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No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano

Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.

Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.

Freedom!

That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.  

The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving. 

At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere  in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment. 

I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.

The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead. 

However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by  the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it,  the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).

My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions. 

I managed to see  a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.

The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What  follows here is the first episode of the trip.

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go. 

I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.

I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.



Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.

The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping  the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her. 

After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had  an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!

Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren. 

Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross  the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters  from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.

On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I  played a new playlist. 

Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted,  but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day. 

The Road To Suha Dolca 

I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!


I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.

Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and  driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.

My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.

Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.

I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.  

The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.


The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave. 

I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.

I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains. 

At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and  Italy was straight ahead.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

Cave

A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR

Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.

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by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert

“To err is human” Alexander Pope

In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.

Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.

Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.

The ultimate dream of becoming a cave diver accessible for all? Photo by Marissa Eckert.

Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.

By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.

[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]

So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.

How do we handle tricky situations? Photo by Mirsoslav Dvoracek

The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.

Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:

Kit

Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.

Preparing the kit. Photo by Petr Chmel.

My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.

Safety

The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!

Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.

Penetration stress can occur within only a few meters. Photo by Kathrine Livins.

I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact). 

To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.

Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:

  1. PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
  2. Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
  1. Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
Lights are an integral part of safely experiencing a cave. Photo by Kathrine Livine.

Teamwork

As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.

Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.

Know where you are and where you’re going. Photo by Miroslav Dvoracek.

Pre-Dive Checks

These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]

Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:

  1. Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
  2. Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!


Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!

Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.

References:

 Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.

Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729

Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.

Additional Resources:

The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr

Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)

Facebook Pages/Groups:

Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING

Diving Educators – Teaching and Learning Techniques (Group)

Human Factors in Diving

Web pages:

www.mattjevon.com

www.swt.ie

www.thehumandiver.com


Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”

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