Dates of Trip:
Natural caves, along with deep oceans, are some of the least explored places on earth by humans. In fact, there are more undiscovered cave passages in the world today than mountains left to summit. This past fall (2018), thanks to the Sean Collier Adventure Grant, I had the opportunity to join an international caving expedition with the goal of exploring and surveying potentially the deepest cave in Turkey: Morca cave. The expedition team consisted of cavers from Turkey, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and USA.
Morca is an alpine cave located in the Taurus Mountain range about 4 hours by car on a dirt mountain road from Anamur, Turkey. Majority of the mountain range is comprised of ancient limestone, which is like swiss cheese and littered with many deep pits. One of those pits is the entrance to Morca cave and it sits more than 300m higher (in altitude) than the entrance of the current deepest cave in Turkey within the same mountain range. Since the natural water resurgence from top of the mountain (and caves) exits nearly 2000m below, Morca has great potential to become the new deepest cave in Turkey.
This was my first true expedition of any sort, let alone cave exploring in a foreign country. My experiences on this trip ranged from sheer excitement and thrill of exploring virgin passage to moments of terror in sketchy situations, and sometimes even boredom due to the downtime. In the process, I also learned many things such as, bolting, using various cave survey instruments, and most importantly, how an expedition of this magnitude ought to be organized. This report provides a little glimpse into my first expedition experience, and the lessons I learned.
Being a recreational caver with too many competing outdoor hobbies (e.g. climbing, hiking, etc.), my preparation for this expedition was far from ideal due to all the other distractions. My friend John, who also joined me on this trip from Boston, and I prepared by training in very challenging caves literally days before our departure to Turkey. In fact, during one such training trip in Jewel cave, the rescue crew arrived as we were exiting the cave because we missed our planned exit time by more than three hours due to exhaustion. We had less than four days to recover before flying out to Anamur with nearly 150 pounds of gear (e.g. bolts, hangers, locking carabiners, drill, batteries, etc.).
At Anamur, we were greeted by our expedition leader who then drove us up the bumpy and windy mountain road to the primitive surface camp outside Morca cave. The surface camp, our home for the next 10-odd days, was completely isolated from civilization with at least three hours’ drive from any reliable cell reception or a place to purchase basic provisions.
Next morning, everyone was divided into different teams with varying objectives and tasks based on their energy levels and experience. Due to my small stature, I was assigned to explore one of the narrow side galleries at about 80m depth from the cave entrance with another Turkish caver of similar built. Our objectives were to photograph any calcite formations, collect biological samples from the water pools, and continue exploring new leads at the far end of the gallery. Unlike the rest of the cave, this side gallery was actually ascending towards the surface and our hope was to find another, higher, entrance to Morca from the inside. Being mostly virgin passage, we had to carefully negotiate the treacherous and unstable rock in the tight crawlways. One such section was the traverse across a tight 50-ft long slot canyon where the tiny footholds were crumbling with our weight above a 15-ft drop.
Seven hours later, we arrived at a room where we had to aid climb adjacent to a 25-ft flowstone to access the next potential lead. For protection, we tediously placed bolts and aided up the wall. Unfortunately, our drill ran out of battery after the second bolt and we resorted to the old-fashioned hammer. However, progress became laboriously slow and we started to get hypothermic in the 42F (and nearly 100% humidity) cave environment. It was then that I decided to attempt free climbing towards the potential lead with a 15-ft run out from the last bolt. As soon as I climbed past the bolt, my footholds that looked like solid rock on the wall, started to slowly deform and crumble under my weight. I frantically downclimbed and jumped out to the aider that was clipped on the last bolt. Fortunately, no one was injured, and we exited the cave seven hours later, utterly exhausted.
After a complete rest day on the surface, I partnered another Turkish caver to shuttle supplies for the Bulgarian cavers who were camped inside the cave at about 530m depth from the entrance. The descend took over four hours and was by far the most technical rappelling I have ever done with at least 70 rebelays. We had to constantly rappel in and out of waterfalls, avoid potholes, and traverse across various exposed ledges. Temperature in the cave got noticeably colder the deeper we went. Once we arrived at the basecamp (at -530m depth), we stopped there for a few hours to dry off our socks on the camp stove and re-energize ourselves with some hot tea. After adequate rest, we started our ascend and climbed the rope using single rope technique (SRT). It took us nearly seven hours to climb out of the cave.
Later I partnered two (2) other Turkish cavers in exploring another side gallery at 60m depth that required some nimble climbing skills. Unlike my last attempt at free climbing in the -80m side gallery, this climb was more straightforward, albeit with some sketchy loose rock all around. I safely climbed into the new lead and placed two bolts to set up an anchor for my partners to follow. However, due to some miscommunication, my partners brought the wrong sized wrench and I could not securely tighten the two bolts. And during this brouhaha, a brick sized rock was dislodged by my foot and I instinctively yelled ‘Rock!’. However, the two cavers below did not hear, nor react, to my warning and were animatedly discussing the wrong sized wrench. Unfortunately, one of the cavers got hit flush on his right hand with the rock fall and was in severe pain. At the same time, I also learned that he was carrying a prior injury on his left hand and could not put his weight on either hand now. Our ordeal quickly worsened as everyone started to get hypothermic and the realization of the obstacles that we had to negotiate just to get back at the main trunk passage dawned on us. Through sheer determination, we somehow helped the injured caver safely climb out of the cave and averted a potential serious rescue situation.
The last few days of the expedition involved a lot of downtime on the surface since most of us were on standby to help haul gear from the cave basecamp to wrap up the expedition. This part, though essential on any expedition, felt tortuously long in the blazing hot sun with no natural shelter at the surface camp. This was my least favorite part of the trip and took some of the shine off my original excitement. Incidentally, cavers from the basecamp ended up hauling all the gear out themselves with no assistance from others on the surface due to some miscommunication.
Stories above give an insight into my experience from my first cave expedition trip, which was rich with excitement, thrill, terror, relief, and even moments of boredom. Interestingly, the language barrier with the Turkish cavers (who generally spoke very little English) proved to be a major challenge throughout the expedition since it led to multiple instances of miscommunication. Fortunately, no serious harm came of them. Besides that, I had my own challenges and learnings on the trip that will stand me in good stead. For example, now I truly appreciate the importance and value of training earlier with proper recovery before an expedition of this magnitude.
I shall ever be grateful to the Sean Collier Adventure Grant for assisting and enabling me to participate in such a unique experience. I am confident that this will be a defining moment in my life that I constantly refer back to as I continue pursuing future expeditions and adventures. As for Morca cave, it is by no means finished yet. The 2018 expedition was able to explore down to 900m deep with more potential leads yet to be explored. We plan to go back in August 2019 and hopefully find the allured end of Morca cave.