In a search for the route to the 2000 meters depth: The deepest cave in the World in the Arabika Massif, Western Caucasus

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The winter expedition 2000-2001

The expedition began on December 25 and consisted of eleven members: Yury Kasjan (the leader), Julja Timoshevskaja and Anatolij Povjakalo (all from Poltava, Ukraine); Oleg Klimchouk, Nikolaj Solovjov, Sergey Zubkov (Kiev, Ukraine); Vitalij Galas (Uzhghorod); Konstantin Moukhin, Denis Provalov, Dmitry Skljarenko (Moscow, Russia) and Iljua Zharkov, former Sverdlovsk caver, currently based in Pennsylvania, USA.

On December 27 the expedition arrived to Sochi, the main city on the Russian side, and crossed the Abkhasian border. On December 28 a helicopter from Sukhumi, the Abkhasian capital, has brought all members and expedition stuff to the Ortobalagan trough valley in Arabika.

Work in the cave started on December 29 and in the same day the route was rigged to the first camp at -500m, to which some amount of bags was transported. Such quick start was possible due to preparations made during previous expeditions and ropes conserved at the tops of main pits. Till December 31 the route has been rigged up to -850m and many bags were transported to that point. Meantime, a special team has widen three squeezes in the upper section of the cave (broken yet back in 80s by Kiev cavers but still being hardly passable) to a degree that allowed easy travel of many people and bags back and forth though them.

Till the midnight of December 31 all the expedition members gathered on the surface, in a small cave near the camp, converted into a kitchen and dining room, to celebrate the New Year and the beginning of the new century and the millennium. Everything and everyone were prepared to the new world's depth record.

On January 1 the work in the cave continued. On the next day an advanced group has set up the main camp at -1215m and since no one remained at the surface. All the expedition members carried out various tasks of this assault. On January 3rd the advanced group has reached the "window" at -1340m and began new exploration. The right to descent the first new pit in this expedition has been granted to the youngest member Anatolij Povjakalo, who had his 18 years birthday. Till the end of this day the depth of about 1450m has been reached.

The previous depth record of Lamprechtsofen-Vogelschacht has been broken during the night of January 4-5 by the pair of Moukhin-Zharkov. They descended few new pits, including impressive P49 that went through almost black limestones1, reached the depth of about -1680m and stopped at the mouth of the next pit. This news, delivered to the camp-1215 on the morning of January 5th, has indeed brought all its population into a great excitement. Next two pairs of explorers went to push the cave further and Denis Provalov went to the surface to bring this news to the rest of the world via mobile phone. On January 6th the news has been reported to civilization.

The pit at -1680m has turned out to be the last one in this expedition. It has led to the big chamber with a boulder choke in the far end, the deepest point reached so far (-1710m). A "window" above the boulder choke has led to a series of smaller breakdown chambers but gave no apparent continuation. Other four expedition members have also visited the bottom area for additional inspection, survey and de-rigging of the lowest part. The big chamber has been named the Chamber of Soviet Speleologists, to appreciate a long and hard way of many generations of cave explorers of the former Soviet Union to this remarkable achievement.

Till the night of January 9th all the expedition members and equipment were already on the surface. The next day was spent for recovery and on January 11th everything was prepared for evacuation by helicopter ordered for this date. A helicopter, however, has not arrived due to weather conditions in Sukhumi.

The time has come to pay off for such a smooth work in the cave. During the night the weather deteriorated dramatically in Arabika and all the day of January 12th was a bid farewell with a hope for a helicopter: a strong wind, heavy snowfall and low visibility. This continued through the next night and the weather forecast for the coming few days, received via phone, was unfavourable. Eventually, the team has decided to leave all the equipment but light camping stuff and force the way down by feet. It has been the risky venture due to the apparent avalanche hazard on the way to the tree line, some 5km distance with a considerable traverse. The team, split in two groups, was making a trail through heavy snow with great difficulties somewhere in the midway when a big avalanche has crossed the course just before the first group. It has caught and buried a front man, Anatolij Povjakalo. He was immediately dug out, being frightened but safe. The night was spent in a forest and in the afternoon of the next day, January 14, the team has met a track in the Sandripsh canyon, led by a local supporting person Vatik Vartanjan and a caver from Brest Sergey Krasko. Sergey has arrived by air a day before to co-ordinate an expected rescue operation. This was a happy end of the active part of the expedition.

On January 16 the weather has improved to a degree that allowed making a quick helicopter fly to Arabika to take away the conserved equipment. In Kiev and Moscow the expedition members were greeted by orchestras, champagne, flowers, caving friends, reporters and television crews.

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