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, August 09, 2005

Day by day account of the expedition

I have translated Kostas' post to the SELAS forum. I have kept his use of the first person.

Kostas writes:

Voronya - Krubera 2005
Zazarkalye 2005

Sponsor: TNT Greece

Hello to all our readers!

After almost three weeks of waiting and silence, the time has come to write a few words about the expedition and to recount the events which took place...

2-7-2005 to 8-7-2005
Athens - Moscow - Sochi and the…obligatory excursions
The adventure began on the first day and continued until the very last… Due to a typo on our visa, we needed to ease our way through the borders by paying! At Sochi we learnt that the paperwork for crossing into Abkhazia / Georgia was not yet sorted out… we were tied down at the Geographic service and made excursions on every day up to the third day... then the local police relieved the members of the Polish team of some of the weight of their wallets through clear extortion to the tune of 100 euro a head - 300 euro in total. This event made us restrain our movements somewhat and so the days passed and our morale dropped.

It is a fact that to visit Russia you got to have strong nerves and a lot of self-control. You are always going to be a potential victim of extortion, and everyone, especially the police, will try to make money through your presence, often putting you through humiliating and unpleasant circumstances. You have to be aware of how much it is necessary to give and to whom, but the trial and error process of learning is tough... The learning process is especially difficult as very few Russian speak English.

Radio silence!
Everyone figured it out in the end, or heard through others. Three of the four members of the expedition (Elias, Methodios and Kostas) decided in the end on the sixth day to enter Abkhazia. The delay in crossing was delaying the whole of the "Zazarkalye 2005" expedition (Zazarkalye means "Behind the mirror") since we were members of the survey team which could not get started if we could not get to base camp. ...For obvious reasons we decided to put in place a "radio silence" with no news going out to anywhere until our safe return to Greece.

An unprecedented experience... It was one of those moments one never forgets... It was something like a dance in the darkness, since we were all there with linked arms... The "crossing" delivered us from the suspense and the wait.

Jeep Safari
We decided to concentrate on the expedition and to forget about the return despite knowing that it would be more difficult than getting there... The next afternoon we left the beach and loaded ourselves onto the famous truck which would take us to base camp in the Ortobalagan valley. The route which we would cover in the back of the URAL 6x6 was 32 km and the altitude differential was 2000m... The experience lasted four hours (!!!) and was just as we had imagined it from the descriptions of our friends in the past. The scenery we passed was impressive, while the vehicle would swallow up any unevenness in the road surface like they didn't exist.

Ascending the mountain of Prometheus.
The forests of the Caucasus are very rich in foliage, the mountain heavily forested. We realized that there is a lively economy related to forestry in the region, but despite the activity, the forest does not seem to be suffering. A little beyond a small hamlet of shepherds and woodcutters at about 1400m, the forests withdraw giving their place to the Alpine zone. The Alpine zone is very different to the equivalent zone in Greece in that it is far greener. Small meadows and little lakes coupled with large areas of standing snow characterize the landscape.

The truck stopped when we had reached Ortobalagan. We quickly unloaded our gear and in the dark we said our goodbyes to the driver and the hospitable shepherds who live at the end of the road… Loaded up with part of our things we started to climb into the darkness. In 40 minutes we had climbed the 240m to the valley and looked out onto the base camp. Embraces and satisfaction. We were there, and no helicopter or missing permit would stand in the way of living the stories and reports which we had heard about the cave in question. Those stories we had been hearing with enthusiasm for the past few years from our friends in CAVEX, and now we ere here. With our presence at base camp, we had managed to ensure Greek representation at one of the most significant exploratory events of the millennium.

Base camp
When we woke the next morning we realized how large base camp is. 35 tents plus the large cookhouse-dining room tent. There was a telecommunications tent also with internet and mobile phone connections. Klim (Oleg Klimchouk) showed us around the tent, but we had already decided that it would not be a good idea to be broadcasting our presence. The large tent (dining room) held one end of the telephone line which disappeared into the depths of Voronya and connected those in the cave with the outside world.

Night and day, there was someone next to the phone recording all movements in the cave. The expedition plan was there along with the diagram showing the whereabouts of all bags in relation to the camps. You could say that this was the centre of operations of the whole expedition. There were about 40 speleologists collected together (including the recent graduates from speleological seminars who were assisting the expedition and building up experience at small depths and in the pot holes in the area).

Acclimatisation descent to -240m
Our schedule had an initial acclimatisation descent to -240m for the first day… with a bag, of course! So, without quite believing our luck, after 16 days of waiting (9 days in January and seven in July) we secured our descenders and began to descend the first pitch (P.57). Unfortunately our satisfaction did not last too long… The ropes were very worn and the rigging not so good. It was necessary to tie off the very worn patches with knots in some places to be able to continue the descent. There were many "new" cavers using this part of the cave and they had accelerated the wear and tear.

The whole of the "river team" was with us on the acclimatisation trip - that is to say the Poles and Alan Walrid, with whom we became quite close. Alan is a very pleasant and very experienced speleologist of about 50 years, and is known world-wide for his book: "Vertical".

The cave was exceptionally cold, and we hadn't brought PVC overalls with us for fear of incurring overweight charges on the airplane. At -240m there is a chamber (Crym) after which begins P.110, known as "Wet Puit". The waters of the waterfall could be heard at the top of the pitch. In general, to this point, the cave does not have any impressively large chambers, but it is not narrow either. There are almost no speleothems at all and the bedding of the rock is very reminiscent of "Gourgouthakas" on Crete.

The return to the surface surprised us. Despite the fact that we were constantly moving, we did not manage to warm ourselves up…The temperature was less than 3 degrees Celsius! On the way up we did some photography with Alan.

Forwarding gear to the camp at -700m
With two bags each, hanging from the harness, we set off early in the morning for the camp at -700m. Ρ.110 lived up to its name of Wet Puit. Together with us and the remaining "river team" Klim came down too to change the old ropes and correct the rigging on Wet Puit (to take the rope out of the water).

After the Ρ.110 there is a small meander, at the end of which begins the imposing Ρ.150 which is the largest single pitch in Voronya. The pitch has very large dimensions. At its end a meander of 250m length begins. This is one of the most difficult parts of the cave. At the end of this, there is a pitch called "Pti Drou" at the bottom of which is the first camp, which holds six people.

We returned to the surface (without bags) in four hours, something which confirmed that the time we had spent on our preparation was not time wasted.

Rest and planning of the next moves
A day of rest after two days of continuous action. We talked with Klim and the others about the plan for the survey. We also did various exercises and drills to get our readings synchronized and improve our accuracy (loop closure). Late in the afternoon, Denis Provalov (expedition leader) came with the other foreigners: Mateo and Jacomo from Italy, and Rok, a doctor from Slovenia, all of them friends of ours from an expedition in which SELAS had taken part in 2003. In addition there was an English speleologist, Tony, and a Czech called Zdenek, who had been with us in the winter too. A small council was held and it was decided that we would go in the next day and commence the survey.

Survey begins
Elias and Methodios had undertaken the section from -500m to -950m, while I would survey from -950m to -1440m (siphon/sump) together with Alan. The next night, Methodios and Elias would sleep at -700m (Camp 1) while Alan and I would sleep at -1200m (Camp 2). We figured that each team would need about two days to complete their share of the survey.

Given that the cave is a new world record, CAVEX wished to confirm the readings taken by the Ukrainian team. In addition to this, one of the expedition goals (as far as the survey was concerned) was to create a three dimensional map of the complete cave. The Ukrainian team has not produced such a map, they have only surveyed the sections they have explored, not those which were known from the past. In addition to this CAVEX was using a method involving hydrostatic pressure, and were conducting an experiment with measurements taken with SUUNTO altimeters (many measurements taken on many altimeters in various locations in the cave) in which we took part.

Both Alan and I, but also Methodios and Elias were also carrying a bag which held items necessary for the creation of the camps at -1600m and -1950m. So it was surveying with a bag, in one of the coldest caves we had ever visited.

The survey was very tiring and lasted 8 hours the first day. When we reached -1200m we were soaked through and completely frozen. The same fate lay in store for the other survey team which was camping at -700m. Fortunately the camp was very well established and we managed to get our strength back and dry out our laser distos and compasses.

The cave is exceptionally beautiful between -700m and -1200m. Klim had told us that it is a typical example of a cave of the western Caucasus. There were continuous waterfalls of about 30m height and comfortable spaces without too many narrows. It was indeed very beautiful. In the end, the most beautiful ornament of this section is the dynamic and intense presence of water, with its noisy and continuous waterfalls. It seems like a subterranean canyon: all those who have done canyoning can understand what I mean.

The area around Camp 2 has large spaces and is Camp 2 is comfortable as a camp. The only drawbacks are the mud, just outside the entrance to the tent and the noise from the last waterfall about 20m from the tent.

Second day in Voronya - survey from -1200m to -1300m
When we had rested, we put on our wet clothes and muddied gear once more and set off with Alan (with a heavy heart) to survey the cave from -1200m to -1300m. Our goal should have been to reach -1410m, but the compass had not yet dried well, and I could not make out the readings very easily.

The route from Camp 2 to -1300m is one of the wettest parts of the cave. There are many places where you need to crawl through water and there is quite energetic spray from the waterfall on the pitches coupled with blowing breezes which bring the temperature right down. We ceased surveying at -1300m and continued to carry the bags on to Camp 3 (-1410m).

This is the most comfortable of the camps and is known as "Sandy Beach". It is in a dry side-branch of the cave and so the temperature there is about 5 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, there is no noise from the water, and this makes sleeping more pleasant.

I left my bag and said goodbye to Alan, who would sleep at Sandy Beach, while I would go up to meet Methodios and Elias at Camp 2. I found them there a little later and they recounted their experiences with the survey. We slept only after we had written up our survey readings into the Palm (Auriga) which we had with us.

Day three in Voronya
According to the initial plan, we were to go to Camp 3 that morning and take our turn to cross through the sump. Methodios set off early for the surface since he did not want to try crossing the sump. As there had been delays in gear being brought down, it was necessary for us to stay there all day without doing anything. At some point our friends the Poles (Artur, Lukas and Peter) came and found us. According to the new instructions which we got from the surface via the phone, we would set off the next day for Camp 3.

Day four in Voronya - Survey from -1300m to -1440m
We set off early and began to make our way to Sandy Beach. At -1300m Elias and I began to survey. Fortunately the instruments were working properly again.

The bad news...
We reached Camp 3, where we were met by Victor and Andrey. Unfortunately for us, the two Russians who had undertaken to help us cross the sump did not speak very good English... We saw that they were a little ill at ease and asked them why. They told us that the sump was higher than usual and therefore longer than expected (and longer than it had been described to us). There was 8 of us to cross and the air that was available was not enough for the two Russians, three poles, one Englishman and the two Greeks). We had two bottles available: one was a litre, the other two litres. Both were compressed to 100 atmospheres. In addition to all this, the sump, we were told, had zero visibility and was quite narrow…

This new information unsettled us and we began to worry about the safety of the enterprise. We were thinking that things would have been much better for us if Nikos had been there with us, with his suddenly very relevant knowledge and experience of cave diving, to guide us....

There was a further delay to the plan and many discussions (in Russian) which we realised were about the air. It had been decided that a team (Denis and the Italians) would set out from the surface to bring extra bottles with air for the dive. Elias and I set off for more survey while the others took some rest in Camp 3. We reached the sump at -1440m which did indeed look to be narrow. We got back to Sandy Beach, wet again, and got ready for bed. We'd have another look at the situation when the extra air came the next day...

"No thanks"
We woke early and prepared breakfast in the camp. Suddenly we heard strange noises. We realized that this noise was stones hitting each-other and increased noise from the water on the waterfalls. The phone was dead… we assumed that a storm had taken place on the surface.

Our assumption was proved true about two or three hours later once the telephone line had been restored. We were safe, but Denis' team, which was bringing more air bottles could not enter the cave. They told us that at the surface there was a huge storm in progress with very strong winds.

Late in the evening, after more deliberations (always in Russian) we received the order to cross the sump without waiting for extra air to come down. I do not recall many times in my life when I have been equally disappointed and scared. It was clear that this dive was madness for us. Even to think about going through with it caused us no small amount of fear... A half empty one litre bottle can empty very quickly with a free flow from the regulator. And so we said "No thanks". We had played enough Russian Roulette until that day. The decision not to cross helped us take control of our own safety once again.

The time constraints were very tight, too. We were due to cross back into Russia on 21-7-2005. So our descent had ended at the deepest point ever reached by Greek Speleologists, whether within Greece or elsewhere, at a depth of -1440m. We knew we could have gone deeper, but the bad timing with the sump, which we hadn't planned on, stopped us.

We helped the rest of the team take their bags to the sump and then returned to Camp 2 (-1,200m) together with Peter the Pole who had agreed with our decision and was not proceeding any further.

Return to the surface
I shared a bag on the way up with Elias. We began at 11:10 and were on the surface at 20:00 including a pause of one hour at -700m. In total 8 hours for 1,200m. Outside, Methodios was waiting for us. We hadn't seen each-other for days. In total, we had spent 128 hours in the cave (5 days), yet another unprecedented experience for us.

We spent the first day resting in the tent. I had a cold ever since becoming soaked in Wet Puit… I had a fever of 38 degrees which slowly receded in the late afternoon and left me a little worse for wear. Methodios went back in with Sklyar, a friend from expeditions in Greece and Slovenia, to finish off the survey from -600m to 950m.

On the afternoon of that day, we got news of the accident. A young Russian speleologist, 23 years old called Andrey had fallen about 7 meters as the rope he was rigging the pitch with had no knot at the end… For the time being, we didn't know more. Immediately a team composed of Ukrainians left for the injured caver taking medicines and food with them. Unfortunately they couldn't reach him as he was behind an exceptionally narrow and twisted section of cave.

Teams are recalled from the bottom
The rescue teams were en-route from Russia. Andrey had broken both legs and his hips and had hurt his spine and shoulder… His pulse and temperature were OK. An effort was made to gather rescue equipment from all Russia, as they had estimated that they would need about four to five days explosives work with three or four petrol driven drills to open the narrow section behind which Andrey was trapped.

All the experienced speleologists were close to the bottom and had started to come up to the surface, while we were having trouble communicating with those who were around us. We felt that they didn't want us in the cave but would rather have us off the mountain sooner rather than later, They didn't want the border crossing and any problems that might bring on their minds, on top of the stress of the rescue. We totally agreed with this - the rescue was the first priority.

Rescue equipment comes slowly together - Foreign speleologists prepare to leave
Methodios returned after two days in the cave having with him the survey data for about 500m of the cave's depth. We felt satisfaction as we had contributed a great deal to the survey of the cave (from -500 to -1440m - about half the cave).

We all got ready to head off. Poles, Italians, Greeks. We were told the truck would be coming up in the afternoon.

Return to civilization and crossing the border again
We set off very early in the morning in the well known truck. The same day, we had crossed the borders - it was harder than it had been to get into Abkhazia…

Return to Moscow
The return to Moscow was uneventful if you exclude the fact that everyone was asking us for money and dragging us into one police station after another saying our registration wasn't good or in order. Fortunately we managed to get back to Moscow paying not one rouble(!!!) It seems we had started to learn our lesson, although the learning process had not been painless...

Return to Athens
We returned to Athens in Business Class together with our friend Panagiotis Kotronaros, a Greek climber who had recently conquered Everest. He had gone to the summit of the Caucasus, Elbrus (5.164m) with 22 other mountaineers from Greece.

Being back was an emotional experience and a relief! We are lucky to live here in Greece, however much we complain about it. And now, we are certain that we can find in Greece a cave deeper than -2,000m.

Let's try!

For the team,


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