Journey to the centre of the earth

Before their descent into the ‘underground Everest’, the deepest spot on the planet accessible to humans, JOHN CRADDEN talks to four Irish cavers for whom the only way is down

WHILE THE rest of us are soaking up the sun (or sheltering from the rain), four Irishmen will be spending most of their summer holidays in a cave 2km underground.

If that strikes you as a long way down, then your instincts would be spot on. It’s actually the deepest known cave that can be reached by humans, and it takes at least three days to get there.

Their three-week international expedition, starting today, to the bottom of the cave, in little- known country 2,500 miles away that no one has ever heard of, may well rank as the ultimate caving trip.

At a depth of 2,191m, the Krubera-Voronja cave in Abkhazia, a disputed breakaway Georgian republic on the Black Sea, has been dubbed the “underground Everest”.

“It is, for many, the reverse pinnacle of mountaineering,” says Stephen MacNamara, a senior member of this year’s 20-strong international expedition, and the only member of the Irish team who has been down there before – twice. “It is a very challenging expedition and it needs a strong team to pull it off.”

Joining him on this year’s trip will be Tim O’Connell from Co Clare, and Eoghan Mullan and Niall Tobin from Dublin. Together with MacNamara, a Dundalk native, they have more than 35 years of caving experience between them. They’ll be joining a group of similarly experienced cavers from Spain, France, Serbia and Lithuania.

So a trip like this is not for the faint-hearted, or indeed the claustrophobic, but what’s its like being 2km underground? In many ways, it will be much like any other deep cave, according to MacNamara, in that it’ll be very cold, wet, muddy and of course, pitch dark. There is no problem with air quality as the cave, like most caves, “breathes” as air flows through it, he says.

It will be eerily quiet. “There is water farther up in the cave which can be very loud and active, but here the atmosphere changes.” But it’s mainly the knowledge of how far down they are that gives the experience of the Krubera-Voronja its real psychological edge.

“You certainly feel remote, knowing how much time it takes to exit from that point,” says MacNamara.

This terrifying fact is already dominating the thoughts of the first-timers in the Irish team. “I feel a little jittery about the trip, particularly the level of remoteness once we get near the bottom,” says O’Connell. “It’s a long way from help if anything goes against us. That said, I can’t wait to get going.”

“There’s a reasonable amount of pressure to not let your team down or get injured, and there aren’t many more remote places on earth,” says Tobin. “To quote a man, ‘The helicopter’s not coming.‘”

The good news is that, to the best of MacNamara’s knowledge, the world’s deepest cave has not yet claimed any lives since it was properly discovered in the 1960s, although there has been an injury that required a rescue. “Fortunately, we’re all members of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation,” he says.

There is also a strong scientific dimension to the trip, with the teams carrying out a range of measurements, experiments, samples, readings, and other information.

Besides gathering scientific data, the spelaeology (scientific study of caves) is crucial to the success of the expedition, not least to measure how rainfall on the surface affects water levels below. Besides falling, the single biggest cause of caving fatalities is drowning. This study allows the team to apply for funding support for an expensive trip that they couldn’t otherwise afford. As well as generous support from the Spelaeological Union of Ireland, which represents cavers, other local sponsors include Cascade Designs, Great Outdoors, Cotswold Belfast, Ailwee Cave and Marble Arch Caves.

At -2,080 metres, the deepest part of the Krubera-Voronja that isn’t filled with water has been aptly named Game Over. Did they celebrate when he reached it for the first time in 2008? “We had a 7-Up bottle of some celebratory alcoholic drink at the -1,800m camp that night,” says MacNamara. “There was a swig each. We can’t really afford to have much more at that depth. Prussiking [rope-climping] with a hangover isn’t good.”

If you ever wanted proof of the masochistic quality of caving, all you have to do is hear experienced cavers describe how exiting a cave after a long expedition is among the best moments of any trip.

“It sounds corny, but the colours and smells of plants when you’ve been underground for a few days is amazing,” says Tobin.

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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