The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
And thus one fine spring morning we set out for our goal. Down the entrance shaft we went, down the first rocky trail we slid and then quickly past the second drop (this time using that small tunnel, half-hidden at the bottom of the wall on the right-hand side that I mentioned earlier)—and, then, crawling around the second turn, we were at the lake.
After getting rid of the heaviest bags we filed into the hole at the lower vault (where we had seen a fragment of rope). Between slips and curses we got the better of the inclined passageway. A few more meters and a brief climb and we came out in a small chamber. Hundreds of stalactites hanging from the ceiling balanced as many stalagmites racking the floor. Calcite flows draped the walls and, at the bottom, as if in an old theater, a kind of balcony looked out over a dark abyss.
If you looked over you saw an old rope. This was the way! Our normal rigging gear was too low and it was too old—(I mean venerable!). Anyway, we decided to rig the drop with one of our ropes. We moved a few meters over to where a limestone flow, first gradually and then more steeply, led to the same space (as evidenced by the way the streaks of light projected from the “balcony” shone through even the second access). Another few minutes of studying the situation...they had to be here! Then, first one, then the other...two spits [trans. note: self-drilling rock anchors] appeared as if conjured out of the left-hand wall. They were in good condition. Putting the rigging on the lower one and the return line on the other, down we went where we had never been. A few moments later, we were all there.
I don't remember who went first, but the voice from the bottom, lost in darkness and yelling “Keep coming!” was bugle music to our ears—it sounded the charge! A few minutes later we were all down. The descent went along a strange stalactite below the calcite flow that we had noted in the upper chamber; together they formed a kind of giant mushroom. We had landed on a small terrace and right in front of us was a wall, already rigged, that went back up eight or nine meters.
It was Zool, fresh from rock school, who wanted first crack at it. He climbed for a few minutes and passed a short but tricky cross section that led to a new tunnel placed at the same height as the chamber we had just come down from. We sent him in to scout: “See if it goes on!” His light dimmed at first and then disappeared altogether. Then a faint glimmer grew stronger and told us he was coming back. The news was what we had hoped for: the passage continued and widened into a room where there were two narrow holes, partially blocked with stones, leading downward.
In a few moments I was on the wall and at the cross passage. While Ipogeo followed under Zool's watchful eye, I went to have a look at what he had told us. I reached the room and saw the two holes. They weren't exactly built for maximum comfort, but you could make it. I started to return to the others. That's when I saw it. Zool had seen, so to speak, the “mote” but had missed the “beam”. Higher up there was a large passage partially hidden by stalactites and some of them bore...muddy hand-prints! This was the way!
We stopped to take photos of a bat sleeping peacefully in a fissure. It was so deep in hibernation that we got off a series of macro shots from just a few centimeters away. Neither our movements nor the flash broke his slumber in the least. We left our little friend, stowed the cameras back in the bags and started out on the new-found road. The climb was made easier by numerous stalagmites that offered places to grip. We passed down a corridor and came out in a new chamber.
This one was very high and covered with mineral accretions. It ended with yet another drop; from the edge we saw two distinct possibilities leading in opposite directions. We were at a fork in the road. On the right there was a long series of intersections that lost themselves in the darkness; on the left, the road descended to the base of a very high fissure. Here, too, it was clear that you could go further.
After a brief discussion we went to the right. The first to move was Ipogeo. As he moved out, Zool was right on his heels. I hung back to sort the items we would leave behind from those we would take with us. I turned to ask how things were going (my companions had disappeared from view off to the left) and heard the response that things were “very precarious”. The ropes were frazzled in spots, and the spits and snap-clips were noticeably corroded. This made us ask ourselves whether or not it was really wise to continue. Not like this! The risk of a hand-hold giving way was too high. We couldn't go forward like this. The cross-passage was on the right wall of a narrow canyon; down at the bottom you could see the reflection of water. We had gone farther along that damned water course that didn't want to let us cross. It was useless to try to crowd into the cross-passage; I waited for Zool and Ipogeo to reemerge from the darkness. When I saw the flash of their lights a few minutes later, I was relieved.
At that point there was no other choice but the long descent along the left wall. We had no problems with that and were soon at the base of a narrow and very high tunnel; the bottom was covered with a moist slime that clung stubbornly to our shoes, making it hard to even move. But that's not all. After a few dozen meters that slime started to be replaced by ever deeper icy water. We pushed forward as far as possible trying to find holds on the walls where we could step. At a certain point...as they say: “sink or swim.” We had to go into the water. We tried, but the water was near the freezing point and we changed our minds. We were content to have explored a new and beautiful section of that grotto and we would be back, better equipped to take on the next part. For the record, the first part of the tunnel we had ventured into is the start of what they call “Le condotte infinite” [the Infinite Paths]. That name has a story all its own.
(to be continued)...
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