Thursday 18th October
With autumn in full swing and some clear days ahead, the super action trip I'd committed to was looking auspicious. The promise of richly coloured landscape and crisp, cold mountain air was enough to whet my appetite for the caving to come; nothing, especially not the nine hour train journey through the night and through the sleepy austrian mountains would deter me from visiting to Tolmin for one final caving trip before the winter set in.
Jumping on the nightjet in Innsbruck, I arrived in Jesenice in the early morning to catch the next train to Most Na Soci; by midday, Jana let me know that she and Izi would pick me up and drive to Kal a few hours hence, so I whiled away the time in the Mercator and Farmer's market before reverting to the Paradiso for coffee and ice cream (free at this time of year).
A gentle tap on my shoulder alerted me that Jana was here, I paid the bill and jumped into the car for the ride to Ravne. Already, the light was slanting through the forest, and by the time we unloaded outside the community house at the trail head, it was clear we had at most a couple of hours of sunlight left. Undeterred, Jana and I repacked our bags to fit the additional supplies for the caving hut and after bidding goodbye to Izi and the kids, we started the ascent, chatting natural beauty, science and quality of life. With just enough time on our hands, we darted off to the entrance of Coincidence Cave (Jana had seen it in winter only), to find its stream of cold air as strong as during the summer expedition. We crawled out, dusted ourselves off and carried the ascent to Planina Kal, looming 200m above.
With half the leaves already on the floor, the last portion of forest path felt less oppressive than usual but the light was now fading quickly so we hurried up into the final zigzags before the huts. There were two hunters in the left hand hut whom we greeted upon arrival, before entering the middle hut and starting the stove. The chill in the room dissipated quickly as we improvised a sangria with hot red wine and orange vitaminski.
Friday 19th October
The sun was barely up at 7am when we started breakfast and before we even had started getting some solid food in, the neighbours invited us for coffee. In the crammed hut, a cup of coffee was pressed in my hand together a warm `dobro jutro', two shots of schnapps and glass of white muscadet. Some time after, we walked back to the middle hut and ate properly in preparation for the final ascent to the plateau.
Once on top, I was startled to see the brown shades of grass contrasting with the evergreen dwarf pine; the planika flowers (edelweiss) looked the worse for wear. Treading the familiar paths we reached the bivi shakehole, intent upon finding the 'research rope' I had brought up during the summer and looking for the annotated version of the Hollow Mountain 3. The first errand was successful, but the hollow moutain eluded us. Still, Jana picked up one of the tent poles to use a belay on the snow cone within M17.
For my part I had brought up several ice screws from Innsbruck with the specific aim of reaching a part of the cave shown on the 1995 survey, but - to the best of my knowledge - not reached since. In the summers of 2017 and 2018 Rhys and others had abseiled to the flat-ice chamber at the bottom of the entrance shaft to photograph the seasonal ice fillings (stalactites, stalagmites), and I had placed a couple of temperature loggers there, identifying what I considered the 'way on'.
The sloping ice surface, and lack of rope had prevented any further progress until now; with the ice screws and the additional length of rope, I was sure we would finally access the ice shaft, and told Jana so. At the cave entrance, Jana rigged the first shaft with a 50m length rope, reaching the snow cone and finding it greatly reduced in volume. Indeed, on both sides we could now slide down a steep scree slope, while in the centre of the cone, a deep pothole had appeared.
In the main flat ice chamber, we looked in astonishment at the stream of sunlight. Two moths previously, the far end of the hall had been blocked by two additional cones of snow which fed the ice plug. Now, one of them had retreated far back, and a scalloped tunnel had opened to the surface. Jana walked up, I followed under the drips and the occasional sound of a rock falling from under the snow plug. M17 now had another entrance, which drove a significant draught.
Back in the ice chamber, we set to work with the ice screws, rigging the down the ice slope and across the third snow plug. This was the way on, and after a couple rebelays, I stood with the end knot of our second 50m length in my hand. We were on a ledge some 15m above the very bottom of the cave, but this was not what gripped my imagination.
I had hoped first of all to be able to reach the ice shaft. That done, there was every reason to believe that it would not contain much datable organic material or that much of the ice would be formed from regelation of meltwater. No instead, it was everything I had hoped for: clearly firn derived (ie: compacted snow), layers, rich in twigs, needles, pine cones and even delicate leaves. All that was left to do was sample the different layers, taking a twig here and there for radiocarbon dating and take a couple of photos of this part of M17.
It's worth visiting: halfway down, there is a little igloo with steeply inclined black strata, the ice looks like transparent marble. On the way out, we downloaded the temperature data from the loggers and derigged. Jana then shot down the mountain to meet Izi at Ravne, while I made a slower way down to Kal, waiting for the bulk of the JSPDT crew to come up.
They trickled in, first Mavr and his dog Bea, then Izi and Alex, Blaz and Fratnik and finally Maffi. Each produced a pack of Lasko from their bags, a carton of wine was retrieved from a hidden stash, and a night of merriment was had.
Saturday 20th October
This was the day of the super action proper; Izi and Maffi were clearly intent on reaching the very bottom of Donji Milanovac (it has almost become a running joke that each year we say will go there, but end up sidetracked higher up in the cave). Meanwhile, I wanted to take preliminary photographs of the Klic Globin branch, not the least because my memory hinted that some of the crystal formations in Moonraker might have been cryogenic cave calcites (CCCs), a trendy type of calcite some researchers in my group actively look out for.
CCCs they were not, but the trip was worth every bit of it. First we had to reach the cave entrance of Primadona, either a 120m off the top of the plateau (the summer route), or a 200m ascend from the Kal-Krn 1500m contour path. Fratnik led the way up the so-called chamois route, up on the third gully from Kal which is one short of where Prima is located. A faint path wound its way avoiding the worst of the scree slope, reaching a prominent limestone ledge. Contouring on this ledge we walked across to the fourth gully, popping under Primadona itself. Then there was no avoiding the final steep scree ascent to reach the traverse ropes kept permanently rigged.
By the time we had got changed on the familiar ledge outside the entrance, Izi, Maffi and Blaz were also coming up. The entrance series was still very dry, and our progress was speeded up by Fratnik and Izi's rerigging to camp the week before. We arrived at the deserted 'Manger', our underground camp set-up during the 2018 summer expedition, ate some white chocolate and soreen (sorry Alex S.) and continued through the Adjovcina/Pivnica series.
At the bottom was the parting of the ways between the old deep route (explored 2000-2001) to Donji Milanovac, and the newer 2018 extensions starting with Lost in a Dream. I was now leading the way through the awkward Freudian Slip, a vertical squeeze and the dozen of small drops which make up the Lost in a Dream/Penny Falls series. Then came the Tiger Tiger streamway, 60m of arduous, stooping stream passage, peppered with pools, polished pebbles and nasty doglegs which form the last obstacle before the big pitch. A 15m drop (Deeper than Most) to a gorgeous balcony overlooking a wide rift (Klic Globin). Trying not to make eye contact with the big friendly giant perched atop the balcony, we proceeded down the numerous rebelays of the 60m pitch, reconvening under the obvious archway at the bottom.
We stopped a bit and looked around under the boulders as I was explaining what we had originally explored, what leads remained, etc... The bottom of the Klic Globin has many continuations. The archway, on the west side leads to about 20m of passage to an aven (the top of which can be reached from Moonraker 2). The boulder slope, on the south side heads in a straight line to the Aqueduct, about 200m away, by far the most open of the leads. The east side is simply a solid wall, but the northward (visible and unpushed) continuation of the rift lies tantalisingly close to the boulder floor. A 5m climb would reach it. The `final' way on lies under the boulder floor. James, Jack and I had in fact rigged a 10m way down between boulders during the summer, but retreated under the drips at a narrow squeeze between wall and boulder. Standing under the archway, Fratnik pointed at another opening, which I had not seen before. We plunged between the wall and some large boulders, reaching an obvious drop whose sides were obviously solid rock. The bottom lay perhaps 15m lower down, remarkably free of the chaotic piles of boulders we had seen elsewhere; a very fine lead.
We then made our way to Moonraker, climbing in the mud plastered, crystal rich passage, following the draught away from the Klic Globin rift to photograph the locality where I had seen some crystals lying on the boulder floor (one of the defining characteristic of CCCs), but the more we looked the more we came to the realisation that the piles of white aggregates were derived from the walls crystals themselves, and therefore couldn't be CCCs.
On the way back we stopped for onion soup under the archway before ascending Klic Globin and beginning the long journey out of the cave. Fratnik took the slave flashgun and ascended to the second rebelay, trying to illuminate the big space above. This needs place deserves a better set-up than mine, but the pictures should give a preliminary sense of scale.
The rest of the ascent went smoothly and at a very reasonable 10.30pm, we were already back at the entrance ledge. Again, Fratnik led the way down the `chamois' route; in no time the vague outline of the three shepherds' huts appeared in front of us. Fratnik restarted the stove and soon after Rile and another caver (couldn't catch the name), who had had a look at Coincidence Cave (really enthused, will bring chemical persuasion to bypass the offending rift) joined us.
Feeling that toll of the day's trip wearing on me, I opted for an early night, waking up only to see Izi and co, returned from Primadona, collapsing in their respective bags. It was 6.am.
Sunday 21st October
Another day dawned on us, Fratnik and I first up for breakfast, and as more cavers streamed downstairs, so did the cleaning up begin. Around 10am we were all sat outside, watching clouds roll over the ridge towards us and contemplating a quick escape when a sunglassed figure strolled in, whipping out laskos from his bag.
You almost made it to Super Action, Tetley! Still, everyone had time enough for a final lasko, and after most everyone had gone down, Tetley, Izi and I remained for some tea and a chat, watching sleet come down from the north onto the meadow outside Planina Kal. We caught up, and eventually left amidst swirling brown leaves and cold rain. But it is always sunny in Tolmin. As we drove down, we caught the sun again, leaving Izi at his parent's place, Tetley offered to drive up to Kolovrat, on the Italian/Slovenian border to watch the panorama of the Soca valley.
Later, we teamed up with Mark to walk the river trail near Most na Soci, stop for a quick coffee and ice cream by the lake and ... blast! it's already time to take the train back to Innsbruck.