Exploring Kučka Korita, Črna Gora 2023

A big thank you to our sponsors: the National Speleological Society, Awesome Foundation, and Društvo za raziskovanje jam Ljubljana and Poprat community; we couldn’t make it without your support! 

In June of 2023, a team of 12 cavers traveled from Slovenija, the United States of America, Canada, and France to the village of Poprat, Črna Gora. We had returned ready to push hard in Jama Vručični Snovi (Fever Dreams Cave), which we left going with promising air in 2022. This year, we were happy to be joined by several members from the Društvo za raziskovanje jam Ljubljana (DZRLJ) and merge biologic inventory with exploration.

At the end of the previous year’s expedition, we turned around at the top of a 30 m (90 feet) drop that looked into what appeared to be a large, old trunk passage intersecting the dry canyon we had been surveying up until that point. So we were eager to go back and see what the cave had in store for us.

Cavers are entering Vručični Snovi Cave and waiting for their turn to descend into the cave. Montenegro 2023. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco
Katarina and Penelope in Moon passage in Vručični Snovi Cave. Montenegro, 2022.. Montenegro. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco
Bever Fever shaft discovered in 2022 by TLA. Photo: Jeff Wade
Jeff Wade, at the edge of the Zvijerko shaft, is trying to assess the pit's depth and riggin potential—a 200 m (600 feet) shaft discovered in 2023 by TLA. Photo: Philip Schuchardt

The 2022 discoveries brought us many beautiful cave passages (left), but nothing could compare to the discovery of Zvijerko (right), a 200 m (600 feet) deep shaft with an approximately 100 m diameter. Hearing the echo of a tumbling rock in such a massive void is exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. Photos: Katarina Kosič Ficco (up left), Jeff Wade (down left), and Philip Schuchardt (on the right). 

After two days of putting ropes back onto our route, we began a new exploration. Past this drop, we found a large breakdown room with a slope leading to the top of a tall canyon and a rushing stream audible below. This was the first time we made it to stream level in any of the caves we have explored in the area. We were excited -and breathing easier- now that we were past the very dry and dusty upper levels. Apart from this stream canyon, however, we noticed a draft of air continuing over some breakdown very close to the end of the previous year’s survey. Following this air, we found what we were looking for: a 20-meter-deep canyon that had air blasting in our faces and a streams at the bottom. we called 99 Luftballons and the best discovery so far, Zvijerko. The discovery started an expedition full of excitement and findings. Here are our stories.

Mike Ficco overlooking 99 Luftballons cannyon in Vručični Snovi Cave, discovered in 2023 by TLA. The air blowing in your face from the cannyon gives you the feeling of a ballon in the wind. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco
Zvijerko shaft in Vurčični Snovi Cave. Monetengro, 2023. Photo: Jeff wade
Follow the air. A large room leads into a passage named Crna Tuba, and Crna Tuba leads into Zvijerko. Montenegro, 2023 Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco

Chapter 1: THE DAY WE FOUND ZVIJERKO BREZNO (and the night we were trapped in the cave!)

On June 24, 2023, Jeff Wade, Katarina Kosič Ficco, Mike Ficco, and Philip Schuchardt went into the cave to survey the stream canyon and to continue rigging into the drafty tube above the stream. Mike and Katarina continued the upstream survey, stopping at a waterfall that would require an aid climb. They returned to where they had split from Philip and Jeff and followed the ropes until they came to where Jeff was traversing over a canyon with a false floor. Holes in this false mud floor showed glimpses into a gradually deeper and deeper canyon, and after a few stations, Jeff saw darkness ahead.

Surveying and mapping a cave passage. Mike Ficco and Philip Schuchradt in Crna Tuba (black tube), as we named the passage, because of the dark rock. Phot: Katarina Kosič Ficco
Overlooking the vast darkness. Mike is looking into Zvijerko, a 200 m (600 feet) deep shaft. Montenegro. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco

Jeff shouted to the darkness- the darkness echoed back. The team came together and listened to the sound of water falling far below. Mike threw a rock far out towards the center of the pit. The rock fell for three seconds before striking a ledge, dislodging rocks that fell a further 3 seconds and caused a massive echo resonating through the cave. By this time, it was evening and there were only enough bolts to set a couple of anchors. Jeff started immediately clearing loose rock and traversing out of this window to get a clearer picture of the giant pit. The rest of the team finished surveying the edge and shot the disto toward the far-away walls of the pit. They measured 50 m (150 feet) to each wall, with the pit depth well over 100m (300 feet). Jeff ran out of hardware and rope and stopped about 15m (45 feet) below the passage they had arrived from. Excited, the team headed for the entrance at 21:00. They did not know at this time that finding the big pit was only the first adventure of the day.

Getting ready for the rig. Phillip Moneyhun is getting ready to start riggin Zvijerko shaft. Montenegro 2023 Photo: Tommy Cleckner
Looking up. Teo Delić is looking into a lead we left in 2023. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco

The leads we left behind that day were Zvijerko (left) and a high lead leading into a waterfall upstream from Zvijerko (right, photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco). Later, a new team entered the cave and started rigging Zvijerko. Philip Moneyhun, in the left photo, was one of the team members. Photo: Tommy Cleckner.

In the cave stream at the bottom of 99 Luftballons Teo Delić found a cave-adapted centipede  (below, photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco). Cave biology is one of the things we always try to document during our exploration. In 2023, we had subterranean biologists from the SubBio Lab in Ljubljana who made fantastic discoveries. 

A cave-adapted centipede found by Teo Delič in Vručični Snovi Cave. Montenegro 2023. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco

Philip and Jeff left first, followed by Katarina and Mike. Once Katarina started the first climb, Mike mentioned that the stream levels must have increased as he could hear it rumbling beneath him. Not particularly concerned as most of the cave leading out is extremely dry, they continued their ascend.  Once they reach Queezer Teezer, things become even more interesting. A loud rumbling sound, resembling a washing machine, was coming from behind the wall, making the team happy that they first discovered the dry route into the cave. The team had just learned two things: 1.) The route the water takes from the surface is quite closely parallel to the standard route. 2.) There’s a new shaft to be discovered (in dry conditions) 3.) It was raining, probably a lot.

This was quickly confirmed once the team came closer to the entrance, and they heard water flowing down the entrance canyon, which was usually dry. Phillip checked the conditions and returned with the report that a thunderstorm on the surface had turned the entrance shaft into several waterfalls and the entrance canyon into a river. Realizing they were trapped in the cave, they made an impromptu bivy in a sandy alcove of a dry passage. Once Katarina and Mike reached them, they stopped them, explaining that they were not leaving soon. Resigned, they got comfortable on the shelf and spent several hours switching between naps and snacking. The evening peak was when Jeff, Mike, and Katarina woke up to the clinking sound of the gear. Once they turned on their lights, they saw Philip staring at them and holding the wall. Among loud bursts of laughter, Philip explained to them that he was cold and decided to do squads in the dark so he wouldn’t wake them up. Since he couldn’t see it, he held on to the wall. After several hours of shenanigans and miserable naps (by that point, the team was quite cold), the storm subsided a little, and they could exit. The team returned to camp around five in the morning, where the rest of us woke up to bring them beer, tea, and hot food and hear the exciting news.

Let's take a rest. The team is waiting for the rain to stop so they can safely exit the cave. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco
Queezer Teezer , one of the shaft teh team needs to negotiatie on the route in Vručični Snovi Cave. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade.

Left photo: The team is taking a nap while waiting for the storm to pass, and the entrance shaft returns to be a shaft instead of a waterfall. Luckily, they had plenty of snacks and a nice dry, sandy shelf to wait on (Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco). Right photo: Queezer Teezer shaft revealed it has a twin brother on the other side of the wall. The brother gets very loud during significant rain events and needs to be yet discovered (Photo: Jeff Wade). 


The shaft, which the discovering team named Zvijerko Brezno, lived up to the excitement generated at camp. It was big and beautiful, with multiple intersecting domes and several high leads visible. After a couple days, the shaft was rigged and surveyed to 205 m depth. The upper section is largely dry, and characterized by breakdown on one wall, with large sediment slopes and huge slabs of detached rock. After a pinch point about a third of the way down, the shaft transitioned to a wet, straight sided dome with several waterfalls entering from far above. 50 m from the bottom of the pit and about 30 m from the current rigging is a large window in the wall with a breakdown floor visible. The team wanted to check this lead and speculated that even if it was not a way on, it could be considered as a location for an underground camp. At the bottom of the shaft are large boulders rounded and polished by large amounts of water, suggesting that you do not want to be in the shaft during big rain events.
We had less than a week left on site and expected more wet weather. There was concern that the ropes in the lower, wet section of Zvijerko might get hammered by the waterfalls when it rained heavily, so we made the decision to derig at least the lower section, and leave the large lead in the side of the shaft for a future year. With just one day left to access lower Zvijerko, we decided to consolidate our efforts. Objectives for our day trip were the following:

Zvijerko brezno from bottom up. Vručični Snovi Cave, Montenegro 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade
The bottom of Zvijerko has large boulders, polished and reshaped by water to resemble giant cave pearls. Vručični Snovi Cave, Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade

The bottom of Zvijerko (left) has large boulders, polished and reshaped by water to resemble giant cave pearls (right). Vručični Snovi Cave, Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade

  • Continue survey
  • Update the rigging diagram
  • Collect invertebrates for the biological inventory
  • Collect mummified bats for study
  • Take photos of Zvijerko
  • De-rig the lower pitches.

We assembled a team consisting of The Ladies and Jeff for what we expected to be a pretty long day.

We decided that Maja Zagmajster, Špela Borko, and Katarina K. Ficco would look for biology. Riley Drake and Penelope Vorster had surveyed the big pit earlier in the week and were ready to return for more. There was a pit of about 50 meters that Tommy Cleckner had rigged on the previous trip that needed to be surveyed. On the way out, Riley and Penelope would make a rigging diagram for Zvijerko. All of us would travel down and then up the pit in a group, helping light and model for the photos Jeff planned to take.

As with the best plans, things started to go wrong almost immediately. Shortly after entering the cave, Riley felt very sick. Riley suspected she was having an allergic reaction due to gluten cross-contamination in the camp kitchen. She turned around and planned to join Phillip M. and Tommy, who were having a smaller day surveying some leads in the upper part of the cave. With our team reduced to five cavers, we continued to the bottom of the cave.

Katarina took on double duty, helping collect invertebrates while also running instruments for the survey. Once we reached the top of the pit, Jeff explained his plans. He finished his description by stating: “I will need you to hold the light, spread your legs, and stay as still as possible,” not realizing the company he was in. Katarina asked Penelope: “Did he just say that we need to spread our legs and stay still?” and received the response: “Pretty much.” All the ladies burst out laughing and enjoying the embracement on Jeff’s face once he realized what he had actually stated.

For those unfamiliar with cave photography and Jeff’s respectful, humble and gentle demeanor. Cave photography is highly challenging as the light needs to be just right, not too high or too low, and even a slight motion causes the photo to be blurry. It is also hard to paint a caver’s silhouette, so it is essential that a caver spreads her or his limbs and holds still. These challenges multiply when a photo is taken in a large shaft such as Zvijerko, and cavers must hang on a rope for hours to get one good shot.  Another beautiful fact is that more women are joining the caving community. So, it isn’t uncommon for cavers to forget the nuances of communication. 

Jeff Wade is getting ready for the photography and explaining the cave photography process to the rest of the team. Vručični Snovi Cave, Montenegro 2023. Photo: Katarina Kosič Ficco
A posing cave millipede with its hunter, Špela Borko. Vručični Snovi Cave, Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade

 Continuing in the same cheerful spirit, we found Tommy’s description of the 50 m shaft below Zvijerko to be accurate; the pit ended with water sinking into the breakdown and a couple of small mud siphons. The route on which we could continue was now above us. Returning to the bottom of Zvijerko, we rejoined Maja, Špela, and Jeff. Jeff was preparing the camera equipment while Maja and Špela collected charming creatures, including a big millipede who posed for a few photos. When we say bug, we are talking 5 cm. Cave creatures are usually tiny (rarely over 1 cm) but highly resilient. 

Katarina and Penelope started working their way up, making a detailed rigging document. Maja followed third, and we all stopped occasionally when Jeff decided we were in the right spot to light photos. Špela kindly volunteered to come up last, de-rigging a 60 m rope from the bottom of the pit and coiling the 160m above that at the anchor below the dry section. A few hours and many photos later, the first four of us convened above the shaft for a pot of coffee in the Bothy bag. Once Špela ascended the shaft the clock turned midnight and she was welcomed by a Happy birthday to you song that the team sang from the Bothy bag, her birthday just started. Despite an extra year, she felt invigorated after hauling the ropes, and she and the 60 m rope elected to keep moving and lead the way out of the cave. We packed up our little shelter, and Penelope followed Špela while Jeff, Maja, and Katarina planned to collect and photograph mummified bats on the way out. Taking their time to exit, Penelope and Špela both enjoyed naps at the entrance until the rest of the team joined them at 04:00. It was Špela’s birthday, and we suggested that this must be the best way to start a new year of one’s life!

The sun rose while we hiked across the plateau on our way back to the car. After 24 hours on his feet, Jeff was still full of energy! He ran circles around us, taking photos in the early morning light. We arrived back in camp at 07:00 to a group of concerned men, as our callout was at 8:00. We barely made it and celebrated with a breakfast of pivo (beer) and bostan  (watermelon).

Cavers go on a mountain twice. First, they climb the mountain; second, they descend into the mountain. Third, they ascend out of the mountain, and fourth, they hike off it. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade
Resting and briefing the team entering the cave. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade.

On the right: Ladies and Jeff are descending the mountain. Cavers’ way is to conquer the mountain twice: First, they climb the mountain; second, they descend into the mountain. Third, they ascend out of the mountain, and fourth, they hike off it. Montenegro, 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade On the right: The team that exited the cave has a day of rest and is briefing the team entering the cave. Base Camp in Poprat, Montenegro 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade


In 2023, we left several leads. Zvijerko has a lot of passages in the middle of the shaft. This means we will need to perform aid-climbs to reach them. That is a very time and gear consuming endeavor, yet the only way to find out what lies beyond. Since the shaft had a diameter of 150 m (450 feet), we would need to do at least 50 m (150 feet) traverses to get to them and 100 m (300 feet) tall climbs. That might change if we find someone willing to land us a drone that can perform in subterranean environments. 

We also have the upstream lead that also requires an aid-climb and leads leading into the wet part of the cave and potentially to the Viješ Mašina Brezno (Washing Machine Shaft), which we discovered via auditory ways of the water. 

Additionally, we have another cave that we didn’t focus on this year, Jama Još trideset metara (30 More Meters Cave), which could connect to Vručični Snovi and might enable us to skip some aid climbs in Zvijerko.  

But first we need to find sponsors that will be willing to support our gear purchases. Thanks to Awesome Foundation, we are up to a good start; however not anywhere near to achieving our goal and providing enough resources for the expedition to happen in 2025, when we are going back! 

Još Trideset Metara Cave, Montenegro 2022. Photo: Philip Schuchardt
Penelope Vorster at the top of Još trideset metara entrance shaft. Montenegro, 2022 Photo: Sara Fleetwood

Shafts of Još trideset metara cave. Left Photo: Philip Schuchardt, right photo: Sara Fleetwood

Group photo from the Montenegro Expedition 2023. Photo: Jeff Wade

Group Photo. From left to right: Maja Zagmajster, Teo Delić, Tommy Cleckner, Riley Drake, Phillip Schuchardt, Philip Moneyhun, Penelope Vorster, Matic Di Batista, Špela Borko, Danja Delić Zagmajster, Katarina Kosič Ficco, Mike Ficco, Jeff Wade. Photo: Jeff wade.