National Geographic : 2017 Mar
116 national geographic • march 2017 tip from an itinerant shepherd, he and a compan- ion, Sergei Matrenin, met the schoolmaster of a small village named Qayroq. The man had spent years exploring nearby grottoes with homemade torches. “ Where can I find these caves?” asked Igor. “ There,” said the schoolmaster, pointing to the monolithic limestone wall at the head of the valley. From the bottom of the rock face, the two cavers first spotted the mysterious hole halfway up the cliff that was to be our entrance to Dark Star. Once the route became too steep for the truck, we hiked for two days with 15 donkeys to haul our supplies up to the base camp, perched on sloping terraces at the foot of the limestone escarpment. All of Dark Star’s seven known entrances are found on this face and can only be reached via technical climbing or rappelling. It took us several days of rigging ropes to access the cave and haul up gear. But finally I hoisted myself up a 450-foot rope to the cave’s main en- trance (dubbed Izhevskaya, or R21). I began to see why cavers think of Dark Star as a living, breath- ing entity. Down at base camp, the temperature hovered around 100°F, but up here I was shocked to find myself bracing against a freezing wind blasting out of Dark Star’s mouth. No one fully understands the cave’s ventila- tion system, but this particular entrance “exhales” when the barometric pressure outside is high and “inhales” when the pressure is low. If Dark Star was exhaling here, it must have been sucking in air somewhere else. But where? As I scurried down a frost-covered slope into the cave, I couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that I was stepping into the maw of a prehistoric beast. Just inside the entrance, Tonya Votintseva, a Russian molecular biologist, stopped to attach a small white disk to the wall. Her official assign- ment is to map any newly discovered areas of the cave, but she admits she is more interested in science than exploration. This data logger is one of several she will install throughout the cave to record the temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide level, and barometric pressure for the next two years. Then they’ll be collected and taken to a lab for analysis. A lot of science can be gathered underground, much of it contained in speleothems—mineral de- posits called stalagmites and stalactites that rise from cave floors and descend from the ceilings. In the same way that scientists use ice core samples taken from glaciers, they can gather data from speleothems. By analyzing the chemical compo- nents delivered to these formations by drip water over millennia, they can get clues to Earth’s cli- mate at various points in time. Each year the team collects samples from differ- ent parts of the cave system to gain insight into not only the climate history of Central Asia but also the cave’s ventilation system and architecture—knowl- edge that helps future cavers determine where to find promising new passages to explore. Following Tonya, I duck under an archway of translucent blue ice and enter a massive chamber some 820 feet long and a hundred feet tall—the Full Moon Hall. Turning my headlamp to its full brightness, I pan across the room. The walls are covered with delicate feathers of hoarfrost that blink in the light like millions of tiny mirrors, illuminating the hall like galaxies of stars in a crystal clear night sky. tWo DaYS later I am at the edge of a lake with Larisa, who’s out of sight, waiting for me on the other side. At least I hope she is. Since I joined the team, the Russians have seemed intent on re- minding me of my rookie status, telling campfire stories of cavers who met with tragic ends, includ- ing a young explorer who made a wrong turn and got lost in a cave in Britain. “One year later they found his body,” one of them tells me. They’ve also been poking me with random challenges that seem designed to determine whether the Ameri- kanski can hang with them—seeing how heavy a load I can carry, how good my rope skills are, how much I’ll let them screw with me. There’s only one thing to do. I clip my harness to the rope and slide to the other side of the lake, touching down on a ledge that leads into a small domed chamber roughly the size of a large igloo. Perched on slippery rock, Synnott knows that falling into icy water isn’t an option. Here, wet clothes won’t dry. Hypothermia, a broken ankle, or getting lost are just a few of the risks that loom in Dark Star.