Bill Stone's got one thing on his mind these daysgoing where no one has gone before. And he hopes to make that happen when he travels to the depths of Mexico's Sierra de Juárez region in February with about 35 international teammates. For two months they will dive, rappel, hike, and dodge razor-sharp karst in hopes of breaking into Cheve Cave's main system, which is believed to have tunnels deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters).
If the expedition succeeds, Stone and his team will have established Cheve as the world's deepest known cave, bypassing Krubera Cave, in the Republic of Georgia. It currently holds the record at 5,610 feet (1,710 meters).
But it wouldn't be the first time he's broken records. In 2003 Stone lead an expedition that put Cheve at its current depth, (4,869 feet [1,484 meters]), making it the deepest known cave in the Americas and the ninth deepest in the world.
After diving through two underwater tunnels, the only barrier that stopped them from descending farther was a "pile of truck-sized boulders, packed so tightly that no human was going to make it through," says Stone, who's been exploring for 33 years.
The expedition returned home shortly after. But Stone, convinced that they had not reached Cheve's limits, immediately began making plans for his return in hopes of capturing the "gold medal" of deep cave exploration.
"It's not an adrenalin game, it's something elsea full challenge to the human spirit," Stone says.
Read what Stone has to say about his seventh expedition to Cheve in a Question & Answer session with National Geographic magazine online. Then check back in late February on their progress at
www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/caverace. The team will be updating the site weekly with e-mails and photos from the field.
What fascinates you about the Cheve Cave?
Probably the most overwhelming sensation that you get when you are on that mountain range is how vast, utterly vast, and extraordinarily deep the cave system is that permeates its interior. It is like no other known on Earth. We know, by colored dye trace experiments, that the water that goes into Cheve reappears some 13 miles (20 kilometers) away and more than 8,300 feet (2,500 meters) deeper at a large spring. In between those two points is totally unknown territory, some of the last on this planet, and for certain the most physically remote. When we reached Sump 2 (the second underwater tunnel) in Cheve in 2003, it felt like the dark side of the moon. The weight of that remoteness was upon everyone who made it that far. And yet, when you plot that point on the map you realize that we are only a quarter of the way to the springs. Going further is a psychological leap of the mind. It is shorter, time wise, to reach the moon just to get where we reached in 2003. To go all the way will be a 30-plus day journey in total darkness, beyond all hope of rescue. That call of the raw unknown has a certain subliminal beckoning to a rare few true explorers.
What are the chances of going deeper than the Krubera Cave?
This is difficult to say. Our game plan for 2004 is quite bold. We are looking for a back door to the main cave system, beyond Cheve and Charco (north of Cheve) Caves. If we get a breakone is all it will takethen we are in. Once that happens, we have the tiger by the tail and we will rapidly ascend the inside of the mountain toward both Cheve and Charco. A link with Cheve from below would take all the marbles, and the Russian Krubera Cave (5,610 feet [1,710 meters]) would merely be a footnote in the history of speleological exploration. It could happen that swiftly. If not, also a distinct possibility, then we will be forced to return to the brute-force siege assault tactics used in 2003 and prepare ourselves to lay in for a five-month expedition in 2005 to find a way beyond Sump 2 in Cheve.
If you do succeed, what would this feat mean to the exploration world?
In terms of physical exploration, it's simply a milepost and a revised number that everyone is now aiming for. Mind you, 20 years ago simply cracking 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) deep was considered a very big deal and there were not many of those in the world. They were rightly compared to the eight, 26,000-foot (8,000-meter) mountain peaks. Today new techniques, more dedicated teams, and in some cases government funding have pushed the search boundaries (geographically) and the limits of previously explored caves. The new Holy Grail is 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). However, our game at Sistema Cheve is to skip that milepost and go for the once-and-for-all-time deepest cave. If we are able to reach 8,300 feet (2,500 meters)a feasible number in Chevethat will pretty much end the game. It will happen in our lifetime, just as the highest mountain was climbed in our lifetime. After that, we need to go to other planets to seek more dramatic numbers.
What kind of risks do you face at Cheve?
Generally speaking, moving water is the most dangerous thing you can encounter underground. That's why we schedule expeditions in Latin America to coincide with the heart of the dry season. We noticed old ropes at the 3,300 feet (1,000 meter) level of Cheve, shredded beyond imagination and wrapped around pendants in the ceiling of some canyon passages nearly 70 feet (20 meters) above the place where they were originally rigged. You would not want to be in the cave when that flood level existed. We intentionally establish our subterranean camps (there are three in Cheve at 1,300 feet [400 meters]; 2,640 [805 meters]; and 3,362 feet [1,025 meters] well above flood stage level, so that teams can reach a safe haven in the event of a freak tropical storm.
Cave divers, of course, deal with an elevated level of risk and the most that I can say here is that we tend to conduct our work at the bottom of a deep cave on an extremely conservative basis with heavy levels of backup equipment and a policy to abort if any single person doesn't like the situation underwater at any time during the mission. You can always come back and reconsider later; boldness in this arena leads to a shortened lifespan.
Considering the dangers, why not do some expeditions by remote camera?
Extraordinary advances have been made in the past two decades in the design and fielding of mobile autonomous robots. The space community now generally recognizes that intelligent mechanical scouts (robotic spacecraft) are part of the standard toolkit that human explorers and scientists will employ from now on. These mechanical surrogate explorers will be used for investigating places that aren't suitable, practical, or efficient for human exploration because of hostile or lethal environments. Robots will also do initial reconnaissance for places presently too remote because of our limited propulsion technology. However, and this is a crucial point, robots are not, and never will be, a substitute (even if viewed as a cheap, low-risk alternative) for human exploration, simply because it is in the nature of Homo sapiens to be curious, to explore new worlds. Aside from this purely philosophical argument, robots presently are no match for human dexterity, image processing, and real-time reasoning and, therefore, cannot exploit exploration and scientific related clues that human instinct would naturally detect.
How do you train for this kind of caving mission?
All year round I commute by bicycle to work and back, around an 11-mile (17-kilometer) loop. I work out at the weight room five days a week for around an hour. When I'm around two to three months from an expedition departure date, I start stair climbing (either using real stairs or a stair climbing machine) and gradually work up every other day to doing 2,000 feet (600 meters) of vertical rise with a 50-pound (23-kilogram) backpack on in under an hour. This helps prepare you for the rope work. It was not uncommon on the Cheve expedition last spring to be doing 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) of rope work a day, towing a 50-pound (20-kilogram) pack beneath you the whole way. I lost 25 pounds (11 kilograms) during the expedition, which is something we are working with dieticians to figure a way to prevent. We don't have the luxury of carrying heavy foodstuffs underground and freeze dried food is notoriously lacking in calories. We probably burn 8,000 calories a day.
What does it take to pull off an expedition?
A thousand little things. Politics: You have to have permission at four different levels just to get onto the mountain. Team: Without a very special team you don't have the excitement day-to-day that serves to drive everyone to exceed their expectations. Funding: You need corporate and private patrons. Our projects have run anywhere from as low as a few tens of thousands of dollars to well over a million. It all has to come from somewhere, so, like Columbus, Magellan, Peary, Chevalier, Hunt, and the rest . . . we beg! Perseverance: You might as well go home if you aren't prepared to stick it out under the worst imaginable conditions for far longer than it was initially interesting or comfortable. Only then do you cross the threshold into being a real explorer with the determination to see something epic happen. Training: This applies for all levels. We test each and every crew member for vertical skills at base camp before allowing them to enter the cave, regardless of reputation. Cave divers have an extraordinarily higher standard to rise to and extensive rehearsals for a committing mission are not uncommon. And finally, Luck: In the exploration business, but particularly the cave exploration business, you cannot predict what is around the next corner. Caves are whimsical things and geology on a local scale is random and unpredictable. Each expedition takes a whack at finding a bypass to the obstacle discovered at the end of the previous project.
Besides the possibility of reaching record depths, what kind of valuable information could this expedition yield?
There is no material wealth to be garnered even if the project is entirely successful. It shares this realm with the original scaling of Mount Everest. There are no minerals, oil, gold, etc., that would make this a commercially driven venture. The information, in the form of maps, and the new equipment and techniques developed to enable the ultimate exploration, on the other hand, add to human knowledge in intangible ways. It opens doors to the imagination of how to extend our reach to ever more remote regions.
Aside from the intellectual benefits of understanding how deep limestone caverns form and how they are controlled by regional geology, knowledge of the subterranean course of the rivers that flow through the system provide potential sources of potable water for the villages that overlay the cave, which runs at depths of up to 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) beneath their feet. Much of Latin America suffers from draught during predictable months in the springtime. An inexhaustible supply awaits. But because it runs through tightly channelized flow that is undetectable from the surface, the only means for tapping it is by exploring the river, mapping it, and providing the data to government officials who can then establish wells.