True Blue? The OUCC Picos Experience: 2/7 - Pozu Jultayu
CU 1999 Contents Page Next:
Richardsons in America generally fail to go caving
Austria expedition archive

Cambridge Underground 1999 pp 52-56

Fischt '98

Paul Hammond

Jonathan, Tony and I met up in the Cambridge bus station at 3am for the ride to Heathrow. I was alarmed to see Jonathan carrying about twice as much gear as me, but it was too late to go back for anything now. We arrived in Stockholm airport desperate for a drink as we'd eaten all the bread rolls we could find on the plane. No-one had any Swedish money so we sent Jonathan off to find out the exchange rate only to overhear him asking one poor lady "how much SEKs for a dollar?". Thankfully we were soon back on the plane and on our way to Moscow.

As we approached the airport the stewardess told us its illegal to take photos of Moscow from the air. Moscow International Airport is a bit of joke, Stansted is a lot bigger. Having deciphered several forms we realised we had brought too much money and decided we should go through the 'things to declare' channel. Fortunately for us it was completely unmanned so we stumbled through with our packs and we were on Russian soil.

We were met by Alexei and his Dad's chauffeur and piled everything into his Volga. After a brief stop at Alexei's flat, to collect Marsha (his girlfriend), we headed out to his Dad's place in the country. It is an amazing place, 10ft wall topped with barbed wire, security cameras, camouflage netting and guard dogs. Rather than repair the burnt out swimming pool, they had just built another next door. Inside was a huge granite fireplace complete with large gold eagle, lots of big wooden furniture and best of all a pool table. That evening we had a sauna to prepare us for what lay ahead. Tony was very distressed to see the thermometer reading 110 degrees Celsius but I was more worried by the bundles of birch twigs that were lying around.

Next morning Jonathan was anxious to get back to Moscow as soon as possible for maximum sight-seeing, but not before we had been shown round the factory. Alexei's Dad makes architectural concrete mouldings (sundials and the like), a technology which he has just imported from America. Tony and he discussed at length the various types of cement mixer available before we were driven back to Alexei's flat.

There were six plate steel doors to open to get into Alexei's flat which was a little alarming. He lives on the northern outskirts of Moscow overlooking an imposing building called the Ministry of Justice. A short bus ride gets you to the Metro which was stunning. All of the platforms were 1920s art deco and all of them were spotlessly clean. The elevators were much faster and went much deeper than in London. But the clever thing was the trains; they are electric, have no pantograph and only two rails - figure that one out Wookey!

Then began our mega-tour of Moscow, largely to keep Jonathan and his camera happy. We saw all the standard picture postcard stuff -- Red Square, the Kremlin and so on, but also some more unusual sights. Like the collection of communist statues removed from prominent places in the city and left to rust behind a tower block. Or like the Russian space shuttle which had been turned into an amusement ride in Gorky park.

The shops seemed very odd, department stores taken to an extreme. I wanted a cap, just any old cap to keep the sun off. Buying one involved taking two tube trains to get to a particular shop in which there was a department selling nothing but caps. Having selected one, first I had to ask how much it was, then go to another counter and buy a receipt to the right value, and finally return to the original counter and exchange the receipt for my hat. Public toilets were also very 'interesting' but thankfully a MacDonalds was never far away!

One evening we went to the State Circus which was an old-style circus complete with performing sealions and drugged tigers, but the gymnasts and the trapeze artists were very impressive. Afterwards we mentioned it would be nice to have some vodka without realising what this would entail. Alexei ran for about 20 minutes through the torrential rain to procure us a bottle of the finest vodka whilst we sheltered rather guiltily in a subway. Back at his flat, he produced a huge slab of black caviar from the fridge (there was literally 5 kilos of the stuff) to go with our vodka.

Next day after spending the morning resting and watching Spaghetti Westerns we caught the train for our 38 hour journey. The bunks which doubled as seats during the day were 5 foot 6 planks of wood covered in vinyl. The toilets were grim even when compared to Glastonbury and the conductresses looked like James Bond baddies with their jaws full of gold teeth. Occasionally the train would stop and the platform would be full of people selling dried fish or a few pieces of fruit.

Eventually we arrived at 3am in the town of Armpit, at least that's what it sounded like and looking at the place it seemed apt. We tried to get some sleep in the station waiting room, taking it in turns to keep watch on our bags. Even the woman in the ticket booth just turned off her light and went to sleep at her desk. At one point some police officers came in and beat up a tramp who was asleep on a bench.

When it got light we caught the first of several busses and taxis which took us up into the hills. Alexei bargained with the final taxi driver until he reluctantly drove the last section of dirt track and saved us 500m of ascent. But then it was time to get out and walk. We were each carrying 35-40kg, had slept and eaten very little over the previous few days and it was about 30 degrees. To summarise, the 20 mile walk to the camp was not much fun. Tony and I collapsed and camped by a river while Alexei and Jonathan struggled on up the final 600m of ascent only to be benighted and bivvy less than 200m from the camp.

The following morning Alexei descended to rescue Tony and I, bringing with him bottles of Zuka -- a wonderful fruit drink full of sugar. When we made it up the hill, we were warmly welcomed at the camp by Yuri, the expedition leader and fed with plates of porridge and mugs of tea. Meanwhile Jonathan had gone with Boulat on the first of many of his glacier treks, looking for caves under the ice. After 8 hours clambering around in crevasses he decided it was getting a bit dangerous and came back to join us in the camp.

As an introduction to the main cave we went to the first sump with Andrei who was going to dive in it. Most of the cave seemed to be rift passage ('meanders', the Russians called them) which had to be traversed at the correct level to find the way on. Ropes had been rigged occasionally but these were not load bearing, merely a marker of where to ascend and descend. While we waited for Andrei to return from his dive we ate the Wispa bar we had been given, without realising it was the last chocolate we would see on the expedition. On the way out we managed to lose Jonathan which was a little careless and earned Andrei a good ranting at from Alexei. Happily Jonathan found his way out and returned to the camp soon after.

Every morning we were woken by cries of "Gdye ma crooshka?" -- "Where's my cup?". Breakfast was either mashed potato or porridge with added chunks of what could only have been dog meat. Dinner was pretty much the same but with slices of salami and cloves of raw garlic. If you weren't down a cave then lunch was some sort of pasta soup which was much nicer than the other meals so was a good reason not to go caving! Not being sufficiently competent to cook, our job around the camp was to fetch the water from a tiny trickle some 20 minutes walk away.

Later in the week, Tony and I went on a trip to a new extension with Alexei and the two Swiss guys. Our job was to re-rig a clean washed 30m pitch that had been free climbed from the bottom by Kola (nutter!). Unfortunately he hadn't bothered to garden the pitch-head so whilst Tony and I were still on the rope it started raining rocks. One part of the pitch was shaped like a funnel and while I was in this section I heard Tony scream "below!". I don't think I've ever run up a rockface before and it was just as well I did! The rope ended 2m below the pitch-head making for a desperate get-off which involved removing jammers and free climbing the last bit. Needless to say we were a bit pissed off by this point. Tony re-rigged the pitch whilst Alexei brewed some tea, then we got out as fast as we could. Back at the camp after a 13 hour trip we found our dinner -- a piece of cheese, 2 crackers and some sugar lumps. Not a good day!

On a surveying and de-rigging trip down another cave Alexei showed us a rope, left by another expedition but which needed retrieving. Only problem - it was the wrong side of a grim traverse around a big hole in the floor, protected by an ancient piece of tat. Tony then displayed the cunning that comes with age by offering to do the traverse. "No, no, allow me", I stupidly said. "Okay", said Tony. Shit! It wasn't until I'd got back that he told me he'd never had any intention of doing the traverse.

By then the expedition had run out of carbide so we were caving on Russian flatpacks, these cost the same as Duracells in England but last for just 30 minutes. Despite this we found a promising lead which Tony followed as far as a pitch. However Yuri was more interested in surface prospecting so we weren't allowed back with any tackle.

To escape the grim caving and lack of food we offered to help retrieve the dye tracing equipment that had been placed in resurgences around the base of the plateau. This was an especially good deal as we were going with the 'boy scouts' camp and they had nice food left. After a day's hiking we arrived at the campsite and the women were sent to fetch water while Tony and I made the fire! This was the best night of the expedition, spent sat around a roaring fire, drinking tea and discussing 70s music which is very popular in Russia.

Next morning Jonathan and I went with Cheyne for a 'short walk' to collect the remaining dye tracing devices. This short walk turned out to be a 14 mile slog with over 800m of ascent in the blazing sun. And the resurgences turned out to be pathetic trickles in a dry river bed -- not quite what we expected having seen the amount of water pouring off the glaciers. Back at the campsite we collapsed, convinced we would stay another night, but instead we had an hours rest before repeating the previous day's hike back up the mountain to the main camp. We arrived exhausted just as the sun was setting.

The remaining few days were spent climbing around the mountain looking down holes in the ground which were obviously not going anywhere. But with no carbide left there was little else to do. Jonathan managed to get himself on a surveying trip with Katya which was a very smart move as she was in charge of the food and had a secret chocolate stash! Tony re-rigged the entrance pitch, hammering the single spit he was allowed to use into the wall somewhere behind his head. This prompted much cursing from him, especially as Jonathan shot an entire roll of film of him doing it. To celebrate the end of the expedition I spent 4 hours tossing in the food tent (Tony's joke) -- obviously I was making pancakes. We had a bit of a party with Yuri playing old Russian songs on his guitar. The boy scouts had prepared a 'bayeaux tapestry' from loo roll depicting the events of the trip. Then all that remained to do was to tear down the food tent, stuff all the rubbish in a big hole, pour on the spare fuel and set light to it. The whole thing exploded and covered the surrounding rock in burning plastic but apparently that's the done thing in Russia.

Thankfully the weather was fine the next morning and the helicopter could get in to take us home. Everyone's equipment had been carefully weighed and segregated but in the end it was all chucked in to the helicopter and we piled in on top of it. Back in Sochi the hunt for beer and vodka was on. After nearly 3 weeks on top of a mountain a cold bottle of beer never tasted so good.

We found ourselves a place to stay, which was a hut at the top of 367 steps. Then we spent a couple of days just eating, drinking, swimming and sleeping. Vodka was dangerously cheap -- a Russian measure (5 UK shots) cost just 50p. Tony and I took full advantage of this while Jonathan and Alexei watched us and ate ice cream. Whilst in the bar we met up with another group of cavers back from an expedition in Georgia. Their equipment for the trip included two kalashnikovs with which to defend their camp and amongst their members was the world's fastest prussiker (30m in 45 seconds). Don't mess!

Later that evening, the rest of our group who had been drinking solidly all day, got themselves stopped by the police and had their papers confiscated. We thought we could be in trouble too when we tried to board the plane back to Moscow. Apparently we had broken the law by not having our visas stamped on arrival in the area. We would have to miss our flight, lose our passports and report to the police station on Monday. Unless of course we had each 200 roubles to spare. This, we were told was a special cheap rate, the usual bribe was much higher.

We got back to Moscow just as the currency collapsed. Alexei bought as many newspapers as he could to find out what was happening. Even in the first few days of the crisis things looked pretty grim for the country. Lorries were being turned back at the border as no-one knew how much to pay for the imported goods and a food shortage within two weeks was widely predicted.

We spent our last couple of days in Moscow visiting what little we had overlooked previously. The highlight was the State University which we managed to sneak into with Alexei and Marsha. We took the lift up about 30 floors and got out at the Museum of Geology. The old woman who was in charge of the museum happened to be there and she offered to show us around. Alexei translated at high speed while she explained about all the exhibits. The best thing about the museum though was the view it gave over the whole city. We tried to get to the very top floor but it was locked, apparently it was a secret listening post for the KGB! Back outside people were rallying souped-up Ladas around the university grounds -- I can't quite see that happening down Kings Parade.

On leaving Moscow, our plane was delayed as the fuel truck itself ran out of fuel on the tarmac. A fitting end to a 'very interesting' trip.

Jonathan, Tony and I would like to thank the Moscow University caving club for inviting us on their expedition and making us very welcome. Hopefully we can return the favour when some of them come over to England this summer. We would also especially like to that Alexei and Marsha who showed us incredible hospitality and generosity, we would have been completely lost without them.

True Blue? The OUCC Picos Experience: 2/7 - Pozu Jultayu
CU 1999 Contents Page Next:
Richardsons in America generally fail to go caving
Austria expedition archive