After the accident occurred on January 9, 2016 at the Bossi cave in Switzerland, ended with the death of my friend Borgio, I promised myself not to go cave diving again. Nevertheless, things went differently. To convince me, for this speleological diving adventure, it was my friend Luciano Tanini of Grotta Giusti during our meeting for Grotta Giusti’s 35th anniversary.
During that evening in Montecatini Terme, they screened a movie made by my friend Davide Briccolani and the undersigned and during dinner, around the table, Luciano told me about his project: diving in the “Buca Del Tinello” cave. He told me “On the Tuscan Mountains there is a beautiful cave, easily accessible and not demanding. We need someone making a reportage with beautiful pictures … come with us. We wait a few months, maybe before the summer, when the water decreases and facilitates entrance.”
Luciano tried to persuade me with these arguments, but I was not convinced and left him with a vague answer “…we’ll see.” After the spring, Luciano got back on track “We organized everything, come with your wife … you’ll be our guests. I’ll take you to dinner at a nice place, and then in the morning we’ll go to the mountains: fantastic landscapes! We’ll take care of the equipment, and then we’ll go to lunch in a very characteristic place.” So I accepted. Let’s say he took me more by the throat than by the dive. The date was set for mid-July, so the night before I found myself dining in Montecatini Terme with Luciano Tanini and his right-hand man, Paolo Lenaz. During dinner, Luciano began to describe in detail what we were going to do the next day, even with some extemporaneous drawing on a paper napkin. Mountains, waterfalls, narrow passages, siphons… as the explanations became more detailed, I understood that maybe it was not for me, but now I was at stake and I could not pull back.
The next morning, after a good breakfast, I met again Luciano and Paolo, the two of them by their car and me and my wife on our pick-up. Yes, because my wife Cinzia came too: I promised her a nice ride in Tuscany… everybody in the car, ready to leave, heading to Lucca. At the exit of the motorway to the Garfagnana, two other members of our team were waiting for us, Emanuele Buono and Giovanni Caponi.
Giovanni, for those who do not know him, is a well-known cave-diver with years and years of cave exploration behind him. After the usual introductions, we set off again towards the road leading to Garfagnana, in the Apuan Alps. Breathtaking landscapes, valleys, hills, forests with green, lush trees, although we were already in plain summer. As we progressively climbed, the road became narrow, a typical mountain road, and the forest surrounded us more and more.
After more than an hour, beyond the village of Fornovolasco, in the municipality of Vergemoli, the road reaches a curve with a wide-open space. On the left, there is a small trattoria, on the right a bridge passing over the stream. In the middle, in the rocky wall hidden by a vault and vegetation, there is the cave. Once parked our cars, we began to prepare our equipment. First of all, I went to make a close inspection to realize the degree of difficulty I would have to face to get to the entrance.
The slope’s descent is quite steep; therefore, I decided I definitely would not have done it wearing all my gear! Under the vault there is a small waterfall of perennial spring water flowing into the stream and, at about three meters in height, there is a small opening in the rock.
That, they told me, is the entrance to the cave. After the site visit we started assembling our equipment: each of us had at his disposal a 7 + 7 double tank with double DIN regulator, a helmet with double lamp plus a spare torch, reel and various accessories, all for cave diving. My buddies had a six or seven millimeters wetsuit, with protective overalls. Whereas, I had my old dry suit, certainly less suitable for this type of diving.
Before getting ready, Giovanni made us a detailed briefing: the cave called Buca Del Tinello, explored for the first time in 1996, is located at 525 meters above sea level. The water passing inside is from a perennial spring, with a temperature of 8 – 9 degrees Celsius. The entrance is an opening in the small waterfall.
Inside, the cave widens enough to stand up; just below, at three meters depth, there is a siphon eight meters long and after the first siphon you re-emerge in a cave a little bigger, with stalactites rock formations. The second siphon is twelve meters long then, after a large cave, there is a third siphon sixty meters long at six meters deep. In the stretch between the second and third siphon, we should take off the equipment, walk and climb on the rocks. In short, from the briefing I deduced that it was not as easy as Luciano described!
Outside we placed some ropes to facilitate both the descent from the escarpment and the entrance into the cave. After wearing all the equipment, I approached the entry rope: Giovanni was already climbing. He would be the first to get in, me second. I saw him entering into that hole above me, crawling with difficulty. I thought that if he, who is a bit bigger than me, succeeded getting in, I should have done it too. I grabbed the rope and climbed up. Once I arrived at the entrance, I asked someone from below to hand over my photographic equipment and passed it to Giovanni, who was beyond the entrance hole. I could only see his arm and hear his voice: that hole is really tight!
After handing over my camera, I put the mask on my face and the regulator in my mouth, because Giovanni told me that I had to crawl forward on my stomach and, beyond the hole, I would have slipped downwards into the water. I had enough trouble getting in: the doubble tank was jamming everywhere. I could not even raise my head that I crash with the helmet, and crawling on the slimy rock I slipped into that icy water upside down.
Once I entered, I stood up with the water coming to my waist. The cave is not very wide: just a meter above my head and about three meters wide. Giovanni said to me “are you all right?” “… let’s say yes,” I replied. Without wasting time I took my housing, switched on the headlights and all seemed to me more beautiful, almost surreal. Therefore, I started taking some pictures, while my other buddies came in one by one. While we were preparing to cross the first siphon, I felt a bit cold in the suit and thought, “I hope it is not flooded!” I illuminated under my feet with my headlights and, about three meters deep, at the bottom in front of me, I saw the opening of the siphon. Paolo entered first, I went behind.
I deflated my BCD and, dragging myself on the bottom, I arrived in front of the opening.
Naturally, we were all without fins that in these situations are not needed. I dragged myself into this narrow gut of rock about eight meters long and meanwhile I shot some pictures to the buddies in front of me.
Arriving in the second cave, wider than the first, I positioned myself waiting for the others, continuing to take pictures even external: the rock formations, beautiful and smooth, looked like chocolate. I began to feel cold and realized that my dry suit had flooded, and it must have been something serious because when I was standing I could feel the water up to my calves.
Definitely a rip when I crawled at the entrance. I thought about it for a moment, then I said, “Guys, I have to go out: I flooded my dry suit, I’m very cold and I think I cannot go on.” These are tough decisions to make, but my experience tells me that you need to know when it’s time to say no. Everybody agreed: I would go out and the others would continue, though Giovanni would have accompanied me to the entrance. Once there, retracing the path backwards, I was already half frozen: I could no longer feel my legs, I could not even pass in the entry hole and thus I decided to take off the double tank.
As soon as I got outside, Giovanni passed me the equipment that then I lowered down through the rope. I had a lot more trouble getting out than getting in. Fortunately, the outside temperature was very pleasant and once I was undressed, I recovered quickly. My wife, who in the meantime had gone for a walk, arrived at that moment while I was undressing. I told her what happened, and she shook her head and said, “Do you understand that you are not twenty anymore!” After about an hour, my buddies came out, happy and joyful: for them it was like a walk.
When Luciano saw that I was pretty depressed, told me, “Now I’ll take you to a place that will make your good mood come back!” A few kilometers away, in a remote place amidst the mountains, there is a kind of agritourism called “The Hermit”.
The name fits like a glove and we ate very well: I think I’ve had the best “Lardo di Colonnata” in my life. Surely my good mood was back, but I think I’m done with cave diving.
WORDS and PICTURES by Rino Sgorbani