The Grim Swim: |
Albania's Black Hole
by Dave Black
I've always been one of those people who can wrangle a job that encourages or at least accommodates my adrenaline habits. Within an hour of reading some website descriptions of the potential climbing, caving and canyoneering that has opened up as a result of the political changes in the Balkans, I was applying on-line for an EMS job with a U.N. refugee project in Albania. Four weeks later my flight landed in Tirana, and so began a most excellent adventure.
Two things are incredibly striking when one first observes Albania and Albanians. First are the bunkers: tens of thousands of empty and corroding mushroom-shaped cement structures of various sizes, dotting the countryside as far as the eye can see. This unsightly blight is the legacy of an ultra-paranoid dictatorial government that just recently lost its isolationist grip. The bunkers, as I found out later, are the tip of a large-scale environmental rape perpetrated by the past Albanian government and military.
The second thing that strikes the ex-pat male when he first arrives is the stark beauty of the modern young Albanian female. These sultry women dress to kill, and on warm evenings they parade by the thousands through upbeat commercial neighborhoods of Tirana, trolling for Mr. Right. It's a sight to behold, but on closer observation it becomes obvious that this apparent physical perfection is more a result of girdles, overly padded push-up bras and heavy make-up than it is of the gene pool.
So, when I put up my first climbing route in a tight canyon just north of Tirana, and being an ex-firefighter, it was not difficult to come up with a name that characterized my first impression of the country. Butts-n-Bunkers (5.11) was a two-pitch face route on a fin-shaped limestone slab. The canyon it rested in was a slot of sorts, with a rough road cut into one slope. An Australian who had done some bouldering there with other ex-pats had recommended it to me. As it turned out, this canyon typified the narrow gorges that split the mountains in central Albania. Further exploration a week later led me to another slot farther to the north where I discovered the Albanian version of the Black Hole.
Like the Black Hole, the Grim Swim is a swim-slot that drops and disappears into a Swiss-cheese rock formation. The primary differences are that the Grim Swim drops through limestone rather than sandstone and, more importantly, the water of the Grim Swim is moving.
Four days before the descent of the Grim Swim I came down with a case of fever and diarrhea that attacked me with a vengeance. Over the next three says I would lose over 20 pounds. In spite of it, I was determined not to cancel the exploration of the new slot. Once I was able to eat again, for 24 hours I stuffed myself continuously with pasta, ham, and potato chips, and forced so much fluid that I couldn't look at another glass of water. Still weak and fearful that my physical condition would lead to hypothermia in the canyon, the slot was put off another day.
The road into the head of the canyon, like so many of the Albanian mountain roads, was high on a steep slope, blasted into the limestone cliff above the slot. The view of the slot was excellent, and we could see where the major drops would be and get a good approximation of how long the swims were. My partner, Howard, a young British man who has done some climbing but had never done slots, was nervous but excited. The day looked perfect. The sun was out and there was no wind.
Normally I would have entered the slot relying on my wetsuit and pack for floatation. But unsure of the effect of my illness on my swimming endurance, we opted to carry inner tubes. At the head of the canyon we entered the streambed. The stream was about 5 yards wide and only ankle deep but running at a fairy quick flow. We hiked along the stream for a quarter of a mile before the canyon narrowed into the slot. A swim of about 720 feet followed though a series of narrows and overhanging chambers and ended at a small falls in a wide area with some sunlight. From this spot we studied the slot's crux, which lay 180 feet downstream: a narrow 36-inch wide 45-degree chute that plunged into total darkness to a chamber below. The options were limited. To portage the obstacle would require us to bypass a thousand feet of what looked like the most exciting parts of the canyon. We had left our technical gear in the vehicle at the head of the canyon, betting on a non-technical slot. There was no downclimb, and the water surging through the chute would prevent a controlled descent. The choices were obvious. Go back, or slide The Chute. I tend to the conservative side when it comes to facing the unknown with a blindfold on. But I had come all this way for some first descents, and, by God, I was going to have them.
I carefully maneuvered myself into the flattest curve of The Chute and clawed at the sides to keep myself in place until I was ready. A few thoughts flashed into my mind how would my kids in Utah take it if things go bad, who will get me out if I get injured, what does it feel like to fracture your legs in a high-speed fall? Howard tossed my inner tube into the abyss. Finally, I smiled at my nervously pacing friend, and I released my grip on the handholds at my sides. In an instant I was airborne, hurdling through the spray, over a blind overhang, and into the dark of an unknown chamber.
I had long ago learned that my hobbies could kill me. I'd lost half a dozen friends to the mountains, and I had no illusions about the effect of making critical mistakes, or that luck played as much of a role as skill and intuition. Luck was with me that day, and after a blind fall that seemed to take an eternity I sliced into deep water.
It took me a few minutes to completely recover from this grand entry. I had hit my elbow on the way down and my arm was burning itself into numbness. I'd swallowed a big mouthful of unpleasant water. Getting my bearings in the dark chamber took a moment. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and in the faint glow of reflected light I could see that the sides of the chamber were completely smooth and there was no place to rest out of the water. My first priority became finding my inner tube. The water was moving slowly here, almost imperceptibly. After I captured the tube and secured myself I moved upstream into an eddy where I would be able to float without swimming against the current.
The next major obstacle would be convincing Howard to come down. He had been intently listening for clues as to the nature of my descent, and of course the in-flight cuss-words and the long delays before I called to him did nothing to bolster his confidence. Yelling against the noise of the waterfall was a problem. I was losing precious warmth to the water, and I finally convinced Howard that his delays were going to be my demise. Watching Howard's silhouette flying through the shadow was the most entertainment I would have in Albania. I couldn't stop laughing, and we both celebrated this brush with a victory scream.
We swam 200 feet through the darkness out of one chamber and into another until we found a small ledge to pull ourselves onto to get some rest, a bite to eat, and to nurse our matching elbow injuries. The rest stop was cut short by the cold. Howard had not worn a wet suit and was shivering. We slipped back into the stream and swam another 700 feet or more to the end of the chambers where the slot widened out and the stream was once again ankle deep.
After a brief recovery in the sunlight, we continued downstream about 350 feet and again entered a dark slot and a final swim of 250 feet. Below this the slot widened and the Grim Swim was completed. A third of a mile farther downstream a 3rd-class scramble through a breach in the wall provided an exit. We congratulated each other and without saying much else we trudged back up the road to the vehicle and the cold drive home.
A few weeks after the Grim Swim my stay in Albania was cut short when the political situation in Yugoslavia improved and the U.N. withdrew financial support for our EMS project. I can't say I was sorry to leave Albania. The Albanians, and even more so the expats working there, seem to be making up for so many decades of repression by tilting a bit too radically toward the party side of life. I was getting weary of late nights out and the implication that life revolved around a nightly drunken stupor. The daily diet of beer sheep, rice, and Greek salad was become a bit overwhelming. I was finding it hard to recruit partners like Howard who would be willing to endure the sorts of things we had experienced. Travel restrictions during the Albanian elections virtually grounded us, and I was having great difficulty getting into the areas of the country I wanted to explore. It was time to go home.
Although I didn't find the nature of the Albanian mountains particularly conducive to excellent rock climbing, the caving and canyoneering situation is very different. The Grimm Swim was one of the nicest short slots I've ever done, and is likely to be only one of hundreds of similar slots in Albania. As the political situation continues to improve there, the area will become a destination for serious cavers and slot canyoneers. But am I aching to go back? Not with all there is right here in our own Southwest. When I run out of things to do here, Albania might be on my list again.
Dave Black is the author of the acclaimed new guidebook Ice Climbing Utah. He is currently living in exile in Blanding, Utah.
Content © Copyright 2001 David S Black. All Rights Reserved.