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

Regular international expedition to the caves of the Ortobalagan Valley, Arabika massive, Western Caucasus organized by the Ukrainian Speleological Association (UkrSA) took place in July-August 2016. The permanent leader of this speleological festival was Yury Mikhailovich Kasyan (Kiev, Ukraine).

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

Siberian guys

Cavers from different cities of Siberia have been taking part in the USA research projects in the caves of the Arabika massive for 7 or 8 years. Novokuznetsk city is no exception. Local cavers Aleksey Kovalev and Elena Grishina were first to visit fabulous Krubera-Voronya Cave and to reach the depth of -1710 m in 2009. A year later Evgeny Sablin and Alexander Gurdyumov reached the depth of -2080 m as part of the expedition of Moscow CAVEX team. Most cavers may think that going down to 2 km in sport style is not difficult at all. But few of them take in account that within the expedition you need to perform certain tasks (which you always have) and they require certain effort from you and reaching the depth of 2 km is just a pleasant addition.

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

And finally I, Roman Kovalev, took part in the USA expedition to the caves of the Ortobalagan Valley in August 2014. In this expedition our tasks were connected to providing diving activity in "Goluboe ozero" Sump, "Yama" Sump and "Yantarny" Sump at the depths -1785 m and -1842 m.

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

Owing to the experience gained in those expeditions I understood that the USA team is the one I would like to work with in Caucasus. I kept it in mind while making the decision to go the Arabika this summer. I was supported by Sasha Kurganov and Pasha Sarvarov from Novokuznetsk who were eager to try “big scale caving” as well as Alexey Endovitsky and Yura Popov from Tomsk.

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

Almost Tomsk team

And so we all gathered together in Tsandripsh village, Abkhazia. Sasha Kurganov and Pasha Trifanov had been driving Sasha’s Isuzu Vehicross for 5000 km from Siberia with all expedition load which was the most ingenious way to get to the place. Meanwhile we had been getting to the place by plane feeling jealous of them. Having arrived to Tsandripsh village we hired a “new luxurious apartment” kindly offered to us by some Armenian guys who worked at the vehicle service station placed in the very same apartment. Having met Yury Kasyan we got to know about some problems with crossing the border between Georgia and Abkhazia. And most of the expedition members were travelling exactly through Georgia because Russian transit visa is very expensive. And so they were stuck at the border for indefinite time. As a result the start date of the expedition was put off. Frankly speaking we even thought that eventually the expedition would count only 14 people. And so that not to waste our time we decided to visit all coastal sights of Abkhazia.

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

Riza Lake

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

Gega River Canyon

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

Blue Lake, Bzyb Valley (potential discharge of the eastern Arabica)

The situation with the foreigners still wasn’t clear so it was decided to begin the expedition. The first group of 10 people (including us) set off.

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

Start of getting to Arabica

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

Start of getting to Arabica

Having got to the Ortobalagan Valley, we were pleasantly surprised with the amount of snow near the camp. Having reached the camp, we were completely sure there would be no problems with drinking water this year. Also the driver told us that a group of 2, supposedly Korean, cavers had visited Voronya this June. Later we found evidence of their visit all over the cave and the surface nearby. The driver told us as well that the Koreans were going to come to Arabika again but with a larger team.

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

This car drove 5000 km from Siberia until Arabica

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

Having reached the Ortobalagan on GAZ66 truck Sasha decided to wait for the next travel and get down to the coast to dare to come back on his Isuzu. The training trip to Gegsky waterfall we had done before helped him to make up his mind.

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

Gegsky Falls (potential discharge of the northern Arabica)

Yury Kasyan and Olga Ryazanova joined us next day. They told us that the group of Polish cavers had almost managed to cross the border and soon they would join us too. So it took our group of ten 2,5 days to carry all the expedition load and to set the camp. We were astonished to find the niche in the rock which we used as a kitchen fully stuffed with snow and firn. We thought it was impossible to dig it up but Yuri Mikhailovich said that nothing is impossible, took a shovel and did dig it.

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

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

There was no point in waiting for all the team members and so our Siberian group began to work in Voronya while it was completely vacant. It was clear that we would have to reach the bottom and prepare the way for the further activity in the cave. The following tasks were therefore set for us: to set the camps we needed to spend the night in, to fix the rope to the depth of -2080 and also to fix the telephone line. We began to complete these tasks during our first acclimatisation trip to -500 m. For all the Siberian guys except me it was the first visit to this cave (and for most of them it was their first trip to Caucasus) but still the rhythm they set left no doubt that we would have no problem with the timing.

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

After one day-off that we used for getting in the right mindset and getting ready to go we finally set off. We spent the first night at the depth of -700 m. We actually reached it pretty fast - it took us half a day. We even had some time to carry the load to the depth of -850 m and to fix the rope. I need to mention that our schedule was rather light. We had minimum of sacks per person (2 or 3) so we didn’t have to move between the camps back and forth carrying them. We spent the second night in the camp at -1400 m. Before getting to sleep we managed to reach the sump at -1440 m and check the condition of the guide line in it. Guys who had never had any experience in diving had chance to prepare themselves for the forthcoming dive.

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

Hall Game Over (-2080 м)

When the day three began we set off for the “Game Over” taking our time because we were ready for the long trip (from 12 to 15 hours). We were completing our task on the way down as well. Passing the sump wasn’t that difficult after we slept on the idea of doing it. I truly admired the beauty of the cave after passing the sump due to the fact that I had nearly no load with me. The part I especially liked from -1750 m and below was the Yellow Pipe (Zheltaya Truba or Way to the Dream).

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

Legendary Krubera cave yellow pipe (Way to the dream)

When I was here in 2014 all my thoughts were about eating and going to bed so I had no chance to admire the cave. And so when we reached the depth of -2080 m, I was ready for the long way up to the camp at -1400 m. But the guys apparently had their own plans. I had a feeling that they were in a competition trying to find out who would be the first to reach the camp and keeping up with them was really difficult. We were lucky to have a sack with tea and gas stove in the camp at -1640 m which encouraged the guys to move even faster. Despite all this we spent 15 hours on this trip as I had planned. We reached the camp at 3 a.m. All the next day we spent relaxing in the camp at -1400m with Polish team. On the day 5 after all our clothes had got completely dry we set off to the camp at -700 m. We wished good luck to one more Polish team we met on our way up, they were going to dive into “Dva Kapitana" (Two Captains) Sump (-2144 m). On the day 6 we reached the surface in the rhythm which was already habitual for us. The base camp, more crowded than when we had left it, was waiting for us. The borders were open and foreigners were coming to the base camp.

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

International Party

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

Kamys party

In a few days after we had come out of the cave Sasha and Pasha left the base camp to carry on travelling around Caucasus, namely to climb Mount Elbrus (5642 m) which they eventually would succeed to do. Lesha, Yura and I kept working in the expedition. We were offered to work at the historic bottom of Voronya Cave (-340 m). That was the point where the Ukrainian cavers had to stop the exploration in 1980s because of the meander they couldn’t pass through. All the water in the main branch of Voronya cave was gathering here. In the following expeditions team headed by Yury Kasyan worked on enlarging the passages to this point and passing this meander itself. We admired their work on our way there (that was before we got to Berchilskaya Cave). The first working day in the mine defined our following plans and encouraged us a lot. After my shift was over I decided to squeeze myself forward into the narrow part of meander we still couldn’t pass. And I heard a shaft that I unfortunately couldn’t see but still the rock I threw was falling for 2 seconds at least. This meant that we were in the end of meander which we had to enlarge to get into a new part of the cave. We managed to do this task in 2,5 days. As a result we reached a not very deep shaft of 6 or 7 m depth (according to its morphology it was a shaft with rounded walls washed by water, not a ledge). From its bottom started a broad meander which resembled to “Sinusoida” meander in the main branch of the cave. After having set a rope in the meander we reached a rather large and - as it always happens when you first discover it - deep shaft. In practice it turned out to be 25-30 m deep and when we descended we found the mark left by the Caving Club of Moscow State University (MSU). It’s worth saying that many cavers anticipated that the bottom of Voronya Cave and the MSU branch would connect. What is more the cavers in the MSU branch heard some noise while they were enlarging the meander at the depth of -340 m. We didn’t want to linger in the known brach because our shift was nearly over. After all, our discovery resulted in confirming this guess. Engineering work was performed by: Roman Kovalev (Novokuznetsk city), Alexey Endovitsky and Yury Popov (Tomsk city).

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

Karst valley Orto-Balagan

After having completed the exploration of “-340 m branch” we were offered to join the work in Berchilskaya cave (-500 m). By that time Alexey had already left for the coast because he was going to take part in one more expedition - to Sarma Cave which was in the pipeline. So the ones who went to the Berchilskaya cave were Yury Popov and I. The night before it had rained like cats and dogs. Though there was no danger of flooding we got soaking wet on our way to the base underground camp at -250 m. The same day Yury Kasyan, Yury Popov and I reached the point at -500 in a big hall which was at that time the end of the cave. I need to mention the enormous amount of work done by the USA team that had built a comfortable road to the bottom of the cave. That allowed us to achieve the result which I will tell about later. We decided that the Moldavian cavers who had explored this cave before were people without bones and fear (in a good sense). We began to explore the bottom hall searching for an extension and we found several places were the Moldavian cavers had tried to dig. The same day we worked on a place marked with number 13. Another place was marked “not perspective”. When we descended into a small chamber we couldn’t find any obvious extension. As it usually happens I was searching for a pass in the lower part. On my way back I noticed some huge blocks with ideal edges. A thought that they must have had fallen from somewhere struck me. I squeezed myself into the crack between the blocks and found myself in the next hall where I could hear the water falling. Then I found the way to water and the next hall with an ascending shaft. Water was coming from the shaft and getting lost in the boulder choke. I found no sign of the Moldavian cavers presence and I was 100% sure that this was absolutely new part of the cave. In the next dry hall we found a passage down in a rather safe choke with big boulders. Later we managed to descend another 30 m but we didn’t find any extension of the cave.

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

No one takes the guitar is now

Having examined the new hall we found some cracks between the blocks that resembled a lot previous ones. One of them was crossed with a crack of totally different morphology which was worked with water.

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

Eventually Yury Kasyan and I found the extension behind those cracks and reached the new part of the cave which was rather intricately built: wet boulder choke and solid walls. From there we found a passage to a small shaft which continued with a rather big gallery. Having passed the gallery we reached the next shaft 7 m deep which led us to a small hall with solid walls. On the floor of this hall we found another boulder choke which wasn’t as solid as the previous ones but was completely dry. Having descended to the bottom of the choke we found a wet chamber which seemed a dead end. We were almost ready to go back when I noticed a small crack and decided to throw a rock into it - just in case as many cavers do. To my surprise it took the rock about 5 seconds to reach the bottom of a shaft. So we enlarged this place and came to the edge of a very big and wide shaft. We were running out of the rope and equipment. But we found the way in disassembling the rope in one of the dead end branches of the cave. This was how Yury Kasyan, Gennady Samokhin and I descended into the new shaft which later turned out to be 35-40 m deep. On the bottom of this shaft there was a hall with another boulder choke which seemed more dangerous. We descended into this choke as far as it seemed possible. On our way we saw some big rocks collapsed. It took us some time to find the way back so we decided that dying here wasn’t a very good idea and stopped our exploration. We realised that we needed a safe way to the choke. As a result the depth of the cave was -615 m.

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

Sadly the expedition that had been lasting nearly one month was coming to an end. We packed the camp and turned back to the coast.

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

Way home

In conclusion I would like to thank all the guys from Siberia who joined me in the preparation and the expedition itself. For the first time in a long period I had a feeling of real team working together. And, of course, I would like to thank all the expedition members and especially Yury Mikhailovich for the excellent organisation and the task he set for us that led us to such an outstanding result. And last but not least I would like to thank my native caving club Pluton owing to which we can take part in such an ambitious expeditions to Caucasus and other places.

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

Translation Ekaterina Sarvarova, Novokuznetsk city, Russia

P.S. This report reflects my personal views and opinions on the events which took place during the expedition. Therefore it doesn’t pretend to be an official report.

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

Events