The expedition to the cave Krubera-Voronya. 2-31 August, 2010. The Caucasus mountains, Abkhazia (Georgia)

by Laura Tamosevice, Lithuania

When we were leaving the territory of the customs of Abkhazia with our bus we couldn’t believe that we passed it at last so we asked the officer standing near the gates: “Can we go?” He looked at us without a smile and replied: “Yes, of course. Welcome to the wonderland.”

Abkhazia is indeed a country of wonders. According to almost all the world the country doesn’t exist officially, yet you have to get a double entry Russian visa and an Abkhazian visa (this one you get after you enter Abkhazia and it is printed on a piece of paper that you simply put into your passport and bring home as a souvenir). Russians consider that we leave the territory of Russia officially but in spite of that they don’t put stamps on our visas and only write numbers by hand (!) “I” and “II” during our first and second passing of the customs. The country of Abkhazia is very poor but yet the prices of food and services are not low at all. With all that heat and dust it was amazing to see that the cars on the street were very clean and shiny. It seemed that the only work that locals like to do is washing their cars (and it is most easily done by simply driving the car into an almost dried out mountain river and wash it right there)

Almost all of 17 expedition members came to airport of Sochi in Russia by airplanes and then passed the border on foot. Only 4 Lithuanians came by minibus bringing all the expedition equipment and food. Driving all the way from Lithuania to Abkhazia (about 3000 km) and passing customs on the way took 70 hours. It also appeared that Russia has a stupid law: the person entering the country can have only 50 kg of baggage with him, no matter what it is. And we had over a half a ton in that bus! We were only lucky that three quarters of the bus crew were girls :) You couldn’t imagine how the customs procedures ease off when an attractive blonde comes along with a car driver.

Everybody’s finally gathered in Tsandripsh (Abkhazia). Got up at 7 a.m., loaded everything and everybody into two open-bodied GAZ-66 and drove 6 hours uphill. It took two days and a little help of donkeys to bring all the stuff from the place where the cars unload until the camp site located over 2 km over sea level. This year there were a lot of teams and a lot of people working in the same mountain area at the same time. On the way to our camp we counted camps of 5 different groups. Some of them were working in the other caves, but some had plans in the same cave and even in the same branch of it.

This summer has been very hot and dry, even in the mountains. They say that water level in the Voronya cave was very low comparing to the last year. Nevertheless there was water in the cave and I was quite glad that its level was low: I wouldn’t want to know how the higher water level looks like because I was wearing my cordura oversuit that is not waterproof at all. Before the expedition I was very curious what it is this legendary Voronya cave like. It turned to be cold, very cold (the temperature in the cave varies from only 2 degrees of Celsius in the upper part of the cave near the entrance to the 7-8 degrees in the bottom after the first sumps). Speaking about the cave’s morphology, until the depth of 1400 m it can be considered as rather simple. It’s almost a lift shaft: a lot of deep vertical pits, a few meanders (most of them are not long), no narrow places (all squeezes were widened during the rescue operations when they had to take a fall victim from 500 m depth). I’ve never seen such a good rope installation in the cave; it has been made for maximum comfort and security. Nevertheless the rope still wears out very quickly and has to be changed constantly. During this expedition hundreds of meters of the rope were changed by all the teams working in the cave. The amount of people had an impact on the rope also but the main reason of wearing is the cave itself. Very sharp rocks, small particles of rock in the mud and water “kill” not only the rope but also the rest of equipment: descenders, ascenders, carabiners, suits, boots, gloves and transport bags. After dragging a very heavy bag along the ground through meander of Sinusoida for about ten minutes I nearly lost bag’s bottom – about one third of the bottom was torn and open. Then I had to tie the bottom with a rope (in order not to loose it in the pit) and carry it further carefully in my hands.

At the depth of 1440 m there is a first sump S1 that can be free dived, without the balloons. After it the cave changes and becomes much more difficult and dangerous. The bottom part of the cave can appear under the water during the floods (that’s why the telephone line is needed – to know the forecast of the weather). Also during this expedition we encountered with a lack of oxygen in the bottom part of the cave which influenced on how the equipment worked (the stoves malfunctioned, the lighters didn’t work) and how the people felt (some felt constantly tired and powerless).

So, all the equipment is upon the mountain and the expedition has begun:

-         August 8 – 11: Everybody are doing their acclimatization descents and bringing down to 700 m the transport bags with food, diving equipment, balloons and camping equipment.

-         August 12: The diving team (four Lithuanians Vytis (our main diver), Aidas (expedition leader), Gintas and Saule and one Irish Niall who is not a diver, but is going to help bring the load down) is leaving for their long descent to 2000 m. This descent is planned to last for 12 days and for some members of the team it will be even longer.

-         August 13: A team of three Irish Steven, Eoghan and Tim and two Spanish Jesus and Jorge are leaving for their descent planning to bring down all the needed load and to reach a depth of 2080 m, a pit called Game Over that is a deepest point in the Earth possible to reach without a special diving preparation (yet one sump has to be free dived on the way to it).

-         August 16: The last teams go underground. French Barnabe and Tristan and Serbian Ivan are descending to Game Over (2080 m). They are a team of blistering speed and will be out in three days. Two Lithuanians Laura and Jurga are going to 1400 m and plan to do some exploration and vertical climbing in the Spanish Branch in 1340 m. The Spanish members of this expedition plan to join them in this exploration later. Unfortunately, it appears that the prospects for climbing are very tiny, so the Lithuanian girls pack up and exit to the surface on August 21 spending underground two days less than planned.

-         August 22: The Spanish couple exit to the surface.

-         August 23: Four Irish and two Lithuanians Gintas and Saule exit to the surface. All look completely exhausted.

-         August 24: 13 expedition members pack up their things and the camp and go down the mountains leaving only Laura and Jurga on the surface and Aidas and Vytis in the cave. The first ones have the planes to catch and the second ones still have to take out of the cave a bunch of transport bags.

-         August 25: Aidas and Vytis exit to the surface.

-         August 26: Viva the friendship! 4 Russians from Moscow caving club Sokolniki-RUDN come to help and descend to 500 m to take out the last bags. Thanks a lot.

Expedition’s activities and achieved results:

-         The data from data loggers measuring water level, air pressure and temperature was successfully taken and the devices were reprogrammed for another period of data taking. New loggers: temperature logger in the entrance pit and rain logger on the surface were installed. A separate report will be made to represent the analyzed loggers’ data that is extremely interesting.

-         The exploration of the Spanish Branch was finalized.

-         Some specimens of cave insects were found and taken to examine. One of the largest was a about 5 cm long centipede found in the Spanish Branch at the depth of 1340 m.

-         During this expedition various equipment was tested in the extreme cave environment.

-         Because of the increasing problem of human waste in the toilets of the cave’s bivouacs our expedition tried to use in these toilets some special powder containing bacteria and chemicals that under normal conditions should reduce the odour and volume of this kind of waste. Of course, the conditions in the cave are far from normal so the results of this experiment can be evaluated in 6-12 months period.

-         9 members of the expedition reached the depth of 2080 m – the pit Game Over that is the deepest point accessible for a non-diver caver. 4 diving members reached the depth of 2140 m – the beginning of the sump Two Captains. One of them – Lithuanian Saule Pankiene - is the first woman who has been there.

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