Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

It’s really hard to describe all that thoughts, feelings and emotions which I experienced during 31 day of this grate expedition. I faced lots of thing for the first time in my life. Some of them shocked me, some touched me really deep. I suppose I have to say some words about how I found myself in this expedition before I start telling the story.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

I think every Siberian caver sooner or later realises that he or she reached their limit in local caves and that’s where they start to dream of great Caucasian caverns. And I am not an exception. The journey to the Fisht mountain in 2012 was both complicated and demanding but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see all those scales that Caucasian caves are famous for. So the dream of visiting a really big cave never left me.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

In the expedition to Gorny Altai in March of 2014 I met a cave diver from Novosibirsk - Stas Kuptsov. It turned out that at that time he was assembling a team for an expedition to Arabika in August of the same year. After having conversation with him I offered myself as a team member and he agreed. I hope I lived up to his expectations.

I started the preparations about 3 month before the expedition (physical training, preparing equipment etc.).

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

магистрали Арабики

After long arrangements and preparations we set off to Abkhazia in International expedition organised by the Ukrainian Speleological Association to the deepest cave in the world - Krubera-Voronya situated on Arabika plateau. As far as I know this expedition brought together cavers from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Israel, San-Marino and Romania.

The main goals of the expedition were:

  • diving in Yantarny sump in the Main Branch (at depth of 1842 m);
  • digging so called “collector” in the Main Branch at the depth of 1700 m;
  • engineering works in so called “old floor”.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

our expedition tent

Siberian team members:

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Stanislav Kuptsov - Novosibirsk, “Solnyshko” caving club

Ekaterina Nikonova - Novosibirsk, “Solnyshko” caving club

Anastasia Romanova - Novosibirsk, “Solnyshko” caving club

Roman Kovalev - Novokuznetsk, “Pluton” caving club

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

the list of expedition members and the expedition work schedule

Timeline (according to the author, not claiming to be the official one).

30/07/14 (Day 1)

7:30 a.m. I hardly push my backpack frame into the baggage bin of the bus Novokuznetsk - Novosibirsk. At 3:15 p.m. I arrive to Novosibirsk, meet Stas and help him to pack tackle sacks that I will take with me to the train. Total amount of sacks including those I brought is 10. Guys from the club help us to load them to the train and I leave for Adler at 8:30 p.m.

From 30/07/14 to 03/08/14 - train journey, down time, all the equipment is fine and there’s no need to fix anything.

03/08/14 (Day 5)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

stuff brought by me in Adler

6:15 a.m. I arrive to the Adler railway station. As it was agreed Ukrainian guys were supposed to meet me there but I see no one. I put all my stuff to the platform and start phoning to clear the things up. After 4 hours of waiting guys from Crimea - Gennady Samokhin and Kolya Droga finally meet me. The reason of such a long delay is traffic jam on the border. And so we cross the border on foot carrying 10 tackle sacks heading the Abkhazia where Sergey Kebets is waiting to pick us up to Tsandripsh village - starting point of all the expeditions to Arabika. That’s where I first meet the expedition head - Yury Mikhailovich Kasyan and all the team members. We spend the rest of the day at the seaside, then in the evening we start packing food for underground units.

04/08/14 (Day 6)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

White rocks - one of the places of Arabica submarine water discharge

7 a.m. It’s time to get up. Most of the team is gone to buy the food. The ones who left are allowed to relax and enjoy the seaside.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

expedition stuff

Some more of team members arrive: Polish guys, Fabio from San-Marino, Romeo from Romania, and a guy who later becomes kind of brother to us - Omri from Israel. Girls from Novosibirsk - Katya and Nastya arrive too. In the evening we stop packing and decide to finish all the preparations up in the camp.

05/08/14 (Day 7)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

loading in GAZ 66, the beginning of getting to Arabica

GAZ 66 truck arrives at 8:00 a.m. and we start loading the equipment. Today a group of 12 people from Ukraine, Russia and Israel (Omri) headed by Gennady Samokhin leaves for Arabika. All the others leave the next day with Yury Kasyan. We don’t even reach Ortobalagan when weather turns bad - fog, cold, rain, strong wind. We spend the rest of the day carrying our stuff and setting the camp. I manage to go down and up 3 times. Mysteriously 3 Crimean guys have food poisoning today.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

stuff at the start before walk getting (it's only 1 machine)

06/08/14 (Day 8)

Rain doesn’t stop and gets even worse. We go down and up all day long. All the rest members of the expedition arrive and join us. I manage to go down and up 5 times. In the evening Yury Mikhailovich introduces everybody to each other in a friendly atmosphere.

07/08/14 (Day 9)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

packing underground units

All the team is present in the base camp near Krubera-Voronya Cave. Today’s plan is to carry all the load up to the mountain, set the kitchen and water pipes and pack the underground units. I manage to go down once to carry the load. Our big and friendly team spend the rest of the day packing underground units which we have 25. The weather is getting better.

08/08/14 (Day 10)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

first exit to the cave for acclimatization

As it was suggested yesterday each of us should choose a preferable depth for acclimatisation descent. Options are -250, -350, -500 m. I hesitate a lot between -350 and -500 because I still can’t imagine what a real Caucasian cave is and if I am prepared enough for it. Eventually I decide to go to -500 with Crimean guys Kolya and Sergey. And so we take 2 tackle sacks per person and go down pretty cheerfully to - 500 m admiring volume and depth of shafts. Then we go back without sacks. Both descent and ascent take us 6 hours. Stas Kuptsov from Novosibirsk finally arrives to the base camp. We spend the rest of the day packing underground camps. At the evening expedition meeting the 1st division is formed, it includes 2 divers - Gennady Samokhin (Simferopol) and Stas Kuptsov (Novosibirsk) and the providing team: Sergey Kebets (Sevastopol), Kolya Droga (Alushta), Roman Kovalev (Novokuznetsk), Omri Volk (Israel).

09/08/14 (Day 11)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

packing underground camps

Today the 1st division goes to the camp -700, all except for Gennady Samokhin who stays at the surface for one more day of rehab. We take 2-3 sacks per person to -500 and we take one more sack per person at depth of -500. It’s rather hard to pass Sinusoida meander for the first time carrying 3 sacks. We arrive to the camp, and spend the rest of the day enlarging area for the underground base camp so that it can accommodate 10 people instead of 5. The goal is achieved.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

going to the cave

10/08/14 (Day 12)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

camp at -700

In the morning at depth of -700 we decide to split up: Stas and Omri take 2 sacks per person and move down to -1100 and then come back repairing the rope. Kolya, Sergey and I go to -500, take 3 sacks per person and go back to -700. Today passing Sinusoida is much easier because you learn some special techniques of moving in such a long meander. Today Gennady Samokhin joined us. We spend the rest of the day relaxing and waiting for a group of 5 (3 Polish guys, Fabio and Romeo). They are late and we begin to worry. They reach the camp -700 at 10.00 p.m.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Omri - our friend from Israel

11/08/14 (Day 13)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

camp at -700

Today we move to the next camp at -1200. Foreigners take 2 sacks per person to -1000 and go back to -700. We take 4 sacks per person and carry them all at once. We take the sacks and begin long and sad descent (at least it seems like this to me). Section from -700 to -1200 is quite difficult. There is an infinite number of small shafts arranged in cascades of 40 meters with a small slope which causes sacks clutching. The last member of the team reaches the camp -1200 at 7:00 p.m.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

camp at -1200

12/08/14 (Day 14)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Water supply - all as humans

Around 10:00 a.m. we take 4 sacks per person and move to the next camp at -1400. It takes us about 3,5 hours. Then we carry all the load to the sump at depth of -1440. After that we return to very comfortable camp for 10-12 people and wait for Fabio and Romeo who are expected to come down to us from -700.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Fabio and Romeo - our friends from Italy and Romania at the camp at -1640

13/08/14 (Day 15)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Yama (pil) siphon

Today we move to our final camp at -1640. We reach the sump at 9:30 a.m. Here is the moment I’ve been waiting for so long - first dive into the sump. It is very exciting despite the fact that you are thoroughly instructed and still - there’s something unknown in front of you. I take off all SRT equipment, check my cuffs (I am told that they could possibly leak which makes me even more anxious), put on the mask (diving with your eyes open is much easier though), compress properly, then it’s time for hyperventilation and the dive. I squeeze up against the bottom right away and pass the sump for 5-6 seconds. An enormous adrenaline rush doesn’t let me to feel the water temperature which is only 3℃. Then we take our 3 or 4 sacks and move to -1640. We reach the camp at 4:00 p.m. Some of the team members stay to set the camp, Stas and I leave for the Goluboe ozero sump to bring there 2 air containers and to fix the rope. Because of the long waiting I get very cold and we don’t manage to reach the sump.

14/08/14 (Day 16)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Yantarnii (amber) siphon (-1842m)

Today the 6 of us (Kolya, Sergey, Fabio, Romeo and I) go to the Game Over chamber at depth of -2080 fixing rope on our way. I need to mention that after we leave the camp at -1640 behind the cave changes its morphology and color of rock. It feels like you are in a totally different cave. Narrow, tubular passages and dark chalkstone appear. We reach the long-awaited 2-kilometers line,and so we proceed to digging of so called “collector”. The outcome of this digging you can find later in Ukrainian Speleological Association report. On our way back we meet 5 Polish guys who are going to reach the bottom too. We return back to the camp at 04:00 p.m., Rita, Polish interpreter, is waiting for us there. Fabio and Romeo leave for -1400. Stas and Gennady Samokhin come to the camp at about 08:00 p.m. The rope to the Goluboe ozero (Blue lake) is fixed and some of the diving equipment is delivered there. Polish guys come back from Game Over at 10:00 p.m. The last person to go to the camp -1400 sets off at 00:00.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Happy Poles return from Game Over ( -2080m)

15/08/14 (Day 17)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Gennady Samokhin preparing to dive into the siphon

Today Sergey Kebets and Omri set off to the sump at -1440 to meet Nastya and help her to dive into the sump. She’s accompanied by 2 Polish guys. Kolya and I are going to carry the rest of the diving equipment to the Goluboe ozero sump. I like the part from the camp at -1640 to the Goluboe ozero sump the most: beautiful meanders, ancient galleries, shafts with waterfalls, and the sump itself, of course. Today is the day of Stas and Gennady Samokhin’s first dive. We help them with preparations and they perform the dive at about 04:00 p.m. Kolya and I go back to the camp where Nastya and Polish guy are already waiting for us. Divers come back at 11:30 p.m. They have passed the Goluboe ozero sump and the Yama (Hole) sump and have reached the “Yantarny” sump. Also they have transported equipment and set the rope.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

16/08/14 (Day 18)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Today I feel really bad. Nausea and so on - looks like a typical food poisoning. Stas and Gennady Samokhin are going to dive into the “Yantarny” sump, Kolya and Omri are going to fix the connection with the surface from the Goluboe ozero sump. They fail. 2 Polish guys leave for the Game Over and then to -1400. Nastya and I stay in the camp. Divers come back at 02:00 a.m., Gennady Samokhin manages to dive through the Yantarny sump. The outcome of this dive you’ll find in the official UkrSA report.

17/08/14 (Day 19)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Goluboe ozero siphon (-1785m)

Today Omri, Kolya and I go down to the Goluboe ozero to pack used 7-liters air containers (5 sacks) and take them to -1400. Divers have a day-off. In the Evening Igor Perederiy and Anton Vinokurov come to our camp for helping us to take equipment out of the cave. Guys and Nastya visit Game Over.

18/08/14 (Day 20)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

camp at -1400

At 09:00 a.m. Kolya and I reach -1400, then Igor, Nastya, Anton and Omri join us. The divers go though the sump to take the equipment out. At depth of -1400 we take 1-2 sacks per person and bring them to -1200 and -1000. At 06:00 p.m. we come back to -1640, at 07:30 we set off to the Goluboe ozero to take the diving equipment out.

19/08/14 (Day 21)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Gennady Samokhin at the camp at -1640

We wake up at 08:00 a.m. and begin to pack the camp -1640. Today we plan to get up to -1200. We take 2 sacks per person. Whee I reach the camp at -1400, Kolya already leaves for -1200, and all the others are passing the sump to reach -1400. After 20 minutes Igor comes back to the camp to say that a pretty heavy flood has begun just right after the last person has passed the sump which, by the way, has risen by 10 cm. Gathered in the camp at -1400 we decide to spend the night here because the place called “fartuk” (apron) which is a narrow entrance to the shaft is always shut off by water stream during the flood. We leave our personal belongings in the camp and take 1-2 sacks per person to the “fartuk”. It is really amazing to see the window of the shaft completely shut off by a powerful water stream which produces strong wind and water dust and makes the rope shake. We come back to -1400 and wait Kolya to go on for a contact. The flood catches him while he is passing the “fartuk” but he still manages to pass it through with 2 sacks and reaches the camp at -1200. He is going to stay there for a night.

20/08/14 (Day 22)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Hall Game Over -2080м

We are near the “fartuk”. The water level is significantly lower now. We take 2 sacks per person and overcome this obstacle on our way to the camp at -1200. Then we leave our personal sacks, take 2 public sacks per person and carry them to the farthest place we can reach till 06:00 p.m. which is our time limit. Thus after today’s shift all the sacks are spread between -1000 and -800 depths. Kolya manages to bring 2 sacks to the camp at -700. We - Kolya, Stas, Omri, Gennady Samokhin and I - spend the night at -1200. Anton, Nastya and Igor spend the night at -700.

21/08/14 (Day 23)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Krubera Cave does not regret equipment

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

the same

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

and this is also

We take 2 sacks per person and carry them (in a long and sad shift) to -700. My left boot is eventually out of service (half of the sole is almost gone, fixing attempts fail). I call the surface camp and ask to pass new boots with Polish guys. I reach -700 wearing only remains of my boots when 2 Polish guys appear bringing new boots for Stas and me. They also take away two our sacks and go up to the surface. With those new boots I get a second wind and my motto now is “new boots - new life”. We take off our wetsuits and go down to gather the sacks we left between camps. In the evening all the load and all the team is in the camp at -700.

22/08/14 (Day 24)

Today we carry 2 sacks per person from -700 to -60 without reaching the surface and then come back to -700 which is easier in terms of psychology. At -60 we can feel the freshness of the air. Anton goes up to the surface today because of the health problems. Tomorrow we’ll see the sun too.

23/08/14 (Day 25)

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

output on the surface after 15 days of working under the ground

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

the first photo after underground 15 days

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Igor Perederiy (caretaker of the expedition), after the cave

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

kitchen

In the morning we pack the camp, take 2 sacks per person and leave for the surface. When we reach the entrance shaft it turns out that somebody already took the sacks we left here to the surface. We are really happy that there’s no more need to go to -60 to gather the sacks. The first thing I feel at the surface is natural warmth of the sun. When you spend 15 days under the ground you get used to the local microclimate very swiftly (humidity 100% and 4℃). And one more thing that I feel is extensive number of colours and scents.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

unpacking the sacks we brought from the cave

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

unpacking the sacks we brought from the cave

We spend the rest of the day unpacking the sacks we brought from the cave. We have a goodbye dinner in the evening. Tomorrow is the day of leaving.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

Preparation for going down tothe sea

24/08/14 (Day 26)

At night I feel symptoms of food poisoning. I feel nauseous and so on. This is the way my body responds to leaving the cave. In the morning it turn out I have fever. I take some pills, drink some tea and begin to pack my stuff. People help me to take the load down. Today Stas, Nastya and I go to the seaside. Katya has left a long ago. We wait for the guys from Saint Petersburg and get into the car. At 08:00 p.m. we are at the seaside, but I don’t feel better at all. We hardly have time to take a swim in the sea, have dinner at a cafe and then we go to sleep.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

waiting for a car to going down

25/08/14 (Day 27)

We wake up at 08:00 a.m., take a car and cross the border before the traffic jam begins. I see Stas and Nastya off at the airport and then I go to the railway station with my 9 sacks. At 02:40 p.m. I get on the train Adler-Novosibirsk. It is very hard to talk the hostess into letting me in with so many sacks.

From 29/08 to 31/08 - down time in the train.

29/08/14 (Day 31)

I arrive to Novosibirsk at 09:40 a.m. Stas meets me at the station and takes me to the local caving club. There I have breakfast, share the photos and then go back to the station to take the train to Novokuznetsk. When I arrive home members of my caving club welcome me which is very nice of them. So the expedition to the deepest cave in the world - Krubera-Voronya Cave - is ended for me.

Ukrainian Speleological Association expedition to the caves of the valley Orto-Balagan, Arabica, Abkhazia

I would like to thank:

  • all the team members for the great job;
  • Stats Kuptsov for giving me a chance to be a part of such a great expedition. It wouldn’t happen without him;
  • Sergey Velichko - for his remarkable help in preparation work;
  • Evgeny Sablin - for his help in preparation work;
  • Alexey Danilov - for the caving equipment provided;
  • everyone who supported me and believed that the expedition would succeed.

Thank you!

Roman Kovalev, Novokuznetsk city, Novokuznetsk city caving club Pluton, September 2016

Translation Ekaterina Sarvarova, Novokuznetsk city, Russia

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