Sepino Gorge Adventure
As instructors, members of the 2662 detachment had passes that allowed them more or less unrestricted travel in their free time. While stationed in Sepino eight of them decided to make their way through a nearby gorge, possibly near Guardiaregia or Guardia. This group was made up of Ed Link, Gordy Wren, Bob Galaher, Cliff Schmidtke, Freddy Pieren, Carl Blanchard, Herb Rasor and Jack Kappler. The story that follows was written by Gordon Wren.
Hi Jack, Do you remember this? As you may guess I wrote it to send to Caroline. I doubt if she even saw the thing. I'm always digging something out... Galaher did the painting in watercolor for me.
Started Sept 26, finished it Oct 3, 1944.
You will wonder before you get through this, how I have so much time. ha.-. Someday I will tell you. This is going to be about an adventure eight of us had a long time ago. Nothing tactical, but very amusing. At least to all of us, and true.
Not many miles from where we were stationed was a very deep gorge leading down from a range of mountains. We could see from very high up on the mountains, that it was very narrow in places, as well as bottomless. Someone had the big inspiration of wondering if anyone had ever been through it. That started us off. For days we talked of it and we even got ahold of an aerial photo map to measure it's length from one end to the other. We figured with its winding and twisting it would be about two and one half or three miles through the part we were interested in.
At the end of the gorge was a very flat and wide valley; and also a small town just on the right side of the last bit of the canyon, as it began lowering into the flat valley.
We managed to get a vehicle (truck) and went from our base via a round-about way to the valley and to the city. We even had a interpreter. Using him as our means of understanding the Italians, (Though we had found four or five men who had been to the States many years previous, who could speak fairly well.) we asked if anyone had ever been down and through the gorge. You could see alarm and a immediate look of puzzlement on their faces. Well it seemed no one had ever been through it. Years before (they said) a party had started down and after going part way, they decided it was impossible, so they had turned back having one "heck of a time" getting up and out of some of the places they had came down. Naturally, this made us a bit dubious, but not trusting a Iti (short for Italian), or his judgment we decided a few days later, that on the first day we had free again, we were going to shoot the works.
So it came — our free day was to be a thursday (anyhow I'll say thursday, because I'm not sure). I think Wednesday night everyone prayed for a Sun-shining, warm day. For we knew it would be cold as the dickens down in the gorge. Also we expected to have to swim, therefore getting plenty wet. (It was good we did prepare to swim, because swim we did, almost half way). We've probably all prayed for powdered snow for skiing, but probably never far a good warm day so we could go on a crazy adventure like this one.
Our Captain Link arranged for a truck and we left our area at eight O'clock that thursday morning. We drove to that small town at the foot of the gorge. Also our wish was granted as to weather—it was a good day.
From there we zigzagged up and around a mountain to where we had decided to drop into the gorge. By ten thirty we were at the spot where we were to start down.
"Doc Jackson", Bob and Captain Link were in the group. Even where we started, the sides went up pretty high. One side about four hundred feet and on the other about two hundred.
Being late in the season there wasn't very much water running. (about like that which runs out of the dam at "S(sp?)ong Lake"). But boy, there were natural rock dams ever so often and in some places water was backed up for a couple hundred feet. How deep it may have been in some of those places, was a thrill to think about. We were all glad everyone could swim — and how!
All of us were wearing British shorts (pants) and GI shoes. Bob was the only one to wear a cap besides myself and all mine was, was a sort of skull cap, red white and blue, with a tassel on it. I only wore it for fun and some day you will see a picture of us and it. Bob wore his hat so he could put his cigarettes and matches in it— his objective was to see how long he could go, keeping them dry—(he did, almost!).
I was carrying a hundred and twenty foot rope and we had pitons and snap rings. All were carrying a short sling rope for safety first measures.
Well, where we started out, there were rock walls on both sides from the very beginning. We had to swim a fifty foot pool the first thing. There was no other way! If anyone had any ideas about not getting wet, it was squelched very quickly.
Some places we were able to go down the middle from one rock to another and in places even a sort of gravel bed to move along. There were places here and there where you could take your pick of either swimming or walking your way around by means of small hand and foot holds. In doing this — sometimes your feet were in the water or perhaps just out, or maybe a fellow would be even fifty feet above on one side or the other.
We weren't taking any chances, however there were times when we did unnecessary things. We knew what a job it would be to get a injured man out in any direction. The farther in we got the more we realized this.
At one place we came to a natural zig-zag slide about three feet under that ended with a little drop of about eight or ten ft, making a nice little waterfall into a pool below. The water had formed a moss on this little chute and it was slick as grease (we found out). We were afraid to drop that far because there might be a sharp rock to light astraddle, (which wouldn't suit anyone of us), or just a rock that by dropping on would cause anything from a sprain to even a broken limb or worse. So we tied Fredy Pieren on the rope and let him down the slippery chute and over the brink down into the pool. He sounded it out (or felt around for rocks) , there were none so he walked his way across the pool pulling the rope on over.I was next, so down the chute I went—Zest—talk about slick rock, Wowy! I really went under when I hit but came up and crossed on over to where Fredy was already. We got ring-side seats, to watch six rip roaring, yelling GI's shoot down that slide going clear under and coming up, thrashing like mad for the other side. (but with a pair of shoes and pants, even though short pants it is a hard job to swim very fast.) Everyone reached the opposite side of the pool, joking and exclaiming they had never had more fun. By this time the rope was all coiled and we were on our way again.
Suddenly I found myself in the rear of the party. All of us found that you were continually changing places. The reason being that, if you were in the lead, you would be choosing the route and sometimes you would suddenly come to the end of "the trail", but by being in front, that person could generally see another surer route or maybe a better or quicker way than the particular one he was on. In this way those who were in the rear would swap around and be in the middle or lead again, only to be side tracked again soon in a similar problem.
There were many times through out the adventure that some would be scaling the edge of the rocks while others were playing fish and swimming. The water was generally faster but more uncomfortable. It just depended on how you felt when you had a choice. Sometimes you could wade, but the water was a milky color and you couldn't see just what you were wadding on, or if your next step would be over your head and then some.
On checking we found that Bob's cigarettes were still dry. Even after that little slide at the drop into the pool the cigarettes and matches were O.K. We couldn't decide whether he had his cap on in a water-proof way or if he kept his head from going under in some miraculous way. It happened so fast we couldn't tell, but they were dry— I know! Because we took time out for a quick smoke.
We exclaimed then and later,—what some cigarette company would give if they could see us or have moving pictures of us in that place, keeping their cigarettes dry so we could have a smoke. Although none of us really had to have a smoke we did under the circumstances.
As we moved on at a good speed, (considering the terrain), we came to a sheer drop of about twenty ft, and the only way down was straight down. If we wanted to continue we must go down it. We knew we were far enough in now that there would be no going back unless it was absolutely necessary.
The width of the canyon at the point where the water dropped over was about six feet and sheer on each side, and then gradually tapering away on each side above that for several hundred more feet.
Our rope came into use again, there was no other way. For an anchor we used an old log which had fallen down into the canyon a year or more before. The water had washed it so that it was lodged in among the rocks in away it could not be budged; which for our purpose made it about perfect. Now the rope had to be fitted around the log in such a way that after all eight men had gone down, we could retrieve the rope. One end of the rope was put over the log, (not wrapped around), then that end was pulled and let over the drop until it hit the water below. The other end , or long end was already down which made a total of about fifty feet of rope used , leaving sixty feet on the long end just lying in the water.
I think you know what a rappel is. Now we were already for just that. But this wasn't a normal rappel, because as you lowered yourself down, the whole creek was hitting you and the head and shoulders, and all over the whole twenty feet down. That wasn't all, normally you have a place to set your feet when you get off of a rappel, (we had a place to get off all right) but the only thing there was to put our feet on, was water, and there was no bottom. So as you let yourself down and got out of the ropes (while in the water) it was swim again. This time it was for about one hundred and fifty feet. In some places it was twenty or thirty feet wide and in others you could reach out and touch your hand on the walls on each side at the same time. We were getting in places now where the rocks over head sometimes leaned over so far in the narrow places that they made a cave like appearance. Because of this it was not as light as it could have been.
I almost forgot to mention getting the rope after we had all used it for a rappel down. It came down easily, we just pulled on the long end until the other end slide up and came free of the log and dropped down into the water. Wrapping it up again in a coil was not quite so easy there in the water, but with everyone helping we got it into a pretty good coil. Bob took over the rope at this point. We carried it by using a sling rope over the shoulder, as you would carry a fishing basket.
After getting across this little body of water we traveled pretty fast for a half mile or so with only considerable trouble. A short dip here and a little climb around the edge of a pool, as a short traverse up and down as a short wade.
As I said before we weren't wasting anytime nor were we hurrying so fast as to take chances. But if there were eight other men in Italy who could have gotten over that stuff any more surer or faster, I would pay a good price to witness it. Everyone was working together and trying to get to the other end as quickly as we could.
I haven't mentioned that we were all shivering and cold and I dare say that I was probably shaking more than any one and believe me, we were really beginning to miss the good old sunshine.
We ran onto a few snakes, but they were only poor harmless water snakes and couldn't harm us. They were to busy getting to heck out of our road and no doubt wondering what in blazes these darn things were doing down in that hole. I guarantee they had never seen any humans before unless they dropped over the side or came the same route down we did, any how snakes were the least of our worries.
On we traipsed all the time finding difficulties, but hardly worth mentioning. We were about halfway through the gorge now, and the height was beginning to peter out, however at this point the left side must have been about eight or nine hundred feet high and that "Ain't hay." Eh?
All had been so-so, until we came to "Stinks pool." And I ain't kidding. I'll never forget that pool, never! Here we were walls on each side, and a pool about sixty feet across that was formed by a natural, huge, one-rock-dam. It looked as though a giant had dropped this large rock down into the gorge, and it had wedged in between the two sides almost perfectly, causing a dam. —all the debris, small sticks, bark, dead snakes, dead birds, and anything else carried by the stream, had come down the canyon to this point, where it could go no farther. The water couldn't rise high enough to cause a flow over the rock because as the water raised, it was able to seep out of the cracks on either side of the rock where it was wedged against the walls. This caused the flow of the stream to continue, but didn't allow anything but water to filter through.
No one wanted to swim through that mess, (just smelling it was bad enough) but what could we do? A rope was no good here! There was no way we could use it. And even if a fellow did swim or plow across this pool, it didn't look as if he would have a very good chance of getting up the natural dam, and to top that off we didn't know what was on the other side of the wedged rock. All we could see was canyon and space beyond it.
Do you remember "Cliff Schmidtke"? He was one of the eight. Now if there is a possible route up the side of a cliff or wall or across it, he generally finds it and makes it. So he did here! By moving up to the left via a few finger holds and toe holds (not foot and hand) he traversed about fifteen feet and then started moving across directly over the "stink pool." If he fell he would tumble about fifteen feet straight down into that big mess of stuff. There were some good sized chunks of wood in the mess, so it would not go good with a fellow if he should fall, but he didn't. Some of us might have, but not "Cliff", I think he uses his teeth and finger nails to climb with sometimes. Gradually he traversed until he had gone out of sight and he yelled back that it wasn't too tough. Well, it had taken him fifteen minutes to make it and with eight of us all slower than he, we figured at least two hours.
Bob looked at me and I looked at him, then without a word we plunged into that stinking pool. He headed for the crack on the left side and I for the one on the right, but the farther we got into the mess the deeper and thicker (if it could get thicker) it got. For a depth of about two feet it was like a thick pool of gravy except that every time you moved a arm or leg you banged it on a chunk of something or other. No kidding I felt kinda like a fellow who gets claustrophobia. I kinda wanted to turn and go back. But I hadn't tried yet and Bob I noticed, was almost to the rock on the other side. So not to be out done I went ahead again and managed to get to the rock and then I realized what we had thought at first, that it would be a job to get up over the rock, as I couldn't find any hand or foot holds. Just out of reach was an old chunk of a tree that had been lodged in there when the water had been higher. How, if it had been just plain water it would have been no job to raise out of the pool a short distance and at the same time grab it, but there was more than just water. (it was like a fellow in a swimming pool trying to reach up and grab a diving board that is just out of reach). Anyhow I got it on the second try, and then I was sure it was coming out as my weight was pulled up and out of the water. Bob was already up on the other side calling back across the pool. I was conscious some one else had started across the pool and also that some one had the rock traverse above the pool. (I found out in a few minutes that the unlucky one in the water was Carl Blanchard and that "Doc" was making the traverse). But right now I was interested mainly in getting out of that slimy mess. After getting on the rock I looked across at Bob and then I realized what I must look like, for he was looking at me about to fall off of the rock he was laughing so hard, and all the others who still had it to do were laughing at us both. Immediately on seeing Bob with his new coat of bark etc., I too was in fits of laughter. It really was a sight, but now it was our turn to watch the others plow across.
Everyone was over and down the other side of the big natural dam in about, we decided thirty five minutes. It didn't take long to find a pool deep enough to dive in and get washed off a bit. We hoped there would be not more of this.
One thing, it seemed as though after every trying spot we had a fairly easy stretch, so it was for a way. Then in one place of all things we found a nice smooth spot to walk on, (it looked). The water was just skimming over the top of it like heavy rain would look on a fresh laid cement path. It didn't take long for us to find out that this smooth walk, was where the creek or stream had dropped all it's mud and it was over our knees in some places. There was no way to go around it. (unless we could sprout wings). The sides ran absolutely straight down into it. There weren't ever any ledges for "Cliff" to work around so even he was going to wade or fly. It was as deep on one side as the other, except in someplaces deeper. T
We were beginning to think that Bob was going to get all the way through the darn place without getting his cigarettes and matches wet. But (later) after crossing the "mud flat" we got into another very narrow place where we could reach out and touch your hands on either side. We had to swim it and it was a sight to see and hear eight healthy, cold GI's floundering through it. There was so much noise you couldn't hear your own hollering. In this particular stretch the (illegible) weren't only overhanging, they were overhanging so much that they were touching, making a long narrow cave. The only reason we headed straight into it without hesitation was because there was light coming through the other side and also we were close to the end and nothing short of necessity in a most extreme way could make us turn back. As it opened up again and became more light, the water became more shallow and you could wade waist deep. Our hero, "Bob" was about half way through and he started wading to soon, for all the sudden there wasn't any "Bob", for just a second where he had been there was just one GI hat floating on top of the water. He hadn't been prepared for this sudden drop and so our cigarettes and matches were slightly wet. Every one had a good laugh, it was very funny the way it had to happen. A few minutes later we found that if Bob had made it through this place, he would have won, but he didn't and it had been a good try.
The end was not far now, the sides were dropping away fast. We could even see the wide valley about a quarter of a mile on. There was one more forty foot rappel which was comparatively easy and two short swims, and mud now and then, after this we had it licked.
The village was up on our right. We could see it as some of the houses were built on the very edge of the (illegible). We knew our truck was there waiting for us and we decided it would be easier, quicker, and shorter to climb out directly to our right, than to go out the end of the canyon which would be much longer and still give us a round-a-bout climb back to the village and our truck.
It was a fairly tough climb up to the village and no two of us took the same route, but all arrived in the village square about the same time and we found out that it was some holiday in the village. (Every other day is a holiday in Italy). A parade was just coming from a church. We felt a little (just a trifle mind you) out of place, dripping wet, and half nude, watching the saints etc lead the parade by - of course we were the main attraction for all the young girls in the parade—Hmm.
Some of the Italian civilians who could speak english knew what we just had done and it soon was circulated around that we had all just come through the gorge. I believe the whole village was there gawking at us. thinking we must be super-men or crazy or something similar.
Everyone wanted to buy us vino and we needed it soo—. We had dry clothes along, but before we changed Captain Link had the driver take a picture of the dripping lot of us. We then climbed into the truck and changed to our dry things enroute back to camp. We were back at our base at one O'clock. We decided we had set a record that wouldn't be beaten for sometime whether by a group or a single party.
I guess thats about it. It was fun and everyone of us chalked it up as a damn good adventure. How would you like to do some of that in a milder form someday? O.K.?