WASHINGTON (April 19, 2005)–A National Geographic-sponsored expedition has penetrated the depths of the Earth farther than anyone has gone before.
A team of nine Ukrainians, led by dedicated cave explorer Yuri Kasjan, reached the record depth of 2,080 meters (6,822 feet) in October 2004 at Krubera, the world’s deepest known cave. Breaking the “magic” 2,000-meter mark had been the goal of the Call of the Abyss project of the Ukrainian Speleological Association for four years. The achievement, supported by National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, is reported and illustrated in the May 2005 issue of National Geographic magazine. It also is featured in the magazine’s Ukrainian edition.
The project, organized and led by veteran speleologist Alexander Klimchouk, has pursued the 2,000-meter goal through a series of expeditions to two mountain regions — Aladaglar in Turkey and Arabika in the Caucasus. The Arabika mountain massif of the western Caucasus, which hosts Krubera Cave, is in the separatist region of Abkhazia, near Russia.
The October record-setting expedition built on a previous record of 1,840 meters (5,981 feet), set at Krubera by Call of the Abyss team members on a major exploration last August and September. The group had been pushing the limits of Krubera since 1999, and in 2001 had set a record of 1,710 meters in the same cave.
Some have compared the latest feat to the first journeys to the North and South poles or the first ascent of Mount Everest. “There is an important difference,” said Klimchouk. “When you explore a cave, you don’t know where the final limit lies — the terrain is not known in advance. And even now, we don’t know whether we’ve reached the limit — or if it will go on. We’re pretty sure we’ll eventually go even lower.”
The August-September expedition was a stern test of the endurance and determination of the 56 cavers, 45 men and 11 women, representing seven countries. With more than five tons of gear, they battled numerous vertical drops and freezing torrents of water, and even had to blast rubble from passages that were critically narrow or blocked by “boulder chokes.”
Like mountaineers scaling a Himalaya peak, they lived in a series of underground camp sites built at depths of 700, 1,215, 1,410 and 1,640 meters; there they cooked meals, slept up to six people to a tent and worked for as long as 20 hours at a stretch. To keep in touch with the surface base camp, they rigged nearly two miles of new rope and strung a telephone wire to the bottom.
Progress on the August-September expedition was slow. By the third week, a sump (a cold pond in the cave) blocked the team’s downward progress, and when team member Gennadiy Samokhin investigated, he found there was no chance to get through. Another member, Sergio Garcia-Dils de la Vega, pursuing a way down, survived a cascade of near-freezing water but had to retreat after discovering that his waterproof dry suit had holes in it. Finally, team members Denis Kurta and Dmitry Fedotov squeezed through a narrow, 100-meter-long passage called the Way to the Dream, which successfully bypassed the sump and pointed steeply down.
In October, still hearing the abyss’s call, the Ukrainian Speleological Association sent nine fellow cavers back down into Krubera.
The October expedition picked up where the previous group left off. Using base camps left by the other team, the members carefully examined all unexplored leads in the cave’s lowest section until they broke through to a new series of passages and vertical pits. Seventeen days after entering Krubera, on Oct. 19, 2004, leader Yuri Kasjan dropped down a pit later dubbed Millennium and looked at his altimeter. He had passed the 2,000-meter depth. More pits and passages brought the explorers to a sandy chamber at 2,080 meters, the new “bottom of the world.”
Led by Kasjan, a total of five team members representing caving clubs of Yalta, Kiev, Kharkov and Uzhgorod made it to the bottom. The record-setting October team included Igor Ishchenko, Sergey Bogutsky, Dmitry Furnik, Kyryl Gostev, Ilja Lapa, Ekaterina Medvedeva, Emil Vash and Shantor Chervits.
Breaking out cameras and the Ukrainian flag, the team named the chamber at the bottom of the world “Game Over.” “But the caving game is far from over,” Klimchouk says. “It won’t be — not as long as deeper abysses call out to be explored.”
Klimchouk has been exploring caves since he joined a children’s caving club in his native Ukraine at the age of 11. Now a master caver, Klimchouk’s profession is geology — with a specialty in groundwater geology and origin of caves. “The combination of a scientific approach with a high dedication and dexterity of a large team of cavers is a cornerstone of our success in deep-cave exploration,” he said.
Another month-long Ukrainian expedition to Krubera in February and March of this year staged an effort to find a route that could lead beyond the current bottom. Nikolay Solovjev, a veteran caver from Kiev, dived through a 10-meter-long sump at a depth of almost 2,000 meters, the deepest diving operation ever made in a cave. He reached the next vertical drop behind the sump — a way to a new record? This will be answered in the next expedition.
The record-setting expeditions were supported by the National Geographic Society, USA. The Leica Geosystems Company of Switzerland kindly sponsored laser distometers used for topographic surveys in the explored caves. Help with caving equipment was provided by the Ukrainian “Traverse,” “Atlantida” and “Megacom” companies, and the Slovak “Meander” company.
More information on the two Krubera expeditions, as well as an interactive map and photographs, are at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0505.