W Le Donne (“Viva Le Donne”, lit. “long live the women”) is a -1316м deep cave, entrance is at 2170м situated in the Bergamasque Alps (Alpi Orobie) in Italy. The approach during this time of the year (march) is snowy, so crampons are a must, also pick and snowshoes depending on weather conditions. It is the second deepest cave in Italy, with a potential for over 2000m. The deepest cave in Italy is “Paolo Roversi”, which us 1360м, but currently has no potential for further depths. The cave system stretches under a ridge starting from peak Grigna toward peak Pilastro (Monte Pilastro) and is estimated to go down towards Como lake (Lago di Como). It has 18 entrances, most of which are high on the northern side of the ridge. There are more than 400 caves in the area, many of which are suggested to be connected with the cave system. So far 30km in length have been explored and the cave goes on.
Fabio Bolini is our host for this expedition. He is an experienced italian caver. Our club interviewed him in 2020 and you can read about it here. And also you can check out his youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@stazionario/videos
He is one of the main explorers of W Le Donne. He has worked on Kruber-Voronya cave and sieved wisdom from Jurij Kasjan. Fabio has zest and vision for caving. Our team was formed by Tsvetan Kosturkov (Tseka), Pavlin Dimitrov( Papi) and me, Dimitar Genov (Dimi). We met up with him Thursday morning near Esino Lario in the Bergamasque Alps. There was a bit of a language barrier with him, but Tsvetan speaks spanish and Fabio a little bit of english, so we had no problems in the long run.
Day 1, Thursday
The conditions for the approach were good, so we left our picks and snowshoes in the car. While going up on the far left we could see a steep rock wall, which, as Fabio explained, used to be climbed free solo by the famous Walter Bonatti in his earlier years. The first 2 hours of the climb went on a tourist trail toward Bogani Hut (Rifugio Bogani), almost no snow and a route well tended. At the hut there was snow, so after climbing a little bit we decided to put on the crampons. Almost at the end we emerged on the ridge and after a few minutes along it, we’ve reached the entrance. We changed in to caving mode, and left the unneccesary stuff in the beginning of the cave.
So our descend started. In the first parts there is mostly crawling in tight meanders with short verticals but after 15-20 minutes the cave widened. What was left until camp 2 were mostly long verticals with short connecting sections. The rock in the cave is mostly monolithic, with water erosion making the rock pointy and edgy in many places without being brittle. Also the surface of the rocks were rough and easy to handle, without having the sharp cutting qualities of marble. There were a few places that broken down rock warranted extra caution.
There is a big open chamber about 60-70m deep, were the rope is far away from any rock during the descend. This is just before the so called “Meander of the wind”(Meandro del vente), shortly after which is camp 1, named “Oasi” at -400m. Some ropes after camp 1 the wall get covered by beautiful coralites from top to bottom for at least 50m. Around -700m we entered a meander with short annoying verticals. We would encounter a similar one towards camp 3 on the next day. After the meander are some long verticals and after slipping under a big rock at the bottom, the cave suddenly changes its character. It becomes muddy and wet. Camp 2 is basically at the beginning of this part. It took us around 7 hours to reach it and by 20 o’clock we were there. The ceiling in the camp was low, but the room was wide. There was a big tourist tent on a raised rock platform. The floor was rough, even the layers of mats could not make it comfortable, but the sleeping bags were warm and there was more than enough space for four people.
Day 2, Friday
We got up early around 7. After a short breakfast, we put our hydro suits on, with cordura over them. We use special ukrainian hydrosuits, made of rubber. When sealed, only the hands and head poke out of them. From here on we went on through a tunnel which had the label “Puciowsky” on the side. Puciowsky is a play on words, which comes from an italian verb that means “to dip”. So “Dipowsky”, basically.
The tunnel starts with a downward slope, covered by thick wet slippery clay-like mud. There was a rope equipped for assistance with the hands. After 10-15 minutes the muddy parts ended and we reached a place, that was the connection between cave entrances in Italy at -950m. From then on started a meander similar to the one around -700m, but longer with more verticals. We reached -1000m without much trouble, just a few short tight passages. Shortly thereafter we reached the “Puciowsky” siphon. It is about 20m long, narrow, but wide enough to move easily. We were lucky with the conditions and it was a semi-siphon now. Also there is a tight passage on the upper left of the siphon which helps you skip 2/3 of the siphon.
At this point we have reached “Ramo Cobra”, but not long afterwards we exited it to the left towards a muddy, smooth and narrow upwards tunnel, about 10m long. From thereon the cave was again more or less horizontal but tighter, narrower and a with a lot more mud. There was another gruesome semisiphon – easier technically than Puciowsky, but a lot dirtier and somewhat narrower. There was a last vertical that landed us in the chamber of camp 3. The cave continued deeper, but there was an impassable siphon, that needed several shifts of cavers with a mechanical pump to dry it up. The current expedition has reached it deepest point at -1180m in camp 3. We gathered all the stuff that we were supposed to bring out – sleeping bags, mats, stoves and gasoline, a pot, other stuff.
On our way back in Puciowsky I decided to not wait for Tsekata who was progressing slowly through the tight passage, and went through the whole siphon with my helmet down. We reached back camp 2 again with no trouble. We’ve gotten out of the hydro suits, prepared tea and looked at the clock – 16:00.
Somehow Fabio managed to convince Papi not to rush to camp 1 at midnight and we spent whole 16 hours in camp 2. Did I mention that the floor in the tent of camp 2 is uncomfotable? Still, Fabio entertained us by showing us the natural beauty of Italy and his adventures there and told about his plans for the future.
Day 3, Saturday
We got up around 06:00, had some tea, prepared additional baggage and headed to camp 1. We all had two bags each. Apart for the meander around -700m it was mostly just ropes in wide cave galleries. For about 6 hours we climbed 500m and reached camp 1. We decided that it is best to go to bed early and get up during the “night” (it is eternal night in the cave), so we can exit in the morning.
Day 4, Sunday
We got up at 03:30. Some tea, preparations and off we went. It was even easier than the previous day -400m in around 4 hours and we were out at 09:00. The view from the mountaintop was exilirating – the sky was clearer than when we entered and we could see far into the Swiss Alps. There was a slight wind and sub-zero temperature, but our heated bodies couldn’t be bothered. We switched into high mountain mode – crampons, gaiters, windstoppers, etc… Although we were going downwards, our bags were twice as heavy, so it was a bit more strenous than the climb up. Still, we managed to reach the parking lot in about 3 hours.
After some logistical juggling we went to Esino Lario and had one of the best lunches in my life at „Agritourism Ortanella“. We order the “full menu” as per the hostess suggestion, which included various sliced dried meats and cheeses, home made tagliatelle with greenery, soft gnocchi stuffed with cheese, corn puree with stewed slices of pork meat and mushrooms, pork fillet in sauce, and slices of roasted pork. In the end we could get a desert – fruit pie, ice cream or pancakes. Also, coffee and ap.ritif. We got full beyond reason, but we haven’t eaten close to 24 hours of which 8 hours almost non-stop caving and trekking, so it was as unhealthy as it sounds. But like all wonderful things in life, this adventure was coming to an end.
We had a heartfelt farewell with Fabio. It was clear we made a friend for life.
Text: Dimitar Genov
Photos: Dimitar, Papi, Tsvetan, Fabio