A business trip in September '95 to Slovakia allowed some time to go underground and to be introduced to the caving scene. This article will provide a short description of the structure and range of activities in Slovakia and notes on two trips.
First the structure. In the old Czechoslovak communist era all caving was state controlled. Two organisations controlled activities. One was the scientific emphasis based on an academy of sciences and the other a confederation of district 'clubs', now separated owing to the emergence of separate Czech and Slovak states. The organisations were heavily subsided by the state but this is now greatly reduced. The academy of sciences still receives some State money to keep administrative duties alive together with a small research centre. The 'clubs' are part of the Slovak Speleological Society. During the past regime each 'club' was confined to a particular geographic area. Little movement between areas was allowed with few visits by cavers into another area. If you lived in an area you could only belong to that area's organisation. Now movement is unrestricted but still not much cross activity occurs. Exploration, digging and so on is still seen to be the prime right of the area organisation. In all 43 'clubs' exist with approximately a total of 500 members. Probably only a quarter of the members are active.
Presently the amount of activity is reducing due to pressures of work and less state financial support. As Slovakia changes to a market economy people are having to spend more time developing private enterprise business and can not spare time for caving. Also the 'clubs' have to be self supporting and money is scarse. The value of money is very low and the relative cost of equipment is therefore high. For example the cost of a quality karibiner is a days wages; an FX2 is two/three weeks wages; the average annual wage being £3000. Conversely beer is the equivalent of 30 pence a litre.
The longest system is around 24 km and the deepest 432 m. There is still potential to extend length and to get deeper.
Two trips were undertaken on this visit. The first with Speleo Bratisalava to a cave to the north of the city in the Carpathian Mountains, the second with people from Banska Bystrica in the Low Tatras.
VeI'ke Prepadle, Malv Karpatv (Big Sink)
Length = 600m. Depth = Approx 65m.
This cave is the best and worst of Mendip type caves. Passages are small with sharp rocks, an active streamway, short pitches, slimy walls and mud bypasses with sumps or ducks depending on the amount of water in the system.
The cave takes a surface stream with a vertical climb dry way in with block house entrance. The door had recently been blown off by persons unknown - how familiar! This enters a large chamber, about 15 metres diameter and 12 metres deep (the deepest pitch). An impressive waterfall drops down the side and the cave continues in one main passage. The ladder, having plastic square rungs held by knots onto 8mm nylon side ropes, was reached by a short traverse. No safety line was provided for the descent or ascent. No cavers had cows tails or crabs for protection. A series of short drops with chains were in the streamway which was about a metre wide and varied from 2 metres to 5 metres in height. The water was shallow. After 300 metres a sump (5 metres) was bypassed through small mud crawls and a 2m mud sump. After a short distance another sump was encountered. A bypass to this exists but was mud filled and would need to be excavated at the time. It dropped behind the sump and then the cave closed down quickly.
The cave fills in wet weather and afterwards the bypasses have to be frequently dug out. There are a few tight short passages off the main chamber.
Speleo Bratislava, with 10 members, have accommodation in the city which is a old nuclear bomb shelter beneath a block of flats. About 2 kms from the cave they have a wood chalet, big enough for six bunks, table and chairs and no other facilities. Digging is going on in other caves but they are tight, muddy and not very long.
Jaskyna Mrtvych Netopierov (Cave of the Dead Bats). Nizke Tatrv
Length = 8 km. Depth = 300m.
This is situated in a limestone block below the highest peaks (around 2000m) in the Low Tatras. It has 12 separate horizontal development levels joined by vertical shafts averaging 30 in deep. There are ten entrances into the system scattered over the mountain. We entered 100 m from the highest level, Eagles Window, dropped to the bottom level and then climbed back to exit at 150m above the bottom, a new gatehouse. The cave is dry and mainly fossil passages with only a little water in a stream at the bottom.
First we had to climb up the mountain a vertical distance of 800m and 2 kms. As work was going on to construct a cottage at the gate entrance we had to carry timber planks as well as our gear. Our entrance fee!
An initial rope traverse, again no one had protective devices but me, over a 20m drop led to passages which were large and walking was over breakdown boulders. A big chamber of 60m by 15m by 10m high spouted water from the roof.
The drops between the horizontal levels had the plastic ladders, deepest being 40m in two stages or ropes as hanlines. Both ladders and ropes were secured by a single 8mm bolt. Again no safety lines were carried.
There were very few formations, just isolated small stalagtitcs and one or two curtains. Air temperature at the highest levels was 3 deg C; the warmest part of the cave being at the lowest levels where a small colony of hats lived. In winter the walls of the highest passages become ice covered. Skeletons of hats were common at the highest levels as well as a goat and a bear.
Two digs were active, one at the lowest level and the other to join two levels higher in order to provide a shorter route into the far reaches of the system. The cave was concentrated into one side of the mountain but with a major development heading into another valley. English cavers in the late 1980's had pushed this development and discovered large passages and chambers, one now named English Chamber. The Slovak cavers had no records of who were the English cavers.
At one time the possibility of opening one of the levels to mountain walkers was pursued and from the gate house the passages had been 'modified' for easy walking and steel walkways installed over a 30m rift. This idea was being resurrected by the Brezno group who were exploring the cave. A new two storey cottage situated on the gate house entrance in concrete and timber (hence the timber hauling) was nearly finished. It was approximately 4m by 5m and contained a massive wood heating stove under the sleeping area.
The Brezno group already had a wood chalet lower down the mountain next to the road. It could sleep six and had basic facilities, that is a paraffin pressure stove for cooking and a small cast iron wood burning stove.
We met up with the original finder of the system, Milan Stec, later at the bar. He is a typical Slovak, constant talk, jokes and drinking. There is no doubt about the excellent hospitality of the Slovaks but their time regime is different to ours. We were half way up the mountain by 9 am, but in the bar after caving at 5pm. As they rise early late breakfast is taken at the cave before entering.
A few comments about Slovak caving equipment. They cave on carbide with home made generators. The water is put under pressure by a pump and the apparatus has to be frequently jiggled. Backup is by a 4.5 volt battery Petzl type lamp. They do not use belay belts. The Bratislava cavers used ex-chemical warfare protection suits as oversuits. The Banska Bystrica cavers used standard proofed nylon oversuits. Climbers one piece thermals were favoured. Wellington boots prevailed as footware.
As I will be visiting Slovakia more frequently I hope to do more caving there. We are already arranging further trips.