Medvedjak cave, 2017
Who is Špela Borko?
I am a caver and a biologist. Interestingly, my name in Albanian means "cave" (shpella). I soon escaped from the Kočevje forests to civilization in Ljubljana, and from there I proceeded towards Gorenjska (Upper Carniola region). Or, to say in a little bit more formal way: I was born on June 30, 1990 in Ljubljana. I finished primary school in Stara Cerkev (a small village near Kočevje, Southern Slovenia), Biotechnical High School in Ljubljana and the study of biology at the Biotechnical Faculty, also in Ljubljana, where I am currently employed as a junior researcher.
What could you say about your early years?
I loved animals, books and logic.
What brought you to biology?
In high school, where we shared facilities with future veterinary technicians, I found that veterinary medicine was not for me. I enjoyed researching, finding answers to questions, as well as solving math problems. I was fascinated by the evolutionary biology. With evolutionary theory we can connect the present, the past and the future, a kind of answer to the Question of Life, The Universe and Everything. Biology has thus prevailed.
Was the diploma thesis interesting? Did you enjoy its research?
I explored the fauna of the deep caves of Trnovski gozd (the Trnovo forest plateau). We were interested in whether the subterranean fauna composition changes with the distance to the surface. For this purpose I visited four times ten caves, located on various parts of the massif, two of them to depths of over 600 and 800 meters, respectively. During the fieldwork, I learned a lot about the difficulty of sampling subterranean fauna, about what we don't know, even the most fundamental questions. Caves are just windows into the subterranean habitat that human can access. The habitat itself is much more varied than one would think. What kind of environment does a species live in? What does it eat? Is its life cycle seasonal, tied to rainfall, or to something else? Why do you see twenty bugs in the same place once, and none the next time? We caught three specimens of a new, scientifically undescribed species of beetle. We went looking for it six more times, and never found it again. Were we looking in the wrong place, or at the wrong time? Was the bait wrong? A coincidence? We showed that the fauna partly changes with depth. Of course, the thesis was enjoyable, but it was quite difficult at times. Analysing and interpreting the results was even more challenging than pushing a car out of a snowdrift or looking for a cave in the fog. I am grateful to everyone who was willing to accompany me into the caves.
Špela in the entrance of a narrow shaft in Romeo cave, July 2017, photo by Behare Rexhepi (published with permission)
The PhD dissertation is not in the field of alpine cave fauna. What is it about?
I study the evolutionary dynamics of a 45 million years old group of subterranean crustaceans. Hidden underground, Niphargus survived through catastrophic events and ice ages that wiped out the majority of European Miocene fauna. Today, more than 400 species occupy underground waters from Ireland to Iran, with highest diversity in South-Eastern Europe, in the Dinarides. We reconstructed the phylogenetic relationships among species, the tempo and mode of speciation (i. e. emergence of new species), how they inhabited various new subterranean habitats and how they diversified morphologically. In second part of the dissertation I focus on the Dinarides. I analyse different aspects of Niphargus diversity in space, how diversity varies in space, and how it correlates with environment. The idea is to analyse the diversity patterns with respect to environmental factors, to get insight into the driving mechanisms behind these patterns.
In my thesis I also study the diversity of Niphargus. The photo shows four different species living in different subterranean habitats. Photo by Teo Delić (published with permission)
What else in biology is of interest to you?
The underworld in all its shades. Evolutionary biogeography more than mechanistic biology. I find it fascinating that there are tools that make it possible to reconstruct what happened millions of years ago. For this purpose we use data on the current situation combined with geological, climatic and paleontological data. Therefore, it is extremely important to combine different sciences and to have a broad view. Let me speak of the Kanin mountains and of the Alps. What is the distribution of species in space? We don't know, because the high mountain karst is much less explored as is the more easily accessible lowland karst. How many species are there and what are their phylogenetic relations? We don't know, but we do know that most species are probably not yet scientifically described. When did they come to this area? What was the situation like then? Can we imagine Slovenia 15 million years ago, at a time when, for example, the most intensive diversification of Niphargus took place? How high was the massif that we recognise as Kanin today? What was the temperature, how much water was there, how karstified was the terrain? What happened with the animals during the ice ages? There are so many questions that it is difficult to decide which one to tackle.
With Matic on a winter expedition to Kanin, December 2019. Photo by Jaka Flis (published with permission)
Is any animal particularly noteworthy that we know little about, but we should know more?
We know surprisingly little about most subterranean animals. We don't know how to grow them in the lab, for example. Even about the most enigmatic species, such as the slender-necked beetle, Leptodirus hochenwartii, we know less than we would like. Genetic research on this famous species is still ongoing and its results will reveal whether there may be more than one species. I would like to sample as many high-altitude (subterranean) animals as possible, as I am aware that there are not many of us who would take samples there. Species description is another matter. I wish that all new species would get their names eventually, but I can't imagine tackling the tedious and demanding part of writing proper descriptions at this point. Genetic reconstruction is the easiest part. It is more difficult to study morphology of the specimens, to measure and draw them, to list and compare new species with all the species already described. There is a lack of taxonomists for many groups of animals. Just a few people in the world deal with springtails (Collembola) and exactly two with cave springtails. Both have accumulated enough material for several lives of analytical work.
How do you feel in your current job?
When did you get excited about climbing?
When I realized that I would also need to do something during the week to keep the level of fitness, required for deep cave exploration. Overall, I am a pretty lazy person. Various ball sports I disliked since I was a child, probably because I am quite clumsy with a ball. I've never persisted on running long enough to fall in love with it, all my bikes have been stolen (an excuse, I know), and climbing offers a mental challenge that motivates me enough to persevere.
How did you get to caving?
By chance. In my third year of undergraduate studies (in 2013), I stumbled upon an ad for a caving school and wondered, why not. I had a tremendous fear of heights and some sort of idea that it would be easier to overcome in the dark than on the surface.
How were the first field trips?
Tiring and rewarding. The (single) rope technique under the bridge was quite simple, but anything higher (or deeper) posed a great mental challenge. In Medvedjak cave the descent was OK, while on return ascent, when I was hanging in the middle of the void and the rope was spinning slowly, the fear took its toll. Tears ran down and every move was a struggle with my mind. Not because it would be physically too difficult, but because I felt with my whole being that I would stagger into the void if I unclenched the fingers with which I grabbed the rope. Height was not only uncomfortable for me, but a serious obstacle. When I was little, I loved climbing trees, and then at the age of six I fell off a cherry tree and injured my back. After that, I didn't step on the balcony unless it was necessary, I didn't walk in the hills, I didn't ride the elevator. When I got out of Medvedjak, I was infinitely happy that I made it and I was also a little proud. From there, it only went deeper. Even today, I am afraid of heights, but I try to control it and turn it to my advantage. It doesn't always work out, but it often does.
In the rope ascent contest at the silo at Vir near Domžale, in 2014, you reached the top in less than half the time of the second-placed competitor. The result is unprecedented, reminiscent of the achievements of Ingemar Stenmark (when he fell in the slalom for the World Cup, picked himself up and still finished in second position). What year was it and how did you achieve it?
It wasn't hard to beat the competition in the SRT race, as all the competitors were not serious cavers. It is not difficult to be the first in the village. My goal is to be good enough to be a part of a bigger story - of the deepest through-cave in the world (the future Kanin Cave System) or the future longest cave in Slovenia (the system that is developing around the Grvn cave) for example.
What surprised you the most in P4?
The depth of Infinitum, the hall at a depth o 960 meters. From the passage at the 200 m deep abyss Odmev temine (Echo of the darkness) to the bottom of Infinitum there are 80 meters of vertical distance, but the boulders at the bottom are so large that the ground looks much closer than it really is. As we were prolonging the rope in the middle of the void, and solid ground was nowhere to be seen, we only became aware of the largesse of the hall. The morphology of the tunnels between the Infinitum and the currently extreme southeastern point of the cave is also surprising. The water flow can be reached in several places, but the water flows back to the northwest, towards the Copacabana and Ipanema siphons. When we overcome the barrier that created the siphons, I reckon something really big will open up.
Half a century ago caves north of Lake Bohinj pushed the boundaries of the society achievements. Now Bohinj is in the forefront again, this time caves to the south, around Planina Poljana. What could you say about them?
I don't understand how they could have stayed hidden from the cavers for so long. Exploring these caves is really rewarding and a true treat. Shallow and short pits prevail, but an unusually large number continue into the depths, where we reach a maize of horizontal tunnels. I was used to work hard for any new meters in a cave. Here we measure 300 meters of tunnels on every trip. For the first time, we also found several large and long passages, straight tunnels, so called boreholes. In just over two years, we have registered more than 60 caves, and at least 20 more are waiting to be explored and surveyed. The longest, the Grvn-Rajža Cave System, is 7.010 meters long and 497 meters deep. The depth potential is somewhere up to -1000 meters, so I reckon that sooner or later we will find a transition to deeper levels and new horizontal webs hiding down there. We have also not yet achieved a noteworthy water flow anywhere, which, given the high precipitation in the area, is certainly a must. It is also interesting that many shafts are in the dolomite. At least that's what society's geologists say.
What about the climbing travel to Madagascar, with Matic in 2018?
The extreme poverty of a large part of the population and the unhidden exploitation by the Westerners have stricken me to the bottom of my heart. By the way, the eastern part of Madagascar has been plagued by severe drought since 2018. Three years of drought, can you imagine? Climate change is here, undoubtedly. Of course, the walls were interesting too. It was one of my first contacts with granite and with "big walls", where the runouts are really long and the accesses are not equipped at all.
But how was in 2019 in Mexico? In the Chève cave?
Chève is very different from the caves here in Slovenia. Above all, the cave is predominantly horizontal, with an occasional rope here and there. It was an unusual experience to face the water - in Mexican caves you just walk into the water in full caving gear, you will dry out later. At first we Slovenians were like cats, we avoided contact with water as much as possible. However, once you accept that you will spend 14 days in wet boots, moving around the cave becomes easier. The exploration approach is very different from what we do here. In one expedition, the cave is besieged for several months. The cavers pursue the same goal, but they are distinctly individualistic, everybody is taking care of himself first and foremost. It was an instructive experience, but I wouldn't pass that mentality on to our society. On our expeditions we are comrades, friends. We are willing to share a bowl, a spoon, and in an emergency, the last piece of food. Perhaps the motivation to move boundaries is even stronger this way. It also seems to me that we also have a more efficient use of time. The alpine approach, small team and quick trips is a good recipe for success, so I would say.
At the entrance of Chève cave: Jure Bevc, Jerica Koren, Špela Borko and Matic Di Batista, April 2019. Photo by Matic Di Batista (published with permission)
All the caves are beautiful. But you probably like the one the most, and why?
I don't associate my favourite caves with beauty, but with the challenge they present, with the experiences they have given me. A special place will always have the cave Trubarjev dah (Trubar's breath). After about seventy visits, I was able to recall every meter of the cave. Even the "most beautiful" part of the cave might have a place here. On my first visit, the Beautiful meander overwhelmed me with a light-coloured rock and a bubbling stream. Countless visits have left their mark, but I still remember how much I liked it the first time. Today, Trubarjev dah is a nostalgia for simpler, more relaxed times. When Garmin and Diba and I made underground trips, one after the other, as we learned exploration and rigging, invented new more or less inappropriate methods, and grumbled about the hardships of student life. A similarly important but completely different place has the Renejevo brezno-P4 cave system, which combines my first visited and first explored thousand-meter deep cave. This system is bigger, more demanding, more dangerous, scarier. But at the same time, it has a promise of greater, world-class achievements. Stalactites and calcite concretions don't touch me much, I'm happier with a mighty canyon or a miniature aragonite hedgehog or cave flowers in P4.
What about heart matters? Matic is good, but is there still room for improvement?
Matic is one of the strongest people I know. In critical moments, he is able to put his own feelings aside and react rationally in a way that is best for the team. He also has an extraordinary sense of diplomacy. He is able to lead people in the direction he sets out without provoking conflict, recognizing the weakness of an individual and turn it to advantage. He rarely bursts in rage but when he does, we all know that it is for a reason. I myself am (too) direct and honest, I tell everyone what she or he deserves. Matic then sweeps the scattered feathers and makes sure that all are happy at the end. He is also extremely persistent and able to suppress pain, his stubbornness is an example to me and gives me strength. Each of us can do a lot, together we can do everything.
With Matic in Članska vas near Laze, October 2021.
What was your most beautiful and your worst experience in caves?
It was most beautiful to see the depth of 1002 meters on the palm computer in P4. I was similarly moved when I got to the point through P4 cave when I knew I reached the Renejevo brezno (a trip where we should have equipped the connection with Beki, but we ran out of rope for the last stage). On René's side, we spent countless hours climbing and digging, knowing the cave continues. But we were unsuccessful. Until we finally got a confirmation from the other side, through different cave. And of course the splendid moment when I saw Garmin's hand from Trubarjev dah cave - I was in Platonovo šepetanje cave. Our first large cave system is definitely a nice memory. In a way, every time you see the surface after a long and strenuous underground trip, it's beautiful. Especially if Andrej or Marjan stand at the entrance, take away your transport bag and give you a beer. I remember with a smile the New year that Matic and I spent at the bottom of P4. When the others gave up on the unpromising work site, they called us stubborn and went out for a New Year's party. We worked hard for two more days, climbed Trmoglavi kamin (Stubborn chimney) to the top and celebrated the New Year in a bivouac a kilometre below the surface, with a few sips of whiskey and a single bajadera candy. At the next trip, the Stubborn chimney turned downwards, we were right.
All-female expedition to P4 cave in the base camp at -960 m: Nika Pišek Szillich, Darja Kolar, Behare Rexhepi, Špela Borko and Ester Premate, November 2019. Photo by Ester Premate (published with permission)
I can divide the worst into two categories. I'm certainly most horrified to
see a friend get injured. Although we have resolved all the situations with more or less luck,
they still haunt me in my sleep. The most physically uncomfortable action, however, was when
I fell ill in P4. Getting out of not exactly the easiest thousand-meter cave with a severe
virosis, a breath-taking cough, and two slipped intervertebral discs was quite a challenge.
Jure and Matic put me in a sandwich and we moved on, from anchorage to anchorage. The cough
echoed after the Odmev temine. At one point I forgot that Jure was also there, above me
and I started to climb on the rope on which he was still attached. Outside, the Siberian
cold squeezed the last air out of my lungs. The next morning we made a minor scandal
as a helicopter came to pick us up. I treated the virus for another month and my back
until the next New Year's Eve expedition.
What advice would you give to anyone deciding whether to go into serious caving or not?
Try it. It will quickly become clear whether the cave pulls you to the bottom or spits you out to the surface.
What would you say about the modern nuisance, about the COVID-19? How has it changed us?
Above all, it opened our eyes to how fragile are the freedoms we have, the system in which we live. It seems to me that we should fight harder for a better tomorrow. Respect science and at the same time demand that it serves only itself, not politics. At no point was I afraid of the corona, but I was afraid of the repression in which we found ourselves. Illness is a terrible experience, of course, but living in a cage is not worth living. I spent part of the corona time in Switzerland. The experience was instructive. When I returned, I violated nonsensical rules with an even easier conscience, at the same time adhering to sensible hygiene principles more than before. And probably getting on the nerves of the people around me when I moralized about the responsibility that every individual should have, especially those with a degree in science. I still feel we're too selfish. And at the same time too numb, we should occupy the streets, meeting rooms and halls and demand different measures and a different society at all levels. Not to tire the reader too much, I will mention only the mixed feelings we had as we climbed out of Rajža cave into a clear winter night. The reality caught us - in the valley there was a curfew and the limitation of movement to municipality. A fleeting thought, what if someone in the valley would see a light on the mountain in the middle of the night, and a wild cry of freedom that has blown away our worries. We only live once.
Finally, a little different question. Which color do you like most and why?
What you like changes in life, with some people more often. I currently admire the vibrant fall foliage and would answer with a shade somewhere between yellow and orange. After a week below the surface, I am infinitely delighted with the blue of the clear sky. The light green color of the spring beech forest, especially in the sun, is also one of my favorite colors. Among my clothing, however, there is often a piece of dark red.
Vranja jama - cave entrance from the inside with Špela's favorite colors, 2019 and 2021 (photo and the above image). Colors were changed - if the average of pixel RGB values (0-255) was below 128 and if their standard deviation was below 10 (mostly dark gray to black) these values were modified as follows: red was multiplied by 1.5, green was divided by 2 and blue was divided by 10. A click on the picture shows it in better resolution.
Kudrat Radžabov, Dehibolo elder, October 2021
Hudojnazar Mustafokulovič, son of Mustafo of Boybuloq, December 2021
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