Burkhard Bilger writes for the New Yorker about extreme cavers and their effort to explore what may be the deepest cave in the world.
When the call to base camp was over, Gala hiked to the edge of the pool with his partner, the British cave diver Phil Short, and they put on their scuba rebreathers, masks, and fins. They’d spent the past two days on a platform suspended above another sump, rebuilding their gear. Many of the parts had been cracked or contaminated on the way down, so the two men took their time, cleaning each piece and cannibalizing components from an extra kit, knowing that they’d soon have no time to spare. The water here was between fifty and sixty degrees — cold enough to chill you within minutes — and Gala had no idea where the pool would lead. It might offer swift passage to the next shaft or lead into an endless, mud-dimmed labyrinth.
The rebreathers were good for four hours underwater, longer in a pinch. They removed carbon dioxide from a diver’s breath by passing it through cannisters of soda lime, then recirculating it back to the mouthpiece with a fresh puff of oxygen. Gala and Short were expert at managing dive time, but in the background another clock was always ticking. The team had arrived in February, three months before the rainy season. It was only mid-March now, but the weather wasn’t always predictable. In 2009, a flash flood had trapped two of Gala’s teammates in these tunnels for five days, unsure if the water would ever recede.
Gala had seen traces of its passage on the way down: old ropes shredded to fibre, phone lines stripped of insulation. When the heavy rain began to fall, it would flood this cave completely, trickling down from all over the mountain, gathering in ever-widening branches, dislodging boulders and carving new tunnels till it poured from the mountain into the Santo Domingo River. “You don’t want to be there when that happens,” Stone said. “There is no rescue, period.” To climb straight back to the surface, without stopping to rig ropes and phone wire, would take them four days. It took three days to get back from the moon.
Bilger writes about this sort of thing so well…glad I didn’t miss this one.