NPC Newsletter (2nd New Series) No. 49 - Nov. 1999

Poland '99

Chris Birkhead

"Fancy a weeks caving in Poland?" said the voice on the telephone....................

On Monday 23 August, Chris Birkhead (NPC) flew from Gatwick with Chris Backhouse and Joe Duxbury (Gloucester Speological Society). In addition to our own caving gear and other luggage, we had a large tackle sack with 4 GSS ropes and a collection of hangers and maillons. We had no idea of whether we would be able to rely on our Polish hosts to rig caves for us, or whether there would be tackle available to borrow. So we played safe, and took enough to get down 4 pitches of up to 40 metres or so. Somehow our bags were not overweight, (but 2 pieces of hand luggage weighed 20kg or so) so we were not charged for excess baggage. We flew to Krakow (see map below) and picked up our Fiat Siena hire car.

We then drove to Zakopane (about 2 hours), then on to the small village of Kiry on the north edge of the Tatras National Park. This is where the longest and deepest caves in Poland are (see the Appendix II).

Not far from Kiry, the speleocamp in "the delightful glade" of Polana Rogozniczanska, was reached by a dirt track. The organiser of the camp, Wodek "Rover" Matejuk, was not there, but his family made us welcome with a cup of tea. When Wodek returned, he allocated us a 3-man dome tent, complete with 3 mattresses, pitched on a wooden platform.

The basis for the camp was to provide training for the "candidates", or novice cavers. The Polish caving system is fairly rigid, with grades of achievement and ability. So there were various trips planned for the people attending the camp, and we were given the opportunity to join them.

However on Tuesday there was nothing suitable, so for an introductory trip, Rover's teenage daughter, Agnieska, and her friend Yvona, took us into the National Park, to Jaskinia Mylna, a "tourist cave" (Jakinia = Polish for cave). This is one of several that have short, marked routes in them, for torch-equipped walkers to follow. We first had to walk for 4 km along the main track into the Park, along the Koscielisko Valley. This was the main touroid highway, crowded with walkers of all ages. The cave consisted of a series of steeply sloping chambers linked by horizontal passages along the bottom.

A bit like Trou Alexandre in Belgium, but without the upper and intermediate connections. Of course, being available to touroids, the cave was pretty well trashed. Not just litter, but heaps of shit spoiled the place. A chain-assisted traverse along a ledge led to the exit (on the right). The trip was very much a Burrington Combe experience, but with a long walk back to camp.

We must have received a good report from the girlies, as the next day we were invited on a trip to Jaskinia Marmurowa (Marble Cave), a "real" cave, up near the ridge of the Czerwone Wierchy (Red Mountains). The walk-in was more serious, involving a 3 hr slog up a spur, until we were roughly level with the entrance, when we contoured round a 200m cliff. With us were Rover, another Wodek (Por bski, one of the people Joe had been in email contact), and Czeszek Libera. The entrance to Marble Cave (because of the metamorphosed limestone it lay in) was a 30 m drop, with a re-belay about halfway.

The Polish rigging was straightforward and quick: single point belays (no Y-hangs, back-ups only on the bigger drops), with snap-link krabs rather than maillons. Their ropes were OK, but they did have occasional furry bits. Most of the caves we visited had the large confidence inspiring Petzl P bolts fitted. They looked much better than the bits of bent wire found in British caves. A climb up into a corridor at a slightly higher level led to another pitch of about 30 m, which dropped into a chamber. At the bottom was a squeeze through boulders. A couple of short descents between rebelays gave access to the top of a wide 60 m shaft. A rebelay at about 30 m gave a feeling of isolation, clipped to a rock bulge with air all around. At the bottom of this shaft the nature of the cave changed. The limestone was now cream-coloured, and the passages connecting the remaining 2 short pitches (7 and 10 m) were winding and narrow. At the bottom of the last pitch a rope led upwards. Rover explained that this only led up and over, the far side being much the same level as we were at. A hole in the floor below the rope led only to a constriction.

At the base of the big pitch, Chris Birkhead was waiting, and he stayed to help Chris Backhouse. The squeeze at the top gave less trouble on the way back.

All around the cave entrance, cavers seemed to have sprung from the earth. They were waiting for the ropes we were using - that's why Rover wanted us to get a move on. However we had a bit longer to wait because Chris Backhouse had knocked off the bottom half of his carbide generator (and lost all light) squeezing through the boulders at the head of the 60m pitch, then left his chest ascender behind after taking it off in the dark before the squeeze. Anyway, once the rope had been hauled out, the other group set off (they wouldn't return to the campsite until the next morning) and with Wodek and Czeszek we started to go back down. Rover was taking the short route - he'd brought a paraglider! Just before we picked up our bags and left, he came into view, soaring over our heads, gaining height so that he could get as close to the camp as possible. When we reached the main road at Kiry, we stopped for a beer. Czeszek was going to phone his Mrs to come and pick us up, but his car was already parked further up the road because she was getting some supplies in. She had to walk back!

After the efforts of the previous day, we had Thursday off. We drove into Zakopane and spent all day wandering up and down, inspecting all the gear shops, and buying some souvenirs. The best ones for the kiddies were miniature woodcutter's axes.

On Friday Joe was feeling rough - not only still knackered from the trip on Wednesday, but his guts were playing up. So he went for a leisurely walk up to the Red Mountain ridge. The plan had been to take the cable car, but the 2 hour queue for tickets persuaded him to join Czeszek and a walking group of women and children. The pace was nice and slow, and ended with taking the cable car down from Kasprowy Wierch.

After the Thursday off, Chris and Chris were keen to join the trainee cavers on their allocated trips. 2 caves a couple of hundred metres from each other: Niebieska Studnia ("Blue Pinch", "BlueWeel"...) and Pod Wanta. The 3 hour walk-in involved a stroll up a wooded valley along the base of impressive limestone cliffs. We then turned and went up a steep couloir between two sections of cliff. At the top of the gully was a grassy ridge with a view towards Giewont, the most famous peak of the region with a cross on top.

Our first target of the day, Niebieska, was a crack at the bottom of a shakehole, just off the grassy ridge. Studnia was the only cave we visited still rigged with spits. One of the Polish instructors started rigging the first pitch which started in the crack at the bottom of the shakehole. Unfortunately he had a large build and couldn't get through the crack. Sylph like Chris Backhouse slithered through and carried on down the pitch of about 25m. The rock was damp and crumbly and the cave was the least impressive we visited. The second and third pitches were in a narrow rift with some squeezing.

The second target of the day, Pod Wanta, was much more impressive. The entrance was situated a little way down from the grassy ridge close to the top of a cliff. The entrance pitch was via a large gash in the hillside. The gash let a good deal of light, which illuminated the large entrance chamber. After a rebelay the pitch had a marvellous hang into the chamber. A little scrambling and a further shortish pitch led on to the best bit of the cave, a superb 60m pitch with vertical column walls and a large bell shaped chamber at the bottom. The chamber had a collection of about 9 or 10 student cavers and instructors at the bottom. They had descended and rigged Pod Wanta while we had been in Niebieska. The cave bottom was a few minutes further down at the end of a "freeclimb" which luckily had a rope on it ! When we got back to the 60m pitch the students were still prusickking away, some rather painfully slow. The other Poles were brewing tea, and making soup with noodles. It was clearly going to take some time to get the group up the pitch. The hardy Poles pushed us up the queue to ascend the pitch and would not take no for an answer so, we both repaid the favour by trying to do the whole pitch without resting.

By the time we had exited the cave it was nearly 8 o'clock and the sun was descending over the Tatra's. It was the most memorable time of the trip; watching the sun descend over the distant ridges, changing quietly and thinking with some trepidation about the walk back to camp in the dark. It was 11:30 by the time we got back to camp, the idea of walking back into the hills and going caving again seemed impossible but...

Next morning (Saturday) Rover told us that a cave being rigged today was well worth a look. Joe's admirable self-control had restored his guts to normal, so he agreed to go, and eventually the Chris's also joined in. After the usual foot slogging to the upper horse carriage post on the main tourist trail, followed by an hour's faff to let the whole team assemble, we headed off straight up the hill to the left. After about half an hour of struggling up the steep hillside we arrived at a rock face, and the entrance to Jaskinia Czarna (Black Cave). Across the entrance was a large, ineffective grid made from reinforcing rods. "Ineffective" because you could simply squeeze past it on one side. A long sloping entrance passage, rigged with a line, led to the top of a high chamber, with the first pitch dropping into it. A rebelay, awkward to reach, had to be negotiated. The steeply sloping passage continued. A handline went down a short drop. The passage then went up and down like a rollercoaster. Entering a chamber either through a hole in some boulders, or up a low tunnel, we found a climb up, rigged with two ropes. At the top of this the passage switchbacked some more. The Polish lad in front with the Chris's ignored the large arrows pointing down, and insisted on gripping his way up a hairy climb directly towards the lights of the others above. Before we had a chance to get really terrified by the climb, 2 more Poles joined us and told us we should take the low route, through the hole indicated by the arrows! This was much easier, and we arrived at the bottom of a ramp with a rope. We waited for several people to come down, then carried on up, across a traverse, and up a vertical rope on the other side. A big passage followed; a right fork led us to the top of a 40 m pitch with a lake at the bottom. But this was not rigged, and we turned for home. The rebelays that were so difficult on the way in gave far less trouble on the ascent. As Joe came out of the entrance, it was turning dark, so we had a precarious descent down the path, which was loose in places. Down on the tourist trail, we could see, high above, through the trees, the lights of the derigging party at the cave entrance.

At last we reached camp, and in the cooking area we found a cup of tea and a large mug of soup waiting for us: traditional last trip refreshment. A campfire, too, was going, and we brought over our duty frees as a counterpoint to the vodka that we were plied with.

Sunday. Not only time for us to leave, but for the camp to be dismantled for another year. As we helped take down our tent, so the rain, which had wonderfully been absent all week, started.

Everybody interested may become a cavers in Poland. All one has to do is: be over 18 years old, be in good health condition, and finish a caving training course. During the training students learn the techniques of vertical caving, the safety rules in mountains during winter and summer, basic climbing skills and general knowledge in geology, topography, cartography and first aid. After finishing the course the graduates receive caving licence which allows them to receive cave entry permits from local authorities and National Park officials.

Agnieszka Gajewska (Speleoklub Warszawski)

Appendix I:

D browa Gornicza
ul. Sienkiewicza 15
41-300 D browa Gornicza

Welcome on the cavernous side of D browa Gornicza Speleoclub. We present pieces of information abaut karst zones, caves, speleoclubs and about strange people called cavers. We assure full safety during visiting caves on Polish side, not demanding any cultivations from visitors. Additionally, a tour on our side doesn't make you tired. Being under charm of the underground world you can hear "sweet" voice of your wife calling from behind of your back: "You are sitting by your computer again?" instead of "You have been in a cave again!"

Appendix II: Tatra Mountains

Tatra Mountains forms the highest and most beautiful section of the Carpathian mountain range. The main Tatra ridge runs from west to east, about 51 kilometers as the crow flies. In width, this whole chain is barely 18 km. It occupies an area of about 800 sq. km. In regards to type of landscape and type of rock, Tatras may be divided into three parts: the Western Tatras, the High Tatras and the Bielskie Tatras. Bielskie Tatras and a part of Western Tatras are built of limestone. The highest part, the High Tatras, with the highest peak of all Tatras, The Gerlach (2654,4 m), are built of crystal rocks like granite. The Tatras are divided between two countries: Poland and Slovakia. Four fifths of the entire Tatras area with highest peaks lies in Slovakia, but most interesting caves are situated in Poland in limestone of Western Tatras. The highest limestone peak in Western Tatras is Krzesanica (2122,3 m). With other three: Kopa Kondracka (2004,6 m), Malolaczniak (2095,6 m) and Ciemniak (2096,3 m) creates the massif called Czerwone Wierchy (Red Peaks). Under this massif are located several major cave systems. The water from this caves flows out by the Lodowe Zrodlo (Icy Spring) situated in the Koscieliska Valley on the altitude of 973,5 m. This is the deepest and largest hydrological system in Poland which is limiting the biggest depth of possible cave depth into about 1100 m. Western Tatras are with no doubt the main region of caving activity in Poland. There are more than 650 caves known in Western Tatras with total length more than 100 km. All deepest and longest caves of Poland are situated in Tatras.

Most of area of Tatras is protected in form of national parks: Tatrzanski Park Narodowy in Poland (emblem of park on the left) and Tarzanski Narodni Park in Slovakia. All decribed caves lies in the teritory of TPN and can't be visited without permission of TPN. Exceptions are Mylna, Mrozna and four small objects: Raptawicka, Oblazkowa, Smocza Jama and Dziura; which are touristic caves.

Longest Tatras cavesDeepest Tatras caves
1.Wielka Sniezna le. ca. 18000 m.1.Wielka Sniezna de. 814 m. (-807+7)
2.Za Siedmiu Progami le. 11660 m.2.Sniezna Studnia de. 763 m. (-726+37)
3.Mietusia le. 10450 m.3.Bandzioch Kominiarski de. 562 m. (-564+16)
4.Bandzioch Kominiarski le. 9550 m.4.Za Siedmiu Progami de. 435 m. (-288+147)
5.Sniezna Studnia le. ca 6600 m.5.Kozia de. 389 m. (-376+13)
6.Czarna le. 6500 m.6.Ptasia Studnia de. 383 m. (-356+27)
7.Ptasia Studnia le. ca 5900 m.7.Czarna de. 303,5 m. (-241.5+62)
8.Zimna le. 4250 m.8.Mietusia de. 280 m. (-258+22)
9.Kozia le. 3520 m.9.Studnia w Kazalnicy le. 700 de. 235 m. (-199+33)
10.Kasprowa Niznia le. ca 2925 m.10 Zimna de. 176 m. (-76+100)
11.Szczelina Chocholowska le. 2320 m.11.Malolacka le. 258 dp. 166 m.
12.Mylna le. 1300 m.12.Pod Wanta (Litworowy Dzwon) le. 400 de. 165 m. (-151+14)
13.Naciekowa le. 1261 m.13.Marmurowa de. 151 m. (-126+25)
14.Bystra le. 1200 m.14.Mietusia Wyznia de. 142 m. (-108+34)
15.Magurska le. 1200 m. de. 59 m. (-43+16)
16.Psia le. 917 m. de. 62 m. (-57+5)
17.Mietusia Wyznia le. 810 m.
18.Marmurowa le. 681 m.
19.Studnia w Kazalnicy le. 700 m.
20.Mrozna le. 511 m.

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