In August 1995 seven Brits set of in search of fame and fortune in the distant hills of southern Russia. Amongst us were Adrian (C.C.C.), Phil (G.O.C.), Julian (G.O.C.), Andy (G.O.C.), Richard (C.C.C.), Tony (U.L.S.A.) and Karina (U.L.S.A.). The aims of the expedition were to find new caves, enlarge the existing ones and to get home alive.
The outward journey went without a hitch, from the point of being met in Moscow to boarding the train which would take us to Adler on the Black Sea. We were joining a party from Moscow University who organised the Russian side of the trip and who would help us through the minefield called Russian bureaucracy. To enable us to get cheap travel Yuri, the main expedition leader, booked us all on as Russians and so loading on of the luggage at Moscow station was silent on our part not trying to give the game away. Forty hours later we arrived in Adler, a run down holiday resort from the times when the Russian leadership was a little less worried about where it spent the people's money. Here we were to travel to our camp by helicopter from a nearby airfield again posing as Russians.
It has to be remembered that in Countries like the one we were now in, air travel does not have the same strict safety guidelines as we're used to, and had we been too worried by this fact we would have been spending 3 weeks in a holiday resort or walking. It must be said that apart from the thought of all of the abandoned helicopters at the airfield the ride was excellent with breathtaking views over the Caucuses.
The first couple of days were spent acclimatising and exploring the local area. Fisht is a 9400ft mountain with a large, complex cave system beneath it including Tourist and Sportiva. In the saddle between Fisht and the neighbouring 9000ft peak Psheko-Soo is Anglo-Russian, the main reason for our being there the camp being only 5 minutes walk from the entrance.
Pineapple Pot - depths known to man.
The first find to be made by the British contingent was a pothole about 200m from the peak of Psheko-Soo and therefore over 8500ft in elevation. Initial indications (made by dropping stones down) were that it could be up to 80ft deep, a significant find if it went and potential for depths unknown to man.
The three of us Richard, Andy and Julian descended Pcheko-Soo with great excitement hoping that this unknown and unlabelled hole in the ground may even link with Anglo-Russian, 100's of feet below. In the days that followed a three day storm from hell hit the camp, with half the home-made Russian tents being blown down, broken or simply ruined. We faired slightly better deliberately collapsing one tent before the storm did so and having one fly-sheet rip. On the 3rd day we left camp in search of better weather on the excuse that we were looking for caves in another region a days walk away.
The following 3 days were luxury in comparison to the storm, clear skies, dry clothes and wood fires at night to keep warm. Despite great effort no caves were found in this area except for about 40ft of tunnel just below ground level, no better than most of the Ribblesdale grade I caves.
It was not until our return to camp did we start thinking of our recent find up on the mountain beside us. A party of English and one Russian set off up the steep slopes once again to descend to pot. Andy was selected for no good reason to be the first down and to farm the pot of any loose material.
Before long he shouted back that he had reached the bottom. We thought that we had misheard him as he was only 40ft down. Upon returning to the surface he told us the dismal news, he'd found the bottom and it went for a little while before being blocked by boulders. A lonesome tin of pineapple was also found down the hole and hence the rather bizarre name. It had been dropped down by one of the walkers in the area this year or last.
ANGLO - RUSSIAN CAVE DE-RIGGING TRIP
The aim of this trip was to de-rig the lower section of the cave to camp 1 at -350m. The trip was carried out with Costya Muchen. Muchen in Russia translates as fly which is quite apt as there were several dodgy bits where Costya's fly-like abilities certainly did not go amiss. After descending the entrance pitch rapidly - no, shall I say extremely rapidly, progress was made along the rifts and meanders which lead to the climb and the way into the extensions.
Costya points skywards as he doesn't speak any English and I no Russian, presumably this is the way on. The problem is there is no friendly rope to clip into. It feels a bit like somebody inviting you to start free-climbing the walls of the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu streamway in the vane hope there might be a passage 70ft up. Costya starts the climb and I realise that he is not joking. About 30ft up when the foot and hands hold are starting to run out the Russians have installed a rope - rope is quite a rare commodity in Russia! I attach my prussiking gear and complete the last 30ft in relative safety.
After a rather loose traverse, above the canyon passage below we enter a large sandy floored phreatic passage which would not look out of place if it were in DYO. We stamp along quite merrily and I can almost imagine I am back in South Wales. However, all good things must come to an end and we turn off into a minute looking side passage. Squeezing through a mini boulder choke we enter a series of descending rifts which we brace and slide our way down. Occasionally a yawning void reveals itself. I brace extra hard at these bits and contemplate how I am going to get back up. A few short pitches follow then a larger spray lashed 35m pitch. I was later informed that most of the smaller pitches were free-climbed which is somewhat staggering to imagine really.
Below the 35m pitch the limestone which has been unto now a light grey has now become resolutely black. A few more small pitches and we enter what is called Black Rift. This is a tight rift in razor sharp rock and similar to an elongated Baker's Chimney in East Water. Abseiling down trying to avoid the numerous rub-points on the rope which is not belayed off is almost impossible. At the bottom a series of muddy crawls; through a strong draughting squeeze, dug out by a member of Burnley C.C., and we are in the large tube like tunnel where the camp is situated. I ask Costya where this passage leads to and in the end I manage to gather that it ends just round the corner. However it must go somewhere as the draught can be felt along this passage.
There is not much time to deliberate, however and after nibbling a few bits of dodgy looking sausage and a swig of tea the camp is packed and tidied up and we lead on out but this time with a large tackle sac.
The exit from the cave is pretty uneventful however, trying to climb Black Rift, with a tackle sack also attempting to avoid the rub-points is very knackering. The top of the `big' pitch is reached OK but the fast pace of the trip is relentless and I am starting to feel even more tired. I reach the top of a dodgy free-climb in the meanders and try and claw my way over the lip. However, the weight of the tackle sac is dragging me back into the void below. Fortunately the hand of Costya is there to give me a pull-up.
Back in the old-section of the cave, I almost feel as if we are out. My light is now looking pretty feeble and even Costya is starting to look tired now. We exit the cave at about 10pm where I am welcomed back with a bowl of hot water. Phil informs me that you only get one of these if you have been on a reasonably hard trip.
The biggest compliment, however, was Costya calling me a "strong" Caver. I suppose, I had tried to keep up with Mr Fly.
FURTHER POTENTIAL IN ANGLO-RUSSIAN
The present length of the cave is approximately 8km, the depth -450m. Any connection with the nearby Krestic system will not be easily gained. The system is a 3-D maze and the going is not at all easy. According to Dennis they pushed one tight passage for over two hours with no end in sight!.
All in all the depth was increased by about another 100m and more horizontal passage was found. A break through was made when it was decided to have a second look at the boulder choked end of the passage, discounted by the Russians. It lead to a large aven chamber which must be quite near the surface.
ON THE DISCOVERY OF STONEWALL CAVE
A large resurgence many 100's of metres below camp had been spotted by Andy and Richard with binoculars. The resurgence had been previously noted by the Russians but thought to be of no interest. When it came to the day for checking it out and being some what unhinged, I offered to carry my gear up and down the mountain. The others helped with the Russian's diving gear.
Getting to the cave was far from easy as we had to back our way up and down dale through virgin thicket. In fact, it was amazing we ever found it.
Looking at the entrance it looked pretty pathetic. After a crawl spewing out a torrent of freezing water I was feeling pessimistic a cursory glance seemed to indicate that it closed down within a few feet. Anyhow, I had to go through with it so in I crawled.
Fortunately at the bit where I thought it closed down the passage stepped up but still continued flat out. Twenty feet more of thrutching and it didn't look so good up ahead. In fact it looked as if it sumped. The water was only a few degrees above zero but I felt I should check it out. I ducked down low, the cold water making me gasp for breath. I couldn't see a lot but I could here the sound of water cascading in what might be a larger chamber beyond. Plucking up courage, I ducked through and almost straight away rose up into a large passage.
Stunned, I could see calcite glittering on the conglomerate walls and long straws, where no man had looked before. I could have gone off and explored the rest of the cave by myself but I didn't. It seemed fairer to let everybody explore it tomorrow.
I just felt happy for a few moments to be touched by the fair hand of nature.
The following day an intrepid group of British cavers re-trod those first footsteps back to this new find. Since most of the jungle style undergrowth had been trampled by the previous days party the going was fairly easy and we soon arrived at Stone Wall.
After kitting up 6 of us climbed up the 50ft water cascade to the entrance. Adrian entered to low crawl for the second time shortly followed by Tony's video camera. After a minor bit of cave landscaping we all ducked through into the first camber, totally soaked by the near zero degree duck. This is where dragging a video camera and lights around has it's bonus. With the help of a 50W film light the beauty of this new discovery was revealed to us. This first chamber clearly showed the conglomerate rock from which the cave was sculpted with a large amount of calcite formations on the walls.
We quickly stowed cameras and excess gear on a handy mud bank and decided to explore as far as we could before photography or surveying. I set off through the large gap at the end of the passage to emerge in a larger chamber, about three times the size of the one we'd just left. This one was about 9m by 40m long with an 8ft calcite cascade in the middle. Every wall of the passage was covered in straws, stals and flow stone making this section at least on par with the better parts of Hagg Gill. From the ceiling of the upper level a large 3mÆ calcite boss hangs down festooned with straws and stalactites and below an also suitably impressive boss with stalagmites.
After seeing these two passages we were all hopeful of a major find, who knew how much passage lay ahead and what other formation were awaiting us? We were almost immediately given our answer by the smaller 2mÆ passage leading upstream from this one.
After only 13m or so a 15ft aven entered the passage and the way on got even lower. The whole cave is made of a loose conglomerate rock which falls apart without too much help and because of this no-one really felt up to climbing this one just yet, if anything happened help was over 3 miles away and 450m higher up on Fisht. We continued on ducking under what can only be described as a miniature version of the Wet Dishcloth in Ireland. Soon the passage split in two but the left hand route stopped after only 8m in a pretty chamber with a very low sump. The right hand route followed on for 15m until it to stopped in a low passage with a crystal clear sump pool. Adrian attempted to see if it was passable but it was just too low for anyone to safely try without diving gear. For the next couple of hours we methodically filmed, photographed and surveyed the entire cave, all 121.0m of it.
Although this was not going to be a major find in anyone's books the sheer beauty and location of the cave made it a firm favourite amongst everyone there.
THE UKRAINIAN VISA INCIDENT
We were travelling back to Moscow by rail. This entails travelling through a small section of Ukraine for which you need a visa. The trouble is we were a bit later than expected and our visas had run out. We assumed that the Russians would talk nicely - or bribe - the Ukrainian border guards and there would be no problem. However, we were wrong! An argument ensued probably at the moment they and we were escorted to the border control office, where Yuri the Russian tried to bribe the guards. Cave leader and the border guards haggled over our fate. We listened clueless while a Ukrainian Beatles fan pestered us for British small change to add to a bus money collection. The Ukrainians were not in a sympathetic mood and we were told that we would have to go back to Rostov - 4 hrs back down the line - to obtain a new visa.
In the end to avoid the bureaucratic wrangling which might ensue in Rostov and as our plane back to the UK was flying on the next day we caught a plane from Rostov to Moscow.
The outcome was not so bad, we beat the sluggish train into Moscow by several hours and Phil claimed the extra fare back on the travel insurance. But not a very happy farewell on my first and maybe only visit to my father's homeland!