Sunday, May 29, 2022

Technical Rigging Class in Hungary

In May 2022, my friend Rene and I had the opportunity to go to Hungary for the Technical 2 Rigging Class put on by the Hungarian cave experts as part of a technical exchange with the National Cave Rescue Commission. We had signed up a few years prior, but due to Covid delays, had to wait. But finally the time came!

We arrived in Budapest (more on that later), and soon were headed to the beautiful northeastern town of Svogliget. Our first full day we attended lectures in a restored building.

The next day it was time to head up to the caves! Carrying lots of ropes, carabiners, and hangers, plus our vertical and caving gear, we hiked about 2 hours through an extraordinarily beautiful forest.

We then practiced rigging approach lines and used both natural and artificial anchors to enter a couple caves.

During the week we also did practice on cliffs near the entrance to Baratla Cave, an amazing tourist cave in Aggtelek National Park in the town of Aggtelek. 

The symbol for Aggtelek National Park is the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). I was really excited to see one. (and just one, no others during the trip)

After about a week I started figuring out where I was. Fortunately, the Hungarians were very friendly and helpful and didn't leave me behind anywhere!

The forest trails were extremely well marked and cared for. But we saw no other hikers all week. There's a 1,100-km long trail that crosses Hungary that sounds like it would be a fun destination.

One day we went to nearby Slovakia to visit a cave in Slovak Karst National Park. Crossing the boundary from Hungary to Slovakia was like driving across a stateline in the U.S. No need to slow down. But across the line, all the signs changed language! Slovakian is nothing like Hungarian. In fact, every country that borders Hungary (Austria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia) all have a different language.

One of the eye-catching things in the cave was this blue slug. Thanks to iNaturalist, I know it's a Carpathian Blue Slug (Bielzia coerulans). They're endemic to the Carpathian Mountains of Central and Eastern Europe and turn blue when they reach 100-140 mm in length. (More info here.)

The cave also had a lovely series of rappels, including next to this pool. It didn't smell the best, though, decaying frogs made us try to move a little faster!

The last big cave I went to is listed for the hikers to visit the entrance. We had permission to go beyond, so we descended nearly 600 feet, rigging the cave as we went.

Part of the cave had old ladders from when it was first explored in the 1950s and 1960s. I felt a lot safer on rope than on these ladders!

On the last day of the class, while the Hungarian students were completing their certification booklets, we got to visit a couple tourist caves. One was the amazing Baratla Cave. We joined a tour and at first followed a small river through a series of rooms. 

Then we went into some even bigger rooms with even bigger speleothems, reminiscent of caves in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.

In the afternoon we went into the now-closed Rokoczi Cave, closed due to lack of tour guides. The cave is very steep, and we saw some cool formations and two lakes. There is still passage to be found underwater.

The caves in Hungary are quite impressive. There are 170 under the city of Budapest. In Aggtelek National Park there are over 200. This is a cave-rich country! Rene and I learned from great teachers how to do things the Hungarian way, which is very efficient. I am so glad to have had the experience.

On our last evening in Svogliget, we went for a walk up a hill that overlooked the town., with the national park int he background. 

Another memory from the class: washing cave gear in the stream that runs through town. The town was quite adorable.

The class ended and we had 1.5 days in Budapest. We headed first to a thermal bath and even got massages (explaining that our numerous bruises were from caving and not from getting beat up!). 

We lucked out and saw the full moon rising over the Parliament building across the Danube River.

The next day we went to Castle Hill, St. Steven's Basilica (where we heard an organ concert)...

...the Parliament...

...and an evening boat ride. It was a lovely day exploring Budapest, and there's still so much more to see!

I can't thank our hosts enough, and I really look forward to when Hungarians come to the U.S. and we can show them around!

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Hanging out with National Geographic

Last summer I had the chance to show a National Geographic writer a part of Great Basin National Park, along with research scientist Dr. Anna Schoettle. We went up Mt. Washington to look at bristlecone pines and discuss White Pine Blister Rust. My job was basically as driver and tour guide, so we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks.

Later, we went up high on the mountain, where we saw some small trees making a start at life.

We also looked at some old bristlecone wood, left from when the bristlecones died off the last time it got cooler and trees moved back down the mountain. Dr. Schoettle discussed some of the new threats these long-living trees face, like white pine blister rust, a non-native pathogen that has had a devastating effect on lodgepole pines in nearby Montana. We also discussed climate change, wildfires, and beetles. Fortunately, the trees in Great Basin National Park look to be okay at the moment, although it's hard to predict how they will do with the fast-moving climate change we're currently experiencing and the many consequences it has, such as more extreme weather events.

Craig Welch is a staff writer for National Geographic and was starting research on a story about forests in peril all over the world. He told us we might only see a paragraph in the whole story about bristlecones as he had so much material to cover. The article would be appearing in May 2022 in a special issue about trees. He enjoyed his trip and kept saying if he had known how stunning it was, he would have brought a photographer with him. 

Fast forward to September, and I was driving a National Geographic photography crew up the mountain for an overnight to capture photos of the area. I had been feeling kind of blah about photography, so was looking forward to being with some experts.

I was immediately impressed by their enthusiasm and abundant photo and video taking.

They made me slow down and take a closer look at bristlecone pine cones (love those bristles!).

And the male pollen cones.

The 2000 Philips Ranch wildfire that burned over one thousand acres included bristlecones, making for some dramatic scenery.

Another thing that impressed me was the vast amount of gear they hauled everywhere. The main photographer was Keith Ladzinski, world-renowned. His assistant Angie Payne (a great photographer in her own right) was a pro at anticipating needs and lugging the heavy bags. Videographer Tommy Joyce kept his camera rolling.

While I observed, I mainly tried to stay out of the way. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos myself.

September was a great time with the fall colors (the far-off aspen patch is one of my favorites!). And spending the night was a good call so we could enjoy golden hour.

I find that I particularly enjoy patterns.

Here's Keith checking a photo he just took.

More patterns. (Did you say squirrel? lol)

The burned trees made for interesting shapes and textures.

Here's Angie carrying tripods and lights. I learned a lot about how much they use additional lighting. 

We talked about bristlecones and their life cycles. This bristlecone is so much older than Angie, even though it's just barely taller than her.

As the sun set, we saw beautiful colors to the west.

The crescent moon hung in the sky.

Then it was time for sleep. Sort of. There were cameras going all night, and then we got up very early to go hike down to the "magic grove" of bristlecones to be there before sunrise. We needed our headlamps.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a cloudy morning, so we didn't get the most dramatic backgrounds, but just before sunrise was quite nice.

Plus, I just love this tree!

So, it's now May 2022. What about that special National Geographic issue? They sent me an advance copy for helping out. 

There's a gorgeous shot by Keith and a paragraph of info. In fact, it might be the most hopeful paragraph in the whole section! The article is amazing, Craig made it seem effortless to combine personal experiences with facts about complex issues. I heartily recommend picking up a copy.

You can also find the story online with a bonus timelapse of bristlecones in Great Basin National Park (and some other trees in other areas):

Forests are reeling from climate change—but the future isn’t lost (

It was such a great experience helping out the National Geographic crews. It is truly amazing how much work goes into every photo, article, and video. Hope you enjoyed this little behind-the-scenes look!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

blogger templates