Sheffield Students are first to explore undiscovered Greek caves

Photo: Cave Photo 1
Rob Eavis – Hades

Pioneering explorers from Sheffield University have become the first people in the world to enter a vast underground cave network on the Greek island of Crete. The six-strong caving team descended more than 550 metres below ground to discover a vast hidden cavern the size of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

All are present or former members of the Sheffield University Speleological Society and have been exploring the area for the last four years, on several expeditions. The cavers had to negotiate hundreds of metres of dark, cramped and treacherous limestone tunnels, with no idea what might confront them around the next corner and no hope of rescue should they make a mistake.

 

They have now revealed a network of more than 350 uncharted caves in the Mavri Laki region of the White Mountains. The team was led by Rob Eavis, 25, who first heard about the network in 2005 while attending a caving conference in Athens. He became determined to discover its secrets, first visiting the area in 2006 with a party of around 20 students. The breakthrough came last year, when his group found an intriguing deep shaft, which they named ColoSuss – in reference to the university society.

Photo: Cave Photo 2
Grigoris Anastassopoulos – Colosuss

Rob, who has been caving since he was five years-old and lives in Tideswell, Derbyshire, vowed to return this year to explore the system properly. The team of six worked in two groups of three, taking it in turns to descend into the shaft and map the caves while their colleagues slept. The huge volume of crevices, chambers and holes in the ground led them to believe a master chamber existed somewhere below the surface. After weeks of clambering and squeezing, their belief was confirmed when they discovered a huge underground vault and couldn’t see the floor.

“We thought we had found the master chamber when the team dropped me into a cave and I reached 213 metres down but we had to turn back to catch our flight home,” said Rob. “It was a little agonising feeling like we had found something big but had to leave it because of a booked flight. “They had lowered me to a quarter of a kilometre under and I was just dangling there looking down into a black void. My torchlight was just disappearing into nothing and it was impossible to see the floor. Turning back was very difficult but we decided to return as soon as we could.”

The latest expedition to the Crete system reached its climax at the beginning of July. In the end, the round trip to the deepest cave – a 60-metre high cavern more than half a kilometre below the surface which the team dubbed Final Destination – took about 16 hours. “It’s such a thrill to walk down a passage and not know what’s round the corner,” Rob said. “But it’s even more of a thrill when you realise that no one has ever known what’s round the corner, and that you’re about to find out. It could be anything: a massive chamber, beautiful streamways – it’s such a buzz.”

Making exploration even more difficult was the remote area where the mouth of the cave was located – it was three hours’ walk from the nearest track and seven hours journey from any. A lack of rainfall meant that water had to be gathered by hanging a tarpaulin in a nearby cave and catching the drips, or by hauling it up the 150 metre entrance shaft. Another member of the team, 29- year-old Robbie Shone, said exploring the Final Destination cavern had been the icing on the cake after four years of hard work. “But mapping and surveying this subterranean system was also crucial to the expedition’s success. There’s no point going away on these expeditions and not returning home with a map and photographs to prove what you’ve found,” he added. The team later found that only one other team of cavers had ever visited the White Mountains region – in 1982. They, too, were from Sheffield University but experienced little success.

This article first appeared in the Sheffield Star on Saturday 1 August 2009.