National Geographic : 2017 Mar
118 national geographic • march 2017 Larisa is not there. The current challenge seems to be to see whether I can find my way alone. So far, I’ve met their tests with competence and a good-natured laugh. But I’m not laughing now. A quick pan with my headlamp reveals two passages that spoke off from the chamber. I strain to hear any noise that might reveal which one Larisa has disappeared into, but all I can hear is the sound of water dripping from the ceiling into the lake. As I contemplate my options, I turn off my light to conserve the batteries. The blackness that envel- ops me is absolute. Photons of light travel billions of miles through the universe in straight, unob- structed lines, but they cannot bend. The twisting path that leads deep into the mountain restricts the only light that will ever shine on these walls to the beams of headlamps. I think about how the lost British caver must have felt as his lamp died, lying alone in what would become his tomb. “LARISA!” I yell, but the sound just bounces off the walls in the tiny chamber. It suddenly be- comes clear: Her “don’t worry, you can’t get lost” thing is some kind of insiders’ joke, because actu- ally you can, quite easily. The first passageway I follow turns quickly, mercifully, into a dead end. The second one leads me to a ledge of glossy flowstone formed by thin sheets of minerals deposited by a consistent flow of water. Larisa is sitting on it. On we go to a T-shaped intersection where two brightly colored tents, glowing with light, sit atop a pile of jumbled boulders: Gothic camp. A head- lamp beam bobs in our direction and the voice of Zhenya Tsurikhin booms: “Welcome to Gothic Chamber.” Zhenya is the group’s elder statesman, on his 10th caving expedition to the Boysuntov. He breeds fish for a Russian state institute, but Dark Star is his true life’s work, and no one under- stands the cave’s complex networks better than he does. “He knows where new passages will lead before they are explored,” one of the younger Rus- sians tells me. Zhenya gestures toward one of the tents. Steam pours from its opening, and I can hear a stove purring inside. I slip out of my coveralls and fol- low him into the tent, where a few team members are huddled around a map of Dark Star. Passages discovered during each expedition are rendered in different colors, and the map looks like a multicol- ored schematic of the human circulatory system. Tracing a sinuous green line with a muddy finger, Zhenya taps a spot and begins speaking rapidly in Russian. He’s pointing to where the previous expe- dition ran into an impasse at a 120-foot waterfall. It has yet to be climbed. I spend my first night deep in the bowels of the Earth, jammed into a tent with two other team members. Down here, day and night are irrele- vant, and the team comes and goes, sleeps and eats, on a schedule unhindered by the position Music and potable spirits flow as the group relaxes aboveground. Russian, Italian, Hebrew, German: The languages the cavers speak vary, but inside Dark Star, where they zip their sleeping bags together for warmth, their bond is symbiotic.