In July this year a group of cavers left these shores to venture to Slovenia, just as floods hit Europe. During the 17 hour car journey to Kranjska Gora they had 14 hours solid rain but despite evacuations in Poland & Germany they battled through to the Wurzen Pass (a site for problems on a previous trip) and finally arrived. (One of the Alps best features this trip was keeping all that rain from Northern Europe IN Northern Europe as we didn't see any of the flood bringing rain.)
This was always to be a joint expedition between the English and Slovenians but ended up also including a New Zealander, American, Frenchman and a couple of Slovaks. With all this potential you might think we would find great things like Imperial nearby but the only cave we found none of us want to return to!
The location of the expedition was the mountain Mojstrovka, within sight of Triglav. The Slovenians had already spent time exploring sections of the mountain and found enough to entice us and them back to finish the exploration of the mountain and catalogue any finds. Our base camp was the car park at Vršic, the top of the nearest mountain pass and the home of Ticarjev Dom, the local eating and watering hole. From here it was a good 2.5 to 3 hour walk to the main camp 500m higher and nearly 3km along the mountains contours, (this time could decrease depending on the load carried and whether you tried to jog the whole way!).
Main camp had one of the best views you could hope for over the valleys to Triglav, although the water supply was a little less impressive. The plan was to melt snow from snow hole but the vast quantity came from the rain which came every two days in the early evening for about an hour and supplied enough water for 12 people for 2 days! (The snow melt water had its own population of maggots so we were glad for the rain). On one of the earlier nights up the mountain we had an incredible hail storm which gave us the chance to start our own cocktail bar (so many different spirits were taken up the mountain that the menu was quite extensive). These included: Vodka and Hail Stones with Olives, Home Made zganje (a schnapps nicknamed Ganja) and various flavourings to liven things up.
The first really memorable event had to be Henry and the sheep. Unlike the sheepish creatures of our own south Wales, Slovenian sheep make the first move and, whilst packing his rucksack in the car park, a sheep crept up behind him causing Henry to turn around. At this point they're lips met for the perfect snog. Whether tongues met he won't say, but it sounds like a special moment for both of them.
"High on the hill was a lonely Caver,
Ye-oldle, Ye-oldle, Ye-he-ho,
Looking for caves on the Lapiaz,
Ye-oldle, Ye-oldle, Ye-he-ho."
The first few days of searching came up with some tantalising leads. There are plenty of blind pots and shafts scattered all around the mountainside ranging in size from a few feet to shafts 30m deep. The problem is very few of them will go anywhere and many of them show obvious signs of continuing but they are all choked by sharp scree from the hard winters at this altitude. Our best hope was to find an entrance that is sheltered by rocks or the sparse vegetation and doesn't require months of digging.
It was during these searches that Chris, our token student, decided that searching for caves the regular way was not for him and invented a new method. For this you need:
1 rucksack (good quality)
1 bottle of water (lemon flavoured)
1 pair binoculars
Place all the items in the rucksack, find a 200m cliff and simply let go. The camp diary says, "…we watched aghast as it rolled down the hillside, picking up speed and unfortunately just missing Phil (Brooks). It hurtled enthusiastically earthwards and as far as we could see, and went over the cliff…". In an attempt to retrieve the bag Hugh and Chris took one route while Phil and Cyril took another, scrambling down perilous scree slopes in the process. As Cyril wrote, " …it was obviously a deliberate ploy to encourage people down the hill in the knowledge that people were reluctant to continue down the magnificent scree slopes."
"I wondered lonely as a Caver,
Not a soul in sight - F*****g gorgeous."
This turned out to reveal a number of small caves including one with a pitch of 10 to 15m. Upon retrieving the rucksack the contents were amazingly intact, but did now include a monocular and a rather lovely lemon scented coat. The team returned the following day to explore the finds but sadly only the usual blind pots were found, although some did have howling draughts coming through the boulder chokes.
On the day Linda and I went to pick up Jerry and Sylvia from Venice airport the most promising find to date was found only 10m from camp (and miraculously not had any pasta tipped down it).
Our sacrificial student was stuffed down the roughly dug entrance to remove further debris and boulders using a pulley system. John the Kiwi eventually got down the pitch which measured a total of 31m.
("gonna take a sentimental journey… gonna dig and dig hot diggerty dig…", it was the listening to Hugh's Bert Kampfert tape that enabled a vast quantity of material to be removed from this hole in such a short amount of time, with the cavers trying anything to escape from this chronic noise.)
Jerry and Sylvia had only been up Mojstrovka one night when they had to come back down again for a slide show organised by the Slovenians in one of the local Doms. The journey down was to be a memorable one for Jerry and would take him 3 hours longer than usual. See the next edition of Pelobates for this story.
The mountain was only to reveal one of its secrets to us which, it turns out, someone else had found probably 200 years before us. The area in which we were camped had a rich iron ore vein running through it and the miners used a cave to gain access to the vein. Consequently, the mine had some stable, natural areas but the vast majority had been excavated to get to the iron ore and then propped with wooden stemples. Ever since the mine had been abandoned, it looked as though no-one had entered for at least 150 years and the condition of the stemples and other supports was dire. The mine had to be explored with extreme care as pushing or pulling on the wrong support may have brought the entire roof in.
A number of our party saw fit to enter the mine to explore its inner chambers and find that illusive way on into the mountain. Most emerged hours later covered in iron-brown mud and either optimistic about the chances of a way on or a quivering wreck. Regardless, many returned to the mine digging collapses or pushing the 35m pitch. The system turned out to be fairly comprehensive with many chambers and slopes overlain and underlain by false floors and wedged open by some very dubious looking stemples. The whole system showed signs of miners and sadly many of the most promising leads with howling drafts had been backfilled with spoil. As the miners have dug so far into the system bypassing the many blockages which prevented access into most of our other finds, hopefully the leads in this mine should be relatively easy to push although this would require a good quantity of scaffold and a helicopter to get all the materials to site.
During the trip Gregor, our Slovenian contact, arranged for us to go canyoning in the valley overlooked by our camp. After donning wetsuits and SRT gear we set off for what turned out to be a spectacular entrance, a 45m daylight pitch 20 metres away from a waterfall of the same size. The trip itself was contained within a rift passage up to 30m deep containing a fine, crystal clear streamway. The pitches themselves were a fine collection of drops giving fine views down the rift, gorgeous shafts next to waterfalls or an excellent chance for all those attending to have a power shower (well needed for those having been down the mine!)
Even though we didn't find those caverns measureless to man that every expedition hopes for (Hugh defected to Imperial to find this!), everyone attending had a good time and was thankful they went. There are already some plans to return to the area and try again another year.