Interview #12 – Teodor Kisimov, Bulgaria

“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 and your experience in speleology?

I am already 46 years old and I grew up in Ruse by the Danube – far from all the mountains. My first contact with the mud in caves, although quite accidental, was around 30 years ago. At the time, I had no idea that I would continue to wallow underground for so long. I also like to climb rocks and try to balance, between caves and climbing. Climbing helps me a lot for my physical preparation and my more confident movement in the cave environment. Naturally, as a young man, I had dreams of going to a higher peak, to a deeper cave, and I am grateful to fate for the opportunities it has given me.

How did you start with speleology and why are you still doing this type of activity?

As a student, accidentally came across a “traveler’s club” that organized hikes in the valley of the Rusenski Lom river and its feeders, near my home town. So I saw the magnificent rocks rising along this river and I was amazed by this vertical world. By the fire in the evening I was listening to stories from the more experienced about sailing on the Danube and climbing rocks. Due to the circumstances, I could not join them and learn to climb with an alpine rope, but I vowed myself not to miss another opportunity. Such didn’t present itself, but one day I learned about a beginner’s course at the local “Cave Club” and decided to join. So, in search of rock climbing, I ended learning cave technics and hang on ropes by the rocks. A year later I finished a mountaineering course, as well.

At the bottom of Voronya, ‘Game over’ – 2080m, 2005

Which club or organization do you belong to? Share more about this club, organization, group of people.

I am a member of one of the oldest cave clubs in Bulgaria “Prista – Ruse” and I am proud of that. Our ancestors achieved amazing things with primitive equipment, often with homemade. I respect them immensely! 

Nowadays we have everything we need as equipement in our inventory, but doesn’t that make us lazier and inert!?

We know that you have participated in many international expeditions. Tell us more about it, for example: how manycaves deeper then thousand have you been to, which countries and massifs have you visited, which was the most exciting trip? Your favorite  team you worked with? Most challenging exploration site?

As a new caver, I read everything I could find on the topic. I was especially impressed by the stories about the Bulgarian cave expeditions in the deepest abysses of their time. I really wanted to be able to take part in one such, but it seemed unlikely to happen. Time passed and in the beginning of 2004 there was an opportunity to go for the first time to a precipice deeper than 1000m. This was Cehi 2 (-1502 m) the deepest in Slovenia. We gathered a team of four very enthusiastic friends and after some vicissitudes and thanks to our Slovenian guides we managed to rappel to around -1170 m. 

That same summer, another excellent opportunity arise – an invitation from the Turkish club “Bumak” for an expedition to the deepest Turkish cave – Peynirlikonu Dudeni / EGMA / (-1377 m). We left Bulgaria with a team of eight – most of us young and inspired to see what a “deep abyss” is all about. Unfortunately, three years earlier, a Turkish caveman, Memet Ali Ozel, had died in a flood during a previous expedition there. The purpose of our expedition was to pull out the remains of his body and continue exploring. We succeeded and after three years Memet’s relatives could finally bury their beloved. The depth of EGMA increased to 1429m. For me personally and I guess for the rest of the team that was a memorable expedition which will remain in the minds of all of us. All Bulgarians became even closer friends and found Turkish comrades with whom we continue to explore the Turkish caves in the following years.

Exiting Voronya in 2013

Nothing happens by chance, I’ll share an interesting fact: after our return to Bulgaria, I read on the Internet a report on the return of a Ukrainian expedition from the Kuzgun precipice in the Aladalar Mountains (Turkey). As part of an expedition, the Ukrainians had managed to explore the cave from a depth of 400m. to 1400m. and with this result Kuzgun became the deepest in Turkey! I had to disappoint them that with the updated depth of 1429m. EGMA is still the deepest in Turkey and now in Asia. The same team of Ukrainians in the autumn of 2004 for the first time in history crossed the barrier of 2000m. depth of Kruber-Voronya in Abkhazia! It became my personal goal to go there, but also the goal of BFS(Bulgarian Federation of Speleology), which managed to organize the participation of a bulgarian team in the Ukrainian expedition in 2005. After a selection conducted by BFS, four bulgarians were selected – Konstantin Stoilov, Svetlomir Stanchev, Orlin Kolov and myself. We met the team of ukrainians and russians, some of them had serious experience in exploring the Caucasus precipices, such as the leader Yuri Kasyan, Gena Samokhin and Tatiana Nemchenko. There were also the cavers from “Perovo – Speleo”, the future researchers of Verevkina Pavel Demidov and Zhenya Kuzmin. During this expedition I learned a lot about how to make your stay in a cave comfortable and gained invaluable experience in organizing expeditions in alpine environment.

The difference in scale and standards of work shocked us at first. Our group of five people had to carry twenty nine bags with us to the cave! Seven of them with diving equipment. We got help from the others untill we reached 1200m. but still we had to go down the rope with six or even more bags on ourselves. You can’t help but be shocked, by then we never had to carry more then two bags. Kasyan’s words remain in my head: “85% of the time in speleo expeditions you transport bags”. But as we know, everything depends on the mental setting and this expedition changed for me. Unfortunately, a flood in the cave thwarted our plans to dive into the final siphons of the cave, but we managed to reach the lowest point in the cave at the time, the “Game over” hall (-2080 m).

In 2008 during the European Speleo Forum in Vercors, France, we had the opportunity to descend to the bottom of Gufr Berge (-1122m.), the first vertical cave in which the 1000m. barrier was crossed in depth. I was very excited to be in this legendary place, which will remain forever in the history of speleology and in this case in the company of good friends.
At the end of the same year I received an invitation to join an expedition to another legendary cave “Snezhnaya-Mezhonaya-Illusion” (-1753m.) in Abkhazia. The goal was to enter from the highest entrance – Illusion, to explore the bottom and ascend back. We were lucky to get near the entrance located at around 2400m. with an Abkhazian military helicopter. I met again Yuri Kasyan and other excellent russian and ukrainian cavers.
For me personally, this is the most difficult and complex cave I have been to. On the way to the bottom you have to pass through countless underground obstacles with endless ascents and descents, swimming in rivers and lakes and more. The complexity of the underground terrain did not allow us to carry more than three bags and because of that we had to carry our luggage between camps two days in a row. It took us thirteen days to get to our last camp in “Hall X”. We had eigth days left to ascend and all we had left for actual research was four to five days. Apart from physical, this was a serious psychological problem for each of us. This was my longest stay underground, 25-26 days. There were difficult and dangerous moments, also momments of joy, new discoveries, despair and happines of the time of exit. We appropriately welcomed the new year 2009 with Santa Claus, gifts, fireworks, but the biggest gift was the discovery made by Al. Degterev, Tanya Nemchenko and Petya.

Exiting Izuliya, the highest entrance to the system Sneznaya-Mezonaya-Iluziya, January 2009

The helicopter dropping us off at the sea shore

They managed to find a way through the biggest blockade called “Metrostroy” to the biggest “Throne Hall” and many new parts after it. On the first day of the new year, our group led by Yuri Kasyan discovered “Lake Morozov”. This turned out to be the end point for the expedition, as the next day we had to take the long way back to the surface. We had eaten most of the food and with a fewer bags we moved to a new camp every day.

Succeded going out as planned and called the helicopter to pick us up. Each of us longed to see the sun, but it was hidden behind thick clouds. That same clouds prevented the helicopter from reaching us. We heard his engine and willing to guide it set fire to a pair of boots, but the engine noise kept moving away. The pilot informed us in very businesslike manner that in these conditions he would not be able to land and we would have to wait until the next day. 

Without tents and winter equipment, we had to return to the nearest underground camp, just after the entrance narrow passages. The next morning we packed our bags, again and quickly went outside just to see the heavy snowfall. The snow cover was thick and the conversation with the pilot only confirmed our suspicion. According to him, the forecast for next week was bad and it was not clear when they would be able to take us home. This was a turning point for all of us.

Most of us had plane or train tickets and my visa expired in a day. With bad news, we descended back into the cave. The most desperate of us, Radik decided to stay outside and monitor the situation. And the miracle happened. It stopped snowing around noon. Our scout quickly called us and we gathered most of our luggage at breakneck speed and climbed the rope as fast as possible. Shortly before the exit, the movement of the chain of people slowed down and then stopped. We started asking each other what was going on. We knew that the first ones had to dig the snow out of the entrance and dig up the equipement around it. In addition to going outside, we had to climb the slope to the nearest ridge, where the helicopter could land. This had to happen in a very short time, otherwise we would have missed this opportunity. Time passed slow, and it seemed like an eternity. The first three, after clearing the entrance to the cave, went to make a path in the snow. The accumulated fresh snow, the steep slope and the weight of the three created an avalanche, which again covered the entrance of the cave.

Fortunately, the avalanche didn’t took its toll, just frightened souls. They uncovered the entrance again and Petya came down to inform us. He had lost his helmet and other pieces of equipment in the snow. We were glad everything went fine but the clock was ticking and there was no time for more emotions. We left the cave as fast as possible and climbed the avalanche path to the ridge.

Our wet suits quickly froze on our bodies and the gloves stuck to the skin of our hands. Visibility was good and the helicopter successfully landed. After 15 minutes he left us on the Black Sea coast near the train station. None of us could believe it had happened. Out of joy, some jumped straight into the winter sea. It was even more incredible that we managed to catch the train and my visa didnt expire.

Snezhnaya is a legendary cave and training ground for all cavers from the former USSR with nearly 100 expeditions before ours. According to russian cavers, no one had bothered to take their own rubbish out of the cave, and it was considered natural to leave it inside. Accordingly, the scale of the rubbish piles was huge and that was the most disguisting thing I saw there. Our expedition was the first of many to take attemp cleaning the cave, and I’m proud of that. In addition, after more than 25 years, there were new discoveries at the bottom of Snezhnaya, something that will surely remain in the history of it’s research!

I think 2013 was the most successful year in my cave career. In July I took part in an expedition to the Turkish cave Kuzgun (-1400m.). According to the ukrainians, the conditions there are more severe than in Kruber-Voronya (excluding the siphons) and I seem to agree with them. This is the muddier cave I’ve ever been to. The grips slid terribly hard on the ropes and made ascending the rope torturous. The accumulated mud on our suits, in addition to adding weight, also severely hampered the movement. The team of cavers was experienced but we could not find a continuation of the cave. Only a week after I returned from Kuzgun, my good friend Konstanti Stoilov and Plamen Spilkov left for an expedition to Kruber-Voronya.

The main purpose of the expedition was to catch a fish that diver Gena Samokhin noticed a year earlier in the final siphon “Two Captains”. At the same time there was an expedition in the neighboring system “Arabikskaya” (now connected with Kruber-Voronya) organized by our ukrainian colleges. The uulgarians decided instead of doing the standard acclimatization in Kruber-Voronya to go down to the bottom of Arabikskaya (-1100m.). We entered through the entrance of Guernica’s cave and with two nights in the intermediate camp we went down to the bottom. After that we focused on our main goal to catch the fish. I have the chance to be in the group that accompanies the diver Gena Samokhin through all the siphons to the last siphon “Two Captains”. We crossed this difficult road twice from the “Rebus” camp to the bottom, but we were not lucky enough to catch the fish, only a few insects. My new personally depth I descended, shifted from 2080m. to 2145m.

Exiting Cehi 2

In 2016, I received an invitation to participate in an expedition to explore the largest turkish cave “Panargozyu”. With its +720m. it’s the largest ascending cave in the world. I first heard about it in 2006, when my Turkish friends and I were in the same area of ​​Dedegyol Mountain in the Kuyukule precipice (-832m.). Most of the caves in the area were explored in the late eighties by french cavers, but for turkish cavers they were “terra incognita”.

The entrance to Panargozyu is a spring of a mountain river and a little further in you find yourself in a narrow underground canyon, which you have to climb up. The movement is mainly by free climbing and very rarely a rope is used. I immediately made an analogy with Snezhnaya, where you also basically move by climbing up and down. The lack of rope and safety strains the senses and imperceptibly your strength disappears fast. We found new parts in a branch of the cave, which went down and after we ran out of ropes we stopped in front of a narrow path. This cave is definitely a challenge for every caver! 

During 2018, 2019 and 2020, I actively joined an international team to study the promising Morja cave on the Tashelli plateau in southeastern Turkey. It is located about five kilometers from the deepest cave in Turkey – EGMA (-1429m.) and the neighboring Chukurpanar (-1195m.). The entrance of Morja is higher by about 150m. During these expeditions together with other bulgarians we managed to change the known depth of the cave from around -500m. to -1270m. where we stopped in front of a system of siphons. Our belief in Morja’s potential was one, but nature had arranged things in its own way, and we can only follow it.

The sump at -1440m in Voronya, 2013

What did you learn through speleology?

I would not call myself a speleologist, but a caver. The conditions in the caves are quite different from those outside. The difficulties of the environment show very well the character of each one caught in the dark, cold, wet and narrow space. Its strengths and weaknesses. There is “filter”, if I can call it that. Many people end up into caves driven by their curiosity, but few continue to go back. Most who continue are a special breed of people, looking for something new. 

The study of the caves gives them the necessary field of action in this direction and, accordingly, the necessary motivation. But exploring caves is not an individual activity. We need a team and for me the best team is made of friends! Yes, your friends are not always the strongest physical cavers, but they are certainly the people you can trust the most. A good psychological climate for me is more important than the physical preparation of people. I think that’s the most important thing the caves have taught me!

Pinargozu, 2016

Do you have experience with accidents in caves, if yes, what would you share with other speleologists so that they can benefit from your experience? What is your advice to researchers in the event of an accident?

There are things that are common to all kinds of accidents: “Do not panic” – something that is difficult to achieve when a friend is injured. In general, I would advise everyone to play in advance in their minds what to do in case of an accident. This way you can easily find out how prepared you are for such a situation. Respectively to have the necessary resources (knowledge, equipment, first aid kit). Learn from the mistakes of others – inform yourself about real accidents and the reasons that led to them. One of the serious prerequisites for accidents during a longer stay underground is fatigue. Try to plan your activity in the cave to coincide in time and duration with your normal activity on the surface! (I owe this approach to Yuri Kasyan). It is not good to move in the cave for more than 10 hours if you do not do it normally outside. In that case, there shall be two decisions; Reduce the time for activity in the cave and start training to be able to endure more!

The sump Kvitochka, Voronya, -1980m, 2013

How do you approach the courses for new cavers? How do you attract new people? How long do a courses last? On what do you emphasize in it?

The training courses for new cavers in Bulgaria are quite similar in the different clubs in the country. Maybe the difference in my club was the holding of a final 7-10 day practice on our training ground, Orlova Chuka cave. Thus, during daily activities, day after day, the young cavers consolidate their knowledge faster and upgrade more easily. Unfortunately, in today’s conditions and with the great commitment to everyday activities, this is difficult to apply.

What are your future plans related to speleology?

Honestly, the main thing that still motivates me to enter caves is to explore. I am definitely attracted to the vertical alpine caves with greater depth and I am open to new such projects. After my first expedition to Kruber-Voronya, I realized the difference in the scale of the caves in our country and the deepest in the world. 

Since there is untapped potential, I decided to make efforts to find something deeper in Bulgaria. Fortunately, there are others with such an attitude and things are slowly happening, but my main dream goal has not yet been achieved: to open a cave in Bulgaria deeper than 1000 m. I wish such thing to any of our bulgarian cavers!

Is there anything else you would like to share with us.

I already mentioned, that entering caves is a group activity. One of the challenges for people in a group is to fit their characters, to work together, I would even say to tame their ego and thus become a team. From my personal experience, I can say that this should be worked on constantly, in the same way as you should constantly take care of your physical training.


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