Collections of Dilip Prakash

Call of the Abyss

Posted on: January 24, 2008

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Lured by dreams of setting a record for the deepest cave exploration ever, members of an international team of cavers pitched their tents in Abkhazia, a separatist region of the republic of Georgia. There the Ukrainian Speleological Association headed an expedition into Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif, hoping to surpass the next great milestone in caving: the 2,000-meter (7,000-foot) depth mark.

Deepest Cave Photo 2
A camp established at 1,410 meters (4,600 feet) below the surface was one of four set up as places to cook, sleep, and plan strategy. Though some team members made trips to the surface every few days, some stayed underground for 14 straight days. In all, 56 cavers from seven nations took part in the Krubera Cave exploration, organized by Alexander Klimchouk, a noted speleologist and a senior scientist at Ukraine’s National Academy of Science.

Deepest Cave Photo 3
Klimchouk helps remove a boulder from a choke in an attempt to clear a path to Krubera from another cave. The persistence, endurance, and determination of the team, Klimchouk says, “confirm Jules Verne’s statement in Journey to the Center of the Earth: ‘There is nothing more powerful than this attraction toward an abyss.'”

Deepest Cave Photo 4
Caver Sergio García-Dils de la Vega calls out his depth to fellow team members above him. He holds an altimeter, which provides preliminary readings of the distance below the surface by measuring barometric pressure. García-Dils is living proof of the project’s physical demands. He lost nearly a pound a day during his total of 20 days below ground.

Deepest Cave Photo 5
Two days after helping set the world record in caving depth, García-Dils squints as he emerges from Krubera Cave. “After two weeks under the earth, it is very hard to open your eyes at the surface,” he said. This expedition set a new depth record of 1,840 meters (6,040 feet) in August 2004. Only two months later that record was bested when a second team from the Call of the Abyss project led by Yuri Kasjan set still another new record in Krubera, descending to 2,080 meters (6,820 feet).

Deepest Cave @ National Geographic Magazine
By Alexander Klimchouk
Photographs by Stephen L. Alvarez
First an intrepid team of explorers broke the depth record in Krubera—the world’s deepest cave—near the Black Sea coast. Then a second team went deeper.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.When Sergio García-Dils de la Vega kissed his girlfriend, Pilar Orche, goodbye at the entrance to Krubera Cave, he promised to return the next day. But after teammate Bernard Tourte bruised his side in a tight passage, García-Dils decided to stay with him at an underground camp, missing his chance to return to the surface before going deeper. It was two weeks before Pilar Orche saw her boyfriend again.

Our expedition, however, had come prepared for a long siege, bringing more than five tons of gear to the cave. Ever since 1956, when explorers in France first descended below 1,000 meters (3,281 feet), generations of cavers had dreamed of achieving the 2,000-meter (6,600-foot) mark. Would Krubera take us there?

Cutting a jagged path through the limestone of the Arabika massif on the edge of the Black Sea, the “trail” into Krubera Cave drops down a chain of pitches, cascades, and pits—some more than 100 meters (300 feet) deep—connected by narrow rift passages called meanders. The cave, located in the separatist region of Abkhazia, was named after Russian geologist Alexander Kruber. In 1960 researchers from the Republic of Georgia explored it to a depth of 90 meters (295 feet). Two decades later, I organized a series of expeditions to investigate new deep caves, using dye traces in cave streams to probe Arabika’s potential depth. In 2001 a team led by Ukrainian Yuri Kasjan set a world record in the cave of 1,710 meters (5,610 feet). Last July a Moscow-based team extended that to 1,775 meters (5,823 feet). Our hope was to find a path past 2,000 meters (6,600 feet).

* * * * * *

Like mountaineers scaling a Himalaya peak, our expedition of 56 cavers from seven countries established a series of campsites, at depths of 700, 1,215, 1,410, and 1,640 meters (2,300, 3,986, 4,630, and 5,380 feet). There team members cooked meals, slept five and six to a tent, huddled for warmth, and worked for up to 20 hours at a stretch.

By the third week our downward progress was blocked by a sump at a depth of 1,775 meters (5,823 feet). Gennadiy Samokhin surfaced after a dive to examine a tight squeeze at the bottom of the ten-meter-deep pool. “No chance to get through,” he said.

Searching for a route around the sump, Sergio García-Dils de la Vega braved a cascade of near-freezing water. Also unsuccessful, he discovered to his dismay that his waterproof dry suit had holes in it. “The water was so cold I lost the feeling in my fingers,” he said later. In a last-ditch effort, Denis Kurta and Dmitry Fedotov squeezed through a narrow, 100-meter-long (300-foot-long) passage called the Way to the Dream, which successfully bypassed the sump and pointed steeply down. It was the breakthrough we’d hoped for.(NGC)

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