National Geographic : 2017 Mar
110 national geographic • march 2017 Larisa Pozdnyakova’s words, in her thick Russian accent, float to me from within the cave’s seem- ingly endless black void. Apparently, she can read my mind: All I can think about is not getting lost a mile inside the Earth. For the past several hours I’ve struggled to keep up as she leads me deeper into a frozen underworld known as Dark Star. Larisa, a 30-something veteran caver from the Ural Mountains, moves with fluid, snakelike ease along our twisting route, while I grunt and heave my way after her like the clumsy rookie that I am. The cold blackness swallows the light of our head- lamps just a few feet from our heads, forcing us to move like moles, scuttling, slithering, feeling our way along hundreds of feet of stiff, mud-caked ropes that help guide us through myriad passages known in caving argot as “squeezes,” “meanders,” and “shafts.” These passages have already been mapped, but as we crawl up and down, side to side, I feel disoriented by the nightmarish spiral of icy mud and wet gravel. For a climber and mountaineer like me, this is an altogether different kind of nav- igation. I’m accustomed to moving across dan- gerous terrain, but down here printed maps are often useless, GPS doesn’t work, and there are no celestial guides to offer reassurance. And despite what Larisa tells me, I know I could never find my way out of this soul-sucking labyrinth on my own. When I finally catch up, she has stopped at a ledge overlooking what our headlamps reveal to be a body of water—one of Dark Star’s many sub- terranean lakes. She grabs a lanyard attached to her harness and clips it on a gritty rope attached to a bolt hammered into the rock above us. The rope leads out over the lake and disappears into the black. The setup acts as a sort of zip line to ferry cavers across the frigid lake, too cold to swim in without a wet suit. She gives me a perky smile and steps off the ledge. Her blond ponytail whips wildly in the beam of my headlamp before she vanishes into the darkness, leaving me alone with my fears. i’m in thiS preDicament because I signed on with a 31-member expedition—composed most- ly of non-English-speaking Russians—to explore this monstrous limestone cave system inside a mountain in a remote corner of Uzbekistan. The Russians spotted an entrance to the cave in 1984, but British cavers were the first to reach it and began exploring the system in 1990; they named By Mark Synnott Photographs by Robbie Shone ‘Don’t worry, you can’t get lost down here.’ A team member rappels down the face of a lime- stone cliff to investigate one of two large portals that could reveal a new entrance to Dark Star. Hopes were dashed; both holes led to solid ice.