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Republic of Georgia 

History and Exploration

By Tatyana A. Nemchenko
Edited by Bill Mixon

Snezhnaya, the Snow Cave, was discovered in 1971. The depth is 1370 meters, and the total length of the passages is about 20 kilometers. It is located in the western Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia in one of the spurs of the Bzybskiy Ridge, which is covered by the reef-forming Yura region limestone. Its two entrances are at 2000-m altitude. There's a beautiful view from the plateau towards the Black Sea's Caucasus coast, from the Novyi Afon to the cape of Pitsunda. One can walk 15 km to the cave by a cattle path from the village of Duripsh in Abkhazia.

Background Story

Caving began in the '60s, practically simultaneously in Crimea, in the Ural region, and in Krasnoyarsk. At the beginning of the '70s about 10 official caving teams were active in Moscow. There were about 50 people in the tourist club (the so-called city team), about the same number in the Moscow University caving club, smaller groups associated with the other major colleges, and several teams at the big enterprises. There were also about 10 private groups, of up to 10 members, with no subsidies from any organization.

The caving exploration of the Caucasus started on the Gagry Ridge, which had very good prospects from the point of view of caving. Exploration had been stuck there for 15 years. About 10 large caves, with depths up to 500 meters, were discovered in 1964 through 1968. They were compactly situated on the low and easily accessible Alec Ridge, near the resort city of Sochi, and the best-known caving clubs in the USSR, driven by the so-called team spirit and the grip of fashion ever-present in human psychology, used to visit this tiny spot in the immense territory of the Caucasus four

Most of the path goes through century-old beech forest times in a year. However, by the end of the '60s, curious minds began to show some interest in the stories told by the tourist-mountaineers, and they discovered that limestone ridges seem to exist all around the perimeter of the main Caucasus range. Such folklore has been the main source of information, because geographic, as well as topographic, maps were secret in those days.

At the beginning of the '70s, Professor N.A. Gvozdetskiy was lecturing in the chair of physical geography at Moscow University. Being a well-known karst researcher, he was the first to acquaint the Moscow University cavers with the existence of the caves in Bzybskiy Ridge. And while Musia Grigoryan was rummaging through reports piled up in the tourist club's library in Moscow, she read, "One can see sinkholes on the slopes leading to the Duripsh village." The presence of the sinkholes obviously indicated the possibility of caves. That's how the area was selected, and in August 1971 a team of Moscow University students, headed by Mikhail Zverev, went to Abkhazia.

They climbed up to the mountains, following the wild flow of the Hipsta River. Alpine meadows and caverns appeared at the altitude of 1800 meters. The slopes were covered with sinkholes and fissures. It was a real Klondike of caves. In a week, dozens of caves 100 to 250 m deep were discovered.

The group split up to look for caves. The search of the western slope, called the Hipsta Urochishchye (Hipsta Territory), was undertaken by Kolya Chebotaryov, Tanya Guzhva, Volodya Glebov, and Tanya Ryabukhina. During one of the scouting trips, stormy clouds had gathered, and Tanya Guzhva suggested that everybody should hide in the little cave she had just discovered.

Coming closer, they saw that the cave was hidden in the wall of an enormous entrance, in the deep bottom of which one could vaguely see white snow covered by the mist. The size of the entrance was so enormous that one could hardly connect it with the usual narrow passage into a cave. The depth of the pit at the entrance proved to be 30 meters. The walls were shot with blue, while the overhanging southern wall was black with the entrance to side passage. The bottom of the entrance well was a solid crust of compressed snow covered by a dirty film. At the far end, the snow led to the roof , but there was still a passage.

The cavers devoted the rest of the day to climbing around inside the maze of rock and ice. Sometimes they had to slide down clean white snow in the inclined pits. They did not use ropes. One of the passages, at a depth of 100 meters, led to a room. Huge ice columns lined the opposite wall. This is now called Gvozdetskiy's Hall. The vertical walls of the inclined canyon were tapered, and the snow filling the bottom of the canyon went down steeply. In order to move forward, the group-needed ladders.

In the evening the cavers from Moscow University were sitting around the fire in their base camp and drinking tea, as usual. Suddenly Volodya Glebov came to the camp, muttered something about not wishing to go into details, grabbed a rope kit, and disappeared.

The next day Kolya Chebotaryov rushed into the camp. He comes from a well-known mathematician's family and is able to present his ideas in his own peculiar way. This time he caused laughter, since that day they had managed to explore down 40 m more, below Gvozdetskiy's Hall. There was a drop in the canyon there, where one could not hear the sound of a falling stone. It goes down to the center of the earth, declared Kolya.

What is there in the darkness, at the bottom of the pit, around the corner, in the far end of the hall? Exciting questions to a caver used to walking where the foot of a man had never stepped, returning at least once a year to the age of great geographical discoveries of 500 years ago.

Foul weather and a lack of food, due to the fact that the expedition was coming to an end, were forgotten. The daily food allowance was cut, and the exploration of Snezhnaya Cave was begun.

The decision was made to immediately move the whole camp closer to the cave. The next day all the cavers from Moscow University crowded near the entrance. New discoveries were coming. Going down the pit that just yesterday had seemed to have no bottom, Kolya found himself on the top of a snow and ice cone. This steep ice hill was so high that the light of a lamp disappeared in the darkness without reaching the bottom. In order to go down, they had to cut steps with an ice axe. The ice mound, as high as an eight-story building, occupied almost all the area of the huge Bolshoi Zal, Big Hall.

Only years later did a group visiting Snezhnaya in winter discover the secret of this phenomenon. At that time there was a snowstorm while the group was descending into Bolshoi Zal. The entrance pit accumulated snow until avalanches of snow flooded into the cave. All the 200 m of vertical passages were filled with the white fog of snow, and it fell on the top of the cone with a great thunder.

The search of an exit from the Bolshoi Hall proved useless. Disappointed, frozen, and tired, the cavers started upward. Volodya Glebov felt bitterer about this failure than the others. He decided to be the last to leave and stayed in the southern part of the hall, most remote from the snow cone. Beyond the moraine, there was a small stony floor free of ice. It wasn't so cold there.

Volodya observed a remarkable scene, as the lights moved along the snow hill deep under the earth in the darkness of eternal night. Then one light started to rise very, very slowly some more tiny stars twinkled at the top of the hill. Despite the beauty of that scene, and in order to save himself of frostbite, Volodya started to move the stones. What if he would find passage? He thought he felt a slight air current. Excited, he enthusiastically continued to move the stones. At last, a narrow passage opened up, and the air current became obvious, a sure sign of big underground territories ahead.

Joy overwhelmed everybody. Behind the newly discovered narrow, horizontal passage, immediately nicknamed the Shkurodyor (Crawl), they found a new pit. For almost a week, the Moscow University team lived on a short food ration. Then the last remnants of the food came to an end. Only then, at the bottom of the Karolitovii (Coralloid) Pit at a depth of 300 meters, did Mikhail Zverev declare the expedition finished. In front of the group, along the wide passage called the Gallery, streams were flowing, and a lot of domes and pits led up and down. Here, on the wall of the gallery, Mikhail attached the message that for many years afterwards inspired cavers: "There are heaps of everything in front!"

The explorers were extremely enthusiastic, and two months later, in November of 1971, Moscow University's cavers went into the cave again. The slopes of the ridge were already covered with fresh snow. It was cold. It took several days to reach the entrance. They carried a big load of equipment to be able to get deeper into the cave. The newly made rope ladders were sufficient only for rigging one new pit, but that was quite a pit, with a depth of 160 meters. The pit was filled with falling water, so they worked in dry suits. Made of thick rubber and being heavy, they made climbing difficult.

At that time, one had to be extremely strong and agile to do the Bolshoi Kolodez, the Big Pit. Only men were allowed to descend there. For communication, individual cavers stayed on the ledges, and only one person, Kolya Chebotaryov, descended to the bottom of the pit. The roar of the falling water made it impossible to hear the voices of his friends. He could only see the little stars of the lights above, just like the stars at their lovely university on the Vorobyov Hills in Moscow. That's how the Universitetskiy Zal appeared on the map of Snezhnaya.

Near the bottom, the pit expanded into a huge funnel-like hall. Behind a high natural bridge, a dome made a similar funnel, and there was another boulder choke. Even far from the falling jets, the air was saturated with mist. He couldn't see any obvious passage in front.

Another expedition from Moscow University, in the summer of 1972, consisted of 11 women and 17 men, headed by Mikhail Zverev. Back in Moscow it had been decided to establish two bivouacs, one at a depth of 200 m in the flint chamber behind the Shkurodyor and the other, at a depth of 450 meters, in the University Hall. These bivouacs were supposed to become the springboards for storming the depths.

Reconnaissance of the boulder chokes at the bottom of University Hall proved to be complicated and very often dangerous. They failed to find a passage in the first funnel, under the pit. But in the second funnel Kolya Chebotaryov crawled through a maze of giant boulders to the stream flowing through a narrow canyon. Only there in Snezhnaya had they found some number of stalactites. The stream bed, full of rapids, was broken by boulder piles in many places.

The first team of explorers that camped in University Hall was replaced by the second one, led by Valera Galaktionov.

These folks were doomed to make remarkable discoveries. After the second of a series of boulder piles, the Vtoroi Zaval, the stream began to fall more steeply, the river canyon became wider, and the roof seemed to disappear. Cascades appeared one after another. Small waterfalls led the excited explorers downward. But the real triumph came when this Vodopadny Ruchei (Waterfall Stream) discharged into a big river. There was no sign of this river on any map, but it existed at a depth of 600 m in the very middle of the hills.

The river was flowing from an impenetrable boulder pile that rose 100 m above the water's rise, and it ran along the impressive canyon, sometimes calm and slow in the wide places, sometimes forming powerful and picturesque waterfalls, foaming on the shoals, and finally, having picked up speed while moving down a slope, disappeared under the next boulder choke. Everywhere in the canyon one could hear the roar and feel the powerful wind and sprays of water. Some of the group confessed later on that they had felt somewhat uneasy, while the others tried to convince them they had been fascinated.

All the attempts to go through this Pyatiy Zaval, the Fifth Boulder Choke, where the river sank, failed, and it ended the discoveries of expeditions at that time. Proving that Snezhnaya was the deepest cave in the USSR was the main result of that expedition, the best success any caver can think of. All in all, during these three expeditions the cavers from Moscow University managed to discover about two kilometers of passage. A splendid achievement!

During the next four years the most eminent caving teams of the country followed each other in attacking the Fifth Boulder Choke. However, all of them failed. This choke became known as the bottom of the cave. It became evident that a decisive step forward in Snezhnaya demanded a new approach, perhaps a new strategy.

Mikhail Nozdrachev, a caver from Moscow University, while looking together with his friends for new caves near Snezhnaya in the summer of 1977, noticed a crowd of women and children near the entrance. Surprised, he came closer. Wеll, there were two men, Muscovites Alexander Morozov and Daniel Usikov.

Alexander is a chemical engineer, Daniel is a physicist and a mathematician. Their intention was to go through Snezhnaya even further. When Vladimir Fedotov arrived, they would work in the cave together, all three of them. Who was to stay on the surface? Only Daniel's wife with her child. She would inform them of the weather forecast by phone.

Just three persons in such a complicated cave? That was brave and absolutely not in line with the traditional crowded caving expeditions. However, the equipment was different, reliable and low in weight. The ladders, scaling poles, duralumin anchors, titanium pitons, synthetic-fiber tent, dry suits, and everything was homemade with great care according to their own drawings. Their approach to the work underground was also unconventional; they planned to go into the cave for a month and to descend, together with their equipment, making Snezhnaya their home. All the things required for long living and working under the ground were packed into 25 kit bags.

They were a group of friends and persons holding the same view of and having great experience in caving. Daniel started caving in 1961, when he took part in discovering and pushing hundreds of new caves in Crimea and in the Caucasus, twice reaching record depths for the USSR Alexander started his caving in 1965. He was just crazy with the idea of being the first to discover and visit caves. All these piles of excellent equipment were made in his little Hat. The total length of the ladders amounted to 450 meters. He was the life of the party there. Vladimir's main characteristics were a well-balanced temperament and great stamina.

In a week they reached the Fifth Boulder Choke and set their camp at the bottom of the cave. The temperature was about 4° C, but the camp was comfortable and warm. Over tea, they discussed their plans and dreams. And on only the second day of exploration inside the Fifth Boulder Choke, Alexander, Daniel, and Vladimir managed to climb up 60 m and get into the spacious Zal Nadezdy, the Hall of Hope. They felt as if they had climbed out onto the surface at night— an immense hall after the closeness of the choke.

Somewhere in the far end of the hall a waterfall was roaring, and an odd echo was wandering under the arch of the cave. It wasn't the roaring of the main river in Snezhnaya, however. The Novy Ruchei (New Stream) was rushing with great thunder along an almost vertical canyon. Above the Zal Nadezdy there was a suite of vast, dark, and absolutely silent halls. Following this route, they managed to get to the main river at last, but much further upstream than its junction with the Waterfall Stream, as a survey proved later.

But how to find the way beyond the Fifth Boulder Choke? Intuition! What else could help a caver to get through a maze of crawls and a chaos of boulders? Intuition and a cool head. Taking a compass and some electric batteries, Daniel went alone, to sharpen his senses, on a seemingly hopeless search, and strange as it may seem, managed to get to the Zal Pobedy, Victory Hall. It was almost a twin of the Zai Nadezdy, with a similar high arch and floor of steeply descending scree. It was dry, with a light breeze and the sweet murmur of the stream. It was a real Eden for the underground camper, a starting point for the exploration of the cave to greater depths. The too-long sleep of Snezhnaya exploration had come to an end, and the way down was open.

Beyond the Fifth Boulder Choke the cave was not very stormy. Sometimes water reached the kneecap, sometimes the waist. After about 300 meters, the river received two large tributaries, Ruchei Zabluzhdenia, the Stream of Delusion, and Zayachiy Ruchei, Hare Stream. The river bed became more level, and the cavers had to overcome deep water for a distance of 300 meters; sometimes they had to swim. The blue river covering the floor of wide galleries made them very beautiful. The cave looked magnificent and calm. As the water was very cold, the cavers had to move all the time and, after swimming for long distances, warm up with physical exercises. Alexander had torn his dry suit, but even the threat of freezing cold did not keep him from new discoveries.

Suddenly the relief changed: a 15 m waterfall and, alas, a new, very large boulder choke. By that time the depth of Snezhnaya had reached almost 800 meters, and about two kilometers of new passage was on the map.

Snezhnaya still held surprises for the team. Returning to camp a few hours later, the guys were terrified to see the campsite disappear under water, together with what for only two days had been called "the old bottom" of the cave. Witer at the Fifth Boulder Choke has risen 20 meters. But the rain had not been especially heavy.

A year later, Daniel and Alexander arranged a new trip. Victor Kondratyev, from the group called the Troglodited, and Tatyana Nemchenko, from Moscow University, joined them. So they had two teams: one Usikov and Nemchenko and the other Morozov and Kondratyev.

Camp was set up in the Zal Pobedy, and they started the siege of the Sixth Boulder Choke. Each one followed his own route. But luck followed Daniel again. In two hours of acrobatic crawling inside the boulder choke, suddenly, as it always happens underground, he saw the vast space of an unknown hall. It was a very silent hall. Only the slow drip of water from the ceiling indicated the passing time. Huge boulders formed the giant steps of an imaginary staircase leading down. In the depth of the cave, a natural construction appeared. In the middle of a terrace, a natural bridge was lying on two giant stone blocks, resembling a megalithic cult construction. That gave the name, Zal Dolmen.

For the next 400 m the river followed a wide tunnel, and for that reason it became shallow. The frequent boulder piles were easily overcome. Then Snezhnaya reconsidered and erected Sedmoy Zaval, the Seventh Boulder Choke. But this time the stone crossword puzzle was faced by experienced players, and, after climbing about 10 m up the vertical wall, the cavers found themselves in a small hall with a stream flowing down the wall, but where they could find a comparatively dry spot. In fact, they had everything they needed for setting up a comfortable camp, well protected from flooding.

The low exit from the hall was open they had only to descend 10 m down a ladder to the bottom of a wide canyon. Small streams were flowing down the right wall, and, as they found out later, when it rains heavily on the surface, these tributaries form spectacular waterfalls. The river, hidden by a heap of boulders, was roaring below, while the way lay slightly upward along the scree. Only after about 200 m did they descend to the main river, where they found a 5-meter-high waterfall falling between the stone walls. Here the river canyon suddenly became narrower. The river was deep, and the movement of water could hardly be seen.

Snezhnaya was getting higher and higher in the catalog of the world's deepest caves. But this process was very slow. The route went up and down the piles of boulders as if following the teeth of a giant saw. Only after several hours of walking and climbing did the discoverers hear again the roar and thunder of water, and the narrow Canyon passage opened into Gremyashchiy Zal, the Thundering Hall. The river, set free, was shaking violently against the stone, falling over the ledges, and unswervingly heading somewhere below. But where?

Well-washed stones rising above the water proved that it wasn't safe to travel by that river in bad weather. But they weren't getting any weather forecasts. Children of Abkhazian shepherds above had stolen the phones from their operator. For some time the situation has been saved by an electronic weather-observing device. Every 10 minutes it gave a binary-coded number of glasses of water that had passed through its water-catching funnel. But during a heavy downpour a few days before, it had "drowned," and something was wrong in the electric circuit. So they had to constantly watch the river. If the water started to rise, they'd have to take some urgent and risky measures.

After the Gremyashchiy Zal, shoals and rapids followed. The river was violently rushing down the ledges, with much noise, foam, and splashing—down and down all the time. According to the drawing, the cave made a sharp turn. This part of the river was called Zigzag Udachi (Good Luck Zigzag), because the cave became deeper and that was real good luck and because in time of flood only good luck could save a caver here.

The finale of that section was indeed splendid. After gaining speed following the slope, the river formed a powerful 25-m-high waterfall. It was immediately called the Vodopad Rekordnyi, the Record Waterfall. Daniel was breaking away loose rocks in order to hammer in a piton, when suddenly the hammer broke. So they descended 15 m, literally only centimeters from the throbbing jets of the waterfall. Then the last ladder came to an end, and it wasn't possible to admire from below the powerful fall of water.

Following so many rapid discoveries by that expedition, it seemed that there would be no end to the cave. The team decided to split into two groups. Daniel and Tatyana would go in the summer of 1979, and Alexander Morozov would prepare for a long winter expedition, when there would be no risk of flooding, and it would be possible to work at extreme depths.

The summer expedition consisted of only Daniel and Tatyana and started in June. The snow on the slopes of the hills was only half melted, and so, unexpectedly, there was a lot of water in the underground river. They had to pull on hand lines in order to overcome the current in places where before they could have walked freely. At last, they reached the Record Waterfall. And finally, after a year of waiting, they could admire it from the small hall below. In that place the river reached a zone of limestone conglomerates. The clay cementing the stones had a blue color, and the hall seemed to be dark. The gusty wind was whistling. It was completely saturated with moisture. One can hardly imagine the thunder all around.

The overall impression was very gloomy. But as they often witnessed before, after several turns the picture changed greatly. In front of them they saw the smooth and magnificent water galleries. Their feet were comfortably and pleasantly half sinking in tiny gravel. Their lamp lights made reflections like the silvery moon at sea. The echo of their steps ran away and died. Virgin silence reigned there. Smooth walls polished by water disappeared in the distance and high above. Everything seemed to breathe with calm. It wasn't the gloomy calm of a cellar. Fresh air and the river made this place seem very alive.

The next campsite was chosen on the clay bank 20 m above the river, at a place now called Glinyany Zaval, the Clay Choke.

After the Glinyany Zaval, the wide riverbed began drawing zigzags again, and then it turned into an arrow-straight fissure with a width less than one meter. The fissure ran for 100 m and was followed by the Vodopad Ozerny, the Lake Waterfall. Water fell 10 m into an almost round lake. One could shine a lamp from above on the place where foaming water disappeared into the frightening blackness of the apparently bottomless lake.

Tatyana and Daniel descended to the lake and swam across it. Beyond, they met with lagoons, shoals, rocky obstructions, rapids, you name it—everything was there. Perhaps for the first time in their caving experience, they felt tired after so many discoveries. This was the Nudnaya Reka (Tedious River) indeed. But Snezhnaya is a cave of contrasts.

Soon a cascade of waterfalls never before seen appeared in front in them, water roaring and thundering again. The river was throbbing and twisting among the peculiar jags and crests of rocks polished bright by the water, down the Revushiy (Roaring) Cascade. Every step was taking them deeper and deeper. What else can one ever dream of? A wonderful place!

And then it was like a shower of cold water when they saw giant blocks of stone at the bottom of the Revushiy Cascade. They could not see any obvious passage through, so they decided to stop for a meal. But the choke did not want to be used as a restaurant and surrendered almost without a fight.

While Tatyana was busy cooking gruel, Daniel found the passage. There was a new hall, named IGAN, the initials of the Geography Institute of the Academy of Science of the USSR, for whom cavers were carrying out some measurement and sampling in return for some official support.

One part of this program was development of "simultaneous barometric leveling" for depth measurement. This procedure gave good results, and in fact some errors in the earlier cave surveys, which had exaggerated the depth, were found and corrected using it.

Below the IGAN Hall was a boulder pile that formed some giant steps above the river, roaring 30 m below. They had overcome the many small pits and found themselves in a place where the water, thrown against ledges, formed thousands of splashes and disappeared in the crater of a huge pit, perhaps the widest in the whole cave. Even the entrance pit would look like a toy compared with this giant. They measured it with a lead and discovered it had the depth of 32 meters. They named it the Vodopad Olympiyskiy, Olympic Waterfall. Here, according to the plan and to the barometer, the depth of the cave was 1200 meters, while the length amounted to 10 kilometers.

A caver is alone in his discoveries, and the world he discovers really belongs to him. The melody of the cave may be gloomy, menacing, or joyful, but one thing is certain. For those who go first, it is always exciting. In the summer of 1979, Tatyana and Daniel were lucky to discover about three kilometers of splendid underground galleries at depths up to and beyond one kilometer. A caver fully understands what a rare success that is.

However, the cavers had no chance of making their achievements in Snezhnaya exploration public, either through TV or broadcasts, throughout their four years of exploration. At that time two state organizations, both headed by V. Ilyukhin, usurped the right to make announcements on the discoveries in the caves. Although all the cavers in the USSR knew about the latest achievements in Snezhnaya, they pretended not to know anything, and the official guides continued to give the depth as 720 meters, as they had before.

A group of special persons who had to "discover" the deepest cave in the USSR had their preparations in full swing. A TV program called TV Travelers wanted to show its audience this "grand expedition." Coming out of the cave, Tatyana and Daniel met with the official cavers, brought there by helicopter. Having performed feats of courage, the group of official record breakers reached the Fifth Boulder Choke, but they could not find the way to the Zal Pobedy. But this did not prevent their leaders from declaring cheerfully that they had been the first people to enter the giant halls above the Fifth Boulder Choke.

It was promised solemnly that the very next year they would certainly reach the depth of one kilometer, as their intuition told them that there was more to Snezhnaya. Their intuition did not deceive them. The indignant cavers from all over the SovierUnion literally swept away the insolent company. After this micro revolution, unnoticed by the rest of the world, the democratic principle proved to be an important one in sport caving. This is shown by the outstanding achievements of the last 10 years, when six caves with depths of around 1000 m have been explored in the territory of the former USSR.

Thanks to official support by A.P. Aleksandrov, the president of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, articles on the real discoveries in Snezhnaya appeared in Pravda and Komsomolskaya Pravda that autumn. The next day V. Ilyukhin appeared in the editorial office of Pravda, bringing with him an official letter printed on the official letterhead of the Academy of Sciences testifying to the fact that there had been no such discoveries, and at this point he received an absolutely discouraging answer from an official of the newspaper. The demand to publish a denial was rebuffed with a firm statement that everything that is published in Pravda is true, and therefore there is nothing to deny.

In December of 1979, a whole caravan of bags was swimming along the underground river in Snezhnaya. The caravan had seven drivers. The guys were not in a hurry. Indeed, there was no place to hurry to; some planned to stay in Snezhnaya for two months.

It was harder to get to the cave in winter, through deep, falling snow, and cold. But there was much less water in the underground river, compared to during the summer, and the risk of flooding disappeared until spring, so the work underground became much more peaceful. After having reached the IGAN Hall, four of the cavers went back. Only Alexander Morozov, Georg Ludkovskiy, and Seva Yeshchenko stayed below. They were the first to descend the Vodopad Olympiyskiy to the Zal Iks (X Hall), which turned out to be the largest and most mysterious in Snezhnaya. Beyond the tongue of the waterfall, the river dropped into lower levels of the cave through a screen of small boulders. There was no way for a man.

In the depth of the hall, the steep scree changed into a flat floor. The deposits on the sand in the lower, dry part of the hall testified to the fact that sometimes a great lake, hundreds of meters in perimeter, is formed. The hall had a slightly oblong form. In the far end, away from the waterfall, its arched roof was much lower. The roar of the waterfall did not reach there. But where does the river go?

For all of 10 days, the cavers searched for an exit from the immense, gloomy hall. At night, Alexander dreamed of this unknown passage. When it seemed there was no hope whatsoever, Alexander at last found the necessary place. An opening really did exist, and after quite a bit of hard work, they found a way into another room, and then the river appeared again. It was flowing almost silently into a grand sandy chamber. This one was named Penelope Hall in honor of the patient wives of the cavers, for by that time the expedition had been away for 70 days. Once again the river disappeared, this time under breakdown covered with a lot of clay. Although there was wind coming through the gaps, it seemed it was just impossible to pass through them.

In the summer of 1980, Daniel Usikov found a strong team that included Tatyana Nemchenko, Victor Kozlov, Yevheniy Voidakov, Oleh Kabanov, and Andrey Debabov. The boulder choke could not help but surrender to their joint effort. Having climbed up the neck-breaking climbs between the solid roof and the huge pile of blocks 100 m high, the cavers came into a small hall, the Metrostroy Zal, Hall of the Moscow Underground Builders. (One of them worked as a tunneler in the Moscow subway. Here they tunneled too, but without pneumatic tools.) However, there were some problems with the descent back to the river.

The effort to resolve these problems was undertaken in the summer of 1981 by Tatyana Nemchenko, with Andry Bizyukin and Vladimir Demchenko. Assisted by their friends, they descended to the bottom of the cave to stay there for 20 days. From the Metrostroy Zal, they climbed down the cracks between the boulder choke and the solid wall and came into the silent Peschaniy Zai, Sandy Hall. The river flowed below and soon disappeared in stones. A descent from the base of the boulder choke led to another, at a point 15m below the Penelope Hall. Alas, they could go no further.

The known depth of Snezhnaya had reached 1335 meters. So far, no expedition has ever descended farther. The men could hardly resign themselves to the fact that the last meters had been overcome by an expedition headed by Ms. Tatyana Nemchenko. They said that it was not the true river sump at the bottom, and the part of the river beyond the Peschaniy Zal was scornfully (and privately) called the Nemchenko Pool.

The illusive upper entrance, the source of the underground river in Snezhnaya, excited the imagination of the cavers. The first serious attempt to go up the river was undertaken by Alexander Morozov, Victor Kozlov, and Vladimir Kuptsov at the beginning of 1981. After descending to the river, they made their way up the river bed. After several hundred meters, their way was interrupted by an impassable boulder choke. To mark this place, the guys made big towers of stones.

However, it was also possible to look for some new entrances into Snezhnaya on the surface of the ground. In summer of 1979, the team of Moscow University cavers arranged a new exploration trip. It was headed by Yuriy Shakir. The group consisted of novices completely unaware of the wisdom of scientific speleology. One could well have laughed at the naivete of Alexander Degtyarenko, raking the stones in what looked like a place where no one could find a cave, but he found a pit entrance. "A mere chance," decided the veterans.

He passed down several narrow pits and through a small hall, and the cave still went on. Hanging on the last rope, Konstantin Firsov looked into the darkness in vain. One could only find out what was below by descending there. Thus, what was achieved that summer was a depth of 170 meters, with some possibility of continuing the search. The cave was given the name of the tragically perished caver Sergey Mezhonnogo, who had died in a non-caving incident in Georgia some years before.

In winter of 1980, four scouts went into the new cave. Descending into the mysterious cave, Alexander Mikhalin found himself above a canyon where a small stream was flowing. A few cascades down the stream, in the Triogranyi Zal (the Three-Edged Hall), it joined with a lively and noisy tributary. It became obvious that a really big cave had been discovered.

May in the mountains witnesses very active melting of snow. It becomes dangerous to cave in the mountains. But there are two holidays in the beginning of May, and that means two free days, so hundreds of cavers go to the mountains at that time for several days. The group from Moscow University went into Mezhonnogo Cave. Water was pouring into the cave from every crack, but Kolya Chebotaryov and his friends managed to descend 320 m down, passing plenty of small falls of the stream full of water. The cavers stopped near a pitch with small elegant balconies, the Kolodez Serenade, Serenade Pitch.

In summer, a big group of university cavers continued exploring the cave. After landing on the bottom below the fourth and the last ledge of the Serenade Pitch, Mikhail Korotayev and Valentin Garbarenko found themselves in a narrow horizontal passage. From that point the character of the cave changed drastically. Big pitches disappeared. In became more and more difficult to pass through a narrow canyon tapering down to the river like an insidious wedge.

But then some new tributaries began to empty into the stream, and, with the added water, the river-bed widened. Beyond the bottom of the pit 150 meters, Yuri Kosorukov, Ilya Kostenchuk, and Mikhail Korotayev reached the depth of 500 meters.

In winter of 1981, Alexander Mikhalin and his friends made a short three-day trip into the cave. Below a small pit at a depth of 530 meters, they saw the stream disappear into an impassable crack. After persistent searching, they found a spacious and dry passage. During the summer expedition by the Moscow University cavers, Alexander, together with Valentin Garbarenko, continued pushing the dry passage. They came to the Razvilka, the Fork. Three passages met there, one they had come by. They followed the second passage, a high and narrow crack, which took them a few hundred meters upstream along the large tributary of the main stream. The third passage looked like a spacious underground tunnel with a dead end.

Later on, Mikhail Nozdrachev and Dmitriy Kitaev continued the exploration of the maze of passages in the lower levels of the cave. They managed to bypass the dead end by a narrow crack and come to a small but fast-flowing underground river. Mikhail had no doubt that these were the upper reaches of the Snezhnaya underground river. The cavers headed down, but soon their way was interrupted by a sump. They started looking for a way to bypass it. A narrow crack where the wind was blowing looked most promising. But they could not widen it. All in all, Moscow University cavers reached the depth of 570 m and went through about two kilometers of new passage in Mezhonnogo Cave.

In autumn of 1982, some new forces started to explore there. Cavers not only from Moscow, but also from St. Petersburg, Kazan, Ufa, Perm, Samara, and Khabarovsk took part in the expedition. All efforts were directed toward widening the narrow crack that provided a chance to bypass the sump. It seemed as if no man could ever squeeze himself through it, but a man who could was found. He was Mars Altynbyev, from Samara. When he announced that a wide gallery followed, those staying at the other side of the crack enthusiastically and unanimously named it the Laz Marsa, the Manhole of Mars. The open gallery led directly toward Snezhnaya. But in 200 m a sump interrupted the way again.

In March of 1983, St. Petersburg cavers Vladimir and Oleg Demchenko, together with a small group of others, found the way to bypass the sump and move another 200 m in the direction of Snezhnaya. Boulder chokes followed one another on the river.

That summer, Alexander Morozov, Arkadiy Ivanov, and Aleksei Korenevskiy managed to continue down the river another 450 meters. The cavers stopped above a small pit. On the plan, Snezhnaya and Mezhonnogo Cave intersected, due to faults in the surveys.

The next winter, Vladimir and Oleg Demchenko, together with Alexei Spiridonov, were climbing over the boulder pile right after the pitch where the previous expedition had stopped, when Oleg dropped the hammer, and it escaped down the narrow gaps between the stone blocks with a great racket. Vladimir could not forgive his brother such a spendthrift behavior. Ashamed, Oleg started to search for the hammer. Alexei joined him in his efforts. During this search the cavers came across a narrow opening, squeezed themselves through it, and after a few more steps saw big towers of stones. Two big caves joined each other! Snezhnaya became 35 m deeper and gained 5 km in length.

During searches for an entrance into -Saezhnaya near the summit of the ffipsta Hill, the height of which is 2494 meters above sea level, dozens of pits were discovered. The largest, the Vulkan (Volcano) has the depth of about 300 meters.

Joining of Snezhnaya with the Souvenir Cave, which has a depth of around half a kilometer, is possible. Water from one of the Souvenir Cave streams has been traced to the river in Snezhnaya. The entrance to this cave is lower than the Snezhnaya entrance, so no depth would be added.

Vladimir Rezvan, from Sochi, organized a series of dye-tracing experiments in 1985-1988. The main discharge of the underground river in Snezhnaya takes place in a spring in the valley of the Hipsta River. Here there also exists an exit for the water from deep pits situated in the beech forests on the slopes. Water from the river in Snezhnaya has also been traced to Mchishta, the greatest spring in the Caucasus. The bottom of this spring is below sea level.

Three caves found while searching the slopes for lower entrances to Snezhnaya are particularly interesting. They are located in the right wall of a big canyon on Hipsta's western slope. Kan'jon Cave is a pit 281 m deep. A climb from the bottom of the pit leads to a parallel pit containing a stream and lake. The lake has been dived to a depth of 13 meters. Sumohvut Cave is a series of pits that connect with Kan'jon at a depth of 264 meters, through a dug connection. Veterok Cave has a narrow entrance and three pits, the last of which ends in a room at 140 meters depth. A long dig through a boulder choke eventually led to a depth of 300 meters, where a stream was found. Comparison of air and water currents and temperatures and study of the caves' plans suggest the possibility of a connection to Snezhnaya.

As far as Snezhnaya is concerned, the appearance of the cave has changed slightly. The flow of air increased after the widening of the passage from the Big Hall and changed the microclimate in the upper part of Snezhnaya. The snow, which used to be melting very slowly, started to melt more actively. The icy ground in Gvazdetskiy's Hall disappeared, and only in spring do giant icicles appear in this place, while strange crystals appear on the walls. In winter, avalanches supplement the snow resources of the cave. They also clog the upper passages of the cave very thoroughly. New passages appear due to melting in some very unexpected places, but not every year. Sometimes cavers have to spend weeks exploring them.

The passage leading under the arch of the Big Hall has become inaccessible, but a new one has appeared along the wall. The avalanches go down this way now. Between the old top of the snow and ice cone and the wall, a natural bridge has appeared, which makes it possible now to walk down to the moraine easily. The snow cone has become gray and lost its majestic appearance. The cone seems smaller now, and the walls seem to stand closer to each other under the arch, itself lower than before. But perhaps the bright lights on the helmets of modern cavers are to blame?

The trip in Snezhnaya is no longer a complicated sports task, the techniques, equipment, and clothes have changed greatly. The passages through the boulder chokes are widened now and cleaned of stones. A telephone cable goes down to the bottom, showing the way through the boulder chokes like Ariadne's thread. Rope ladders and handrails are hanging in some places. Sportsmen are attracted by the prospect of visiting one of the deepest caves. Unfortunately, after some such raids, heaps of rubbish, waste, and carbide appeared in the virgin halls of the cave. The Big Hall, as well as University and Victory halls have been damaged particularly.

The author would like to thank D.A. Usikov for valuable comments on this paper, and to thank A.V. Bizyukin, M.N. Nozdrachev, and Moscow club cavers for useful information. Thanks also to Alexey Kritzky and Oleg Kazharsky. Bill Mixon edited my English translation and helped arrange for its publication in the NSS News.

1989 г.


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