish there to be seen.

Disused fish farms of Abkhazia.

The group also visited Matritska karstic springs which were popular with cave divers from all over the former Soviet Union, some of whom lost their lives in them.

Nikos and Kostas listen to the history of the exploration of the springs in the area.

And another day ended in supper down in Lapsta. The weather was expected to clear the next day, meaning that the helicopter would be able to fly the expedition up to Ortobalagan.

Supper on Thursday - a second day finished, still at sea-level.

Map of the area, showing where the expedition was housed in Lapsta (KatafigioA), Ortobalagan and some of the areas and showcaves visited while waiting for the weather to allow the helicopter to fly. Suchumi us on the coast at the bottom edge of the map. Click view image for larger image.

On the morning of Friday 7 January 2005, the news came to the refuge that the weather was now good enough to attempt the flight up to the mountain. The helicopter was in Suchumi, the team further up the coast in Lapsta. The plan was to ship half the team up to Ortobalagan from Suchumi first and come back to Lapsta for the rest of the team and the gear, which would have been assembled and waiting on the beach at Lapsta, where the helicopter could land.

The day started with the first team cramming themselves and the gear into the van for Suchumi.

The first group packs into the van for Suchumi.

Equipment and gear are packed into the van for travel to Suchumi and later to Ortobalagan.

So the expedition had split into two parts, one, with more than a metric ton of gear composed of about 14 people were travelling to Suchumi, while the second team piled their own gear onto a designated part of the beach to wait for the helicopter to come back and pick them up.

Nikos and Elias in full winter mountain footwear, on a sunny beach by the Black sea.

Second team’s gear sits on the beach, waiting for the helicopter to return from Ortobalagan.

It was a strange sight on the beach, not only on account of the many languages being spoken - or not being spoken - but mainly due to the fact that it was quite a warm day for January, and a dozen or so people had come out to the beach wearing heavy mountain gear (i.e. plastic boots etc).

Half-team photo with SELAS and expeditions flags.

After the gear was stacked and ready, the opportunity came for the group photos before setting off. The first team meanwhile had reached the heliport in Suchumi, and has begun to load up their gear onto the helicopter, a de-commissioned military helicopter which was well built and redundantly over spec as was the norm then.

The fateful helicopter waits for people to be loaded up before commencing for the mountain.

It was planned to be a short trip, maybe half an hour, then twenty minutes down to Lapsta beach to pick up the other half of the expedition and another twenty minutes up again to allow the expedition to commence in earnest.

Cavers take their places in the helicopter.

Just as the team on the ground were sitting in their mountain gear and tightening straps and tying up shoelaces, so too, on board the same process was going on.

Last minute mountain checks on board.

The helicopter was large and the ride calm and uneventful, allowing many aerial photographs to be taken.

Enjoying the view on the way up to the mountain

A view of the coast from the helicopter

The highest peak of Arabika from the cockpit

The Valley of Ortobalagan from the cockpit - the last in-flight image.

The second team remained on the beach sunning themselves before setting off for the darkness of -2,000m, oblivious to the events on the mountain.

Waiting for the helicopter in the sun on Lapsta beach

The first news of any problem came via a mobile phone call made to those on the beach. The beach party were told that there had been a small problem on landing with the helicopter, and that the other helicopter couldn’t come to pick up the beach party presently.

News of the accident, very much understated, arrives at the beach.

The reconstruction of the events which I have understood, filtered like most of this report through Russian into Greek via English involves the following sequence of events:

Ortobalagan was spotted from afar and a suitable landing spot indicated to the pilot, who proceeded to make a bee-line for the spot which both kicked up a lot of the powdery snow, and resulted in the slight knocking of the rear propeller on the side of the mountain. The helicopter began to spin on its own axis, without the benefit of the rear propeller. There was a second collision, during which a section of the tail (rear) door opened which caused three members of the team to fall to the snow below, while the helicopter continued to spin about five to ten metres above the plain. One of those finding himself prematurely on the snow recalls seeing the helicopter rotating on itself above him as he lay face up in the snow. The helicopter finally hit the ground and came to rest on its left side in the snow after a long slue (spinning out a few times).

The helicopter lies on its left side, part of the tail missing.

Wreckage and people scattered over the plain.

Evacuation of everyone from the helicopter.

Evacuation of the equipment from the helicopter.

Evacuation of the equipment from the helicopter.

Evacuation of the helicopter.

Thankfully, there were no casualties. The three falling from a height had their falls cushioned by the soft and powdery snow but were nevertheless the more seriously hurt of those on board. The pilot was also amongst those with the heavier injuries, having unintentionally “exited” the cockpit through the windscreen on landing. First aid was administered to all wounded and arrangements were made to have those most badly hurt taken back to Suchumi with the other helicopter.

Administering first aid.

Scenes from Ortobalagan.

Scenes from Ortobalagan.

Arrangements being made for the wounded to be flown out.

Cockpit interior, after… arrival.

Scenes from Ortobalagan.

Scenes from Ortobalagan.

Helicopter windscreen.

Not long after the accident the back-up helicopter came to the site to pick up the wounded.

Evacuation of wounded.

Evacuation of wounded.

Evacuation helicopter arrives.

Powdery snow raised by evacuation helicopter.

Helping to evacuate the wounded through the powder.

The route to medical help.

After the evacuation of the wounded, the remaining members of the first team proceeded to inform those on the beach what was happening, and to prepare themselves for a night on the mountain, while it was decided whether or not to go ahead with the expedition as planned.

Meanwhile back at the crash site.

Dusk comes t o Ortobalagan.

The beach party returned to the refuge and waited for the next day and the opportunity to ride up and join the rest of the expedition, and so came the morning of Saturday 8 January.

Nikos and Elias hope to go up today.

All the preparations of the previous day were still in place and ready to be implemented. The Lapsta half of the expedition did not know the extent of the damage to the first helicopter, nor did they have any idea of the condition of the wounded who had been taken to Suchumi. The atmosphere was one of temporal uncertainty - there was no question of whether the expedition would continue, but at what time.

Kostas and the bags in Lapsta.

The time in Lapsta was spent in the refuge, waiting for news concerning the next steps. It was the perfect opportunity for the foreigners, and possibly even for those from neighbouring countries to become acquainted with the local food specialities.

Kostas in the refuge’s kitchen where the Lapsta team spent most of the day waiting.

Local speciality food.

Local speciality food.

Local speciality food.

On the morning of 9 January, the situation was no clearer for the Lapsta team. Those on the mountain were up there, some were in Suchumi recovering from a crash the extent of which was not known in Lapsta. A decision would have to be made today about the go/no-go status of the expedition.

Bivouac and tent arrangements on Ortobalagan.

An assessment was made of the damage which had been done to the chiefly electronic equipment. The computer which would have been used for contact with the outside world was lost to the crash.

Laptop no more.

Temporary base camp established.

View over the bivouac towards the sea.

Tail section quite a distance from the main hull.

There was still some work which could be done on the mountain, so the initial period of uncertainty was not a totally wasted time. The rigging gear could be taken some distance into the cave, either for use if the expedition was to proceed, or for safekeeping if the expedition was to be postponed for the summer.

Someone got to go caving!

Expedition bivouac on Ortobalagan.

Communications “mast” at bivouac.

Communication attempts with the laptop.

Mobile phone with external aerial.

During the stay on the mountain, it happened to be the birthday of one of the expedition leaders Oleg Klimchouk. Judging by the sparklers, some sort of celebration had not been unplanned.

Sparklers for Oleg’s birthday.

Meanwhile - and still no more knowledgeable about the situation, the Lapsta team did some more karst-tourism. The Blue Lake is a karstic feature near Bzip river which was deemed worth a visit.

Blue Lake beside Bzip river.

Kostas and Nikos on an “island” in the Blue Lake.

By the time the 9 January was finished, it had been decided by the expedition organisers to call off the current attempt to visit the cave and to come back in the summer. All that remained was the return of those on the mountain to sea-level.

Sundown on 9 January on the mountain.

The smaller helicopter which had ferried the wounded out came back to take the expedition back to Lapsta. They had visited the spring, but had not managed to drink from its waters...

Boarding the helicopter.

The Lapsta team were informed of the situation and went back to the beach to greet their friends as they returned.

Going to the beach.

The expedition re-united.

And so, two days later, Lapsta train station was the backdrop for the parade of cavers. Then, only few days before, they had come through and with high spirits and anticipation. Now, they were returning without having accomplished what they set out to do, frustrated but they were both relieved and happy that no one was very badly wounded and determined to return for another try later this year.

Cavers descend to the platforms in Lapsta station.

Train in Lapsta.

Nikos and Elias, about to set off for Russia again.

Caving gear piled waiting for the return journey.

Crossing the border back into Russia in daylight allowed a glimpse of the normal day to day border traffic - in this case, people coming and going with oranges for sale in Russia.

Border crossing.

And finally, the expedition was met in Athens, by Kostas Zoupis, president of the Hellenic Federation of Speleology (FHS).

Back in Athens.

There is talk of going back in July 2005. If this is the case, I will re-start the blog accordingly. If not, I may add to it whenever there is something noteworthy happening, regardless whether it is in Abkhazia or not.