The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
So...finally we come to the last chapter in this tale. Where were we? Right...yes...now I remember: “Le Condotte Infinite”, the Infinite Paths”.
After our last outing in July we were sure that on the next occasion we were going to dedicate ourselves to exploring that series of tunnels and trails that we had only seen the beginning of, but, as they say, “Actions speak louder than words”, and our actions were about to run into a surprise.
This time we ventured out in the company of an experienced and knowledgeable group of Speleonauts (Speleonauti) from Rome, whom we had met some months earlier during a visit to the Formello aqueduct.
I should mention that our team was down to two; Ipogeo had a prior commitment that he couldn't put off. So it was just Zool and myself who accompanied the three from Rome. I note, too, that our friend Ipogeo, thinking that this time out was going to be just like the last time, had made no effort at all to reorganize his affairs. Serves him right!
So...we got to the grotto in the late morning. We rigged the entrance shaft and descended quickly into the chamber where, as usual, we felt that sense of motherly protection that “speleos” experience in a familiar cave.
We made it to the second drop quickly and, wonder of wonders (to tell the truth, I had an inkling of this while we were still in the valley—the fountain where we normally stocked up on water was totally dry) at the first point where we would normally find a placid little stream we found it bone dry. My hair started to stand on end—was the lake gone, too?
We whisked through the winding passage and the muddy little chamber in no time. A kind of craze had come over me and I went back in my mind to a time years earlier in the company of a less experienced group. Then I had had the good fortune not to find that water barrier, thus letting me add in a single bound at least 300 or 400 meters to my knowledge of the grotto with no effort at all.
We were carried away at the sight of it. There was no trace of the lake—it had been sucked down into the guts of the mountain. A thin and slippery trickle of mud kept us company on the steep bank down to the bed where the water used to be. We waited for Zool and PadreGherardo to catch up from where they had stopped to take photos of mineral accretions. I then rose to my professorial tour-guide best and explained...ahem...that I had seen this before. I told them everything I knew: “If there were water, then we would have to cross over there... then we would have to go down over there...there's the entrance to the Condotte Infinite... from this point on there would be cross-passages... there's the chamber that caved in... behind those two boulders there's a space that I recently had a look at and I remember thinking, even if I never found the passage that leads out of it, that there must be one...”
The passage rose away quickly. First came a tight opening at ground level, then a more comfortable inclined stretch that opened up onto what was to be the most exhilarating adventure of my life. Not because of the difficulties, though there were certainly a few of those, but rather the constant and rapid change of environments, each one more spectacular than the last, the swift alternation between shafts and climbs broken up by breath-taking passages over bottomless depths, leading us deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain.
As we went forward, the grotto, little by little, was getting ever more technical, but we overcame it all (both descent and later ascent were often split into segments and we had to change ropes constantly).
We were in no hurry and stopped often for short breaks during which our cameras immortalized this special passage or that mineral accretion. They were everywhere! I had known that Campo Braca was truly beautiful but I never imagined all this: snow-white drapes of minerals, flows of fantasy, spectacular stalactites...we were encircled by the powerful imagination of nature.
I don't remember how many hours we were down there. Time had lost all importance. Our movements were ruled only by our own curiosity and sense of exploration. When we reached the last drop (a descent on a wall of a good twenty meters) the sound of water told us that we were almost at the level of the final siphon.
The descent, followed by a tricky wall of razor-like limestone, took us to a clear underground lake and then five more basins, one after the other, each lower than the previous one. The waters finally flowed together and pooled. This was the last siphon of the grotto.
We were at the bottom. We paused for some photo mementos, a well-earned lunch... or maybe it was dinner...and then we were off on our way back. It would be five or six hours of rough up and down climbing.
At this point, we might say that Campo Braca adventure is finished, but not really. A number of reasons would make us return, mainly Ipogeo. He has despised us ever since that day, and unless he plants the soles of his shoes on the bottom of that grotto he will continue to despise us for the rest of our lives. Also, at the bottom we had found other passages not on any map. That looks good! And then there are those “Condotte Infinite”. We never even got to those. I have a hunch those shepherds in the valley will be seeing some more of us as we scramble up the hillsides and down into that fantastic hole in the ground. And they'll still be asking themselves, “What is so interesting down there? What strange people those folks are...”
So, then...for the moment that is the end of the tale and if you have had the patience to read this far, you will have noticed a slow but steady growth in our behavior. From the first, uncertain steps to the most recent exhilarating explorations—all of that, as I promised when we started, has a moral.
Speleology, or caving, offers you one of the last adventures you will find left in this tired, old and well-explored world. There are different ways to approach it. You can take a course from a recognized caving association (maybe that is what most people should do) or—the path that we chose to follow—get your skills slowly, one by one and with patience and humility as the difficulties show themselves; don't try to do too much, know your limits, and know that your passion and enthusiasm will take you even to the most inaccessible places.
At the end of the day, you can get to be a caver by various roads, none of which is better than another.
(to be continued?) --of course! Patience, please.
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