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Plunging ahead

On a typical foray speleologist Alan Warild rappels from the forest into a cave entrance below. "This may be the most difficult caving spot on the planet," says expedition leader Jean-François Pernette. Though lush, the island is nearly devoid of animal life.

Stone-cold beautiful

In the end team members collected sweet rewards for their grueling journey. "The second we went underground I forgot how miserable we were," says Richard Maire. More than 1,200 feet deep, this cave becomes a waterfall in a downpour.

Fear of flooding

Beneath the nightmare forest and the glaciers of marble we found what we'd come for: the caves. In keeping with everything else on Madre de Dios, these were the wildest caves imaginable—raw, scoured pipes in the earth shaped not by slow and steady trickles of groundwater but by torrents and flash floods so violent that they chiseled the cave walls as though they were made of ice. The deeper we went, the tighter the knot in my stomach became. Cut off from sounds on the surface, we had no idea whether it was raining outside or not—a terrifying prospect, since any one of the island's trademark storms could send rivers of rainwater plummeting down on us without warning. These caves were slick and bare with no side chambers in which to hide; we knew that in a downpour they would quickly flood. Would we drown, I wondered, or would we die from falling as we were flushed down a slippery tube? I was searching for a place to take cover when the stone wall I was clinging to suddenly broke off, hurling me backward to the cave floor and injuring my foot. My scream brought my friends to the rescue, and I left Madre de Dios in a fitting manner—hobbling on a crutch made of a wind-gnarled branch and soaked to the skin. For the final few days the rest of the team continued to explore, study, and map the island, while I, immobile, reflected on the strange and violent beauty we'd found in this land of extremes.

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