By Philip Bethge
The spot at which Yuri Kasjan and his team entered history is wet, cramped and cold. The cavern, deep inside the Arabika Massif located in the former Soviet state of Georgia, is barely ten meters (33 feet) wide by ten meters high. Fine sand covers the ground on which the adventurers stand -- above their heads, more than two kilometers of limestone press down upon them.
"Gra Skinchylas" -- or "game over" -- is what the Ukrainian speleologists have named the vault and from there, the only direction they can go is up. But they have already reached their goal: The explorers are exactly 2,080 meters below the entrance to the Krubera Cave in the Abakhazian Ortobalagang Valley -- a new world record. They are the first people ever to have climbed more than two kilometers deep into a cave.
Breaking the subterranean record
The explorers landed the unparalleled coup last October during a 17-day tour de force through the limestone, but only now was it made known to the public. "It is a dream come true," says the head of the expedition Alexander Klimchouk of the Geological Institute at Ukraine's National Academy of Science. "Ever since the 1,000-meter depth mark was reached in France in 1956, speleologists have been dreaming about finally hitting 2,000-meters."
The success is the outcome of a concentrated effort by Klimchouk and his partners in caving from the Ukrainian Union of Speleologists that has lead them to the deep caves of the Caucasus and the Taurus Mountains in Turkey for five years already. "The Call of the Abyss," is how the extreme-cavers have dubbed their project that was sponsored by the American National Geographic Society. "These caves are comparable to the poles or to the highest mountain peaks," says Klimchouk. "Our team's achievement is analogous to the first ascent of Mount Everest."
The Arabika Massif in Abkhazia is riddled. The water washes vertical drops and chimneys into the easily dissolvable limestone, forms vaults, collects in underground pools and finally, it flows out of springs at the foot of the mountains or flows into the Black Sea directly through the sea floor.
Follow the river
This flow of water was the guide to the underground for the speleologists. No great surprise, then, that caving in limestone regions is considered a wet and risky business. "Hypothermia is our greatest danger," explains Klimchouk. In the Krubera Cave, for example, the explorers had to battle with temperatures of between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius for two weeks. Time and again, they needed to force their way through cascades of near-freezing water. And to make matters worse, they had to dive through the flooded parts of the cave.
The spelunkers were outfitted with thermo-underwear, waterproof overalls and dry suits, helmets and ropes for securing the descent. And, of course, powerful flashlights. In fact, after working with the light of dim pit lamps for days, the cavers even lost track of day and night. One problem they did not have though was breathing: Limestone caves are usually well-ventilated.
The explorers roped down vertical drops of up to 150 meters. Again and again they had to use controlled explosions to clear their way through rubble and to crawl through tight, narrow passageways. "People with claustrophobia really should not be going down there," understates Klimchouk. Working together as a team is vital, the explorer stresses: "The extreme sport aspect of caving is not in the foreground; we are explorers who can only be successful if we stick together."
Indeed, the adventure was also complimented by scientific research: The cavers, for example, collected samples of rare insects deep within the bowels of the earth. An exact exploration and mapping of the cracks and chimneys moreover led to an improved understanding of the development of such cave systems, says Klimchouk.
But most importantly, the speleologists were chasing the depth record. For that, however, they needed a few tries. Already in 1999, a team of extreme cavers climbed 700 meters into the Krubera Cave. In the summer of 2000, Klimchouk's team followed and in January 2001 they set a new world record with a depth mark of 1,710 meters.
Passing the 2,000-meter mark
It was only in the autumn of last year that they were able to reach the 2,000-meter mark. They carried around five tons of equipment into the Ortonbalang Valley. Three kilometres of rope were fixed in the Krubera Cave bit by bit. The speleologists set up four camps, at a depth of 700, 1,215, 1,410 and 1,640 meters respectively, complete with tents, cooking areas and telephone lines linking them with the surface.
Despite the meticulous preparations, the attempt to break the world record almost failed at a ten meter deep pool that blocked the way in August 2004 at the 1,715-meter mark. Only the discovery of a cramped passage, later dubbed "Way to the Dream," led to a breakthrough. On October 19th, Klimchouk's caving colleague Kasjan roped himself down the last deep vertical chimney. The expedition to the "bottom of the world" ended -- for now at least -- only 170 meters above sea level.
"It's astonishing how far we have come," Klimchouk comments on the success. "But there is still a way of going deeper." Indeed, within the porous subterranean base of the Arabika Massif, the cavers should have found groundwater. "We have not reached this quenched region, yet." A descent of a few dozen more meters should still be possible, Klimchouk believes.
And the cave expert also has an idea as to where the deepest hole ever discovered could continue. During the last cave tour, one of the explorers undertook the deepest diving session ever -- 1,980 meters underground -- and swam through a flooded part of the cave. Behind that he found a new, dry side entrance. "We will continue there," says Klimchouk.
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