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Interview with Kateryna Medvedeva, a speleologist and caver
Kateryna Medvedeva from Kyiv is a speleologist and a caver. She was the first woman in the world to descend to a depth of more than 2,000 meters in a cave; she has won medals at championships, including the world championship in cave exploration techniques. She is also an accomplished photographer and traveler. Ms Medvedeva was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine senior editor.
Ms Medvedeva, first of all, let’s get the terms right.
Caving or spelunking is the recreational sport of exploring caves. In contrast, speleology is the scientific study of caves and the cave environment. Caving is often undertaken for the enjoyment of the activity or for physical exercise, as well as original exploration, similar to mountaineering or diving. Physical or biological science is also an important goal for some cavers.
The term “spelunker” is now generally used to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and “caver” for those who are.
So you are…
A speleologist — and a caver. Incidentally, last year, in a cave in Turkey the team of speleologists I was on discovered a glacier which is the oldest known to science. At a certain time in the distant past that part of the land must have been covered with ice and then somehow this ice has been preserved in that cave. At present, the glacier is being studied by scientists.
Speleologists practice the science of cave study which is termed speleology. It is subdivision of geology, and it has furthered our knowledge in mineralogy, hydrodynamics, archaeology, biology, and many other formal disciplines. Speleology is concerned with all aspects of caves and cave systems. It has contributed a lot to our knowledge of the geological history of our planet, and in its more pragmatic aspect, it provides vital data for construction projects which are carried out in the mountains.
If it’s a scientific discipline, how can you hold championships in it?
Championships are held in caving and its techniques, not in speleology as science. Cavers perform descents into the caves, or down steep slopes in imitation of going down into the caves. In Ukraine we’ve adopted the latter system of completions. The most recent caving techniques championship in Eastern Ukraine, for example, which was held in Kharkiv, used a drop under a bridge. I think people who happened to be crossing the bridge had a lot of fun watching the competitions.
Caving and competitions are a nice sport, which incidentally was practiced in the Soviet Union. But I think it is much more interesting to do cave exploration. As an official in speleology — I’m secretary of the Ukrainian Speleological Association — I make sure that we concentrate on cave exploration rather than on caving competitions. We run several speleology schools and training bases. We organize seminars and training in Crimea where about 500 caves have been already found and registered, and every year new ones are discovered.
Let’s go back to international caving techniques competitions. What actually do you compete in?
There are two basic categories in which we compete. One of them is called SRT — Single Rope Technique. Earlier, different kinds of equipment were used — two ropes, ladders and other things but now it is only SRT. The other category involves a test in which you, with the help of assistants who hold the ropes, are supposed to move vertically as fast as possible for 30 or 120 meters. These are two standard vertical distances. I’ve achieved good results in both.
It must take a lot of muscular power to achieve good results in caving.
It does, but it is also a team work. My assistants were my sister Halyna and Oleksiy Zhdanovych from Uzhgorod. That’s a Ukrainian national caving team for you. In the latest international SRT completion I won the silver medal. To achieve such a result I had taken a lot of training and preparation.
Are world championships something new?
Yes, they are. In fact, so far, there was only one world championship which was held in 2006. The second one is planned for the next year.
Where was it held?
In Spain, not far from the city of Seville. The legendary Spanish speleologist Sergio Garcia-Dils de la Vega, a member of the International Cave Exploration Team CAVEX, was instrumental in organizing the world championship. Incidentally, he studied in Moscow and speaks good Russian.
So you are the only woman who won medals at that championship?
Yes, I am. And I’m also the only woman who had descended to a depth of 2 kilometers in a cave.
Are there any other “firsts” that are memorable for you?
Yes, there are. In a cave in the Caucuses, Vakhushti Bagrationi, I managed to squeeze through a very narrow place — I had to work on it with my special hammer — and discovered that there was a well that went down for another hundred meters. I did not know right away how deep it was but I dropped a stone to gauge the depth. And also I heard the distant sound of running water. New caves or extensions of known caves keep being discovered — discovery is a great joy and excitement!
What is the standing of Ukrainian speleologists and cavers in the world?
Ukrainian speleologists were the first to explore Krubera (Voronya), the deepest cave in the world to a depth of 2080 meters in 2004. I was a member of that team. The cave is in the Caucasian mountains. Hennady Samokhin from Simferopol had to dive to get to the deepest point.
Even in well-explored caves there’s always a chance of finding a further extension, a new corridor, a well, so you’ve got to keep trying.
What about ecological considerations? How do cave exploration and caving effect the cave environment?
Badly. Many cave environments are very fragile. Many speleothems can be damaged by even the slightest touch and some by impacts as slight as a breath. Pollution is also of concern, since even the minor dropping of organic material can have a dramatic effect on the cave environment. Cave-dwelling species of animals are also very fragile, and often, a particular species found in a cave may live within that cave alone, and be found nowhere else in the world. Though cave wildlife may not always be immediately visible, it is typically nonetheless present in most caves.
Are the caves with particularly fragile environment or certain sensitive places in the caves marked in some way?
Some cave passages may be marked with flagging tape or other indicators to show biologically, aesthetically, or archaeologically sensitive areas. Marked paths may show ways around notably fragile areas such as a pristine floor of sand or silt which may be thousands of years old, dating from the last time water flowed through the cave. Such deposits may easily be spoiled forever by a single misplaced step. Active formations such as flowstone can be similarly marred with a muddy footprint or handprint, and ancient human artifacts, such as fiber products, may even crumble to dust under the touch of any but the most careful archaeologist.
So we do our best to do as little damage to the caves we explore as possible. Unfortunately, we’ve observed signs of pollution in many caves — pieces of ropes, telephone cables, bottles, dead batteries.
What triggered your interest in cave exploration?
Once, when I was fourteen, my parents and I travelled to Chatyr Dag in the Crimea to see some of the famous caves there. Those caves are major tourist attractions, to which guided tours are organized. I was so impressed by what I saw that upon my return home, I found a hobby group that did some amateur speleology and cave exploration. My instructor there was Tamara Krapyvnikova and she supported my cave-exploration enthusiasm. It was the start of my speleological career.
So what was your first speleological experience?
The first deep cave I went into was Optymystychna in the Land of Ternopilshchyna. Both vertical and horizontal cave explorations are exciting but I prefer vertical descents. You’ve got to learn a lot of skills, including blasting your way through with explosives. And I like to prepare the route for others to follow.
In recent decades caving has changed considerably due to the availability of modern protective wear and equipment. It is sometimes referred to as an “extreme sport” but is not commonly considered to be as such by its practitioners, who dislike the term for its perceived connotation of disregard for safety. If you do all the things right, there’s very little risk. Or let’s put it like this — there are some risks involved in caving but they can be minimized if you plan everything well enough.
Have there been any situations in your caving career which were really dangerous — or funny?
Dangerous? Not really. Funny? I really don’t know… Cave exploration is a very exciting occupation but also very exhausting at times. If, say, you have to negotiate a long and narrow passage which takes a lot of effort, concentration and perseverance, and then when you finally do get through and discover a new well or a new corridor, you may be so tired that the joy of this new discovery will not overwhelm you at first — it’ll come some time later.
What are your favorite pastimes — apart from exploiting caves, of course?
I don’t have much leisure time left from my work and my trips, but I do some bicycling and Alpine skiing whenever I can. I like photography and maybe it’ll become soon my major occupation. I do a lot or reading, often at the expense of sleeping… And I am a sort of gourmet — I love to enjoy good food!
Are you planning to take part in the next world championship if it is held?
I sure am, but I think it’ll be the last competition in which I’ll take part. I’m a woman after all, and women have other things to do in life — no less exciting, I can assure you, than cave exploration.
Photos are from
Kateryna Medvedeva’s archives
At the seminar held in a cave at Plateau Karabi.
Exploring caves is an exciting experience —
“but it’s very cold in there!”
Kateryna Medvedeva at the championship in Seville.
Halyna Medvedeva, Oleksiy Zhdanovych, Kateryna
Medvedeva who made up the National Team of
Ukraine at the speleological and caving
championship in Seville, Spain. They won
three gold medals, four silver medals
and one bronze medal.