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When Howard and Deb first saw these enormous spaces, they felt certain they had discovered the largest cave in the world—and they might be right. There are longer caves than Hang Son Doong—the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, with 367 total miles, holds that record. There are deeper caves too—Krubera-Voronja, the “crow’s cave,” plunges 7,188 feet in the western Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. But for giant passages, there are few caves that can compare. At the time of the Limberts’ discovery of Hang Son Doong, the largest passage was thought to be Deer Cave in Malaysian Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park, which was recently surveyed at 1.2 miles long, 500 feet wide, and 400 feet tall. But as the explorers would eventually determine, using precise laser instruments, Hang Son Doong is more than 2.5 miles long with a continuous passage as wide as 300 feet and, in places, over 600 feet high.

“We weren’t actually searching for the largest cave in the world,” Deb says. But she’s thrilled that the cave’s newfound fame might improve the lives of local villagers.

After five days of hiking, hauling, and crawling, the expedition is still only halfway into the cave. Counting all the cavers, scientists, a film and photography crew, and porters, we are a team of more than two dozen, which seems to have slowed us down. Besides that, the going gets dangerous as we climb through the breakdown in Watch Out for Dinosaurs: One misstep on slick boulders could mean a fall of more than a hundred feet.

When we reach the next skylight, the Garden of Edam (another cheesy pun), it’s even bigger than the first, almost as wide as the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans. Below the opening is another moun­tain of breakdown with a jungle of hundred-foot-tall trees, lianas, and burning nettles. As our time and supplies begin to run out, Howard decides the moment has come to send an advance team ahead to the Great Wall of Vietnam, to see if an assault is really possible.

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