History and Exploration
By Tatyana A. Nemchenko
Edited by Bill Mixon
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.
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.