hough impressive enough on an atlas, the sheer vastness of the Russian Federation doesn’t truly sink in until you travel across it. Our destination was the Bashkir Republic in the Southern Urals. This was my fifth cave diving expedition in Russia, but my first in the summer months. After arriving in Yekaterinburg, a day’s drive brought us to a small settlement of wooden houses, our campsite for the first night. Excited, and looking forward to the planned exploration of several resurgence caves in the Bashkiria region, we wasted no time after breakfast the next morning.


We loaded the necessary equipment into a Gas 66 4x4 (the Russian military equivalent of a Mercedes G Wagon), and set off on a rough track following the Nugush River. At one stop we met an old, weather-beaten peasant who lived alone in a wooden hut near the river, producing honey for part of his livelihood—some of which we bought for our journey. Finally, on a pebble beach on one of the large meandering bends in the river, we unloaded all the gear, and pitched camp for the night with a good open fire of driftwood to cook over.
This was as far as the 66 could go. So in the morning, we built a light catamaran-style raft consisting of two banana tubes and ten lightweight aluminum tubes. The four 12-litre cylinders, 3 cfm compressor and generator made up the floor between the tubes. Numerous dry bags of dive, camp, and personal kit stacked on top left the four corners free for the four-man team who would paddle and haul the raft. We also built two zodiacs to carry additional gear and outboard motors; useless for the next three days of travel, but essential for when we’d have to tow the raft.

We set off down river, travelling between high limestone walls and thick forest, birds of prey riding the thermals above, and fish swimming in the warm waters around us. Rarely was the water deep enough to take the additional weight of passengers; for the most part, we walked the boats in a meandering zigzag through the sections of water deep enough to take their weight. It was a very tired team that set up camp by our first resurgence. Even so, I couldn’t wait to head up the inlet gorge to check out the dive site, Verhniy Grebeshok, a small circular pool of clear turquoise water that emptied into a small shallow stream, disappearing into reed banks at the far end of the meadow, and eventually joining the waters of the Nugush.

Alex and the rest of the team had spent several days the previous summer using a hand-operated winch to remove dead trees and some of the larger boulders from this pool. They had revealed a slot too small to pass through among the boulders, and an even smaller slot between sloping gravel floor and rock ceiling to the right of the pool. The plan was to dig a way through to the larger passage that could be seen beyond.

I entered the water, dropped down to the gravel floor, and passed under the arch of grey limestone that formed the entrance. Where the ceiling and floor met, I could look between boulders into a larger space beyond.

Turning around, I entered feet first, kicking gravel and rocks aside, pushing myself into the slot and running my line in front of me as I went. Each time my cylinders got caught, I reached down to the obstruction and pulled or pushed it out of the way. Soon, I could feel a larger passage around my legs. After moving a couple more of the larger rocks, I was able to turn around and look into the passage. The visibility was very clear, considering the amount of forest detritus that littered the walls and floor of the pool.

The passage was a bedding averaging 4 meters in width, and between half to one meter high. From the entrance depth of 11 meters, I followed the passage along the centre, slowly ascending, with around 5 meters of visibility. Occasionally, the floor rose in small steps, and two small blind rifts were passed in the ceiling. At 3 meters of depth, with the passage still ascending, I had laid 90 meters of line, and my reel ran out. I turned the dive and exited.

Next day, diving the entrance pool with Gavin Newman to take photos, I reached the end of my line and tied on a new reel. Very quickly, we reached an air bell the width of the passage and 4 meters long, which followed straight into a continuation of the sump. The continuation entered a narrow slot that immediately closed down amongst boulders with no way I could fit. Having laid an additional 20 meters of line, I turned and exited.

In the morning we broke camp, and loaded the zodiacs and rafts for the river journey to the second cave. The method of travel was the same—long sections of walking and towing the vessels in ankle or knee deep water, very rare and short sections of water deep enough to sit in them and paddle.

Throughout the day we were getting more and more water in the two zodiacs; however, we had no choice but to carry on, and quickly developed a system of bailing with one of the billy cans. After about four hours of hauling, we stopped on a pebble beach, got a fire going for a brew, and just flaked out in the sun for a short rest.

We carried on throughout the afternoon through increasingly stunning scenery to finally reach our campsite. Warm and dry beside a big fire, a welcome pot of grishka cooking on the campfire; we gazed at the Milky Way in the crystal clear night sky, watching the bats dive and spiral around us.


The next morning we were able to assess the damage to the zodiacs. Uri had ripped a flap in the floor large enough to put his head through, and Alex had over twenty small holes, explaining why the constant bailing the previous day had been so spectacularly unsuccessful. Alex and Uri got to work with a large sheet of patching material and glue, whilst Gavin and I filled cylinders and ferried gear up to the resurgence of Sauka Tamak.

It was a glorious sunny day, and the clear water of the resurgence flowed noisily over boulders via couple of cascades to join the main river. Following the flow through the woods to the base of the limestone cliff, we saw that it issued from a slot under a large boulder. A small, clear pool of static water behind it was the entrance into the sump.

Descending feet first into a narrow chimney, back and chest touching the walls, I dropped into a much larger passage and joined the water flow. When Gavin joined me, both of us diving side-mount aluminum 12-litre cylinders, we followed Sergey’s line from the previous summer to the boulder choke 50 meters in.

At the choke, I tied on my line reel and passed between the ceiling and the top of the boulder pile to rejoin the main passage. Gavin and I swam side by side with ease in the 5 meter wide by 1 to 2 meter high passage. I continued to lay line whilst Gavin acted as light man; until, having descended a gravel slope and passed an elbow at 11 meters of depth, the line reel ran out. I tied on my second, and continued in the now ascending passage to a rising silt bank that ended where the only obvious way on was a half-meter wide ascending chimney. I entered this, visibility reducing to zero as silt fell from the ceiling. Moving forward, I laid another 30 meters of line and tied off on a flake of rock. I then reversed out of the chimney to rejoin Gavin in the larger passage where we turned the dive.

Early next morning, after a quick brew, I kitted up and entered the water again. I followed my line very slowly, carefully checking both walls until I arrived at the chimney. In the poor visibility of the previous dive, what had looked like the left wall of the passage was actually a large step, the main passage continuing above it. I tied off a fresh reel and entered, following a low silty passage to a depth of 6 meters. The line reel ran out, having laid 120 meters of line. On the exit swim, I removed the line into the chimney—now that the way had been established.
Whilst the team broke camp, I went
back in for a second dive. This time, with
additional line, I followed the passage down
to 9 meters. It began to rise again, and I soon surfaced in a large air bell, 10 meters long by 5 meters wide. Crossing this, I entered the second sump, which was only 10 meters long, and surfaced to the roar of water—just as the last meter of line spooled off my reel, having added another 60 meters. I was waist deep in the stream, but knee deep in silt. The only place to tie off was under water, just under the rock ceiling of the sump. From here, I could see more than 20 meters along a 10-meter high stream passage to a large cascade. I turned here, and swam out. Time to pack, load my gear on the raft, and move on to our next objective.


A recently completed dam construction on the Belaya River had two implications: first, getting to the cave was now much easier as the dam authorities would take us the 20 kilometres up the lake to the resurgence; second, the flooding of the valley had put the resurgence 9 meters underwater—increasing the depth of the sump to 49 meters so far.

A two-hour journey by jet boat up the lake gave us time to appreciate the stunning view of the 100-meter high vertical limestone cliff that plunges into the lake, marking the point where all the feeder caves on the plateau above resurge into the lake. The nearest is Sungan, 7 kilometres across the limestone plateau, as the crow flies. 100 meters from the cliff wall, the jet boat beached on an overgrown flood plain. We unloaded diving equipment and camping gear; then our escort returned to the dam, leaving us here for the next three days.
The next morning, Gavin and I assembled a pair of isolation manifold twin 18-litre cylinders and a pair of 15’s, and slowly filled them. We prepped and set up all our gear, primary and backup 10-litre oxygen cylinders for decompression; by midday, we were kitting up for a dive to assess the line condition after the spring melt. We were taken across to the cliff face by zodiac, and dropped into the half-meter visibility of the lake water at a balmy 19 degrees centigrade.

Gavin tied off the line on the tip of a silver birch tree, and we descended along the underwater trunk, then followed the cliff wall down. At a depth of 9 meters, we dropped out of the peaty orange lake water into the clear, cold resurging cave water. The arch of the cave passage roof came into view. We descended to the sloping gravel and boulder floor, and at 37 meters found Alex and Uri’s primary line from the previous summer. The cave at this point is over 10 meters in width and up to 5 meters high; so in the 6 meters of visibility, we could see only the left-hand wall as we followed the left line. Alex had laid a line along both walls to aid in surveying the cave. The left wall was a shorter and shallower route; we chose this option since our objective was to find the terminal chamber where the lines joined again, and the dam had added 9 meters to the depth of the cave.

The lines join 300 meters into the sump, and the passage ascends to 36 meters where it passes through a window, roughly 2 meters in diameter, formed by a car-sized slab of rock that leans up against the left wall. Gavin turned back at this point, but I continued to where the line is tied off to the wall at 19 meters of depth, and takes a 90-degree turn to the left. At this point, one third of my gas was used. I returned to the exit side of the window where I tied on a line reel to check an alcove in the left wall…after 5 meters, it proved to be blind. I returned to the entrance slope after a bottom time of 60 minutes at an average depth of 45 meters to complete a further 60 minutes of ascent and decompression. After 85 minutes in 6-degree water, the 35-minute oxygen stop at 6 meters in the 18-degree lake water was very pleasant.

Back at camp, I found Gavin, who had exited half an hour previously after completing his shorter decompression, with nausea, vertigo, and malaise. I immediately got a 10-litre oxygen tank, and began oxygen administration. After 30 minutes, we established that he could urinate, administered oral fluids, and returned him to breathing oxygen. After four hours of breathing oxygen, and drinking four litres of water, Gavin’s symptoms had resolved. He had an uninterrupted twelve hours of sleep, and felt back to normal in the morning. We determined that dehydration was the most likely reason for his symptoms. The success of our response was due to no delay between development of symptoms and treatment. In normal circumstances, we would have arranged for helicopter evacuation to the nearest hyperbaric facility as soon as his symptoms were noticed; however, we were nearly five days travel to the nearest reliable facility.
The final dive of the trip I made solo, set up with two 10-litre tanks of oxygen to cover a possible failure, and the 18-litre twin-set of air. Gavin took me to the cliff wall in the zodiac. I descended, leaving one oxygen cylinder clipped to the line at 6 meters, and the other at the primary belay in the cave at 37 meters, both pressurised and turned off. I swam directly to the line belay beyond the elbow reached on the previous dive, via deep stops to control micro bubble formation at 36 and 19 meters, and tied on my line reel to head up the right hand wall following the scalloping in the limestone. This led over a bulge in the rock, into the continuation of the main passage with a rippled sand floor that gradually ascended to a depth of 9 meters. Having laid 60 meters of line, my reel ran out. At this point, by resetting my VR3 to calculate deco from here on my bottom mix of air, I found I had 40 minutes at 6 meters; so I turned at this point, and returned to 50 minutes of ascent and decompression with the last stop on oxygen at the 49-meter elbow.

Sadly, we had run out of time on our Russian adventure. The jet boat would collect us in the morning for the return to the dam, and then a two-day drive to Yekaterinburg for our flight home. It was a memorable experience in a beautiful wilderness, certainly some of the most remote cave sites I’ve visited.

As always, the trip would not have been possible without the hard work of Alex, Uri, and Sergey.

Additional photographs and information on Phil’s previous winter expeditions to Russia can be found on