Friday, 9 October 2015

Bill Murray: 'Dance upon the mountains like a flame'

“… in the worst days of the war there shone most often before my eyes the clear vision of that evening on Nevis, when the snow plateau sparkled red at sunset, and of Glencoe, when the frozen towers of Bidian burned in the moon. In the last resort, it is the beauty of the mountain world in the inmost recesses that holds us spellbound, slaves until life ends.”

The inmost recesses, those of the soul … In the whole corpus of Scottish mountain literature only one mountaineer could have expressed these sentiments so delicately.
The quotation comes from Mountaineering in Scotland, and I was sitting at the fireside in the home of the man who wrote them in enemy prison camps, W. H. Murray, known to everybody as Bill. I was in Bournemouth, working as a surveyor, when the book came out in 1947, and I knew I was reading a classic as adventure followed adventure with a dimension of action and powerful description that made you feel that you were one of his companions on the rope, so clearly was each character brought to life. Little did I know then that one day I would be off to the Himalaya with three of the men mentioned in the book, one of them Bill Murray himself.
Down the years we have retained contact, but this was the first time I had visited him at his home perched on the rocky shore of Loch Goil. Since that first book Bill has written 19 more and won many honours. I suggested to him that it was time he wrote his autobiography since he has so much to say that nobody has heard yet, but the humorous glint in his blue eyes showed me he didn’t take me seriously. “Tell me the background to your present life, for I’ve never really known it despite the times we’ve had together.”
For such a tall man, Bill has a small and narrow head, and the thoughtful expression has about the eyes the penetrating gaze of the hawk. He weighs his words carefully, and some people feel uncomfortable at the long pause between question and answer as he searches his mind for the precise choice. In this case the pause was broken by his wife Anne bringing in the morning coffee.
Auburn-haired, tall and active, Anne is also a climber and she writes sensitive poetry. We chatted as a trio about the oddities of the house which used to be a stable, where you go downstairs to the dining- room which used to hold a horse. But Bill’s mind had been working away in the background as we talked, and when we were alone and settled down in armchairs he fired away with fluency. 
“Until I was 19, mountains never entered ray consciousness. Not until I overheard two men talking about a mountain called An Teallach. They were describing a thin, narrow ridge above the clouds with shafts of sunlight striking distant seas and islands. To me it was a positive revelation— a vision of a strange new world, here in Scotland, and not abroad.
“So one April day I went to the Cobbler. I wore my ordinary clothes, shoes, collar and tie. I went to the Cobbler because it was the only mountain I knew by name. There was hard, frozen snow in the corrie, and I kicked steps in it naturally since without an ice-axe it was the only way up. I was frightened by the consequences of a slip, but I got to the top of the centre peak. The rocks of the south peak were bare of snow, so I scrambled up. From the tops I saw a seascape of snowy mountains for the first time. The desire to be a mountaineer was born at that instant, but the idea that any one person could climb them all didn’t seem possible.

“I joined the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. In these days of the mid-thirties there were innumerable small hostels, and for a year I climbed by myself, in the Trossachs, the Crianlarich hills, the Cairngorms and on Liathach in Glen Torridon. It was from people in the hostels that I first heard about mountain clubs, and as I wanted to be a rock-climber I joined the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland in 1935.” Bill was a trainee banker at this time, which was interesting enough to him, but he spent a lot of time writing short stories, mainly about people in ordinary human situations.
“Even at school I wanted to be a writer, but such a career seemed impossible for a boy, because you need experience of life to be a writer.” He was to gain it in the next four years with the men who took him to the Crowberry Ridge and shocked him with its exposure, but exhilarated his mind with the totality of the experience.
“I would say I was a naturally good mover on rock and soon came to enjoy the exposure, but what really drew me to winter climbing on the great routes was the nervous tension and suspense which kept building up until you reached the top. Then the relaxation and exhilaration.”

Listen to this, after climbing the Crowberry Gully in January 1941 before going off to join the Middle East forces in Egypt. It was Bill’s 80th ascent of the Buachaille Etive Mor, and at 7.15 he and his companion R. G. Donaldson reached the summit after being stretched to the limit of their resources on ice-covered rock.

” . . . The ring of low crags under the summit, the ground beneath our feet, and all the rocks around were buried in ice crystals. Although night had fallen, yet up there so close to the sky there was not true darkness. A mysterious twilight, like that of an old chapel at vespers, pervaded these highest slopes of Buachaille.We stood at the everlasting gates, and as so often happens at the close of a great climb, a profound silence came upon my mind, and paradoxically, the silence was song and the diversity of things vanished. The mountains and the world and I were one. But that was not all : a strange and powerful feeling that something unknown was almost within my grasp, was trembling into vision, stayed with me until we reached the cairn, where it passed away.We went down to Glen Etive for the last time, and I fear we went sadly. The moon shone fitfullv through ragged brown clouds.”
Bill Mackenzie, Archie MacAlpine & Bill Murray after 2nd ascent Rubicon Wall, 1937 (Photo: Douglas Scott)
Bill has no doubt at all in his mind that these pre-war years on the Scottish hills were his best, and that nothing that has come to him since in the Alps or on Everest has brought the ecstasy of climbing hard routes with well-tried companions when he was physically fittest and enthusiasm was highest.
For him the men and the mountains came together at the right time. This is what he wrote in reflection as a prisoner of war.

“In three years of squalor in overcrowded prison camps, where misery gnawed at men’s fortitude, these stored memories heartened me like ‘ a light for memory to turn to when it wants a beam on its face - and youth, somewhat crushed in warfare, revived hope for the future from inexhaustible mountain springs. That through mountains I have been given not only vivid memories but lasting joys and friendships more priceless than accumulations of gold, is no idle theory invented in credulous days of comfort and security, but a sure knowledge won in adversity. I was lucky to begin climbing when I did, in the same year as the new Glencoe road was opened, when you could buy second-hand cars for a song and pack in climbs with a frequency never before possible at week-ends.”

I asked him what had brought him from Glasgow to such an out-of- the-way spot as Lochgoilhead, remembering the icy and twisting single-track I had descended from the summit of the Rest-and-be-Thankful by Glen Mor.

"After being demobbed, and having given up the bank to try to earn a living as a writer, I was determined to find an environment among growing and living things. I came to see this house on an April day when the cherry blossom was out and the sea loch Mediterranean blue. The view of the rocky hills through the window was enchanting. The rates were only £8 a year—they are £100 now. I bought it and moved here with my mother. I soon found, however, I had less time for writing in the country than in a Glasgow flat, for I now had 2 and a half acres of land and a house 100 years old that needed a lot of things done to it.”

Lochgoilhead was a place to work, nor was its isolation irksome, for he was more often away than in it during the exploration years in Garhwal, in North-west Nepal, and on the Everest reconnaissance with Shipton, finding the route up the Western Cwm by which the mountain was successfully climbed in 1953. Since 1969 he has led four trekking trips to Nepal, taking people to 18,000 feet, so he can hardly be said to be a stay-at-home even now.

He believes that it is important for a writer to get about. While a working writer certainly has the advantage over others of being relatively unaware of high rainfall and restricted, views, he nevertheless requires the stimulus of change if he is to keep writing.What of writing as a way of life after 20 books since 1947?
“I’d never advise anyone to take it up as a career. You can earn a lot more with very much less mental stress if you work for an employer. Personally, I never worried until inflation started, but full-time writing is no longer economically viable by itself. You have to keep your mind in a money-earning groove, so one cannot write what one likes. To me the most enjoyable form of writing is fiction, using one’s creative imagination, but unless you hit the jackpot the return from it in Britain doesn’t justify it. You must have American sales. Of my six thrillers, two were not worth writing from the financial aspect.

“The chief pleasure for me of being a writer is the sharing of experience with a wider public, of events from which I have derived great enjoyment. A non-fiction book takes me two years to write, and I find the hardest aspect the planning of it. Once you have got this out of the way it’s the library work that takes the time. The county library service is very good, but you have to spend days in Glasgow and Edinburgh filling loose-leaf notebooks with notes.

“For books like The Islands of Western Scotland, The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland, The Hebrides, and my most recent one, The Scottish Highlands I get advice from experts on what to read about their subject, be it geology, archaeology or whatever. Then when I have written the stuff I send it to them for vetting.
“Looking back, I have no regrets. I think I have had a good life doing what I have done since I have no talent for any other occupation. Medicine is something I might have gone in for …”
He left that statement unfinished, and I remembered how in the Himalaya he had devoted a lot of time to doctoring the sick who came to our camps. His two best-selling books to date are The Story of Everest, published in the year of the first ascent—a tale of the mountain from its first sighting to its eventual conquest. It sold 30,000 copies, and went into eight foreign translations. His Companion Guide is running second now at over 20,000 and still selling.
On the outstanding beauty of the Highland scene…
One of the more abstract jobs he undertook was to make a survey of the North for the National Trust for Scotland, resulting in a book called Highland Landscape, identifying the regions of supreme landscape value. It meant walking over the ground and assessing it against his personal experience of the territories over a period of 30 years.
In his conclusion he writes :

“The outstanding beauty of the Highland scene, which is one of the nation’s great natural assets, has been haphazardly expended and no account kept. The wasting away of this asset is bound to continue and to accelerate unless discrimination and control arc brought to bear by some body created for the purpose and granted powers by the Government, so that checks and safeguards may be instituted. If action to that good end be not taken now, the Scottish people will lose by neglect what remains of their natural heritage.”

Well, a body was formed, the Countryside Commission, and Bill Murray has been a member of it for 10 years. Alas, however, it is not an organisation of real power. Its work is mainly inspirational, and in the end it is the local authorities which call the tune. But Bill has made his voice heard, which is the reason why he is Chairman of the Scottish Countryside Activities Council, representing 30 organisations and 400,000 countryside users.
Until recently, he was Chairman of the Mountaineering Council for Scotland, which is the voice of all mountaineers to Government, and to all others having responsibility for mountain land. It works in partnership with the British Mountaineering Council of which Bill was vice-president. In addition to that he was President of the SMC from 1962-64.

“I had to give up some of these posts because I wasn’t getting enough time for writing or climbing. They’ve been very good for me. I’ve learned a lot and know the value of the work that has to be done if right decisions affecting the Scottish countryside are to be made. There are whole areas of Argyll where no conservation principles are being put into effect, and that includes Lochgoilhead.”

Buchaille Etive Mor remains his most loved mountain. He also has, in his garden, a steep face of rock which even by the easiest way gives a severe problem that a few good climbers have failed to solve. Bill can still do it, “Because I know the holds,” he confesses. Nowadays he seeks out more moderate climbs when he goes to the Buachaille, and winter ascents are by the easier gullies cutting steps in the old way. Not for him the modern style. “If I were starting again I would be all for the special tools and techniques which enable you to climb steep ice as if you were on rock.
“To do it you need a lot of practice. But I have my reservations. Hamish Maclnnes says it has taken a lot of fun out of winter climbing. My own view is that earlier climbers probably got a bigger kick with nothing more than nailed boots and axes than the modern generation get with advanced aids. And when you think of it, the pioneers who did the classic winter climbs on Nevis, Glencoe and other places published astonishingly little detail about the routes. They minimised the difficulties which must have been considerable.”

On mountains the need for constant vigilance on steep places is the hardest lesson to remember, and the one which even the best climbers forget at the cost of their lives. The danger is part of the fun. It breeds self-reliance, though Bill is sure the mountains cannot be used for character-building, for something goes astray the moment you try to organise.

Bill Murray is extremely glad that he started off alone, finding his own way. ” I am sure I would have lost half my enthusiasm if I had been led by a qualified instructor.” He joined a club when he was ready for it, and there met the team-mates who formed the strongest climbing partnership of the ’30’s. He regards the clubs as being “Mountaineering’s essential backbone—a framework on which tradition and development naturally hang and grow.”

Tom Weir: 1977. First published as 'Murray's Way' in The Scots Magazine.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Making of 'The Bat and the Wicked'

Stills from the Bat and the Wicked: Climbers Brian Hall and Rab Carrington
Predictably the first drop of rain splattered the windscreen as we left the M6 and crossed the Scottish border. Ahead, the lowering clouds promised more rain. Not for the first time I questioned the wisdom of going ahead with a project that could prove to be an embarrassing waste of money. The Yorkshire Arts Association had given us a substantial grant to make a film reconstructing the first ascent of The Bat on Ben Nevis, a climb immortalised in Robin Smith's classic article The Bat and the Wicked - recently reprinted in Games Climbers Play. The five of us involved, Rab Carrington, Brian Hall, Paul Nunn, Tony Riley and myself, had only one week together in the whole of the summer in which to shoot the film, and that was the first week in August, notoriously one of the wettest times of the year.

I had first approached Rab at Easter and asked him if he would be interested in acting/climbing the part of Robin Smith. His enthusiasm for the project was tempered by two things: having to fall off in front of a camera, and the prospect of shaving his beard and having his hair cut in 1959 style, when the film was to be set. Rab voiced his misgivings the day before he went soloing at Froggatt. Visiting him in the Hallamshire Hospital the following evening as he nursed a broken wrist and knee, I couldn't help feeling that he had taken the audition a little too seriously.

But Rab is incredibly determined and by rigorous training he managed to get himself fit in time for Scotland. His second objection was conclusively overruled by Sue, whose desire to see her husband immortalised on the silver screen resulted in such a drastic change in his appearance that Keith Myhill talked to him for ten minutes in the Moon without recognising him! Brian Hall, who was to play the role of Dougal Heston, was shamed into sub-mission in Fort William where an equally ruthless transformation took place. Before we left for the Ben we visited Hamish MacInnes in Glencoe, ostensibly to ask the Old Fox for advice, but in reality to borrow as much rope as we could lay our hands on, for it was obvious that the project was an almost expedition-sized target and a lot of gear would be needed. He also supplied us with an antique pair of PAs that he had loaned Robin Smith for the original ascent. This seemed a good omen and driving back to Fort William it actually stopped raining.

Surveying the mountain of film and climbing gear to be carried up the Alit a'Mhuilinn, Rab observed caustically that it was more than the total taken to climb Jannu the previous year. The addition of camping gear made it even worse for we had been refused permission to use the CIC but on the grounds that film-making caused "gross inconvenience to the hut users". This was a strange point of view considering that we were trying to make a film about two of the most distinguished members of the SMC and that the hut was locked and empty on four out of the five nights we spent on the Ben. Presumably the "gross inconvenience" would have been to ourselves, but it was hard to accept that as we foundered up through the bogs with huge rucksacks twice in the same day. (For all those like me who find the walk to the hut gruelling in winter, I can offer the consolation that it is even worse in summer.

Tuesday morning saw us sorting out the shambles of film and climbing gear and carting it up to the foot of Carn Dearg Buttress to start work. Past experience had shown Tony and me that the early stages of a film are inevitably disjointed and contrived, but amazingly everything flowed from the start. With no previous filming experience Brian and Rab needed surprisingly little guidance.

 The major problem was the climb itself, still soaked from days of rain and drying much slower than our time would allow. Even the first straightforward pitch of Centurion needed some furtive "modern" protection inserted by Paul, whose job it was to supervise the climbing scenes and make sure that nobody killed themselves in a misplaced devotion to the cause of Art. Paul's efforts over the week in rigging stances removed the need to worry about anything except getting the shots right, and he put in a huge amount of unseen work in ensuring that everything ran smoothly. We came down in the evening delighted to have filmed the route as far as the bottom of the Hoodie Groove, a blank corner perched over the bottomless slabs and overhangs between Centurion and Sassenach. Rab and Brian had abseiled down a single rope over the huge roof of Sassenach.

We could therefore jumar up it next day without having to repeat the long traversing pitches across from Centurion. This proved to be more awkward than we thought, for after only one ascent Paul found the rope fraying badly on the lip of an overhang. He fixed a three hundred foot top rope to protect subsequent ascents, but as the fixed rope hung almost completely free it was perpetually spinning itself around the top rope, causing wild de-spinning tactics before a few feet of height could be gained. As one gained height the close-up view of Sassenach one second, and the distant view out over the Cam Mor Dearg Arete the next, was enough, as Tony said, to persuade those who see jumaring as a soft option to stick to leading their E5s! There was no room for both Tony and me at the bottom of the Hoodie Groove, so Tony filmed from the ground while I squatted in a cocoon of rope filming Brian as he attempted to lead the groove in its original form — by lassoing a sling on a tiny spike on the left wall, which is probably harder than doing it free. I had visions of using vast quantities of film as he failed to loop the sling but luckily he managed it after only three or four attempts.

By the time he and Rab had climbed the groove we had taken all day to film a mere forty feet of climbing. Our euphoria of the previous day was further diminished by the appearance of the great corner above; the whole film depended on climbing the thing. It was still streaked with water and covered in brown fungus of indeterminate origin. That evening we had a rethink of tactics and decided that Brian and Rab should go up on their own and "ascend" the corner by fair means or foul, unencumbered by us filming. Tony and I would stay at the bottom and get whatever long shots were possible, while Paul would go down to Fort William to buy more food in case we needed to stay on another day or two, and a bottle or two of something which we needed anyway. The weather throughout our stay was behaving in a most peculiar manner.

It never actually rained on Cam Dearg but apparently was doing so almost everywhere else in sight. Every evening it would clear as if by magic to produce quite nauseatingly beautiful sunsets. Rab found the amount of still and movie film exposed quite hilarious and decided it was all a plot by Kodak to boost their profits. Thursday passed according to our new plan and Friday saw us assembled at the foot of the Buttress in varying degrees of tension. Brian and Rab had forced their way up the corner the previous day and knew what was in store for them. Paul went up the ropes first to the top of the corner to supervise the action and also take a camera to film downwards. It was Tony's turn to go up, while I would film from the ground using the big Arriflex camera. Brian and Rab were wearing full Troll body harnesses under their ancient and tatty anoraks and sweaters. With the old nylon ropes tied into them and then retied around their waists they looked suitably authentic, while at the same time minimising their chances of injury from what they were about to do.

 Unfortunately helmets were not used much in 1959, but we reckoned that the falls down the corner would be in space and head injuries were unlikely — we hoped. Before Tony set off he whispered_to me, "Would you throw yourself off up there —just to be in a film?" "No," I replied, trying not to sound long-winded. "Neither would I," he muttered as he launched off up the spinning ropes. Two hours later we were all set up. High above, Brian was at the point sixty feet up the corner where Haston had taken his famous fall: " a black and bat like shape came hurtling over the roof with legs splayed like webbed wings and hands hooked like a vampire "

"Everyone ready? Okay Brian, action!" For once the word meant what it said and after a moment's frantic scrabbling Brian parted company with the rock and hurtled down the corner — further than any of us had anticipated as he ended up only feet above Tony's lens. "Everything okay. God, that was impressive!" I felt sorry for Rab. Ever since his unplanned rehearsal at Froggatt I sensed he wasn't relishing the next few moments and Brian's fall couldn't have been too reassuring. Now he would have to go up and do it himself — twice! Another longer wait while belays and camera positions were sorted out before Rab, perched above the roof halfway up the corner, launched off into fresh air. 

Jimmy Marshall's classic shot of Robin Smith
His falls were shorter but seemed just as frightening, perhaps because they were over before the mind had time to register what was happening. I felt a huge weight off my mind; nobody hurt and all three falls on film. The rest was an anticlimax until Tony pulled off a stroke of genius by dropping a camera, suitably padded with foam rubber and polystyrene (unlike the climbers), down the corner to give a climber's eye view of the fall. The rest of the film was made in a haze of elation and shattered reaction to five days of non-stop and demanding work. On Saturday we finished, splashed down through the bogs for the last time and on Sunday awoke with hangovers to torrential rain sweeping the whole of Scotland. The gamble had paid off, but only just. 

Jim Curran: First Published in crags 24/April/May 1980.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Ukrainian overlords of the underworld

An 11-person team of Ukrainian cavers were wading through the snow on the way down from the Arabika massif in the western Caucasus on a January night. They had just descended the Krubera Cave to a depth of 1710 metres, thus breaking the world record. As they neared an avalanche zone above the tree-line, they split into two groups, so that if one was snowed under, the other would be able to attempt a rescue. Snow thundered down and the youngest member, Anatoli Povykalo, just 18, was overwhelmed. The others dug him out, unharmed. They spent the night in the forest, where hundreds of trees had been snapped off a few metres above the ground. Next day they reached the trail-head and were trucked out to triumphant receptions in Kiev and Moscow.

Some months later, I sat with six of the cavers in a garden sixty kilometres south of Kiev. Hazed sun shone mildly on Alexander Klimchouk’s house in the village of Grebenyi. Klimchouk is an authority on limestone aquifers and Senior Scientist of the Geological Institute at the National Academy of the Ukraine. He is a short, fit man in his early fifties with a dense bandido moustache, a speaker of lucid English and a fluent interpreter. From the outside his house looked deserted. One end was half built. A tin chimney poked through a plastic roof. On the northern gable, a 12 mm perlon rope was hanging, placed there so the Klimchouk family could practise single-rope technique, ascending and descending with jumar clamps. Alexander’s son was on the Krubera expedition.

His wife, Natalia, takes children underground from the age of four, including her own grandson. They go especially to the gypsum caves of Moldova, which are largely horizontal, and the second-longest system in the world after the Mammoth Caves in Tennessee. ‘The entrance to them is so tortuous and tight,’ she told me, ‘that we call it Chinese Communist Party.’ Inside the house, in an upstairs office with a bed in it for me, a caving archive is housed on grey metal shelves and cabinets. The wooden walls are covered with colour photos of limestone grottoes and finely printed maps of cave systems wriggling through the earth like intestines.

The garden where we sat eating whole salted fish brought by the team and pizzas baked by Natalia was disheveled end-of-summer. Tired marigolds drooped between patches of cabbage and salad. In the drought the well had failed, and Alexander slid twenty feet down in his caving harness to fix the pump. The Dnieper seemed unaffected by drought: on the way from Kiev Alexander had driven down a rutted clay track to show me the river. A straggle of bungalows ended in a fine villa, much better painted and curtained than any other house we passed; a burly caretaker lurked in a doorway: the British Ambassador’s out-of-town pad. The river powered slowly past, lazy currents ruffling its dove-grey and pearly surface.

The banks were thick with trees, with one hut among the bushes on the far side. Alexander likes to paddle across at night in a rubber dinghy and fish for catfish by torchlight. Beyond, the Ukraine stretched away in calm immensity. At the roadsides women offered buckets of earthy carrots and potatoes for sale. The fields are as scruffy as those of central Ireland fifty years ago because nobody has the capital to buy or hire agricultural machinery since the dissolution of the collective farms.

I wanted to know the attraction of the black and lifeless world undergound. Klimchouk and his colleagues liked the opportunity to travel, they told me; they enjoyed ‘extreme climbing’, which they had gone in for in the Carpathians when they were students; caving was ‘like geology’; it was romantic camping in the forest at night; it was good to go to absolutely untrodden places; it could be as beautiful underground as anywhere on the surface. Alexander also saw caving in its historical context: ‘Really, in the Soviet time, caving for us was a shelter. And things were well organised. Things were cheaper, and people could not lose their homes. We could make three expeditions to Central Asia. Now when you talk to people you see the dollar signs in their eyes. This bandit capitalism, they don’t do sponsorship. The businessmen throw away thousands in the casino.’ So the Ukrainian cavers set up a company called Paritet (‘Equality’) to carry out repairs on bridges and high buildings. The profits pay for expeditions.

 Alexander Klimchouk

The cavers didn’t interrupt each other. They listened closely, although much of this must have been mulled over dozens of times. The leader of the record-breaking team, Yuri Kasian from Poltava, was the spokesman (translated by Alexander). He was perhaps 35, tall and broad with healthy skin and introspective blue eyes. ‘Among cavers,’ he said, ‘it is bad form to discuss the furthest limits too openly. If you bring too much equipment, the cave will be scared, and stop. So the record was only almost openly discussed. Alexander had told us it could be a record. First we create a cave in our imagination.

Then by our efforts we create it to correspond.’ Both he and Alexander were intent on defining the ethos of caving, its special style and demands. ‘In mountaineering you know your goal – the peak is on the map. Cavers have not so much preliminary information – this comes with exploration. So, when we descend, we have no horizon we are making for – there is only an apparent horizon.’ The effect on logistics is crucial. If there is no known terminus, how much gear should be carried? They took 2000 metres of rope and 300 bolts. They also knew that if anything went wrong, they couldn’t be rescued.

It had been discovered that there was a continuous channel from the entrance to the Krubera at 2200 metres above sea level to the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Fluorescein dye put in at the top had resurfaced a fortnight later in a cliff spring that fed a rock pool on the Black Sea shore 20 kilometres away. (The world record is in Turkey, where dye reappeared 130 km away after 366 days.) A geologist called Kruber was the first to look for caves in the Arabika massif in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, Georgian cavers found an open-mouthed shaft and went 60 metres down before they were stopped by a squeeze that looked impassable. In the 1980s and 1990s Klimchouk’s team spent three seasons, with six people working every day for four weeks each year, attempting to force their way down between the jammed rocks and the wall of the shaft. The blockage went on for a hundred metres. ‘It was really terrible. The water trickling down is at 1.5° Celsius. We were drilling and planting charges for hours, day after day. For it to work, you must drill the hole in exactly the right place, then plug it thoroughly.’

By the autumn of 2000, ‘we clearly heard the “call of the abyss” and sensed the smell of extreme depth.’ They had reached 1410 metres and could feel no draught: it looked like a dead end. Removing the fixed ropes on his way up, Yuri found a crack leading to a passage that meandered, blocking the light from his torch. Might this be a way further down? They decided on a winter expedition, when everything above would be frozen and the waterfalls would have dried up. The cave mouth is on a ridge of mountain where rocks crop out above valleys of wild grass. Here in summer shepherds carry Kalashnikovs left over from Georgia’s war of independence from Russia, in case they have to use them in aid of Abkhazia’s current struggle for independence from Georgia.

It’s a dangerous place: as the cavers waited to cross into Abkhazia, among rooting pigs and cars with bootfuls of tangerines for sale, everyone assumed that they were drug smugglers. Finally, on 28 December the cavers were put down on the high snowfield by helicopter, and began digging out the entrance with shovels. In the unedited black and white film of the expedition, someone shouts, ‘Jump on it!’ when the caked snow won’t collapse. Two days later they brought in the millennium with champagne and fireworks. Five days of hard work followed, spidering down into the darkness of the big vertical pitches,wriggling through hundreds of metres of fairly level passageway. The rock was so sharply sculpted that it tore their boots.

A photograph shows Yuri and his wife Julia Timoshevskaya sitting in their nylon igloo tent, cooking and reading by the light of their carbide lamps, content in their frail bubble of blue fabric which glows like a lantern in the horned and groined imprisonment of the rock. ‘It was a dream cave, ideal,’ Yuri said.

 ‘What I like is lots of vertical pitches and as few meanders as possible. We found no great difficulties, just plenty of technical work, which is a pleasure for cavers.’ He came over as wonderfully cool. Describing a long abseil in the neighbouring cave, the Kubishevskaya, he said: ‘We were in the cosmos – in total darkness, rotating. It abolished fear, because there was no visible bottom to pitches, wriggling through hundreds of metres of fairly level passageway.

I could imagine, dimly, what this must have been like from my own experiences underground. I once crawled and downclimbed to the foot of the enormous chamber called Gaping Ghyll inside Ingleborough in Yorkshire, and stood on the shingle of a shallow river looking at the hole down which you can be winched by the Bradford Caving Club each Whitsun week. It is far higher above your head than a cathedral roof. A full moon was shining, making icy shimmers on the cascade that fell in pulses onto the stones at our feet. Quite different was a struggle into the other flank of Ingleborough, through a route called Millipede Crawl in Southerscales Pot.

The rock roof angled lower and lower. We walked crouching. We began to creep along on our knees. Sharp fallen stones bit into our legs. At the terminus we stood up inside a bell of rock, and looked down into a perfectly circular sump of perfectly still, perfectly black water.
In the great dark atrium in the Kubishevskaya, Yuri had walked for three hours round the edge of the chamber before realising that it might be very difficult to find the hanging rope-end which was his only way back out. When they reached a depth of 1710 metres in the Krubera, the cavers were dangling above a lake and had to throw a spare rope for some time before they managed to reach a beach. They could feel no draughts and boulders plugged all the visible exits, so they had to conclude that this was the end of that particular route.

There may be other ways to penetrate still lower in the Arabika. For the time being, however, the Ukrainian cavers are concentrating on a new possibility, in the Aladaglar massif in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Turkey. A difficult, even dangerous place, either above or below ground, it is also very beautiful. In one of their photographs of the mountainside, three white cascades burst and pour from three mouths all level with each other. The water enters the ground two thousand metres above, so there is a possibility of a new record descent here.

On the drive back to Kiev, Nikolai Soloviov, a veteran of 17 Arabika expeditions, curled up in the closed car boot to make room for me, and then climbed out in town grinning. He and Yuri showed me the old town where Bulgakov lived in an ornate brick house now adorned with a big black cat with a pink spotted bow-tie. We finished up in McDonald’s, the first in the Ukraine, opened in the 1990s to queues of thousands. It was my birthday, although I kept this to myself.

On the way to the airport we passed two cows on the motorway verge, herded by two women in drab coats and headscarves, wearing boots and talking hard to each other. Road-signs pointed to Kharkov and other places I remember from the war maps on which my brother and I drew red arrows in 1942 to plot the Nazi Army’s push for the Baku oilfields. One of the last trucks I saw before we turned off was from Barrow in Furness, 15 miles from where I live.

David Craig: A version of this article first appeared in the LRB