On his thirteenth day underground, when he’d come to the edge of the known world and was preparing to pass beyond it, Marcin Gala placed a call to the surface.
He’d travelled more than three miles through the earth by then, over stalagmites and boulder fields, cave-ins and vaulting galleries. He’d spidered down waterfalls, inched along crumbling ledges, and bellied through tunnels so tight that his back touched the roof with every breath. Now he stood at the shore of a small, dark pool under a dome of sulfurous flowstone.
He felt the weight of the mountain above him—a mile of solid rock—and wondered if he’d ever find his way back again. It was his last chance to hear his wife and daughter’s voices before the cave swallowed him up.
“Base camp, base camp, base camp,” he said. “This is Camp Four. Over.” His voice travelled from the handset to a Teflon-coated wire that he had strung along the wall. It wound its way through sump and tunnel, up the stair-step passages of the Chevé system to a ragged cleft in a hillside seven thousand feet above sea level. There, in a cloud forest in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, lay the staging area for an attempt to map the deepest cave in the world—a kind of Everest expedition turned upside down.
Gala’s voice fell soft and muffled in the mountain’s belly, husky with fatigue. He asked his seven-year-old, Zuzia, how she liked the Pippi Longstocking book she’d been reading, and wondered what the weather was like on the surface. Then the voice of Bill Stone, the leader of the expedition, broke over the line. “We’re counting on you guys,” he said. “This is a big day. Do your best, but don’t do anything radical. Be brave, but not too brave.”
Gala had been this deep in the cave once before, in 2009, but never beyond the pool. A baby-faced Pole of unremarkable physique—more plumber than mountaineer—he discovered caving as a young man in the Tatra Mountains, when they were one of the few places he could escape the strictures of Communism.
When he was seventeen, he and another caver became the first people to climb, from top to bottom, what was then the world’s deepest cave, the Réseau Jean Bernard, in the French Alps. Now thirty-eight, he had explored caves throughout Europe and Ukraine, Hawaii, Central America, and New Guinea. In the off-season, he was a technician on a Norwegian oil platform, dangling high above the North Sea to weld joints and replace rivets. He was not easily unnerved. Then again Chevé was more than usually unnerving.
Caves are like living organisms, James Tabor wrote in “Blind Descent,” a book on Bill Stone’s earlier expeditions. They have bloodstreams and respiratory systems, infections and infestations.
They take in organic matter and digest it, flushing it slowly through their systems. Chevé feels more alive than most. Its tunnels lie along an uneasy fault line in the Sierra de Juárez mountains and seethe with more than seven feet of rain a year. On his first trip to Mexico, in 2001, Gala nearly died of histoplasmosis, a fungal infection acquired from the bat guano that lined the upper reaches of a nearby cave.
The local villagers had learned to steer clear of such places. They told stories of a malignant spirit that wandered Chevé’s tunnels, its feet pointing backward as it walked. When Western cavers first discovered the system, in 1986, they found some delicate white bones beneath a stone slab near the entrance: the remains of children probably sacrificed there hundreds of years ago by the Cuicatec people.
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