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The Crown of the Subterranean

Marcin Furtak
Speleoklub "Bobry" Żagań

- the great shafts

The Subterranean Crown
shafts exceeding 400 metres in depth,
starting at the entrance to the cave
-643 m Slovenia
Patkov Gust -553 m Croatia
Brezno pod Velbom -501 m Slovenia
Hades -455 m Austria
Baiyudong -424 m China
Minye -420 m Papua New Guinea
Sotano del Barro -410 m Mexico
Provatina -407 m Greece

Why are we trying to complete the great underground shafts? Just like in real life, a coincidence has had an impact on this decision. In 1981, Speleoklub Bobry Zagań, to which we belong, has managed to reach the bottom of Hades cave in Austria (-455 m) setting a world record by doing so. For the next 13 years. Hades was the world's deepest shaft.
We have started our subterranean career in the beginning of the 90s and then our boldest dream was to get down to Hades. In 1994 this was accomplished! Time showed this was the last year of the Hades leadership in rankings and also the last time when Hades was still accessible. Since 1995 the way deep into Hades has been blocked by a solid wall of snow and ice.
Provatina. This vertical does not need be advertised. An immensely vast shaft separated by a ledge in half. The first 200 m of rappel provided extraordinary sensations. Going down into an abyss, daylight darting in from above, the space... The scream of the jackdaws inhabiting the zone next to the entrance contributes to the dramatic scenery.
Provatina (-407 m) seemed to us to be a shaft we would run through. We could not be further from the truth! The time of the expedition (May) had a great impact on the whole action. Firstly, it took us 3 days to find the entrance - which was not so small in fact - then for another two days we rigged, just to descend in rivers of chilling water from the thawing snow over the entrance. Then the never ending falls of snow masses coming down on us. A delightful walk has turned into a struggle to stay alive. The shaft has taught us a lesson of humility. After that we took two years off in our run the Crown of the Subterranean - as we have called our undertaking.
For us, 1997 started with an exotic excursion to Mexico. And of course, if Mexico, then Sotano del Barro. But before we went to tine shaft, we had devoted one month for exploration in Chiapas. We have not discovered anything marvellous, nevertheless we managed to get rid of most of our ropes. Quite unfortunately, the Mexican peasants viewed our ropes as an ideal way to keep their cows attached to whatever they wanted them to stay attached to. Luckily for us, the chief of the caving club Draco - Montiel came to the rescue. Thanks to his efforts, we managed to complete the metres of ropes we needed.
Sotano del Barro became the source of many aesthetic sensations. A 400 m long rappel down the shaft, cactuses on its walls, colourful parrots flying all around us, and a little jungle on the bottom. The descent took us 55 minutes. We spent the same time going up.
In the following year, we decided to face yet another record-breaker.

Start to Baiyudong, ph. M. Furtak

Vrtiglavica. A giant of a depth unimaginable before. 643 m of vertical descent! 643 in of rappel; fear and excitement at the same time. We are the first Poles in Vrtiglavica and the second team to reach its bottom ever. Vrtiglavica, though the deepest, turned out to be a very pleasant and friendly shaft. Still, these 643 in had to be passed upwards in one go. Just as a precaution all of us took a pack of medical carbon to avoid diarrhoea. Once back on the surface, immediately we make plans to go to Brezno pod Velbom (-501 in), situated near to Vrtiglavica.
So in summer 1999 we find ourselves once again on the road to Slovenia. Unfortunately, Brezno is a very capricious shaft. 377 in deep inside our further way is blocked with ice. We tried to break through, but to no effect. Outside the cave we found ourselves in a bit of hell - a one and half an hour route to the shelter turned into a two-day struggle against blizzards, fog and wind.
In the same year, in autumn, we were on our way to Croatia, where another giant had just been discovered - Patkov Gust (-553 in). Preparations for rappel, a set of ropes, carabiners, hangers. Plus our readiness to do battle. After all, 553 in is not a piece of cake. Having descended 50 in, we reached... the bottom. This was not Patkov Gust! Our Croatian guide apologised. He was wrong about the caves and mountains. Three days later, we were on the bottom of the real Patkov. The shaft had come at a cost though. One of the participants found himself in a middle of an ice cube avalanche. He just barely managed to back down. Another participant was almost strangled by a stack of ropes which happened to fall upon him. All ended well though.
In the following years we planned to come back to Brezno under Velbom. First we were opposed by Slovenian bureaucracy - we had to retreat from the massif due to the lack of proper permits. Another time (2003) we got through the ice chocke, but we were short of 30 in of rope to reach the bottom. That was nothing, we thought. We would be back there in the next two days. Unfortunately, the January weather decided otherwise. We had to stay put in the hut for a week and then had to get back home.
When we heard the news on the discovery of a new giant shaft in China, we decided to get there, without much hesitation. In Spring 2004, we were in Baiyudong (-424 in). The shaft was beautiful, but we found something horrifying at the bed - a massacred corpse. We got out to the surface and off this region as soon as we could, especially that we were there without a permit. We were escorted by police, who were oddly too curious about what we had seen in the shaft. But we have never admitted being at the bottom.
We need just two more shafts to complete the Crown of the Subterranean. We are going to Brezno pod Velbom again in August, which is when you are reading this article. Minye in Papua is in our next year's plans -that is if we manage to join our colleagues from France, Ukraine or Russia.

See also:

Furtak M., 1997. Provatina wiosną Jaskinie. 6:14-15.
Furtak M., 1998. Sotano del Barro - błotna piwnica. Jaskinie, 8:18-19.
Furtak M., 1998. Vrtglavica - czyli Bobry w lodowni. Jaskinie, 11:11-12.
Furtak M., 1999. Studnia bez dna (Brezno pod Velbom). Jaskinie, 16:9-10.
Furtak M., 1999. Chorwacja (Patkov Gust). Jaskinie, 17:5.
Furtak M., 2000. W krainie lejów (Patkov gust). Jaskinie, 19:18-20.
Furtak M., 2004. Studnia Biafego Deszczu (Baiyudong). Jaskinie, 35:15-17.

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