National Geographic : 2017 Mar
into the Deep 119 of the sun. I awake to the loud arrival of three Israeli cavers who have spent four days worming through a rubble-filled crack at the bottom of the cave. One of them is Boaz Langford, a young geologist who tells me he thinks they’ve reached the nonporous rock underlying the limestone. “ We need to find a new direction,” he says. “ We are going to explore the Red Lakes. You should come with us.” Instead of waiting for me to suit up, he rattles off some quick instructions and is gone. Half an hour later, I am alone in the dark again, facing another fork in the road. There are two ropes: One drops straight down through a slot in the floor; the other angles upward and traverses an abyss—a deep pit or possibly a lake, I can’t tell—and disap- pears into a hole 20 feet above me. I opt for the slot in the floor and descend between overhanging walls of rippled orange flowstone to find another intersection of three passages with no indication of which way the Israelis might have gone. I pick the least worst option: a tube about the size of an air duct filled with four inches of wa- ter. I shove my backpack in and nudge it forward with my head. I hold my torso out of the water by perching on my forearms and toes, inching for- ward in a gut-crushing plank position. The ceiling lowers until I’m forced to slither on my belly. Sud- denly the tube turns almost straight down. It’s so tight that just flexing my muscles keeps me from diving down the shaft. As the blood rushes to my head, another caving horror story comes to mind. A young American medical student was exploring a virgin passage in Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave in 2009 when it suddenly took a downward turn. He dropped in headfirst, assuming it would eventually open up. Instead it got tighter, and he ended up trapped upside down. Rescuers found him and were even able to get food and water to him as they worked. They almost got him out, but their equipment failed. They weren’t able to extract his dead body, so the passage was filled with concrete. I am more fortunate, and when the tube spits me out into a water-filled corridor, I hear the sound of cave suits scraping against rock. I’ve found the Israelis. And they have found another small hole that drops even farther into the unknown depths of Dark Star. They are arguing over who gets to go in first. “It’s mine,” one says in Hebrew as he shoves his friends aside and dives into the hole. aS time rUnS oUt on the expedition, most of the hoped-for new passages have proved to be dead ends. The team has exited the cave and is preparing for the long journey back to Tashkent, but Zhenya, along with an ambitious young Rus- sian named Aleksey Seregin, insists on making one more push to climb the big waterfall and find a new passage. When they finally return to the base camp, where we’re still waiting for them three days lat- er, they are coated with grime and brimming with the news that they climbed the waterfall and after hours of shimmying in tight meander, it pinched down to a slot, barely nine inches wide. Aleksey tried to enter the fissure, but his head simply wouldn’t fit. Refusing to give up, Zhenya tried, jamming his head into the crack, his temples scraping against the icy rock. Tilting his shoulders and sucking in his belly, he wormed up a twisting chimney. After 30 minutes of contorting himself to move inch after painstaking inch, he finally popped through the crack into a passageway as big as a Moscow subway tunnel and reverberating with the roar of a fast-flowing river. Was this the passage that he’d been seeking for more than 20 years? The one that will finally reveal Dark Star to be the Everest of caves? He desper- ately wanted to keep going, to see where it would lead. But alas, the expedition’s time had run out. As the men relate their story, the jolt of the new discovery pulses through the team, and it becomes clear, even to the Amerikanski, that this is exactly how great caving expeditions should end: with the discovery of a mysterious passage snaking into the unknown—and the promise of a new adventure waiting deep inside the Earth. j Mark Synnott’s search for unclimbed rock walls has taken him on some 30 expeditions around the world. He wrote about the Aral Sea for a June 2015 feature in National Geographic. Robbie Shone is based in Inns- bruck, Austria. This is his first story for the magazine.