Interview #1 – Marko Rakovac, Croatia

“Interview” is caving club “Pod RB” initiative dedicated to discussions with cavers from all around the world. What they share about their life above and under the ground, their caving experience, stories, dreams and future plans you can find in the following lines…

Tell us something about yourself in terms of speleological experience. 

I was born in 1989, graduated high school and later University and more specifically Faculty of Law. Although I am from Porec (a touristic town on the Northern coast of the Adriatic sea), I prefer mountains over sea, this is supported by the fact that I learned skiing before knowing how to swim. I joined mountain club Velebit in 2010 and since then I have been actively caving. 

Velebit siphon – 1290m. Photography by Copy Luka Havlichek

How you started dealing with speleology and why are you still doing it? 

My brother made me particularly interested in one book and I read it, the book is called ‘Put’ from Nejc Zaplotnik (Sloveninan alpinist with Himalayan experience). This is what inspired me to go outdoors. Indeed, I wanted to become an alpinist but due to all spots in the course being taken, a friend of mine had convinced me and I have signed up for a cave course. Back then I had no idea about caves, nor speleology, all I wanted to cover my exams at the University and to have a group of friends to spend the weekends together. I am caving from the beginning of my studies at the University and for the last 10 years I am pretty active. There are numerous reasons. I would single out the fact that in the club (Velebit) I have found my second family that was always there for me, providing me with the needed support, fun and at the end of the day provided me with many chances that formed me as a person. Back then, I was a young person who was taking responsibilities, for example, I was president of the cave section of the club, expedition leader and instructor at the courses, I had a feeling that I can achieve a lot in my life and have started to respect others and myself more. By taking responsibility we become free and the freedom is making us better people. All of these I want to somehow bring back to the club in which I operate and function.

Stefan and Marko at bottom of Slovacka Jama. Photography by Marko Rakovac

You are currently president of the Commission for Cave Rescue in Croatia. Can you tell us something more about the structure of Cave Rescue in Croatia, for example prevention, major accidents, education and courses, training and projects. 

Croatian Mountain Rescue Service (HGSS) is a non-profit, non political and volunteer organization, which is dealing with search and rescue in non urban areas, which includes speleological objects as well. Based on the Act of Mountain Rescue (HGSS) we are the only organization that executes such rescue activities. HGSS has some 1000 members out of whom 450 have courses for cave rescue, which is a part of the HGSS course of education. On the other side some 100 members are narrowly interested in rescue actions in caves and these are the members that form the core of the Commission for Cave Rescue. 

Apart from the main course for cave rescue, we have 5 more courses that are narrowly linked to specific fields in the cave rescue: support and aid to the injured party, leading cave rescue actions, leading cave rescue teams, cave rescue in cave diving and course for enlarganing narrow passages. Basically, everything that is needed for a positive outcome in the cave rescue.
On the other hand, each year, we organize seminars in self assistance and rescue for members of speleo clubs, during these seminars we teach them techniques for self help and reaction in case of cave rescue action.
Taking into consideration that most of the members of the Commission are active speleologists, during the cave meetings we have in Croatia, we present our activity to other speleologists. We aim at being open for discussions and for including other speleologists in the events and initiatives organised by the Commission.
Every year we organize big training exercises for rescue actions in complex and often visited caves, this way we get familiar with the cave, prepare rescue anchor points and eventually improve the rigging of the cave. 

The commission is an active member of European Cave Rescue Association (ECRA) and we often use this platform for exchange of knowledge and experience in cave rescue. One of our objectives is to create an European cave rescue module, which we would use in case of international cave rescue actions. Also, we are developing a new approach toward the course for team leaders in cave rescue, this course is combining the Italian and French rescue techniques. We hope that soon we will have an end product, which we will present at international level among the members of ECRA. The aim of this course is to have a small, strong and very capable team of cave rescuers with high levels of autonomy and operation. 

At the organizational shart is presented the progress of the participants in the cave. Photography by Marko Rakovac

Which area of research or which caves are most interesting to you? Share with us some numbers and details (depth, length, level of complexity, a brief exploration history and future plans). 

There are few interesting regions in Croatia, from which I have been mostly involved in the explorations of Southern and Northern Velebit. Northern Velebit has the deepest caves in Croatia (Lukina jama – 1441m, Slovacka jama – 1324m, Jama Velebita – 1024m). When participating in these explorations I have been many times in the company of Bulgarian speleologists, from which I have learned a lot and we are still cooperating, in caves exploration and with ECRA. I would even say that Bulgarian and Croatia speleologists are very similar in their way of thinking and have good understanding for each other. 

One of the ambitious aims of the Croatian speleology is to connect the big caves of Crnopac (Southern Velebit) in a cave system Crnopac (i.e. to connect the caves Kita Gacesina – Drazenova Puhaljka – Muda Labudova – Oaza). In a recent research in cave Oaza now there are only 22m distance left to Kita Gacesina and 22m to Muda Labudova. We are close and I hope that the cave mapping mistakes are reduced to minimum and the deviation in magnetic declination are also minimum. Although this is something that you can’t always avoid, especially in deep, long and complex caves. 

Lately I am often thinking about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its undiscovered capacity for speleological explorations. Bosnia and Herzegovina has an abundance of karst areas but is also cheap. Apart from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Julian Alps are close to us and I often go there. 

From the Alps I am most keen on exploring the Kanin plateau, from Italian or Slovenian side. Kanin offers cave exploration of deep caves and the possibility for their connection in big cave systems. We have great relations with the Slovenians and it is always a pleasure to go together in hard core speleological explorations. I really enjoy the Alps in the winter, when we often combine caving with ski touring (we use ski for approach to the caves). The most challenging deep cave in which I have ever been is Led Zeppelin, which is a long and narrow meander until depth of 700m, followed by spacious galleries until 1000m.  Other caves deeper than 1000m on Kanin, in which explorations I have participated in a few times, are Renejevo Brezno and Brezno Rumenega Maka (P4). I would love to visit the systems Črnelsko brezno and Mala Boka-BC4, one of the biggest traverses in the world (entrance is at 2000m above the sea level and exit is at 600m above the sea level). As far as other continents are considered, in the context of cave explorations, I would love to visit Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, China and Turkey. 

Semi siphon leading to -1320м, the deepest parts of Slovacka jama

Winter caving at Velebit

What is your approach toward new members of the cave rescue team in terms of preparation and training (examples, duration and accents of training, etc.)? 

The basic course for cave rescue lasts 8 days (divided in 3 weekends), which allows the participants to rehearse and repeat the newly acquired techniques during the week.  Taking into consideration that HGSS does not consist of speleologists only but of members that deal with different outdoor activities, at the course start the participants have to demonstrate safe work with rope and equipment, also the needed fitness levels. If these criteria are not met, one can always join the next year course, after better preparation takes place. 

Overall, the Commission is open for new members who want to invest in the development of the cave rescue, while the new and promising members are observed and stimulated to join our team. Every year we have a course of some 20 participants, who contribute to the instructors development. We invest a lot in the instructors team, each instructor must have finished a team leader course, also as a candidate instructor, one should first demonstrate different techniques under the observation of a more experienced instructor. This is why we have instructor seminars, when we agree on who is going to present what at the course.  

From left to right: Marko Rakovac – Raki, Luka Havlichek – Lukitsa, Anelia Pavlova, Branko Jazlic – Bancho. Photography by Raki

If you have experience with incidents in caves, would you share this with us, so other speleologists can learn from your experience? What would be your advice in case of such incidents? 

We are always in a certain risk zone, as if we weren’t, we would never get attached to a rope and explore the underground. As a rule, this needs to be an acceptable risk, which would mean that we need to go as far as our limits allow it and then just a bit more (the so called, limits pushing), so we can progress in speleology. This would mean to get out of our zone of comfort, but to a degree that the ‘lack of comfort’ is ‘comfortable’ for us, while we always have control over the situation. For me personally, it was helpful to have the cave rescue experience, as I could easier foresee the risks, which I would accept. Also, the less experienced participants in such events would feel better in my company. 

The biggest (the most likely) hazard for us as speleologists, apart from the water (floods and occurence of waterfalls), comes from falling rocks. In this aspect we should always be ready (and trained) to take care of a mate speleologist, by taking him down from the rope system and to render first aid until the arrival of the rescue team. 

Human life is the most important thing and is not responsible to get into a speleological adventure without being prepared, i.e. technique wise and some preventive measures. 

We are often rushing, naively thinking that we will manage to finish all tasks on time, also during longer underground stays we tend to ‘swap day for night’.  On some occasions this is not good for our bio rhythm, which we follow in our daily life, as it is impacting the efficiency of our explorations. We forget that the best speleology is the one in which, apart from having fun, has tangible and high quality results, with which the whole club can be proud of, the same also makes the club more mature. The problem is in the fact that the speleologists are quite relaxed type of people and often are not in great rush to leave the bivouac and this often lasts until noon ( we sleep long hours, have coffee and prepare breakfast, go to toilet, followed by long time for a second coffee, preparing and sorting the needed equipment, etc.). I am always recommending that we dedicate more time in thinking about organizational matters and thus we would reduce the meaningless waste of time. Once we have followed these and achieved the set tasks,  we can have fun and relax. 

The expedition leaders, Vlado and Marko, plan the explorations teams. Photography by Lachezar Mladenov

What have you learned through dealing with speleology? 

Speleology teaches us that with hard work we can achieve many things, this is especially important in the current consumerism mentality, when many of the younger generation are used to get things done by one mouse click. 

The feeling and the reward from discovering kilometers long galleries, after long working hours for enlarging a narrow passage, although many have told you that there is nothing, is  priceless. We have to talk and listen less as we all tend to often do these, work is the only important thing in this activity. Uniqueness is achieved through taking responsibility, for ourself, for others and for the environment. This is why I encourage all people, who want to become better speleologists, with the following message:  don’t wait for others to do these for yourself. Organize an exploration activity, do the thing from which you fear most (or you doubt you can) – equip a spit, make a cave survey or apply for participation in an international expedition! With knowing more people and having more experience you will become a better speleologist. 

Part of participants in the Bulgarian-Croatian expedition Slovacka Jama 2019. Photography by Marko Rakovac

Would you like to share something more with us? 

I am inviting you to our North Velebit expedition during the summer (2019).
All the best and have safe caving with many new meters of explored galleries!

Marko Rakovac – Raki 

Link to Facebook page, Speleo Section fo Velebit: https://www.facebook.com/sovelebit/
Link to Facebook page, Commission of Cave Rescue, Croatian Mountain Rescue: https://www.facebook.com/KSHGSS.CRCCMRS/

Note: The interview was received on 15.05.2019.

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